Alfred Hitchcock Week

Good evening, class.   

We last met for Scary Movie Week and then we spent a week doomscrolling Election Results, which was much, much scarier. So this week we'll lighten things up with some thrillers about murders.  

This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office.   

Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.

the master

The first thing you should know about Alfred Hitchcock is that he is largely considered, if not the greatest film director in history, then certainly the most influential. 

The second thing you should know is that he was nominated 5 times for Best Director at the Academy Awards and lost each time. Oh, and his best film was essentially ignored by the Academy. 

Hitchcock's 4 film stretch from Vertigo in 1958 to The Birds in 1963 is arguably the greatest in film history (even if Twitter disagrees), with Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather / The Conversation / The Godfather, Part II / Apocalypse Now) being the natural contender. 

Turner Classic Movies has a great summary of his career, which I'll just link to, rather than copy. 

He was the master of the suspense thriller. He would often give the audience just a little bit more information than he gave the characters, so you knew something bad was about to happen. 

He also invented the MacGuffin, a device that seems so important that it drives the plot, but turns out to be worthless. A head fake, if you will. For example, the necklace in Titanic is a MacGuffin.

Hitchcock's style was so strong, any sort of suspenseful film since is called "Hitchcockian", and he was so popular the show Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran for 268 episodes. And he introduced each and every one. 

He had a wickedly dark sense of humor that played perfectly with his uptight British persona. 

The humor would show up in his films, but primarily in his cameos. He shows up in every single one of his films, something copied by a hundred directors since, and it was often to add a little bit of levity. 

He loved poking fun at his persona. Here's fun story from filmmaker and film historian Peter Bogdanovich. 

As for the films themselves? They're so good.

this week's films

This is a very enjoyable group of films. You can't go wrong with any of them, and if you're like me, you'll start a deep dive into all of them. 

There's spoilers below. 

Rear Window               

[1954 | Alfred Hitchcock]

Watch: Peacock | Amazon (rental)

Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer who broke his leg on assignment and is stuck in his apartment. Bored out of his mind, he starts watching his neighbors through their windows and becomes convinced that one of them has murdered his wife. 

Of course, no one believes him at first, but he slowly convinces his girlfriend and nurse, who he then recruits to leave the apartment on his behalf.

The remote-control suspense scenes in "Rear Window" are Hitchcock at his most diabolical, creating dangerous situations and then letting Lisa and Stella linger in them through Jeff's carelessness or inaction. He stays in his wheelchair. They venture out into danger--Kelly even entering the apartment of the suspected wife killer. He watches. We see danger approaching. We, and he, cannot move, cannot sound the alarm. (Roger Ebert)

The camera never leaves the apartment, save for one shot, and Hitchcock turns that liability into a feature. 

All the windows of his neighbors are in different film aspect ratios, so as Jimmy Stewart spies on his neighbors, he does it in the same way we're spying on them. 

This is my favorite Hitchcock film.


[1946 | Alfred Hitchcock]

Watch: FlixFling | Criterion (Blu-ray)  

Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a traitor, is approached by U.S. agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to spy on her father's old friends--a group of Nazi's holed up in South America. By exploiting the affections of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), she's able to infiltrate the group effectively, but when she gets in too deep, her life becomes endangered.

Hitchcock here focuses on inanimate objects to ratchet up the tension. He zooms the camera in to focus on a wine bottle, a missing key, and in one important sequence, a slowly disappearing supply of champagne, using his patented technique of occasionally giving the audience more information than he gives the characters. Take for example, the key. Alicia has lifted the key from her new husband Alex's key chain and deftly passed it to Devlin during a party. The key is then used to gain entrance to a wine cellar, where Devlin discovers Sebastian's mystery. Unknown to Alicia, Sebastian discovers the key is missing and calmly says nothing, allowing instead the scenario to play itself out. After Alicia is asleep he retires for the night, placing his key chain where he does every night and Hitchcock makes sure we see the key's absence. Early the next morning, before she wakes up, he rushes to the chain, where the key has been replaced, revealing Alicia's deception. Somehow he manages to make the most innocent objects the most frightening thing on the screen. Make no mistake, this is the stuff of genius.


[1958 | Alfred Hitchcock]

Watch: Turner Classic Movies | Peacock

Lately, there's been a couple of "Best Of" lists that have ranked Vertigo ahead of Citizen Kane as the best film ever made.

Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece and perhaps his most personal film. To view it once is to be devastated. With each subsequent screening, most viewers notice bits of business, depths of thought, and stunning ironies that had previously eluded them. Vertigo is a riveting experience, haunting its fans in the same way that Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is haunted by the mysterious Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). - Raphael Shargel

This is one where you should probably watch it with as little information as possible and then come back and read about it. Or, in our case, watch these videos. 

But the basic premise here is that Jimmy Stewart's character has been forced to retire from the police force because of his vertigo and is hired by a friend to follow his wife. 

From there it gets...complicated.    

North by Northwest               

[1959 | Alfred Hitchcock]

Watch: HBO Max | Amazon (rental)

North by Northwest is a film about a man mistaken for a spy and then chased halfway across the country until he finds himself climbing across the faces on Mount Rushmore. 

There's two iconic sequences here: the Mount Rushmore one and the scene where Cary Grant is chased down by a crop duster. 

You've seen that referenced everywhere. 

North by Northwest is also full of themes that Hitchcock returned to again and again throughout his career. It contains such Hitchcockian motifs as mistaken identity, espionage, a controlling mother, and a beautiful blonde love interest. This collection of some of his favorite things allows Hitchcock neophytes to feel like they are sampling a buffet of everything that he returned to again and again.

Most importantly, North by Northwest features the two sides of Hitchcock as a film artist. Most prominently, it shows the side of him that led people to call him a “light entertainer” throughout most of his career. That side of him is the one that serves up the elegant mis-en-scene and snappy spy shenanigans. But there is also the serious commentary on human behavior that would play a part in French New Wave directors reclaiming Hitchcock as one of the greatest directors of all time. The plot of this movie is a turn or two from a Kafka novel, and Thornhill’s journey from selfish apathy to committing to help another person is still a good model for other writers and filmmakers to follow. (Jesse Pasternack)


[1960 | Alfred Hitchcock]

Watch: Peacock | Amazon (rental)

The film that made a generation of women afraid of taking a shower, Psycho is terrifying on multiple levels. 

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) decides to steal $40K in cash from her job. She stops at a roadside motel, where she meets the proprietor (Anthony Perkins). 

And then she's stabbed to death in the shower. 

Part of what makes Leigh's death scene so powerful is that the film never gives us any indication that it isn't going to be about her theft of the money. It invests a great deal of energy in developing her story, from the opening scene of her in a hotel room with her lover, to the nerve-racking encounters with the police, we are completely behind her as a protagonist. So when Hitchcock kills her, revealing the theft as the ultimate MacGuffin, it has the ability to take your breath away, but the way Hitchcock films it--with quick cuts and lots of screaming--creates one of the most harrowing scenes ever put on film. It is such a vivid scene that many audience members swore they saw red blood washing down the drain, when in fact the film is done entirely in black and white.

With the protagonist gone, the audience is left scrambling, open to suggestion and manipulation and all sorts of trickery. So we focus on the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, or what we believe to be his mother. Hitchcock wisely gives us only as much information as is absolutely necessary for us to be convinced of her existence--a shrill voice, a silhouette in a window, a shadowy figure in a dress--but none that might suggest otherwise. Yet the ending survives our suspension of disbelief, partly due to the psychiatrist's explanation but largely thanks to the performance of Anthony Perkins, who is nearly flawless as the boy with the Oedipal complex. He's a friendly enough person, perfectly comfortable with small talk, but note the slight shift in his eyes when someone mentions his mother. He reflects both devotion and a quiet desperation, but more importantly goes from helpful to protective. It should be clear that he's got something to hide, but the devotion to one's mother can be a fierce one, so a son protecting his mother's health isn't all that insane. 

For any of you aspiring musicians out there, here's a good look at the importance of the score.

Finally, you need to see this, one of the great non-trailer trailers for a film.

Strangers on a Train               

[1951 | Alfred Hitchcock]

Watch: Amazon (rental)

This is the sort of plot idea I love. Can you think of a perfect murder? Or, if you prefer, a bank robbery or whatever. It's the sort of thing writers are drawn to. 

That's the premise here: a perfect murder. It's pretty simple. If two people with no connection to each other each want to murder someone, they just trade murders. There's no motive and in the days before CSI, almost nothing for the police to follow. 

Of course, it doesn't exactly go according to plan when only one of the strangers follows through.
One thing I didn't realize when I saw the film years ago is that Strangers on a Train has a fair amount of homoerotic subtext.

For the key to Strangers is that it's a love story; Bruno and Guy's meeting in the dining car is every bit as seductive as Grant and Marie Saint's locomotive bunkup in North by Northwest. This is a film saturated in the sweat of McCarthyism (there's an astonishing shot of Bruno, alone, clad in black, watching Guy from the steps of the Jefferson Memorial). (Catherine Shoard)

coming soon

Since last week was a washout, we'll skip the writeup for that round of Dealer's Choice and head directly across the pond for our first look at European Cinema. 

Anyone fancy a game of chess? 

Lucas McNelly
Writer. Filmmaker. Maker of all the lip balm.

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