Critical Eye

Hitchcock knew how to thrill

Monthslong film revival series celebrates the Master of Suspense

December 30, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Ask average moviegoers about Howard Hawks, William Wyler or George Cukor, and you'll probably get nothing but blank stares. Try Billy Wilder or John Ford, and you might elicit a glimmer of recognition, although they probably couldn't name a single film either man directed.

But mention Alfred Hitchcock, and it's like bringing up the name of a good friend. Everybody knows Hitchcock, the overweight gentleman with the pronounced English drawl. He's the guy who directed Psycho, right? Plus The Birds, Rear Window and the movie with that guy being chased across a cornfield by an airplane.

Even though he's been dead for 27 years, Hitchcock remains among the world's most popular directors, and one of the most identifiable. Classes are taught on his films alone, books are still written about him, even Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is still being published, 51 years after its founding. Best of all, people are still going to see his movies, some of the most elegant and mordantly entertaining ever made.

This weekend, Baltimore's venerable Charles Theatre's Saturday revival series begins a 25-film retrospective of the man known as The Master of Suspense. For most directors, having a resume that includes 25 theatrical films would alone be accomplishment enough; Steven Spielberg, for instance, won't hit that milestone until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is released in theaters next year.

But Hitchcock, in a career spanning six decades, was responsible for more than twice that many, and there isn't a weak spot in the Charles' lineup. From 1935's The 39 Steps, which kicked off the series yesterday (with encore showings set for 7 p.m. tomorrow and 9 p.m. Thursday), to 1972's Frenzy, which is set to close it June 14, 16 and 19, the films present cinema at its wittiest and most splendidly visual, stories of (mostly) innocent people caught up in events well beyond their understanding, leading to dilemmas from which escape seems all but impossible.

"Hitchcock is the rare instance of critics agreeing with the general public that here was a man who was both an entertainer and an artist," says Patrick McGilligan, author of the 2003 biography Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. "His best films remain modern, sophisticated, compelling and broadly entertaining - sometimes very funny and romantic, as well as suspenseful."

For many, Hitchcock is seen as a master of the macabre. That reputation, however, grievously shortchanges him, resting as it does primarily on the overwhelming popularity of 1960's Psycho (May 24, 26 and 29), a shocker that presaged the slasher genre 18 years before anyone knew it existed. (In fact, John Carpenter's 1978 Halloween, generally acknowledged as the originator of the slasher genre, was a deliberate homage to Hitchcock's work.)

Indeed, most of Hitchcock's greatest films had nothing to do with horror and everything to do with human nature: our fear of being betrayed, the ease with which we can be manipulated, our delight in being surprised.

No director took greater delight in throwing curveballs at his audience, with the happy result that people knew to be on their toes whenever his name appeared above the title. Leading actors never were killed halfway through the film, until Psycho and Janet Leigh came along. Ticking bombs being carried by unsuspecting, innocent young boys never actually exploded, until 1936's Sabotage (Saturday and Jan. 7 and 10).

He delighted in casting against type, using urbane Joseph Cotten to play an amoral killer in 1943's Shadow of a Doubt (Feb. 9, 11 and 14), persuading nice-guy-next-door James Stewart to be an unapologetic voyeur in 1954's Rear Window (April 12, 14 and 17), or transforming good-kid Anthony Perkins into the worst kind of mama's boy in Psycho.

Much has been written of Hitchcock's cinematic artistry: how he drew on his training as a draftsman and his apprenticeship in the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s in developing his keen eye for detail and composition.

Indeed, Hitchcock's films are elegant to a fault, intricately crafted and relentlessly engaging works that make such artistry look deceptively easy. And the director, who once infamously compared actors to cattle and said he preferred planning films to actually shooting them, nevertheless was able to attract some of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Being a great director is made considerably easier when your two most frequent leading men are Cary Grant and James Stewart.

But Hitchcock's piquant sensibilities had as much to do with his success as his artistic ones. He loved tweaking the morality that was imposed upon him by Hollywood's censors. Told that he couldn't let his actors engage in a kiss that lasted for more than three seconds, he simply had Grant and Ingrid Bergman engage in a three-minute long series of three-second kisses in 1946's Notorious (March 1, 3 and 6).

Hitchcock was also a self-promoter of the first order, one of the first directors since the silent era to have his name played above the title. His habit of giving himself a cameo role in each of his films (beginning with 1927's The Lodger) gave rise to a cinematic parlor game that audiences delighted in playing ... and still do.

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