07/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2013

Hitchcock, In Sinister Shades Of Gray

Among film directors of the twentieth century, Alfred Hitchcock stands apart. Just last Thursday marked the thirtieth anniversary of his death, and still he endures as a highly recognizable name and personality, with his best films eagerly consumed, discussed, admired and imitated all over the world.

He had already established himself as the foremost director of motion picture suspense by the 1950's. Rather than dismiss or rail against the new competitive threat of television, Hitchcock seized the fledgling industry by the throat and created his own mystery series, which he hosted each week. Thus a man known for his brilliance behind the camera became a star in front of it. Once you glimpsed his portly profile coming into view at the start of each episode, you knew just where you were and what you were in for...and you were glued.

Over his lifetime, Hitchcock was variously criticized for doing only one genre well, for being too commercial, and for not being a particularly good director of actors. True or not, it's beside the point. What counts for a creative artist is the degree to which his work lives on with audiences, and on this basis few if any directors can lay claim to a richer film legacy.

His particular gift combined an instinct for story-telling with a knack for knowing just how to use a motion picture camera to create uncertainty, tension, and fear. He always remembered that his viewers were all once children, afraid of ghosts and weird shapes glimpsed in the dark. He also recognized that for adults, ghosts don't go away, they simply take different forms. His canvas became those things that continue to keep us up at night: the random, fragile nature of life, the universal fear of death, our own darkest impulses, and of course, those of others.

Tapping into this potent source, Hitchcock took coincidences or chance encounters that might seem far-fetched on their own and built highly involving and credible yarns around them. He used this approach time and again to get across the idea that in the midst of innocent, everyday life, evil lurks.

Much of the master's British-made films from the thirties are available on DVD, as well as his American work from the forties. These titles deserve every bit as much attention and admiration as his better-known color work from the fifties, chief among them Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1956), and North By Northwest (1959).

The first early gem is The 39 Steps (1935), starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. The story of an innocent man unwittingly drawn into a spy ring, "Steps" is not only gripping but enormously clever, with wonderful chemistry and razor-sharp repartee between the two stars. "Steps" was re-made twice, but the original towers above the rest.

Three years later came The Lady Vanishes, starring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. Here a young woman claims that a fellow passenger has vanished from a train, but noone else claims to have seen her. Again, the priceless banter between the heroine (Lockwood) and her unlikely ally (Redgrave) elevates what is already a nifty little mystery into something infinitely more special.

Both these films show the director's formula in place early on as chance events land innocent people in scalding hot water.

The cash and climate of Hollywood soon beckoned to Hitchcock, and his first American film, released two years later, was a smash: Rebecca. Much more in a psychological vein than his earlier pictures, this tale of a timid second wife haunted by the ghost of the first is a superb showcase for the dashing Laurence Olivier but also for character actress Judith Anderson, who positively exudes evil as the cold, beady-eyed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. (This was the only Hitchcock release to win the Best Picture Oscar. Though Hitch himself would receive five Oscar nods over his career, he never won. This may account for his terse acceptance speech on being awarded the Irving Thalberg Award in 1968. He uttered just two words before exiting the stage: "Thank you.")

Joan Fontaine, younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, became a star on the strength of that movie, and Hitchcock was quick to use her again, in Suspicion (1941), opposite Cary Grant (his first of four films done with the director). Fontaine, still the shy and bashful beauty, adores her handsome husband, but over time begins to suspect nefarious intentions. Is it all in her mind?

In these two movies, the only mistake Fontaine's character makes is to marry impossibly charming and attractive husbands. Clearly Hitchcock is telling us: no one is safe.

Foreign Correspondent (1940), one of my personal favorites, is lesser-known Hitch. At the heart of this story is another international spy ring operating on the eve of the Second World War, compromised by reporter Joel McCrea and including one or two unexpected members. The movie is full of colorful, fascinating characters, including Herbert Marshall as the leader of a pacifist party, George Sanders as an arrogant fellow reporter, and Hitchcock regular Edmund Gwenn as a killer in sheep's clothing. It also features some unforgettable set-pieces -- foremost among them, the windmill scene.

Next, the director shows us just how close to home treachery may be found, in Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Shadow concerns an attractive, seemingly mild-mannered young man with a hidden side to his character who decides, for reasons which soon become evident, to pay his sister's family a visit. Though dear Uncle Charlie has always doted on his niece (Teresa Wright), this time their closeness may put her in harm's way. Featuring an unnerving performance from Joseph Cotton as the twisted Uncle, this film gives diabolical new meaning to the adage: "you can't pick your family". The climax aboard a moving train is unforgettable. Incidentally, this was the director's own favorite picture.

Still, Hitch's second movie with Cary Grant, Notorious (1946) may just be his best. American intelligence officers tracking Nazis in South America after the war coerce the daughter of a Nazi spy to use her feminine wiles to implicate more of her father's colleagues, including the ever-smooth Claude Rains, who's always had a hankering for her. Before the assignment is disclosed however, Agent Devlin (Grant) and the girl (Ingrid Bergman) have already begun a passionate romance, which obviously complicates matters going forward. Devlin's bitterness about her taking on this unsavory assignment clouds his thinking, so that when she is ultimately compromised, it's uncertain whether her former lover and protector will realize it in time to save her.

Robert Walker, a gifted actor of the 1940's, died tragically young, and his performance in Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train (1949), is undoubtedly his best remembered. He plays a wealthy psychopath named Bruno who draws out a chance acquaintance with a tennis pro (Farley Granger) into a bizarre double murder scheme. This tale of deranged obsession also includes subtle homoerotic undertones, which were daring for the time. The film's nerve-jangling climax, set at a carnival, is a particular highlight.

Of course, Hitchcock's last and most famous black and white film was made a full ten years later: Psycho (1960). He had only decided to revert to black and white all these years later because he feared the censors would cut the famous shower scene if they saw red blood! By the standards of today's gore-fests, Psycho is a relatively restrained murder story, achieving its chilling effect more by what is withheld than what is shown. It heightens our dread of what might be coming at us at the top of the stairs, or who might confront us when we peel back that shower curtain. This masterpiece remains one of our purest celluloid nightmares, primal and vivid.

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