The mid-1950's and early 1960's is a period of extraordinary freedom and creativity for Hitchcock. Despite having never won an Oscar, he is, at the time, one of the few film directors known to the American public by name, along with Walt Disney and Cecil B. DeMille. In fact, the "Hitchcock" name could well be considered a brand, for it appears on pulp mystery magazines and a new television anthology series.* Hitchcock enjoys a contract deal that allows him to retain the rights to several of his best films, as well as working for M-G-M and Paramount Studios, not as an employee but as a marketable commodity, like a Hollywood star.
It is also the period where Sir Alfred finds one of his most effective collaborators in composer Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock had worked with some well-regarded and legendary composers before—Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklós Rósza, Athur Benjamin, Franz Waxman, and Hugo Friedhofer. The only composers who did more than four pictures with Hitchcock were Louis levy (with whom he worked in his early British work) and Herrmann. Together, they would create a string of films that would define both of their careers. And this period ends with his greatest success and biggest reach in subject matter as well as a bravura display of technique.
WARNING! SPOILERS ABOUND IN THESE CAPSULE SUMMARIES!! WHATEVER YOU DO, IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THESE HITCHCOCK FILMS, THEN DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER (By all means, go to the attic OR the basement, take a shower OR a ride on a carousel, wait in a corn-field OR the schoolyard, visit Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Bates Motel, OR the beach at Monte Carlo, or for that matter, just sit in your room and watch your neighbors, but for the love of an omnipotent uncaring God...) I REPEAT, DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER!!!
(Thank you and have a nice day)
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) Hitchcock liked to shake things up a bit when he made movies, pushing boundaries wherever he could. But Psycho is unique. It is a straight up horror film. It pushes accepted levels of taste and subjects anathema to the Legion of Decency. Long after he'd experimented with and mastered color, this one's filmed in black and white. The last film of Hitchcock's Paramount contract (though rights were eventually bought by Universal), it was made on-the-cheap using his production crew from television because he was unsure of its box-office potential. In fact, he wasn't sure of the film at all. Yet, it is Hitchcock at his most strategic in its blueprint--it is a series of film feints and manipulations designed to keep its audience on the edge of their seats, questioning everything. In his landmark book-length interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock was particularly pleased with Psycho, because he made it so cheaply and yet it generated the biggest box-office of his career. He also enjoyed the effect it had on audiences as, more than any other film, he was deliberately "playing the audience like an orchestra." The story is simple, though its strategies are not. We follow Marion Crane, a Phoenix career girl who has just embezzled $40,000 from her boss to help set up her and her boyfriend. She suffers a crisis of conscience and before she can act on it, she is brutally murdered in the shower of the motel she is staying at. The young proprietor of the Bates Motel, Norman Bates, discovers the body and hides all evidence of the killing to protect his mother, then must ward off detectives, police and Marion's sister and beau from discovering the truth.
Yeah. Right. Hitchcock's first big "gotcha" is to kill off his star forty five minutes into the picture. The audience is left in a state of shock... what do we do now? Who do we follow? And "johnny-on-the-spot" here comes Norman! The fact is, Psycho is a cold little exercise in toying with people. Our loyalties to Marion as an audience are divided, and when she's killed we glom onto the young Mr. Bates, because a) we don't want him to get caught, but b) we want to know his secret. And as clues mount (with the body-count) the director takes us further and further into territories of dread as sweet as molasses candy...and just as sticky. So commanding is Hitchcock's grip on the audience that he even feels free to explore that age-old question "Why don't they just go to the police?" Hitchcock's stock answer: "Because it's bo-ring!" In Psycho, they do. And...it is. But its a relief to get away from the Bates Motel by this time. Any excuse will do.
Along the way are some technical marvels of camera and editing work that have been studied and copied but never topped by lesser lights. The snaking shot up the stairs that shinnies up to the ceiling to cast a "God's eye-view" as Norman moves his mother down to the basement is one of the great sleight of hands by any director. Hitchcock's scrupulously maintained "Look/ Object Observed/ Reaction" editing strategy for Vera Miles' search of the Bates house is a nerve-jangling tour-de-force. Then there's the justifiably classic murder sequence made up of snippets of film that flash and slash across the screen, showing us nothing but suggesting everything. And Bernard Herrmann's strings-only score--Black and white music for a black and white film--shoves and kicks us along the scary maze. So confident of Herrmann was Hitchcock that on his score suggestions when he reached the point of Marion's drive from Phoenix he merely wrote "Reel 4 is yours." Hitchcock originally planned the shower murder to be unscored, but Herrmann scored it with its now iconic shrieking strings. When the composer reminded the director of his original plan, he replied "Improper suggestion..."
From Hitchcock, that's a compliment.
Mention has to be made of the cast. Everybody's terrific, but Anthony Perkins is so good he never played another normal human being again. Towards the end of his life when asked if, knowing the effect it would have on his career he would do it again, his reply was "In a heart-beat." His fidgeting, shimmying Norman is one of The Great Performances. Only one of the great failings of Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot color remake was Vince Vaughn's inability to evoke anything nearly as good--but then all the actors failed at that. You remake masterpieces at your peril...even if you do have the blue-print at hand.
Cameo: Hitchcock appears outside the office wearing a cowboy hat four minutes into the film.
Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1958) The wit begins immediately as the opening bars of Bernard Herrmann's manic fandango get out of the way for the MGM lion's roar. Then, life goes crazy for a very bad couple of days in the life of blithely selfish Madison Avenue ad-man Roger O.Thornhill ("What does the 'O' stand for?" "Nothing...") as he is mistaken for a government agent, kidnapped, nearly assassinated and then is accused of murdering a U.N. official. He then falls under the wing of the very government service his phantom doppelganger belongs to, evading the police and the spies on a cross-country getaway from New York to North Dakota.
What does it all stand for? Nothing. Thornhill is a nowhere man, mistaken for a person who doesn't exist and nothing is what it seems. Even the MacGuffin everyone is after is dismissed as "government secrets, perhaps?" -- secrets wrapped in an enigma. For the lead Hitchcock goes with his "better-than-everyman" Cary Grant, his blonde is the slyly coy Eva Marie Saint (never better), and the villains are James Mason (one would think the perfect Hitchcock actor) and his aide-de-camp the very young, very reptilian Martin Landau. It's a trifle--a bouncing nightmare made of cotton-candy wisps, with wild Hitchcock set-pieces held together by Ernest Lehman's yeoman-work trying to keep everything light-hearted and semi-plausible. It's hard to find a better entertainment, from that opening roar to the final salacious joke.
Cameo: Hitchcock appears at the final climax of the opening music as a bus door shuts in his face.
Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1957) Everybody has their favorite "Hitchcock." ** This one is mine. "Scottie" Ferguson is a desk-bound police detective on disability following a traumatizing incident that involved a dead policeman and revealed a susceptibility to vertigo--a dizzying sensation in situations dealing with heights. An old friend hires him to follow his wife whom he suspects of falling under the spell of a dead woman who committed suicide. "Scottie" takes the job, and in following the woman, learns of her obsession, rescues her from an attempt to take her life...and falls hopelessly in love with her. But in an attempt to jog her memory she makes a second attempt which he is unable to prevent due to his infirmity. The guilt and grief (plus an embarrassing investigation) lands "Scottie" in a sanitarium, a broken man. When he is released, vulnerable and impressionable, he obsesses on a woman who resembles the dead woman and finds himself unable to shake the grip of his lost love.
When the authors of "Les Diabolique" heard that Hitchcock had tried to obtain the rights to it, they wrote "D'Entre les Morts" ("From Among the Dead") with him in mind. He snapped it up immediately. One can see why. It had all the elements--a mystery, a passionate love story, a blonde damsel, an obsessive man, a wounded psyche, a manipulative make-over, and something else that might have driven Hitchcock. When we reach the end of the film and are left at the precipice, it's only then that we're aware that, yes, it's a love story, but it's a love for a woman who doesn't exist--who never existed...ever. "Scottie's" obsession is for an ideal, a figment of his imagination, just as Hitchcock's obsession with blondes (over and over again they appear in his films) is an ideal. So, then, what is love? If "Scottie's" love doesn't exist, what is he in love with? Do we love the people we love, or the ideal of that person? Is love real? For any of us?
Not the most romantic of questions to ask in a love story, but the story suggests that love is an affliction, like "Scottie"s" vertigo--like his depression. It's all in his mind, whether he has the heart or not. And Bernard Herrmann's turgid, swirling score suggests, as does Saul Bass' moire-pattern titles sequence, a whirlpool, forever trapping us.***
As usual during this period, when he was casting the part of an interior, complex man, Hitchcock cast James Stewart in the lead--the '50's saw Stewart in a great many of his most neurotic performances but this one tops them all. Stewart's Ferguson starts the movie hanging from a gutter, and he's on the edge throughout a falling man who never reaches bottom, but is broken nonetheless. Stewart comes as close as he ever does to losing the audience's sympathy--by the end, he's an obsessive, caring not for the woman he supposedly loves, and jabbering in semi-hysterics. Hitchcock wanted his new favorite, Vera Miles for the lead, but pregnancy forced her to give it up, and the director cast Kim Novak, not an actress of great depth, but you'd never know it from this performance--there's a luminousness and other-worldliness to Novak that Miles would have been hard-pressed to achieve. Barbara Bel Geddes got her first movie role in Vertigo, and she took to Hitchcock's direction immediately (she, like Miles would work in some of the director's impressive TV work*). Her sorrowfully loyal Midge is a vital third wheel, a reflective choice, in a story about loss...of love, of self, of control.
Cameo: Hitchcock is seen walking outside the Elster shipbuilding business 11:00 into the film.
Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) One is tempted to say this one's surprising, but Hitchcock was never one to do something that wasn't unique. In this "kitchen-sink" neo-noir adapted by playwright Maxwell Anderson, Hitchcock tells the true story (the court case number is even displayed on the poster for the doubters to research) of "Manny" Ballestrero, a musician at New York's "Stork Club," who was falsley accused of assault and robbery and his years-long struggle to clear his name. Because the story is itself "stranger than fiction," Hitchcock films it in an almost documentary fashion in many of the actual locations (and with some of the people involved in the story!) ****
It's a realistic version of the standard Hitchcock story elements of false accusation and imprisonment, and the guilt associated with those events. A highlight of the film (and bear in mind when you see it, that it actually happened the way it was depicted) is the trial as Ballestrero furtively glances about the court-room at the casual indifference of the participants and spectators, while he is fighting for his life. Henry Fonda is such an "every-man" actor that any star-persona is completely submerged, and Vera Miles gives an incredible performance as his long-suffering wife (this, and Vertigo are good, unhysterical depictions of depression) Anthony Quayle plays their defense attorney.
Hitchcock was still very much the Catholic boy making this movie--the hallucinatory camera-rotation when Ballestrero is alone in his cell no doubt reflected Hitchcock's feelings when he was briefly incarcerated as a boy (Dad wanted to teach him a lesson), and the story doesn't resolve itself until the moment his character begins to fervently murmur a prayer to a portrait of Jesus. Fonda's words to the cause of his problems still haunt to this day.
Cameo: Hitchcock appears as a silhouette with long shadow to introduce the film, so as not to spoil the verisimilitude.
Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) A remake of Hitchcock's 1934 film with Peter Lorre, this one stars James Stewart and Doris Day (tight blonde hair, grey suit) as American vacationers in Morocco who stumble on to a plot to kill an ambassador at a concert in Albert Hall. To ensure their silence their son is kidnapped. The two go their separate ways to find the son and foil the plot, which culminates at London's famous hall in a sequence that lasts 12 minutes without a single line of dialogue. Day's character as a singer comes in handy for a high-pitched scream and two renditions of "Que Sera Sera" that you have to suffer through twice, though its in service of the story. Herrmann's second score for Hitchcock is a bumptuous affair emphasizing thrills over atmosphere and Herrmann even appears on-screen as the conductor of Arthur Benjamin's cantata "The Storm Clouds" (which was written for the 1934 film). It's a fine Hitchcock thrill ride, one of the five Hitchcock films that were wholly owned by Hitch (the others were Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and Vertigo) and held as a legacy for his daughter, Pat.
One moment has always stood out for me, and it's Doris Day's. Stewart must tell his wife that their son has been taken, but before he'll say anything he insists that she take a powerful tranquilizer. She reluctantly does so, and he waits for it to start taking effect before he tells her. What follows is a heart-breaking scene as Day starts to go into hysterics, as she begins to lapse into unconsciousness. Say what you will about Doris Day--this is one of the great acting scenes in film.
Cameo: Hitchcock is in the Moroccan crowd (back to the camera) watching a street performance.
Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry (1955) No matter how quaint a Vermont town can be, no matter how picturesque the autumn surroundings, and no matter how charming its people, a corpse can do a lot to upset things. While out playing "spaceman," young Arnie Rogers (played by a pre-"Beaver" Jerry Mathers) comes across something totally out of his orbit--a dead body. Gunshots had been heard, and maybe "Harry" was felled by one by accident. Or something else happened. Harry's former wife, Jennifer, certainly had a motive. And then there's the little matter of the body always turning up, inconveniently. Pretty soon, people are feeling guilty about Harry, even if they had nothing to do with it. And it's up to the most un-bohemian of bohemian artists--Sam Marlowe to get to the bottom of the mystery...or at least keep it buried for awhile. Call it a black comedy of manners or call it an Agatha Christie novel, but moved out the dark drawing room into the bright sunshine and fall-colors of the outside, it's Hitchcock in a whimsical mood by way of Charles Addams. His cast includes veterans Midred Natwick and Edmund Gwenn and representing romance on the other side of the age scale John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine (in her film debut). Hitchcock and Robert Burks do an incredible job photographing the New England autumn capturing the golden light filtering through the trees, showing just how beautiful things can look...when they're dying.
In their first collaboration, composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Devil and Daniel Webster) gives Hitchcock a wistful score full of sad melody, offset by a bouncy little tuba theme that he reworked as a concert piece "A Portrait of Hitch." Together they would achieve the heights of their respective careers and lead the pack of other great director/composer teams as Lean/Jarre, Edwards/Mancini, Truffaut/Delerue, Spielberg/Williams and Burton/Elfman.
Cameo: Hitchcock is seen walking along the street as the millionaire examines the paintings about twenty minutes in.
"The Master of Suspense" can't keep his own composer awake...
Hitchcock and Herrmann in happier times
* Here is the first episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," a truly creepy tale unmistakably directed by the Master himself, starring Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles.
** The director's was the lovely and very creepy Shadow of a Doubt written with Thornton Wilder. We'll get there, eventually.
*** And the director makes the point with the "Vertigo" shot, which he'd been trying to perfect since Rebecca, a simultaneous zoom-in, and track-back that prismatically warps space--it has been used endlessly by directors trying to convey disorientation or shock. Hitchcock never used it again--he kept coming up with new innovations.
**** Herrmann's score is similarly muted, more textural--to be felt rather heard--not unlike his final score, Taxi Driver, twenty years later--and only "breaks out" as source music at the Club.
Oh. One last thing: it was Herrmann who suggested Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette" for the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" theme.
Next: The Master's Grace Period