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As seen in The Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, Fall 1995:

Even in these days of digital wizardry,
Alfred Hitchcock fills the screen like no one else

by Mark Fleischmann

What would Alfred Hitchcock have made of MTV or the OJ trial? In the former, the camera weaves drunkenly and the cutting never stops. Most likely he would have grabbed his wineglass and tottered out of the home theater, overwhelmed. In the latter, the camera stays put by judicial fiat (to avoid jurors). The Master of Suspense might well have been delighted by the decadent saga but moved to after-dinner slumber by the static presentation.

One thing is certain. Alfred Hitchcock would have loved home theater. At least in the early stages of his career, when he defined the visual style that would take him to the top, he was an avid user of new techniques and technologies: montage, the moving camera, sound, visual sorcery of all kinds. As a movie mogul, no doubt he had more than a passing familiarity with home screening rooms.

It's not that he didn't have a grudging respect for the small screen; after all, he did a television series and even filmed Psycho (1960) in non-widescreen black & white as a tip of the hat to the new medium. But his mixture of F.W. Murnau-influenced camera moves and Sergei Eisenstein-inspired montage play best on the big screen, in the dark, where small gestures generate huge suspense and his domination of the audience is complete. With the advent of home theater, the art of Alfred Hitchcock has come full circle.

Hitchcock spent the first 15 years of his directing career in his native Britain before emigrating to America to work for producer David O. Selznick--more on this later--so his videodiscography divides neatly into British and Hollywood periods. Sadly, the British period is underrepresented on disc, with at least one major work out of print: the original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. None of his silent films are available on disc (and few on tape). Many do not exist even on film. Fortunately, all but a few of his Hollywood productions are on disc, the only regrettable omission being Suspicion (1941).

The technology and talent available to Hitchcock in Britain was limited, at least compared to Hollywood, so his British work is not as much of a visual feast in terms of texture and shading. Sound recording was primitive, and excessive use of dynamic noise reduction further reduces dialogue intelligibility on some early titles. Even in the later American films, the great scores of Bernard Hermann exist only in mono (except on re-recorded CDs). But it was in Britain that his visual language blossomed--and there are some screen-filling moments that rank with the best of his later work.

Consider the links between Blackmail (1929), the first Hitchcock talkie and the oldest film available on disc, and North by Northwest (1959), filmed three decades later. In the former's finale, the camera follows the villain into the British Museum. Police are in hot pursuit. The fugitive lowers himself down a rope, sharing the frame with the head of a huge Egyptian sculpture. The giant god's head has survived the ages; the dwarfed villain, evidently, will not. There you have NxNW's Mount Rushmore finale, though admittedly there was no precedent for the famous cropduster attack.

The fleeing man ultimately meets his doom atop the museum's dome. He reaches the top, then suddenly falls and disappears from view. Only the sound of breaking glass reveals his fate. Were this a Quentin Tarantino movie, we'd see his twisted body crumple in a bloodsoaked heap with shards of glass sticking out of his eyes. Another nice thing about spending an evening with Hitchcock is what he declines to show.

Blackmail and NxNW are also united by the violation of public space by private iniquity (truly a theme for the ages, especially the age of privatization). In the latter, itself a remake of The 39 Steps (1935), Hitchcock would also propel Cary Grant through New York's Penn Station and United Nations buildings; Saboteur (1942) scaled the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, the makers of King Kong beat Hitch to the Empire State Building.

Hitchcock's suspense-building skills occasionally rankled audiences. In Sabotage (1936, not to be confused with Saboteur) he pulled off one of the most stunning montages of his career. A bomb is about to explode on crowded tram amid a festive parade. The cutting rivals the famous shower scene from Psycho--viewers squirm and agonize as the hands of Big Ben creep toward the fateful moment of 1.45--yet viewers were not prepared for the death of a sympathetic boy character, even discreetly off-camera. Later in life the director would tell Francois Truffaut he regretted alienating the public. He would have to find less violent ways to lunge for the visually spectacular (at least for awhile). And he did.

The Hitchcocks sail to America

In 1940 Alfred and Alma Hitchcock went to America to make movies with David O. Selznick. The relationship between director and producer was a stormy one (see Leonard J. Leff's book Hitchcock and Selznick for details) but did produce three films, of which two are available on disc. Both have powerfully romantic stories with well-defined characters, thanks to Selznick, and stunning visuals, thanks to Hitchcock.

In Rebecca (1940), the leading man is Laurence Olivier--yet the dominant character is a house. Even more strangely, it is a house that existed only in two cunningly constructed miniatures. Yet the first words of the picture are: "Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderly," and as the camera glides through underbrush to emerge at the turreted mansion, the frame fills with a gothic vision from the other side of the looking glass. The characters move through the manse, belittled by its magnificent scale, swathed in its shadows--and by the way, Criterion's CAV disc turns the sumptuous B&W cinematography into a grey-scale feast. The house remains in control until it goes up in flames in a stunning finale.

The other Hitchcock/Selznick collaboration on disc, Notorious (1946), contains a film-class favorite, a crane shot that descends into an elegant party. The camera finally comes to rest on a key clutched in the hand of a sympathetic spy, as she exchanges pleasantries with her victim. Also much-imitated is a love scene in which the participants are Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and the camera, the latter tracking and encircling the starcrossed lovers, who are soon to be thrust apart by inexorable plot machinations. You feel exhilarated yet slightly soiled by voyeurism; Hitchcock, ever the arbiter of guilt and innocence, lets you have your cake but won't let you eat it in peace.

Notorious is compelling enough to distract attention from Hitchcock's penchant for blatantly artificial filmed-background process shots--you know, actors working in front of a projected image. This cheesy visual shortcut was his greatest visual weakness. His reluctance to shoot on-location dates his films more than anything else, especially as other big-budget filmmakers departed from the studio system's mass-production aesthetics to do more location shooting in the '50s and '60s.

Hitchcock also loved painted backdrops, and admirers of Marnie (1964) still argue over whether the seaport at the end of a Baltimore street is boldly stylistic or just lazy moviemaking from a film icon coasting on his reputation and unable to adapt to changing tastes. Not that his use of backdrops and other artwork wasn't at times ambitious and innovative--no one critizes the gorgeous dream sequences he commissioned Salvador Dali to design for Spellbound (1945) or the delirious graphic vortexes of Vertigo (1958).

Some of Hitchcock's boldest experiments were in reductionism. In Lifeboat (1944) all the action takes place in a small boat; most of Rear Window (1954) is apartment- and alley-bound. Rope (1948), his first color film, was shot entirely in long uncut takes of up to 10 minutes, just before the camera ran out of film. Home theater may revive the reputation of this underrated gem, often respectfully described as an ambitious failure by critics who have seen it only on puny screens--not as it was intended to be seen.

Lunging for shock effects

As Hitchcock reached the height of his fame, he became almost desperate for new spectacles. Having been making genteel thrillers since the '20s, he overcame his distaste for shattering violence with the infamous shower scene in Psycho (1960). Actually, title designer Saul Bass did the storyboards for the much-studied scene. Hitchcock added only a blink-of-an-eye shot of the stabbing and a shot of blood (really chocolate syrup) running down the drain. The tumultuous '60s had officially begun.

The last half-dozen Hitchcock films reached for increasingly disturbing shock effects. The Birds (1963), a marvel of optical effects even today, turns nature itself into an irrational and implacable killer. Torn Curtain (1966) includes a murder scene in which a likable villain is stabbed, kneecapped with a shovel, and finally shoved headfirst into an unlit gas oven; in a perversely sexual climax, only his fluttering hands around Paul Newman's neck signal his demise. Early in Frenzy (1972), the director's penultimate film, comes a rape/murder scene so vicious I haven't the heart even to describe it.

I'd rather remember Hitch as he existed round about 1951, when he made Strangers on a Train. Maybe I'm just easy to please but many of my favorite Hitchcock scenes hinge on low-key suspense aboard trains (here as well as in The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, and especially 1938's The Lady Vanishes). Strangers also includes possibly the only suspenseful movie scene revolving around a tennis game and two edge-of-the-red-plush-seat sequences set at a carnival. The first involves, er, a strangulation (but a nice one). The other has a merry-go-round spinning out of control, ending the movie with a satisfying crash.

Now that's family entertainment! And if the little ones squirm, just say what Sir Alfred said to so many others: "Relax, dear, it's just a moooovie."

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