Monday, October 10, 2011
Alfred Hitchcock: Through Rear Window and Beyond
Telling a story fluidly while keeping the suspense intact requires a storyteller of rare capability. These difficulties are compounded when the storyteller is a showman committed to exploring new possibilities in the medium. Alfred Hitchcock was one such trendsetter in films. His career spanning more than 50 years and 53 imaginatively disturbing feature length movies, establishes that he has no parallel in the structuring of gripping suspense. Perhaps that is why even long after his death, Hitchcock remains the representative name in suspense movies.
Born to Catholic parents in 1899, Hitchcock trained in Berlin where he was influenced by German expressionism. The expressionistic influence was to show in all his works. His first completed film as director was The Pleasure Garden in 1925, an Anglo-German production shot at Munich. A year later he made Lodger, a film that dealt with the themes of suspicion, murder, sexual violence, public order and private trust. These themes were to characterize all his works. He made nine silent films till his first British sound film, Blackmail, in 1929.
His films in England between 1934 and 1938 consolidated his reputation as a master of suspense. The Man who know too much, Thirty Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes are counted as vintage Hitchcock. These films are melodramas – stories of violence and adventure where the emphasis is on incident rather than on character. The appeal of these films is generated by placing people of ordinary locales in extraordinary circumstances.
Hitchcock had a flair for exploiting the dramatic value of contrast. Verloc, the secret agent of Sabotage, runs an ordinary cinema hall. The characters are average people with ordinary intelligence and subdued by ordinary fears. This realism makes the haunting occurrences more shocking.
The unfolding of the story in visual terms speaks volumes for the director’s control over cinematic tools. In Thirty Nine Steps, the chambermaid discovers the body and opens her mouth to scream, but we hear the screech of a train emerging from the tunnel.
From 1939 onwards, his films started becoming glossier and more pretentious. The reason was simple. David Selznick brought him to Hollywood. Selznick believed in size for its own sake. Hitchcock’s films of the early Forties look like as if he has trying to regain his touch. Rebecca, Suspicion and Saboteur were films of uneven quality with only flickers of brilliance.
After World War II, he made films in Europe, where his technical virtuosity flourished. But his earlier realism and capacity to maintain excitement hit a plateau. Rope, for example, was merely an interesting exercise with self imposed limitations of space.
During his most inspired period, from 1950 to 1960, Hitchcock achieved a prolific output which included sophisticated thrillers like Dial M for Murder and a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Strangers on a Train. Rear Window, North by Northwest and Psycho show Hitchcock in full bloom. Troubled romances involving blondes is a recurring theme in his films. Vertigo saw the culmination of another Hitchcock theme – the feminine sacrifice of identity.
Hitchcock’s films depict an almost pathological urge to control a lover. His blonde stars, like Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Hedren continue to excite psychological analysis as a slightly odd ideal of womanhood.
North by Northwest is the quintessential chase movie ex-amplifying the best in Hitchcock; Ingenious shots, layered analysis of man-woman relationships, a dramatic score, witty symbolism and masterfully orchestrated suspense.
Psycho, Hitchcock, says, “ is perhaps one of the most cinematic films I have made and there you get a clear example of the use of film to cause an audience to respond emotionally”. The murder during the shower in Psycho is perhaps the most analysed scene in the history of cinema.
Using his technical virtuosity in combination with his sense of audience consciousness, Hitchcock created riveting stuff. “It’s a fun film. The process though which we take the audience is like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground or the rollercoaster,” he said. Among the most famous of his later films is, Birds.
By choosing precisely what and how much to show and when, Hitchcock manipulates his audience into the labyrinth of suspense. The label, “contentless virtuosity”, ignores the profundity of his films. They reveal his acute observation of the prevailing insecurities in society. His management of thematic complexities and audiovisual inventiveness has ensured his place among the best in the history film.