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
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.
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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies