Alfred Hitchcock is in the air. At multiplexes this holiday season, you can still catch the biopic Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the corpulent Master of Suspense and Helen Mirren as his helpmate wife, Alma Reville, in a film that tries to squeeze some drama out of the making of Psycho, the director's wildly popular and groundbreaking slasher, while attempting to shed light on a genius' creative process.
Released in 1960, Psycho was the penultimate work in the most fruitful phase of Hitchcock's late period, a remarkable string of films beginning with Rear Window (1954) and followed by The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and the last of his masterworks, The Birds (1963). As Hitchcock would tell it, the director, who was 60 when he made the picture, emerged from Psycho's creative gauntlet more appreciative of his loyal wife's collaborative contributions than ever before — think Hope Springs with butcher knives, transvestites and Scarlett Johansson.
But as HBO's competing biopic The Girl counters, the director's tendency to obsess over his leading ladies took a dark turn during the making of his subsequent feature, The Birds, when his infatuation with Tippi Hedren drove him to move his trailer next to hers so he had direct access to her on set — and eventually, to grope her in her dressing room. His advances spurned, he inflicted sadistic retribution by shooting her climatic bird attack for three straight days, a relentless and gruesome exercise that caused Hedren to suffer a breakdown afterward (though it didn't stop her from starring in his next film, the psychosexually fixated suspenser Marnie).
Enthusiasts like me will be quick to remind you that Hitchcock's birds are almost always symbolic of female sexuality, and often in a way (think of Norman Bates and his stuffed and mounted trophies) that suggests male auto-critique. Psychologists will speculate on the thin line between "Peck her" and "pecker." Detractors, meanwhile, will argue that neither of these films tells us anything new about the director, his body of work, or why it's relevant today.
Luckily, cinephiles have the opportunity to draw their own conclusions in The Belcourt's gem-laden 24-film retrospective Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense, which runs now through Jan. 17. As much a feast of pure cinematic pleasure as a career assessment, it's a rare chance for anyone who loves movies to survey the work of the 20th century's best-known (and perhaps most relentlessly scrutinized) filmmaker on the big screen in one three-week stretch. And one of the astonishments that arises from the series is how much the director has to tell us about the way we live now.
Consider the inaugural film, Vertigo, recently voted the greatest movie ever made in the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound Poll — an eyes-wide-shut threnody in which James Stewart falls in love with Kim Novak, a woman pretending to be another man's soon-to-be-dead wife, whom he tries to resurrect by remaking his subsequent lover in her image. In our social-media driven world, where we spend countless hours self-curating and shaping (or changing) our identities, is there another film that more powerfully drives home the gulf between the selves we project and who we really are?
Of course, what the eye sees, the self knows (or doesn't), and the price we pay to cross that divide is a recurrent theme in many Hitchcock films. In our post-Patriot Act world, where cellphone calls are recorded first if questions need to be asked later and a police camera tops nearly every traffic light — we're not really that far from Minority Report's department of Pre-Crime — is there a more prophetic film about surveillance culture than Rear Window? Here Hitchcock's gamely perverse everyman Stewart, an injured photographer confined to his apartment for eight weeks, passes the time spying on his neighbors until he becomes convinced that the jewelry salesman across his courtyard has killed his wife. Due to Stewart's own obsessions and fears, he rejects all empirical evidence that proves his neighbor's innocence.
"I wonder if it's ethical," Stewart wonders to girlfriend Grace Kelly, "to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens. Do you suppose it's ethical even if you prove that he didn't commit a crime?" It's a question no less pertinent to the current Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's fact-based procedural thriller about the tracking of Osama bin Laden, which depicts a world gorging on spy-cam feeds.
Even Psycho, which Hitchcock confessed to Francois Truffaut was intended to be "a serious story told tongue-in-cheek," gets at something chillingly contemporary in its search for glib answers to resolute, unknowable evil. The psychoanalyst's ultimate diagnosis of Norman Bates may satisfy the need for a rational explanation for the corpses in the cupboard, but it seems woefully inadequate measured against the infernal gleam in Norman's eyes. Psycho also launched a half-century of slasher knockoffs and torture-porn vehicles that made blatant the gore and sadism Hitchcock portrayed through suggestion and suspense (the notable exception being his only R-rated film, 1972's Frenzy, which renders its sex murders with nauseating intimacy). Ironically, these are the very same films that culture-watchers now cite as a convenient scapegoat for irrational violence — a diagnosis even more reductive and pseudo-scientific than the one laid on Norman.
But let's also not forget that Hitchcock's films are as often light as they can be heavy. The effervescent Riviera trifle To Catch a Thief is worth the price of admission just to watch Grace Kelly's ice-queen façade melt when she kisses Cary Grant for the first time. As if anticipating critics who blame violence on an interest in violent entertainment, Hitchcock has Shadow of a Doubt's circumspect mystery fans Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn engage in hilarious repartee about how to get away with murder, while an expert on the matter — a dapper serial killer — sits next to them on their porch.
Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat do some of the best slapstick comedy you'll ever see after they're handcuffed to each other in The 39 Steps, just as Cary Grant plays one of the funniest drunks ever in his North by Northwest courtroom scene. Both men may be accused of crimes they didn't commit and running for their lives — but Hitchcock, as serious a filmmaker as he was an entertainer, understood that nothing heightened the audience's enjoyment like a life hanging in the balance.
For all his fame, Hitchcock remains a blind spot for some film fanatics. In spite of being a child actor and, in my college years, a self-professed film buff, I somehow managed not to see a single Alfred Hitchcock movie until I was a 24-year-old graduate student. This was at the Hollins College creative writing program, and the semester-long seminar in Hitchcock's films was as legendary as its teacher, Richard Dillard, whose course was touted among former students and faculty as more of an event than a class. Much like those moviegoers who famously walked into the Psycho premiere without an inkling of the surprises in store, I went in literally not knowing what to expect.
The experience changed my life in too many ways to list here. Hitchcock's profound explorations of audience manipulation and the ethical conundrums of our passive voyeurism were key to the work of filmmakers I revere, among them Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and Chan-Wook Park (whose upcoming Nashville-shot Stoker is, in many ways, a Shadow of a Doubt remake). Not only that, his black-humored but plaintive insights into the darker sides of marriage helped give rise to my novel, Mr. Peanut, which in some ways is me working through my fascination with the Master.
That's a long-winded way of saying that you'd be remiss not to stop at The Belcourt over the next few weeks to catch some of the program. A director who anticipated his viewers' responses like a chess grandmaster coolly watching his endgame play out, Hitchcock built his ingenious films to work at multiple levels — as investigations of moral duplicity, as instruction manuals in the mechanisms of suspense, or simply some of the most cunning and nastily playful diversions ever concocted. Whether it's your first time seeing The Trouble With Harry or your 10th viewing of The Birds, I guarantee you'll see something new.
On Saturday, Dec. 29, The Belcourt hosts a brunch and talk with Vanderbilt professor and Hitchcock scholar Paul Young. Brunch and libations start at 11 a.m., followed by a screening of Vertigo at 12:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, $15 to Belcourt members.
Dec. 26-29 & Jan. 1
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)
Dec. 27-29 & Jan. 1
Dec. 28-29 & Jan. 1
Dec. 29 & Dec. 31-JAN 1
BLACKMAIL and MURDER! (double feature)
Dec. 30 & Jan. 3
THE 39 STEPS
Dec. 30 & Jan. 2
Dec. 30 & Jan. 2
THE LADY VANISHES
Dec. 30 & Jan. 2-3
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
Dec. 31 & Jan. 2-3
Jan. 4-5 & 7
Jan. 4-5 & 8
TO CATCH A THIEF
Jan. 5 & 8
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
Jan. 5, 9-10
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Jan. 6, 9-10
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY
Jan. 11 & 13-14
THE WRONG MAN
Jan. 11-12 & 14
Jan. 12, 15 & 17
Jan. 12, 15 & 17
Jan. 13 & 16-17
Jan. 13 & 16-17
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