Alfred Hitchcock directed almost seventy films in his fifty-one-year career, which began in the silent era and ended at about the same time disco music was running out of roller skates and bell-bottom corduroys. In the 1940’s he made twelve of those seventy in the span of a decade. That’s an achievement akin to The Beatles’ fourteen albums in seven years.
I’ll be looking at three of those films, how they shaped the 1940’s for Hitchcock and how they established a suspense narrative that influenced not only his later pictures but decades of filmmaking to come.
Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American feature. Up till then he had worked exclusively in the UK, responsible for classics like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). While Rebecca wasn’t thematically divergent from the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it adopted the gothic atmosphere of its novel and turned domestic paranoia into a theatre of intense dread.
After marrying wealthy Englishman Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the unnamed main character (Joan Fontaine) is tormented by his dead first wife Rebecca, and her devoted housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson). Producer David O. Selznick was adamant the movie remain as faithful to its source material as possible – one major change included alterations to Rebecca’s demise in order to appease Hollywood’s Production Code – but Hitchcock being Hitchcock decided to make a few adjustments himself, reducing Mrs. Danvers’ age from matriarchal ripeness in the novel to middle-aged exuberance as a way to increase the sexual tension in the de Winter household. The result is a film that breathes warily, as if it knows precisely what mischief its characters are up to.
This movie won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, a triumph that no doubt secured Hitchcock’s American film rights for the next thirty-odd years. It also opened up a decade of trials and experiments, of treasures and unknowns, as Hitchcock progressed from claustrophobic domestic thrillers to broad post-World War II espionage dramas. He dominated the cinematic canvas for the two decades prior. Now, he was establishing his nobility.
This is what you get when you combine Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Nazi Germany and espionage: one of Hitchcock’s finest and most technically gifted films.
Notorious is indeed a sexy picture, a movie about crossing and double-crossing and possibly even triple-crossing. It plays hard and fast with its characters, like an eager chess player watching impatiently as his opponent scrambles to organise an attack pattern. If you look hard enough you might even spot the cues that lined up the early James Bond movies.
The movie is known now for two triumphs: 1) the impossible shot of the camera beginning on the balcony of an enormous mansion lobby and ending on the ground, on a close-up of a key in Ingrid Bergman’s palm, and 2) Hitchcock’s ingenious and conniving way of circumventing the restrictions of the Production Code by having his stars Grant and Bergman kiss for two-and-a-half minutes without actually kissing for two-and-a-half minutes. The Production Code demanded that all romantic kisses be curtailed to no longer than three-second sessions. Hitch had his stars kiss and break away repeatedly till he was satisfied.
But Notorious’ reach extended further than that. It remained in the consciousness of the public well into Hitchcock’s twilight years, and inspired the plot of Mission: Impossible II (2000), down to the horse races and binoculars. Unfortunately, it left out the Nazis.
Perhaps just as much as Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) or Psycho (1960), Rope is remembered as being one of Hitchcock’s defining suspense thrillers, a story about pride and arrogance, and of course about murder.
Two young boys kill their friend on a lark and decide it’d be a terrific idea to hide his corpse in a trunk and pose the trunk as a dinner table. They’d then invite as many guests as can be found and wait to see who comes closest to discovering their horrible secret without really discovering it. It’s a tantalising premise, filmed in such a manner as to make the audience believe it’s all unfolding in one continuous take; in real-time. Of course it wasn’t shot in one take, because the physical limitations of film meant that Hitchcock could only record about twenty minutes of footage before having to cut and change reels (he had the camera sweep behind chairs and tables to hide cuts).
While this may have seemed like a nuisance, it no doubt paved the way for modern attempts at the same feat, notably in Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2016).
It’s worth remembering that these movies premiered some seventy years ago and we’re still opening dialogues about them, discussing their styles, themes, innovations, longevity. Heck, we’re still discussing Hitchcock himself as if he were alive and making movies. You might question his approach to filmmaking and treatment of actors, but you cannot doubt his cinematic genius. His results dictate their own fate.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros, United International Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, G. L. Film Enterprises, Selznick International Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation