Friday, 1 June 2012

The Essential Alfred Hitchcock

Beginning in June of this year, the British Film Institute (BFI) is holding a festival entitled "The Genius of Hitchcock" at which they will present nine restored films from the director's silent period. The festival is aptly named for, straddling the silent and sound eras, as no one could be said to have more readily grasped the language of cinema in both mediums.
It is this casual brilliance which marks him out as probably the most gifted and productive English director to have ever lived and, as such, it is no enviable task to elucidate ten essential films by "the master of suspense". However, rest assured, as no ten movies from such a filmmaker could possibly disappoint:
1. The Lodger (1926)
One of the features among the restored back catalogue of films due to be shown at the BFI, and one hitherto neglected due to the inadequacy of the available versions. Regarded by the director himself as the first true "Hitchcock Film", he used his aesthetical freedom to introduce elements from the popular German expressionists of the era like Lang and Munrau. Featuring a star turn by Welsh musician Ivor Novello, it was the first to tackle what came to be familiar Hitchcockian themes of mistaken identity and sexual paranoia.
2. Blackmail (1929 film)
A film that enjoyed the unusual distinction of being released in silent and sound forms due to studio pressures. Marketed as the UK's first "all-talkie" production, it features some shockingly explicit themes. Though the sound version is largely imperfect, Hitchcock's obvious enthusiasm for exploiting the new format gives the film great energy. In spite of this, the silent version is regarded the superior, and a restored version will be shown at the BFI festival.
3. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
A murder mystery invaluable in plotting the growth of Hitchcock as a master of structure. Lacking nothing in wit or atmosphere, and with Peter Lorre as a charming yet oily antagonist; the remake maybe technically better, but the original is by far the most interesting and endearing.

4. Lifeboat (1944)
One of Hitchcock's exemplary "limited setting" films that proved controversial upon its wartime release. A study of the paranoid and animalistic behaviour of humans struggling to survive, it also served as an unusually human portrayal of so-called "enemies" at times of war, as well as the pitfalls of infighting. A supreme example of editorial pacing.
5. Dial M for Murder (1954)
3D may be largely a gimmick, but if one work managed to transcend the format in the 1950s it was 'Dial M for Murder'. Supremely and intricately plotted, it has the value of losing little (if any of its import) in the traditional 2D form.
6. Rear Window (1954)
Combining both the "situation" film and the thriller- both of which he was already considered a master- Hitchcock coaches James Stewart to a career defining performance of a housebound man who sees too much when spying upon his neighbours to lessen his boredom.
7. Vertigo (1958) 

Hitchcock enjoys toying with audience expectations and employs cutting edge, sometimes psychedelic film techniques, to bewilder and terrify all the way to Vertigo's chilling climax. Kim Novak is the archetypal icy blonde of Hitchcock's choice, in among the most nuanced of this recurring archetype.
8. North by Northwest (1959)
If one were seeking a thriller that exemplified all that is best about Hitchcock, it would be 'North by Northwest'. A masterful script by Ernest Lehman, a "classic" leading man in the shape of Carrie Grant all displayed against a backdrop of a bombastic Bernard Herrmann score, it is quintessential Hitchcock.
9. Psycho (1960)
Probably the Englishman's most famous film and full of iconic cinematic images. Hitchcock manages to be utterly terrifying without being in anyway explicit. Hitchcock broke innumerable rules of the studio system at the time to great controversy and pointed effect.
10. The Birds (1963)
It is difficult to comprehend what a cinematic achievement 'The Birds' was at the time of its release and, surely, no modern production company would countenance so ambitious a project. However, Hitchcock's tale of a small coastal town attacked by flocks of angry birds appears no less portentous and immaculately realised in the present day.4

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