Alfred Hitchcock Marathon Wrap-Up

After some setbacks, it looks like we managed to finish our Alfred Hitchcock marathon within the confines of the month of November after all, coming in, guns blazing to a three-movie pile up over the long Thanksgiving weekend. We still haven’t made it out to see Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock. We still hope to (though I hear that it plays pretty fast-and-loose with actual history), and after seeing a trailer for the HBO movie The Girl I’d love to catch it as well. (I also like Toby Jones quite a lot, so it’s nice to see him getting some meatier roles.) Maybe we’ll wait until they both hit DVD, and see how they stack up next to one-another.

For those who maybe weren’t around for the beginning of this, I’d somehow managed to live my entire life without ever seeing an Alfred Hitchcock film up until a couple of months ago, when Grace and I watched Dial M for Murder. Suitably impressed, and with a big Hollywood biopic on the way, I thought that November would be a good time to at least make a dent in salvaging my cinematic literacy by seeing some of Hitch’s more famous films, as many of them as I felt I could cram in. We ended up doing eight (nine if you count Dial M). There’s of course a lot that could be (and has been) said about Hitchcock, and probably a lot I could say about this experiment, but I’ll confine myself to talking a bit about each movie, and then doing a little wrap-up at the end.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) – The most different of the films that we watched, I talked more about my initial impressions of it here. Looking back, I can definitely see a lot of earmarks of Hitchcock’s work in it, but it’s also lighter fare than anything else that we watched, though I’ve heard some of his other movies are more in its line, or lighter yet.

Rope (1948) – One of my favorites out of the whole bunch, Rope shares a delightfully stagebound quality and a sort of dinner party murder atmosphere with later entries like Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. It’s also got a lot of very impressive cinematic sleight of hand going on, though I’ll cop to having missed much of it the first time through. I talked more about my initial impressions of it here.

Strangers on a Train (1951) – Pretty much all of the movies that we watched this month contained a lot of familiar elements, mostly because they’d been copied by other movies and entered into our common cinematic lexicon, to be absorbed by me and even Grace via cultural osmosis, sometimes without us ever being aware of where they were coming from. But Strangers on a Train managed to surprise me more than most of the others, in part because it wasn’t actually about what I had always assumed it was about, based on the synopsis. I talked a little more about it here.

Dial M for Murder (1954) – Cheating a bit here, since I actually watched this one back in October, though I didn’t say much about it then. After watching all the others, it remains one of my favorites, and is one of Grace’s favorites still as well. Dial M looks beautiful, and may meld charm and menace better than any of the other movies on the list, and Ray Milland gives an inspired performance. The scene in which he ropes his old schoolmate into the plot, putting the screws to him bit by bit without ever changing his congenial appearance, is one of the favorite moments in all these movies. Maybe in all movies, ever.

Rear Window (1954) – With Rear Window we begin the string of what are probably Hitchcock’s five most famous movies. Made the same year as Dial MRear Window has a lot in common with both it and Rope, especially in terms of tone. A lot about Rear Window was, of course, familiar, from various remakes and references (including the “Bart of Darkness” Simpsons episode), and I think the movie was one of the ones I enjoyed the most, but I’d honestly have to watch it again to say much about it for sure, because I was so completely floored and distracted by the absolutely jawdropping set on which it was filmed. I linked to this on social media back when I first watched the movie, but here it is again for posterity, a video showing the entire set and all the events of the film that occur there, in one frame. It is seriously probably the most impressive set I have ever seen.

Vertigo (1958) – Of all the movies on this list, Vertigo is probably the one I knew the least about going in. As such, it kept me on my toes more than some of the others, but in spite of its reputation, it wasn’t one of my favorites, though it was cool to see the origins of the “Vertigo zoom,” which is maybe the most copied shot in all of cinema ever. (Probably not, really, but it’s certainly ubiquitous.) The last half-hour or so, though, literally did floor me. (Pretty much everything from the famous nightmare sequence on.) Less because it kept me guessing, though it did that in some spots too, and more because it just really did create a terrible feeling of disorientation and tension, and James Stewart, impressive in all his Hitchcock roles thus far, really knocked the ball out of the park with his slow descent into, well, whatever the hell it was he was descending into, exactly. (The scene in the department store literally made me feel uncomfortable, which is something movies rarely do, and more rarely still movies from 1958.)

North by Northwest (1959) – As I said elsewhere right after I finished watching it, North by Northwest is basically just the template for every action/adventure-type movie that has been made since. As such, again, it feels very familiar in a lot of places, though never stale for all that. The most impressive moments for me weren’t any of the by-now famous set pieces (though I can see why they would have been when I wasn’t familiar with a hundred thousand re-iterations of them since), but the less-famous explosive end of the well-known crop duster scene, and the incredibly sultry dialogue between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. I have seen actual sex that contained less sex than that dialogue!

Psycho (1960) – I had steeled myself to be disappointed by Psycho. While almost all the other movies on this list were full of familiar elements, Psycho was a movie that I had, for all intents and purposes, already seen. Every frame and moment and line and shot of it has been called out in other movies, rehashed, reiterated, dissected, reproduced. I’ve even seen the 1998 Gus Van Sant remake, which I’m told is very close to shot-for-shot. (I don’t really remember it well enough to say for certain how closely it hews, though I can safely say that it’s nowhere near as good.) But I wasn’t disappointed, at all. Psycho is magic, an absolute masterpiece, maybe the most impressive movie on the list, and a stunning film that no amount of familiarity could dull. Anthony Perkins was a particular standout, giving one of the best performances in a month of movies full of fantastic performances. Pretty much every movie on this list is a classic, and probably every one of them rightly so, but Psycho might be the classicest.

The Birds (1963) – The Birds, on the other hand, I was disappointed by. Which isn’t to say that the movie is bad, at all. It’s filled with great stuff, and Hitchcock’s technical virtuosity is still well on display. The shots of the birds flocking are justifiably famous, and lose none of their punch. And of course I love that there’s no real explanation given for what’s happening. (Who is surprised that I love that?) But The Birds also stumbles for me more often than any other movie on this list, and begins to contain more elements that I’m used to seeing and not particularly liking in horror movies, especially in some of the attack sequences, as the victims flail about and roll themselves around on things.

So that’s the list. There are, of course, a ton of other great Hitchcock pictures I could and should and someday will watch, but that’ll keep us for now. I think my favorites of the bunch were probably Dial M for Murder and Rope, simply for their stagebound, talky style of storytelling. Grace’s favorites were probably Dial MThe Lady Vanishes, and maybe an honorable mention for Strangers on a Train. We both agreed that the best of the bunch, by any kind of cumulative standard, was Psycho. Rear Window gets some kind of honorary statue for Best Set.

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