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Friday, September 11, 2009

Enter The Master Of Suspense

Maybe it’s not a big deal, but I need to know when Alfred Hitchcock became The Master Of Suspense. That was a question I’d intended to touch on briefly in a post about recently watched Suspicion, but became itself the focal point of interest as pressbooks and trades were consulted. Yes, he was a name in England and had become one over here, but what was the wide American public’s image of Hitchcock when he arrived on our shores? Ads I’ve consulted for The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and other UK thrillers found them mostly on art house screens, or "little theatres", as they were mostly known then. The first US assignment was Rebecca, and that yielded an avalanche of publicity for the English director, but there were bigger names behind the camera, first that of producer David O. Selznick, just off Gone With The Wind and hugely prominent for having shepherded that blockbuster. Then there was novelist Daphne Du Maurier, a name very much to be reckoned with for having written the enormous best seller Selznick and Hitchcock were now adapting. Rebecca’s prior exposure included hardback publication, magazine serialization, and multiple radio dramatizations (one of these presented by Orson Welles). As source material for a high-profile film, Rebecca enjoyed nearly the popularity of GWTW. Hitchcock was merely one of many elements to promote, being lauded for his eerie touch achieved through understatement, evidence of this being the British imports recognized by a critical and Hollywood establishment if not by a wider American public not so receptive to movies from offshore. Still, there were publicity mats available to remind readers of Hitchcock’s UK output (as above), along with assurance that with unmatched resources of Hollywood at his command, (Hitchcock) leaves his past history-making achievements far behind. There were references to the director’s humorous personality going hand-in-hand with his corpulence and eating habits that led to it. As uncertain indicator of labels to come, Hitchcock was called The Master Of Melodrama in articles to serve as newspaper plants for Rebecca. Ads for the film, however, put greater emphasis on the source novel, with virtually all of them featuring art of either the book’s cover or pages opened within. None was without endorsement of David O. Selznick as the producer Who Made "Gone With The Wind." These were Rebecca’s selling priorities, and Hitchcock would have to wait for his second American feature, Foreign Correspondent, to put a brighter light upon his directorial contribution.

Foreign Correspondent was where bricks began laying, where Hitchcock was anointed Master Of Suspense in America. There was less for him to compete with in that film's campaign. Producer Walter Wanger was an important name, but not half so as Selznick, and certainly there was no Gone With The Wind on Wanger’s resume. Now it was Hitchcock who’d be linked to a just recent US hit: The Man Who Directed "Rebecca." For the first time, he had a possessory credit, Alfred Hitchcock’s Masterful Production of "Foreign Correspondent," which placed AH first and foremost among names to sell the 1940 release. It helped having a cast that wouldn’t overshadow him. Joel McCrea and Laraine Day were stars of a second-tier and not foremost in ads and poster art. Topicality was what United Artists pushed. This was a story ripped from wire services, and Hitchcock with credits now on both sides of the Atlantic was an ideal interpreter of tumultuous international events. He’d introduce a greater sophistication to upend hackneyed technique of melodramatists gone before. But Hitchcock wouldn’t be stuffy about it. He was called the customer’s director, one who shared a patron’s disdain for cliches we’d all grown tired of. AH would demolish these and replace them with action lots more fun and surprising. Foreign Correspondent’s spectacular plane crash at sea was proof of that, being another of those Hitchcock Moments unique to his sensibility and excitingly fresh to ours. Ads for the first time included the director’s image over a caption reading The Master Of Suspense (as here). Standees were available with Hitchcock’s name and the same legend displayed prominently. As of this second only film he made in the United States, AH would become a filmmaker celebrity of the first rank.

The next of Hitchcock’s thrillers, Suspicion, consolidated his position. Now he was sufficiently well known as to be recognized in caricature. National magazine coverage had seen to that. Hitch was colorful and made good copy. Readers found his look arresting and manner even more so. Comments he’d made led columns across America. AH said actors were cattle, or should be treated like cattle … whatever … it was enough to put him on entertainment pages nationwide. Star Carole Lombard brought livestock onto the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith to pay off the gag everyone was talking about, and Hitchcock was showman enough to laugh with an increasingly adoring public. By the time Suspicion rolled in for Thanksgiving 1941 release, he was as familiar as any movie star and likely more welcome than most. RKO’s trade ads got it said with Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, and a cartoon Hitchcock pointing authoritatively with cigar in hand. Two Great Stars and A Great Director conferred equal standing to this trio of hit-makers. Even smaller Suspicion ads found placement for Hitchcock’s caricature. The Screen’s Master Of Suspenseful Romance was among several variations on the director’s brand. Suspicion used this and The Master Of Insidious Surprise to describe him. Hitchcock’s image and the direction he’d follow had grown clearer with each project. It was an imprint fully formed to last for a career of thirty-five plus years to come and posterity beyond.


Anonymous sjack said...

Perhaps there was a bit of image building of Hitch's reputation in the begining of his career in the U.S. But you'd have to agree that he certainly backed it up.

(another interesting post. I had no idea that Hitchcock was "promoted" as a great director from the very beginning -- although it seems to have worked out).

3:50 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I remember in high school, talking film with someone not especially interested, who said "Directors, I bet i couldn't name one director."

I said: "Alfred Hitchcock?"

And that was that. It's clear to me that although others had put effort into making themselves brands before Hitch-- DeMille, Capra, etc.-- no director had ever worked so hard to become a true media personality before him. (Few were so easy to turn into a cartoon, of course.) DeMille might have his own radio show but you never knew the man DeMille, only that he was the godlike figure presenting the Lux Radio Theater in the tones of a tour guide at Forest Lawn.

My question would be, when did Hitch start appearing in places where the general public would actually see him (as opposed to knowing his name? I've never heard him as a guest on a radio show, for instance, though he certainly was common on TV in at least the 60s. Was he known by face and voice before his TV show and the Psycho trailer?

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

At the risk of overstating the obvious: Where Hitchcock started "appearing in places where the general public would actually see him" was in his own movies. I am assured that AH's gimmick of making quickie cameos was well-known even by the time of Rebecca. By the time he was on TV, he had to be sure and get his "surprise" appearance out of the way in the first five minutes or risk audiences ignoring the action looking for him.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I see Rebecca as more of a big hollywood Selznick gothic Do than a "Hitchcock"thriller...Interesting they would hype up Hitch for that one..I would a thought that once audiences caught on to twist element in Hitchcock's films,that then they would give him all that credit..Like more recently when M Night Shaymalan came out with his first few films,people were curious to see what this queer fella was gonna do next..I don't know the mindset of people in the 1930s and 40s..But I do know in the early 60's,Hitch was as well known as the front door!

4:56 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I do remember Hitchcock's cameo being emphasized in the "Spellbound" trailer and much was made of his on-screen appearance there. He's featured in the "Rear Window" trailer as well, which also preceded the television series.

5:51 PM  
Anonymous scsmith said...

John -

Terrific piece. I don't remember anyone else raising this point before.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Sure, the cameos like the caricatures made him recognizable. But I wonder when he started appearing somewhere that he could speak, tell stories, etc. My guess is that still didn't happen until at least the late 50s, even as he was long since well known as "the Master of Suspense."

Selznick was surely the greatest publicist in movie history (GWTW proves that) and so it's no surprise that he built up his imported director so well that that foundation stuck with Hitch the rest of his life, even if it had started as merely a secondary aspect of Rebecca's ballyhoo.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

Out of curiosity, is that banner pic from "Red River" a cutting room victim? That bullet furrow was from one of the last scenes, and I don't remember Dru looking so undressed in an interior shot after the Big Fight scene.

2:00 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Ironically, all of this came in the right time.

This week in Argentina (and thanks to the Internet, all around the world), "Filmoteca" will devote a week of some of Hitchcock least known films and almost all of them silents.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


If you take a close squint, the next time you watch "Foreign Correspondent", try to spot our old friend James Finlayson, as the man holding the bucket of beer who can't quite get across the street in the Holland section.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Great photos!!! Awesome. Thanks for posting!

5:07 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Not an expert on these things, but it seems Hitchcock's persona pops up on radio and on paperback books pretty early. There are plenty of copies out there of the July, 1940 broadcast of a radio version of THE LODGER 'presented' by Hitchcock (as I remember it, he even appears in the end of the story!) starring Herbert Marshall, Edmund Gwen and Lureen Tuttle. Funny thing - on the recordings I have heard, director Alfred Hitchcock is portrayed by an actor doing a vague imitation! I think this was some sort of pilot for the show SUSPENSE... maybe some other folks have more details.

9:39 AM  

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