What’s It All About, Alfred Hitchcock?*

Alfred HitchcockAs I post this, it would have been Alfred Hitchock’s 117th birthday. Whether you’re a Hitchcock fan or not, there’s no denying his influence on filmmaking. He also had quite an influence on crime fiction, since several of his films were adaptations of crime stories. There’s not enough space, of course, for me to discuss Hitchock’s career or the merits of his various films. For that, let me invite you to check out Tipping My Fedora, which is the source for top posts on crime films. All sorts of interesting information awaits you. There are a lot of discussions of Hitchcock on Sergio’s fine blog – far better than I could ever do!  Here’s just one great example.

Hitchcock’s 1941 film Suspicion was based on Francis Iles’ (AKA Anthony Berkeley Cox) 1932 novel Before the Fact. The book and the novel have in common their focus on the relationship between sheltered, dowdy Lina McLaidlaw (played by Joan Fontaine in the film) and attractive, extroverted Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant took this role in the film). In both film and book, Lina and Johnnie meet and begin a whirlwind romance. Lina’s warned about Johnnie, but doesn’t listen. Instead, they marry over the strong objection of Lina’s father. Lina’s very much in love with her new husband, but soon discovers that he’s not at all what he seems to be. In fact, he’s a liar, thief, an embezzler, and more. What’s worse, he plans to kill his wife. There are some major differences between film and book, including the way the story ends (no spoilers!). But both build suspense through Lina’s gradual awareness of the danger she’s in, and of her husband’s true nature. It’s a psychological thriller as much as it is anything else. And, incidentally, it’s the only Hitchcock film that includes an Oscar-winning performance (Fontaine’s).

One of the best-known of Hitchock’s book-to-film adaptations is 1951’s Strangers on a Train, his take on the Patricia Highsmith novel. The film stars Farley Granger and Robert Walker as, respectively, Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony (Highsmith called him Charles Anthony Bruno). If you’ve read the book, seen the film, or both, you’ll know that the two men are strangers until they meet by chance on a long train ride. Each one has a deep unhappiness in his life, caused by a family member. Anthony makes the suggestion that each ought to commit the other’s murder, so to speak, since there would be no motive. Haines agrees jokingly, sure that Anthony isn’t serious. He is, though, and the result of that agreement sends things spinning out of control for both men. Hitchcock did make some changes to the original Highsmith story (besides the name) for the film. For instance, in the film, Haines is a tennis player. He’s an architect in the novel. And then there’s that amusement park scene in the film. There are other differences, too. But the basic premise is the same.

Possibly the best-known of Hitchcock’s films is 1960’s Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. In the film, Marion Crane (Leigh) can’t resist the lure of easy money, and takes $40,000 from the Phoenix real estate firm where she works. Then she heads towards Fairvale, California, where her fiancé Sam lives, planning to give him the money, so they can start their lives together. On the way, she stops for the night at the Bates Motel, where she meets its owner, Norman Bates (Perkins). That meeting has fateful consequences, as fans know. This film is based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name. In the novel, the secretary’s name is Mary Crane, but otherwise, there are a lot of similarities – certainly in the main plot points – between book and film. Most critics agree that this is at least one of Hitchcock’s best, and a lot consider it his very best.

There’s also Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds, starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. This film was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story of the same name. The main plot of both stories is a sudden and inexplicable rash of extremely aggressive acts by birds. In fact, du Maurier was inspired to write this when she saw some seagulls circling and diving as a farmer was at work. That said, though, there are many differences between the story and the film. In fact, du Maurier is said to have hated Hitchock’s adaptation. One major difference is the setting; du Maurier’s story is set in Cornwall, and Hitchock’s in San Francisco. Another is the cast of characters and the focus. The story features a farmer named Nat Hocken, who’s desperately trying to protect his family from the birds. The film features socialite Melanie Daniels and attorney Mitch Brenner, and their struggles to save the Brenner family from avian attacks. In this case, it’s really interesting to see the differences between the two stories. It’s probably best to consider them as exactly that – two very different stories about bird attacks – and judge each on its own merits.

Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), starring Jon Finch, Alec McCowen, and Barry Foster is based on Arthur La Bern’s 1966 novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell, Leicester Square. Both book and film tell the story of a London serial rapist and murderer. The evidence seems to point to a former decorated RAF pilot named Richard ‘Dick’ Blamey. He’s faced some hard times lately, but he claims to be innocent. Still, the police arrest him, and he’s duly imprisoned. Inspector Oxford, though, isn’t entirely convinced of Blamey’s guilt, and begins to look into the evidence again. And it turns out that it’s just as well he does. Blamey’s been set up by the real killer. There are differences between the book and the film. For instance, there’s more emphasis on Blamey’s trial in the novel. And the book and film have different sorts of endings. Still, the basic premise of one man using another as a convenient scapegoat is preserved. So is the London setting.

There are many other Hitchcock films that have gotten lots of praise (and others that have gotten plenty of criticism too). But whatever you think of Hitchcock, his work has had an indisputable impact on film and on crime fiction. If you’re a fan, which Hitchcock film do you like best?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Nields’ Alfred Hitchcock.


Filed under Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Berkeley Cox, Arthur La Bern, Daphne du Maurier, Francis Iles, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Bloch

53 responses to “What’s It All About, Alfred Hitchcock?*

  1. Margot, Hitchcock will always be my favorite film director! And my favorite of his films – easily one of my favorite films of all time – is Rear Window, based on the short story by Cornell Woolrich but expanded into not only a great murder mystery but a fascinating exploration of relationships. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr are all brilliant in it. (I think this review was my second blog post ever! https://ahsweetmysteryblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/worst-question-ever-what-is-your-favorite-anything/ )

    I think the thing that makes Hitchcock so brilliant is that, even though he is definitely creating thrillers, there is always something deeper going on that shines a light on human experience. That alone merits a close study of his work, but he was also at the forefront in the use of new film technology as it emerged. Thanks for sharing your feelings about him in this post.

    • Thank you, Brad, both for your comments on Rear Window and for sharing your post. I really like that film, too; and, as you say, it’s based on an interesting story. Folks, do go have a look at Brad’s review of the film. I think you make a really well-taken point about the depth of Hitchcock’s work. As you say, his films have something to say not just about the main plot, but also about human nature and the human experience. And that psycho-sociological undertone gives his films layers of interest. I also admire his film-making innovations. Whether one’s a fan of Hitchcock or not, it’s well-nigh impossible to deny his impact.

  2. I’ve always been a fan of Hitchcock, Margot, and I do like the way he would add to (or take away from) the books to make them better films – after all, there’s a difference between reading suspense and watching it. It’s worth noting, for instance, that he took that amusement park sequence in Strangers on a Train practically intact from Edmund Crispin’s novel, The Moving Toyshop. It’s a powerful sequence in the original Crispin book, but it’s devastating in the movie – IMHO a better ending than the original one used by Patricia Highsmith. He really was one of the all-time great directors.

    • I think he was, too, Les. And you’re absolutely right that watching a film and reading a book are quite different experiences. A strong director might very well make changes to a novel to make a better film; and, as you point out, that doesn’t necessarily take away from the film at all. Not if it’s done well.

  3. Oh, so hard to pick favourites from Hitchcock, but Strangers on a Train is a definite, and Psycho. I also love Rope, for the psychology of the idea of committing a murder just to see what it feels like. And Rear Window for everything, really, but especially Grace Kelly’s frocks! Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes… nope, too hard to choose!! I have enjoyed recently reading some of the books behind the films – Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds and a couple of others but still haven’t got round to reading Strangers on a Train. Soon!

    • Let me guess, FictionFan – you’re Hitchcock fan, right? 😉 – It really is hard to choose among his best, isn’t it? I’m actually very glad you mentioned some of his lesser-known films, as some of them really deserve more credit than they’ve gotten. And I must admit, I’m particularly glad you mentioned Shadow of a Doubt. Much as I love Strangers on a Train and Psycho (and North by Northwest, and …) – and I do – the one I personally like best is Shadow of a Doubt. It’s such a strong study of growing doubt and fear, and the creeping awareness that someone you love could be a horrible killer. Hitchcock builds that tension so well. Grace Kelly’s wardrobe notwithstanding.

      It’s good to hear you’re reading some of the books that inspired the films. I think it gives one a whole new take on a film. And it gives an insight into the filmmaker’s way of thinking.

  4. I have always liked Hitchcock’s’ films – impossible to choose a favourite. I did like The Birds and was disappointed when I read the Du Maurier story, which as you say is a very different story. Hitchcock’s version is much scarier, even on repeat viewings. But I’m not a great fan of Hitchcock the man – if Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of him in the film ‘Hitchcock’ is based on fact and the TV film ‘The Girl’ with Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock is anything to go by!

    • Oh, I’ve not seen The Girl, Margaret! Thanks for mentioning it. If those films are accurate, then no, Hitchcock might not have been admirable as a man. But the films? To me, that’s quite different. And your comment actually raises the question of what it’s like to really be a fan of someone’s work, but not a fan of that person. Hmm…..thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

      And you’re right, I think, about The Birds. That’s a really scary film, especially if you see it at the time of year when the real-life birds are migrating *shudder.*

  5. Great stuff Margot (and thanks for the shout out too 😊). Great choices here and so varied. Hitch was well known for taking lots of liberties with some of his adaptations of course though REBECCA is a notable exception. I bet DuMaurier didn’t complain too much about that one!

    • 😆 Probably not, Sergio! And it’s my great pleasure to plug your excellent blog, and your knowledge of Hitchcock’s work. I’m very glad you mentioned the variety of films he made, too – I left a gap there. His career spanned several decades, and in that time, he experimented with so many different approaches to film. For that alone he deserves his place among the most influential filmmakers ever. Thanks for the kind words!

  6. Fascinating post Margot. I’ve always been interested in where Hitchcocks films came from. I know he was very much a fan of Highsmith’s too. Thanks for joining the dots Margot 🙂

  7. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Margot Kinberg on Alfred Hitchcock via Sergio’s great blog, TIPPING MY FEDORA–don’t miss this one!

  8. Hitchcock, ahh . . . let me count the ways! So many classic films. I would love to have them all on DVD. As an impressionable youth, there was a certain weekly television show that I would dare not miss–“Alfred Hitchcock Presents”–I’m curious to know how many among your audience remember the “pencil” outline of the master against the backdrop of a light screen, and then the shadow slowly approaching until bit-by-slow-bit the outline was filled. And then Alfred Hitchcock, in profile, slowly turned to face the camera and said in that distinctive voice, “Good evening.”
    That was great television, so superior to the (mostly) trash today’s generation of viewers is subjected to (yeah, I know, a dangling modifier or whatever). Oh, I do so wish some network would pick up “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and feature it in reruns. Do any of your readers remember this classic TV show? 🙂

    • I’ve seen that show, Michael, many times (I admit, in syndication, but still). I think it was quite well-done. In fact, I almost titled this post ‘Good Evening,’ but then decided against it. I can see why you still remember it. And, dangling modifier or not, I think you have to look hard to find anything like it today, ‘though there still is some fine TV out there if you know where to look.

    • I certainly remember the show, Michael, which is on Netflix, I believe. You might even find some on YouTube. I still shudder at episodes like “The Magic Shop.” And I’m proud to say I have nearly all the films on DVD, so come on over!

  9. kathyd

    I just looked at Hitchcock’s film list. So many good ones there that we haven’t even mentioned.
    My favorites are Notorious and The Lady Vanishes. I watch the latter every few years it’s so wonderful. And Notorious — Claude Reins telling his Nazi mother, “Mother, I’m married to an American agent,” and then the tension builds for Ingrid Berman’s character.
    And then there are so many others, but the list is reminding me of films I haven’t seen.
    And “Psycho” — I will never see it. While a young teenager, my cousin, a year older and a movie buff, told me on the phone about the shower scene. I didn’t take a shower for a week and I didn’t even see the movie!
    I recently saw a talk-show host say that she was scarred by that film. I believe it.
    But “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” and “North by Northwest,” are all top-notch.

    • They are, indeed, Kathy! And Psycho is an intense film; I can see how someone wouldn’t forget it in a hurry – and why you might choose not to see it. You’re right, too, about the number of fine films that Hitchcock made. There are so many to choose from that it’s hard to know which one’s the best. Fortunately, it’s not hard to get one’s hands on most of them, so re-watches are always possible, even if one doesn’t own them all.

  10. Col

    Vertigo or The Birds for me. I’m still slowly working my way through a 15 film box set of his I got as a present a few years ago. I might change my mind in another year or two!

  11. So, as a non-fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I am once more standing-out the involuntary way? Seemed so to me.

    Still my fear of heights (acrophobia) resulted in a lot of hints, even when an eagerness to die inter-mixed with a habit to fall in love with not precisely good-hearted women explained it all! 😉

    I am happy for you, Margot, as you found something you enjoy. And I am once more inspired, as I found your way to handle books & movies aka films as one works out well, too!

    Hitchcock and the Crime Fiction of Edgar Wallace were banes of our childhood, but I don’t spam your site with such memories. X)

  12. Reblogged this on Bum's Landing Memorial – Andrè Michael Pietroschek at WordPress.com and commented:
    Prudent words on ‘the classics’…

  13. I am a great fan of Rear Window. And I have a soft spot for The Lady Vanishes – based on a terrific novel by Ethel Lina White.

  14. Margot, thanks to Sergio’s series of posts and polls on Alfred Hitchcock, I know more about Hitchcock’s films now. While I haven’t seen all the films, I’m now tempted to read some of the books as well.

    • I’ve learned an awful lot from Sergio, too, Prashant! And I think it is really interesting to go back and read the books once one’s seen the films. I think it offers a broader perspective.

  15. Nice to see “Frenzy” get a mention – it’s often overlooked but a fine film, with a great cast, memorable scenes and capturing the market bustle around Covent Garden in London (when Covent Garden was still a huge fruit and vet market)

    Hitchcock sets his version at the start of the 1970s. Arthur La Bern’s novel is set shortly after World War II, and while his Blamey character (Blaney in the film) is still ex-RAF he is haunted by his role in the firebombing of Dresden, and this becomes a factor in his (false) conviction.

    • Frenzy is a fine film, isn’t it, Mel? As you say, the film and book are set in different times, but they have much in common. That includes the issue of wartime experiences and how they can haunt one. I think that’s handled in a skilled way.

  16. I think Rebecca is my favorite Hitchcock film, followed by The Lady Vanishes, and then Frenzy. I find Frenzy rather hilarious and also sad, and when a film can make me feel two emotions at once, I’m glad. I enjoy The Birds, but I rather dislike the ending. Psycho is a great, too, but it doesn’t impact me emotionally the way my favorite films of his do. Isn’t it amazing that du Maurier was around when Hitchcock made Rebecca? Two Behemoths!

    • I know what you mean, GtL. When a film draws the viewer in like that, so that you feel all those emotions, then it is a good film, no doubt about that. And it is amazing that Du Maurier and Hitchcock were working at the same time. Such creativity!

  17. I’d like to mention Dial M for Murder and I Confess, both good, tense, atmospheric films. I recently saw Family Plot, after enjoying the book it was based on – Victor Canning’s Rainbird Pattern. It is definitely not his best film, and he certainly changed a lot from the book. But even past-his-best Hitchcock is worth a look…

  18. Pingback: THIRTEEN BY HITCHCOCK: A Fan Pays Homage to the Master | ahsweetmysteryblog

  19. Terrific post on a master filmmaker and his literary sources. Being a longtime fan, so difficult to pick a favorite Hitchcock film. I guess I’ll have to go with Vertigo. At the other side of the stylistic spectrum, I enjoy the ones that have a film noir look and content, especially Shadow of a Doubt, I Confess, and Strangers on a Train.
    Also: it’s not exactly a Hitchcock film, but the recent documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut is fascinating.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Bryan. I’ve heard good things about that documentary; perhaps I’ll look for it. Oh, and I completely agree with you about Shadow of a Doubt. I think that’s the Hitchcock film I like the best, although there are others I could watch over and over again. And yes, Vertigo is a great film, so I’m glad you mentioned that one, too. Thanks for the kind words.

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  21. I watched the excellent Strangers on a Train for the first time quite recently when it showed up on TCM. My overall favorite, though, is Psycho. That one still gives me the creeps when I even think about it.

    • It is a classic, Pat, no doubt about that. It’s one of those really haunting films that does stay with you. But that said, I agree that Strangers On a Train is excellent, too, and really well-filmed.

  22. Personal top 10: rear window, i confess, frenzy, north by northwest, dial m for murder, sabotage, the 39 steps, foreign correspondent, rope, spellbound

  23. tracybham

    Favorite Hitchcock film: North by Northwest. Recently read the book Vertigo and re-watched the movie for the umpteenth time. I will post on that someday. Marnie is another favorite. I like it much better than The Birds. I would like to find the novel that Marnie is based on and read it.

    • I like North by Northwest, too, Tracy. It’s very well done, I think. And in my opinion, Hitchcock’s work is just about always worth a re-watch. I hope you will post about it, as I like to get your views on it.

  24. graspatstraws

    The way I see it, Hitchock was the best movie maker. Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo and the like.

  25. Definitely Hitch -hold the cock- has inspired me to make my stories more romantic even if they are gruesome and horror filled. I think often, what would Hitch do, because he was a romantic morbid or not. I love Rebecca oddly enough Vertigo and Rear Window and Rope, I enjoyed Frenzy because it’s in the 70s and is clearly far more graphic than any other of his films. I can only imagine what he would have made had he lived into the 80’s . At any rate, I want to make my stories full of heartache even if it is about serial killers and cannibals -DV

    • Hitchcock’s work has been inspirational for a lot of people, DV. And he certainly combined romance (however ill-fated) with suspense, even horror. I couldn’t agree more, too, that Vertigo and Rear Window are very well done. It is interesting to consider what his work would have been like had he continued.

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