The Psycho Suspense Meister

A compelling look at the life of iconic movie producer, Sir Alfred Hitchcock,
from the eyes of the historian/author who knew him

By Scott Eyman

Hitchcock once said that he migrated to the U.S. as a kind of cultural exchange, only nobody knows what was sent in return because, said Hitch “they are afraid to open it” – Hitchcock.tv

Alfred-Hitchcock-alfred-hitchcock-30631216-1279-925Sitting in his office at Universal Studios, hands folded on his famously ample stomach, Alfred Hitchcock looked like nothing so much as a benignly good-humored Buddha. The year was 1974, and Hitchcock was an elderly but unquestioned eminence, beloved of audiences and critics alike. Yet, in 1950, if you had prophesied that the director who would attain the greatest share of retrospective popularity by the time the next century rolled around would be Alfred Hitchcock, you would have been greeted with amazement, if not amusement.

A Look Back
In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock was in mid-career, regarded as a maker of distinguished, polished amusements – A-list, to be sure, but not distinguished. There was “Rebecca,” but that belonged more to David O. Selznick and Daphne Du Maurier than its director. There was “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Foreign Correspondent” and “Notorious,” a few others. Successes all.

130186_rezyser-alfred-hitchcock-krukThe condescension would have only partially been because Hitchcock’s greatest work was yet to come: “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho,”  “The Birds.” Hitchcock, then and later, worked in a genre that got only marginally more respect than comedy: suspense.

Today, with the 21st century well underway, and with Hitchcock dead for more than 30 years, he is the 20th century directorial name to conjure with – his films in constant circulation, “Vertigo” named as the greatest film of all time by the prestigious “Sight and Sound” poll, dozens of books and biographies published, and even two (indifferent) movies based, with varying degrees of veracity, on episodes in his life.

It is all very strange. Or maybe it’s not. Although Hitchcock lived his life as a perfect bourgeois, surrounded by a wife and child, cellars of fine wine and his beloved Sealyham terriers, it was all so this grocer’s son could pour his energies into his work, which invariably emphasized the unstable.

A Legendary, Timeless Thrill Maker
Why has Hitchcock’s work lasted every bit as long as that of John Ford or Orson Welles, directors who were far more honored in their own day? (Tellingly, Hitchcock never won an Academy Award. Ford won six, Welles one.)

Partially, it was because he did one thing extremely well. Almost every other director tried their hands at different genres, but Hitchcock specialized: stories of emotional and physical peril. In his maturity, he gingerly examined other possibilities only twice – the romantic comedy “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and the factual noir “The Wrong Man.” Like a chef with a special expertise, he always hustled back to his métier.

His work had sinuous pace, eroticism, huge technical assurance, and, most importantly, a complete lack of that quality that dates popular art more than any other: sentimentality. Like Hemingway’s description of good fiction resembling an iceberg, Hitchcock kept his plots clear, but his intimations firmly below the surface. How far did the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother extend in “Psycho”? Why do the birds attack in “The Birds”?

Hitchcock wasn’t telling, and audiences have spent decades mulling it all over.

Hitchcock’s Secret to Cinematic Success
Hitchcock took vagrant ideas about the grim skull beneath the apparently beautiful social skin and made the subterranean concrete. Over and over again, Hitchcock told us that the world is deeply irrational – that love can be destructive, that all you have to do to have your clean, well-lit life fall into darkness is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time –  Robert Donat in “The 39 Steps,” Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” As James Stewart finds out in “Rear Window,” you don’t even have to leave home.

Hitchcock’s tightly ordered life came straight from his most deeply held anxieties about loss of control. By dramatizing the worst nightmares that motivated his own rigidly maintained sense of social propriety, Alfred Hitchcock put his fear inside us all.

About the author: Scott Eyman has authored 11 books, including, with veteran actor Robert Wagner, The New York Times bestseller “Pieces of My Heart.” His next two books: Out in March 2014, another collaboration with Robert Wagner, “You Must Remember This,” about movie star life off the lot, published by Viking Books. His John Wayne biography is out April 1, 2014, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” published by
Simon & Schuster. Both are available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

 

The Psycho Suspense Meister