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Senses of Cinema (2007) - The Sixties, the Thriller and the Judge




The Sixties, the Thriller and the Judge

by Richard Franklin

The word “thriller” has a different meaning in the US than it does elsewhere in the English-speaking world. And an English expatriate director and a psychopathic mass-murderer are to blame.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s native England, the word “thriller” still means anything that thrills. A mystery or a whodunit is definitely still a thriller and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has been running in the West End for 54 years and, even in Canada, was the longest-running show in Toronto, from 1977 to 2004. Yet similar Broadway fare like Stephen Sondheim and Jules Furth’s The Doctor is Out (or Getting Away with Murder) lasted only seventeen performances in 1996.

In the US, however, since the 1960s, “thriller” has been synonymous with the word “horror”. Before 1960 this was not the case and virtually everything Alfred Hitchcock did, from his arrival in 1939, was called a “thriller” (albeit of the “suspense” variety). But today suspense has been dubbed “psychological drama” and while Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Rope (1948), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Rear Window (1954), The Wrong Man (1956) and Vertigo (1958) qualify, Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and North by Northwest (1959) are (or have become) “action adventures”, Rebecca (1940) and Dial M For Murder (1954) are “mysteries” and the remaining films (can you name them?) are “oddities” - at least for Hitchcock.

Psycho (1960) changed everything.

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Richard Franklin is an Australian director, writer, producer of Patrick, Roadgames, Psycho II, Hotel Sorrento and Visitors. He also teaches filmmaking at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne.

(c) Richard Franklin, Senses of Cinema