Hitchcock - Make a date with the Master

A season of Hitchcock films on Sky Movies, in association with The Independent, shows a timeless talent, says John Walsh

That's funny," says the stranger at the bus stop in the desert of Bakersfield, California. "What?" asks Roger Thornhill, the ad man on the run from spies and the police. "That plane's dustin' crops," says the stranger, "where there ain't no crops."

Two minutes later, the plane is diving straight towards Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) like a mad hornet. The key scene of North by Northwest may still make little sense, plot-wise (why didn't they just shoot him?) but it has proved hugely influential. The climax of David Fincher's Se7en is a straight pinch from it, or hommage to it; the image of a man standing in silence on a lonesome highway informs Paris, Texas and My Own Private Idaho. When Thornhill runs towards the camera with an oil truck exploding behind him, it prefigures Thelma and Louise, Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy, and approximate a thousand other thrillers. Even the one-on-one confrontation of aircraft vs human spawned a few hundred thrillers, right up to the man-vs-jet fighter in Die Hard 4.0.

It's one of many classic moments in the Hitchcock canon: Tippi Hedren in The Birds rests on a bench in front of a school, and a single bird lands on the trellis behind her; next time the camera checks the trellis, it's crammed with an army of flapping, shivering, death-seeking crows. Madeleine Carroll, in The 39 Steps, unhooks her wet stockings and guides them down her shapely legs while she's handcuffed to Robert Donat, whose own hand, the fingers limply flapping like a quintet of penises, accompanies her intimate journey. The moment in Foreign Correspondent when the assassin shoots Van Meer in a rainstorm and his escape can be charted by the commotion under a black roof of wet umbrellas. Or the freak-show dialogue (scripted by Dorothy Parker) in Saboteur, or the out-of-control fairground carousel at the climax of Strangers on a Train, or the long, unprecedented, 145-yard crane shot that moves in on the murderer – a drummer in blackface with a fiercely twitching eye – at the climax of Young and Innocent ...

These were stunning moments of film, head-spinning sequences of action and suspense in the days before James Bond pyrotechnics, CGI and blue-screen special effects. Lots of them still work, though much of Hitchcock's work now seems a little dated. Some of the 1930s black-and white films creak terribly while his early 1950s American movies have that sickly, orange-plastic look of a Reader's Digest cookbook. In these days of the Saw and Hostel franchises, the shower scene in Psycho seems almost coyly un-explicit. But there's a special Hitchcock quality that transcends mere shifts in film technique and production design: it's a constantly shifting blend of comedy, menace, realism, symbolism and intense drama. He loved to wrong-foot his audience, to perform a handbrake turn in the narrative – when, for example, Teresa Wright's fond girlish laughter with her Uncle Charlie turns to anguished shrieks as his killer's hands seize her wrists in Shadow of a Doubt.

Hitchcock was born in the reign of Queen Victoria and died in the reign of Mrs Thatcher. His life shadows the history of motion pictures from the first shy experiments of the Lumière brothers in the 1890s to the epic sweep of Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which hit British cinemas in the year he died, 1980. Many film buffs regard him as the 20th century's greatest film director, but he always seemed to miss the big accolades. Sixteen of his films were nominated for a total of more than 50 Oscars, but only Rebecca won Best Picture. He was given a lifetime achievement award in 1967, after making one of his dullest films, Torn Curtain. He was made Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1980 but he died in April, before he could meet the Queen.

His influence, however, endures. Gus Van Sant re-made Psycho shot-for-shot in 1998, while a slowed-down version of the film became an artistic installation at Tate Modern. A hilarious spoof of The 39 Steps has packed them in for 18 months at the Criterion Theatre in London. Box sets of Hitchcock – not just the late-period comedy-dramas, but the early, even the silent, stuff – continue to sell.

A reason is the potency of his stories and themes, which are universal (justice, retribution, mercy, guilt, love, family trauma, international treachery) but have become, in many cases, more relevant to us than before. One is the theme of identity. Time and again, a Hitchcock hero becomes embroiled in terrible danger, but can't go to the police. People assume (or leap to the conclusion) that he's guilty of duplicity, of murder, of absconding with an innocent girl in tow, that he has destroyed an industrial plant, that he's a spy. The Wrong Man explores this premise with documentary realism, but the theme is everywhere: The Lodger, The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Suspicion, Saboteur, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest and Frenzy also feature innocent men and women who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, with no recourse to justice, often forced to change their identity to stay out of jail.

When Hitchcock was a child, his father used to ask local policemen to send him to the cells for a couple of days as a deterrent to misbehaviour; a fear of policemen, and a terror of arrest, stayed with him all his life. But his studies of identity theft can speak to us all today, when the threat of existential hijack is only a mouse-click away, when somebody purporting to be you is, even as you read this, accessing your bank or pretending to be you on Facebook.

A complementary Hitchcock theme that endures is finding that the world around you, or the person you trust above all others, isn't what you think: the woman in Vertigo, the neighbours in Rear Window, Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, the new wife in Marnie, the new husband in Rebecca, the people on the train in The Lady Vanishes, the new asylum boss in Spellbound, the strangely helpful blonde in North by Northwest... Hitchcock's films are reminders that everyone has secrets, everyone could be a murderer, every lover could be playing with your most secret desires; your fondest relative could kill you, your neighbours will lie to you if it suits them. It's a nasty world his films reveal: people discover they've been fooled into believing everything's okay, ordinary, bourgeois and loving. Realising the world is a falsehood is the premise of The Truman Show and The Matrix: Hitchcock made minor versions of the premise half a century earlier.

Surveillance, that ever-present phenomenon of the 21st century, is the theme of two of his finest movies, Rear Window and Vertigo. In the former, the wheelchair-ridden James Stewart spies on neighbours through a lens (the film updates us on their progress like a prototypical Big Brother) and imagines he sees the aftermath of a murder. In the latter, Stewart plays a semi-retired cop who obsessively follows a woman (Kim Novak) twice, the second time when he's trying to recreate her in the image of his dead lover; he minutely inspects her face and body like an unusually intrusive CCTV camera. Viewing them both today, when such full-on surveillance is commonplace, one feels no sense of dated-ness at all.

And of course the incidental pleasures of Hitchcock's work, outside the demands of plot and theme, never fade: the sinister smoke curling behind Joseph Cotton's newspaper in Shadow of a Doubt, the fabulous smarminess of George Sanders in Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, and the heart-stopping first sight of Grace Kelly, coming to kiss her sleeping boyfriend in Rear Window. Hitchcock was so in love with her, he printed the moment in slow motion. It is still stunning today – like so much of the master's unsurpassed canon of comic-suspense-drama.

The Hitchcock season is on Sky movies from Monday 25 May to Sunday 31 May and is in association with 'The Independent' and 'The Independent on Sunday'


Rear Window
Crippled James Stewart and divine Grace Kelly spy on a murderous neighbour in a perfect film.

The Lady Vanishes
Margaret Lockwood looks for an old lady on a train, and finds herself up to her neck in intrigue.

Foreign Correspondent
Clueless reporter Joel McCrea looks for Nazi agents in London and Holland in this underrated comedy-chase-thriller.

The 39 Steps
Robert Donat flees police and a spy ring in Scotland. Full of lovely set-pieces.

Shadow of a Doubt
Hitchcock's own favourite, bringing menace to cosy small-town America.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot