Psycho. Vertigo. North by Northwest. The Birds. If Alfred Hitchcock had directed nothing more than that astonishing quartet, he’d still be considered the maestro of creating nail-biting suspense, romantic intrigue, and unforgettable thrills.
But that incredible run of movies, released in theaters from 1958 to 1963, represents only a drop in the bloody bucket of Hitchcock’s masterworks, which stretch back to the 1920s and extend into the 1970s. If you need a reminder of why Hitchcock rules as the all-time master of suspense, and why he is considered the man who pretty much wrote the book on the genre, here’s your quick cheat sheet.
1) Hitchcock Made Us Scream in the Shower
From Boston to Bangkok, Hitchcock stunned 1960 audiences by doing the unheard-of in Psycho: brutally killing-off the film’s sympathetic heroine—and biggest star—less than half way through the action. Taking his cue from the source novel by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock blasted our notions of safety and privacy by staging the landmark murder scene in, of all places, the bathroom, that tight, white space where one feels most relaxed and vulnerable. Or, at least, used to.
And not only did he film Psycho in black and white to help minimize all that blood-letting, but he and editor George Tomasini also employed then-revolutionary rapid-fire editing techniques that suggested nudity and violence. To put the whole thing over the top, he cranked up a shrieking all-strings musical score by Bernard Herrmann.
Voila, Hitchcock, his star Janet Leigh, and his merry band of gifted collaborators set a standard for heart-stopping terror that has yet to be topped—but is endlessly imitated.
2) Hitchcock Brought Menace Out into the Open
Dark alleys? Shifty-eyed villains with twirling moustaches? Graveyards? Rain-slicked cobblestone streets? Haunted houses, rattling chains, and bats in the belfry? Hitchcock considered these clichés ripe for parody and, beginning with his British films of the 1920s, the director shone a bright light on terror and dark deeds. With Hitchcock, thrills can even erupt during a kid’s birthday party, as happens in Young and Innocent and The Birds.
The sophisticated, stylish heroes and heroine of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest get chased by planes in broad daylight and open spaces; in those same films, and such other movies as Blackmail, Saboteur, and Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, dramatic action unfolds against the backdrop of tourist attractions and national monuments like the United Nations, Mount Rushmore, the British Museum, the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, and the Royal Albert Hall.
When violence erupts in and around shower stalls, ski runs, telephone booths, attics, and mountain roads, the lesson is simple: There is nowhere to hide. Chaos and terror will find you, personified by the charming, attractive, and seductive villains of such Hitchcock thrillers as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Topaz, and Family Plot. Other films, from Charade right up through the Batman and Mission: Impossible have been following Hitchcock’s lead ever since.
3) Hitchcock Made Us Walk a Mile in His Heroes’ Shoes
Hitchcock often bragged to the press about how his films grabbed audiences by “making the viewer sweat” and “really putting them through it.” One of the most groundbreaking ways he put us through it was his frequent use of traveling point-of-view shots—that is, moving the camera in a way that places the viewer in the same position as the character on-screen. It’s a technique that makes us uneasy right along with James Stewart when we walk with him down ominous London streets in The Man Who Knew Too Much or when he obsessively stalks Kim Novak up and down hilly San Francisco in Vertigo.
We’re jittery when we move slowly up the hill with Vera Miles in Psycho or when we glide along with her toward old Mrs. Bates sitting in a chair under a naked light bulb in a basement. And how about when we walk down a dock with Tippi Hedren, expecting her to be pecked by the birds, or when we hover with her outside the closed door of a room in which she is about to be engulfed by our feathered fiends? Hitchcock isn’t content with merely making us spectators. We’re full-on participants.
4) Hitchcock Tells His Audience More Than His Characters Know
Hitchcock and his screenwriters created some of the most dazzling moments in movie history by emphasizing agonizing suspense rather than simple, go-for-the-throat shock. The innocent little boy in Hitchcock’s ’30s thriller Sabotage thinks he’s carrying a harmless parcel through London; we know he’s carrying a bomb that is set to detonate at a certain time.
In the Psycho shower scene, the audience is shown, through the opaque shower curtain, what Janet Leigh doesn’t see until it’s too late: the approaching shadow of a killer. Grace Kelly searches the empty apartment of a suspected wife killer in Rear Window while we, along with James Stewart, break into cold sweats watching the murderer make his way back home.
The heroine of The Birds waits impatiently on a bench for a classroom of kids to be let out of school, unaware that flocks of malevolent birds are amassing slowly and silently behind her.
5) Hitchcock Kept Surprises As Surprises
It’s no exaggeration to credit Hitchcock with helping change the way we go to movies. Psycho was made back when the price of a movie ticket bought you a double feature, newsreel, short subjects, and trailers, and movie ticket-buyers tended to pop in and out of theaters whenever they pleased. With Psycho, Hitchcock wanted to create an event. So, he refused to hold any pre-release critics’ screenings, let alone a premiere.
He forced movie-theater owners to sign contracts demanding zero tolerance of any moviegoer expecting to enter the theater once the film started. He launched the film’s release with a massive publicity campaign that stipulated in newspaper, radio, television ads, and posters in theater lobbies: “No one . . . but no one . . . will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.”
He recorded announcements to broadcast on radio and through loudspeakers at theaters warning Psycho audiences not to reveal the ending to their friends. The public ate it up. They formed lines around the block, kept the movie’s secrets to themselves, and turned Psycho into a worldwide phenomenon. Can you imagine any of this happening in our era of wall-to-wall social media, instant gratification, and gleeful spoilers? Neither can we.
6) Hitchcock Revealed More by Showing Less
Hitchcock may be known best for cinematic suspense and thrills, but he was equally superb at finding suspense and thrills in eroticism. That long, long, long nuzzle and kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in the ’40s spy thriller Notorious sizzles over six decades later. When gorgeous adventuress Grace Kelly slyly offers retired jewel thief Cary Grant his choice of leg or breast during a picnic above the French Riviera in To Catch a Thief, she’s offering a bit more than cold chicken.
Sexy spy lady Eva Marie Saint seduces fugitive Cary Grant aboard a posh train, purring, “It’s going to be a long night . . . and I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started. You know what I mean?” Yeah, we do. And, without a bit of nudity or tawdry grappling, doesn’t Janet Leigh’s long lunch break tryst in a cheap hotel with boyfriend John Gavin in Psycho reek of backstreet eroticism? And the chilling spin Anthony Perkins as Psycho’s own Norman Bates puts on the line, “My mother and I were more than happy . . . ” tells you more than you need to know about that relationship.