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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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
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.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little