Alfred Hitchcock Presents...: Why the Master of Suspense is arguably my most important filmmaker.
If you ever ask me to list my favorite directors you’ll see a flash of panic smash up on my face like I’ve walked into oncoming traffic as I desperately try to reel through all the potential names of all the directors who work I love and then weigh them up with their actual skills as a director, their styles, their consistency. My mind with throw up Tarantino and I’ll go, “Well, I love his work, but he’s really more of a writer,” and then it’ll ping me John Carpenter and I’ll go, “Carpenter has a great filmography, but his last few movies really dropped with ball”, and then it hands me Kubrick, and I go, “Truthfully, I’ve actually only seen the BIG ones, so I fear I can’t comment…”
The point is, being asked a deceptively simply question like “Who’s your favorite director” for me, quickly becomes a difficult game of weighing pros and cons, considering the work, considering the involvement in the work, and considering what the question itself even means. Favorite director in what way? Most consistent filmography? Best visual style? Most attractive?
It might seem like a simple question, but I’s not really. And when you ask me it, I just wind up wondering whether you even really know what it is you’re asking.
I’ve tried to give that question a lot of consideration, and I always come down to the simple fact that there’s more than one answer dependent on what you’re looking for. And, those answers are also liable to change depending on day, the time, my mood, or even just what I watched last night. So, I’m sorry for all of you who have heard that rant before for simply being unfortunate enough to ask me the question, but sadly you’re not going to find an answer here, either.
Considering the answer to this question, though, did lead me to a realization about something that I would like to talk about. During my mulling over of potential favorites, one name kept creeping back in, whether we’re talking about style, substance, enjoyment, consistency, or simply just influence on me as a filmmaker myself. And it occurred to me, during this time, that this particular director has arguably been the longest serving influence on me, as well as one of the biggest.
And, oddly enough, despite his work being so film centric, my first encounter with him did come from film at all. It came from an audiobook, read on a cassette tape, and played to my brother and I as we drifted off to sleep.
Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators in The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot was, looking back on it now, an odd concept. It was about, if I remember rightly, three young boys who had begun their own detective agency, and Alfred Hitchcock was their patron. As far as concepts go, it’s bizarrely meta, and considering the book on which the audio play was based was released in 1964, you really have to admire the inventiveness.
But then, Hitchcock was all about that kind of nodding and winking to the audience. He was, first and foremost, a showman, as his cameos and marketing campaigns would often prove.
When I first listened to The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, I’m not sure I knew who Alfred Hitchcock was, but I remember, very distinctly, his silhouette on the cover and his name, scribbled as a signature, larger than even the actual title.
Indeed, he appeared in the play, whether it was really him I can’t say, but I remember his voice vividly too. Even without the knowledge of who Hitchcock was, he was the key attribute that stuck out to me during this peculiar bedtime listening. Where it came from or where it is now, I don’t know, but this was most definitely my first encounter with the master of suspense, and it’s also directly responsible for my first cinematic encounter with him too.
I was maybe about 10, and North by Northwest was on the TV. No doubt it was ITV on a lazy Sunday afternoon, because those were the things that played in my house in the 90s, and normally it wouldn’t have been the kind of thing I’d have given so much as a second glance at, but I remember Hitchcock’s name appearing in the iconic Saul Bass title sequence, and I was intrigued. That guy from the audiobook did a film!? Okay, let’s see what this is like.
10-year-old me loved North by Northwest. It was a fun, wild adventure, and reminded me of early Bond movies (ironically, I would learn years later that early Bond movies are actually riffing on the style Hitchcock setup), and I still love it today.
From these two encounters with old Hitch grew a fascination, and soon I was seeking out Hitchcock films. It was perhaps the first time I had ever really considered that the person directing these works could be a stamp of approval for the work itself, and there’s a lot about Hitchcock’s style that I think plays into my own work.
Take, for example, my absolute favorite suspense sequence from any Hitchcock film, Rope. In a film built around the gimmick of a single take, it’s somewhat unusual for the camera to suddenly become so static, yet around the hour mark here we are. The shot rests upon the bookcase, inside which we as the audience know is a body. The books, as we’ve been informed earlier, have been emptied out and placed on the dining room table, meaning that the party food has been spread out on top of the bookcase.
The shot remains still, rested on the bookcase. We can hear a conversation happening off screen. Beyond the case we can see into the dining room, and beyond that into the kitchen. The maid has collected the plates from the top of the bookcase. She heads for the kitchen, and disappears through the door, only to reappear a moment later with her hands empty. She takes the glasses from the top of the bookcase and heads back to the kitchen. Then she repeats the task, this time taking the tablecloth.
Hitchcock’s genius is in the fact that we know what’s about to happen, but none of the characters do, and he simply allows the moment to play out in real time, without ever moving the camera to do it. The tension is almost unbearable, even know when I think about it I find myself excited and on the edge of my seat.
The main returns from the kitchen empty handed, but disappears round the corner into the dining room, and she reappears… books in her hand.
The first time I saw this my heart leapt into my throat. There’s no lighting change, no musical cue, no grand movement of the camera, just a lady and some books, but it is without a doubt one of the most bum-clenchingly tense sequences in all of cinema. At least as far as I’m concerned. And that approach, simply allowing the horror to play out, has been something I have taken on board when producing my own work.
I may not be able to name a favorite director, but I can certainly call Hitchcock one of my faves. His influence has been immeasurable on me, his style is iconic, and his presence magnetic. It could be said that without Hitchcock, I may not have been drawn to film at all. Whoever bought my brother and I The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot owes a lot of people an apology, I guess.
If you haven’t seen a Hitchcock film, I really do recommend seeking one out. Take your pick, most of them are pretty good, but you can’t go wrong with one of the biggies. Almost instantly you’ll realize just why the guy’s work is so beloved.