But, I did let it sneak up on me. As you've noticed, things have been slower than Ben Stein reading aloud "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" here at this blog. I even publicly shut the doors a month ago, partly out of humiliation that my output was so sporadic, and partly to parcel time on a more ambitious project. But when Marilyn Ferdinand and Farran Nehmes come calling, a man's gotta put on his typing gloves and do his part for the third year of their world-renowned For the Love of Film blogathon. The project, which this year boasts 100+ participants beyond myself, raises money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, and after the success of last year's focus, film noir and the restoration of the underseen THE SOUND OF FURY, they've raised stakes and gooseflesh by putting the emphasis on a very big Hitch...
...Yes, not only are all the blogathon entries going to cover the multitude of ideas that emerge from the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock, but the proceeds will be directed in the service of a heretofore thought-lost and now partially-found silent film, THE WHITE SHADOW, directed by Graham Cutts and written, assistant-directed, and manipulated in multiple manners by the Master of Suspense himself. The goal is to raise $15,000 to digitize the material, record the newly-composed score by Michael Mortilla, and stream this treasure online, free, so that everyone and not just lucky film snots in big cities or swanky circles can see this early beginning work of a legend.
If you drop his name to even the most limited movie viewer, chances are that person will be able to rattle off something that Alfred Hitchcock was known for. Surprise endings, chases in unusual places, blondes, taboo-pushing, black humor, "MacGuffins"...these and more have just permeated the world's consciousness. What fewer people assign trailblazer credit to him for, if ever, is his prescient courting of the public outside of the cinema: Hitchcock is, for my argument, the first Director as Rock Star.
Okay, maybe that's a stretch: at least perhaps Director as Pop Star: if Tarantino is generally perceived as the Elvis Presley, Hitchcock is undoubtedly the Frank Sinatra.
From the dawn of film to the '50's, there were plenty of acclaimed directors who could attract press and make news, but one is hard-pressed to find one that could be called a genuine household celebrity. The show business people that were getting the most notoriety were, of course, the movie stars, but then after that, the producers of hit movies: Mayer, Selznick, Zanuck, Warner, Goldwyn, etc. They were getting their names above the title much more often than directors were. Sure, there were producers who also directed - Cecil B. DeMille, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Stanley Kramer - but they would be more likely to draw attention for building the cruise ship rather than physically steering the boat. Directors were important, but a little interchangeable - not as interchangeable as the hapless writer entrusted with delivering that Barton Fink feeling, but when David Selznick had George Cukor replaced with Victor Fleming on GONE WITH THE WIND, even if there had been an internet back then, there would have been no fanboy outrage when that news came out.
The turning point came in 1955, when his then-agent Lew Wasserman, whose Music Corporation of America agency was branching into TV production, suggested that he host an anthology series focused on suspense, murder, chicanery, and other aspects of the macabre.
The series, "ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS," was an instant success that ran for ten years, inspiring networks to outbid each other to get the show every few years, and expanding from 30 minutes to an hour. Here was an acclaimed major motion picture director, already somewhat known to the average citizen for a fine body of films, now in every living room once a week, putting his stamp of approval on tales of shocking twists of fate, while making droll, stone-faced jokes, and even confiding to the audience that he disliked commercial breaks as much at them. Though he only directed a small fraction of the hundreds of episodes aired, just as Rod Serling became the icon for the uncanny and strange with "THE TWILIGHT ZONE," Alfred Hitchcock became the icon for the canny and cruel to a generation of TV viewers.
"Music to be Murdered By..." It's a meaty coincidence that this activity coincides with the height of Hitchcock's collaborations with graphic artist Saul Bass, the man responsible for literally hundreds of familiar corporate logos, fonts, and advertising treatments, because Bass also understood how to use one single image to convey multiple ideas. It is no wonder that in all those dry introductions to the program scripted for him by James B. Allardice that he was punting the sponsor's pills so much - all that valuable airtime Bristol-Myers was taking to sell their products could have been used by Hitch to sell himself! All joking aside, Hitchcock rather liked the idea of becoming a TV pitchman: in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion by Martin Grams Jr and Patrik Wikström, he suggested, "I'd like to take two asprin and, after swallowing them, stagger off the stage. Or, after brushing my teeth with some toothpaste or other, rinse and spit out a mouthful of teeth. Or show Joan of Arc being burned at the stake and comment, 'Are you smoking more now and enjoying it less?'" Such concepts the irony-free conglomerate probably did not see the humor in. But millions of people at home swallowed his schtick like Carter's Little Liver Pills (not a Bristol-Myers product), and now Hitchcock was easily more recognizable than any other working director of the time, and likely better recognized than many of the actors he treated like cattle.
And like any other high-profile star, ripe for parody:
"Sardines and milk weren't enough for you, Sylvester: you had to commit murder."
"Alvin Brickrock" (or is he really mad killer Albert Bonehart?) on "THE FLINTSTONES"
As a new generation grew up into the '70's, whether it was Woody Allen actively cultivating his chatty nebbish on talk shows, or Francis Coppola arousing rumors in the gossip pages because the opening of THE GODFATHER was delayed from its intended Christmas '71 release to spring of '72, or the new style of celebrity journalism creating Steven Spielberg's myth of of the grown-up-wide-eyed-kid with a camera, the director was quickly eclipsing the producer as the Big Man On Cinema. For the first wave of Rock Star Directors like these two, or Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman, they didn't have to do much to sell themselves because in effect, critical opinion and box office returns were doing that job for them. But while they may have been spoken of in more ordinary households than, say, Vincente Minnelli or John Huston were during their earlier prime, they weren't yet celebrities; your aunt and her friends wouldn't know them if they saw them on TV. They were the Beatles, but they were still at the Cavern Club and weren't yet ready to fill Shea Stadium, so while they did benefit from the example of Hitchcock, and are certainly in his level of legend today, they are not what I would consider students of his style of active moviegoer courtship. It is with the dawn of home entertainment, the internet, and the "Sundance class of '92" movement, where we can really see how his astute creation of a public persona through a TV series and related marketing to draw audience interest to his films created a template that is commonplace today.
that standard rich-and-famous contract for a couple decades since.
Alfred Hitchcock did not likely anticipate that a cult of personality would build around directors when he became more famous than his movies. But I don't believe it would bother him. Like the murderers he loved to depict, he would understand the reason why: because in every caper, sooner or later, getting away with the plan is less important than making sure everyone knows you pulled it off. He was just the first and the best at inspiring a lot of people to commit cinematic crimes, and to inspire many more to hand over their loot.
And speaking of loot, here is the part of the program where we kindly ask you to empty your pockets: