Alfred Hitchcock may not have invented the moving image, but he defined what it was capable of.
Born Aug. 13, 1899, the son of a London grocer, Hitchcock’s career began in the silent era, at Germany’s famed UFA studios, before returning to England as a jack-of-all-trades assistant and designer. There he crossed paths with writer/producer/editor Alma Reville, his future wife and closest collaborator, graduated to the director’s chair, made two dozen pictures—including the first British sound film (Blackmail)—and put the British film industry on the map. Then Hollywood called and the Hitchcocks answered, relocating to sunny Southern California where they continued to make movies from 1940 to 1976—with a dozen or so masterworks along the way.
Few filmmakers have created a visual language the way Hitchcock did, and it permeated cinematic storytelling for future generations. And not just for popular set-pieces and inventive murders—though those play a role—but with a deep distrust for things as they seem. For five decades, Hitchcock refined his dominant themes of the wrong man, the cool blond, the controlling mother, and the disconnect between exterior appearances and interior desires. His movies center on Freudian psychology and the transmission of guilt; they recoil at the threat of domesticity and relish a macabre sense of humor. They connected with audiences then, and they connect with audiences now, especially on the other side of the camera, where Hitchcock’s influence still looms large. Curious to discover the roots of cinema? Below are four of Hitch’s best. Happy viewing.
The 39 Steps
Made in England 1935, The 39 Steps isn’t the first Hitchcock film constructed around “the wrong man” conceit, but it’s one where he found his touch. Robert Donat stars as the hapless man fingered for murder, Madeleine Carroll plays the whip-smart blond he falls for, and Charles Bennett loads the script with one-liners and clever set-pieces. Hitchcock would later refine this simple story into North by Northwest, arguably one of the most enjoyable commercial films ever made.
Shadow of a Doubt
There’s something rotten in small-town, U.S.A., and Hitchcock chose Santa Rosa, California—one of the most picturesque cities in the nation—to set his tale of a modern-day wolf in sheep’s clothing. Joseph Cotten plays dapper dresser Uncle Charlie, the prodigal son of the family and the favorite uncle of his namesake niece, played by Teresa Wright. Hitchcock called on Our Town scribe Thornton Wilder to work on the script, and the result is an allegory of Nazism hiding in plain sight. It’s also charming, enchanting, and funny—particularly the scenes between Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers, two crime fiction fans trying to pen the perfect murder.
A full 70 years before 1917, Hitchcock tried to make a feature film look like it was filmed in one continuous take. It works surprisingly well, given the technological restraints at the time, but it also helps to have a story this good: Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) have just killed a man and hidden his body in a trunk. Their dinner guests will arrive any minute, including a former teacher, played by Jimmy Stewart. They arrive, and dinner is served. And, as things go, the conversation turns to murder and Nietzschean ideas of superiority. Hitchcock manages to keep everything light and humorous, but not without taking a couple of shots at a callous society actively choosing not to hear what they don’t like.
Hitchcock’s most graphic film is also his most unsettling. Made in 1972, when the strictures of nudity and violence were loosened significantly compared to the ’40s and ’50s, Frenzy is the story of a serial killer (Barry Foster) and the police officer (Alec McCowen) tracking him down. Pay attention to how often the topic of murder comes up at dinner, and you’ll find hypocrisy with humor. Hitch was no vegetarian, but he must have taken great delight knowing that in homes across the country, respectable people sat down to dinner, drew knife and fork, and mercilessly hacked away at a corpse.