Study Guide

Vertigo Director

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Alfred Hitchcock

"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible."

That was the goal of our twisted directing genius, Alfred Hitchcock (source). We'd have to say that he succeeded. Whether scaring us out of our wits in Psycho or doing a 180 on us halfway through Vertigo, there's never a comfortable moment in a Hitchcock film, and that's just how he wanted it.

Vertigo was Hitchcock's 46th film. Probably the single most famous director in classical Hollywood cinema and possibly the most influential director in English-language movie history, the future Master of Suspense began his career in his native England. After making silent films—that's right, he was born that long ago—Hitchcock made a name for himself by provoking thrills and chills, and even the occasional shriek from audiences. His film told stories of murder and mayhem, intrigue and romance.

These were the slasher movies of his day, artfully made and so successful that they earned him an invitation to Hollywood by famed producer David O. Selznick. Selznick placed a good bet: Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca, won the Oscar for Best Picture.

In the 1940s Hitchcock began to hit his stride. He directed films like Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), and Rope (1948), all of them still adored by film buffs. However, it was in the 1950s that Hitch's career really took off. The films that he made during this decade, including Vertigo, are worshipped the world over. Movie-lovers and cinema-nerds admire these films, which include Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), not only for the stories they tell but also for the film techniques he pioneered.

Hitch's time in silent films gave him an appreciation of the primary importance of the visual image in cinema. He thought that the sign of a good film was that you could play it without sound and the audience would still know what's going on. Dialogue? It should only be used as a last resort when pictures alone couldn't tell the story. "We don't have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie house" (source).

Hitchcock was the master at using those images to create suspense and manipulate the emotions of the audience. "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano," he told an interviewer (source). Think of the super-famous shower scene in the surprisingly low-budget Psycho, where lots of quick cuts in the film correspond to the cuts made to poor Janet Leigh's body. Think of The Birds (1963): those special effects were unheard of in Hitch's day.

Hitchcock never won an Oscar for Best Director. Was the suspense genre considered too lowbrow? Were they too popular? Was the Academy turned off by his shameless self-promotion?

We don't know and we don't care. He kept us on the edge of our seats.

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