Hitchcock Rises Again

You know those lists that often appear this time of year that say this person is “in,” while that person is “out”?  Well, I’m not sure who’s “out,” but I can tell you that Alfred Hitchcock is “in.” That’s right, Alfred Hitchcock, the long-deceased British director who relocated to Hollywood in 1940 and became the industry’s most recognizable filmmaker. In theaters at this moment is Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the witty and rotund director most famous for his suspense thrillers. Hitchcock isn’t a traditional Hollywood biopic that tries to cover several decades of a subject’s life in a scant two hours. Instead, it’s one of a growing trend of biopic (Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis, is another current example) that highlights a particular event, or period, in a person’s life in greater detail. In this case, it’s the making of the classic horror film Psycho that serves as a window into Hitchcock’s life. PsychoVertigoThe release of Hitchcock comes on the heels of a related event from a few months earlier. In the September issue of the British film magazine Sight & Sound, Hitchcock’s 1958 mystery/romance Vertigo was voted number one in “The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time” poll. The decennial poll (that means once every 10 years, and, I admit, I had to look up the proper word myself) correlates the personal favorites of hundreds of international critics, programmers, academics and distributors (846 voted in this most recent edition) and ranks them in order. The 70-year old poll is considered the ultimate barometer of filmic art among serious cinema enthusiasts. In rising to the poll’s summit, Vertigo ended the 50-year reign of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which fell to a distant second. Hitchcock, born in London in 1899, didn’t live to see Vertigo rise to vast critical acclaim. He died in his Los Angeles home two years before Vertigo made its first appearance in the Sight & Sound poll of 1982, emerging in the seventh position. In subsequent polls, the film rose to fourth in 1992 and then to second ten years after that. The 39 StepsThe Lady VanishesPrevious to the ascent of Vertigo, any number of Hitchcock’s other films were mentioned in various quarters as being his defining work. Among those are The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca (Hitch’s only Academy Award winner for best picture), Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.  Together with Vertigo, that makes ten bona fide classics. Did you notice that I haven’t yet mentioned such other key Hitchcock titles as Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rope, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, and Frenzy. Those ten alone would be enough to have established Hitchcock as a filmmaking legend.  Simply put, Hitchcock made more great films than most directors even made good ones.  If you claim that Hitchcock was just a director who thrived in the old Hollywood system that was producer, rather than director dominated, take note that he also produced (though often uncredited) many of his most famous films. RebeccaShadow of a DoubtSurprisingly, Hitchcock never won an Oscar as best director. That may lead one to think that he was undervalued as a director in his own lifetime, but that was hardly the case. Many of Hitchcock’s films were wildly popular and that box office success allowed him more control over his productions than was typically the case. In fact, in the age before the advent of serious film criticism, Hitchcock was a household name. His films were usually headlined by major stars, but his own name was often used as a main selling point, appearing over the title in publicity items and on the marquees of the theaters in which his movies were playing (think Steven Spielberg or Tim Burton today). In truth, Hitchcock was also a canny self-promoter. He appeared in cameo roles in many (no, not all) of his films and was often a guest on TV shows. He went from being a great filmmaker to becoming a brand name. In 1955, he became the host (directing several episodes, as well) of a half-hour TV anthology show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran 268 episodes Rear WindowNorth by Northwestbefore ending in 1962. He immediately followed that with The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, whose 93 similar, but longer-length episodes aired from 1962-65. He also lent his name to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, a monthly publication specializing in crime and detective fiction (for which he never actually wrote anything) that debuted in 1956 and continues to this day. Long before shock jock Howard Stern proclaimed himself “The King of All Media,” Hitchcock could have laid claim to that title. To truly appreciate Alfred Hitchcock, however, one must forget about Hitchcock the public figure and concentrate on Hitchcock the master filmmaker.  For that, I recommend, without reservation, all of the titles mentioned above. The Des Moines Public Library owns over 20 Hitchcock films, including most of the ones listed. Thirty years after his death, find out for yourself why Hitchcock’s reputation is as stellar as ever, if not still escalating.