A hundred years of Hitch

A century after his birth, the Master of Suspense is still celebrated for his intense thrillers and unconventional filmmaking.

She had never been in this part of Paris before. That horror where danger lurked under cover of night; where innocent souls perished without warning; where doom confronted the unwary; where the Apache reveled."

Thus begins Alfred Hitchcock's first thriller. It wasn't a movie or a screenplay, but a very short story published in 1919 by the "social club magazine" of the London company where the young man worked. Clearly his tastes for the suspenseful, the macabre, and the terrifying were already well-formed.

Hitchcock was more than a scaremonger, though, and another of his characteristic traits also shines through this early work. The tale follows its heroine as she stumbles upon a "drunken orgy" where "fiends" assault her, rob her, and throw her into a river that drags her "down, down" toward a watery death - until a voice suddenly proclaims, "It's out, Madam. Half a crown, please."

Whereupon we realize that the entire story has taken place in a dentist's office, and that its title "Gas" refers to nothing more sinister than the anesthetic that induced the danger-filled dream we've been reading.

Although he was known as the Master of Suspense through most of his career, Hitchcock the fright-loving storyteller always lived side by side with Hitchcock the sly comedian. Both facets of his personality have been receiving heightened attention as admirers mark the centenary of his birth 100 years ago today.

In the history of cinema, which was born only a few years before Hitchcock himself, few directors have been so successful at pleasing three major branches of the film community: critics, who have given him steadily increasing respect; scholars, whose analyses have uncovered extraordinary depth in his works; and everyday moviegoers, whose enthusiasm has turned a remarkably large number of his pictures into world-class hits.

All of which raises an important question: What's behind his enduring success as an artist, entertainer, and cultural phenomenon, a century after his birth and almost 20 years since his death in 1980?

There is no simple answer. Many other filmmakers have spun suspense-filled tales and earned box-office glory. Many have also won the Academy Award as best director, a tribute that eluded Hitchcock, despite several nominations and an honorary Oscar in 1967. Yet he was the only one of his peers to become an instantly recognizable celebrity around the world, and to give his very name ("Hitchcockian") to the vocabulary of Saturday-night entertainment.

Complicating the puzzle more, individual Hitchcock pictures have received widely varying responses. Many have captivated just about everyone, from "The Lodger" and "The 39 Steps" to "Rear Window" and "North by Northwest," for a few uncontroversial examples. Yet some movies adored by critics, such as "Rope" and "Vertigo," fared poorly at the ticket window when they were first released.

During the 1940s and 1950s, moreover, most mainstream reviewers wrote off even his major hits as "mere entertainment," reserving the label of "art" for dramas about important social issues and adaptations of literary classics.

This began to change around 1960, when "auteurist" critics started seeing great directors as "authors" using film as a vehicle for personal expression. Hitchcock quickly became Exhibit A for this view, but the mixed nature of his best works, at once philosophical reflections and rip-roaring thrillers, still confused pundits not well-schooled in critical niceties. The chief reviewer of The New York Times called "Psycho" a "blot on an honorable career" when it first opened, then placed the movie on his 10-best list only a few months later.

Today such confusions are largely forgotten, and a varied lot of Hitchcock movies have settled in as all-time favorites. If one factor can be singled out as a key to their enduring popularity, it's the lifelong pleasure Hitchcock took in breaking down barriers between the story on the screen and the emotions in the audience. When a Hitchcock movie is working as intended, we're subtly implicated in the actions and motivations of the characters, guided by images and sounds that Hitchcock meticulously designed before the cameras ever started rolling.

This explains the intense feelings his greatest films evoke. Most movies invite us to be passive spectators. Hitchcock invites us to be living partners in his shivery morality tales.

"Psycho," one of his most haunting and intricate films, provides excellent examples of this. Consider the first extended scene featuring murderous Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins with such boyish charm that at first we think he's a good guy. Skulking into the back of his office, he spies on a guest in his motel as she undresses for a shower. We know his behavior is unethical, illegal, and immoral, and yet we peer at Janet Leigh's character along with him, aided and abetted by Hitchcock's snooping camera.

Are we innocent entertainment-seekers just getting our money's worth at the movies? Or are we momentarily sharing Norman's voyeurism, falling into cahoots with a man who will soon be revealed as a dangerous lunatic?

Something similar happens later, when Norman tries to hide a victim's car by pushing it into a swamp. We watch attentively as the vehicle starts to sink; we grow tense when it momentarily stops; and we breathe more easily when it disappears from view.

Again we've been tricked into identifying with a villain, and again the trick has a serious purpose - unlike storytellers who see life in simplistic terms: Good is one thing, bad is another, and we can always tell them apart. Hitchcock recognizes the daunting complexity of human nature. Instead of merely preaching about this, he makes us feel it in our deepest selves.

It's no accident that sight plays a central role in these famous "Psycho" moments, since Hitchcock's preoccupation with the value of it in our lives, and the many ways it can mislead or deceive us, is another factor in his continuing appeal. He explored this theme as early as his silent-film days, and some of his greatest Hollywood movies are all about the power of vision. Think of James Stewart's character spying on his unsuspecting neighbors (including a possible murderer) in "Rear Window," or stalking a beautiful but mysterious woman (who may be supernaturally possessed) in "Vertigo."

These are not conventionally flawless heroes, and their stories have unsettling implications about our tendency to trust superficial appearances rather than deeper intuitions.

But it wasn't just sight that Hitchcock found fascinating. What moved him was the realization that all of our bodily senses are as limited and limiting as the physical world itself, and should never be trusted as guides to ultimate truth.

His movies are full of characters who construe things wrongly because they put too much faith in sensory evidence. The effect may be comic, like the gobbledygook phone conversation in "Blackmail," or tragic, like the deadly charade in "Vertigo," but it invariably points to Hitchcock's belief that there are more things in heaven and earth than material perceptions can reveal to us.

An aspect of Hitchcock's filmmaking that needs special scrutiny today is its relationship with violence. Mayhem comes naturally to the thriller genre, and Hitchcock's involvement with it grew more explicit as censorship customs relaxed. This began with the shower scene in "Psycho," which has been credited (or blamed) for touching off a cycle of "slasher" movies. His most lurid scene was a rape and murder in "Frenzy," his biggest hit of the 1970s.

Hitchcock's interest in suspense didn't grow from a morbid fixation on violent action for its own sake, however. What fascinated him was the existential conflict between order and chaos, which he explored in many ways, both direct and roundabout.

Significantly, even his most violent movies show a sense of restraint that today's belligerent filmmakers could learn a lot from. He enjoyed pointing out that the violence in "Psycho" actually diminishes as the movie goes along, since little mayhem was needed once he'd planted the explosive shower scene in the viewer's imagination.

"Frenzy" follows the same pattern, and the famous killing scene in "Torn Curtain" is an object lesson in how difficult and unpleasant a task murder is. "I have always felt that you should do the minimum on screen to get the maximum audience effect," he told a psychiatrist who interviewed him for Redbook magazine in 1963. "I believe the audience should work."

If he were here to observe today's movie scene, it's easy to imagine Hitchcock admiring a revisionist thriller like "The Blair Witch Project," which shares his love of streamlined simplicity, and suggests violence instead of rubbing it in our faces. He might have applauded its producers for using the Internet to publicize it. This can be seen as a contemporary extension of his wizardry with the media of his own day, from pulp-fiction magazines to a weekly TV show.

Hitchcock believed cinematic jolts serve a positive purpose in human affairs. "Our nature is such that we must have these 'shake-ups,' or we grow sluggish and jellified," he wrote in "Why 'Thrillers' Thrive," a 1936 essay. Yet he was a preeminently civilized artist who wanted to make the world richer and more exciting, not more frightening or degraded than it may already seem.

"Little children go on a swing," he said in 1963. "They go higher and higher and then they scare themselves and stop at the crucial point. And after they get off the swing, they're laughing."

This combination of anxiety, relief, and sheer fun was what Hitchcock brought to movies throughout his 50-year career. Nobody else has provided it as reliably and pleasurably as he did.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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