It’s a very big fall for fans of Alfred Hitchcock. First and foremost, Universal has released Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, a fabulous 15-disc limited edition Blu-ray set featuring several of Hitch’s masterpieces (including Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, and North by Northwest) in gorgeous HD transfers, with copious bonus features. And while his work is available for fresh consumption, there are a pair of new biography treatments as well — on the small screen, we have HBO’s The Girl (with Toby Jones as a rather skeevy Hitch and Sienna Miller as ‘Tippi’ Hedrin), while next week brings the theatrical release of a marvelous new big-screen biopic, Hitchcock (focusing on the production of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as wife Alma, and Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh).
That’s a lot of Mr. Hitchcock to take in at once, but we’re here to help. If your knowledge of Hitch is confined to a shower scene and a flock of diving seagulls, you’re in luck; we’ve put together a Beginner’s Guide to Hitchcock, earmarking his major motifs, significant films, and relevant facts. Check it out after the jump.
The Master of Suspense
Because Hitchcock is best remembered these days (among casual moviegoers, at least) for Psycho and The Birds, there’s something of a misconception that he was a “horror” director. The importance and influence of those films — particularly the former, which inspired Halloween and thus the entire “slasher” horror style — cannot be overstated, but they were really the only items in his filmography that could be accurately classified as horror pictures. Hitch preferred suspense, which is a very different thing — and we can’t explain the split nearly as well as the man himself, who does so in the clip above.
Hitch’s trademark became his intricate, suspenseful set pieces, which were so important to the filmmaker that he would often work with his screenwriters to build stories around them; he’d have ideas for, say, a pursuit on Mount Rushmore and an attempted murder via crop dusting airplane, and then he and the writer would develop a narrative that could feature them (in that case, the writer was Ernest Lehman, and the film was North by Northwest). Because good old-fashioned suspense never goes out of style, the best of those sequence s— Grace Kelly’s visit to the murderous neighbor’s apartment in Rear Window, ‘Tippi’ Hedrin’s robbing of the safe in Marnie, the Albert Hall climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the bit with the fan belt and the handcuffs in Saboteur (all in the new Universal box set) — still hold up. He became the master of manipulating cinematic elements to create suspense, and thus enthrall the audience. “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano,” he famously said; Hitchcock’s single best scene finds him doing just that, standing in the lobby during Psycho’s shower scene, conducting their gasps and shrieks like an orchestral conductor.