Thursday, August 13, 2015

Birthday Take: Alfred Hitchcock in "Psycho" (1960)

Janet Leigh in Psycho
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Alfred Hitchcock
Born: August 12, 1899
Died: April 29, 1980 (80 years old)
Nomination: Best Director (Nominated) for Psycho

The Take

Alfred Hitchcock may be one of the greatest directors of his era. Okay, that may sound a little hyperbolic. True, he wasn't as visually impressive as his counterparts, but he was the director who turned cinema into a multimedia project. He was the one who made his silhouette into a noticeable trademark. He was his own franchise with so many gimmicks that even if you don't like his work, he was definitely someone who should be remembered. He was called "The Master of Suspense" for the thrills that his movies gave his audience for many decades. In hindsight, that's only a fraction of his entire filmography that people adore. Even then, he was a great director because he used his limitations to elevate the narrative.

Psycho may be his masterpiece if one is to argue about "The Master of Suspense" moniker. Without spoiling too much, the film opens up with a character that we'll stop following within the first hour. The family at the motel are full of secrets that reveal something dark and disturbing. Is the film violent? Its most iconic scene may have the visual appearance of blood, but there's not any actual skin penetration displayed. The film is a series of clever cuts that get around tough corners. Even the sets are borrowed from the director's TV series. This was intentionally made as a b-movie in order to emphasize the performances and actions of the characters. Is it a little melodramatic? Probably. However, it is also the best example of Hitchcock's direction.

What exactly is "great direction" from someone more known for story? It's quite simple. The facts are the direction. Slowly they are revealed, altered, and forces the audience to reconsider each turn until the grim reveal. It is a technique that horror filmmakers have tried to use since to varying degrees of success. However, Hitchcock managed to incorporate it as a narrative device. We never see details that will spoil the later reveals. We only get enough to understand the moment. It is more unnerving in that way and is likely why the director continues to resonate. It wasn't just Psycho that had this technique. However, it was the one that used it best, creating a horror film that works long after you have figured out the twist. Even on the nth watch, it has an impact.

Hitchcock may have won Best Picture with Rebecca, but he has himself never won a competing Oscar. It is a fact that is especially appalling given his reputation in the subsequent decades. He also only got five nominations - all for Best Director. It all makes sense, considering that it was what he was best at. Films like Rear Window, Vertigo, or North By Northwest don't work without his slow reveal technique. It doesn't work without him setting the tone and rattling you to the bone. Was he the greatest director? It is up for debate, especially if you consider that his contemporary counterpart is likely Steven Spielberg: a director whose work is preceded by a reputation of universal hits and an immediately recognizable face. Is he better than Spielberg? Now we're getting into subjective territory on top of the advancement of film. If anything, Hitchcock was more playful with film, choosing to incorporate gimmicks into the marketing.

The prolific career of Hitchcock is easily forgotten to general audiences. The man did over 50 films, yet general audiences will likely know only a dozen. That isn't a fault of his work, but just the passage of time. The fact that those dozen films still come up as some of the best of the best is a testament to his work in general. He was an artist who was the best at what he did. We could rely on him for tense scares in between experimenting with gimmicks. He was someone that challenged the medium of mainstream film in ways that are still being used. Is he the greatest? Probably not. But good luck trying to not appreciate his work or influence.

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