Before Shyamalan or Spielberg or the Coen Brothers, there was Alfred Hitchcock.
His contribution to cinema is immeasurable, not only because he directed so many great films but also because he drastically affected the way we watch and create them.
As with many success stories, his began with humble origins. He was born in the London suburb of Leytonstone in 1899 to devoutly Catholic parents.
On more than one occasion, Hitchcock recounted the time when his father had the local jailer lock him up for five or 10 minutes as punishment for being “a naughty boy.”
The fear of wrongful imprisonment, usually coupled with mistaken identity, is ubiquitous throughout Hitchcock’s movies. We see it everywhere from his most popular thrillers (“North by Northwest” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much”) to some of his lesser-known films (“The Wrong Man”).
Starting out as an artist and an adman, Hitchcock eventually worked his way into films, directing a series of critical and commercial failures.
But in 1926, Hitchcock made a thriller called “The Lodger”-loosely based on Jack the Ripper-and thus began one of the greatest and most sustained careers in film history.
Why movie buffs and critics speak of Hitchcock with such revered tones is hard to pinpoint.
Obviously there’s the matter of his enormous influence on film techniques.
He is the creator of the Hitchcock zoom (also called the dolly zoom), a technique where the camera lens focuses in on something, while the camera itself usually moves backward.
Hitchcock used this technique in his masterpiece “Vertigo” to visually represent the main character’s acrophobia. The technique has been used by Spielberg in “Jaws” and by Martin Scorsese in “GoodFellas.”
Hitchcock also perfected the technique of montage editing in the infamous shower scene in “Psycho.” This technique involves a series of rapid cuts that all occur during the same scene. Each “cut” in “Psycho” came to represent a cut of the killer’s knife.
But more than all this, Hitchcock made films that were rarely anything less than pure fun.
His films are often breathlessly paced thrillers or murder mysteries that frequently induce sweaty-palmed suspense followed by sighs of unmitigated relief as the hero or the heroine narrowly escapes some looming danger.
And yet, couched between all this delicious entertainment, are films that deal with thematically complex issues such as guilt, identity and morality.
This is Hitchcock’s legacy: Entertaining films that are more than just shiny pieces of escapism.
So, if you’ve never been properly introduced to this “cleverly murderous uncle” (to borrow a phrase from CNN film critic Paul Tatara), take a trip to the local movie rental store, pick up one of his films, and fall under his enchanting celluloid spell.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.