Alfred Hitchcock is one of, if not the greatest, directors of all time. He really hit his stride in the late 1950s and early 1960s, churning out hits like Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds. However, even in this short time span, one can see a remarkable difference in how terrifying his movies become.
Much of this difference is due to the changing environment of society as a whole at the time. When I think of the 1950s, I think of wholesome teens in poodle skirts and letterman jackets sipping ice cream sodas in diners. When I think of the 1960s, I think of the Vietnam War, the counterculture revolution, and general societal upheaval.
Hitchcock reflected that drastic shift in values and culture through his movies. One only needs to compare any of his 1950s films to his 1960s films to see the change.
Mid-1950s: To Catch a Thief and Rear Window
Hitchcock’s films from the 1950s were equal parts suspenseful and sexy. He had a knack for working innuendos into almost any scene. Of course, it was still the 1950s in cinema, so he couldn’t be very outright with what he truly wanted to say. That’s how we get the sexually-charged firework scene between Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.
Rear Window, for its time, was pretty terrifying. Though no violence or blood is ever seen, it can still scare you pretty good. Just the suspense of the standoff between James Stewart’s character and the murderer across the courtyard is enough to have you twitching in your seat.
Still, it wasn’t terrifying enough for the Master of Suspense.
Late 1950s: Vertigo and North by Northwest
Hitchcock really loved working with James Stewart and Cary Grant in the 1950s. He made some of his best films with them, so you really can’t blame him.
By the late 1950s, Hitchcock was really pushing the envelope for what he included in his film. North by Northwest was none-too-subtle about its sexual nature; the train going through the tunnel at the very end is a metaphor that was not lost on many.
Vertigo had a disturbing nature to it. James Stewart’s character, driven to the point of madness, stalks a woman and forces her to become an entirely different person for his own desires. The underlying sexual tones of it all were unsettling and foreshadowed the kind of terror Hitchcock had planned for the future.
Yet, Hitchcock knew he could still go even further.
The 1960s: Psycho and The Birds
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most revered films is Psycho. It was inventive, frightening, and bold with the strides it made in horror. Its most famous scene of the shower murder was shocking for the period, though it opened up a world of violence in movies that would carry on into the classics like The Shining and Alien.
The Birds is often overlooked when it comes to the level of violence it portrays. While most of its horror relies on suspense, there are some moments where the low-level gore will shock viewers. When Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) goes to check on her neighbor, she finds his corpse in a ransacked bedroom. I’ll admit, I thought that there would be some camera tricks to hide the real gore, but when I saw the neighbor’s bloody, pecked-out eyes, I was dumbfounded. I was definitely not expecting that in what up to that point had been a relatively tame film.
That ramping up of violence and shock in Hitchcock’s films is fascinating to witness. His ability to adapt to the time period was unmatched and made him one of the best directors to ever exist. From mild sexual innuendos to bloody, mutilated corpses, The Birds is a culmination of all of Hitchcock’s experience in film. The menacing, fowl villains showed that anything can be terrifying if you are creative enough.
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