A prankster and a deeply felt obsessive, a confessor and an enigma, a self-contradictor and a clear, purposeful visionary – Alfred Hitchcock’s identity as artist and impresario is as personal as his title ‘Master of Suspense’ is obligatory.
We think of Hitchcock less as a descendant of other storytellers than in terms of innovations and preoccupations: thrillingly distinct murder scenes; ‘MacGuffin’ plot devices; wrong-man escapes and spy adventures leading to chases, with extraordinary climaxes in monuments from the British Museum to Mount Rushmore. We think of voyeurism, of floating and lurching inward camera moves, of blondes in peril, and of the cottage industry Hitchcock became in his cameo roles, publicity shots and TV product lines like Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Discussion of Hitchcock’s influences is usually more biographical than filmic: his fear of the police, from when he was locked in a cell at his father’s instruction; study at Goldsmith’s, which trained his principles of art and design; frequency of the theatre (which led to adaptations like The Skin Game and Juno and the Paycock); his East End boyhood and Jesuit schooling; his love of the macabre of Edgar Allan Poe.
While Hitchcock’s early experience crewing among German Expressionist masters of UFA studios is well noted (“my models were forever after the German filmmakers of 1924 and 1925”), Hitchcock’s cinephilia extends from reading trade papers in childhood to regular private screenings of new releases through his prime to his declining years. “I saw everything,” he bragged, yet for the enormity of his cinematic knowledge, there’s a gulf between how much Hitch saw and how much we discuss which films influenced his own work, partly because he could be evasive about and to some extent unconscious of them. Here are 10 influences we do know about…
The Avenging Conscience: or ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ (1914)
Director: D.W. Griffith
From his teens, Hitchcock preferred American films and their dimensionality of technique to their flatter British counterparts. To François Truffaut in 1962, he noted: “the classical cutting techniques dating back to D.W. Griffith have stood the test of time and still prevail today.” He called Griffith “the Columbus of the screen”.
“My chases combine what I got from [authors Poe and G.K. Chesterton] with what I got from Griffith,” claimed Hitchcock, particularly Griffith’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ sequence in The Birth of a Nation (1915), the race to save Lillian Gish’s husband from the gallows in Intolerance (1916) and the ice floe sequence in Way Down East (1920).
Griffith adapted Poe for The Avenging Conscience, cobbling the guilt of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and the love stanzas in ‘Annabel Lee’ into a morality play about a man murdering his uncle for forbidding his sweetheart. Hitchcock would likewise conjoin desperate love stories with criminal secrets, and he was impressed by The Avenging Conscience’s shadowy hallucinations and spectral superimpositions, writing in Film Weekly in 1931 that it had been “the forerunner and inspiration of most of the modern German films, to which we owe so much artistically”.
Forbidden Fruit (1921)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
At a press dinner in 1939, Hitchcock cited this romantic potboiler, in which a seamstress is set up with a dashing businessman, inciting ire in her shiftless husband, as one of his 10 favourite films. As in Vertigo (1958), a woman is manipulatively made over to entice a man; as with Rebecca (1940) and Under Capricorn (1949), this has elegant society costumes, emotional triangles and class division – however connections to Hitchcock’s thematic concerns are tenuous.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and produced by Famous Players-Lasky, the American company for whom Hitchcock was working as a title designer at the time of its release, Forbidden Fruit’s citation by Hitchcock speaks more to his entrepreneurial ambition of creating nimble popular entertainments and becoming a DeMillian brand name. (He named another DeMille take on Cinderella – 1922’s Saturday Night – as his overall favourite.) Given that he praised it upon arrival in Hollywood, we can infer further reflection of his infatuation with America and of control of his press image. Forbidden Fruit – adapted from DeMille’s The Golden Chance (1915) – also served as a rare model of a director remaking his own film, as Hitchcock would with The Man Who Knew Too Much.
A Ride on a Runaway Train (1921)
Producer: Lyman H. Howe
Hitchcock was born in 1899, growing up with the ‘cinema of attractions’, including ‘phantom rides’ shot from the fronts of moving trains to simulate their perspective. A Ride on a Runaway Train premiered when Hitchcock was in his early 20s and already working in pictures, yet it’s a release the director has mentioned by name, a lithe continuation of Bioscope novelties.
Toured by travelling showman Lyman H. Howe, A Ride on a Runaway Train’s undercranked camera gives the impression of rollercoaster speed as its locomotive point of view whips around bends, and up and down mountains, while playful title cards wink at ‘Safety First!’ and ‘Hold On to Your Seats!’ It hurtles to a crash finale, as would Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen (1932) and Secret Agent (1936).
“You do see yourself as a switchback railway operator?” an interviewer once asked Hitchcock. “I am the man who says, how steep can we make the first dip?” Hitch replied. “If you make the dip too deep, the screams will continue… you want them to get off the switchback railway giggling with pleasure.”
Director: Fritz Lang
At UFA, Hitchcock had visited the sets of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927), soaking up the geometry and largesse of German Expressionism. Asked by Truffaut which film made a special impression on his young filmgoing, Hitchcock offered Lang’s Destiny, in which the gaunt, implacable Bernhard Goetzke plays Death, and sends grieving fiancée Lil Dagover on a tour of the ages to demonstrate the inevitability of his reaping.
As with The Avenging Conscience, the ghostly effects awakened Hitchcock to the possibilities of demonstrating “phantasmagoria of the mind”, and the succession of chases racing against doom would be absorbed in staple Hitchcock set pieces. Goetzke would later be cast in Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle (1926), but elements of much Lang coarse through early Hitch: the opening of Blackmail (1929), for example, channels the whizzing intrigue of Spione (1928), while scholar John Orr interprets the innocent man faking identities in The 39 Steps (1935) as an inversion of Lang’s villainous master of disguise, Dr Mabuse.
By the time Lang made M (1931), the two directors’ careers were dialoguing with each other, as both negotiated the sound era, experimented with including off-screen murders, and Lang popularised the menacing screen presence of Peter Lorre, later cast by Hitchcock in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Secret Agent and several TV episodes.
The Last Laugh (1924)
Director: F.W. Murnau
“The prime example of expressing a story idea… told visually from beginning to end,” said Hitchcock of F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, the Expressionist drama charting Emil Jannings as a proud but ageing doorman who faces shock and terror at his sudden dismissal. “The Germans in those times placed great emphasis on telling the story with no titles or at least very few… in The Last Laugh Murnau was able to do that, to dispense with titles altogether, except in an epilogue.”
Hitchcock observed the filming of the railway station scene in The Last Laugh, adopting its use of forced perspective for his production design on The Blackguard (1925), and its floating camera and sense of exacting construction for his entire directorial career. Murnau looms, from Hitchcock silents like The Farmer’s Wife (1928) and The Manxman (1929) echoing the pastoral settings and evocative human close-ups of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and City Girl (1930), to the general free movement in both directors’ filmographies between depicting objective scenarios and psychological states.
Un chien andalou (1929)
Director: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s free-associative surrealist masterpiece, while far from Hitchcock’s narrative commercial cinema, has a kinship with his dictum “logic is boring”. Hitchcock was a fan of both artists, hiring Dalí to design the dream sequence in Spellbound (1945), which has a painted eye cut with giant scissors in direct reference to the razored eyeball in Un chien andalou.
On record, Hitchcock praised Buñuel because he was “simple” as opposed to “films where the flowers are out of focus in the foreground,” and Dalí “because of the architectural sharpness of his work… the long shadows, the infinity of distance, and the converging lines of perspective”. Beyond that, we see in Hitchcock the spirit of another artist who enjoyed scandalising sensibilities to cause stirs. And in Hitchcock’s morbid comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955), we even see him recall Un chien andalou’s image of a corpse appearing in the woods as the starting point for his own brand of absurdism.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Director: Vittorio De Sica
“Some films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake,” said Hitchcock, who derided ‘sink to sink’ realism – what thrill would a housewife get by going to the movies after washing the dishes and watching the characters wash dishes? His relationship with Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s street-roaming tragedy of an impoverished father searching for his bicycle to keep his job, shades Hitchcock’s bluster about pure entertainment as an example of his misdirection.
In one interview Hitch alluded to having seen Bicycle Thieves with his housekeeper, who was half-bored. To the New York Times, though, he admitted to being impressed by a perfect double-chase: physical and psychological. A similar stripped aesthetic and weary grind would be emulated by Hitchcock in one of his career’s outliers, The Wrong Man (1956), which experimented in creating drama through ‘realism’ rather than dramatic licence by staying self-consciously faithful to the facts of a real-life case.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
The novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wanted nothing more than for Hitchcock to option one of their books, yet Hitch was pipped to the post by director Henri-Georges Clouzot, who secured rights to make Les Diaboliques (after having similarly acquired Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear from under Hitchcock’s nose in 1953).
This murder chiller with twists involving a ‘haunting’ and identity tricks was screened numerous times by Hitchcock in preproduction for his similarly themed Vertigo – which was indeed based on D’entre les morts, also by Boileau-Narcejac. The perverse machinations and stark modern monochrome of Les Diaboliques also led to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – which was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who points to Les Diaboliques as his favourite film.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Director: Michael Powell
Michael Powell was a kindred spirit of Hitchcock’s, both being British-born directors whose careers spanned the early to late 20th century and pushed the limits of psychologically provocative mass entertainment. Powell worked for Hitchcock as a writer on Blackmail, and his pioneering directorial work with Emeric Pressburger influenced Hitchcock’s later American films – the erupting colour overlays in Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marnie (1964) recollect Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).
Powell’s Peeping Tom was released mere months before Psycho, and both represented elder directors chartering a shocking new era of screen intensity. The tale of a filmmaker who murders his female subjects – which implicates the voyeurism of cinema and inspires complex audience sympathy for its warped, wounded protagonist – Peeping Tom saluted Psycho on their tandem journeys to the screen and encouraged the self-analytical, frustrated sexuality of 1960s Hitchcocks like The Birds (1963) and Marnie. Hitchcock recast its Anna Massey as another murder victim in his penultimate film, Frenzy (1972).
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
“My God!” Hitchcock exclaimed to screenwriter Howard Fast. “I’ve just seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. These Italian directors are a century ahead of me in terms of technique. What have I been doing all this time?”
Shocked into the new, Hitchcock repeatedly watched Blowup. Test footage for Kaleidoscope – the project that would become Frenzy – is suffused with similar dreamy colours and jaded infatuation with swinging London. In the period when Kaleidoscope was shelved, Hitchcock took to calling Antonioni “pretentious” and the Frenzy that did come to pass became a more complex negotiation between the contemporary and the bygone city of Hitchcock’s upbringing.
After making this savage masterpiece, Hitchcock’s final film was the lighter Family Plot (1976), and Hitchcock as a viewer gave up on new waves, spending his winter years comfort-viewing family entertainment like the dog-thwarts-kidnappers adventure Benji (1974). Like David Hemmings’ disillusioned photographer at the end of Antonioni’s movie, Hitchcock was now vulnerable and disoriented by a world out of his control. After years of seeing and making adventurous cinema, Hitchcock retreated from the faith of works like Blowup only to find himself living a mirror of its desolate vision.
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