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CBS News (02/Nov/2008) - The Master of Suspense

(c) CBS News (02/Nov/2008)

The Master of Suspense

A Look At The Timeless Work of Legendary Director Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock proved time and again that he was the master of suspense. Surely, there's no better time than Halloween to look back on Hitchcock's body of work. Our Seth Doane does the honors...

If you've ever seen an Alfred Hitchcock movie, then you've probably seen the man himself. The legendary director was almost as famous for appearing in his films as he was for making them.

Today, nearly three decades after his death, he is not just a recognizable face: he is an icon.

"I see him as a genius," said Eva Marie Saint, who starred in Hitchcock's 1959 classic "North By Northwest."

"There's just some people that cannot be copied, because they're unique. They're like a wonderful gem.

"He'll always be remembered because almost every movie was a piece of art."

Hitchcock's art spanned six decades and more than sixty films. From suspense to romance to comedy, the themes varied, but the movies all began the same way: with Hitchcock's meticulous preparation.

"I have worked with many directors since and no one was ever prepared the way he was," Saint said. "He had a storyboard, and here are all our images in these little pieces of cardboard with little sketches on them. They say that when they finish the film and it was to be edited, there was very little work to do."

"I do think he set the bar very high," said Jack Sullivan. For Professor Sullivan, Hitchcock is both an obsession and a profession. He teaches a course on the director at Rider University in New Jersey and has written a book on him, too. He says Hitchcock was a master at tapping into the psychology of his characters.

"Hitchcock always had the camera inside people's heads," he said. "The driving scene in "Notorious" with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, the drunk-driving scene, she sees it for a moment blurred. Because there's hair in front of her eyes with the wind blowing. And you see that. You see that. "I think what Hitchcock is about is about the vulnerability and flawed nature of human beings. And I think even his heroes are that way."

Heroes like Jimmy Stewart's character in "Vertigo." In the film, which marks its fiftieth anniversary this year, Stewart plays a detective afraid of heights, who becomes obsessed with the woman he's been hired to follow.

"With Jimmy Stewart who's Mr. Ordinary, nice guy, he's depicted as somebody who's afflicted with doubts and phobias," Sullivan said.

"It's a complete masterpiece, is 'Vertigo,' it's just absolutely staggering movie," said director John Carpenter, whose 1978 film "Halloween" is itself a classic. He says there's good reason why "Vertigo" is now ranked the top mystery movie of all time by the American Film Institute.

What makes it, as Carpenter describes, a "staggering" film, so good?

"It's putting you in the middle of this incredibly dark nightmare from which you can't awaken," Carpenter said. "It's this tragic love story. And it has one of the darkest endings in movie history."

That dark ending was originally not well received. The film got mixed reviews, and moviegoers stayed home.

"Nobody wanted to see poor Jimmy Stewart being dragged to an asylum," said Sullivan. "And nobody wanted to see Kim Novak, the love of his life, die twice! It was much too dark for the '50s."

Too dark for the '50s maybe, but Sullivan says those very same human themes now make vertigo a timeless classic.

"It's all about people's vulnerabilities and anxieties. I think that's really what Hitchcock is about. And I think that makes him not ever dated."

A shop owner's son born in London, Hitchcock spent a lot of time alone, studying movies and their characters.

The first thriller he directed, the 1927 silent film, "The Lodger," already showed his keen sense of psychology. Then 27, Hitchcock was a hit.

More than a decade (and some twenty movies) later, he moved to Hollywood, where he created an entire genre.

"1960 marked the turning point in horror with 'Psycho,'" said Carpenter. "'Psychos the first modern American horror film, and of course, the shower scene is emblematic. And that's probably the first slasher scene, ever."

But in a 1973 CBS News interview, Hitchcock suggested that horror, for him, was actually a laughing matter.

"You can't make a movie like 'Psycho' without a sense of humor," he said. "Because you know ahead of time that you're going to put your audience through the ringer. Which is an amusing thought."

If Hitchcock enjoyed putting his audience through the ringer, he also loved putting his so-called Hitchcock blondes in the middle of the mayhem. From Kim Novak to Doris Day to Grace Kelly.

"He liked blondes," Saint said. "Nothing wrong with that! Some men do. My husband does, by the way!"

Saint was the Hitchcock blonde in "North By Northwest," where she played what she calls a "sexy spy lady."

She said shooting the scene on the train with Cary Grant was "very sexy."

"Oh yes, yes. It's very sexy, and so forth and kissing. But what am I thinking? I didn't want to step on his toes, that's what I was thinking. Oh, the kissing was wonderful too."

What does Tippi Hedren, who starred in the 1963 horror film "The Birds," think it means to be a Hitchcock blonde?

"Everything good," she laughed. "You can't get any better than that."

"Do you think Hitchcock had a weakness for blondes?" Doane asked.

"Oh, most men do!" Hedren said.

Hedren was a professional model whom Hitchcock discovered in a television commercial. He offered her the chance of a lifetime.

"Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock invited me to Chasens for dinner," she recalled. "And Hitch placed a very, very beautifully wrapped package from Gump's in San Francisco, and this pin was in it. And Alfred Hitchcock looked very pleased with himself."

"What was the significance of the brooch?"

"Oh, it's three birds in flight. 'We want you to play Melanie Daniels in 'The Birds.'"

While Hitchcock liked blondes in his movies, in real life he cast a redhead as his wife. He married Alma Reville, his assistant director, in 1926; they had a daughter, and were still together when he died fifty-four years later, in 1980.

"He loved holding court," Hedren said. "He loved telling stories. He was very fond of dirty limericks. In fact, he wouldn't even go to an event unless he was the one being honored."

"He was a wonderful character," Saint said. "I mean, he had his bacon flown in from Denmark. But I was so young then, or naïve, I was so impressed with that more than anything, more than his films."

Beyond the individual personal memories, there's a collective one: Hitchcock as a legend.

"See, it's very difficult to master anything," said Carpenter. "You can do it, you can dabble in it. But to be a master is incredible. There'll be nobody like him again."