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Columbia Daily Spectator (16/Apr/1999) - Spectacle




Experiment in Terror

by Randall Snare

When Alfred Hitchcock was six, he got on a bus in his hometown of London and rode it to the end of the line. Having run out of money, he had to walk home. When he got there, his dad drove him to the police station without a word. There, the guard locked little Hitchcock in a cell for five minutes, and what was meant to be a lesson in returning home at an appropriate hour gave Hitchcock his lifelong fear of policemen and plenty of material for his movies. The sound of the door slamming alone showed up in Blackmail, The Paradine Case, The Wrong Man, and Frenzy.

Alfred Hitchcock's films have been unbelievably popular. Rarely do directors continuously make films that are critically and commercially successful. Gene D. Phillips in his book on Alfred Hitchcock outlines why he thinks the movies were so well received. The main characters in Hitchcock's films are usually normal people placed in abnormal situations. Viewers thereby can identify with the protagonists, which is more horrifying because it implies that they could find themselves in similar situations. The settings are familiar, bringing the evil home to the audience.

Hitchcock once said, "I believe in giving the audience all the facts as early as possible." If the people watching know what the characters in the movie don't, it creates a tension that lasts throughout the movie—as opposed to surprise which lasts only a moment. The last Hitchcock ingredient has a name. It's called the MacGuffin, and its only purpose is to keep the plot going. It comes from a British story. Two men are on a train and one asks the other what is in the luggage rack over his head. The other man answers that it's a trap for lions in the Scottish Highlands. The other passenger tells him that there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands. So the man says, "Well, then, that's no MacGuffin." On film, Hitchcock's characters are driven by a MacGuffin, a preoccupation totally different from the danger that the viewers are worried about.

Hitchcock got his start outside the field of film. He originally went to the London School of Engineering and Navigation and supported himself by working at Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. Working there he realized that he was interested in graphic design and transferred to Henley's advertising department. It was there that he decided he wanted a career in film. Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures) was opening a studio near Hitchcock's home. He heard about the first movie they were doing called The Great Day (1920) and independently designed illustrations for the opening credits. When he showed up at the studio with the sketches, he was immediately hired as title designer. He moved up through the ranks, and in 1922 he was asked to direct Number Thirteen (which was later abandoned). It wasn't until 1926 that Hitchcock had his first solo directorial assignment. It was called The Pleasure Garden, a story of a woman named Patsy Brand and her husband named Levet. Levet takes a mistress and becomes increasingly depressed and alcoholic. He drowns his mistress and then imagines he sees her ghost telling him to kill his wife. It all turns out relatively well, the doctor shoots Levet and Patsy Brand finds love somewhere else. The critics said Hitchcock was a promising new director.

His next movie, The Lodger (1926) was the first movie to exemplify what would later be known as his trademarks. For instance, it introduced his technique of visual storytelling. At one point in the film, the detective, Joe, is trying to court Daisy, the daughter of Joe's employer. She, however, isn't responding. Joe cuts two hearts out of cookie dough while they are both in the kitchen and puts them on the counter. When Daisy ignores him, he rips one of the hearts in two. There are no inter-titles; the whole conversation was done entirely through pictures. The Lodger was also the first film where Hitchcock appeared as an extra, casting himself for purely practical reasons. He needed the scene to look more crowded, and there were no other available extras. Hitchcock would thereafter make cameo appearances in each of his feature films.

It wasn't until Hitchcock moved to Hollywood that he made a huge impact in terms of popularity. Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Wrong Man (1957), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Frenzy (1972) were phenomenal hits at the box office.

Hitchcock died on April 20, 1980 at the age of 80 in Los Angeles. Perhaps the best way to summarize his career is in his own words, "I spent three years studying with the Jesuits. They used to terrify me to death, and now ... I terrify other people." We thank him for sharing the experience.

Keeping the World in Suspense

by Dixon Gaines

Forget trophies and titles, the modern mark of excellence is to have your name transformed into an adjective and have it enter into the lexicon of daily life. When someone describes a certain suspenseful scene or scary instance as Hitchcockian, you get an almost instantaneous sense of the spookiness involved. And that's just how Hitchcock probably would have wanted it.

But Alfred Hitchcock's contribution to the filmmaking world goes beyond vocabulary words for erudite film reviewers. Hitchcock gave modern directors a new blueprint of how to thrill the audience in new and exciting ways. Steven Spielberg has said that one of his biggest influences on him as a filmmaker was Alfred Hitchcock. True to his word, Spielberg has borrowed many camera techniques that Hitchcock had pioneered. Chief among these is Hitchcock's zoom in/dolly away innovation. Seen in Vertigo, the camera zooms in tight to a subject while at the same time physically moving further away from the subject. This particular camera trick was used by Hitchcock to convey a sense of immedray or of shock while at the same time isolating the figure and dwarfing it by its surroundings. Spielberg used the exact same technique in his film Jaws, isolating the moment when Roy Schneider realizes the great white shark is off the shore. By now, the technique is so common, the astute viewer can catch it being used in a Backstreet Boys music video.

In Vertigo, Hitchcock employed an actor he would use more than once, Jimmy Stewart. Yet unlike his normal nice guy roles, Hitchcock had the affable Stewart play less than wholesome characters. In Vertigo, he plays a retired cop who develops an eerie obsession with a seemingly deceased woman. In Rear Window, he plays an uncouth voyeur confined to a wheelchair. Although he performed admirably in both roles, it was a gutsy dare by Hitchcock to have the lovable "everyman" from It's A Wonderful Life play characters that weren't all about mom and apple pie. At the time, for actors to go so far outside of their familiar genre was rare. For example, it was considered a big breakthrough at the time for Humphrey Bogart to have made the transition from tough guy to romantic hero, thanks to the success of Casablanca. Nowadays, actors like Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and John Travolta make both romantic movies as well as action movies with no one batting an eyelash. If not for Hitchcock's decision to move against type-casting, who knows if the likes of Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Robin Williams in Awakenings, or Tom Hanks in Philadelphia would have ever gotten the chance to widen their range outside of their normal milieu.

You don't even have to limit yourself to film to find evidence of Hitchcock's influence. In Rope, using incredibly precise editing and swooping camera tricks, Hitchcock gives the illusion of an entire feature length film being performed in a single take, one continuous scene from beginning to end with no fade-outs or pauses. Chris Carter used the same gimmick (albeit with the aid of more high-tech gizmos) for a recent episode of the X-Files, even though he had the luxury of commercial breaks to take a breather. Also in Rope, Hitchcock used a homosexual subtext for the two male leads, a daring move for a film made in the '50s, decades before Ellen DeGeneres played footsie with the same idea.

And, of course, there are those who decide to go the whole nine yards and remake an entire Hitchcock movie themselves. The most obvious example of this is Gus Van Sant, who recently released a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. With the exception of a few anachronistic lines that were quickly updated for the '90s, this remake was an exact double of the original 1960 Psycho. Also recently released was the film A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, a remake of Dial M for Murder. And there is Brian De Palma, Hitchcock's very own obsessive "number one fan" who has cribbed many techniques from Hitchcock, and even remade Vertigo under the title Obsession.

Alfred Hitchcock was a man both of his time and also far ahead of it. When once asked about his concept of suspense, Hitchcock replied, "I believe it is far better to show a bomb being planted between two men, and have the anticipation of wondering when it may go off slowly kill the audience, rather than have a sudden surprise explosion and have the audience jump for only one second." Of all the many ways that Hitchcock influences Hollywood today, you would hope that the creators of mindless actions flicks like Armageddon, Godzilla, and The Avengers would pay special attention to that last tip.

The Birds

by Benjamin Ryan

In the way that Steven Spielberg's Jaws would later ruin trips to the beach, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds first destroyed a day in the park. Released in 1963, this chilling portrayal of ornithological takeover shocked audiences with its cutting edge special effects (real attacking birds!) and its pessimistic approach to human life. Today, though somewhat dated for a generation spoiled by computer animated dinosaurs, The Birds holds its own as a provocative exploration of human sexuality and its connection to violence and punishment.

As in any Hitchcock film, the cinematic power lies not solely in visual stimuli, but in Hitchcock's ability to connivingly seduce the viewer into an association with the villain. Never one to take the highroad sexualitywise, Hitchcock's particularly nasty brand of misogyny often propels this association. While Vertigo plays on necrophilia (little did we know what we were rooting for when we hoped that Scotty would transform Judy back into Madeline...), and Psycho on a cross-dressing, out of whack Oedipal complex, The Birds manipulates the audience into justifying, and even rooting for, violent rape.

The film's dubious heroine is Melanie Daniels, a young coquettish socialite from San Francisco who travels to the tiny hamlet of Bodega Bay with a pair of "love birds" —both a practical joke and a piece of seductive bait for an unsuspecting gentleman. However, not only are her fur coat and tailored lime green Edith Head frock overdone for the sleepy town, but her burning sexuality is blindingly out of place—a lascivious spark in the hay. And as Melanie wages a battle to keep her tidy peroxided coif in place through the duration of the film, we can only wish its unfortunate demise for the sake of putting Melanie in her place. As soon as she arrives, The Birds progressively assault and wreak havoc upon the town. And the terrified civilians beg "Why are they doing this?" In answer, an analogy is drawn between overpopulation of birds and humans. The Birds are merely behaving like humans—overcrowding the earth and dominating the lower species.

It seems no accident that Melanie is one of two women of reproductive age in the film, and that the other is gouged to death. On one level, The Birds appear calculating enough to destroy the humans through an attack of their reproductive population. But on another level, they represent the human mind's desire to punish a woman's sexuality—a dangerous fire which inevitably leads to overpopulation. We can only agree with the accusations of the woman who says to Melanie, "They say this all started when you got here. I think you're the cause of all this. I think you're evil. EVIL!" Melanie herself is not evil, but we begin to agree that her flirtatiousness and her desire to reproduce called for the siege. Thus, Hitchcock clinches us for the climax. Melanie is nearly pecked to death in a tiny attic. The room is literally a bedroom and figuratively a cage. Hitchcock puts the woman, and the human in their place. Though the audience's surface reaction is one of terror for Melanie, their subconscious moralistic tendencies have already justified the attack as a vindication. Hitchcock successfully plays out an id and ego conflict within the viewers' unwitting minds, turning them into a crowd of rape-rooting villains.


by Ravi Kapoor

As much of the film world may tell you, Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo in every film he directed during his 61 movie run. However, fewer people know that he liked one of his films so much, he appears twice in cameo as a bystander (of course) horrified at a murder he created. That film is Frenzy (1971), part of the English canon of films Hitchcock made along with his comprehensive American career of debauchery and mind games. Frenzy stars several players who had yet to receive the worldwide notoriety that many of Hitchcock's stars have enjoyed in the past. Instead of mainstays such as Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, Hitchcock employs newcomers or actors of limited popularity to prevent any one persona from dominating the absolutely riveting and engaging plot. Jon Finch stars as Richard Blainey, the belligerent yet innocent party to the string of murders that eventually includes his ex-wife and current girlfriend. Memorable performances were also given by Barry Foster, who plays the paralyzing and terrifying Rusk; Anna Massey as Babs Mulligan, Richard's doe-eyed girlfriend; and Alec McCowan, who plays the fastidious, tolerant, and intuitive Detective Oxford. However, the absence of wellknown actors lends an eerie feel to the movie as no character appears to be above an unexpected death at any point in the film.

Typical of Hitchcock, several signature directorial strokes add to the terror, the suspense, and the genius of this film. Unlike many of his films, which wait until close to the very end of the film to allow the viewer access to the plot twist, the murders in Frenzy are explained closer to the beginning of the film, allowing Hitchcock to hone his skills at building suspense and tension between the wrongfully accused, the traitorous murderer, and Scotland Yard. Hitchcock is a master at manipulating the audience's sympathy; during this film, you may find yourself rooting for more than one character to die a horrible death, including the detective's culinarily challenged wife, and Babs' boss at the bar, who some may remember as Mr. Hutchinson from the "Hotel Inspector" episode of Fawlty Towers.

As far as gore, Frenzy disturbs and shocks naive viewers more than many of Hitchcock's other films. As Rusk realizes that evidence that may link him to the murders may be planted on one of his victims, Hitchcock inserts a montage sequence reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho, only more terrifying. Once again, no blood is ever shown flowing from open wounds; such a device would be laughable and cheap in such a well-crafted brilliant film. Instead, the director evokes terror through implication and fragmentation, forcing the viewer to fill in the gory details of the murder and the subsequent discovery of the corpse.

Frenzy encapsulates all of the traits one would want in a Hitchcock film: misdirection, wrongful accusation, murder, sex, Escherlike shots of stairwells, and the most satisfying ending of any Hitchcock film I have ever seen. Viewers will even wince, scream, laugh, and cry at the disgusting English food portrayed in the film. Among his lesser-known films, Frenzy stands out as one of the most well-written and clever Hitchcock thrillers in his illustrious career.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

by Meghan Kyle

Long before Gus Van Sant churned out his technicolored doppelganger of Hitchcock's Psycho, the old master, in 1956, remade his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. The center of both films, governmental intrigue and threatened senators aside, is the structure and stability of the nuclear family, and what occurs when that structure is disrupted by the kidnapping of a child.

The original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was made when Hitchcock was still in England, before he situated himself in Hollywood. The production value of this film is fairly low or at least seems so in comparison to the 1956 version. What stands out is the plot and Hitchcock's dry British humor. The stable Lawrence family is vacationing in the Swiss Alps to accommodate the mother's career as a sharp shooter. When the Lawrences' daughter is kidnapped to prevent her parents from revealing their knowledge of a government assassination plot, her parents must continue to support one another as they try to restore the structure of their family. Each parent does their own part; father discovers the cult-like tabernacle where the child is hidden, and mother eventually saves the day with her sniper-like rifle handling.

Jump ahead 22 years to the American version. The plot of the film is almost identical to the original, focusing on a family who, while vacationing, experiences the kidnapping of a child. This time, the family is comprised of the All-American Jo and Ben McKenna (Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart) and their son Hank, and the vacation is in Morocco. When Hank is abducted, Ben tries to take control of the situation, though ultimately it is Jo, a former singing star, who saves the day with her voice, just as Mrs. Lawrence saved the day with her shooting skill.

When he finally got to Hollywood, Hitchcock had the chance to play around with the screen personalities of the stars. Day, of course, works her saccharin image, playing the famous singer turned housewife, while Stewart seems to be the all around "good" guy. What is interesting is Hitchcock's ability to add a darker dimension to their typical screen personas. Day's Jo is directed as a woman who is kept sane in her housebound role only by her child. Stewart is given scenes, as he is in all his Hitchcock films, in which he appears malevolent, such as one in which he drugs Jo before telling her of Hank's disappearance.

The question still remains as to why Hitchcock even bothered with a remake at all. He was a director who recognized the power of the remake to enact certain changes, allowing the film to apply to contemporary society. This is evident in his toying with actor's images, tweaking the Hollywood star system. Also, according to Robin Wood, author of several books on Hitchcock, the director seemed to find elements in post-WWII America that he used to flesh out his exploration of the nuclear family while providing his trademark layers of tension and humor. After all, consider the fact that women joined the work force to support the nation's economy while the men were at war, only to be thrown out when the men returned. Hitchcock teases the audience with the fact that, in both films, the mothers save their children with their professional talents.

It is left to the audience to decide which version of the film they prefer, for there are such wonderful elements in each that we cannot hope for a definitive decision. We, however, can hope that directors learn that redoing Hitchcock is best left to the man himself.

Rear Window

by Sarah J. Shey

In a movie about voyeurism, the viewers are complicit too, watching LB Jeffries (James Stewart), his Fifth Avenue-society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) as they eye the 31-apartment courtyard in Alfred Hitchcock's beloved Rear Window (1954). Adapted by John Michael Hayes from Cornell Woolrich's short story "It Had to be Murder," the story is well-known. A professional photographer suffers a broken leg after filming a race car crash and is sentenced for the next eight weeks to his boiling Manhattan apartment. Bored, he takes to surveying his neighbors—a composer, a newlywed couple, a sculptor, Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, and a bed-ridden wife who nags her salesman husband (Raymond Burr). Jeffries averts his eyes rarely, and his sentinel bravado pays off. One night, Jeffries deduces that the salesman has murdered his wife. Finally rocketed out of his torpor, he begins the welcome role of wheelchair sleuth and obsesses over the questionable apartment. Stella and Lisa get subsumed into Jeffries' created adventure —and Lisa, in particular, has something to prove to the man she hopes to marry. Grace Kelly and James Stewart, with their classic good looks, add elegance (despite the cast on his leg) to an otherwise macabre tale.

The audience is admitted into this private world slowly and carefully, as if through binoculars. Moving through the window of the photographer's apartment to view the courtyard's layout, the camera sizes up the neighborhood, which looks like a set for a play, and then retreats back into the apartment for a close-up of the convalescing and perspiring photographer. Other than a few shots near the end and the discovery of the dead dog, all of the shots in the movie originate from Jeffries' apartment.

The cruel detachment of the characters in Rear Window works well for a story about a Peeping Tom and voyeurism in New York City. Jeffries even wrestles for a moment about whether "it's ethical to watch a man with a long-focus lens" and then, the next day, continues his quest. Although Rear Window is extremely successful in its mass appeal and technical achievement, it has been suggested that Hitchcock lacks the humane approach to his characters that he uses in Vertigo or Rebecca and that Rear Window is devoid of emotion on a visceral level. The characters, however, seem to be aware of their disengagement, their lack of emotion. Lisa ponders why, after Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) assured them that no wrongdoing had been committed, they weren't pleased that the woman was alive. The only public mourning of any kind in the film ours when a woman wails from her fire escape about the death of her pooch: "[Nobody in this neighborhood] cares if anybody lives or dies!"

From the discovery of the strangled dog (a plot point necessary to cast suspicion on the salesman), the story accelerates past a flower bed, up a ladder, through a window, into a bedroom, to the police station, through the unlocked door and out another window that looks onto the courtyard below. I leave the rest to you. As the Master of Suspense once said, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."