Why Alfred Hitchcock?

20 12 2009

Welcome to “Alfred Hitchcock and Me,” a blog by me, Adam Philips. If you know me, you probably know that I’m a big fan of music, TV, comics, books and movies. And while I work by day in Marketing at DC Comics, I’m here to talk movies. I love movies, and thanks Turner Classic Movies, I’ve been able to catch up on lots I’ve missed in the past. Just recently, for example, I watched “The Shop Around The Corner” and “High Sierra,” both for the first time.

“High Sierra” offers a great look into the old Hollywood studio system. Here, Ida Lupino gets top billing over Humphrey Bogart, yet it’s Bogart’s movie from start to finish. The action traces his story arc as Roy “Mad Dog” Earl, who is paroled from prison, brought in on a heist and tied to a farm family heading for California. After the heist goes south, the police corner him in the Sierra mountains, where (spoiler!) he is shot when his position is given away by the barking of his loyal dog. Yes, Lupino is there from about 20 minutes in, and nominally, she’s the star, but it’s Bogart’s movie. He’s in virtually every scene of the movie, and every step of the way he commands the camera and dominates his fellow actors. From that time on, he would be a star.

 It’s a terrific product of the studio system, and features some recognizable actors, notably Henry Travers, who a few years later played the angel Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Meanwhile, in “The Shop Around the Corner, also from 1940, I was pleased to see Frank Morgan, fresh off his multiple roles in “The Wizard of Oz,” who is delightful and understated as the owner of the titular shop.

Since then, I’ve watched “The 400 Blows,” “Passage to Marseilles,” and “Becket,” all great movies in their own ways. 

For years now, I’ve been in the habit of looking at TCM’s schedule for movies I want to see, and every week, I watch for find movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Has any director ever equalled the career of Alfred Hitchcock? You could make arguments for other filmmakers in one specific area or another, but when you add up his accomplishments, Hitchcock is the greatest director ever. Hitchcock was prolific, thrilling, subversive, surprisingly funny, often tender. On top of that, he was a brand, thanks to his TV series, magazine and books; from the late 1940s, he was labeled “The Master of Suspense” by his studios’ publicity departments. He also was a natural showman, starring in his own movie trailers and introducing his TV shows with a droll sense of humor. And recently, I realized I had only seen fourteen of his movies – which meant that my impressions of his career were based on only about a quarter of his film output.

My idea, my quest, is to watch every one of Hitchcock’s movies in one year and write about each of them — in order, as much as possible. From the silents into the sound era, from black and white to color, from formative murder mysteries to assured studies of psychoses, I plan to watch all the classics, as well as the unfortunate missteps and quirky digressions. (I count 52 movies because at least one completed film, Waltzes From Vienna, is lost. And so far, I haven’t found his very first directorial effort, The Pleasure Garden, on DVD. There are a few other exceptions and footnotes that we’ll look at later.)

As the line at the top of this page says, I consider myself a film buff. Okay, I admit I’m not a walking encyclopedia of film – I certainly don’t have the depth of knowledge of, say, Glenn Kenny. But I’ve watched my share of movies, and then some.

When I was a kid, my paternal grandfather took me to science fiction movies that were waaay over my head, like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as well as “Planet of The Apes,” “The Andromeda Strain” and “Marooned” (a major bore). And during the years I went to Syracuse University, I probably spent more time watching movies than going to classes. 

I know that watching a bunch of movies may not measure up to Julie Powell’s quest to cook her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering The Art of French Cooking, but that’s okay.” You have to follow your passion, and watching movies is a big one for me.

So: Some ground rules. Assuming I can find it, I will start watching and writing about the movies in January with 1925’s silent film “The Pleasure Garden.” While it’s not officially the first movie Hitchcock directed, it’s his earliest surviving, completed movie. (There are a few others from the early part of his career that are lost to the ages, including “Waltzes from Vienna” and “The Mountain Eagle.”)

Also, I don’t plan to get into his television work. While he appeared on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and its successor, “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” he only directed about twenty episodes total. So I’m going to skip over them, unless I get really ambitious. As to his propaganda films produced during World War II – at this point, I’m on the fence about them. We’ll see how it goes.

Lastly, I’m going to try and apply the same critical judgment to these films that I did back in 1986 when The Beatles’ albums were first issued on CD. Every time a new one was released, I would rush home and listen to it as though I’d never heard it before — and, in some cases, I hadn’t heard the British version of the album, or I hadn’t listened to a particular album in many years. The point is, I came to them with fresh ears, and it’s with that sense of open-mindedness that I want to approach these movies.

Where will this quest take me? Will I learn more about the language of film? Will I explore my own inner dramas as I watch Hitchcock work out his own issues onscreen? Will my family lose patience with me spending too much time watching all these weird old movies?

We’ll see.

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11 responses

27 12 2009
Lance

Someday, Adam, I must relate to you the story of how my wife, my best friend (and fellow Hitch fan) and I came to NY in for the HItchcock exhibit at the MOMA. We had time to screen one of two movies being shown that day — and I chose “Elstree Calling” which, if you’ve never seen it, MUST be seen to be believed. “Ziegfeld Follies” it ain’t, but it’s a treat trying to figure out which parts Hitch directed.
Can’t wait to read more musings from you!

27 12 2009
adamphilips

“Elstree Calling” does sound interesting, Lance. Hope to see it somewhere along the way.

28 12 2009
cecily

The Shop Around the Corner is best to see around this time of year (Xmas). Don’t you agree?

28 12 2009
adamphilips

Of course! And it sure beats “You’ve Got Mail.” (I haven’t seen the other remake of it, “In the Good Old Summertime.”) But how come everyone has those nice, fake Hungarian accents except James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan? It’s the same with supposedly French Humphrey Bogart in “Passage to Marseilles.”

5 01 2010
Mike

You have chosen a great challenge. From the depth of insight in the prelude commentaries, I can’t wait to read all about Hitchcock and his films. Like most of us, I’ve seen a few, but hardly 52. Go get ’em, Adam!

15 01 2010
Chuck Munson

Hi Adam,
I found your blog courtesy of Gemstone Publishing’s “Scoop” newsletter. Mr. Hitchcock’s films have always been favorites of mine (even if they sometimes scared the be-gee-bees out of me). I’m going to have to check how many I’ve seen, but I rather imagine it includes the same ones that you have, so I’m looking forward to your future posts.

BTW, I whole-heartedly agree with you regarding “Shop Around the Corner.” While this is not to slam either Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan, the movie is just not put together as well. I can watch “SAtC” numerous times and catch something I missed previously. My personal belief is that the best films give you something new with each viewing.

And yes, I chuckled at your Julia and Julie comment, having already made the mental comparison when I first read the blurb in Scoop.

Have fun,
Chuck Munson

16 01 2010
Tim O'Shea

Color me ignorant, but I had no idea there were “propaganda films produced during World War II” by him. So now consider me on the side hoping you’ll write, however briefly, about them.

16 01 2010
adamphilips

Hi Tim — Yes, he made three or four short films during WWII that were never widely released because they were considered a bit too realistic and grim. He made them in England and never said a word against the critics who said he’d abandoned England for Hollywood. I probably will cover them, because frankly, the more I learn about Hitchcock, the more I DON’T want to miss anything.

19 01 2010
Ron Hobbs

Hi Adam,
I first became obsessed with Alfred Hitchock movies when I saw Vertigo in re-release in 1983. Like you, I sought out every Hitch movie, which was quite the task given that home entertainment was in it’s infancy. I went to the second- run theatres and diligently went through the TV Guide looking for any of his movies. I eventually saw all his American movies and quite a number of his British as well as several silents, all within a year or so. My conclusion? Possibly the greatest artist the medium has ever known.

4 03 2010
Andrew Smith

I’ll have to read through this. I always liked the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. And, I loved how he made a cameo in his films. Curious as to how many films he did that with. All of the ones he directed?

4 03 2010
adamphilips

Hi Andrew – I’m working on a post about Hitch’s cameos… it’s not quite all the films he directed, but close. And there are a few interesting asterisks as well.

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