As 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.