Pastimes: Enjoying the fear

29 November 2007

by Michael Tickner

Master of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock

Master of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock

I DO LIKE a good, scary film. Not those drenched in blood and gore. I like to be kept pleasantly on the edge of my seat. I want a gripping tale, excitingly told, and the master of this is definitely Alfred Hitchcock.

The perfect Hitchcock film has a first-class story with plenty of suspense, lashings of style, and the odd dash of humour. From a young age, I loved being quietly terrified as I sat entranced by these films.

They usually tell of an ordinary person who starts off going quietly about his or her business, then suddenly is on a rollercoaster ride. No one portrays this more brilliantly than James Stewart. In several Hitchcock films, he plays a man who becomes increasingly confused by the situations he finds himself in.

At the other end of the scale is Cary Grant. He also finds himself at the centre of something unsettling, but there is a hint of suspicion about him. He is always impeccably dressed, even when, as in North By Northwest, he is clambering across the stony faces of Mount Rushmore.

Often, there is a plot device concerning some stolen papers or a missing person which seems to be the centre of the story, but is just an excuse to send the hero on a dangerous journey. Hitchcock called this device the “MacGuffin”.

The 39 Steps has Robert Donat fleeing from a murder he did not commit. But it is his adventures and relationship with Madeleine Carroll that we really care about. In The Lady Vanishes, Margaret Lockwood is frantically searching for a genteel old lady who mysteriously disappears on a train. But it is her friendship with the only other person who believes her, played by Michael Redgrave, which interests us.

I would be hard-pressed to name my favourite Hitchcock film, but I have a soft spot for Rebecca. It has one of the most chillingly malevolent characters ever to appear in a film — Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper at Manderley, brilliantly played by Judith Anderson.

I love the glamour of Rear Window, and To Catch A Thief — Grace Kelly, in a parade of chic outfits, set against a backdrop of the French Riviera.

Kelly was just one in a long line of ice-cool blondes who starred in these films. Others included Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, and Tippi Hedren. One of the most iconic scenes in The Birds must be Hedren sitting outside a school as flocks of birds gather menacingly on a climbing frame to the sound of children singing.

The music for these films is just as important as the story. Bernard Herrmann composed some wonderfully evocative scores — the music for Psycho is almost as frightening as the film itself.

I can watch these films over and over again. For me, they are classics and never seem to lose their sparkle.

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