A quarantine with The Master

Several years ago now, I started systemically moving through the work of high-profile directors. This is part of the path from loud movie nerd to legitimate film scholar – film scholars actually study film, they don’t just write about it. The idea is to go over a director’s entire filmography in the span of about a month, completely immerse myself in the world as they see it and the techniques with which they use to convey it, in order to better understand them as individuals and more broadly how any individual would express themselves personally through this medium. Things were cruising along fine until I hit no. 5 on my list: Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock directed 59 films over the course of 54 years extending back to the silent era. That’s not including the two World War II propaganda films commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, which were released in 1993 crediting him as the director, or the 19 other films he worked on in a smaller capacity. This was a product of the times – under the studio system, films were more or less cranked out via assembly line, with writers and actors and directors all interchangeable. The “director” role was more of an elevated set wrangler, they weren’t the overarching creative presence in production that is typically expected today. Going through a modern director’s filmography is a leisurely month-long commitment, but going through Hitchcock’s overwhelming torrent of work would be a marathon that I didn’t have the time or will for.

Instead of stretching out the timeline or simply moving on to another director, I put the entire project on hold indefinitely because, well, I’m stubborn. But the COVID-19 crisis paused new theatrical releases and significantly reduced my daily tasks, providing a unique – hopefully – stretch of time during which I could complete Hitchcock’s filmography.

We started in May. The pace was necessarily brutal, with long stretches of multiple movies per day. Even with nothing else to do, I felt I had to limit the scope somehow, so we cut off the beginning of his career and started with 1935’s The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s first hit in America – this also had the benefit of cutting off several lost films from his silent era days. Even with this indulgence, the project stretched into late June. I was not alone in this, my primary quarantine contacts joined, but only in spurts, usually for movies they were already interested in.

Even now, I am unsure what I have learned. In an early Studio Era Hollywood when big-name stars were still the draw, Hitchcock emerged as the first superstar director, and many things now taken as immutable Hollywood truisms, up to and including entire genres, got their start as his whims. His work is held up as timeless and unassailable, but it is sultry, salacious, frequently substandard and always spurred by a juvenile sense of humor, more concerned with courting immediate controversy and pushing ratings boundaries than “making art,” concerns that root all of his films firmly in their year of release. Additionally, since I’m generally unfamiliar with movies from this time period, I can not fully parse what was broadly fashionable from uniquely Hitchcockian preferences. I do not feel that I have studied as single director as much as I have taken a time capsule through ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood.

I do not fully understand what I have looked at, but I will tell you what I have seen.

***

It is 1935, and Hitchcock’s first stateside hit, The 39 Steps, has just released. After 15 years, it is the beginning of the end of his British period.

Going through his last six films before moving to Hollywood, several things are immediately apparent. These films are far removed from Hitchcock as he’s thought of today, but that’s the thing about this project – Hitchcock is remembered as an institution, but out of almost 60 films, most people today could only tell you about four or five. Going through all of his work, or at least a majority of it, we get to see an evolution, one that played out in much greater detail than it could for less prolific filmmakers, working its way toward a clear and easily identified climax.

The inherent interchangeability of studio era films led to a great deal of repetition and cliché, and they show up during Hitchcock’s last six British pictures in some goofy ways. The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent in particular, released just two years apart, are nearly carbon copies of each other, both stories about a falsely accused man and a reluctant woman companion on the lamb in the U.K. countryside. They even both have major chase scenes ended by a flock of sheep suddenly blocking the road.

Almost everything made during this period is based on a novel of some kind, much of it heavily altered to fit in with this extremely narrow plot setup. This would remain true through the decades, with almost every entry in Hitchcock’s career based on a novel or short story or play of some kind, through his peak years and to his very last movies. Outside of his Selznick period, Hitchcock films based on original scripts are vanishingly rare – even his masterpieces are mostly based on novels and short stories. It makes more sense, I’d say, in the studio era, when scripts were cranked out like so many engines and creativity rarely need be part of the process. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In this context of mostly interchangeable pictures, movies were accepted or dismissed for strange reasons – well, reasons that seem even stranger than they are today. Jamaica Inn, for example, was derided because the main villain, played by first-billed Charles Laughton, was too fat. Reputation also affects preservation – because it was dismissed, a good restoration of Jamaica Inn is tough to find, but better-received films from the same period are everywhere.

Within this strange uniform genre, in which two attractive leads are unwittingly thrust together through situations ranging from romantic to comedic to suspenseful, a lot of celebrity norms start to make sense. The split actor awards, with separate awards for male and female lead and supporting roles, which don’t map onto many contemporary films at all, map perfectly onto this formula, and it makes perfect sense to categorize performances by gender and compare them directly – they are, after all, playing essentially the same male and female characters through different situations.

Supporting actors and leading men and women were entirely different castes in the studio system, and crossovers like Humphrey Bogart were big deals. With actors under contract to the studio directly and able to be moved onto and off of different projects at a whim, everyone had essentially a stock character they carried with them across the studio lot. “Lead actor” and “supporting actor” could be considered not only different roles in this context, but entirely different job descriptions. It makes so much more sense against this backdrop to see celebrities prostrate themselves to be sexualized and fantasized about, the existence of the paparazzi and all those awful magazines, once you realize how essential being considered attractive is to actors’ employment.

Even within this uniformity, which I can only assume is reflected in the rest of British cinema from the time, Hitchcock’s immense talent is apparent. Perfectly timed and framed reveal shots and gorgeous lighting and use of shadows abound. It’s easy to see how he rose out of the studio environment. Watching these movies in 2020, there’s a shocking dissonance between their quaint disposability and the brilliant, enduring images that suddenly leap out from their most mundane moments. It was obvious in the moment, as well, with several American publications already hailing Hitchcock as the greatest director in the world. His reputation would only expand once he was backed by American money.

The first auteur

It is 1939. Hitchcock has moved to Los Angeles and is making movies under a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick. It is the classic unhappy Hollywood marriage of an overbearing producer and a director in love with his artistic vision.

In 1940, Selznick and United Artists releases his first Hitchcock-directed picture, Rebecca, a romantic drama about a woman marrying a rich widower and living in the shadow of his first wife. It is the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture and one of only five times he would be nominated for Best Director, never winning. Hitchcock clashed constantly with Selznick on set, and despite remaining under contract with him for several years, Hitchcock would barely work with Selznick again. Of the 11 films Hitchcock made during the contract, only Rebecca, Spellbound and The Paradine Case were made under Selznick directly – the rest saw Selznick renting him out to other producers.

Hitchcock was not known for struggling with his producers like this at least partially because he committed to winning those fights before they started. There’s a saying that every film gets made three times – first it gets written, then it gets shot and finally it gets edited, and this is a very helpful mentality to approach production with. Each leg of production, at least in theory, should produce a full, finished result, be it a script, a workprint with plenty of alternative footage or a finalized film, each a modification of the other in sequence. This segmented approach is what allowed, and what still allows, studios to churn movies out the way they do. They set up what were essentially three different kinds of factories for each leg of production and cranked the product out, with producers serving as the overarching guidance from one leg of production to the next.

This is the key respect in which Hitchcock was decades ahead of his time. Hitchcock inserted himself into the pre- and post-productions of his films as much as he could, overseeing drafts of scripts headed his way and meticulously storyboarding before production, a technique that was brand new at the time – 1939’s Gone With the Wind, also a Selznick picture, is credited as the first live-action movie to be completely storyboarded. During production, in many cases, Hitchcock would limit his camera setups to only shots that he wanted in the final cut, limiting editors’ ability to alter the final product.  

Based on personal documents released after his death, the degree to which Hitchcock employed these tactics is disputed, but these are fights that continue to this day, in some cases taking the exact form they did during Hitchcock’s time. That’s part of what’s so chilling about Disney’s recent habit of firing directors over “creative differences.” Disney and other major production companies, while they continue to exist, are also relying more and more on post-production animation in the vein of the Star Wars prequels, further tightening studio control over the standard production process.

It is 1944. Hitchcock earns his second Best Director nomination for Lifeboat, a bottle movie set in the wreckage of a civilian merchant ship destroyed by a U-boat in the North Atlantic, one of the more mundane German atrocities which was common across both world wars. British and American civilians stranded in a lifeboat pull a single German survivor aboard. The group is running out of food and must make for Bermuda, but the German is the only one aboard who knows how to navigate, and no one is sure that he isn’t directing them deeper into enemy territory.

Hitchcock is still cranking out more than one movie per year at this point, and since the cycle is much faster, they get to be much more exclusively tied to the time they were made. Hitchcock is not only politically topical, but stylistically – he enters the film noir boom with this stunning silhouette titlecard for Saboteur, which came out just a year after Citizen Kane. Image courtesy Universal Pictures.

As World War II accelerates, we start to see how topical Hitchcock’s work really is. His last major British hit, The Lady Vanishes, released in October 1938 seven months after the Anschluß, ends with an extended scene in which the civilian passengers of a train already under attack by apparently German troops debate about whether to keep fighting or surrender. One character, in the most British possible way, states “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for all this,” while returning fire.

While he meticulously avoids mentioning the Nazis explicitly, Hitchcock carries a staunchly pro-war stance with him to Hollywood. Foreign Correspondent in 1940 and Saboteur in 1942 are both direct pleas for America to see the clear and present turmoil in Europe, and Lifeboat directly addresses the complex ethics of merely coexisting with a Nazi. Though he never addressed the Holocaust directly, and filmmakers were generally reluctant to portray its horrors until decades after they were discovered, Hitchcock did return to England in the mid-40s to direct two French-language propaganda shorts and served as a treatment advisor for a documentary on the Nazi camps commissioned by the British government that was only completed and released in the past few years. In almost every movie after the war ends, one of his characters mentions what they were doing during the war as backstory.

The Hitchcockian aesthetic

It is 1948, and Hitchcock’s contract with Selznick, such as it was, has ended. His first self-produced film, which is also his first color film, is Rope, an experiment in telling a movie in apparently one shot similar to the more recent Birdman or 1917. Based on a stageplay dramatization of the 1924 murder of Bobby Franks, the film is extremely simple, shot in an apartment soundstage with the fourth wall removed through which the camera has free range, extremely similar to the apartment set from Friends. It easily could have been made in one continuous shot with no hidden cuts, had that been physically possible – cameras at the time only had the capacity to shoot 10 continuous minutes of footage.

Transatlantic Pictures, Hitchcock’s private production company with lifelong friend and media baron Sidney Bernstein – who would be given the literal title of baron in 1969 – would only last for two films. Rope’s main characters were coded as gay lovers just a little too clearly, something made explicit in the play, which was enough to drive viewers away in 1948. A second film under the label, a plodding romantic drama called Under Capricorn, also flopped when audiences heard it didn’t have any of the suspense they were used to from Hitchcock.

Though Transatlantic Pictures failed, the search for friendly production companies, and in some cases starting your own, has remained an integral part of auteurship in recent decades. Quentin Tarantino started out self-producing, and Wes Anderson works almost exclusively under his own label as well. More recently, the common solution for names as big as Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers has been turning to Netflix, which does not measure its movies’ success in ticket sales and can allow for more varied content, and A24 has become a factory for a new generation of name directors.

Though he doesn’t have Netflix to turn to, Hitchcock finds consistent homes with Warner Bros. and Paramount, both of which are all too happy to let him have his way. It is this same year that the Supreme Court rules that production studios cannot own their own theaters and at the very dawn of the home television boom of the 1950s, two factors that would radically diversify Hollywood productions. It’s during this time of enhanced freedom, both for him personally and cinema as an art form, that Hitchcock really begins to stretch his legs and establish what it means to be a “Hitchcockian” film, and it noticeably doesn’t look all that different from the work he’s already produced.

Hitchcock’s mastery in the noir era also shines through in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, which many consider one of his finest efforts. Image courtesy Universal Pictures.

Where this era of Hollywood was defined by increasingly extravagant productions – think things like Lawrence of Arabia and The Ten Commandments – Hitchcock stuck with the same sultry murder stories he’d had success with during his rising stardom, with the increased resources aiding in the bombastic score of I Confess, but seeming out of place in Dial M for Murder, which was shot in 3D despite being an adapted stage play that takes place almost entirely in one room. 

It is 1951. Warner Bros. has released Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, perhaps the first film we’ve watched now that I would have guessed without knowing was directed by Hitchcock. The film focuses on a charming psychopath, a clinically meaningless term that was used by the Nazis to categorize people they murdered and subsequently rose in popularity in America as a way to ostracize soldiers returning with PTSD. The character, Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), is obsessed with the “motive” element of criminology, and proposes to the main character, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), that they each murder the other’s problem relatives on the assumption that they’ll get away with it because they don’t have motive to kill each other’s family members. This is obviously not how the legal construct of murder works and is instead an overgeneralization of the “means, motive and opportunity” mantra popularized in crime films, which had boomed in the ‘40s.

Hitchcock’s filmography sticks pulpishly, and somewhat harmfully, tight to headlines long after the war is over, mostly about dubious breakthroughs in psychology. 1945’s Spellbound was explicitly commissioned by Selznick after his “positive experience with psychoanalysis” a mere five years after Sigmund Freud’s death drove his controversial ideas into the mainstream.

Hitchcock’s most notable work on this subject matter, of course, is 1960’s Psycho, where we see several tropes of the psycho killer laid their most bare. Norman Bates is coded as gay, even on top of having a secondary female personality, and has an eerily close relationship with his mother – two things in common with Strangers on a Train’s Antony. Rope was also ripped from the headlines with significantly queer coded killers as well.

Long after the Lavender Scare, long after homosexuality stopped being listed as a mental disorder and long after Freud’s fringe theories stopped being framed as gospel, difficult maternal relationships and queer-coding have remained the hallmarks of psychopathy in film, present in villains from Jason Vorhees to the parade of extremely gay Disney Renaissance villains. What was grounded in what passed as psychological theories in the ‘50s seems now to be grounded only in post-Hitchcock tradition.

The peak years

It is 1954, and Paramount Pictures has kicked off the peak years with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Let us pause here to appreciate an American classic, a film that is regularly listed as one of the best ever made and still somehow feels underappreciated.

Rear Window, like all my favorite movies from a given director seem to be, is a love story, but opens on a relationship that is drawing to a close. L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), an adventurous photographer chained to his Chelsea apartment by a broken leg, seems disinterested in his girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), a glamorous socialite and local celebrity who he sees no future with – his broken leg binds him to her just as much as it does to his apartment. As the melodrama surrounding the neighbor’s disappearance plays out, the principle conflict belongs to Fremont as she tries to prove herself worthy of Jefferies’ adventurous tastes.

The narrative takes a back seat to most of the movie, really. It mostly consists of long stretches of Jeffries looking out of his window and responding to the daily comings and goings of his neighbors, all at various stages of their romantic lives – the newlyweds who never leave bed, the ballerina juggling suitors, the spinster desperate for love but unable to find it on her terms. The divorced pianist who composes instead of dates sets the soundtrack for the whole courtyard, he and the old couple that sleeps on their balcony threatening to turn the entire place into a community instead of just a common area.

It is a movie about communities, a delightfully American movie about spaces and the way they shape the lives of the people who inhabit them. Unable to whip out his camera and fly to Kashmir, Jefferies spends a week observing a space meant mostly to be passed through. He sees his neighbors alone, their secrets, their dreams, the talents that they may not appreciate and their bitter loneliness separated by walls that, in Jefferies’ camera, seem so much thinner.

The most famous single images of Hitchcock’s themes all seem to be from Psycho. Here’s his iconic voyeuristic shot, as Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) peers through a hole in the office wall to watch a woman he is about to murder walk about her hotel half-dressed. Psycho images courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Rear Window is Hitchcock’s deepest exploration of one of his principle themes – voyeurism, the idea of the camera as a tourist and the audience as witness to something we’re not supposed to be seeing. Through his rear window, the neighborhood becomes Jefferies’ personal cinema, complete with a narrative driven by actions he takes based on his suspicions about things he wouldn’t usually spend his time looking at.

Hitchcock’s filmography is riddled with voyeuristic characters and camerawork that cues the viewer that what we’re seeing is private. Rear Window is the clearest crystallization of this aspect of what the camera means to Hitchcock and the questions it raises. Should some things not remain private? Why is Jefferies so much more interested in his neighbors filtered through the lens of his camera? Why is he so unfulfilled in his own life that he spends his time looking at others’? Jefferies ends the film by catching a murderer, but the runtime is spent questioning his and Hitchcock’s shared obsession, and not everything Jefferies does is justified by the outcome.

This is the year that French filmmaker and critic François Truffaut publishes his seminal essay “A certain trend of French cinema,” and it’s time to step back and explain where all these ideas come from. In his essay, Truffaut argues that the director is a film’s singular driving creative force, that everything about the film can be understood as a personal function of the director and that a film’s overall quality is directly tied to how much control the director had over it. Truffaut goes on about this for 20 pages, deliberately overshooting the extent to which this idea can be true – the key position he stretches to take is that there are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors. This was the groundwork for what would eventually become auteur theory, the term coined in 1963 by American critic Andrew Sarris using the French word for “author.”

Truffaut’s point is obviously not always correct, but it didn’t need to be because Truffaut’s argument was not factual, it was political. At that time, movies were considered a lower art form in France, and most of the French association with cinema was either pulpy English movies from American and British assembly lines or high-profile Nazi propaganda pieces. Truffaut pointedly gave his countrymen a different way to look at movies. Before, movies were collaborative efforts that mostly came from overseas and had no singular voice the way a book or a painting has an author or a painter. Now, movies had “auteurs,” and the French were the only ones who were giving these auteurs the room they needed to work.

Truffaut. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This whole essay was completely self-serving on Truffaut’s part. He and his buddies at Cahiers du Cinéma expanded on these ideas in further essays while at the same time directing the French New Wave, one of the weirdest, most significant and most significantly weird film movements in history, over the next few years. Everything we take for granted today about the director’s influence over a film, and a lot of the silly extensions of that idea – looking into a director’s childhood, trying to write about an individual director’s relationship with water or whatever – this is where those ideas come from.

Unsurprisingly, Hitchcock was one of Truffaut’s favorite filmmakers and one of the only English-language filmmakers he singled out as exceptions to the studio rule. Much of what we know about Hitchcock’s personal life comes from extensive interviews Truffaut did with him in the ‘60s after his filmmaking career finally started to slow down.

It is 1958, and Paramount Pictures releases Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo.

Like Rear Window before it, Vertigo codifies several of the major themes of Hitchcock’s overall work, most spectacularly his penchant for red and green. The use of color in film is an interesting topic. A lot of writers insist that it’s universally an extremely important factor, but the reality is most movies don’t use it very deliberately or make one important symbol bright red and leave the other colors however they are in-camera, somehow even moreso in the era of digital filmmaking when you can easily make any film any color you want.

Hitchcock is known primarily for black and white films, but interestingly, all of his color films are just as bichromatic, specifically red and green, the set of complimentary colors that are usually the closest in terms of their absolute value. It often seems like he’s trying to make black and white films with a color camera, and some people think he was colorblind.

Mistaken or falsified identity is a frequent trope of Hitchcock’s filmography, but in Vertigo, falsified identity develops into split identity and then into a lack of identity. The leads quickly lose sight of the difference between Judy Barton (Kim Novak); the woman she’s posing as, Madeline Elster; and the woman she pretends to be possessed by, Carlota Valdes. Scottie Ferguson’s (James Stewart) own identity isn’t set in stone either – when they first meet, there’s a whole argument over whether she’ll call him John, Jack, Scottie or Mr. Ferguson.

Both characters also lose their identities several times in death – death, and the fear of it, is another primary theme in Vertigo. Barton makes two suicide attempts, fakes a successful one and then finally succeeds, and Ferguson is in the midst of metaphorical deaths as he loses his police career to disability and must adjust his sexual attractions to his aging body. The famous vertigo sequences are usually interpreted as his direct brushes with death. Death anxiety is more pertinent in Vertigo than usual because immortality is presented as possible, either through the concept of Valdes’ long-dead spirit possessing Elster/Barton or through the great California redwoods the characters visit in a key scene.

Vertigo is an assault of reds and greens, with almost every frame saturated in either color. It’s also one of the best and clearest-cut examples of active use of color in film, with green fantacies that clash against red reality. Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Barton spends the entire runtime pretending to be Elster, possibly possessed by Valdes, in order to hold and manipulate Ferguson’s attention, first in the service of someone else’s murder plot, then for his affection. Ferguson, for his part, is so attracted to her and is so deep in his own professional and romantic identity crisis that he can remember Elster’s clothing and the details of how she wore her hair but is unable to recognize the same woman dressed the same way as she stands in front of him.

Inventing genres

It is 1959, three years before Dr. No, and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer has released the original globetrotting spy thriller, Alfred Hitchocock’s North by Northwest.

When Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were first being developed for film, Hitchcock was always the director they wanted to go with. That never ended up happening, but every Bond film in the 60 years since has followed the rough model laid out in North by Northwest. The film was a specific product of Hitchcock’s fame, as screenwriter Ernest Lehman famously set out to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” crossed with a period in Hollywood history when, most Hitchcock films aside, expensive spectacle was the heavy emphasis as Hollywood tried to compete with the proliferation of television. Lehman’s solution – and this very much was Lehman’s solution, this was one of the only original scripts either he or Hitchcock ever worked on – was to throw the kitchen sink, and at one point a crop-duster, at the screen.

Dust him with the crop-duster! Image courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

Lehman stuffed the screenplay with suspense, intrigue and twists, and perhaps most significantly with locations. The film takes viewers from New York City to Long Island to Chicago to the iconic climax on the Mount Rushmore monument. While this globetrotting came to a head in North by Northwest, it’s another common thread for Hitchcock. Once he’s out from under Selznick and distribution companies are tripping over themselves to give him whatever he wants, Hitchcock starts taking us around the world, from Colonial Australia to the French Riviera to rural New England to Morocco, obviously none of which are politically neutral settings in the immediate aftermath of World War II – but then, there is no such thing as a politically neutral setting, and there never has been.

Hitchcock’s obsession develops into my own, and I soon find myself pausing early in every feature to figure out where the film is set. During my Psycho viewing, I must have spent half the runtime paused looking at a map of California trying to figure out where the Bates Motel would be located – I decided it must certainly be on Route 50 somewhere near Pyramid Peak, which would have been the main road between Reno, Nevada and Sacramento, California before the then-recent Interstate system was constructed, fitting with Bates’ description. My biggest takeaway from all this is I’ve started avidly seeking out where any movie I review is set, and they get points off if they don’t use that setting intentionally.

His choices are never idle. Rear Window is, as much as anything else, primarily about that neighborhood in Chelsea. For Vertigo, Hitchcock rejected draft after draft of the screenplay until a local San Francisco historian tried his hand at it, and the film is filled with Bay Area history and iconography and informed by its landscape.

It is 1960, and Paramount Pictures has released Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, still widely considered the first slasher film. With only hindsight, it can be difficult to draw a throughline between this and the pulpy killcount movies of the ‘80s. You need to know the history.

Psycho, through most of its runtime, is a standard if exceptionally well-made Hitchcock movie. What set it apart at the time was mostly the iconic shower scene, which was far more violent and lewd than anything that had been released in a mainstream film to that point. Cheekily pushing the boundaries of the Hays Production Code was a throughline of Hitchcock’s career once he got to America, but Psycho – really, just the shower scene – stabbed it to death. The code would be abandoned in favor of the MPAA rating system eight years later.

While Psycho mostly plays out as a suspense film that was racy for its time, that raciness is what would shoot off into exploitation and grindhouse films of the ‘70s, and Psycho’s iconic but scant kills – there are only two in the film – would balloon into the teens and twenties.

We also start to see Hitchcock’s misogyny really rear its head in ways that will become more and more difficult to ignore. Psycho sets out the archetype for Hollywood transphobia which still holds today – characters who cross the gender binary are cast as killers, and their feminine side is cast as the side that kills. The dynamic is most famous in this and Silence of the Lambs, but genderfluidity, and this specific dynamic of genderfluid people being overcome by a killer feminine sides, is rampant before, between and since both films. The cultural phenomenon directly translates into the weirdly specific paranoias expressed to justify trans bathroom bills – the idea that a man would say he is a woman in order to gain access to the space, with the bizarre built-in assumption that violence is especially easier to commit in a bathroom, is essentially just this trope appropriated to reality, or at least legal rhetoric.

It is 1963, and Universal Pictures releases Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which I posit as the prototypical disaster movie that lays out the formula followed to this day. Simply put, it follows a broad cross-section of characters through a natural disaster, in this case mysterious, coordinated assaults by swarms of birds with ramping frequency.

If The Birds is a disaster movie, it is one of the finest ever made and a textbook example of the ways these films can be effective. Much like Psycho, The Birds doesn’t resemble its modern descendants as much as it does a top-level Hitchcock movie with a hook that will come to define its genre. The secret ingredient to a good disaster movie is the character relationships. A lot of the lesser disaster movies spend a small amount of time with a large cross-section of constituents who don’t really interact – think Independence Day for a high-profile example of a movie that follows this model and still manages to be quite effective. The stronger structure is to start with a set of characters who already have relationships and conflicts who are then blindsided by an act of God, which they must then navigate in addition to their existing conflict – for the best example of this, think The Dark Knight, which I’ve come to think of as a disguised disaster movie.

As it is a movie long before it is a disaster movie, The Birds follows this structure. For about the first hour, it’s an uneasy love story between San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), an older man whom she has followed to Bodega Bay to surprise him with a gift of pet birds. Daniels meets his mother, siblings and old flame and approaches his uneasy relationship to women as strange incidents with the local seabirds begin to mount and overwhelm the plot.

Hitchcock has spent his entire career presenting birds as objects of alien terror, most noticeably to this point, again, in Norman Bates’ taxidermy menagerie in Psycho.

Religious and natural explanations are posited, but there’s never any chance to research what’s happening. The image of some of the most mundane, commonly encountered agents of the natural world suddenly rising up to annihilate mankind, something so familiar and elemental becoming suddenly violent and completely inscrutable, is far more shaking a disaster than any modern CGI thunderstorm could hope to be.

Hitchcock also took The Birds as an opportunity to throw live birds at a woman he wanted to have sex with in Hedren. It was was Hedren’s first film role after Hitchcock had seen her in an advertisement, reached out to her agent and groomed her professionally and attempted to groom her personally. Hedren said that Hitchcock harassed her constantly on the set of The Birds and their film, Marnie, and put her in scenes that she was uncomfortable filming as a way to assert control over her – first, in The Birds’ famous attic scene where Daniels is assaulted, Hedren says she was forced to film the scene with real birds instead of mechanical ones, and then a straightforward rape scene in Marnie that is portrayed as curing her character of her fear of sex.

Hitchcock, a world-renowned kingmaker in his early 60s, had signed Hedren, who had just turned 30 and only had her work with Hitchcock to her credit, to a personal contract that allowed him to dictate whether she took other roles, and when she refused to participate in another film with him after Marnie, he used this contract to destroy her career, which was quite promising – her performances in The Birds, and Marnie in hindsight, are regarded as two of the best in any Hitchcock film, and Hedren was in high demand. She would only make five more films while Hitchcock was alive, and only came forward with her story of harassment after Hitchcock died.

“He ruined my career, but he didn’t ruin my life.” -Hedren, who is still alive today. Image courtesy Universal Pictures.

Hitchcock’s representation of and relationship women is a major theme of hindsight analysis of his work – Laura Mulvey’s landmark 1975 essay in which she coined the term “male gaze” is primarily about Hitchcock’s films – and he was clearly a fool for blondes, and “the Hitchcock Blonde” was a familiar trope even during the height of his power. He was married from 1926 until his death, and there aren’t any other similar stories about him to Hedren’s as far as I can tell, but we know that isn’t nearly a conclusive defense for powerful Hollywood men.

Dark ages

It would be exaggerating to say that Hitchcock declined in his 60s, but he did slow down quite a bit after Marnie and branched out in ways that made him seem much more limited as a filmmaker.

In 1966, Torn Curtain gives us Hitchcock’s first real fight scene. After the first four James Bond films had been spat out in as many years, Hitchcock’s point with Torn Curtain was to plunge the spy thriller into real Cold War era politics and techniques, and his point with the particular scene is to play through how hard it actually is to kill a man.

That’s well and good and speaks to an objection that’s still pertinent today, but the scene itself is so bad that I feel personally embarrassed for him as I watch it. Hitchcock tries to shoot and edit this like a conversation, with a master wide shot, close-ups for certain lines and cutaways for important details, and while that can be a useful mentality to take with you into a fight scene, Hitchcock doesn’t leave the dialogue scene. All the details that would deserve their own cutaway under normal circumstances, the dropping of a gun, the picking up of a knife, still get them, leading to long, sudden sequences of rapid cuts away from the central action to detail shots that are too long for a hot-blooded fight scene. Additionally, the villain keeps talking and every line of dialogue gets its own shot, as if Hitchcock wants to pop us out of a fight scene and back into a dialogue scene instead of just letting dialogue be in his fight scene (skip to 1:23 for the fight to start)-

In 1972, Hitchcock gets the green light for nudity for the first time in Frenzy. It would have been spectacular to see a Hitchcock movie based around incorporating nudity into the power dynamics of his masterful dialogue scenes and characteristic voyeurism, but instead, the serial rapist just gets to succeed in exposing his victim’s breasts. We also get Hitchcock’s first real rape scene here, and it’s similarly incompetent – I’m about to describe a graphic rape scene in shot-to-shot detail, so content warning on the next paragraph.

After a masterful and deeply distressing seven-minute sequence in which the attacker traps his first victim of the runtime, he rips her clothes off, mounts her and proceeds to not thrust into her. The camera focuses on the two characters from the chest upward as they appear to lie stock still, the attacker shouting “lovely” over and over again and the victim reciting a bible verse to calm herself, until he suddenly stops, heaves a sigh and moves onto the murder phase of his routine. Most modern sex or rape scenes feature characters who are actually visibly thrusting – there’s a characteristic staccato style of this for rape scenes they’ve gotten very good at, with one body thrusting while the other observably refuses to participate. But in this Hitchcock movie that I know is about a serial rapist, I spent the entire sequence waiting for the sexual assault to start and felt the need to look up whether or not the victim had actually been raped.

It’s difficult to say he declined because these are far from Hitchcock’s only substandard efforts, and he particularly struggled with genre films. 1955’s The Trouble with Harry is the best example, both of his juvenile sense of humor and his difficulty making a movie in which it was the primary focus. When Hitchcock is trying to be silly as in this or 1941’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or even when he’s addressing drama that is purely interpersonal with no chance of anyone getting murdered as in The Paradine Case or Under Capricorn, he stops being a particularly special filmmaker, and once we see two-sided physical violence take on a bigger role in his films, we see he’s not great at that either.

It’s doubly ironic he’s so bad at two-sided violence considering that the one-sided violence of Psycho’s shower scene is the single most iconic moment of his filmography and possibly all of cinematic history.

Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense, but suspense was all he was the master of.

***

It is 1980. Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, is dead. He was 80 years old.

A brash new breed of American auteur, raised on Truffaut’s radical ideas, have hijacked cinema, flown it higher than anyone had ever thought possible, and already crashed it back down to Earth. Over the next decades, it will be Hitchcock’s ideas, the genres spun off from the classics that he produced, that economically define the blockbuster era – globetrotting action films and massive disaster films, separately through the ‘90s and ‘00s and arguably combined into the modern superhero blockbuster, are still the gold era for big-budget moneymakers, and pulpy, grotesque-as-possible violence has been the way to turn over smaller budgets, particularly during the Golden Age of slasher films in the ‘80s immediately following Halloween.

The studio system, which Hitchcock helped break and helped others break through, but which he then turned to his own advantage and used to help prey on at least one woman, has reestablished itself – Hitchcock, like many of the historic movers and shakers in Hollywood, never really wanted power democratized, he just wanted it centralized under himself. Disney signs actors to long-term contracts and has progressed to giving these contracts to relative unknowns like Chris Hemsworth or Tom Holland, effectively establishing ownership over their careers from the outset, and they and other studios have moved on to providing their own streaming service, effectively establishing ownership over their own theaters, the practice over which a legal reckoning broke Hollywood open in 1948.

History is in the very slow process of repeating itself, but there are key differences. With Hitchcock and Truffaut and others like them in the past, we don’t need to prove that a better system is possible, we can know concretely. Auteurs young and old who have been raised to fight for their vision are doing so, whether that means turning to Netflix or working within the studio system, and they are realistically able to emerge from more countries now than ever before. Audiences too are fighting to see their favorite creators cut loose, for better or worse. Auteurism, both the hero-worship and the real artistic genius it enables, is alive and well.

It took me so long to write this that we’ve already moved through Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and Gus van Sant in the intervening time, and we finish up reliving Quinten Tarantino in all his grindhouse glory tonight. The John Waters marathon starts in April.

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