• James Kunovski

The Best Hitchcockian

You may have heard of Lynchian, pertaining to the surrealist evocation of David Lynch, or incorporated ‘giallo’ in honour of the Italian genre of murder mystery into your lexicon. Bets are you have encountered the term Hitchcockian along your film-viewing journey. Perhaps you have even stumbled upon one of these pastiche homages. What defines Alfred Hitchcock’s work, save the denotation of “master of suspense,” and is it fair to group original plots into that umbrella term?


In addition to the notorious elements of intrigue and suspense, a Hitchcockian film might include a central female character who is both sophisticated and Delphic. Often coupled with an ordinary man who is thrust into a dangerous situation, they make great use of real-life landmarks and are usually as twisty as a coiled rope. You’ve also got to admire their tiptoeing around the plot’s mystery in a tug-of-war of scandal and curiosity.


For the latter, it’s appropriate because many of these films, and directors, owe a debt to Hitchcock’s groundbreaking and definable material. Studios knew his films drew attention, so it would have been a smart strategy to replicate any style they could. Thankfully, the films in the list below are tasteful in their execution and avoid lampooning his work.



 

Gaslight, 1944

Directed by George Cukor

Watch if you liked: Suspicion or Rebecca



“I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were dangerous to me.” “I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were dangerous to her.” A friend of mine once referred to this Bergman/Boyer vehicle as their favourite Hitchcock film. No wordplay intended, they simply gathered it had to be his work. Opera singer Paula (Ingrid Bergman, in her first of three Academy Award-winning performances) lives with her husband Gregory (Charles Boyer), in the wealthy London townhouse of her deceased aunt. Strange occurrences take shape, missing jewels, footsteps from the attic, and manipulation. In order to conceal his own demons, Gregory manipulates Paula into believing she is losing her mind. It was arguably the first artistic portrayal of this form of psychological abuse. Cukor does well in exploring this terrifying concept in the walls of a gothic, noirish and claustrophobic atmosphere.


The concept of newlywed brides questioning their husband’s motives were core themes in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and the Best Picture-winning Rebecca. Critic Emanuel Levy pointed to those two films and Gaslight when referring to the trend of 1940s films with the matter: “don’t trust your husband”.


Bergman would eventually star in three films by Hitchcock. In Spellbound (1945) she’s a psychoanalyst, in Notorious (1946) the daughter of a spy, and in the oft-forgotten Under Capricorn (1949), an aristocrat. Bergman’s Paula is a quasi-representation of those three turns, and a nod to the range of one of film’s best actors.



 

Dark Passage, 1947

Directed by Delmer Daves

Watch if you liked: The Wrong Man



The third collaboration between Bogart and Bacall basks in the famous duo’s chemistry but mildly cheated were audiences in 1947 when they realised Mr. Bogart would not appear on screen until 60 minutes in. This decision angered Warner Brothers head Jack L. Warner but production was already too far along. It is the sort of bait-and-switch marketing that Hitchcock loved — picture this: it’s 1960 and you’re expecting to see Marion Crane for the whole picture. Bogart is Vincent Parry, an escaped prisoner who’s wrongfully behind bars for the death of his wife. Down the line he runs into Irene Jansen, played by an entrancing Lauren Bacall. Irene has closely followed Parry’s trial and believes he is innocent. Now they just have to prove this, but his face, plastered all over area newspapers is not doing any favours. The film’s first act heavily relies on point-of-view shots. They never grow tired, in fact, they are fascinating to witness given their contextual rarity. Daves’ experimental execution evokes the single-takes in Rope. We definitely hear Bogie’s signature voice, just don’t see his face, hence the whole 60 minute thing. With the help of a somewhat terrifying plastic surgeon he changes his appearance. For the second act, he is behind bandages. Talk about a raw deal. When the bandages come off in time for the third act the plot has gained significant traction.

The identity of a wrongly accused man was one of Hitch’s omnipresent tropes. Vincent must prove his innocence by confronting even more dangerous predicaments. That catch-22 was present in North by Northwest. This San Francisco-set noir endorses its location. It’s a vital character in the film, like Vertigo and many others on this list. Although there is a fist fight at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge (possibly in the same exact point as Vertigo) the film’s main tension comes from verbal cues and a paranoia-laced fixation on potential recognition. Every interaction threatens Vincent’s alias. A driver on a rural road, a suspicious cabbie, a detective in a diner, just doing his job he says. “What is this? Quiz hour” Vincent snarks.


When Parry undergoes his transformation we are treated to a surrealist kaleidoscope of characters. They circle and multiply as their voices echo. The montage is deranged; the surgeon’s portrayal borders on horror yet Irene remains angelic and unaffected. For those trying to picture these events, the interlude bears a resemblance to Salvador Dali’s dream sequence in Spellbound. You would think that two greats of the same generation, Bogart and Hitchcock, would have eventually collaborated but don’t despair, Dark Passage comes pretty darn close.



 

Niagara, 1953

Directed by Henry Hathaway

Watch if you liked: Vertigo



Primarily a film noir, albeit in rare colour, Niagara ramps up its Hitchcock connotations in its climactic final act. Marilyn Monroe stars alongside Joseph Cotten in this tale of romance and deceit. Monroe is Hitchcock’s cool platinum blond (femme fatale). She plans to murder her husband (Cotten) and run away with a lover. Our ordinary passerby who become entangled in this plot are a schmaltzy couple on a delayed honeymoon. Unfortunately, their antics are a bit underwritten and the husband is hopeless in every possible situation.

Hathaway's work mirrors Vertigo despite preceding it by half a decade. Monroe’s hypnotic entrances, in figure-hugging gowns, parallel Kim Novak and her Edith Head wardrobe. The pink dress Monroe wears in the first act is arguably more iconic than that pink feature in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. It also takes great advantage of its location, the apt Niagara Falls, in the way San Francisco was portrayed in the former. Similarly, a bell tower is used as a plot device, and there is also a taut staircase chase. Give this tale of mixed identity a chance to witness a Monroe performance with a pinch of grit and some of the most magnificent location shots on celluloid.



 

Les Diaboliques, 1955

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Watch if you liked: practically any Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder and Psycho in particular



Hitchcock craved the rights to the Boileau-Narcejac novel She Who Was No More but was beat out by Clouzot by mere hours. Or so the story goes. This French adaptation does to bathtubs what Psycho did to showers. I will digress from discussing pivotal plot devices because it is best experienced with the least amount of aforementioned knowledge. Anyhow, a blindfolded analysis isn’t as intriguing, so I’ll divulge a few plot points. The mistress and wife of a hated school principal scheme to murder him. It is a film of no heroes; everyone is awful. It is a much dimmer affair than anything Hitchcock produced in those years but the factor of mystery and suspense prevails. I wonder how Hitchcock would have pulled this feat off. Surely he would relocate the setting to the United States, but who would he cast? The list of what-could-have-beens are endless. Hitchcock would adapt another Boileau-Narcejac novel, D’entre les morts into Vertigo. The great François Truffaut teased that the duo had written that novel specifically for Hitchcock.


Psycho’s release was modelled after the marketing principals carved out by Les Diaboliques. They advised that no one should enter once the film had commenced and added a title after the credits instructing viewers not to disclose any twists. It seems that Les Diaboliques’ tone gave Hitchcock the authority to darken his films.



 

Peeping Tom, 1960

Directed by Michael Powell

Watch if you liked: Psycho, Rear Window or Pyscho



“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the nastiest of us all? It’s folks like you and me, who came to see a film called Peeping Tom.” Critic Ian Johnson administered this non-rhyming tidbit that turns the voyeurism in this Michael Powell feature onto the viewer. Other reviews would describe it as “beastly” and “the nastiest horror film.” It’s the sort of reaction that is shrouded in context. For instance, those who watch The Exorcist today might question how anyone ever fainted in its presence. Granted, contemporary viewing of Peeping Tom is unlikely to live up to those critics’ sentiments, this brilliant film still carries a timeless portrayal of unease, dread and sickness.


Young filmmaker Mark Lewis, (Carl Boehm), fills his days either on production as a focus puller or taking “art” photographs for unsavoury under-the-counter trade. Armed with his portable camera, by night, he is a killer with an obsession for filming his victims’ dying expressions. Marred by an abusive childhood our lead is both sensitive and tragic; talented yet tormented. He befriends the neighbour downstairs, Helen (Anna Massey) who also happens to be his tenant, though as she remarks, he walks around like he hasn’t paid the rent. Powell is not trying to sanitise his work, and for that he deserves credit. It’s a perverse film but this is also established early on. Mind you, the opening scene involves Mark’s involvement with, and eventual murder of a prostitute. A couple of scenes later and we are in an odd bookshop where an elderly gentleman is after some pornography. Freudian connotations between Mark, his father, and his victims come to light in true Hitchcock style.


Another thriller directed by a British lad and released in 1960 would create a similar reaction. Reviewers would describe Psycho as “merely gruesome” and “a blot on an honourable career.” The Observer’s film critic of thirty-two years, Caroline Lejeune would walk out of both films, and so offended by the moral decline of cinema, resigned thereafter. The two films share thematic correspondence. Both killers are ordinary and soft-spoken men who were tormented by their parents. A preoccupation with voyeurism, sexual repression and an unusual method of murder, and its portrayal, run in both films’ veins. While Psycho was controversial, (especially in the English press who were still concerned with realism), the film enjoyed a sizeable box office and cemented the legacy of its director. On the other hand, Peeping Tom’s praises came too little too late and Powell’s reputation in Great Britain was tainted.


At one point in the film Mark inquires… “do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?” Safe to say for filmmakers the globe over, a career-ending critical resistance to your film would top that list. Peeping Tom has since been widely reappraised. Even renowned critic Dilys Powell (of no relation) would compose an apology to Mr. Powell. She did so at the age of 92.



 

Experiment in Terror, 1962

Directed by Blake Edwards

Watch if you liked: Psycho



Edwards, primarily known for his comedic work, and just wrapped up on Breakfast at Tiffany’s would helm this thriller. The story concerns bank teller Kelly (Lee Remick) who is haunted by phone calls from an asthmatic man who plans to blackmail her into theft. Edward’s work breathes an air of tension and anticipation from the very first beats. We are introduced to an evening in San Francisco strummed to the hypnotic flourishes of Henry Mancini’s theme. Much like Vertigo and Dark Passage, San Francisco is as much a character as the film’s leads. We interact with Candlestick Park, the Bay Bridge, its back-alleys and hilly avenues. These locations glow in crisp black-and-white.

Remick plays Kelly with cunning intellect and someone who, although terrified, devises a plan to their new circumstances. Hitch’s track record with women is certainly contentious, though that female archetype often made appearances in his films. The asthmatic villain, portrayed by Ross Martin, disguises himself in a confrontation with Kelly by cross-dressing (yikes) in Psycho-like fashion. The tense final moment resembles the music hall sequence in The 39 Steps. This time we’re at the ballpark. During that scene the stadium organist plays a snippet of the Mr. Lucky theme, a program created by Edwards, and scored by Mancini. It is a director's cameo of unusual sorts that would have made Hitchcock beam.



 

Charade, 1963

Directed by Stanley Donen

Watch if you liked: North by Northwest



Acts so much like a carbon copy that Hitchcock ought to sue Universal for infringement. Of course I jest, but this mix of screwball comedy, action, a miraculous pairing of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and an air of North by Northwest is practically as close as a non-Hitchcock would come to replicating his trademarks. Considering the bleakness of so many films on this list, Charade is a delightful and entertaining change of pace.


The premise is somewhat simple: Regina (the elegantly whip-smart Hepburn) is pursued by three of her late husband’s war buddies who want a return on their share of stolen gold. Thrown into a new world of mistrust she seeks the company of Peter, (a suave Cary Grant), and together they follow and evade that bunch in this adventure to top all adventures. This paves the way for writer Roger Stone’s tinderbox of twists and turns which oft include identity and all its confusing anecdotes. Those plot manoeuvres and U-turns are the seemingly never-ending gift that keeps giving. Grant, who often played himself, is distinguishable from his role as Roger in Northwest. Here, he is lighter, more alert to his being. So is Hepburn; she stuns in gorgeous gowns courtesy of Givenchy. They both genuinely seem to be enjoying their time, though who wouldn’t if you were free from Hitchcock’s grip. The Mancini score is light and brilliant and the sumptuous shots of Paris are a joy to bear. Charade takes full use of an under-appreciated Hitchcock spell — a passionate yet aloof conversation between two lovers in the middle of a romantic setting, unbeknownst to the surrounding passerby. In this case it is a river cruise on the Seine.


Perhaps Charade lacks the deeper pop psychology that Hitchcock favoured but the dynamic between the antagonist trio beckons at something pressing below. So successful was Charade in its Hitchcockian glory that screenwriter Peter Stone would go on to write another, two years down the track. That film was 1965s Mirage, starring Gregory Peck, itself an echo of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man.



 

Dressed to Kill, 1980

Directed by Brian De Palma

Watch if you liked: Psycho



Much has been written comparing this borderline trashy slasher to Hitchcock’s Psycho. For starters there are several shower scenes, musical motifs, a cross-dressing suspect, and the murder of the lead in the film’s early stages. That moment in particular echoes Janet Leigh’s iconic scene with its recognisable scream and slow draw on the victim’s eyes. An on-the-nose psychiatric analysis resembles the final act of that equally controversial film. When a sexually unfulfilled housewife (Angie Dickinson) is shockingly murdered in a luxury apartment building, her geek-turned-sleuth son Peter (Keith Gordon) and Liz, a call-girl, (Nancy Allen) team up to find the culprit, no thanks to a crass detective (Dennis Franz).


De Palma, who has cited Hitchcock as an influence, plays the proceedings with perversely erotic overtones and unintended campiness — looking at you split-screen effect. There is a cheesy sleekness that comes with its tone. De Palma is fixated on his characters’ sexualities, often depicted in exploitative manner as they strip and parade around each other. Then, there are those elements that are so perfectly '80s they are almost hilarious. The score by Pino Donaggio; the oversized hair, sunglasses and trench coats and those dated directorial decisions like the insistence on giving every razor shot a blinding glare.


Dressed to Kill makes good use of its influences (even North by Northwest manages to squeeze in thanks to the opening museum sequence) but manages to create its own stylistic path that becomes more of a giallo romp than Hitchcockian fanfare. Though the film certainly has issues with characterisation and taste — the treatment of females and the trans community are always questionable, it remains a sedated yet thrilling ride.



 

Blue Velvet, 1986

Directed by David Lynch

Watch if you liked: Shadow of a Doubt



A personal favourite, this Hitchcock-Lynch hybrid is cinematic heaven, though that word hardly describes the going-ons in this deviantly sex-charged thriller. Thoroughly intense and uncomfortably overt in its expression, at first glance, Lynch’s neo-noir barely resembles anything Hitchcock might have put on screen. We have censors to blame for that, though later works like Frenzy explore an obsession with a similar sort of darkness.


Blue Velvet explores the underbelly of suburbia that stems from our lead Jeffrey’s (Twin Peaks’ Kevin MacLachlan) discovery of an ear in a field. Through a rabbit-hole turn of events, he is introduced to the daughter of a police detective, Sandy (Laura Dern). They find themselves in the throes of a kidnapping case involving a mysterious nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) and haunted by a posse of psychopaths led by the freakishly committed Dennis Hopper. The romance that brews between Jeffrey and Sandy mirrors the passionately resistant relationships of Hitchcock’s couples. Isabella Rossellini is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, herself a frequent collaborator on Hitchcock and Hitchcockian projects. The familial resemblance strikes Rossellini in the strangest of moments; you assume Bergman would not be caught dead in a role like this. Hopper’s characterisation of Frank is basically every Hitchcock villain turned up to eleven. He closely follows the voyeuristic pleasures of Norman Bates.


The neo-noir atmosphere reminisces Vertigo, though here it is rarely beautiful. This small town in North Carolina is purposefully gritty and rundown, even if its ideal Americana residents refuse to notice. The blanket use of colours, especially purples, reds and blues, for lighting and scenery, echoes that psychological mystery. Also present is one of Hitchcock’s favourite tropes, that of the average person who suddenly finds themselves in a threatening situation. That concept takes most effective aim here; the situation more terrifying than anything Hitch laid out. While heavy use of shadows beckons to a Hitchcockian connotation, it is the more overlooked implementation of stairs in the film’s most climactic points that drive Lynch’s keen eye. Overstated is the terror that seeps into small-town America. This breakdown of a nostalgic fantasy most resembles Shadow of a Doubt.


In the case of Blue Velvet, Lynch managed to expand on those similarities by creating his own brand of work. That’s what I love most about these films. They stray away from parody and become their own fulfilling creations. In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked its top ten films. In the category of mystery, Blue Velvet placed eighth. The company it kept included North by Northwest, Rear Window and in first place, Vertigo.