In the late 1930s The New York Times proclaimed that there were “three valuable institutions” that America did not have: The Magna Carta, Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock. This was 20 years before Rear Window, Psycho or North by Northwest.
It would be an impressive feat to overstate the extent of Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on cinema and popular culture over the last 90 years.
Shrieking violins as a woman takes a shower, a man in a suit being pursued through a field by a plane. Whether or not you have seen Psycho or North by Northwest, his imagery has had an indelible effect upon the cultural landscape, an accomplishment only a select few directors have emulated. Hitchcock himself has become an icon too. How many other directors can you recognise from their silhouette alone?
Clues to how he adopted his inimitable style can be gleaned from his childhood. He was lonely and reserved at school on account of his obesity; it can not be coincidence that the conflicted loner is such a familiar Hitchcockian trait.
Look no further than Anthony Perkins’ detached and solitary motel owner in Psycho, or James Stewart’s voyeuristic photographer in Rear Window. The idea of being on the outside looking in is one that permeates Hitchcock’s work. His father was strict, once asking the police to lock his son up for 10 minutes as punishment. Unsurprisingly, mistreatment and strange behaviour are themes that occur frequently in his work.
Hitchcock’s creative career began modestly. While working at an engineering firm, he submitted short stories to the company publication. These introduced the Hitchcock we’ve come to imagine – all dark shadows, fear and danger.
His first told the story of a woman being assaulted in Paris by drunks, only for her to wake up in a dentist’s chair after anaesthetic. His thirst for the creative lead him to a production studio in London, rising from title card maker to director in five years. He made his mark quickly, his first thriller The Lodger raising heads.
Alfred Hitchcock has the unique distinction of directing the first ever British produced ‘talkie’ (Blackmail) after which his reputation as an innovator only grew. He experimented with 3-D in Dial M for Murder.
Rope was filmed as if in real time, shots lasting up to 10 minutes, a radical idea then and now. He invented the idea of a MacGuffin, generally an object or goal in a story which serves as a plot motivation, but has little to do with the message of the film.
The MacGuffin is a device still used in film today, but it is a footnote in the legacy we have been left by Alfred Hitchcock. His films are more respected, and he more revered, than ever.
The BFI’s “Genius of Hitchcock” season is culminating this month, and two films (Hitchcock and The Girl) about his personality and work are out soon.
Put simply, Alfred Hitchcock is owed a debt of gratitude by all those involved in the making and appreciating of film as art, because he is one of its masters.