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Like most great auteurs, Hitchcock's catalog of movies, even single films, embrace numerous genres. Usually, the knee-jerk response to his work is the groundbreaking horror film "Psycho" (1960). This movie, coupled with British director Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" (1960), radically changed how viewers think of horror. Prior to this same-year duo, horror was most synonymous with a foreign past, whether it was the late 19th-century London of Jack the Ripper or Transylvania's centuries-old vampire Count Dracula.
"Psycho" and "Peeping Tom" suddenly made horror films just as likely to be about that quiet contemporary American boy living next door. All of this is not to say no previous memorable horror films had existed in a contemporary American setting. For instance, one need go no further than writer/producer Val Lewton's remarkable 1940s RKO "B" movies. Plus, horror moves never have stopped periodic forays into the boogie boogie past. Still, a shift had occurred.
Yet, ironically, horror was not Hitchcock's metier, despite "Psycho," or later works like "The Birds" (1963) and "Frenzy" (1972). The majority of his best films are better described as political and/or psychological thrillers. Classic examples would include "The 39 Steps" (1935), "Rebecca" (1940), "Suspicion" (1941), "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943, his favorite), "Notorious" (1946), "Strangers on a Train" (1951), "Vertigo" (1958, with 2012 Sight & Sound critics voting it the best film ever made), and "North by Northwest" (1959). "The Master of Suspense," though, felt most of his pictures were dark comedies. To illustrate, even in "Psycho," Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) spews black humor: "Mother ... isn't quite herself today"--dam straight; through the magic of taxidermy she is preserved and stuck in the basement.
So, is there a new twist with which to consider some of Hitchcock's work? One could contend that three of his films have farcical screwball comedy tendencies. Indeed, his early American picture "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (1941) was an unapologetic member of the genre--which he was sold on doing by the poster child of screwball comedy, Carole Lombard. When Hitchcock, Britain's greatest director, had come to the U.S. to begin preparations for making "Rebecca," Lombard the fan immediately became a close friend--and his landlady, renting one of her properties while the director and his cinema-contributing wife Alma went house hunting.
A perennial prankster, Lombard also spoofed many of Hitchcock's norms. For instance, the director was famous for stating: "Actors should be treated as cattle." So, when Hitchcock appeared for the first day of shooting "Smith," he found a small corral holding three calves with accompanying name tags for each of the film's stars: Lombard, Robert Montgomery, and Gene Raymond. Moreover, when it came time to shoot Hitchcock's well-known cameo appearance (the superstitious director did a guest spot for each of his movies), Lombard directed the Englishman.
Given both Hitchcock's statement about actors and his often-demanding style, Lombard relished the opportunity for comedy payback or, as a New York Tunes article proclaimed: "Carole Lombard Gets Revenge By Directing Alfred Hitchcock." The scene had him being mistaken for a panhandler and Montgomery giving him a dime. The mischievous Lombard was relentless in her direction: 'Try again. Now Alfie, when he gives you that dime, I want you to turn around here and pout, and when you walk down the street be subtle. I want you in a pensive mood, Alfie. [Hitchcock tries to follow Lombard's direction.] I don't like it. Stop your mumbling. [He protests.] I'd like it a little clearer. This is for an American audience."
That the maestro of thrills and chills should direct Lombard's screwball comedy has, both then and now, been treated as a Hitchcock aberration. However, various forms of comedy never are far from the surface in most of his movies. Indeed, "The 39 Steps" nicely doubles as an English screwball comedy with Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll trading romantic banter as they play at being married in a forced overnight setting, aping a similar plot twist in the genre's pioneering "It Happened One Night" (1934).
"The 39 Steps" also loosely represents a template for a sometimes screwball comedy-like "North by Northwest," with the genre's favorite leading man, Cary Grant. The sequences on the train and hotel room, a la "Now what can a man do with his clothes off for 20 minutes?" are pure farce. "North by Northwest" also could be called the prototype James Bond film. After all, Grant was Ian Fleming's model for Bond, and this Hitchcock picture has that mix of spy thriller, sexual innuendo, and parody that made the Sean Connery Bond the best.
So, sit back and enjoy, as summertime is movie time, and you would be hard-pressed to do better than this TCM Hitchcock retrospective.
Wes D. Gehring, Associate Media Editor of USA Today, is Distinguished Professor of Telecommunications at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., and the author of several books on cinema.
Caption: Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Montgomery, and Carole Lombard on the set of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
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|Title Annotation:||REEL WORLD; Turner Classic Movies|
|Author:||Gehring, Wes D.|
|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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