Is Alfred Hitchcock — gasp! — over-appreciated?

Posted by · 4:04 pm · October 5th, 2008

Alfred HitchcockRandom thoughts…and writing this I risk having my head taken off by angry fans and film buffs, but I have always had some issues believing Alfred Hitchcock to be the great filmmaker artists and historians have claimed him to be. In many ways, despite having personally lectured the man and his work to film school classes, I feel he may be the most overrated filmmaker of all time.

Aim your weapons and open fire on me, as I have placed a target on my back and surely know it, but there must be some folks out there who share my opinion?

Admittedly, “Psycho” is a powerful film.  It was responsible for ushering in a new form of horror movie, and “Vertigo” is beautifully made, but is there anyone else out there (again) who finds the characters in his films a little…cool, remote, ah, hell…cold? Never have I felt anything for a Hitchcock character.  Never have I invested myself emotionally with a single one of them, not even when portrayed by the great James Stewart or Cary Grant.

It bothers me that “Hitch” had the film finished in his head by the time he started shooting, leaving nothing for chance and removing any sense of creativity from the actors. He  spoke, they listened and moved and that was that. No where can I find any reference to any collaboration between the director and his actors, which to me is essential in filmmaking and strengthens the characters, giving the actors something to attach themselves to. If an actor is shown how to do it all, how to move, how to speak, how to play the role, when and where are they permitted to be creative?? Look at the dreadful acting in “The Birds” and you get an idea of what I mean.

“Frenzy” turned out to be a very powerful film, truly frightening, and his last good picture.  However, if you ask me, his best film was “Lifeboat.”

OK, have a go…my secret is out.  I’m not a Hitchcock fan. My God the shame, the shame…the horror.  Tell me why I should think otherwise.




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38 responses so far

  • 1 10-05-2008 at 4:46 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I don’t think he was a great director of actors — not least because he cared so little for them — but a couple of great performances managed to slip into his oeuvre nonetheless, Anthony Perkins being at the head of the pack.

    For me, “Rebecca” is his most emotionally involving film, though hardly his best. (And “Under Capricorn,” while dismal from a narrative point of view, is fascinating as character study.)

    I don’t think he’s overrated at all, though I seek very different pleasures in a Hitchcock film than I do in the work of more humanist filmmakers. His sense of scene and shot construction is, to me, fascinatingly immaculate.

  • 2 10-05-2008 at 4:48 pm

    Noah said...

    I felt a lot for Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound, had a lot of empathy for Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt. And what about The Man Who Knew Too Much? That film is about a family in crisis and it’s impossible not to be engaged in their struggle. I think Hitchcock has a lot more emotion in your films than you’re giving him credit for. And The Trouble With Harry is definitely not a cold film!

  • 3 10-05-2008 at 4:48 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Apologies for using the word “fascinating” twice. (As if once isn’t bad enough!) It’s been a long day.

  • 4 10-05-2008 at 4:52 pm

    han said...

    rear window? dial m for murder?
    he surely knew how to collaborate with grace kelly.

  • 5 10-05-2008 at 7:06 pm

    Patrick said...

    Here are a few of my favorite performances in his films….Thelma Ritter in “Rear Window,” Montgomery Clift in “I Confess,” and Marion Lorne in “Strangers on a Train.”

    And nothing can compare to Perkins in “Psycho.”

  • 6 10-05-2008 at 7:08 pm

    Ryan said...

    I’m with you 100% on this, John. he’s a terrific visual artist and his scene composition and pacing is second to none. But his films are emotionally distant and any director who doesn’t give a shit about his actors (and moreover when it’s reflected highly in his work) is overrated.

  • 7 10-05-2008 at 7:30 pm

    Kokushi said...

    I neutral about Rebecca, i didnt hate it but i will not lose my sleep if i never see it again but loved Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest, i think he is one of the best directors ever, also he is great focusing a expecific obesion: voyeurism in RW, obsesion and borderline stalking in Vertigo.

  • 8 10-05-2008 at 7:30 pm

    Kokushi said...

    Im neutral about Rebecca, i didnt hate it but i will not lose my sleep if i never see it again but loved Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest, i think he is one of the best directors ever, also he is great focusing a expecific obesion: voyeurism in RW, obsesion and borderline stalking in Vertigo.

  • 9 10-05-2008 at 7:44 pm

    Bing147 said...

    I dunno about that. I’m not great fan of Psycho and Vertigo is more than slightly overrated, though I do really, really like it. But Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca, Strangers On a Train, Lifeboat, The Lady Vanishes Psycho and Vertigo is a 10 film lineup that I doubt any other director could touch.

  • 10 10-05-2008 at 7:45 pm

    N8 said...

    Hitch has only made a handful of films that I really love, but I’ve never seen a film of his that disappointed me.

  • 11 10-05-2008 at 8:01 pm

    Isaac Richter said...

    I’ve only seen six of his films. I loved Rebecca (and actually thought Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson gave great performances) loved Rear Window, really liked Psycho and Vertigo (Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh were standout performances in Psycho), enjoyed North by Northwest, and the other was Notorious, which I;m not too fond of (outside of a great performance by Claude Rains). I still want to see more of his films. I don;t think his films are cold. They have character viewpoints and interesting archs and twists for these characters. He’s not my favorite, but I admire him a great deal.

  • 12 10-05-2008 at 8:27 pm

    Lev Lewis said...

    Notorious is one of the top five films of all time and Hitchcock is one of the top five directors of all time.

    (along with PTA, Bergman, Allen and Malick, of course)

  • 13 10-05-2008 at 8:29 pm

    Glenn said...

    It helps Hitchcock’s legacy that he made so many movies that are good and that the mediocre ones are merely forgotten about, but I find something interesting in watching in one of his misfires (whether they be in his early or late career – that middle section was never broken if you ask me).

    I’d say that Hitchcock is perhaps over-appreciated by people who (perhaps) don’t quite appreciate genre films as high art. But, yes, that’s just an over-estimation.

  • 14 10-05-2008 at 8:34 pm

    Kyle Leaman said...

    I guess you really just have to be a bit more narrow with what you find overrated in his films. When I hear most people talk about the greatness of Hitch I usually don’t hear them talk about the emotion of the film or the strong sweeping sentiments. I think he’s well loved because of the very reasons he is well loved; the issues he does explore, the complexity of his visual style, and his overarching themes between films. I don’t think Hitch has ever made anything that is as emotionally involving as United 93, Schindler’s List, or Munich (although the Man Who Knew Too Much and Notorious come close for me), but I don’t think thats what most people find genius about him.

    Speilberg has his areas of genius, Kubrick has his, and so does Hitch. I agree with you though, for the most part, I find many of Hitch’s films to be a tad distant and cold. However, thats not really what I’m looking for in his films, and its not something that I think most people who call him genius are looking for either

  • 15 10-05-2008 at 8:51 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    @ Guy Lodge

    I agree when you say “‘Rebecca’ is his most emotionally involving film, though hardly his best.”

    It was the first time I really invested in his characters rather than just the suspense he presented.

  • 16 10-05-2008 at 8:53 pm

    Bing147 said...

    I’d agree with that, although I would say Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious are fairly emotionally investing too, those 3 are the best in that area.

  • 17 10-05-2008 at 8:55 pm

    Patrick Dailey said...

    “Vertigo” is overrated by a fair margin and Jimmy Stewart was miscast. “Notorious” has never worked for me. “Psycho” is also overrated. However, “Strangers on a Train,” “North by Northwest,” “The Birds,” “The 39 Steps,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “Rear Window” (Top 25 of all-time), “Shadow of a Doubt,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Frenzy,” and “To Catch a Thief” are all first class efforts. Mr. Hitchcock isn’t overrated as a director, but some of his films are.

  • 18 10-05-2008 at 10:16 pm

    BobMcBob said...

    no

  • 19 10-05-2008 at 11:35 pm

    michael mckay said...

    It seems fitting you like “Lifeboat” because your pretty much alone on an island in regards to your opinion on Hitchcock. Literally all filmmakers share a deep affection for his work, and have been greatly influenced by it. Of course there is great emotion in his films, or his undisputable flare for “suspense” wouldn’t be anything of the kind, because you wouldn’t care who lived or who died. In almost all his films, we care deeply about the protagonists, and that’s why the suspense is so effective.

  • 20 10-06-2008 at 1:42 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I started studying film last year so naturally we were clubbed to death with Hitch in the first year, and I must say for good reason.
    Sure he wasn’t an ‘actor’s director’ but he was the ultimate director. He controlled everything that was and wasn’t onscreen at any time. Even though his films share many similar themes, the variety in which they are executed and conceived is astonishing.

    Also what Hitch did so well is making you watch his films again and again. No silly flashback at the end of Lady Vanishes explaining the events at the beginning but just forcing you to see the movie again from the start and pieces falling into place then.

    That his oeuvre is still being studied today and still relevant for semiotic and theoretic film research is a sign of timelesness. Here is someone who seemed to know everything about the human mind and how to manipulate it. And in that, he was unique.

  • 21 10-06-2008 at 5:28 am

    John Foote said...

    Jonathan — I guess my point is, having also studied film (and now teaching it) and being “clubbed” with Hitch, now a critic more than twenty years is I still feel he is over rated, over appreciated, and not once have I watched a film of his and sought it out again — I have watched them again, on occasion, but never have I gone to my DVD shelf and grabbed a Hitch film for kicks — I agree he controls the atnosphere and pacing as well as anyone, but so did Cecil B. Demille and no one calls him an artist — and listen well I am here, I expected to drawn and quartered (as I was in college) for this article, have to thank everyone for being fair and most mature in your responses — I watch his films, I see the craftsmanship, all beatifully put together with an asbolute lack of emotion and I despair.

  • 22 10-06-2008 at 9:54 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    John, do you happen to know the academic starting point of this Hitchcock craze? A year, a person?
    Or do you think those films simply lend themselves truly well for analysis and multiple interpretations?

  • 23 10-06-2008 at 10:29 am

    AdamL said...

    “No where [sic] can I find any reference to any collaboration between the director and his actors, which to me is essential in filmmaking and strengthens the characters, giving the actors something to attach themselves to.”

    What nonsense. He cannot possibly direct every last detail of a performance. He cannot exert a God-like influence over nuance and emotion and subtlety and intonation and mannerisms and pauses and the way an actor’s eyes dart around or their lips curl at the edges. He may have been more precise than others but his actors have way way way way way more freedom than you pretend.

    Of course his films are collaborative. Maybe he didn’t rehearse as much as other directors. Maybe he didn’t sit down and do script read throughs. Maybe he didn’t once – in 50 years of directing – ask for anyone else’s opinion. It is unlikely, but it is possible.

    What’s impossible however is that his actor’s had no influence over their own performances. It’s the most ridiculous thing I have read in ages.

    Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder
    Grace Kelly in Rear Window
    Cary Grant in North by Northwest
    James Stewart in Rear Window
    John Williams in Dial M for Murder
    Judith Anderson in Rebecca
    Claude Raines in Notorious
    Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train
    Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford in The Lady Vanishes
    Anthony Perkins in Psycho

    I haven’t even metioned half of the terrific performances in his films and they cover the spectrum of emotion you bizarrely find missing in his work.

    I’m all for contrarian posts but attacking Hitchcock is ridiculous. What’s next? Saying Spielberg hasn’t done anything worth watching since Schindler’s List?

    Wait a minute…

  • 24 10-06-2008 at 2:39 pm

    Robert Wills said...

    I find much enotional involvement with Hitchcock’s films. Teresa Wright’s despair when she learns the truth about her uncle. Ingrid Bergman’s sense of betrayal when Cary Grant backs the plan for her to enter into a loveless marriage with Claude Rains in Notorious. Joan Fontaine’s deepening suspicions about her new husband’s motives in Suspicion. The audience’s panic as the boy comes closer and closer to his doom in Sabotage. I love many of Hitchcock’s characters. I get nothing from the characters of Judd Apatow. To each his own.

  • 25 10-06-2008 at 4:01 pm

    John Foote said...

    Adam, you miss my point entirely, and obviously did not read my post that closely — never opnce was I attacking Hitchcock, but rather expressing an opinion, something we are all allowed to have (you agree?) and nothing more — as for your list of performances, I found none of them with the exceptions of James Stewart and Perkins to be worthy of notice — Cary Grant potrayed Cary Grant as he always did in North by Northwest and while it is an exciting film, never do I feel anything for the characters — nor Grace Kelly, nor anyone else on your list — I did not simply sit down and go on an anti-Hitch rant without any thought, in fact a great deal of thought and risk I moight add went into it — I guess I spoke too soon when stating the responses were fair and mature — yours was a blatant attack and if you knew anything about me you would know I am a huge Spielberg fan and currently writing a book about his work. Your reasoning was silly and mean spirited — and you are dead wrong about the amount of freedom offered actors on a Hitch film, they had NONE — I repeat NONE because in his head, at the beginning of the shoot, the film was done and he knew exactly what he wanted – trust me I have read everything there is to read on the man…have you??

  • 26 10-07-2008 at 5:30 am

    Liz said...

    I’m with you, Robert. I’ve always been surprised when people say they feel Hitchcock films are a little emotionless and distant. I can’t tell you how I felt in Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s scene in the bedroom at the end of “Notorious.” It affected me greatly. I loved the relationship and back-and-forth between James Stewart and Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” Laurence Olivier’s confession in “Rebecca” was also very moving. To each his own, I guess.

  • 27 10-07-2008 at 9:53 am

    AdamL said...

    “and you are dead wrong about the amount of freedom offered actors on a Hitch film, they had NONE — I repeat NONE”

    I read your post very carefully. The above paragraph was the gist that I was responding to. Thank you for restating your belief because it is that which I am questioning.

    At risk of repeating myself, it is impossible for a director to control every last detail of a performance. Impossible. He worked with too many good actors who imbued their performances with too much nuance to be able to control the way every last syllable was uttered or very facial tick expressed. It is farcical to suggest actors had zero input into their performances. If that were so then you or I could have delivered as skillful performances as Perkins or Stewart or Raines etc., just as long as Hitch was directing. I know I couldn’t – maybe you think you could?

    You also contradict yourself completely – you said in your opening post that you were never moved by any James Stewart performance and then in response to my post you state that James Stewart’s Rear Window performance was particularly worthy of note. Those two statements hardly sit nicely beside each other do they, so which is it?

    And all of this is hardly the hallmark of a post that someone “put a great deal of time into.”

    Sorry – but if you can’t take a critical but considered response then quit posting. I looked through his filmorgraphy, pulled out the performances I thought were of particular merit and ensured I had picked a range of characters covering a range of emotions. I listed a number of influences I believe an actor has considrably more control over than a director – even one as precise as Hitchcock. It was every bit as thoughtful as your post – except of course it was minus the contrdictions.

    And what has you loving Spielberg got to do with anything. My end line was quite obviously a throw-away joke. It made me laugh anyway.

    And to answer your question, yes I have read everything that has ever been read about Hitchcock. Twice.

  • 28 10-21-2008 at 8:41 pm

    Carter said...

    AdamL is obviously a Hitch fanboy who wont even listen to people who have a differing opinion than him.

    But the the fact remains that almost none of Hitch’s films stand the test of time. A little child watching the Birds, or Vertigo for the first time wouldnt be scared for a minute, and would probably fall alseep from being bored to tears. Hitch’s films are simply outdated and old by todays standards. But thats what happens when you mainly make suspense/horror films in the 60’s like Hitchcock did- they rarely stand the test of time.

    Yet 40 years from now, Schindlers list & Saving Private Ryan will have the same emotional impact that they had when they were first released. Seeing the US Troops invade Normandy, or seeing the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust will be just as shocking 40 years from now as it was today, and 40 years ago.

    Spielberg’s films make audiences feel a full spectrum of human emotion, while Hitchcocks films would make a modern day audience simply feel bored. And the whole reason for going to movies is to feel emotions through the storytelling.

  • 29 10-21-2008 at 8:56 pm

    Carter said...

    PS. AdamL – Spielberg’s first blockbuster Jaws was a better / more thrilling movie than anything Hitchcock did his entire 50+ year career.

  • 30 10-22-2008 at 12:42 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “But the the fact remains that almost none of Hitch’s films stand the test of time.”

    Playing fast and loose with the definition of the word “fact,” I see.

  • 31 10-22-2008 at 3:37 pm

    Carter said...

    Not at all- the FACT remains that Hitchcock only made horror films his entire career that werent even scary & is one of the most overrated directors of all time.

  • 32 10-22-2008 at 5:50 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sigh…

    The FACT remains that “North By Northwest,” “Under Capricorn,” “Marnie,” “Lifeboat” and any number of other titles I could name would necessitate a rather broad definition of “horror films.”

    Hey, he’s not exactly my favourite director. But sweeping statements like that do an argument no favours.

  • 33 10-22-2008 at 7:53 pm

    Carter said...

    Look – Hitchcock is known for Horror Flicks like Psycho, Vertigo & The Birds. Trying to use the few films he made outside the horror genre makes you seem even more desperate.

    Its pretty pathetic having a debate over words when you still havent even come close to refuting that Hitchcock created outdated films that have not stood the test of time, and is one of the most overrated directors in history.

    Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone has held up better over time than all of Hitchcock’s films put together.

  • 34 8-17-2010 at 12:34 am

    sdfjsdjk said...

    I know I’m late for this, haha, but this is the only website I could find where I could post my comments on Alfred Hitchcock without getting bashed. I find about 3 sites that had something to say about Hitchcock other than “he’s a genius”
    I don’t care for him, I hear too much and anytime someone says hes not the best director, everyone is so shocked.
    Now, I have only seebn 3 of his films so yes I’ll admit, it’s not the most valid opinon but from what I’ve seen-Best director my ass.
    I’ve only seen psycho, the birds and a bit of Vertigo (bit-I stopped watching it) . the birds was lame and Psycho was okay-anthony perkins is amazing, He’s the real star.
    I guess I seem so bitter because I’m just so over everyone worshipping him…I can respect and appreciate what he’s done but He’s not some sacred god; I guess it’s a matter of time though isn’t it-Everybody says he changed cinema so I guess there’s no denying it, just please drop it and move on.

  • 35 9-11-2010 at 4:54 pm

    Terry said...

    To me as a film lover and student of film, ‘Hitch’ was obvioulsy and exploitation filmaker working in an A grade film environment. Look at the lurid nature of many of his films and the subject matters: Psycho, Rope, Marnie, Vertigo etc etc. All dealing with issues low budget directors like H.G Lewis, Russ Meyer would deal with over and over again.

    Also I do agree about some of his films being overanaysed. For example: The Birds. Its painfully obvious (to me anyway) it is little more than another version of The Tempest (ala Forbidden Planet). The Bird attacks are casued by the threat casued by the arrival of Tippi Hedren towards the Mother and only stop once Tippi accepts the mother as a protective – hence- dominate figure. Why this has been glossed over for 60?? years is beyond me.

  • 36 8-14-2014 at 11:43 am

    Iza Larize said...

    Hitch isn’t that bad; but, yes, he is indeed overrated.

    “Psycho” is undeniably one of the greatest films in the history of cinema. Hitch is a technician. He is very precise when it comes to his film’s technical aspects. But most of his characters are bland at best; except for Norman Bates, never have I felt any connection with his characters. Maybe because the actors are too choreographed?

    Hitch isn’t bad, just a bit overrated.

    Fanboys, fire away! :P

  • 37 5-10-2015 at 6:21 am

    Krazza said...

    I think that the priorities given to his films by some are a little bit reverse.

    Rebecca and Rear Window are two fantastic films. Both have a great twist, and each has its own way of being entertaining.

    I do admit, that I find some of his other movies, like Notorious, which get praised to hell, are just not very interesting to me. I totally understand why people like them though. Ingrid Bergman is a phenomenal actress, and no one disappoints in this film either. The reason Notorious is less interesting to me is because of how influential it was, and how I feel like I have seen this movie dozens of times before… except with action and more than just implied love scenes.