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Hitchcock100 Monday, 9 August, 1999, 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK
The hallmarks of Hitchcock
Psycho
"The hamlet of horror films" - Psycho's Norman Bates
By Sight and Sound's Edward Lawrenson

Some 20 years after his death, Hitchcock - a big man in every sense - remains one of cinema's towering figures. His mark on film culture is as indelible as Teddy Roosevelt's face, set in stone, on Mount Rushmore.

Hitchcock 100
Hitchcock would have relished the posthumous attention he's getting, if only because he worked so hard for it when he was alive. An adept self-publicist, he was perhaps the first director to embrace what we now know as hype.

He appeared on posters for his movies, in trailers, on his long-running TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents..., and of course in fleeting cameos in the movies themselves.

Plenty to crow about
The image of "Hitch" we take from all this is of a bit of a joker, an amusingly droll English gent. But Hitchcock was the consummate director, exercising as much control over his image as that of his latest star.

He used his fame as a way of drawing the crowds. The first audiences to Psycho were even greeted with a recorded announcement by Hitch, warning them not to give the ending away.

But Hitchcock's name wouldn't have been this marketable were his films not so consistently entertaining, so reliably popular.

Hitchcock enjoyed an enormous amount of creative freedom, despite spending most of his working life in the notoriously restrictive Hollywood studio system.

The unspoken deal behind this was that his films had to make money. Hitch's overtly personal projects, the ones with marked artistic ambitions, like his stodgy 1949 costume drama Under Capricorn, tended to be his least successful, critically and financially.

The best of his work, however, contains a level of wit and sophistication, a capacity to shock and thrill that modern action-driven Hollywood cannot match.

Princess Grace
Kelly graced three Hitch flicks
Hitchcock's films set the template for so many modern genres. It's difficult to imagine the Bond films, with their mix of humour and adventure, had Hitchcock not so effortlessly combined these ingredients in The 39 Steps or North by Northwest.

Psycho practically defined the modern horror movie. Seeds of the high concept movie, where a script is commissioned to fit a simple pitch. It's the "birds-attack-town" idea that's behind his masterful 1963 film The Birds.

Hitchcock might have been the ultimate entertainer, but his description of his movies as slices of cake - delicious, perhaps, but insubstantial fare - is somewhat misleading.

He transcended the particular genre he was working in, creating a style and a feel that was all his own.

For French critics like François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, later film-makers in their own right, Hitch was more than a genre director or restless technical innovator - he was an auteur, an unquestionable artist whose films explore and express a set of personal obsessions.

In Hitchcock's case these obsessions could be dark, complex and troubling things.

Voyeurism, guilt, recovered memory syndrome, childhood traumas, kleptomania, Oedipal urges. If his films did resemble pieces of cake, Hitch was a good enough chef to get us to ingest unsavoury fillings.

Vertigo film poster
The high art of Hitchcock
You only need to watch his 1958 film Vertigo to convince yourself of this. Superficially it's a detective story, featuring James Stewart. It is also cinema's most moving depiction of obsessive love, albeit with necrophiliac overtones.

That doesn't sound like a recommendation but it is. Haunting, utterly weird, strangely affecting, Vertigo is probably Hitch's masterpiece.

It's unlike anything you've seen before, and it's pure Hitchcock. And ultimately it is because of films like Vertigo that this inimitable film-maker continues to be remembered.

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