“Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
A movie lover always remembers their first Hitchcock. For me, it was sixth grade, during the middle of an otherwise unassuming school day. Our teacher rolled the VHS player into the classroom and dimmed the lights, saying he had another old television episode to show us.
“Do any of you know who Alfred Hitchcock is?”
It was in black and white, but we trusted him; earlier in the year he’d shown us “Time Enough at Last”, the brilliant Twilight Zone episode where a put upon bookworm finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world, surrounded by a library of books and all the time he needs to finally read them, only to break his glasses as he reaches for the first book. So, when he pressed play and returned to his desk to grade papers that afternoon, there was no goofing off, no passing notes or chattering, no attempts at a sneaky mid-day nap. We were ready.
And what we saw that day, an old episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called “Final Escape”, still haunts me some 25 years later. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice to say it involves a prisoner attempting to escape from prison by hiding in a coffin—and that things don’t quite work out as planned. The final scene, with its macabre twist ending, still sends a shiver up my spine when I think of it, tapping into a primal fear (in this case, of being trapped) as so many of the best Hitchcock films do. His was an almost uncanny gift: being able to intuit our very human fears and defenses, and then projecting them back to us on the silver screen. That he seemed to delight in doing so was all just a part of the game.
It took us thirty issues to finally tackle Alfred Hitchcock, and not without good reason. The legendary director, so iconic that his mere shadow is instantly recognizable to even a casual moviegoer, was not only massively prolific—directing over fifty films and twenty episodes of television in a career spanning some 51 years—but also much written about, both during his lifetime and in the three plus decades following his death. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anything that hasn’t been said or written about Hitch or his films at this point, and we didn’t want to add our voices to the choir just to hear ourselves our sing.
Still, we’re a film magazine, and he’s Alfred Hitchcock. Given enough time, the two twains were bound to meet. We’ve had countless readers over the years asking for a Hitchcock issue, and writers itching to write about his films, and so this month, we’re finally diving into those waters. But as usual, we’re doing it the BW/DR way. The issue you’re about to read is not a comprehensive overview of Hitchcock’s career, nor is it intended to be. In fact, it’s slightly shorter than most of our previous issues; out of 52 films available to write about, we chose 8 (including two pieces on a single film, because, well, Vertigo). Some you’re likely familiar with—The Birds, Psycho, Notorious, Strangers on a Train—but others you probably aren’t (The 39 Steps, Rope, The Lodger). What each piece does offer you, though, is a different take on each of these films, something you hopefully haven’t read anywhere else before.
Many of our writers this month chose to see Hitchcock through comparison (as, standing alone, there’s only so much original left to be said): Michael Ryan compares the delights ofThe 39 Steps to those of the 70s Redford classic Three Days of the Condor; Tyler Banks examines Hitchcock’s Psycho alongside Gus Van Sant’s remake; and Alissa Wilkinson, in her new monthly column, recommends the best drink to pair with a viewing of The Birds—because you’re definitely going to need one. In other essays, obsession, time, and sexuality hold sway (Lauren Wilford’s re-imagination of Vertigo through Judy Barton’s eyes, flipping Hitchcock’s famous film about male obsession into a story about the difficulties of being desired and beheld; Eloise Ross’s examination of the presence of time, clocks, and the thinly-veiled homosexual romance at the center of Rope; Karina Wolf’s probing of the spell Ingrid Bergman casts in Notorious). We’ve also got Patrick Vickers taking a look at The Lodger, a silent movie widely considered the first “real Hitchcock film”; Sonya Redi journeying through modern-day San Francisco, revisiting many of Vertigo’s iconic locations; and Arielle Greenberg training her poetic lens on Strangers on a Train.
Most people don’t realize that Alfred Hitchcock—widely known as The Master of Suspense—was actually a rather timid and fearful man himself, often working out his own anxieties on the big screen. A notorious control freak, legendary for his adherence to routine and order, he made film after film in which people are plunged into disorder, seeming to have control only to have it wrested away from them, a rug pulled out from under their feet, a world of chaos revealed below the surface. He knew so expertly how to push an audience’s buttons, because they were his buttons as well. He understood the intricacies of human psychology at a deeper level than most any director ever has, but he also never forgot the simple fact that our fears are at the root of just about everything we do—or that telling stories about them has always been our best hope of regaining some semblance of control.
This month, we’re telling our own stories about his stories. We hope that, by the time you get to the end of the issue, you’ll choose to return directly to the source itself: after all, reading about art is most worthwhile when it leads you back to a re-examination of (or re-immersion in) its subject. Now excuse me while I pop in this VHS tape of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.