Wednesday, August 14, 2002

To continue with yesterday's topic; What is it about Hitchcock? Why are his films still relevant, decades after his death?

Probably, when somebody brings up the subject of Hitch, one of the first things that goes through your head is "the master of suspense," but I don't believe that's it. "Master of suspense" gets at his technical skills as a director, and explains his chosen genre for nearly all his films, but it doesn't explain his popular appeal.

To compare a typical Hitchcock film to a typical Orson Wells film (and I do also love Wells, but he does not have the mass adoration of a Hitch). Wells' pictures are about the ordinary lives of extraordinary people. Wells' characters are larger than life on the outside, but he dissects them and shows how petty and small they are on the inside. This is a very intellectual approach to storytelling that gets academic approval, but with the exception of Citizen Kane, doesn't appeal to the broader public.

Hitch's pictures put the most ordinary of people into the most extraordinary situations. The exact opposite formula as Wells, these are characters that anybody can relate to that demonstrate the inner strength, goodness, and ability to face adversity and danger within us all. The suspense is a merely a means to bring those qualities to the surface and make a hero out of an otherwise unremarkable person.

Much has been made of Hitch's joking about actors and cattle ("I never said actors were cattle; I said they should be treated like cattle"), implying that the people in his films were secondary to the action. I think that's completely off-base. I believe he cared deeply about the character of his characters, and that he knew they were the key to the success of his films.

It's the human element of Hitch's work that made him one of the first superstar directors (easily recognized outside of Hollywood), and continues to keep his work relevant and watchable to this day. The well-crafted suspense is good too, but it only works because we care about the characters.

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