Article originally published in ACE Magazine.
Thanks to the BFI and Picture House, U.K cinemas are currently flooded with a wealth of Alfred Hitchcock screenings. It seems fitting that, as part of the cultural Olympiad, Hitchcock was the British filmmaker to be honoured with new restorations of his nine surviving silent films as well as in depth screenings around the U.K of his monumental back catalogue.
With the recent Sight & Sound poll finally dethroning Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) from the greatest film of all time place and replacing it with Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), it seems an appropriate time to look at whether Hitchcock is truly the greatest filmmaker to have ever lived. Large arguments surrounding the poll’s validity and the facile nature of such sweeping statements as “greatest film of all time” and “greatest director of all time”, are largely valid from an academic viewpoint. Yet there’s something consistently interesting and most of all fun, about conducting such exercises that when the opportunity does come up, a writer would be a fool to miss out on it.
Hitchcock’s films seem to cross all boundaries in terms of audience. A screening of one of his more popular titles from his mid period such as the aforementioned Vertigo or Rear Window (1954) will bring an equal flock of casual cinema goers, cineastes and academics. This says a lot about Hitchcock’s films and perhaps explains why he has remained so popular. Underneath the exciting visuals and story, often lies an analysis of ideas and beliefs, often taken down Freudian, perhaps even Jungian routes of psychoanalytical territories.
From famous films such as Psycho (1960) or The Birds (1963) to lesser known titles from his earlier career such as Spellbound (1945), Shadow Of A Doubt (1943) or The Pleasure Garden (1925), present that perfect blend of populist entertainment and academic study. More than almost any other filmmaker, all aspects of Hitchcock’s work has been dissected, analysed and read through in detail presenting a wealth of theories on how his films work and the mechanisms behind the art. However, much like John Ford, he has a wonderfully everyman approach to his work, never venturing into the hardcore academia that many of his scholars explore when researching his work, but instead gives an honest and entirely down to earth approach to explaining even the most complex of scenarios.
His use of music is more iconoclastic and more important to the development of scoring techniques than any other director. Giving Bernard Herrmann such leeway and freedom in their many auteur/composer lead projects produced a wealth of staggering effects, many of which are inescapable in the post-modern age. Never before has a director’s visual palate been so on par with a composer’s but when both are such high quality artists, there’s no doubt that the symbiosis was to take place.
Having a huge canon of over fifty films, it’s staggering that the majority of them are hits rather than misses. His style’s evolution is easy to see when working through the films and the definite traits he would eventually stick to have become bywords for great cinema. In terms of British directors, there are few to match him. Only Carol Reed and Michael Powell come vaguely close. However in terms of the world he has some relative competitors. Orson Welles is close but was never given the chance for Hitch’s consistency. Stanley Kubrick too chases his tail and more than matches Hitchcock’s visuals. Akira Kurosawa matches his spectacle and awe while Yasujirō Ozu matches his more human side albeit in a far more humanistic way. He has the philosophical beauty of Andrei Tarkovsksy and a Fordian commitment to the everyman audience but is he the greatest director? Quite possibly but in the words of the great man himself; “There is nothing to winning, really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever”.