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The chillingly contemporary Alfred Hitchcock

The dark, obsessive themes visited in one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces, 1958's 'Vertigo,' have only grown more au courant with the passage of time.

November 10, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • James Stewart and Kim Novak in 1958's "Vertigo."
James Stewart and Kim Novak in 1958's "Vertigo." (Universal )

There's but one problem with welcoming Alfred Hitchcock back to the public eye: He's never really been away. But even if you grant that the director is a man for all of cinema's seasons, what is it about him that makes this moment in time so indisputably his?

Within little more than a month, two dramatic films with Hitchcock as the protagonist will have graced screens: HBO's "The Girl" looks at the director (played by Toby Jones) during the making of "The Birds," while Fox Searchlight's "Hitchcock" goes back a few years earlier to examine the creation of "Psycho" with Anthony Hopkins in the title role.


FOR THE RECORD:
Alfred Hitchcock: A Critic's Notebook in the Nov. 11 Calendar section about filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock referred to British critic Michael Wood. The critic's name is Robin Wood. —

Not only has Universal just released a handsome "Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection" boxed set bringing 13 of his films to Blu-ray for the first time, but one of those motion pictures, 1958's "Vertigo," was just named the greatest film of all time in British film magazine Sight & Sound's highly regarded international critic's poll, knocking "Citizen Kane" off that perch for the first time in decades.

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In Britain, where Hitchcock was born, the frenzy is even more intense. The British Film Institute has successfully launched a fund-raising campaign puckishly called "Rescue the Hitchcock 9" in order to restore the director's surviving silent films — one of those, the 1927 boxing drama "The Ring," showed to turn-away crowds this year at Cannes — and a complete BFI retrospective of all his 50-plus features was accompanied by an admiring critical compendium entitled "39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock."

"Of all the great directors," critic James Bell writes in that book's introduction, "it is Hitchcock who above all has come to embody the cinema to people across the world. More than any other, he's the figure upon whom every film lover can agree — his work is as popular and as present in the Film Studies classroom as it is in cinemas and DVD collections."

In a way, Hitchcock, who died in 1980 at the age of 80, is in effect the cinematic equivalent of Elvis: He's never needed to be reintroduced to succeeding generations of filmgoers. They simply pick up on his pervasive presence in the cultural atmosphere. On the other hand, his work wasn't always held in the esteem it is today.

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What helped Hitchcock's popularity is that while he was alive he took the very modern stance of cultivating his public image to the maximum extent possible. He made sure to make cameo appearances in each of his films — a bus door amusingly closes in his face in "North by Northwest," for instance — and his rotund silhouette and mordant sense of humor became familiar to millions of Americans during the seven years (1955-1962) his "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" anthology program appeared on the CBS network.

Not only did Hitchcock, in order to enhance box office returns, nurture this cult of personality around himself, but, like science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, he also had a sensibility that feels particularly modern.

Deadpan, acerbic, the opposite of sentimental, Hitchcock had a way of looking at the world that would give Tim Burton a run for his ghoulish money. Even the undeniably sadistic streak that ran through his personality has an appeal to modern tastes, as witness the fact that it is front and center in both "The Girl" and "Hitchcock."

It also helped his prominence that though he worked in other genres from time to time, Hitchcock was the acknowledged master of the kind of thrillers that are hugely popular today both with readers and moviegoers. If "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" had been published while he was in his prime, the film rights might have been his for the asking.

Another quality that makes Hitchcock a figure of continuing interest is the amount of craft, acquired by directing dozens of pictures over five decades and consequently rare today, he brought to the table. Hitchcock was a master of every detail of the filmmaking process, meticulous enough to have "Vertigo" star Kim Novak practice some of her movements to a metronome. He liked to pretend that his films were so meticulously planned that the actual filming was a secondary pleasure.

His solution to simulating the vertigo of the title, done by having the camera simultaneously zoom in and track out, was the result, he told fellow director Francois Truffaut, of 15 years of thinking about how best to show dizziness on screen.

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