5 key facts, films from Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:06 PM ET

Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock has been dead for 32 years, yet this son of a British green grocer is suddenly hot again.

Sienna Miller portrays Tippi Hedren, one of Hitch's icy blondes, in this weekend's HBO movie about their complicated relationship. Anthony Hopkins plays him in a new biopic due early in 2013. Freddie Highmore is Norman Bates in A&E's planned Pyscho prequel, Bates Motel. Many of Hitchcock's own legendary films are being restored for Blu-ray and theatrical showcases. No wonder, except for the monumental failures Under Capricorn and Topaz, they are all still as entertaining as they are influential.

FIVE ESSENTIAL THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT HITCH:

CAREER: Hitchcock was born in London, England, on August 13, 1899, and died in Los Angeles on April 29, 1980, aged 80. He split his career between London, where he worked until 1939, and Hollywood, where he remained active almost until his death. Hitchcock started in silent films and pioneered Britain's first talkie. He ended with a list of American classics. Yet he never won a competitive Oscar, despite five noms. Hitchcock is now celebrated as one of the greatest directors ever, both for creative storytelling and astounding technical breakthroughs. No director frames a shot now without Hitchcock's influence, subconsciously or otherwise.

MACGUFFINS: Hitchcock popularized the "MacGuffin." It is code for a plot device, despite all the attention it gets, turns out to be irrelevant to the climax, the surprise plot twists, and the resolution of the story. MacGuffins abound in today's thrillers, blockbusters and all Bond movies.

THEMES: Hitchcock developed themes that became staples of cinema, especially cases of mistaken identity and the wronged man. He also dealt with psychoanalysis seriously, not as a Woody Allenesque joke. See his Spellbound or Vertigo.

CATTLE: Hitchcock was hounded for an alleged quote early in his career when he became frustrated with stage actors who were arrogant about cinema: "Actors are cattle." Later, he crisply maintained he had been misquoted. "I said: 'Actors should be treated like cattle.' " Hollywood star Carole Lombard organized a mini-cattle drive to the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, with heifers bearing the stars' names. In related news, Hitchcock refined "the icy blonde" as a cultural icon. While he introduced the type in British silents, she is best represented by Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly in his Hollywood films.

CAMEOS: Hitchcock popped up in a cameo in 39 films, starting as early as 1927. He became even more physically famous -- including as a pudgy outline -- as host of TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In his films, Hitchcock winds a clock in Rear Window, misses a bus in North by Northwest, boards a train while hoisting a double bass in Strangers on a Train and sits next to Cary Grant on a bus in To Catch a Thief. In Lifeboat, he pops up in a newspaper ad for the Reduco Obesity Slayer.

FIVE ESSENTIAL FILMS BY HITCH:

VERTIGO (1958): Arguably his best film, this is a psychological thriller set in San Francisco. James Stewart (a Hitch favourite) plays a retired police detective suffering from mental and physical disorders, including depression and vertigo. His condition is pushed to extremes when he is hired to follow a mysterious blonde (Kim Novak). Hitchcock pioneered film techniques that enhanced the detective's mercurial state and helped put the audience inside his head, even though watch as third-party witnesses. On a personal note, Stewart once told me that Hitch always treated him in a friendly manner -- never as "cattle" -- with witty humour infused into their long-term friendship. Novak told me Hitchcock was "a great director" who knew what to do with her unique talents -- and she felt "kind of wasted" in her post-Vertigo career.

REAR WINDOW (1954): This domestic thriller is often cited (including by director Mike Leigh) as his most sympathetic because of its "warmth and humanity." Stewart stars as a pro photographer confined to his apartment, thanks to a broken leg. He starts "spying" on neighbours through a back window and becomes a witness to what he believes is a murder. Grace Kelly plays the girlfriend who listens to his snoop tales and gets insinuated into Stewart's crime investigation. It is a brilliant, haunting, near-perfect film.

PSYCHO (1960): Paradoxically, Hitchcock made this small-scale, low-budget thriller to get away from big Hollywood. Yet it became a hit, a legend, and it ultimately initiated the modern slasher horror movie. No one has ever quite matched Hitch's "simple" technique of creating foreboding and then terror, especially in the famous shower sequence. Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates remains a horror antihero. Footnote: Janet Leigh's body double is briefly seen naked and, yes, the knife penetrates her flesh (actually, a prosthetic on her tummy) for a few frames.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959): With Cary Grant as the star, this thriller is the ultimate expression of Hitchcock's fascination with mistaken identity. Grant is pursed across the U.S. landscape, most memorably at Mount Rushmore, when mistaken for a spy. James Mason plays his protagonist, with Eva Marie Saint as his girlfriend.

THE 39 STEPS (1935): While he would later tackle British stories in some of his Hollywood films, this is one of Hitch's definitive all-British productions. Robert Donat stars as a wrongly accused man who becomes involved in a nefarious spy plot. Because the police stubbornly refuse to believe the truth -- a recurring theme in Hitchcock's universe -- our hero must solve the mystery himself while outrunning both the authorities and the villains.


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