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The master of suspense: why is Alfred Hitchcock still the most fascinating director of the twentieth century?

Sarah Betts

Alfred Hitchcock. ‘Hitch’ to those he honoured with his regard. An icon of the world of cinema and a man of many names; ‘Master of Suspense’ and ‘genius’ to list a few.

Born 13 August 1899, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock (his full title) put his name to 67 films before his death in 1980. A charismatic and revolutionary director, he was said by many to be the greatest to come out of the British Isles. From silent films in the ‘20s to huge productions after his move to Hollywood in the late ‘30s, Hitchcock is undoubtedly a huge influence on filmmaking today.

Hitchcock and crew behing the scenes filming The Birds

I wonder how many of you reading this will have actually got around to watching one of Hitchcock’s films, considering his most famous titles were released over 40 years ago. Saying that, I still think it would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of him. If you are one of the few who hasn’t, he is the director who created the action and sound combination you would probably use if pretending to stab someone. The shower scene of Pyscho (1960). Those screeching chords. An iconic image, most likely influencing the gut wrenching musical scores that are essential to the tension build of thriller and horror films today.

Hitchcock, however, did not rely on music as a source of terror; in an interview for ‘Masters of Cinema’ in 1972, Hitchcock said “The Birds may be the most terrifying film I have ever made”.

The Birds (1963), my personal favourite of Hitchcock’s films, has no music and yet has still made it to the top of most ‘100 Scariest Movies of all Time’ shows I have seen, coming second only to Stephen King’s The Shining. Although it did not cause me to jump out of my seat and my sleep was not disturbed after watching, The Birds is certainly unsettling. To the older generations, it was a new level of suspense; I have been told stories of grandparents who, after watching this film, developed a phobia of birds.

It is taking the predictability out of a situation that creates fear. Hitchcock uses a beautiful location (I have visited Bodega Bay, where The Birds was filmed; it is picturesque and has great fish and chips) and a love story to lull the watcher into a false sense of security before creating a threat out of something that before seemed harmless: birds. This technique is still found in today’s films; to have a real life scene ruined by the unexpected.

If you have never seen a trailer for one of Hitchcock’s films I recommend you go online and be entertained by the ‘lecture’ on man’s relationship with birds or be taken on a tour of the house where Norman Bates let his inner demons be known in Pyscho. Instead of a few clips from the film put together in a way to draw the audience in, these trailers show Hitchcock teasing the viewer with plot details accompanied by cheeky background music.

Hitchcock was famous for his involvement in his films, not only did he appear in the trailers but he had a cameo role in each one of his features (perhaps this is where comic creator, Stan Lee got the idea for his Marvel film cameos…?) He had a very public image; in interviews he spoke with ease, showed his humorous side (expressing the need for humour as a release of tension during scary films) and referred to his actors affectionately, even when telling diva stories of troublesome method actors.

Over the years however, a sinister side to this charming public figure was known to those who worked with him.

The trend for Hitchcock has reignited due to the British Film Institute’s (BFI) celebration of ‘The Genius of Hitchcock’. Another factor is HBO’s film The Girl and the anticipated release of new blockbuster Hitchcock after Christmas.

While the BFI celebrate his work and contribution to the industry, the films are focused more on Hitchcock, the man. In The Girl, Sienna Miller plays Tippi Hedren, the ice blonde lead of The Birds whose career was ruined after Hitchcock’s obsession got too much for her, and who has spoken of actually being attacked by real birds for her role as Melanie Daniels, without prior knowledge of her director’s plan to do so. Hitchcock (current UK release date set for 8 February 2013) sees Anthony Hopkins provide a startlingly accurate imitation of Alfred Hitchcock opposite Scarlet Johansson as the leading lady of Pyscho.

A controlling director, a manipulative personality with a slightly sinister relationship with his actors? Or a revolutionary that gave his life to the entertainment of the masses and created new heights for the genres of thriller and horror? I look forward to seeing Hitchcock in the new year, as whichever angle he is portrayed from, I have always and will continue to find him fascinating.

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