Tuesday, March 12, 2013

happy alfred hitchcock day!

Today is National Alfred Hitchcock Day. I'm not sure exactly why, but I really don't care, as any opportunity to celebrate Hitch is appreciated. My movie-buff parents introduced me to the master at a young age, via his movies on television. I'm not sure which one I saw first exactly, but suspect it was Shadow of A Doubt, with Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie. Still one of my favorites, and probably why I prefer the black and white, atmospheric Hitchcock films to big screen confections like To Catch A Thief.

Hitchcock was such a meticulous artist that it is hard to pick a favorite film. He started making films in the 1920s, and many of them are definitely worth a look, but the ones I hold dear and that have forever influenced the art of cinema are from the mid-'30s and onwards. Here are twelve of his absolute best (I couldn't narrow it down to ten):

Rebecca (1940) - Hitchcock may have had problems working with demanding producer David O. Selznick on his first major Hollywood studio film, but the result is flawless, and a Best Picture winner to boot.

On the set of Suspicion

Suspicion (1941) - This may be considered a minor Hitchcock, in part because the director himself complained for years how he had to alter the ending to suit the studio, but Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine are wonderful together, and Hitch does allow Grant to indulge in his dark side, while maintaining his humor and charm — the perfect anti-hero.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - Joseph Cotton helps the director turn the usual depiction of small-town America inside out. With someone like Uncle Charlie on the loose in our towns and our homes, no one is quite safe. And Teresa Wright makes a winning female heroine, a young girl who rescues her family while having to grow up fast and watch her dream man turn into a nightmare. This is such a great, creepy film.

Filming Shadow of a Doubt
Notorious (1946) - The ultimate Hitchcock romance, with Cary Grant as an abusive lover and Ingrid Bergman a woman who has hit such depths that she is willing to marry another man (Claude Rains, a Nazi) to please him. It also includes one of the sexiest, longest kisses in screen history, as Grant and Bergman try to accomplish a spy maneuver in her husband's wine cellar, but can't hide their passion for one another.

Strangers on a Train (1951) - When Robert Walker says "Criss Cross" to Farley Granger as they share a train compartment the movie takes Granger down the rabbit hole and the audience with him. Walker has come up with the idea for the perfect murder — two complete strangers each perform a murder for one another. And he's not joking. The film includes so many wonderful Hitchcock details and set pieces — a woman's eyeglasses, the clue of a cigarette lighter, the ending on a fairground carousel. A masterpiece.

Dial M for Murder (1954) - Hitchcock was experimenting with 3D with this film, his first starring screen muse Grace Kelly (and his first in color). But it is Ray Milland who steals the show as her murderous-plotting husband. He is ruthless, but also sympathetic and unfailingly polite throughout the proceedings. A bit stagy, but still incredibly entertaining. Cary Grant wanted to play the role of the husband, but the studio didn't want him to portray a murderer.

Backstage on Rear Window
Rear Window (1954) - Hitchcock had the entire New York City apartment building courtyard where Jeff (James Stewart), who has broken his leg lives, constructed on the studio lot. It is the ultimate voyeuristic exercise, as a bored Jeff looks out his window at his neighbors and the audience eagerly joins him. What starts at first as spying on pretty girls and squabbling couples soon becomes looking in on a possible murder, with girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) eagerly joining the chase for clues. Hitchcock has a lot to say in Rear Window about how people live and how we observe each other. Each window in Jeff's apartment complex holds an interesting story, and a potential parallel or outcome to Jeff and Lisa's on-again, off-again relationship.

Vertigo (1958) - Many consider this Hitchcock's ultimate masterpiece (I might go for Rear Window), but it is certainly his most artistic, and probably most personal. He plays with the idea of female identity, as he allows Jimmy Stewart to make over Kim Novak in the vision of a dead love. Themes of love and death and sex abound, as Hitchcock has his actors take us through a dizzying, hypnotic tour of San Francisco. The film had been out of release for many years, and I saw it for the first time in a New York City theater in an '80s re-release. If only everyone could experience this film on a huge screen. It's time for another re-release!

Directing Kim Novak on Vertigo
North by Northwest (1959) - Cary Grant is the ultimate Hitchcock "wrong man" in this cross-country, wide-screen adventure. There are so many fabulous set-pieces, including the scene in the field with the crop-dusting plane, the face-off at the U.N. building, the climax at Mount Rushmore. Fun, fun, fun.

Psycho (1960) - So many horror films owe Psycho a debt, but most of them have never come close to the shock and brutality of this film. Hitchcock returned to black and white, as the famous shower scene would have been too much for 1960 audiences in color. Anthony Perkins turns in the performance of a lifetime as Norman Bates, while Janet Leigh's role helped redefine what could happen to a movie's leading lady.

The Birds (1963) - Hitchcock dabbles in horror and maybe even science-fiction with this wonderful, still-scary film. The tables are turning, and our avian friends are deciding that maybe they want the planet to themselves. But Hitchcock keeps everything personal, following a young, spoiled woman (Tippi Hedren) pursuing a romance with a man she has just met (Rod Taylor) in a small California seaside town. Their story becomes the backdrop for the much larger question — what is happening with all of the birds?

On the set of The Birds
Frenzy (1972) - A serial rapist/killer is on the loose in London. Hitchcock identifies the villain (Barry Foster) right away, and the audience can only wonder if he will be caught or if the "hero," the not-too-likable Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), will go to jail for his crimes instead. Frenzy was considered quite racy at the time, Hitchcock's first film to feature female nudity.

So now my only problem is which Hitch to view to honor the master today?
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