Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors. His ability to pull his audiences to the edge of their seats always impresses me. He employed his understanding of basic human nature to raise our fears and speed our heart rates.

He mastered the art of mystery and suspense to the point of becoming the standard to which every director strives. He constructed his stories with the precise mixtures of humor, horror, and humanity to keep us all holding our breaths.

He had a theory that when you let your audience know a secret, they become engaged and involved. They cheer and hiss like the viewers of a melodrama.

I remember watching an interview with him, and he spoke about placing a bomb in a scene. He said that if you conceal the bomb under the desk, and have it explode without warning, you get a sudden reaction of terror and fear, but then it’s over.

However, if you allow the audience a peek under the desk so that they can see the timer counting down, the watchers now participate in the scene. They want to warn the actors to run. Now the suspense draws out over several minutes. The viewers struggle to focus on the dialog and the impending disaster at the same time.

Stress equals suspense. And in the words of Hitchcock himself, “The bomb must never go off.”

In the story lines that don’t involve bombs—honestly, most of his films don’t—he employs the same tactics to varying degrees.

In the real-time progression of the classic Rope, you know the identity of the murderers in the first five minutes. You spend the next hour and a half with your stomach in knots, as a dinner party plays out all around the concealed body of the victim.

In Dial M for Murder you watch the entire plot unfold, knowing a great deal more than any of the characters. The stress comes from worrying over whether justice prevails or Ray Milland succeeds in his devious scheme.

Some of Hitchcock’s best films use irony to plant seeds of suspicion. In Shadow of a Doubt Hitch brings a beloved relative home for a visit with his favorite niece. Teresa Wright plays the discontented teenager hoping that her handsome, sophisticated uncle, played by Joseph Cotton, will shake things up in her quiet little hometown. She soon suspects that he may be a serial killer, and the worries begin.

In Suspicion Hitchcock contrasts Cary Grant’s charm with a devilish murder plot that thrills to the last scene.

He used the concept of being trapped in several films to build tension, though usually Hitch places his victims in uncommon snares. In Lifeboat the characters play their roles while stranded in a small boat at sea.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, the 1956 version, movie mom Doris Day gets sedated by her own husband, leaving her (and the audience) helpless to act against her son’s kidnappers.

Jimmy Stewart, limited to his apartment by a heavy leg cast, suspects murder from the vantage of his Rear Window. He cannot run to the aid of Grace Kelly when she encounters danger, nor can he fight off a personal attack by the villain. His helplessness keeps our guts twisting.

Alfred Hitchcock also wore our nerves thin with the ordinary. Using the backdrop of a beautiful New England hillside, Shirley McLain discovers The Trouble with Harry, her dead husband, is that he won’t stay buried. The characters in this film go about their business with such nonchalance that a constantly reappearing corpse becomes little more than an incidental nuisance. Their comical lack of urgency incites panic in the audience.

Hitchcock’s techniques in story telling remain nearly unchallenged, even decades after his death. Though most of his films avoided graphic gore and violence, his fear factor pushed the envelope for their time, and still encourage nail biting today. Movies like Psycho and The Birds always rate high on the Creepy Scale.

Hitchcock knew his stuff. If you haven’t seen any of his movies, let me recommend that you pick one up this month. The ones mentioned above are all sure to satisfy, but he created dozens more that will make you a fast fan.

Let me know your favorite!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

Hitchcock’s Fear of Falling

I love Alfred Hitchcock. I got excited when I heard there was to be a movie about him—Hitchcock, scheduled for 2013 release. I looked up everything I could on IMDb.com to see what it was all about. It stars Anthony Hopkins as the man himself, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. From this information, I assume the story revolves around the making of Psycho (1960).

I suppose that’s appropriate, considering that film is most closely associated with the legendary director. Psycho is not my favorite Hitchcock film. It scared me the first time I saw it… and the second and third, and every time since. Hitch was a master of inducing the fight-or-flight reaction.

At first, I was a little disappointed that a film about Hitchcock wasn’t going to include anything about Vertigo (1958). That’s the motion picture that I most associate with the “real life” of Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve since come to grips with the idea that there needn’t be a movie about that bizarre story, because he told it as he made that picture.

Vertigo begins with detective Scottie Ferguson, played by Jimmy Stewart, losing his partner in a fall. The shock and horror of the incident leaves Scottie with a terrible case of acrophobia. This overwhelming fear of falling isn’t the driving force behind the story, though. This is a tale about obsession.

In the movie, Scottie becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman that he is hired to follow. He falls in love with the woman, played by Kim Novak, and to his horror, he witnesses her suicide. His fear of falling kept him from stopping her as she jumped to her death.

He later sees her walking about the streets of San Francisco, but she looks different. Her name, her hair, and clothes are different, but her face and voice are the same. He befriends her, and sets about changing her. He gradually makes her over into the woman who died before his eyes.

What’s incredible about the film is that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s own story. He had a favorite leading-lady—Grace Kelly. She was everything Hitch loved. She was beautiful, innocent, seductive, mysterious and talented. Kelly had starred in Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief, which were huge hits for Hitchcock. A few years after making To Catch a Thief, Kelly retired from Hollywood to marry the prince of Monaco. She was lost to Hitchcock, and he couldn’t woo her back.

Watch Vertigo and you’ll see how Kim Novak’s character is completely styled to resemble Grace Kelly. Look at the character of Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, and you’ll see Kelly’s signature hairstyle in her, too. In fact, nearly all of Hitchcock’s leading ladies after Vertigo are Kelly-ish in their appearance, including Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, and Tippi Hedren. He truly had a magnificent obsession.

I always wondered if this parade of dazzling blondes was his desperate attempt to reconstruct what Kelly produced effortlessly, or if it was a subliminal message to her. “I created you, and I can recreate you at will.” I’ll never know for sure, but wondering is half the fun of watching.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away!

It’s a beautiful cool morning, and the rain is coming down. It’s not too stormy—just overcast and wet. It’s the perfect weather to stay in pajamas, call in sick and put in a black and white movie.

I think a soggy day is great for a murder mystery, a monster flick, a comedy, or a romance. I’ve tried war movies or tearjerkers, but I end up sobbing a little too much, and then I’m down for the rest of the day.

The rain puts me in the mood for something sentimental. Romantic films, like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind, balance out the rain with optimism and hope. Something like Barefoot in the Park works, too. It’s funny and light-hearted, without being syrupy and depressing. I can’t handle The Way We Were or Love Story on rainy days. They are just too sad. I adore Sabrina (both the original and the remake) or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a fun pick-me-up romance.

If there’s a good measure of thunder and lightning, then I really enjoy a hearty Hitchcock thriller. I’ll pop in Dial M for Murder, Rope, Rear Window or Psycho—if I’m feeling really brave. That one gets to me, though. I have to know that sun is in the forecast. I enjoy films like Gaslight and Wait Until Dark for milder shivers.

An Agatha Christie adaptation is great for keeping one’s whodunit senses active. Evil Under the Sun is one of my favorites. The story is set in the sunny Mediterranean, and the characters keep you smiling with their over-the-top eccentricities.

A good caper picture is always great for rainy days. The Italian Job and How to Steal a Million always make my short list. It seems movies about stealing things get my heart pumping and actually make me feel as though I were accomplishing something—something besides finishing a bowl of popcorn.

If you can’t choose just one classic, and you need a good laugh, spend a couple hours with Steve Martin as he joins the characters from a dozen classic noir films, cut together to create a crazy new story line, in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This 1982 parody includes segments from all your favorites like This Gun for Hire, The Big Sleep, Suspicion, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s a must-see for any noir fan, especially if you like Martin’s genius combination of deadpan and slapstick.

Rainy days are also the perfect time for really cheesy monster movies. The cheesier the better. Watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or This Island Earth. Listening to characters (talking about a cat) saying things like, “We can him Neutron, because he’s so positive.” Just makes me laugh aloud. All my geek friends understand why this line is stupidly funny.

Another option for rainy day fun is a musical. If you have kids at home with you, this is a great time to share a movie from your childhood, too. Remember Bugsy Malone? No? It’s a 1976 film starring Jodie Foster and Scott Baio. It’s the basic gangster movie made with an all-child cast, and—oh yeah—the Tommy-guns shoot cream puffs. It’s cute for the kids, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself singing along with the gang.

Do you have a favorite rainy day movie? Let me know—the forecast is cloudy for a few more days!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!