For the next month, the Stanford Theater is hosting a retrospective of classic works from the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. This cine-master has a lot to teach us about the craft of moviemaking after almost single-handedly refining it into the art it is today. With that in mind, here are five films showing at the Stanford you’ll want to see on the big screen:
This haunting tale of obsession and love run amok remains Hitchcock’s most definitive statement as an artist. Jimmy Stewart does a dark riff on his usual aw-shucks shuffle as a detective assigned to tail a millionaire’s wife, played by Kim Novak. As the two fall in love, we do too — with the unspeakable gorgeousness of the film and its even more gorgeous mystery (which I won’t say much about here).
Much of the credit for this film’s beauty is Bernard Hermann’s. Hermann’s deceptively lush violins, swirling in a sea of “love” themes, keep Novak and Stewart’s motivations oblique and mask the movie’s seedy underbelly of darkness. The soundtrack casts a stalking shadow as creepily memorable as Hitchcock’s direction.
Though he’s typically done his best shooting in paranoiac black-and-white (“Psycho,” “Notorious”), Hitchcock here paints with a delicate floweriness best suited for melodious tragedy. The final product is an elegiac, ghostly cine-poem, which draws you into its seductive spider’s web. “Vertigo” is a towering landmark and it’s not to be missed.
“Vertigo” plays from Thursday, March 31 to Sunday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m., with a 3:05 p.m. matinee on Saturday and Sunday.
“Rear Window” (1954)
This thriller, playing on a double-bill of “Vertigo,” is one hell of a ride. It stars our old pal Jimmy Stewart as an invalid photographer who thinks he witnesses a murder across the street. Grace Kelly is the glamorous fiancée who doesn’t believe him. The story takes place entirely inside of a hot, sleepy Greenwich Village apartment. Here, Hitchcock resituates the act of looking to an abstracted, deadly level.
Out of all the movies I’ve seen, “Rear Window” makes the most profound use of space. Each scene is crafted for maximum taut tension: You could slice the film with a stiletto knife, serve each piece on a silver plate, and feel your body shiver as the thinness slits your gullet.
“Rear Window” deserves to be seen in a theater. Only there can you really experience the full magnitude of Hitchcock’s achievement. A masterpiece about voyeurism and the dangers of poking your nose in places where it doesn’t belong, “Rear Window” defines cinema.
“Rear Window” plays from Thursday, March 31 to Sunday, April 3 at 5:25 p.m. and 9:50 p.m.
“North by Northwest” (1959)
The kookiest adventure yarn Hitchcock ever spun. A criminally dapper Cary Grant plays an ad exec who is mistaken for a foreign spy. Somehow, he gets entangled in an espionage web so complex he must take off across the wilds of America: auction houses, a crop-dusted field, and, in the film’s greatest sequence, Mount Rushmore.
Hitchcock crafts memorable set-piece after memorable set-piece — each funnier and sexier than the last. Eva Marie Saint as the rather bland female lead (Hitch’s least interesting blonde) is nicely balanced out by the part-ham-part-lean chewiness of James Mason as the posh British baddie (it’s a dress rehearsal for his cheekiest and greatest role: Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s “Lolita”). Ernest Lehman’s screenplay and Hermann’s music — both bombastic and colorful — hold it all together.
“North by Northwest” plays from Thursday, April 14 to Sunday, April 17 at 7:30 p.m., with a 3 p.m. weekend matinee. On all dates, it shows on a double-bill with “Shadow of a Doubt,” a fantastic film starring Teresa Wright as a young Santa Rosa girl who suspects her uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) is a serial killer of rich old widows.
“The Birds” (1963)
This cold-cream film presents a stunningly bleak look at the human condition. Birds attack the town of Bodega Bay, and nobody knows why. Neutral earth colors, flat-tone performances (a perfectly frigid Tippi Hedren as a San Fran playgirl) and a soundtrack that out-screeches “Psycho” (the “score” consists solely of bird-like synths) create a caw-caw-phonic and beautiful nightmare. Hitchcock’s pet obsessions — Oedipal conflict between mommy and a outsider female, chaos grinding against order, voyeuristic gazing, precise editing and blocking — are at their most expressive.
The more I watch it, the more I’m inclined to view it as Hitchcock’s most frightening work. But, its not scary in the conventional sense; it’s philosophically scary. It presents a status quo of logic and normalcy that is disrupted by the illogical, abnormal threat of the birds. It’s about how humans cannot cope in the face of the absurd, that weird realm existing beyond our comfortable zones of civilized behavior, decorum and rationality. Watch it and be chilled.
“The Birds” plays from Thursday, April 21 to Sunday, April 24 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2:55 p.m. matinee on the weekend.
Hitchcock reaches new highs with “Marnie,” a mostly misunderstood masterwork that plays on a double-bill with “The Birds.” Tippi plays the titular Marnie, a glamorous, Catherine Deneuve-ish kleptomaniac and androphobe who hates the touch of men. The film investigates how and why Marnie came to be this way, co-starring Sean “007” Connery as the man who becomes obsessed with (and later kidnap-marries) our trapped protagonist.
It is one of the few times Hitchcock portrays a non-romanticized heroine. Beaten, sodomized in youth, raped, Tippi-as-Marnie remains his most compelling creation. By casting Sean Connery as the “romantic” lead, Hitchcock cleverly subverts the rampant misogyny of Connery’s James Bond role, showing us the dark consequences of Bond’s life of wine and women. Here, the decidedly unlikable Connery commits the film’s vilest act in an emotional climax unparalleled in Hitchcock’s work, a disturbing twist of his subjective camera trick. Usually, he asks us to perversely identify with the killer or criminal rather than the innocents. But for once, “Marnie” shows Hitch’s willingness to dive into the perspective of the victim rather that of the victimizer.
“Marnie” plays from Thursday, April 21 to Sunday, April 24 at 5:05 p.m. and 9:40 p.m.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.