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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Across The Pond and Beyond: The Genius Of Alfred Hitchcock

I'm certain that just by the video of the theme song that I have posted above, you can guess just who the subject for today's Across The Pond and Beyond blog post is.

Keeping in tradition with posting spooky, scary, and macabre topics from now until Halloween, I figure what better way to do this than making legendary director Alfred Hitchcock as the subject. After all, Alfred Hitchcock has been known to make some of the most frightening, scary movies of all time, and has been cited as an influential figure to such directors as Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton, Martin Scorcese, and Stanley Kubrick.

Alfred Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899 in Leytonstone, London, England. His childhood was reported to be very lonely and isolated, compounded by the fact that he was an obese child (which, come to think of it I can sympathize with, as I was in a similar situation). His parents were rather strict with the boy as he grew older, and some of the punishments that they would dole on young Alfred were certainly harsh. Hitchcock admitted in an interview that when he was ten years old, his father had sent him to the local police station with a note asking them to lock him up in a jail cell for ten minutes as a punishment for misbehaving. He would also talk about how his mother would also often force him to address her while standing at the foot of her bed, especially if he was misbehaving. Sometimes, Hitchcock would have to stay standing there for hours.

Who knew that these experiences with his parents would end up influencing Alfred Hitchcock's career? But, let's hold on to that thought and put it on the backburner for a few minutes.

When Alfred was 14, his father passed away, and the same year, he began to study at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, London. When he graduated, he started working as a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company called Henley's.

It was during his time at Henley's that Hitchcock's creativity began to awaken. When the company formed an in-house publication called The Henley Telegraph in 1919, Hitchcock decided to submit a few short articles for the publication. Shortly after writing his first article, a story entitled Gas, was about a woman who imagined that she was assaulted one night in Paris, which ended up being merely a hallucination that she experienced in a dentist's chair while undergoing anesthetic. His next piece, The Woman's Part, was told through the point of view of a husband having conflicting emotions over watching his wife performing on stage in a play. Other stories he wrote for the publication included Sordid (1920), What's Who? (1920), The History Of Pea Eating (1920), and a rather controversial story for the time called And There Was No Rainbow, which depicted a young man wanting to have an adventure at a brothel only to end up at the doorstep of his best friend's girlfriend instead.

It was taboo stories and his shocking twist endings for his stories that really began to shape what would inevitably become his career choice even after Hitchcock submitted his final piece Fedora to the publication in 1921. By 1921, Hitchcock started to develop a love for photography, and this new interest helped him get into wanting to work in the film industry. He began his career as a title-card designer for the London branch of a movie studio (which would later become Paramount Pictures), and soon earned a full-time position at Islington Studios designing the titles for silent movies. His hard work would pay off just five years later when he made the transition from title designer to film director.

Granted, when Hitchcock first got interested in wanting to direct films, his luck didn't start off being all that good. His first film project was supposed to have been The Number 13, slated for release in 1922, but due to financial problems, production for the film grinded to a halt, and the project was scrapped. A 1925 film known as The Pleasure Garden was a huge flop to the audience. A third film, 1926's The Mountain Eagle was also left unreleased.

But 1926 would also net Hitchcock his very first success with The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog. Hitchcock directed the film throughout 1926, and the film premiered in January 1927, and was a huge hit. That film is also cited as being the first example of what would soon be known as a “Hitchcockian film”, with such themes as the 'wrong man' and 'unfair punishment' being present. By 1929, Hitchcock already had nine films under his belt in his native England, and by the time his tenth film, Blackmail, was being completed, the decision was made by British International Pictures to bring sound to the film. The film was released in 1929, and is widely regarded by many to be one of the first and finest examples of a 'talkie'. The film's climax took place on the dome of the British Museum, which kicked off another Hitchcock tradition of using famous landmarks as a backdrop for suspense scenes.

Another concept that Hitchcock relished using, especially in his later films, is the 'MacGuffin device'. It was first used in his 1935 film, The 39 Steps, and was used as a plot device in which the movie is supposed to revolve around, but ultimately has nothing to do with the real meaning of the film.

Certainly, Hitchcock's early career wasn't all stellar. There were some incidents in his early career that would later come back to haunt him. Take a quotation that Hitchcock was heard to have made about how actors were 'cattle'. He said this in connection to stage actors who were snobbish about motion pictures. That quotation caused a bit of a scandal back in the day, and in 1941, his words would come back to haunt him on the set of a film production. During the filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, actress Carole Lombard had brought a few cows onto the soundstage with the name tags of each of the actors and actresses starring in the film attached to them. Hitchcock was surprised by this action, and he later claimed that he was misquoted, stating that he had meant to say 'actors should be treated like cattle'.

Which didn't sound much better, but there it is.

By the end of the 1930's, American film producer David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a seven year contract, and when Hitchcock and his wife Alma moved to the United States in early 1939, his work in the United States had officially begun.

In 1940, Hitchcock had made his American film debut with the film Rebecca, a movie starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The movie dealt with the subject of fear. A young bride moves into an English country home and must adapt to the extreme formality and coldness she faces each day she stays there. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, which Selznick accepted, but by the end of the film's completion, reports were that the working relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick was strained, with Hitchcock being displeased with Selznick's creative control over his films, and Selznick's constant money problems being an issue. Selznick in turn complained that Hitchcock's method of editing was so jigsaw puzzle like that he felt as though his own creative control was being diminished in a sense.

In 1941, Hitchcock directed and produced the film Suspicion, starring Fontaine, and Cary Grant in one of his few villainous roles. The film is mostly remembered for the classic scene in which Hitchcock uses a light bulb to illuminate a glass of milk that Grant's character brings to his wife, implying that the milk might be poisonous. The ending was also changed as well. Initially, because the film was based on a book, the ending was supposed to have had Grant's character exposed as the killer, but because the studio did not want to tarnish Grant's image to the public, the ending was made more ambiguous.

Other films that netted Hitchcock some much deserved success included 1943's Shadow Of A Doubt (Hitchcock's personal favourite film he directed), 1945's Spellbound, and 1951's Strangers On A Train.

I could go on and on describing each and every single one of Hitchcock's many films, as all of them really did have an impact on pop culture and the cinema world, but I would be here forever if I did. So, what I'll do to give this blog a bit of a personal touch is to list my top three Hitchcock films of all time, and then talk a little bit about the plots, actors, and other bits of trivia.

My third favourite Hitchcock film is the 1963 film 'The Birds', which starred Tippi Hedren (whose daughter Melanie Griffith is also an actress) in the leading role. The film was originally inspired by a short story written by Daphne Du Maurier, but was also inspired by a news story coming out of California about an infestation of birds in a seaside town.

The film takes place in Bodega Bay, California which has been the location of several severe unexplained bird attacks. The film begins as we meet socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedren) who makes the acquaintance of a lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) at a San Francisco pet shop. He mistakes her to be a salesperson, as he is there to purchase a set of lovebirds for a present for his sister's birthday. Intrigued by him, Melanie decides to find out where the man lived. After finding an address for him in Bodega Bay, she decides to purchase the lovebirds, and decides to leave the birds at his house along with a note. But on her way back home, she gets attacked by a seagull, leaving her with a gash on her forehead.

As a relationship develops between Mitch and Melanie, the bird attacks continue. A gull smashes into the front door of Annie Hayworth's (Suzanne Pleshette) home, and the next day, a group of birds swarm the birthday party of Mitch's sister. That evening, sparrows manage to fly inside the Brenner home.

Over the course of the next few days, the bird attacks escalate. A man is knocked unconscious after getting swarmed with birds at a gas station, and as the gas keeps pumping, another man carelessly throws a lit cigar on the ground, igniting the gasoline and causing an explosion. Melanie is forced to hide inside a telephone booth as thousands of birds attack the townspeople. The film leads to one final confrontation against the birds in the boarded up Brenner residence.

The reason I like this movie so much is because it was based on a real life news story (though exaggerated), and because it really had some awesome special effects for its time. Tippi Hedren did a great job in her role as well, even though Hedren said that her career reportedly stalled after filming the movie as she claimed that she refused Hitchcock's reported sexual advances. Initially, the film was written with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in mind for the lead roles. However, my second favourite Hitchcock film starred Grace Kelly.

Before Grace Kelly became the Princess of Monaco, she starred in three of Hitchcock's most successful films. Dial M For Murder and To Catch A Thief were both huge successes at the box office, but my own personal favourite of hers was one that I happened to see during a college film studies class.

Rear Window was released in 1954, and starred Grace Kelly, James Stewart, and Raymond Burr, and the movie dealt with the subject of what neighbours really did behind closed doors. After sustaining an accident which leaves L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Stewart) wheelchair bound with a broken leg, he is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment. The rear window of his apartment offers a good view of the courtyard in front of his apartment building, along with a view at the apartment building across the way. To alleviate his boredom during a heat wave, he stares outside the rear window at the tenants over at the other building.

At first, nothing out of the ordinary happens, but soon, Jeff notices something peculiar happening with one of the tenants, Lars Thorwald (Burr), a wholesale jewelry salesman who has a bedridden wife at home. Jeff is used to seeing Thorwald making late-night trips up and down the stairs with his sample filled briefcase, but one night, he notices that the briefcase, as well as his wife are not visible. Instead, he gazes at the rather chilling image of Thorwald carrying a large knife and handsaw. Later, Jeff spies Thorwald tying up a large wooden crate with a thick rope and having moving men remove it. He talks about what he has seen with his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Kelly), and suspects that Thorwald has murdered his wife. Of course with no physical evidence proving that this is true, and police unable to find anything suspicious, the theory seems to be one that is simply that. A theory.

A few days later, the discovery of a deceased dog by its owner sends everyone running to the poor woman's apartment...all except Thorwald, who stays behind in his apartment, lighting up a cigar casually. This incident just confirms Jeff's belief that Thorwald was the one who not only killed the dog, but his still missing wife as well. He has Lisa slip a note, accusing him of the crime, underneath Thorwald's door, just so he can gauge his reaction to the note. Jeff soon realizes that he has to get proof that Thorwald really did commit murder, and in order to do this, he has to get him to leave the apartment. When Jeff calls Thorwald under the guise of a friend wanting to meet him at a bar. Jeff's theory is that he buried either the murder weapon or even the body of Mrs. Thorwald in the flower bed by the apartment, and that maybe he killed the dog because the dog was getting too close. 

When Mr. Thorwald leaves the apartment, Lisa and Jeff's home-care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) start digging up the flower bed, but are unable to find anything. Lisa attempts to then sneak into Thorwald's apartment to find evidence, and manages to get in through the fire escape. But when Jeff stares in horror as Thorwald returns, he realizes that Lisa is in danger. Will Lisa get out before Thorwald comes back? And is Thorwald really guilty?

This film was a fantastic movie, and I loved every minute of it. Great acting, humongous star power, and a storyline that kept you on the edge of your seat. Plus it offered a rather blunt social commentary on how our society was becoming more voyeuristic. A point that was effectively proven through the eyes of L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries.

And finally, my all time favourite Hitchcock film. A film that was made over fifty years ago, but still sends shivers down the spines of moviegoers past and present.

When the film Psycho was released on June 16, 1960, nobody knew just how much of an impact the film would have. The film spawned many recreations and spoofs on various television programs, inspired a rather dull 1998 remake starring Anne Heche, and shades of the plot even made its way to the soap opera Guiding Light, as a male rapist took on the persona of an elderly female named Marion Crane to conceal his identity.

Marion Crane, of course, being the name of one of the main characters of the movie.

Janet Leigh played Marion Crane, a secretary who had done some very bad things. She was a common criminal, embezzling thousands of dollars from her employer and fleeing town in a dash to avoid being caught. She needed the money to marry her lover, Sam Loomis, and believes that if she can just make it to his California home, she will be free and clear. Fate however would prevent her from reaching her destination. In this case, fate took the patronus of a heavy rainfall, which forced her to stop driving for her own safety. As a result, she eventually ends up arriving at the secluded Bates Motel where she is immediately greeted by the motel's manager and owner, Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins).

Norman Bates is an odd duck, to put it lightly. As Marion checks into the hotel, Bates explains that he very rarely has any customers, given the location, and he tells Marion that he lives in the house that overlooks the motel with his mother. He decides to invite Marion to have dinner with him. She accepts the offer, but upon meeting Norman on the date, she overhears Norman and his mother getting into a heated argument, which makes Marion feel uncomfortable. When Norman rejoins Marion, he is angered when Marion suggests that he institutionalize his mother, and Norman tries to explain to Marion that while he feels such a move would be best, he cannot bring himself to abandon her.

After thinking about it for some time, Marion begins to realize that she made a mistake in hastily robbing her employer blind, and makes the choice to drive back to Phoenix to return the money. But first, she has to make herself look presentable. She starts to get ready for a shower, unaware that Norman is watching her through the keyhole in her room (another voyeuristic film, what do you know?) getting undressed.

It is when Marion steps into the shower that the viewer is treated to one of the most goriest, scariest, shocking scenes that has ever graced the world of horror films.

Now, here's a little bit of trivia for the shower scene. Contrary to popular belief, Janet Leigh DID use a body double for the shower scene. In shots where her face is not shown, you're actually watching body double Marli Renfro stand in. The sound of a blade piercing human flesh was simulated using a knife stabbing a melon repeatedly. The blood used in the shower scene was actually Bosco brand chocolate syrup, and Janet Leigh reportedly could not get into a shower for years after the film was released.

So now that Marion was dead, we all know that the culprit HAD to have been Norman Bates, as he was the only other one at the Bates Motel. Right? Not according to Bates. Bates blamed his mother for the crime. Things get even more complicated when Marion's sister, Lila (Vera Miles) arrives on the scene, along with a private investigator (Martin Balsam), wanting to know what happened to Marion and the money that she had stolen. The whole film comes to a conclusion that left viewers stunned. And I'm sure you all know what that surprise ending is, but in case some of you haven't seen the movie, I won't spill any secrets.

But let this be another life lesson for you. Eventually, bad deeds do come back to haunt you, and karma can be a real bitch when she needs to be. For poor Marion Crane, her crimes were punished in the most severe way, though not even she knew what she was in for.

Alfred Hitchcock certainly knew how to create a suspenseful, powerful, edge of your seat movie. During his entire career, he released over fifty feature films, and had a career that lasted almost six decades total. He directed his final feature film, Family Plot, in 1976. Four years later, on April 29, 1980, Alfred Hitchcock passed away at the age of 80, survived by his wife Alma, and only daughter Patricia.

But even though Hitchcock has been dead for over thirty years now, his legacy continues to live on. With several of his classic films being remade (though not nearly having the same success as the original versions), and his two television series (one running from 1955-1965, the second one airing after his death from 1987-1989), millions of people watched and were influenced by his one-of-a-kind movie ideas, and his endings with a twist.

Alfred Hitchcock.  Creative genius of the mysterious and macabre.  Need I say more?

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