Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is the grandaddy of film, so renowned he’s recognizable by his profile alone (and we’re not talking of the social network variety). This British film director, with an oeuvre as large as his girth, was a cinematic pioneer whose work in suspense and thrillers has influenced all areas of filmmaking. You could throw all manner of accolades at his rotund figure and they’d stick to him like the iconic film moments he’s created have stuck in cinema’s history. As someone who developed the language of modern cinema, he’s unrivaled, using showmanship to promote his works and cinematic techniques to manipulate the viewer—imbuing his films with violence, intrigue, casual misogyny and a great wit. It is the idea of him as puppet master, carefully pulling and playing with the intertwining strings of narrative, themes, and character that he’s remembered for best. As well as a director who’s given academics, like Slavoj Žižek, plenty to ponder.
Born in Leytonstone, London in 1899, Hitchcock started his filmmaking career in pre-war Britain, releasing his first thriller, The Lodger, in 1926—a silent film based around the hunt for a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer. In this period he released The 39 Steps (later remade), Sabotage,The Lady Vanishes, and Jamaica Inn before moving to Hollywood to seal his greatness. Apart from introducing the world to the “MacGuffin”—an element in a film that drives the plot, like the search for something—Hitchcock also drew heavily on psychoanalysis, bringing in aspects like the Oedipal complex, the doppelgänger, the audience as voyeur, and recurring motifs and plot devices like birds, the wronged man/woman, the Hitchcock blonde, and fugitives on the run. With directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, he gave the Cahiers du Cinéma writers fuel to develop their auteur theory.
Hitchcock was also technically adept and not afraid to set himself challenges as a filmmaker, like putting all the action in one room unfolding in real-time (Rope), or setting the entire film on a boat (Lifeboat). He often utilized film scores to control the impact of a scene and is famous for his collaborations—musically with Bernard Herrmann and visually with Saul Bass, along with actors like Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.
To run through a list of Hitchcock’s films is like telling you your own name, we all know his most famous works as they’re part of the makeup of modern film. But, just in case you’ve been living in a cave watching shadows dance on the wall in the flickering light, here are a few of his best bits.
Vertigo (1958) Perhaps his greatest film, Vertigo is an exploration of the uncanny. A troubled protagonist, Scottie, meets a troubled woman in this troubled film. The film is an eerie, unsettling experience right from the opening credits until the last dizzying scene, using the technique of repetition to create a vertiginous sense in the viewer. Spooky events inhabit Scottie’s life, which he tries to explain away with rationality, but a feeling of disorientation envelopes the viewer and Scottie until it consumes all in its path with anxiety, in this resonant, haunting film.
Psycho (1960) This gem features the most famous murder scene in cinematic history: the shower scene. Storyboarded meticulously by Saul Bass, the structure is masterful with Hermann’s famous score driving the knife into the viewer’s brain while the little matter of killing off your protagonist in the first act shocked audiences in a pre-torture porn era. It also gave cinema the seminal killer freak who looks just like you and me in Norman Bates, while also inventing the slasher genre.
The Birds (1963) An experimental work that turns birds, graceful animals who we typically admire for their ability to soar high above us in the sky, into menacing evil creatures bent on attacking us and eating people’s eyeballs. The inexplicable nature of the attacks are what makes the film so unsettling, and the amazing matte special effects saw it nominated for an Academy Award. On paper, it sounds ridiculous, but put on film by the master of suspense, it’s pure nerve-racking cinema
Hitchcock interview from 1964 Part 1 Rather than list any more of his great films, which could go on for a long time, here’s the man himself speaking about his craft in an interview he gave to the BBC in 1964.
That famous profile has cast a huge shadow over cinema, from the critics turned directors of the French New Wave to American outsiders-turned-insiders like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Brian De Palma has even made an entire career out of emulating the great man. Hitchcock’s towering influence is so massive it can be felt in all forms of the moving image and Western culture in general. He not only revolutionized the thriller and horror genres but also paved the way for modern action films with North by Northwest, and the careers of directors like David Lynch with his strange occult/supernatural leanings in Vertigo. His taste for the macabre has influenced British comedies like The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville and his movies, like Rear Window, have become seminal texts for film theorists and students. Not to mention, all those damn remakes!