(Sir) Alfred Hitchcock 1899–1980
Hitchcock's name is synonymous with the sophisticated, graceful thriller. His films demonstrate a consistent view that transforms the ordinary into the exotic. An outstanding technician, Hitchcock uses the camera to advance his story and mood, introducing dialogue only when it is absolutely necessary. His plots shun conventional terror gimmicks, centering instead on common anxieties and human weaknesses.
Hitchcock's first job in the cinema was as a designer of title cards for silent films. Subsequently, he rose to script writer, art director, and assistant director. In 1925, Hitchcock directed his first feature, The Pleasure Garden. However, The Lodger was the first film to display his inimitable style. Motifs to reappear included his interest in cinematic effects, the "transference of guilt" whereby an innocent character is accused unjustly of a crime, and the inevitable appearance of Hitchcock himself. Blackmail, Hitchcock's first sound feature, brought him international fame and led a string of spy thrillers, culminating in The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty Nine Steps. Products of his peak creative period, they demonstrate a developing talent for manipulating audience reaction by suspense. At the same time, there surfaced his macabre humor as a means of increasing anxiety.
In 1939, David O. Selznick lured Hitchcock to Hollywood. Hitchcock's first Hollywood film, Rebecca, dealt with another recurring Hitchcock motif: a woman haunted by the memory of another. As an indication of his American work, Rebecca introduced a new psychological aspect which took several directions. One, the insinuation of unfounded suspicion, is developed in later films, including Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt. Later work demonstrated his interest in psychodrama. Such films as Vertigo and Marnie explore the depths of a female psyche, while causing the audience to alternately embrace and disdain the heroine.
Hitchcock's British chase films of the 1930s reemerged in much altered form in the 1950s. Many critics find these films his finest works, since they provide an ideal setting for Hitchcock's fascination with technical challenges. In particular, these films allowed him an opportunity to place endangered protagonists in settings symbolizing order, such as Mount Rushmore, in North by Northwest. By disturbing that which is traditionally stable, Hitchcock brings out his theme of a world in disorder, increasingly penetrated by evil.
While encompassing a wide variety of thematic materials, Hitchcock eschewed the "whodunnit" genre by studying the evil inherent in what one already sees. The mass appeal of his films occasionally led reviewers to treat them as popular entertainment instead of cinematic art. However, their appeal to the French new wave filmmakers has inspired many viewers to reevaluate Hitchcock's work in terms of his visual narrative and technical ingenuity.
[The Thirty-Nine Steps] neatly converts its essential implausibility into an asset by stressing the difficulties which confront its hero when he tries to tell outsiders about the predicament he is in. (p. 44)
In the last two years, by making a specialty of melodrama, the English cinema industry sometimes appears to have taken its motto from the words of a song popular in the U.S. a year ago, "Here Come the British with a Bang, Bang." The Thirty-Nine Steps is the most effective demonstration to date of Director Alfred Hitchcock's method of artful understatement and its success, which has already been sensational abroad, should be a lesson to his Hollywood imitators. (pp. 44-5)
"Cinema: 'The Thirty-Nine Steps'," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time, Inc. 1935), Vol. XXVI, No. 13, September 23, 1935, pp. 44-5.