Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 17: Alfred Hitchcock, Director

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WE WHO grew up in the Fifties and Sixties didn't need the bogeyman. We had Alfred Hitchcock.

We may not have been allowed to go and see Psycho, but we knew its director was the master of suspense and the prince of darkness, because he told us so - every week for 10 years, in his eponymous television series, which was the most extraordinary act of self-advertisement in television history.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents and later The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ran from 1955 to 1965. The formula rarely varied. The lugubrious theme, heavy on the tuba, followed by the man himself, a parody of rotundness in a grey suit that was clearly fighting an unequal battle with the wearer's extraordinary shape, heaving into view to deliver his unnecessary introduction: "Good evening, my name is Alfred Hitchcock." Since the credit sequence included a cartoon outline of his goitre, the identity of the speaker was never in doubt.

It was a popular and entertaining show, but above any artistic achievement, the show had an accidental effect which, if it didn't alter the course of cinema history, at least changed the face of film criticism.

Until Hitchcock's appearances on TV, most of us had never seen a film director. The idea that he might have a role beyond telling the actors where to stand, or a personal vision even, was very fanciful (outside of a few arty coffee bars and film schools in Paris).

But Hitchcock's ironic iconic appearances, framing his TV films, introduced us for the first time to the concept of the film director as storyteller, rather than simply craftsman/ technician. And what a storyteller Hitchcock was.

He managed somehow to inhabit our nightmares, tapping into our primitive fears, our atavistic lusts, incorporating them skilfully into his tales so that we respond to his films as children. The Freudian view is that Hitchcock's uncanny understanding of our subconscious fears and desires can be traced to his own buttoned-up, guilt-ridden upbringing as a child of the British shopkeeper class, educated by Jesuits. Thank goodness, then, he chose to work out his psycho-sexual hang-ups on celluloid rather than above a tobacconist's shop in Soho.

Because we knew who Hitchcock was from his TV show, we sought out his films and thrilled at our first entrance into his dark world. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was one that cropped up regularly on TV, a film which, when seen in childhood, lives with you for ever.

It's the one where Joseph Cotten, who murders rich widows while the haunting strains of the "Merry Widow Waltz" play in his head, takes refuge in a little apple-pie American town, to the delight of his young niece. She sees her uncle as welcome relief from small-town tedium, but she gradually begins to suspect his secret.

Her fear and revulsion at discovering the cynical, lustful nature of the adult world are feelings, I suspect, not confined to young people with a serial killer in the family, which is one of the reasons why the film is so memorable.

Hitchcock himself preferred to explain the film's appeal in terms of its being a rattling good yarn. He knew what he was doing, all right, but resisted invitations to take his work seriously. In many ways, the jolly teaser in the TV shows is closer to Hitchcock's self-image than the sinister puppet-master behind Shadow of a Doubt.

He maintained this image by disarming serious analysts of his films with a quip. In one of his most famous, he said the length of a film "should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder".

Even if he had not introduced us to the art of directing, for that quote alone Hitchcock would be a hero.