Hitchcock in Hollywood
Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock continued his string of suspense classics in England with The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938) before accepting an offer from producer David O. Selznick to come to Hollywood and direct Rebecca (1940), based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel. The film was an immediate box office and critical success, and Hitchcock’s American career was launched. Describing the facilities at American studios as “incomparably better” than those he had used in England, Hitchcock began a long string of deeply personal films superficially masquerading as thrillers.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with a superb performance from Joseph Cotten as a compulsive murderer of wealthy widows, was followed by Lifeboat (1944), a stylistic tour de force in which the surviving passengers of a sunken ship struggle against the elements and each other’s jealousies and fears. Spellbound (1945) is a psychological murder mystery with a dream sequence choreographed by Salvador Dalí. Rope (1948) is the chilling story of two young men who strangle one of their friends and then host a party in which food is served on the trunk containing the dead body. What makes Rope so intriguing is that it consists exclusively of lengthy tracking shots, often up to ten minutes long, in which Hitchcock’s camera dollies smoothly around the killers’ New York penthouse, allowing the tragic narrative to play out in real time with only a handful of edit points in the entire film.
Hitchcock was one of the first directors to have his name above the title as a key selling point, and he is among the few directors whose films almost constitute a genre unto themselves, the suspense-filled “Hitchcock thriller” (similarly, a “Ford western”). A meticulous planner, he storyboarded each of his films from first shot to last before a single foot of film was exposed; he liked to say that this was his favorite part of making a film, because the actual shooting was often boring and laborious. A motley group of survivors faces the perils of the ocean in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), a parable about the need for personal responsibility in wartime.
On the set, Hitchcock drove some of his actors to distraction with his aloof, distanced approach; during the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Doris Day almost quit because the director refused to provide any feedback on the set. Finally confronted about his seeming indifference, Hitchcock looked deeply surprised and told Day that no comment from him was necessary, as she was giving “just what I wanted” in her performance. This detachment from the shooting process allowed him to design his films as intricate puzzles that hook the audience with clever and exciting touches.