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'

MASTER CLASS: THE HITCHCOCK TOP FIVE

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone