Alright, alright, picture this: From outside the icy night, enshrouded in 5:00 PM darkness, you enter a home that is no stranger to the presence of warmth. Your cheeks are rosy from the frosty air (Frosty? It’s California). I don’t forecast. Anyway, something’s missing. You’re looking for it, left and right, like cars at a busy intersection. Is it truly warm or is it stale with memories of the past. You creep into the basement. Oh thank the man upstairs, it’s your mother. What’s she doing down here? Seeing all those relatives may have gotten to her. Hey Ma, somebody clogged the toilet againMOTHEROF PEARL. She rotates around her chair only to reveal SHE’S DEAD.
Hold it, hold it, sorry, my apologies. This is one of the last scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. Now as you sit there, surrounded by relatives, eating late-November appropriate food, discussing who’s getting their boils lanced, you may, JUST MAY be giving thanks. So, because that is what “Thanksgiving” seems to indicate in the word itself, I will proceed to do just that. In light of Thanksgiving and on behalf of the entirety of Cinema, we’re spotlight director Alfred Hitchcock whose work seems to transcend the notion of generation and whose filmmaking auteurship continues to influence film and filmmakers today.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)—Now this Hitchcock film, I think, is a stupendous way to begin a family movie night. Perhaps that’s your plan, perhaps not, but the film is an incredible amalgamation of a mystery thriller, a comedy and a romance nonetheless. It follows English tourist Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) as she travels by train across Europe only to discover that her elderly companion Mrs. Froy (May Whitty) has disappeared. Although this film may seem like it doesn’t belong in Hitchcock’s filmography, one couldn’t be more wrong. Indeed, it’s a magnificent piece of film that shows what a sense of humor the director had. The Lady Vanishes is a study in the postmodernist notion of genre mixing, of the profound dimensionality of major and more astonishing minor characters and the successful execution of, and here it is ladies and gentlemen, suspense.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—Ahh, nothing like celebrating a holiday surrounded by relatives that you hardly know but are told they’re your relatives in order to maintain a tight an amiable environment in which to share the same space where [insert main Thanksgiving dish here] is being distributed. Yeah, that. Now here’s a masterful work done by Hitchcock in the, I’d say, golden period of his artistry. Teenager Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) in Santa Rosa, California, is thrilled to hear that her rather distant maternal uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) is coming over. Little does she know, however, that her uncle is actually the “Merry Widow Murderer,” a disdainful and contemptuous killer that specifically targets women, widowed or otherwise. Charlie’s admiration for her uncle only turns on her when she is confronted with the truth.
By using German Expressionistic devices like low-ley lighting for shadows and deep space, Hitchcock truly creates an almost inescapable setting and situation. Before I get carried away, there’s a dinner scene in which Uncle Charlie, having dinner with his family, is revealing his true feelings toward women, married women, “greedy” women. The tracking tight close-up only serves to expose Charlie for who he truly is from the perspective of his niece. When she interjects, in this uninterrupted close-up he turns and breaks the fourth wall. What a simple yet telling technique that conveys the character’s true cold nature.
Strangers on a Train (1951)—Traveling is a motif here, especially during the holiday season. In this instance, however, this encounter with a stranger is a rather deadly one. Unable to finalize his divorce and wed another woman, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) strikes up a conversation with stranger Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) while riding on a train, arranging to have his current wife murdered to marry the other woman. The sequence of events that follows only proves to be dangerous when he realizes that Bruno’s agreement comes with a price. Something that Hitchcock uses to his suspenseful advantage is sound, or lack thereof.
Indeed, the visuals that serve to portray the distorted views of psychopathic killers with sociopathic tendencies was never before seen in Hollywood cinema, especially in the suspense thriller genre at the time. When Bruno is following his “job” through a carnival, the sounds of unaware and carefree people dissipates as he follows her through the woods. It’s a world in which torment, blood lust, psychological decay and murder exist, but only within a cosmically indifferent reality. The truth is people don’t care and even if they did they would be unable to stop it. This is the Hitchcockian view of the world, and indeed that’s what makes him an auteur—a director with a consistent vision.
So, on this day, let’s give thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and his influential work. Sit back with your family and enjoy a nice slice of the Hitchcock pie.
You can browse more of his filmography here.