Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Genius of Hitchcock at the BFI

Here's a mystery for you. What's the cinematic event of the next couple of months going to be?

The release of Anna Karenina? On the Road? Hope Springs?

Absolutely not. In London, at least, it must be part two of the British Film Institute's tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Stretching from June to October, the celebration next month will feature the usual gems – The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, The Birds, Rear Window – along with some special treats.

These will include rarely seen Hitchcocks from early in his career, such as the restoration premieres of The Farmer's Wife, The Manxman and The Pleasure Garden. But there's much more – talks and panels on the importance of Alma Reville, Hitch's wife and collaborator, Hitchcock motifs and even Bruce Dern discussing Hitchcock's last film, 1976's Family Plot, in which Dern starred (scheduled for Monday, 8 October).

Plus, Martin Landau will drop by to talk about North by Northwest (Tuesday, 9 October), there will be a Sight & Sound panel on the reputation of the Master of Suspense, and even a look at the gay vibes in two of the films (Rope and Marnie). Plus, the movie that has just knocked Citizen Kane off its perch as the greatest of all time by Sight &Sound's critics, Vertigo, will be shown several times in a new restoration print during September.

This must be the most comprehensive and fascinating celebration of the Crafty Cockney's oeuvre, and one I'll definitely be getting along to. Thank you, BFI. My love of Hitchcock began young, as a child in New York watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents – which is also the subject of an illustrated talk at the BFI.

So for what it's worth – not much, but here goes, anyway – here's my top 10 Hitchcocks.

1 Rear Window (1954)
Small idea – the voyeur drawn into danger by his noseyness – brilliantly explored by the director's camera, with a sublime cast, including James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter. Sexy, tense, witty and totally compelling.

2 Psycho (1960)
We invest a lot in Marion Crane's dash for freedom because Hitch spends so long building her character. The script was finished in November '59 and shooting concluded in January '60. It cost $800,000. Unforgettable movie moments, a superb score – Hitchcock at the top of his game.

3 Notorious (1946)
A sophisticated romance cum thriller, as Cary Grant recruits Ingrid Bergman to be the honeytrap for Nazi Claude Rains – who is lumbered with another of Hitchcock's old bag mothers (Leopoldine Konstantin). Nerve-stretching dilemmas abound for all the principals, before a terrific ending.

4 Vertigo (1958)
A strange, dreamlike film, with a far-fetched plot, that is nevertheless entrancing, as obsessive, acrophobic James Stewart tries to take control of Kim Novak by remodelling her as a woman he loved but failed to safe from falling to her death.

5 North by Northwest (1959)
The furious action covers some immense plot holes, but just as wonderful as the famous set-piece moments of cinema magic – the crop-duster scene, Mount Rushmore – is the superbly scripted verbal foreplay between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. And as a symbol of consummation, you can't beat a train going into a tunnel.

6 To Catch a Thief (1955)
Too light-hearted to be the critics' favourite, and the plot drags once or twice, but the sexy banter between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis as Francie's mother and the glamorous South of France make this a pure joy on a Sunday afternoon.

7 The Birds (1963)
Once again, no modern chiller would invest as much time as Hitchcock does in setting up the characters and story, so that when the invasion starts, we're so invested in the fate awaiting the Bodega Bay residents that we're in as much of a flap as the birds.

8 Strangers on a Train (1951)
Farley Granger is snared in a nightmare when Robert Walker insists on following through with a speculative suggestion, made when they meet on a train, that they should swap murders. Patricia Highsmith's twisted story inspires some fine sequences from Hitch, particularly at the fun fair.

9 Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
An All-American small-town family with a murderer in its midst – but only teenager Teresa Wright suspects him. Joseph Cotten plays against type as the devil-like figure of kind uncle Charlie, who of course tries to kill his niece when he knows she's onto him. Doesn't have the visual dazzle of many Hitchcock classics, but features a terrific psychological joust between Charlie and his niece, also called Charlie.

10 Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65)
The opening music, the lugubrious intro, and some fine TV mysteries. Hitch directed 17 and introduced all 250 sharply produced half-hour tales with a twist in them.