Alfred Hitchcock Presents

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, we roll back 10 movie moments that defined the late, gifted director, and changed filmmaking forever.

August 12, 1999|By Ann Hornaday and Chris Kaltenbach | Ann Hornaday and Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

It's difficult to believe that Alfred Hitchcock would have turned 100 tomorrow, more difficult still to believe that we've gotten along without him all these years. Fortunately, he has inspired heirs -- such as John Dahl, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, Bryan Singer and Kevin Thomas Anderson -- whose movies stand as worthy homages to his deep influence.

More important, he has left his movies. In almost every one of his films, Hitchcock managed to redefine the grammar of cinema, often in signature scenes that, through their use of psychology, technology and Hitchcock's own ineffable sense of irony, stand as examples of the art at its most pure.

Here are 10 Hitchcock moments that changed the way we watch movies today. It's an arbitrary number, one that forces us to leave out scenes from such masterpieces as "Vertigo," "Spellbound," "The 39 Steps" and "Shadow of a Doubt." But these 10 scenes sum up Hitchcock's indelible and enduring signature: "The Lodger" (1926): One of Hitchcock's most influential scenes is probably one of the most rarely seen. This adaptation of Marie Belloc-Lowndes' Jack-the-Ripper novel was made before the introduction of sound and stands as an example of how ingeniously Hitchcock could turn a limitation into an advantage.

In the film, Ivor Novello plays a tenant who lives upstairs from the family he rooms with. Although Hitchcock was prohibited from making Novello, then a huge star, the movie's villain, it's clear that he's the Ripper, at least to the family. Somehow Hitchcock had to convey his presence in the house without the benefit of sound. He constructed a ceiling of inch-thick plate glass and filmed Novello pacing from the family's point of view -- a shot that to this day soundlessly conveys fear, suspicion and menace.

"Blackmail" (1929): Hitchcock refused to use sound as an excuse for rambling monologues and cheap effects. In a key scene in "Blackmail," the first talking film to come out of Britain, Alice White (Czech actress Anny Ondra, whose voice had to be overdubbed because of her thick accent) has stabbed and killed a would-be lothario. Frightened, with only a tenuous grasp on her sanity, Alice is distractedly eating breakfast when a neighbor comes in and starts jabbering about a murder the police just discovered down the street. But the only part of the monologue Alice hears is the word "knife," an idea Hitchcock gets across by steadily turning up the volume whenever that word is uttered -- to the point where it's soon the only word the audience can hear, too.

"Sabotage" (1936): This film's obscurity isn't helped by the fact that, on video at least, the sound is muddy and almost incomprehensible. But "Sabotage," which stars Sylvia Sidney as a woman unknowingly married to an anarchist terrorist (Oscar Homolka), is worth renting for one of the most agonizing scenes Hitchcock ever put on film. Homolka's character gives a young boy a package -- which the audience knows to be a bomb -- that must arrive across town by 1: 30 p.m. The bomb will go off at 1: 45. Hitchcock then sets across town with the dawdling boy, who stops along the way to visit street vendors, watch a parade and people-watch. At one point, a crowd pushes him to have his teeth brushed by a street hawker. All the time, filmgoers are aware that the bomb is ticking away under his arm.

Finally the boy boards a bus, where the conductor -- in a typically mordant Hitchcockian turn -- initially tells the boy he won't be allowed on. He's carrying two cans of film, which are flammable. "Just don't sit near me or any of the customers," he jokes to the youngster. The boy sits down and, in a darkly funny touch, there is a tiny puppy in the seat next to him. Hitchcock, who proceeds to put the bus in a traffic jam, cuts between the boy, the puppy and a clock outside several times before the inevitable happens.

"Rebecca" (1940): Hitchcock's first American film was also his only work to win a Best Picture Oscar (he never won for Best Director, a slight the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will never live down). The Gothic menace that Hitchcock builds so perfectly in "Rebecca" would become a movie staple, and the film's climax -- in which the unrelentingly creepy Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) perishes in a fire -- set the standard for all fiery endings to come, in films as disparate as "White Heat" and "Carrie."

The ending also proves Hitchcock knew when to stick to his guns: Producer David O. Selznick wanted the film to end with smoke rising from the burning Manderley mansion to form the letter "R." As Hitchcock said so succinctly, in relating the story to Peter Bogdanovich, "Imagine!"

"Strangers On a Train" (1951): "Criss-cross. My murder for yours." That neatly sums up the plot of Hitchcock's suspense thriller starring Robert Walker as a psychotic killer who draws a champion tennis player (Farley Granger) into a double-murder plot.

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