Film Review: Directed By Alfred Hitchcock at Pacific Cinémathèque
It seems oddly fitting to look back on the work of Alfred Hitchcock in the shadow cast by the passing of noted film critic Andrew Sarris, the great conduit and proponent of auteur theory in North America. Hitchcock, after all, remains one of the preeminent instances of the auteur filmmaker, having wrestled his productions away from an impersonal “assembly-line” studio quality and infused them with a distinct directorial style, one which bolsters his legacy to this day.
It is a testament to Hitchcock’s body of work – a body spanning England to America, film to television, black and white to colour – that even the casual viewer surely walks away with a small sense of the accumulated MacGuffins, doppelgangers, male gazes, witticisms, voyeurs, murderers (and murderesses), blondes, and sublimated sexual perversions that constitute only a small fraction of that uniquely Hitchcockian stamp.
Beginning this Thursday and running through August, the Pacific Cinémathèque’s Directed By Alfred Hitchcock program offers audiences the chance to observe these themes at work, showcasing nine of the Master of Suspense’s best loved films, his complete directorial efforts for television, and two WWII-era French rarities thrown in for good measure.
The feature films are the immediate draw here. The titles comprise a loose “best of”, cherry-picked largely from Hitchcock’s golden period in the nineteen fifties and early sixties, with a few outliers on either side. Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959), The Birds (1963), and Vertigo (1958) make up not only the bulk of the colour contingent, they also constitute some of North American cinema’s most revered moments.
Just consider this list, all of which contain the most iconic images in film. An immobile Jimmy Stewart, plaster-casted leg jutting out from his wheelchair, peers through a telephoto lens across the courtyard of his apartment complex. An impeccably tailored Cary Grant loses precious ground in a race against a menacing aerial crop-duster. A blissfully unaware Tippi Hedren casually lights a cigarette as a sea of crows slowly descends on the empty playground just behind her blond bouffant.
And Vertigo, while possessing its own reservoir of classic moments, is perhaps too great and sustained an achievement to be even considered except in its entirety. Marnie (1964), chronologically the last of the colour films featured here, has over time secured its place alongside Frenzy (1972) as a highlight among the director’s less venerated late period work. Arcing back to the thirties, The 39 Steps (1935) and Sabotage (1936) are the two films culled from Hitchcock’s time working in his homeland across the pond. Steps is perhaps the best loved of the director’s lighter-hearted fare (in strong contention with The Lady Vanishes and cinephile-favourite Young and Innocent), while Sabotage is a first-rate thriller famous for its much-studied bomb/bus/clock sequence, a testament to Hitchcock’s virtuoso editing technique. Strangers on a Train (1951) and Psycho (1960) round out the black and white selections in strong form. Strangers, most notable for Robert Walker’s menacing, inspired, and career-defining performance, also serves up some of the noirest dialogue to be found in any Hitchcock film.
And Psycho is, well, Psycho. A lynchpin of the horror genre and a perennially vital offering, Psycho to this day delivers seismic narrative shocks with each and every viewing. These films are the rarefied titles in an already vaunted catalogue, and hardly need their praises echoed here.
The retrospective’s second half is an opportunity to screen Hitchcock’s less discussed, but wholly engaging television output, culled largely from the eponymous Alfred Hitchcock Presents. An anthology series in the style of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery (with stories leaning more towards Agatha Christie than Ray Bradbury), Alfred Hitchcock Presents opened every episode of its seven seasons on television with the now-iconic marriage of a hand drawn Hitchcock caricature and the director’s own shadow, jauntily accompanied by the Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette.
The Master of Suspense himself was routinely beamed into living rooms across the country as he introduced a given week’s story, played a bit of broad comedy, and lightly chided the show's corporate sponsors. Indeed, it was in this guise that many were first introduced to Hitchcock as a personality apart from his films, delivering deadpan jokes in his distinctive British drawl. Rather than striving for the aesthetic and narrative heft of his feature films, the Hitchcock-helmed episodes of Presents are breezier affairs, both in length and scope.
Generally employing only a handful of performers in relatively few settings, these stories play as marvels of economy. The series’ masterstrokes, “Wet Saturday”, “Lamb to the Slaughter”, and “Poison”, are perfectly executed tiny gems, utilizing little more than a parlour room, living room, and bedroom respectively, as their stages. Much of the television work also neatly integrates Hitchcock’s macabre wit, often aimed at the institution of marriage. The amount of couples left enamoured (or breathing) at the end of these episodes falls squarely in the low single digits.
Though bleak on paper, it is in no small measure that potent gallows humour which lends stories like “A Dip in the Pool” and “Back For Christmas” their charmingly demented worldview. The Presents episodes find further strength in the cross-pollination of marquee stars and accomplished character actors. Hitchcock juggles the high profile (Vincent Price and Barbara Bel Geddes) and the understated (director-favourite John Williams), deftly surmising where each will play best. Outside of Presents, Hitchcock’s television work would prove to be comparably minuscule: two hours for other anthology series’ (“Four O’clock” and “Incident at a Corner”), and one hour for his own The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“I Saw the Whole Thing”).
Directed By Alfred Hitchcock is a minor coup in that it offers what is so frequently promised and so seldom delivered - something for everyone. For the Hitchcock neophyte there are the classics. For the Hitchcock completist, there are the obscurities. For everyone else, there’s an embarrassment of riches from the Master in his prime.