A genius at suspense
Alfred Hitchcock's craft of careful, refined storytelling has thrilled generations of viewers. UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA remembers the brilliant director, who would have turned 104 on August 13.
"Dial M For Murder" ... it kept the audience on tenterhooks.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK entered my world when I was nine, at that early impressionable age. Though I knew nothing of his films I still was familiar with him as a film director who was fairly friendly with the Three Investigators especially the chubby whiz kid Jupiter Jones.
Now, many years later, when I started writing this profile I began by asking my husband what are the things that immediately come to mind when one mentions Alfred Hitchcock. He said, ``Well, let's see, he used chocolate sauce for blood in `Psycho', he wanted to treat actors like cattle and wanted the length of a film to be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.''
So far so quotable. Like my better half, I suppose every film enthusiast has his or her favourite bits of Hitchcock trivia.
My personal favourite is the quaint little incident at the police station when little Alfred was four or five years old.
His father sent him to the police station with a note. The Chief of police read the note and locked up a very scared and clueless Hitch in a cell for five or ten minutes, saying, ``This is what we do to naughty boys.''
Scared at a very tender age, Hitchcock spent almost his entire adult life instilling suspense and terror in the mind of the devoted movie-goer.
This incident was so deeply etched in Hitchcock's memory that his suggestion for his tombstone inscription was `This is what we do to bad little boys' (though it actually read `I'm on a plot.').
Born on August 13, 1899, Hitchcock would have been 104 this month. His parents, William and Emma, were grocers and they brought him up on strict Catholic lines.
He attended Saint Ignatius College, a school run by Jesuits. Hitchcock's first job, in 1915, was for the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. His shift to the advertising department within the company gave him a closer glimpse of the motion picture industry.
Alfred used to frequent movies and was more attracted to American films than the British. His early influences were Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and the German films of Decla-Bioscop.
In 1920, a 21 year old Hitchcock read in a trade paper that an American company, Paramount's Famous Players, Lasky, was opening a branch in London and after he showed them some of his drawings Hitchcock was on board as a title designer. He designed titles for movies made at the studio for the next couple of years and worked on scripts on the side.
In 1923, he got his first chance at directing when the hero of the film, "Always Tell Your Wife," fell out with the director and Hitchcock helped finish the picture.
Impressed by his work, studio chiefs gave him his first directing assignment "Number Thirteen" a two-reeler, which was never completed.
After this Michael Balcon hired the 23-year-old Hitchcock to work as an assistant director for the company, which ultimately became Gainsborough Pictures.
During this period (1922-25) Hitchcock met and became friendly with Alma Reville, an editor and a script-girl. So it was not surprising that in 1926 the two tied the knot.
It was in 1925 that Hitchcock was offered an opportunity to direct a British/German co-production called "Pleasure Garden."
A saga had begun, for the next 50 years till his last film "Family Plot" in 1976 Hitchcock would be creating magic on reels which would alternately scare, surprise and hang a shroud of suspense for generations of movie enthusiasts.
Hitchcock's British period began with "The Lodger" in 1926 and continued till "Jamaica Inn", which he made in 1939. It consisted of some black and white gems as the young director honed his craft and developed himself into the more polished and marketable commodity for his American tryst.
"The Lodger" also marked the beginning of another remarkable trail the great Hitchcock cameo. In this film it was strictly utilitarian to fill the screen and later on it became a superstition and eventually a gag.
"Blackmail" (1929), was his first talkie and he gave the audience a taste of trauma faced by ordinary people in extraordinary situations as his protagonists combated, very often, the law as well as the lawless in their bid to survive.
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934), "Sabotage" (1936) and "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) were class acts by an auteur mastering his craft but this writer's favourite of Hitchcock's British period remains the wonderfully crafted "The 39 Steps" (1935).
Based on the John Buchan novel, the movie is about a young Canadian in whose London flat a woman is stabbed to death. The police think that he has committed the murder and the spy ring responsible for the killing is also out to get him as he pursues them into Scotland. This is classic Hitchcock, with his most powerful recurring theme of an innocent man accused played with great élan and chutzpah by Robert Donat.
The rapidity of the transitions as Donat moves fast and furious from situation to situation heightens the viewing excitement and there is a conscious effort on the part of the director to sacrifice plausibility in favour of emotion and pure viewing pleasure.
In 1939, fresh from the success of "Gone With the Wind" David O' Selznick asked Hitchcock to direct a movie on the sinking of the Titanic. It is a pity that the movie never got made and our generation will have to live down the dubious distinction of making the treacly sweet James Cameron extravaganza into a mega commercial success. Hitchcock took the bait and relocated to the United States wife Alma and daughter Patricia in tow.
"Rebecca" (1940) was the first film Hitchcock made for Selznick and it went on to win a best film Oscar.
Hitchcock never got the best director Oscar though he was given the Irving Thalberg Memorial award in 1967 for lifetime achievement.
In 1946 Hitchcock turned producer with the magnificent "Notorious" after completing "Spellbound" and "The Paradine Case" for Selznick.
The next two decades saw Hitchcock churn out diverse and consistent works one after another "Rope" (1948), "Strangers on a Train" (1951), "Dial M For Murder" (1954), "Rear Window" (1954), "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1955 a remake of his 1934 film), "Vertigo" (1958), "North by North-West" (1959), "Psycho" (1960), "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964) were all a variegated display of a genius at work.
Hitchcock the director had now become as big a star as some of his regular actors James Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman.
Hitchcock followed this gamut with the somewhat forgettable "Torn Curtain" (1966) and "Topaz" (1969) before regaining lost form and England with "Frenzy" (1972).
Every cineaste would have his own favourite from this period with most people swearing by "Psycho" and "Vertigo."
The form of "Rope" and the sheer illogical unknown terror generated by "The Birds" are absolutely fascinating.
Shot in one continuous action, "Rope" tells a story set in a New York apartment between 7.30 p.m. and 9.15 p.m. where two young homosexuals strangle a classmate and hide his body in a chest. The chest is in the same room where the father and fiancée of the deceased have been invited to dinner.
The sheer audacity with which Hitchcock carried off the "stunt" (as he confessed in an interview with Francois Truffaut) is proof enough of his genius.
In "The Birds", the audience just watch mesmerised as birds go crazy and maliciously attack all and sundry over a weekend in sleepy little Bodega Bay.
Till the end of the film we are never offered any explanation about the deviant and vicious behaviour of the birds towards seemingly innocent people. And the contrast of the lovebirds with the hate filled aggressive attackers is a brilliant way to punctuate the irony of the content.
The lovebirds, in this otherwise dark film, accentuate the fact that love would survive an ordeal, however tough it is.
It has been 27 years since Hitchcock made his last film "Family Plot" and 23 since he has passed away.
In these days, when horror means "Bhoot" and suspense means "Phone Booth" and assorted clones, one seriously wishes the Wes Cravens of the world and his endless sequel of gory slasher movies away.
And pray for the return of the craft of careful, refined story telling, Hitchcock style a director who would clarify and simplify unfamiliar circumstances rather than complicate viewing for the audience.
Hitchcock was all eroticism without nudity, he was scary without being gory and he was rib-ticklingly funny and witty when he chose to be.
One can say with certitude that scenes like the shower one in "Psycho" and the plane attack on Cary Grant in "North by Northwest" will remain in the viewers' minds as long as cinema exists. And one will never forget Hitchcockisms like the following which can be a one-line definition of his movie making : ``There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.''
As Francois Truffaut aptly summed up, ``It was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes ... It occurred to me that in Hitchcock's cinema ... to make love and to die are one and the same.''
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