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The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock (1973)

A look at Alfred Hitchcock's films. The Master of Suspense himself, who is interviewed extensively here, shares stories including his deep-seated fear of policemen, elaborates on the ... See full summary »

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A look at Alfred Hitchcock's films. The Master of Suspense himself, who is interviewed extensively here, shares stories including his deep-seated fear of policemen, elaborates on the difference between shock and suspense, defines the meaning of "MacGuffin," and discusses his use of storyboarding in designing a film. Clips from many of his greatest films (including "North by Northwest", "Shadow of a Doubt", "The Birds", and the legendary shower scene from "Psycho") illustrate his points, often to Hitchcock's own voice-over observations, with narrator Cliff Robertson offering other critical insights. Written by filmfactsman

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Eggs McGuffin
23 July 2004 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

In 1972 and '73, film critic Richard Schickel made an 8-part series for American public television: 'The Men Who Made the Movies'. Each episode featured a prominent Hollywood director discussing his career in an on-camera monologue (actually an interview, with Schickel's questions edited out), interspersed with generous clips from his most famous films, accompanied by somewhat overwrought narration (written by Schickel and spoken by Cliff Robertson). A coffee-table book was published as a companion volume to this series.

Of the eight directors in this series, Alfred Hitchcock is the one best known (and most iconic) to the general film-going public. This documentary deals entirely with Hitchcock's suspense films, with scant attention to 'Rich and Strange', 'Mr and Mrs Smith' or any other non-suspense films in Hitchcock's canon. Regrettably, this documentary gives short shrift to Hitchcock's silent films, although we do see one tantalisingly brief clip of Ivor Novello in 'The Lodger'.

Over his long career, Hitchcock was interviewed far more frequently and deeply than any of the other directors in Schickel's series, so inevitably some of the interview footage in this documentary has a feeling of déjà entendu (already heard). We get one more recounting of Hitchcock's McGuffin concept, and Hitchcock retells yet again the music-hall joke that provided the McGuffin's name. We get one more repeat of Hitchcock's baseball story: Imagine two men in a room, talking about baseball. Suddenly a bomb goes off under the table. We get a few seconds of surprise. Now imagine the same scene, but this time the audience are aware of the bomb under the table, about to go off. The same idle conversation about baseball is now charged with suspense, because we know something that the on screen characters don't.

In the footage here, Hitchcock also tells an anecdote about his childhood which (to my knowledge) was never revealed in any of his previous interviews. As a boy in England, Hitchcock attended a strict Catholic seminary where students who misbehaved were ordered to 'go for three'; i.e., report to the headmaster for three strokes from a leather razor-strop. Invariably, all the students delayed this ordeal until the last possible moment. Apparently this taught Hitchcock a profound lesson about the nature of suspense. (In my own early life, I was in a similar situation - not Catholic - and I learnt that it was always best to get the punishment over as soon as possible. Maybe that explains why Hitchcock was a master of suspense and I'm not.)

Some of the clips shown here work better than others. We see the climax from 'Saboteur', in which Norman Lloyd (the baddie) dangles from the Statue of Liberty whilst Robert Cummings (the goodie) tries to save him. "I'll clear ya," says Lloyd desperately to Cummings, while Robertson's narration explains that Cummings has been accused of Lloyd's crimes, and Cummings must save Lloyd in order to clear himself. If Lloyd falls to his death (which he does), Cummings will remain a fugitive. That's inaccurate and misleading: at this point in the movie, the authorities are already convinced of Cummings's innocence. I wish that Schickel had explained this scene properly. You won't know it from what's said here, but Hitchcock eventually decided that the climax of 'Saboteur' was an error - it put the villain in jeopardy, rather than the hero - so he attempted some damage control by implying (falsely) that the hero could not clear himself if the villain was killed. The brilliant climax of 'North by Northwest' - with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangling from Mount Rushmore, at the villains' mercy - was conceived by Hitchcock as his chance to correct his previous error in 'Saboteur'. A pity that Schickel doesn't mention it.

This superb documentary ends with the virtuoso scene from 'Frenzy' in which the camera retreats down the stairs and into the street near Covent Garden while, upstairs, the rapist strangles his latest victim. I wish that Schickel or Hitchcock had explained how this remarkable sequence was filmed: Hitchcock shot two separate set-ups (one in a 'wild' interior set, one in an actual street), using the same man walking past the camera twice (at the end of the first set-up, and the beginning of the second) to mask the transition and make them appear to be one seamless camera movement. Of all the great movie directors, Alfred Hitchcock was by far the one most familiar with the camera, lighting, lenses, filters and all the technical aspects of film-making.

All eight episodes of 'The Men Who Made the Movies' are well-made, highly entertaining and informative, although they tend to concentrate on the most well-known (and most typical) films of their respective subjects. Despite a few flaws, I'll rate all eight episodes of 'The Men Who Made the Movies' a perfect 10 out of 10.


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