The BBC have recently produced an interesting documentary about Alfred Hitchcock, concentrating specifically on the English director's early pre-Hollywood works. Presented and directed by the comedian Paul Merton, it includes archive interviews with Hitch and present interviews with those who worked with him. Merton even copies the Master himself and puts himself into the archive footage, for his own little cameos. It's worth watching to see how Hitchcock was ahead of his time with his early films, which crossed the silent-film to talkie evolution, and how a lot of his cinematic techniques that we take for granted, were in fact pioneering.
The first Hitchcock film I saw was Psycho. I was about 14 or so, and saw it on TV, not really knowing what to expect, probably a little skeptical that this old, black and white film would probably just be rubbish. Because, well, it was old and black and white.
How wrong I was. Just from the opening titles and music I was freaked and yet strangely also captivated. The music alone was disturbing and unnerving. The rest of the film just engrossed me. But it was the infamous shower scene that both scared and delighted me with it's wonderful bluntness, shock-value, and yet I could tell this was special movie-making. The editing was incredible, each edit like a stab of the knife, the music shrilling your ears.
It left me knowing instantly that I loved Hitchcock. I imagine I am not the only Hitch fan who felt, when first watching a Hitchcock film, like I had been slapped in the face, grabbed by my shoulders and shaken, and left thinking 'where have these films been all my life!?'
Watching Psycho also made me not only interested in Hitchcock and the rest of his films, but it inspired me to study films, to read up on the meanings, the techniques. I had always liked movies, but it was Psycho that captivated me in a way further. This was a whole exciting medium that went beyond just pure laughs (well, like watching Ghostbusters) and could open up an entire new world of artistic exploration. And the more I read about Hitchcock and his films, the more obsessed I became with his themes and work. I wanted to make my own films. And I also became more appreciative of old, classic movies.
I am a lover of thrillers, crime-stories and suspense, so I guess it was natural that I would enjoy Hitchcock's films so much. Not to mention the dark humour his films contained, despite some rather disturbing or troubling themes that he was fascinated with. Similarly I think this is why I was drawn to Patricia Highsmith and her thriller novels, which I often feel are very much like Hitchcock films in terms of plot. Hitch even made one of her books into a great film - Strangers on a Train.
When you look at Hitchcock's early films, they are still enjoyable today, showing they can last the test of time. You can appreciate his techniques were pioneering, despite the limitations of the medium at the time. Despite my love for Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo and his other post-colour films, it is actually his early B&W to the 1950s movies which I feel are his best. Blackmail, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Strangers on a Train....
My favourite Hitchcock film is probably The Lady Vanishes. A claustrophobic, wonderful story of espionage, conspiracy and identity. It contains everything I love about a good story, with wonderful direction and great acting performances. It is a joy from start to finish. The Master of Suspense may not be for everyone, but he's certainly for me.
You can see the Paul Merton documentary on iplayer (for those in the UK) here.