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The master of suspense

A celebration of Alfred Hitchcock -- and his films

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock and a friend in the late '50s.

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Eye on Entertainment
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Alfred Hitchcock

(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.

Eye-opener

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.

On screen

  • A girl and her horse. What could be more traditional? A new spin on that tale, "Dreamer," stars Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell. It opens Friday.
  • "Stay" has a terrific cast -- Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Bob Hoskins -- and a fine director, "Monster's Ball's" Marc Forster. The film concerns a suicidal patient (Ryan Gosling) whose strange predictions begin to come true. Opens Friday.
  • A video game come to life, "Doom" stars The Rock in the story of soldiers on Mars and the beasts they fight. It opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • Jonny Lee Miller plays a doomed romantic poet -- in this case, Lord Byron -- in "Byron." The film airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on BBC America.
  • Is James Lipton running out of guests? On Sunday's "Inside the Actors Studio," he interviews Rosie O'Donnell. Not that O'Donnell can't give good performances, but ... 8 p.m. Sunday, Bravo.
  • Sound waves

  • The new Fiery Furnaces album, "Rehearsing My Choir" (Rough Trade), comes out Tuesday.
  • Joe Nichols' new album, "III" (Universal), comes out Tuesday.
  • The intriguing "This Bird Has Flown" (Razor & Tie), subtitled "A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' 'Rubber Soul'," includes performances by Sufjan Stevens, Cowboy Junkies, the Donnas and others. It comes out Tuesday.
  • A 25th-anniversary edition of the Dead Kennedys' "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables" (Manifesto) comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • If you've ever wanted to know what Jerry Lewis really thought of Dean Martin, he tells some of the story in "Dean and Me (A Love Story)" (Doubleday). The book comes out Tuesday.
  • "The Chosen" (Houghton Mifflin), Jerome Karabel's exhaustive history of how the Ivy League chose -- and excluded -- students who filed for admission, comes out Wednesday, October 26.
  • Jonathan Harr's "A Civil Action" was one of those books that was meant to be read breathlessly, savoring each page of Harr's fine prose as he told the story of a high-powered lawyer who devoted all his energy to a court case involving dangerous chemicals, children with cancer and alleged corporate chicanery. The book won the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and was later made into an uneven movie. Harr's new book, "The Lost Painting" (Random House) -- about the search for a Caravaggio masterpiece -- comes out Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • This week's DVD releases include "Bewitched," "Herbie: Fully Loaded" and a new edition of "Titanic." In other words, it's a great week to watch some Hitchcock.
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