Alfred Hitchcock: The great pretender

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As the BFI begins an epic season celebrating his work, Jonathan Romney recalls how this strange and droll genius changed film forever

It's been a long time since anyone claimed that Alfred Hitchcock was simply a man who made thrillers. Now a comprehensive BFI season aims to put Hitchcock properly on his plinth as a modern great. A three-month retrospective covers his entire oeuvre, including "the Hitchcock 9" – restored prints of nine of his seminal silent films. Here, then, are a few of the many things that the protean, portly genius was – and some of the reasons why film-watching could never be the same after him.

1. Master of espionage

Look at any modern spy film and you'll see Hitchcock's stamp. He defined the espionage premise: people chasing after an all-important but often nebulous object of desire – the "MacGuffin", as he called it. Hitchcock was the father of the modern spy film, but not its inventor: that would be Fritz Lang, who made Spione in 1928, and whose early work was closely watched by the English director. But Hitchcock went on to make a host of espionage-themed films of various colours – from the John Buchan yarn of The 39 Steps (1935) to the downbeat Cold War drama Topaz (1969). He declined approaches to make the first James Bond film, but he'd already created a template for the 007 series in his quintessential sex-and-travel thriller North By Northwest (1959).

2. The silent artist

It's often forgotten that Hitchcock made classics in the silent years too – which is partly the point of the BFI season, to highlight early achievements such as Blackmail (1929), which Hitchcock made both as a silent and as a ground-breaking sound film. Another early landmark is The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – a 1926 film that looks back to Jack the Ripper, and forward to the chills and apprehensions that would provide suspense cinema's basic language for decades after. As for The Mountain Eagle, it's still missing, and top of the BFI's Most Wanted list: you might call it the Hitchcockians' ultimate MacGuffin.

3. The Englishman

Perhaps it's not true that Hitchcock's dark humour could only have come from an English background; after all, his French acolyte Claude Chabrol had a similar streak. But what seems quintessentially English about Hitchcock's absurdism is the love of extracting strangeness and menace from the mundane – something he inherited from writers such as G K Chesterton. Take the sound version of Blackmail, in which the word "knife" keeps jumping hysterically out of idle breakfast chatter. Or take the counterpointing of high drama against the blathering of two Englishmen worried about the Test match scores in The Lady Vanishes.

4. The Svengali

Hitchcock created one of cinema's enduring female archetypes in the elegant, composed but inwardly simmering "Hitchcock blondes" of the 1950s and 1960s – although arguably the first was the rather larkier Czech actress Anny Ondra in the 1920s. Among the classic Hitchcock femmes were the already established Grace Kelly and Eva Marie Saint – while Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie) appeared to have sprung fully formed from the master's libido. Hitchcock liked to act the admiring gent – "A woman of elegance," he declared, "will never cease to surprise you." But the darker, more brutal resonances of the master/ muse relationship were dramatised in Vertigo, in which a deranged James Stewart re-moulds Kim Novak as the star of his personal cinema of obsession.

5. The director as brand

"I'd put my arse on the poster if it made people see the film," Claude Chabrol once told me about an ad in which he owlishly puffed a pipe. Chabrol learned a lot from Hitchcock, including the art of imposing your own auteur stamp. Few directors perfected their identity as a "brand" as thoroughly as Hitchcock did – it comprised a clownish, drily jesting persona on and off screen, in interviews, and on television, as well as an instantly identifiable cartoon silhouette, even a theme tune. His appearance in trailers for his later work was a way of branding the films with his authority, ensuring that viewers would see them the way he wanted them to.

6. The joker

There's no surer way to make people take you seriously than to make the odd joke – the darker the better. Among Hitchcock's grimmest and juiciest gags is the bickering between Norman Bates and his "mother" in Psycho: "No, I will not hide in the fruit cellar! You think I'm fruity, huh?" But Hitchcock was his own best joke, notably in his signature cameos. His self-mockery went furthest in his intros to the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which no hat was too silly for him to wear, and in which he even played himself as loser in a Hitch lookalike contest. Johan Grimonprez's 2005 docu-essay Looking For Alfred contains a treasury of such appearances, proving that Hitchcock's favourite disguise was as himself.

7. The conceptualist

Hitchcock liked to set himself steep technical and imaginative challenges – an entire film set in a small vessel bobbing at sea (Lifeboat, 1944), or telling a story in what seemed to be one single extended take (Rope, 1948). The success of Psycho (1960) was so dependent on keeping punters in the dark about what they could expect to see – Hitchcock engineered a public relations and exhibition campaign to keep the secret – that the whole film was a sort of conceptual project, in which the act of conditioning viewer perceptions was the artwork as much as the film itself.

8. The anti-typecaster

Hitchcock liked to use stars in ways that must have startled their fans – and given their publicists conniptions. He liked to cast perennial nice guys in dark roles – like ever-affable Joseph Cotten, an avuncular killer in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Hitchcock was even capable of making a sunny Doris Day performance crackle with narrative tension ("Que Sera Sera" in 1956's The Man Who Knew Too Much). Casting against type was an Alfred Hitchcock game right from the start – ever since he cast the 1920s matinee idol Ivor Novello as a fog-skulking murder suspect in The Lodger.

9. The student of obsession

One actor that Hitchcock cast brilliantly against type was much-loved drawler James Stewart; he'd already played desperate men in Anthony Mann's Westerns, but Hitchcock took him further still in Rear Window and Vertigo. Both films are about morbid erotic fascination, and have been a boon to psychoanalytic film criticism. In fact, Hitchcock introduced Hollywood to Freud – and to Salvador Dali – in Spellbound (1945). The cycle of films about mental aberrations also included Marnie, Psycho and Frenzy. Hitchcock was supremely aware of cinema as a psychic process: in interviews he talked less about what his films were about, than about their effect on the viewer's mind.

10. The artist as entertainer – and vice versa

Another inescapable Englishman, Graham Greene, labelled some of his novels "Entertainments" – so diverting attention from the fact that, while the themes were lighter and the tone seemingly casual, deep down the resonances were just as formidable. Hitchcock too blurred the distinctions between what appeared to be "just" entertainment and complex art. He often pretended to offer the cheapest of thrills, so as to disarm the audience: thinking we were just getting an efficient scare was the only thing that made the seismic experience of Psycho bearable. Little wonder that Hitchcock's oeuvre offered prime evidence for the French critics' case that it was when cinema seemed most innocent that its deepest poetry was really at work.

 

"The Genius of Hitchcock" runs till October: bfi.org.uk/Hitchcock. The book '39 Steps to The Genius of Hitchcock' is published by the BFI

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