July 26th, 2012
11:16 AM ET
Alfred Hitchcock, one of the few film directors equally adored by critics, film scholars and the box office, was notorious for his explanation of the difference between surprise and suspense: A bomb explosion will surprise the audience, but a bomb planted under a table will keep them in suspense.
And for the Master of Suspense, the 1950s were an "extraordinarily productive decade," says film professor Raymond Foery, with 1972's "Frenzy" being considered Hitchcock's final masterpiece. The film, which gets a close examination in Foery's new book, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy: The Last Masterpiece” (Scarecrow Press), is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its nationwide U.S. theatrical release this month.
"I think Hitchcock is one of the great directors in cinema history,” Foery told CNN, “but the question remains, 'Where does he rank? Robin Wood, the famous critic, once called Hitchcock the 'Shakespeare of Cinema,' and I find I totally agree with that. He's one of the few directors who made films for the masses but at the same time scholars and critics find more and more to study about those films."
Hitchcock is one of the recognized masters of two of the most important approaches to film: mise-en-scene (visual storytelling) and montage (an editing technique). As Foery explains in his book, audiences are not so much connected to or moved “by the actual stories he tells – of men on the run, crimes of passion, spy intrigue, domestic turmoil. Rather, we are impressed by the means he engages to relay these stories to us.”
Hitchcock’s films are not particularly famous for their scripts or acting, but his mastery of the moving camera, which separates film from the other art forms. Hitchcock’s masterpieces could never be conveyed in the form of a book, a play or a painting. As Foery writes, he was “a master at utilizing uniquely cinematic techniques to communicate.”
The distinctive mise-en-scene in films such as “Notorious” (1946) - via a crane shot, the camera slowly descends upon a key that Ingrid Bergman is holding behind her back - and “Rear Window” (1954) - in one shot, the audience learns that Jimmy Stewart’s character is a travel photographer with a broken leg, along with myriad details of his life and living situation - are among Hitchcock’s most iconic.
Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) consists of just 10 moving camera shots in the entire feature-length film. To put things in perspective, most feature films contain upwards of 1,000 shots while action films generally contain about 3,000.
Some non-Hitchcock examples of extended, single shot takes are the opening shot of Orson Welles' “Touch of Evil” (1958) and, more recently, the shot in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) where Ray Liotta’s character, Henry, takes Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on their first date. The camera starts outside the car, goes across the street and through the nightclub’s side door. It then descends down the stairs and follows Henry and Karen as they snake through various corridors, through the kitchen and finally into the club where they eventually find their way to their table.
Tired yet? The crew sure was! That’s part of the reason why most directors elect to edit several shots into a sequence. The complicated setups and logistics often prevent filmmakers from making such grand cinematic gestures.
In the shower scene in “Psycho” (1960), the power is “clearly in its editing, and its editing is singularly brilliant,” observes Foery. In the majority of “Rear Window” (1954), the audience sees the world through Stewart’s character’s eyes. Hitchcock only briefly lets the audience in on what Stewart doesn’t know when the main protagonist is sleeping.
According to Foery, who teaches a Hitchcock seminar at Quinnipiac University, the director was in an "artistic and commercial trough" just before "Frenzy"” came along. His two prior projects, "Topaz" (1969) and "Torn Curtain" (1966) were not financial successes.
By 1970, Hitchcock was depressed, and spent a large majority of his time reading scripts that people would send him and sought out books for possible film projects.
When Arthur La Bern’s 1966 novel "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square" - the basis for "Frenzy" - came along, it was not a particularly eloquent nor well-written novel, but it was ideal Hitchcock material because many of the book's elements were reminiscent of classic Hitchcock: the wrong man gets accused and all the while the audience knows who the true guilty party is.
“Frenzy” was Hitchcock’s 52nd feature film and the first to be shot in London in its entirety since he departed the city of his birth in 1939 and left for Hollywood.
"By the time Hitchcock was shooting 'Frenzy' he was 72 years old. Society had shifted to faster-paced films," Foery told CNN.
“Frenzy,” Hitchcock’s penultimate film about a serial killer known as the Necktie Murderer, contains several classic Hitchcockian (How many directors can say their names have been turned into adjectives?) elements. The camera pull-back out of the apartment while the character of Babs is murdered is one of the signature movements in all of Hitchcock. The camera inches down the stairs and out the front door of the building and across the street.
The potato truck scene puts the audience, as Hitchcock liked to do, in the villain's shoes. The character of Rusk, having realized that his victim must have ripped off his monogrammed tie pin in the struggle for her life, gets stuck on a moving potato truck after having stashed her corpse there. But even though the audience knows he’s the murderer, as viewers we get frustrated because Rusk can't find his tie pin. The scene also contains the black humor which Hitchcock loved. Rusk being kicked by the dead woman’s foot and the breaking of the fingers to retrieve the tie pin because rigor mortis has set in are cringe-worthy moments even by today’s standards.
Having directed 53 films in his career, “Frenzy” hardly rolls off one’s tongue when engaging in a discussion of the master’s works, if only by virtue of the fact that he did make so many films.
“Rear Window” (1954); “Vertigo” (1958); “North by Northwest” (1959); “Psycho” (1960); and “The Birds” (1963) remain among Hitchcock’s most notable. These, Foery explained, have sustained his reputation through the years.
Incidentally, the only Hitchcock film to win the best picture Oscar was “Rebecca” (1940). Hitchcock never won a best director Academy Award or a Director’s Guild of America Award. He was eventually knighted by the British Royal Family in January 1980, just a few months shy of his death.
So what will be Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s lasting legacy?
"When people go to the movies today," Foery told CNN, "90 percent of the time they'll recall lines of dialogue. But with Hitchcock, you almost never quote a line, and that's what made him the master."
What about you? Which are your favorite Hitchcock films and why? What are some of your favorite scenes?
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