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Empire (2010) - Hitchcock the magician




Hitchcock the magician

How the great director pushed back the boundaries of filmmaking

His protean days in silent cinema taught the young Hitchcock how to tell a story in pictures. And through his career, as he broke moral convention, ideas of decency, he smashed through filmmaking convention. Not every gamble was successful, but no other filmmaker dared so much.

Hitchcock never made a musical, but he dabbled. In 1929 he helped on musical showcase Harmony Heaven, and in 1930 helped out on "a buffet of variety acts" named Elstree Calling. When its director was fired, Hitch had to fix it. Although when Truffaut asked him about it. he dismissed it as "of no interest whatsoever". It has never officially counted as a ' Hitchcock'.

Lifeboat (1944) presented the first of Hitchcock's 'narrative challenges'. Inspired by lifeboat rescues during wartime, he conceived a drama set entirely within a lifeboat after a U-boat attack — a "world in miniscule". Partly written by John Steinbeck, the tension came from the last survivor plucked from the water being the German captain of the U-boat. An entire range of class, age, sex and nationality adrift in the sea — as created on the Fox lot. With wave machines buffeting the floating set, seasickness pills were a necessity — a trial hardly unassisted by Tallulah Bankhead's proclivity for no underwear. "Should I call wardrobe, make-up, or hairdressing?" Hitch famously tittered.

Adapting Patrick Hamilton's play Rope in 1948, Hitchcock was keen for it "to be filmed as a play", in the fewest and longest takes possible. Given a reel ran to 950 feet, or nine-and-a-half minutes. the film has only nine scenes. What's more, apart from two muzzle flashes in Spellbound, it was his first work in colour. The story, based on the real-life case of Leopold and Loeb. follows two intellectuals murdering a weaker fellow, and required weeks of rehearsal for the actors (led by James Stewart) and the camera crew. The walls had to be moveable, allowing the camera to pass, and, as a backdrop, Hitch had a twinkling model New York skyline built . Foolishly, Hitchcock tried the same trick for his next period drama Under Capricorn (1949). Special sets allowed multi-level shots and even exteriors. but the actors struggled and the film feels pointlessly slow.

Dial M For Murder (1954) was actually shot in 3D stereoscopic photography, but Hitchcock was unsure. Apart from a flourish of scissors as Grace Kelly fends of an intruder, it goes light on 3D gestures. Released just as the fad passed, it only played in a few 3D cinemas.

Revisiting the single-set idea of Lifeboat, Rear Window (1954) created a New York tenement block with 31 individual apartments in which murder would fester. More than just a technical wonder — the camera restricted to Stewart's apartment, Hitchcock connected to his actors by walkie-talkies — it was a thematic triumph. Here was cinema itself, the voyeur watching the drama within the screen.

In 1955, Hitchcock took the odd decision of remaking himself. He had toyed with revisiting The Lodger, but it was The Man Who Knew Too Much he remade. Hitch had dreamed up new scenes — the death in the bazaar and Albert Hall finale — but the film is middle-order, lest you count Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera as a further venture into the musical.