Thursday, 12 March 2015

Alfred Hitchcock Day: A Soiree of Suspense.


(c) Universal
A name that all film fanatics know, love, hate and revere in equal measure. But why? Who was this man who shook the foundations of the film industry and how did he do it? Hopefully in this post I will be able to enlighten you to his legacy.

Just the facts:

Full Name: Alfred Joseph Hitchcock

Born: London, August 13, 1899

Died: Los Angeles, April 29, 1980

Career: Movie/TV director, producer, actor and writer from the 1920s to the 1970s in Britain and the United States

Through a career spanning a half-century, Hitchcock sounded the same themes again and again: Mistaken identity. Innocents falsely accused. Ordinary people thrust into extraordinary peril. People who are not what they seem to be. Trust and betrayal. Hair-breadth escapes. Perfect crimes and double-crosses.

Just about every Hitchcock film has a central couple -- lovers who turn out to be either very good for each other or very, very bad. There's usually a gorgeous blonde who rescues a great guy from a tough spot; sometimes it's a bad guy with an idea for the perfect crime; and often, bumbling policemen after the wrong man.

There are always moments of macabre humour, and lots of playful sexual tension and teasing - along with darker explorations of the unsettling relationship between violence and sex.

The Jowly Brit known as “The Master of Suspense” knew that there was no fear in the discharge of a firearm, but the anticipation of it happening, to this day I find that Hitchcock’s films have me on the edge of my seat then some of today’s suspense’s and thrillers.

Let’s take a brief look at the history Mr Hitchcock.

Mr. Hitchcock started out in 1919 as a Title Card designer for silent films. From here he collaborated on the 1925 film Pleasure Garden. The film, though unsuccessful at the time is credited however with inspiring the expressionist streak which runs through the rest of Hitchcock’s work.

One of his earliest silent films The Lodger was the first to establish the signature Hitchcock plot of the Innocent Man caught in a web of intrigue, (more on those later).
There are two films that many Hitchcock Historians call the ‘Great English Films’ these are The Man Who Knew Too Much and a year later The 39 Steps. These two films established Hitchcock as among Britain’s leading directors. Again another common Hitchcock theme, a man falsely accused goes on the run with the assistance of a pretty blonde.

Hitchcock then was lured to the great Hollywood in 1940 by David O. Selznick. They made many great movies but the grated against each other and split in 1945. Many great works from Hitchcock followed.

There were several undisputed masterpieces in the 50’s and 60’s. Think Strangers On a Train. A tense thriller with an innocent man entangled in a psychotic charmer's murder plot. Or Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in the nail-biting tale of a man stuck in a wheelchair who thinks he sees his neighbour kill his wife.

My personal favourites are North by Northwest, a hugely entertaining cross-country thriller with Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason that winds up at Mount Rushmore, of all places. (One of the working titles was "The Man in Lincoln's Nose." Ugh.) Also Vertigo. many critics tag Vertigo as Hitchcock's greatest film, an "is-she-or-isn't-she" spellbinder with Kim Novak in a double role.

The Big Shocker

Psycho, might be the most famous film of all time, this psychological thriller was extremely controversial at the time (1960) for its violence. So as it was controversial it was extremely lucrative. Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates is a deliciously creepy character, I want him and Hannibal Lecter to have a dinner date.

You bring the fava beans, I'll bring the Chianti

The Birds is the best of Hitchcock's later movies, departing from his traditional themes. It's an odd, nerve-wracking tale of birds attacking a seaside town in waves of inexplicable savagery. The sight of silent crows settling one by one on a schoolyard jungle gym is unforgettable.

So Hitchcock is famed for his films and his recurring motifs and camera work, lets now look at some of these in a touch more detail.

  • Audience as a Voyeur: 
    • In many of Hitchcock’s films he blurs the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilt, Hitchcock also makes voyeurs of his “respectable” audience. This can be seen in Rear Window (1954) when Lars Thorwald confronts Jeffries by declaring “What do you want of me?” Also interestingly just before this exchange is one of the few times Thorwald actually faces the camera in the movie. Psycho also alludes to a lot of voyeurism as the film begins with the camera moving toward a hotel window and also later the audience along with Norman Bates watches Marion undress through a peephole.
  • The ordinary person: 
    • In many notable films ordinary people are placed under extraordinary circumstances, as mentioned previously this appears in The 39 Steps and in The Man Who Knew Too Much. 
    • Psycho, I Confess and North By Northwest are also films where the protagonist is classed as an ordinary.

  • The Wrong man (or woman):
    • Mistaken identity is a heavy hitter with Hitchcock (bonus points for alliteration) this is showcased exceptionally well in the film, TheWrong Man.The film (almost a docu-drama) was drawn from the true story of an innocent man (Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero) who was accused and charged with a crime.

  • The likeable Criminal aka the Charming Sociopath: 
    • The villain in many of Hitchcock's films appears charming and refined rather than oafish and vulgar. While the more darker characters such as Norman Bates are portrayed as vulnerable and deserving of sympathy.
Moving on from the themes, I would like to now talk about a piece of video work that is also notable in Hitchcock’s works, this is the Dolly Zoom.

This effect was notable in Vertigo and actually it has been quoted that Alfred Hitchcock spent $20,000 to implement it, so how does it work? 

The effect is achieved by zooming a zoom lens to adjust the angle of view (often referred to as field of view or FOV) while the camera dollies (or moves) towards or away from the subject in such a way as to keep the subject the same size in the frame throughout. 

In its classic form, the camera angle is pulled away from a subject while the lens zooms in, or vice-versa. Thus, during the zoom, there is a continuous perspective distortion, the most directly noticeable feature being that the background appears to change size relative to the subject.

So ladies and gentleman, a man, a master, a legend, that is the greatness of Alfred Hitchcock!

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