The films of Alfred Hitchcock have always been Cornell Cinema favorites over our past half century of programming. This fall we present five films from his prime filmmaking years in Hollywood, including a 3D presentation of Dial M for Murder.
The British Hitchcock was one of the great émigré directors in Hollywood (others include Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg and Billy Wilder). Like Lang, he was born before the turn of the 20th century and had a string of early successes in silents (on a side note they both worked for a time at Germany’s leading film production company, UFA). Hitchcock’s career included all the major changes in cinema, from silent to sound, and from black and white to color. As a director he was always pushing the technical limits.
Early on he established himself especially as a “master of suspense” (his tag line for many of his Hollywood years) and as a filmmaker intensely interested in crime, evil, and dark emotions, with a flair for comic twists.
While politics brought many of the great émigré directors to sunny LA, it was money and greater resources that attracted Hitchcock. The producer David Selznick lured him with a seven year contract, the immediate result being the romance-mystery Rebecca (Academy Award, Best Picture, 1940).
By 1954, Hitchcock was working for Warner Brothers studios, for which he produced three color films starring the blonde beauty Grace Kelly [Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955)]. Another repeating star for Hitchcock was James Stewart, who costars with Kelly in Rear Window, and with another Hitchcock blonde, Kim Novak, in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo (1958).
Dial M for Murder takes place mainly in one apartment, adapting a contemporary play by the popular mystery playwright Frederick Knotts. Its selling gimmick is that it was made in 3-D, but by the time of its release, the 3-D fad was dying out and it was distributed in 2-D. But the 3-D print was later restored, first in 35mm, and now in a stunning high quality DCP 3-D (that’s the one we’re showing!) Watch out for the scissors!
Rear Window takes place on another claustrophobic set, where a probable murder is viewed by photographer “Jeff” Jefferies (Stewart), laid up with a broken leg, who is playing Peeping Tom with the neighbors across his Greenwich Village courtyard. The whole film was shot on a specially built set at Paramount. Eschewing a score, the film uses the sounds of the neighborhood, including snippets of radio, to build its soundtrack. In addition to Kelly, it’s a wonderful chance to see Raymond Burr (Perry Mason) as a heavy.
While released to mixed reviews, Vertigo has consistently risen in critical acclaim, it was among the first 25 films to be placed in the National Films Registry, and in 2012 it knocked Citizen Kane out of first place on the Sight and Sound’s poll of the greatest films of all time. A study in obsession and deceit, its lush, oversaturated palette makes moody use of San Francisco locations all to an intense Bernard Herrmann score.
The shower scene in Psycho (1960) remains perhaps the best known horror-suspense sequence in cinema. The film breaks a lot of supposed rules in a mainstream Hollywood suspense feature, and for once the studio (now Paramount) balked. So Hitchcock made a deal to produce it on the cheap independently using the Universal Studio lots and crews from his popular TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, if Paramount would distribute. Hitchcock took a 60% stake in the film instead of his usual $250,000 director’s fee. Hitchcock struck gold.
Janet Leigh took the Hitchcock blonde role, with Vera Miles as her sister. The up and coming young star Anthony Perkins took the role of meek motel manager Norman Bates; his portrayal typecast him for years afterwards.
The film makes brilliant use of Hitchcock’s budget limitations; the black and white photography adds to the starkness of the horror, while Bernard Herrmann limited his orchestration to all strings, unforgettable in the slasher scene.
Though he would direct five more films in the 13 years following it, The Birds (1963), produced at Universal, is the last of his films to be regularly revived. As in Vertigo, he brilliantly uses the California landscape (Bodega Bay). This time the malevolence is non-human, irrational, unexplained. To achieve the effects of the birds attacking, Hitchcock used the effects department at Disney. (Other effects were handled by units at MGM, Fox, and Universal.) Like Rear Window, the soundtrack dispenses with a musical score, instead using the sounds of the birds and other environmental cues.
Tippi Hedren plays the blonde under attack by the birds (and by her account, Hitchcock as well.)
Special thanks to Universal Repertory for making these films available at a reduced rate for our reopening.