The master of suspense
A celebration of Alfred Hitchcock -- and his films
By Todd Leopold
Alfred Hitchcock and a friend in the late '50s.
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(CNN) -- No matter who the star of an Alfred Hitchcock movie was, the real star was always ... Alfred Hitchcock.
A Hitchcock movie is like few others. There's often a murder, it's usually pinned on the wrong man, and the suspense in resolving the plot is increasingly unbearable -- filled with red herrings, sudden realizations and jolts of surprise.
Even when Hitchcock played with the medium and his own image, the results were almost always recognizably Hitchcockian.
"Rope," a 1948 failed experiment in long takes, manages to retain what suspense it has (the plot, which unfolds in real time, concerns two arrogant murderers trying to get away with the perfect crime) because of Hitchcock's talent for camera placement. "The Trouble with Harry," an odd 1955 black comedy starring Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe, has the sort of dry humor reminiscent of an "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV narration -- perhaps the reason "Harry" didn't work as an entire film.
Hitchcock also had a talent for working with actors, particularly Jimmy Stewart, who gave some of his bravest performances in Hitchcock's films; Cary Grant, whose brittle humor was so perfect for Hitchcock's style the actor reprised it in a noted Hitchcock homage, 1963's Stanley Donen-directed "Charade"; and Grace Kelly, the epitome of the Hitchcock blonde.
The failures, in retrospect, are few. What's left are some of the sharpest and best-remembered films in movie history: "Vertigo," "Psycho," "The Thirty-Nine Steps," "Notorious," "Rebecca," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Birds," "Shadow of a Doubt," "North by Northwest." (See our Hitchcock gallery.)
Almost 30 years after his death, Hitchcock is having a bit of a renaissance this month. In early October, Universal Home Video released a DVD box set of 14 of the master's films, with a 15th disc of bonus material.
And from October 24 to October 30, Turner Classic Movies -- like CNN, a division of Time Warner -- is airing 39 Hitchcock films, including little-seen works such as "Juno and the Paycock," "Number 17" and the one Hitchcock film that made the Medved brothers' list of 50 worst films of all time, "Jamaica Inn."
Eye on Entertainment dodges a MacGuffin.
One of the many amazing things about Hitchcock is how many specific scenes from his films have entered the public consciousness -- even if people haven't seen the whole film.
Janet Leigh in the shower? That's from "Psycho." A crop duster bearing down on Cary Grant? "North by Northwest." A long tracking shot ending on the key in Ingrid Bergman's hand? "Notorious." "Criss-cross, criss-cross?" "Strangers on a Train."
Hitchcock is so readily identifiable that Mel Brooks could devote a whole film -- "High Anxiety" -- to parodying the director.
Beneath the suspense he had his tropes: the wrong man, the icy blonde, the messiness of murder (the killing scene in "Torn Curtain" shows how hard it can be), the fascination with Freud. Hitchcock was a painstaking planner, storyboarding his films in advance and lamenting that they were never as good as the film he'd made in his head.
For all his talent and fame, Hitchcock never won a best director Oscar (perhaps even more surprisingly, he was nominated only six times), and just one of his films, the David O. Selznick-produced "Rebecca" (1940), won best picture.
If nothing else, the snub proves that Oscar -- the academy probably thought Hitchcock wasn't quite noble enough for the award -- misses plenty. However, if the Academy Awards were deceived, that's not unusual. Most of us have been gladly misled by the master of suspense.
The TCM festival begins Monday, October 24, and runs through Sunday, October 30.
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