An important, if perhaps apocryphal, moment in the history of cinema was the afternoon little Alfie Hitchcock spent in the care of His Majesty. So terrified was little Hitch of the momentary incarceration (on his father’s orders no less) that his subsequent filmography maypoles artfully around fear in all its forms. Known by cinephiles the world over as the ‘Master of Suspense’, Hitchcock’s films are rightfully celebrated as some of the best the artform has produced. Not for nothing, but ten years ago Hitchcock’s 1958 exploration of obssession and grief Vertigo was voted the best film of all time.
Many of our favourite moments from Hitch’s filmography are easily recalled as scenes perfect in their own right. Today we’re taking a look at some of the scenes that, while not as instantly recognisable, are quiet miracles of cinemas. They show that Hitchcock was a director entirely at ease with the playful and the profound.
To Catch a Thief
The Introduction of Mr. Burns
Never one of the obvious Hitchcocks, this slice of cake was shot on the French Riviera as one of four films between the pillars of Rear Window and Vertigo. As such it is often forgotten. It tells the tale of John Robie, aka The Cat, a war hero and reformed (?) jewel thief investigating a series of robberies on the aforementioned scenic coastline.
The film has a number of fantastic scenes, not least the shots on various well-tiled rooftops or Grace Kelly’s kiss with Cary Grant (Hitchcock knew how to use a kiss, as we’ll see later on). However, it is not the fireworks of the two stars finally getting to know each other properly, instead it is their introduction.
The scene takes place in a hotel casino, and the incognito John Robie looks to impress one of the richest women currently holidaying. In order to make an impression he makes a scene using only a casino chip and a lady’s dignity. It’s a small moment, but hilarious in its own way.
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The 39 Steps
Escape from the Crofter’s Cottage
One of Hitchcock’s earliest triumphs saw Robert Donat lead a wild police chase across the Scottish Highlands with Madeleine Carroll in tow. It has a number of wonderful set pieces and reveals (including a handy idenitifier of a villain that sends a chill through the viewer). However for my money, it is the quiet sadness evoked by the visit of Richard Hannay to a lonely crofter’s cottage that steals the film. There a pre-Dame Peggy Ashcroft plays a soulful young woman married to an old man whose face mirrors the craggy outcrops of the surrounding landscape.
In the moment before Donat’s Hannay flees the incoming policemen he is stopped by the young woman who gives him her husband’s best coat for warmth. Hitchcock keeps us in this very human moment just enough for us to desperately want him to take her with him, and save her from this awful life. Of course, he doesn’t, and the husband’s retribution is taken out (thankfully off-screen) on his wife. It’s not a showy moment, but it’s an unforgettable one.
Another kiss, once again from Grace Kelly, is perhaps my favourite moment in all cinema, certainly in Hitchcock’s mighty filmography. Bound to his wheelchair thanks to a broken leg, Jimmy Stewart’s L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies spends his time watching his neighbours through his, you guessed it, rear window. Before the suspense of a disappearing wife, Hitchcock preempts Mrs. Mcguffin with another expert blend of fear and desire.
Alone in the dark, Jeff dozes dreamily when his eyes half open and he sees a dark figure approaching his from the shadows in his room. Just as he wakes fully we see, out of the darkness, steps Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont, who plants a kiss on his mouth. This foreshadows the final confrontation but there’s a far more happy ending to this particular moment. Filmed in gentle slow motion, the step-printed kiss is one of the most intense and tangible in cinema.
This is just another example of Hitchcock’s attention to detail that suffuses his work. From the dreamlike quality of the scenes set at the Mission San Francisco de Asís and the grave of Carlotta Valdes to the everyday horror of the highway drive to the Bates Motel, each film has an embarrassment of riches. Treasures that we can enjoy over and over, and always find something new.