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Hitchcock: suspense, voyeurism and a drive to entertain

Power, its abuse and its absence are at the heart of Hitchcock’s films, argues Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2314

Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Rear Window

Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Rear Window


The film director Alfred Hitchcock emphasised that all he wanted was to entertain people.

Now raised to the level of venerable, analysed and examined beyond breaking point, Hitchcock’s films suffer sometimes from too much awe and praise.

This forgets that most, though not all, of his films were hugely popular—and were intended to be so.

He described suspense as a genre he dominated, saying, “There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…”

The bomb being carried through the streets of London in Sabotage (1936) is one of the great scenes of cinema. Hitchcock claimed to regret that the bomb does go off in the end—being a surprise rather than suspense.

He used grand scale and huge sets when needed. Big stars come close to peril when they approach well known monuments. But he also did whole films in the most restrictive of settings.

Lifeboat (1944) takes place in, well, a lifeboat. Rope (1948), where fascists plan the perfect murder in one room, gives the impression of being shot in one room in one take.

The same themes are repeatedly stuffed inside the films. An apparent chance meeting on a train, mistaken identity, a man falsely accused, some voyeurism, and a touch of homoeroticism.

Idol

They are there from the beginning. The Lodger (1926) marks Hitchcock’s first feature shot in Britain. The matinee idol Ivor Novello is cast against type as a mysterious man suspected of a string of killings of blonde women across London.

Hitchcock himself called it the “first true ‘Hitchcock’ movie”. It has just been restored and is being shown as part of a season showing all of the surviving Hitchcock films at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London.

Part of his achievement was to merge avant-garde techniques and use them to give depth to the films.

The red blast at the end of the black-and-white Spellbound (1945), when a gun goes off aimed directly at the viewer, is one among hundreds.

In Psycho (1960), the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is arguably the most famous sequence in film history. Part of the shock at the time was Hitchcock being prepared to kill the star early on in a film. The movie is about class and powerlessness. Marion steals money to escape her dull job.

It is often the case that Hitchcock’s guilty men are innocent and his guilty women are guilty. His voyeurism and sexism are undeniable, but his movies are about power, its abuses and its absence.

But the films are also about the sexuality and voyeurism of the cinema audience. We watch Jimmy Stewart watch people in Rear Window. We know the killer is behind the door or the bomb is on the bus—the characters don’t.

He made cynical-sounding remarks about manipulating audiences. But the driving force of Hitchcock’s cinema was to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Genius of Hitchcock season is on until October at BFI South Bank, London SE1 8XT. Go to whatson.bfi.org.uk


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Reviews
Tue 31 Jul 2012, 16:51 BST
Issue No. 2314
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