Alfred Hitchcock now enjoys a high and even, some would say, an exaggerated reputation among Hollywood film directors. Certainly, he is among the most influential, if only because with Psycho (1960) he created the mother, as it were, of all slasher movies. One reviewer, wishing to hint at the film’s theme without revealing the ending, remarked: “Suffice it to say that mother love has received a blow from which that sentiment may not recover.”
No other film in the genre is likely to match Psycho’s most shocking innovation: killing off the star early in the story. The gruesomeness of the famous shower scene was hardly more unsettling than this macabre trick on the audience’s expectations, far beyond anything else Hitchcock ever did, before or after.
Hitchcock once remarked to an interviewer that, when you make a movie with a big star, the audience can count on one thing: That star’s character is going to live to the end of the story. No matter how much danger he’s in, Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart can’t die. The star system almost mandates happy endings.
Hitchcock’s nature, especially his dark humor, chafed at this rule. He’d had to change the ending of Suspicion (1941), quite implausibly, because he had planned to have Grant murdering his wife, Joan Fontaine. Grant or the studio (accounts differ) refused to permit this. The director ventured one dark ending in Vertigo (1958), when Jimmy Stewart watched Kim Novak fall to her death. The movie flopped.
Hitchcock returned to form, or formula, in 1959 with Grant in North by Northwest, a frothy thriller and sensational hit—just what audiences (and studios) wanted. Now he was in a position to make the kind of film he really wanted to make, his revenge on the star system. It all but ended Janet Leigh’s career.
Some of Hitchcock’s most interesting films dispense with stardom and glamour. You sense that they are closer to his heart than most of the famous ones. In I Confess (1953), Montgomery Clift plays a priest who hears a murderer’s confession and then is accused of the crime himself. Shot in black and white and set in Montreal, the story is more a study of the tormented priest than a suspense film. It belies Hitchcock’s supposed contempt for actors: Clift is like a raw wound, and the director respects his talent so much that, for once, he seems to let the actor dominate the picture (though he later grumbled about Clift’s “method” acting). Of all Hitchcock’s mature films, I Confess may be the least obviously “Hitchcockian,” even though its theme of a wrongly accused innocent man is very typical.
A 1956 film, The Wrong Man, is also, as its title makes clear enough, about the same problem, but again, it’s far from formulaic. Based on a true story of false arrest for armed robbery, its style is almost documentary, and, once more, Hitchcock uses gritty black and white. The year before, he’d done another sumptuous thriller, To Catch a Thief, with Grant and Grace Kelly. This time, the stars, Henry Fonda and Vera Miles as his wife, play a couple of drab New York tenement dwellers, with Miles sinking into serious depression.
Hitchcock had high hopes for Miles, a beauty and a fine actress, and wanted her to star in Vertigo. But her pregnancy prevented this, though he used her again later as Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho. Like Clift, she should have had a brilliant career.
Topaz (1969), an almost epic story of espionage surrounding the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, is another anomaly, a movie with no single protagonist and no big names except the director’s. The plot is complex, the characters many; but the large cast is excellent, and John Vernon is a memorable villain. The film was a popular and critical failure, but I have always enjoyed it for its spectacle, episodic suspense, and—an oddity in a Hitchcock picture—emotional warmth; one of its subplots is a moving love story that ends tragically. Hitchcock is usually apolitical; but the tone of Topaz is uncompromisingly anticommunist, a rather startling fact given that the film was made in the middle of the unpopular Vietnam War.
No doubt the appeal of Topaz was hurt by the absence of a star, but the richness of the other elements more than makes up for this. In fact, it shows what Hitchcock could do without the box-office allure of celebrity. In its own way, it adds luster to his achievement. Despite the huge bag of tricks available to the old master, near the end of his career, he was still attempting something new.
Hitchcock’s last hit film was Frenzy (1972). The cast was mostly unknown; Jon Finch is suspected of the rape-murders of his ex-wife and several other women in London, and Hitchcock makes him so surly that he doesn’t enjoy the automatic audience sympathy the Wrong Man usually receives. The real killer (Barry Foster) is the charmer here, while the film abounds in disagreeable minor characters. One of the victims is Finch’s girlfriend (Anna Massey); Finch is convicted of the crime; and, in contrast to many of Hitchcock’s thrillers, the audience has no assurance that justice will finally triumph.
Like Topaz, Frenzy is often gorgeous to behold. It’s also full (as Topaz isn’t) of Hitchcock’s mordant humor.
Hitchcock’s films often featured glamorous stars: Grant (four times), Stewart (four times), Kelly (thrice), Gregory Peck (twice), Ingrid Bergman (twice), Laurence Olivier, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Julie Andrews. But he wasn’t always happy with them; and he did some of his most interesting films without them, when he could be free of the necessities they imposed. Has any other director known so many different ways to make unforgettable movies?