The car, containing the body of Marion Crane, is sinking nicely into the swamp. But then, suddenly, it stops and hangs there, suspended. We gasp, and in our minds we say: "Come on, come on!” The car, after a few moments, resumes its downward progress and finally we can smile and exhale. Whew! For a while there it looked as if Norman Bates, Psycho's psycho, wasn’t going to get away with it.
Stripped to its very fundamentals, this was the art of Alfred Hitchcock: more than any other director, and better than any other director, he compelled his audience to participate, to sweat, to scream, to identify. Two generations of film directors have “done their Hitchcocks,” and sometimes done them very well, but when the Master died last week at 80, he pretty much took his genre with him. That glibly overused expression, “the end of an era,” applied to his passing because he was just about the last working director who began in the days of the silents. Significantly. “Hitchcock,” critic and film scholar Andrew Sarris wrote in 1966, "is about the only director alive today who could tell a story replete with emotional relationships without using a single word of dialogue.” Indeed, most of the truly unforgettable scenes from his films— the shower scene in Psycho, the prairie crossroads scene in North by Northwest, the toe-curling climax in the Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Muchhave no dialogue whatsoever. No director ever used silence more effectively.
Nor, for his purposes, did actors matter all that much. Stars like Cary Grant, James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman appeared in his movies, he did not direct theirs. Once
quoted as saying “Actors are cattle,” he vigorously denied it. "What I said, was, actors should be treated like cattle.” He also eschewed gore (with a few necessary exceptions) and insisted that he didn’t make "mysteries,” which he likened to “crossword puzzles.” Instead, he played fair with his audience, providing it with a certain amount of prior information and telegraphed clues which set hearts apounding: we know about the bomb the little boy is carrying in Sabotage (although he
doesn’t) but we don’t know whether he’ll get rid of it in time; we know that a man will be shot when the cymbals clash in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but we’re not sure just when those cymbals will clash. “A suspense story,” Hitchcock wrote in My Favorites in Suspense, "is not simply a Whodone-it. It might better be called a When’she-gonna-do-it.”
By the time he arrived in Hollywood in 1939 to direct Rebecca, the Oscar winner in 1940 (despite five nominations out of some 55 films, Hitchcock would never win a
personal Academy Award), he had already established his approach to film-making with two classics, The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes. And as often as he repeated his theme, of innocents caught up in dark and dangerous circumstances, he never repeated himself.
And, as critic Bosley Crowther wrote, he "brainwashed some four generations into a habitual suspension of disbelief.” Alfred Hitchcock’s legacy (Sir Alfred, actually: he was knighted on Dec. 31, 1979) does not stop with his body of film work, or with the two television series of the late 1950s and early '60s. No, his imprint is carved much more deeply than that: some of us cannot look at a nun without checking ing to see if she’s wearing high heels (The Lady Vanishes), or see a flock of crows massing in a tree without wondering if they’re going to attack ( The Birds), or get that terrible feeling, sometimes, that we might never come out of the shower alive. Hmmm?
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