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Bruce Markusen Talks the Films of Alfred Hitchcock on the 40th Anniversary of His Death

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Bruce Markusen Talks the Films of Alfred Hitchcock on the 40th Anniversary of His Death

This is problematic for me to believe—heck, it seems almost impossible—but it was 40 years ago this week that the legendary Alfred Hitchcock died from kidney failure at the age of 80. I remember hearing the news sometime at night, and then mentioning it to one of my high school classmates the next day. Only a few of the guys in my class were fans of horror films, so it didn’t become a popular topic of conversation at my school, Fordham Prep. But it was still news that struck a chord with me, given my interest in horror films and books.

At the time, Hitchcock was the name I most associated with the horror genre. It had all started nearly a decade earlier, when I read two of the books that carried the Hitchcock name (Ghostly Gallery and Haunted Houseful), volumes filled with short stories about ghosts, witches, and murderers, both human and monstrous. Like any fan of film, I associated Hitchcock with two of the greatest horror movies ever made: Psycho and The Birds. And just to add to the mix, I held some vague memories of Hitchcock’s long-running television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which rarely if ever dealt with the supernatural but often involved murder and other crimes of violence.

Alfred Hitchcock Ghostly Gallery

At the time of Hitchcock’s death—this was in 1980—I thought of Hitchcock first and foremost as the master of horror. The books, the TV show, and his late-career films all contributed to this association. Little did I know, being all of 15 years old, that much of Hitchcock’s career fell out of the boundary of horror. He was known universally, not as the master of horror, but as the master of suspense. Both prolific and enormously talented, Hitchcock had directed more than 60 films, including a number dating back to the silent film era. In reality, the majority of his movies could be described as thrillers or mysteries, or some combination of the two. Additionally, he dabbled in detective stories and film noire. It was not until the 1960s, when Hitchcock was approaching senior citizen status, that he finally began to venture into the realm of horror, still mostly within the scope of real-life murders and rarely touching the world of the supernatural.

That is not to say that Hitchcock’s earlier work should be dismissed. How could someone not enjoy classic films like North by Northwest, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, and Vertigo, even though they are more representative of thrillers, mysteries, and adventures, while only featuring traces of horror? I happen to love thrillers, and the first two films listed above are among my favorite from this genre.

Yet, we happen to be in the business of horror here at the Dark Universe, and when it comes to that genre, only three of Hitchcock’s films can truly be categorized as horror. Two of them are absolute classics, while the third is an underrated film that has never been given its fair share of appreciation. Let’s take a closer look at these three horror delights from the mind of Hitchcock:

Psycho (1960): This was Hitchcock’s first dalliance with pure horror, and according to the consensus of critics, it was his best. It’s a film that not only tops the Hitchcock list, but also rates as one of the greatest and most iconic horror films ever made. Whenever a writer or historian compiles a list of the best horror films of all time, Psycho invariably makes the top 10, and sometimes reaches the No. 1 position.

Psycho 1960

Hitchcock decided to make a horror picture like Psycho in large part because of the success of 1959’s House on Haunted Hill. Hitchcock saw the numbers that the William Castle/Vincent Price venture produced at the box office; it made a huge amount of money, while being produced on an inexpensive budget by director Castle. Hitchcock believed that he could match the success of House on Haunted Hill. About a year later, Hitchcock released Psycho, which would not only surpass the Castle movie but also become his signature film piece.

Little did Hitchcock realize that future film historians would come to recognize Psycho as the start of the modern horror era. Hitchcock created cinematic devices that had rarely if ever been used by previous horror directors; he killed off the main character midway through the story, used innovative editing to create the suggestion of gore during the iconic shower scene, and left us wondering the fate of his primary villain, Norman Bates, as he sat in the courthouse with a bizarre expression on his face.

All these years later, Psycho is very different from the horror that we began to see develop during the 1970s and continue to prosper to the current day. Psycho has little in the way of full-bodied gore or overtly shown violence. By today’s standards, it seems relatively tame. So why does it retain its impact? Hitchcock’s use of black-and-white film, his ability to set the mood, and his willingness to shock and surprise his audience with major plot twists all help make it succeed. Hitchcock was also smart enough to allow Anthony Perkins the latitude to portray Bates as nervous and oft-centered, but also as meek, charming, and friendly. Fueled by Perkins and Hitchcock, Psycho reached new heights in horror and opened doors for future directors.

The Birds (1963): Few directors could have followed Psycho with another masterpiece, but Hitchcock achieved exactly that with The Birds. It’s not as universally acclaimed as Psycho—some historians have told me they don’t like it at all—but it’s a movie that resonates with this author. It’s a beautiful film featuring wonderful landscape shots of Bodega Bay, good special effects for the era of the 1960s, and a pervading sense of isolation, dread, and suspense.

The Birds 1963

Hitchcock drew from an excellent cast: veteran Rod Taylor as Mitch Brenner, a very young Tippi Hedren as socialite Melanie Daniels, and excellent supporting players in Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy. Unfortunately, Hitchcock treated Hedren abominably during the film, both with unwanted sexual advances and through the physical abuse of literally having live birds thrown at her. Somehow, Hedren rose above these roadblocks to deliver a solid performance in her first full feature appearance.

The Birds also represents one of the few Hitchcock films to have supernatural overtones. Most scientific observers of birds believe that it’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, for the flying creature to simultaneously plan and execute attacks of humans, but that is exactly the premise of The Birds. The film leaves the question answered: why do the birds attack? And are the attacks taking place worldwide, or merely concentrated in Bodega Bay? We never receive clear answers.

The open-ended conclusion to The Birds has created frustration for some who would like specific answers and a more defined ending. I suppose there’s some legitimacy to that, but it does seem clear to me that Mitch and his family will escape in the short term, while the larger community will likely have to deal with a growing nationwide or global crisis. For my tastes, Hitchcock has taken The Birds to a reasonable landing point, leaving the rest to our imagination. In my mind, the ending does nothing to detract from what is one of my favorite films of any era.

Frenzy (1972): The second-to-last film that Hitchcock made, Frenzy is not nearly as famous as many of Hitchcock’s features, but it is one of his most underrated efforts. It is in some ways an old-fashioned thriller, but one that also incorporates psychological horror while adding a sprinkling of humor that doesn’t diminish the main story involving the crimes of a London serial killer.

Frenzy 1972

Hitchcock turns the tables on his viewers by making the villain likeable and charming, while the film’s protagonist is oily, smarmy, and conniving. To play these roles, Hitchcock called on two British actors who lacked the brand-name status of many of his earlier movies. Barry Foster plays Robert Rusk, the owner of a local food market who is charming, outgoing, and handsome, but is hiding a dark secret. Jon Finch portrays Richard Blaney, an unrepentant alcoholic who is framed for a series of rapes and the so-called “necktie” murders that are plaguing London.

Foster and Finch might have lacked fame, but they didn’t lack skill as actors. Both play their characters in nuanced ways, alternating their sympathetic sides with ugly tendencies. They easily carry the story.

In creating Frenzy, Hitchcock delved into even darker material than he had introduced with Psycho. With the Hays Code no longer being enforced within the film industry, Hitchcock felt free to present risqué material with sexual overtones, including the director’s first-ever presentation of nudity, along with a lengthy rape scene that was especially disturbing.

Hitchcock’s willingness to take chances, his earthy presentation of London’s seamier side, and his intricate storyline all make Frenzy a worthwhile experience. It’s not as brilliant as Psycho or The Birds, but it’s still a top-notch film that completes the trifecta of horror for Hitchcock.

Forty years after the master’s death, Hitchcock’s horror films still find a way to deliver.

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