Sunday, 4 December 2011

Icon Of The Month: Alfred Hitchcock




Yes, the "Master Of Suspense", the one and only Alfred Hitchcock, is this months "Icon Of The Month". The man may have died over 30 years ago but his legacy is still strong to this day and his name is still uttered with pride amongst Horror fans.


Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (born on the 13th August 1899 in Leytonstone, London, England) Pioneered many techniques in the suspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema in both silent films and early talkies, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood. In 1956 he became an American citizen, whilst remaining a British subject.Over a career spanning more than half a century, Hitchcock fashioned for himself a distinctive and recognisable directorial style. He pioneered the use of a camera made to move in a way that mimics a person's gaze, forcing viewers to engage in a form of voyeurism. He framed shots to maximise anxiety, fear, or empathy, and used innovative film editing. His stories frequently feature blonde female characters. Many of Hitchcock's films have twist endings and thrilling plots featuring depictions of violence, murder, and crime, although many of the mysteries function as decoys or "MacGuffins" meant only to serve thematic elements in the film and the extremely complex psychological examinations of the characters. Through his cameo appearances in his own films, interviews, film trailers, and the television program "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", he became a cultural icon.

Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature films in a career spanning six decades. He came first in a 2007 poll of film critics in Britain's Daily Telegraph paper, which said: "Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else." The magazine MovieMaker described him as the most influential filmmaker of all-time, and he is widely regarded as one of cinema's most significant artists.





He often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered, a situation compounded by his obesity. Hitchcock said he was sent by his father to the local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him away for ten minutes as punishment for behaving badly. This idea of being harshly treated or wrongfully accused is frequently reflected in Hitchcock's films. Hitchcock's mother would often make him address her while standing at the foot of her bed, especially if he behaved badly, forcing him to stand there for hours. These experiences would later be used for the portrayal of the character of Norman Bates in his movie Psycho.


Hitchcock's father died when he was 14. In the same year, Hitchcock left St. Ignatius to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation. After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company called Henley's. It was while working at Henley's that he first started to dabble creatively. Upon the formation of the company's in-house publication The Henley Telegraph in 1919, Hitchcock started to submit short articles, eventually becoming one of its most prolific contributors. His first piece was Gas (1919), published in the very first issue, in which a young woman imagines that she is being assaulted one night in Paris – only for the twist to reveal that it was all just a hallucination in the dentist's chair, induced by the anaesthetic. His second piece was The Woman's Part (1919), which involves the conflicted emotions a husband feels as he watches his wife, an actress, perform onstage. Sordid (1920) surrounds an attempt to buy a sword from an antiques dealer, with another twist ending. The short story And There Was No Rainbow (1920) was Hitchcock's first brush with possibly censurable material. A young man goes out looking for a brothel, only to stumble into the house of his best friend's girl. What's Who? (1920), while being very funny, was also a precursor to the famous Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine. The History of Pea Eating (1920) was a satirical disquisition on the various attempts mankind has made over the centuries to eat peas successfully. His final piece, Fedora (1921), was his shortest and most enigmatic contribution. It also gave a strikingly accurate description of his future wife, Alma (whom he had not met yet). During this period, Hitchcock became intrigued by photography and started working in film production in London, working as a title-card designer for the London branch of what would become Paramount Pictures. In 1920, he received a full-time position at Islington Studios with its American owner, Famous Players-Lasky and their British successor, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies. His rise from title designer to film director took five years.




By 1938, Hitchcock had become known for his alleged observation, "Actors are cattle". He once said that he first made this remark as early as the late 1920s, in connection to stage actors who were snobbish about motion pictures. The phrase would haunt Hitchcock for years to come and would result in an incident during the filming of his 1941 production of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, where Carole Lombard brought some heifers onto the set with name tags of Lombard, Robert Montgomery, and Gene Raymond, the stars of the film, to surprise the director. Hitchcock said he was misquoted: "I said 'Actors should be treated like cattle'." At the end of the 1930s, David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract beginning in March 1939, when the Hitchcocks moved to the United States.


The suspense and the gallows humour that had become Hitchcock's trademark in film continued to appear in his productions. The working arrangements with Selznick were less than optimal. Selznick suffered from perennial money problems, and Hitchcock was often displeased with Selznick's creative control over his films. In a later interview, Hitchcock summarised the working relationship thus:


"[Selznick] was the Big Producer. Producer was king, The most flattering thing Mr. Selznick ever said about me—and it shows you the amount of control—he said I was the "only director" he'd "trust with a film".


Selznick loaned Hitchcock to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock's films himself. Hitchcock was quickly impressed with the superior resources of the American studios compared to the financial restrictions he had frequently encountered in England. There were additional problems between Selznick and Hitchcock. Selznick was known to impose very restrictive rules upon Hitchcock, forcing him to shoot the film as Selznick wanted. At the same time, Selznick complained about Hitchcock's "goddamn jigsaw cutting", which meant that the producer did not have nearly the leeway to create his own film as he liked, but had to follow Hitchcock's vision of the finished product. In 1940 Hitchcock and many other English nationals felt uneasy living and working in Hollywood while their home country was at war, so his concern resulted in the making of the film that supported the British war effort.




Hitchcock's films during the 1940s were diverse, ranging from the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) to the courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1947), to the dark and disturbing film noir Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock's personal favourite of all his films and the second of the early Universal films, was about young Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright), who suspects her beloved uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) of being a serial murderer. Hitchcock worked for Selznick again when he directed Spellbound (1945), which explored psychoanalysis and featured a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí. Gregory Peck plays amnesiac Dr. Anthony Edwardes under the treatment of analyst Dr. Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), who falls in love with him while trying to unlock his repressed past. The dream sequence as it actually appears in the film is considerably shorter than was originally envisioned, which was to be several minutes long, because it proved to be too disturbing for the audience. After completing his final film for Selznick, The Paradine Case (a courtroom drama that critics found lost momentum because it apparently ran too long and exhausted its resource of ideas), Hitchcock filmed his first colour film, Rope, which appeared in 1948. Here Hitchcock experimented with marshaling suspense in a confined environment, as he had done earlier with Lifeboat (1943). He also experimented with exceptionally long takes—up to ten minutes long. Featuring James Stewart in the leading role, Rope was the first of four films Stewart would make for Hitchcock. It was based on the Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s. Somehow Hitchcock's cameraman managed to move the bulky, heavy Technicolor camera quickly around the set as it followed the continuous action of the long takes.


Under Capricorn (1949), set in nineteenth-century Australia, also used the short-lived technique of long takes, but to a more limited extent. He again used Technicolor in this production, then returned to black-and-white films for several years. For Rope and Under Capricorn, Hitchcock formed a production company with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures, which became inactive after these two unsuccessful pictures. Hitchcock continued to produce his own films for the rest of his life.




In 1950, Hitchcock filmed Stage Fright on location in the UK. For the first time. Hitchcock used a number of prominent British actors, This was Hitchcock's first production for Warner Bros., which had distributed Rope and Under Capricorn, because Transatlantic Pictures was experiencing financial difficulties. MCA head Lew Wasserman, whose client list included James Stewart, Janet Leigh and other actors who would appear in Hitchcock's films, had a significant impact in packaging and marketing Hitchcock's films beginning in the 1950s. Three very popular films starring Grace Kelly followed. Dial M for Murder (1954) was adapted from the popular stage play by Frederick Knott. Ray Milland plays the scheming villain, an ex-tennis pro who tries to murder his unfaithful wife Grace Kelly for her money. When she kills the hired assassin in self-defense, Milland manipulates the evidence to pin the death on his wife. Her lover, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), and Police Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), work urgently to save her from execution. Hitchcock experimented with 3D cinematography, although the film was not released in this format at first. However, it was shown in 3D in the early 1980s. The film marked a return to Technicolor productions for Hitchcock.


Hitchcock then moved to Paramount Pictures and filmed Rear Window (1954), starring James Stewart and Kelly again, as well as Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr. Stewart's character, a photographer based on Robert Capa, must temporarily use a wheelchair; out of boredom he begins observing his neighbours across the courtyard, and becomes convinced one of them (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. Stewart tries to sway both his glamorous model-girlfriend (Kelly), which screenwriter John Michael Hayes based on his own wife, and his policeman buddy (Wendell Corey) to his theory, and eventually succeeds. The movie was photographed almost entirely within the confines of a small space: Stewart's tiny studio apartment overlooking the massive courtyard set. Hitchcock used closeups of Stewart's face to show his character's reactions to all he sees, "from the comic voyeurism directed at his neighbours to his helpless terror watching Kelly and Burr in the villain's apartment".


The third Kelly film, To Catch a Thief (1955), set in the French Riviera, paired Kelly with Cary Grant again. Grant plays retired thief John Robie, who becomes the prime suspect for a spate of robberies in the Riviera. An American heiress played by Kelly surmises his true identity, attempts to seduce him. "Despite the obvious age disparity between Grant and Kelly and a lightweight plot, the witty script (loaded with double-entendres) and the good-natured acting proved a commercial success." It was Hitchcock's last film with Kelly. She married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, and the residents of her new land were against her making any more films. Hitchcock successfully remade his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, this time starring Stewart and Doris Day, who sang the theme song, "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" (which won the Oscar for "Best Original Song" and became a big hit for Day). They play a couple whose son is kidnapped to prevent them from interfering with an assassination.


Vertigo (1958) again starred Stewart, this time with Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. Stewart plays "Scottie", a former police investigator suffering from acrophobia, who develops an obsession with a woman he is shadowing (Novak). Scottie's obsession leads to tragedy, and this time Hitchcock does not opt for a happy ending. Though the film is widely considered a classic today, Vertigo met with negative reviews and poor box office receipts upon its release, and marked the last collaboration between Stewart and Hitchcock. The film is ranked second (behind Citizen Kane) in the 2002 Sight & Sound decade poll. It was premiered in the San Sebastián International Film Festival, where Hitchcock won a Silver Seashell.The Wrong Man (1957), Hitchcock's final film for Warner Brothers, was a low-key black-and-white production based on a real-life case of mistaken identity reported in Life Magazine in 1953. This was the only film of Hitchcock's to star Henry Fonda. Fonda plays a Stork Club musician mistaken for a liquor store thief who is arrested and tried for robbery while his wife (newcomer Vera Miles) emotionally collapses under the strain. Hitchcock told Truffaut that his lifelong fear of the police attracted him to the subject and was embedded in many scenes.




By now, Hitchcock had filmed in many areas of the United States. He followed Vertigo with three more successful films. Two are also recognised as arguably his best movies: North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). The third film was The Birds (1963).


In North by Northwest, Cary Grant portrays Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who is mistaken for a government secret agent. He is hotly pursued by enemy agents across America, apparently one of them being Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).


Psycho is almost certainly Hitchcock's most well known film. Produced on a highly constrained budget of $800,000, it was shot in black-and-white on a spare set. The unprecedented violence of the shower scene, the early demise of the heroine, the innocent lives extinguished by a disturbed murderer were all hallmarks of Hitchcock, copied in many subsequent horror films.After completing Psycho, Hitchcock moved to Universal, where he made the remainder of his films.


The Birds, inspired by a Daphne Du Maurier short story and by an actual news story about a mysterious infestation of birds in California, was Hitchcock's 49th film. He signed up Tippi Hedren as his latest blonde heroine opposite Rod Taylor. (In 2011 Hedren stated in an interview with Turner Classic Movies' Ben Mankiewicz, prior to a screening of The Birds, that because she refused Hitchcock’s sexual advances, Hitchcock effectively stunted her career.) The scenes of the birds attacking included hundreds of shots mixing actual and animated sequences. The cause of the birds' attack is left unanswered, "perhaps highlighting the mystery of forces unknown".





The latter two films were particularly notable for their unconventional soundtracks, both orchestrated by Bernard Herrmann: the screeching strings played in the murder scene in Psycho exceeded the limits of the time, and The Birds dispensed completely with conventional instruments, instead using an electronically produced soundtrack and an unaccompanied song by school children (just prior to the infamous attack at the historic Bodega Bay School). These films are considered his last great films, after which his output deteriorated. (although some critics, such as Robin Wood and Donald Spoto, contend that Marnie, from 1964, is first-class Hitchcock, and some have argued that Frenzy is unfairly overlooked).


Failing health took its toll on Hitchcock, reducing his output during the last two decades of his career. Hitchcock filmed two spy thrillers. The first, Torn Curtain (1966), with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, was a Cold War thriller. Torn Curtain displays the bitter end of the twelve-year collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was fired when Hitchcock was unsatisfied with his score. In 1969, Topaz, another Cold War-themed film (based on a Leon Uris novel), was released. Both received mixed reviews from critics but are nonetheless recognised as espionage thrillers.


Family Plot (1976) was Hitchcock's last film. It related the escapades of "Madam" Blanche Tyler played by Barbara Harris, a fraudulent spiritualist, and her taxi driver lover Bruce Dern making a living from her phoney powers. William Devane, Karen Black and Cathleen Nesbitt co-starred. It was the only Hitchcock film scored by John Williams. In 1972, Hitchcock returned to London to film Frenzy, his last major triumph. After two only moderately successful espionage films, the plot marks a return to the murder thriller genre that he made so many films out of earlier in his career. The basic story recycles his early film The Lodger. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a volatile barkeeper with a history of explosive anger, becomes the prime suspect for the "Necktie Murders," which are actually committed by his friend Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). This time, Hitchcock makes the victim and villain twins, rather than opposites, as in Strangers on a Train. Only one of them, however, has crossed the line to murder. For the first time, Hitchcock allowed nudity and profane language, which had before been taboo, in one of his films. He also shows rare sympathy for the chief inspector and his comic domestic life. Biographers have noted that Hitchcock had always pushed the limits of film censorship, often managing to fool Joseph Breen, the longtime head of Hollywood's Production Code. Many times Hitchcock slipped in subtle hints of improprieties forbidden by censorship until the mid-1960s. Yet Patrick McGilligan wrote that Breen and others often realised that Hitchcock was inserting such things and were actually amused as well as alarmed by Hitchcock's "inescapable inferences". Beginning with Torn Curtain, Hitchcock was finally able to blatantly include plot elements previously forbidden in American films and this continued for the remainder of his film career.



Near the end of his life, Hitchcock had worked on the script for a projected spy thriller, The Short Night, collaborating with screenwriters James Costigan and Ernest Lehman. Despite some preliminary work, the story was never filmed. This was due primarily to Hitchcock's own failing health and his concerns over the health of his wife, Alma, who had suffered a stroke. The script was eventually published posthumously, in a book on Hitchcock's last years.


Hitchcock died peacefully in his sleep on 29 April 1980, 9:17 am, due to renal failure in his Bel Air, Los Angeles, California home at the age of 80, survived by his wife and their daughter. His funeral service was held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills. Hitchcock's body was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.


Hitchcock's name and legacy will live on for years to come, his genuine talent is one of a kind and no-one will ever be able to replace, some have come close, but never bettered him.

To see one of Hitchcock's last interviews (which is definitely worth a watch) click here

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