The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock (TV Movie 1973) Poster

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Eggs McGuffin
In 1972 and '73, film critic Richard Schickel made an 8-part series for American public television: 'The Men Who Made the Movies'. Each episode featured a prominent Hollywood director discussing his career in an on-camera monologue (actually an interview, with Schickel's questions edited out), interspersed with generous clips from his most famous films, accompanied by somewhat overwrought narration (written by Schickel and spoken by Cliff Robertson). A coffee-table book was published as a companion volume to this series.

Of the eight directors in this series, Alfred Hitchcock is the one best known (and most iconic) to the general film-going public. This documentary deals entirely with Hitchcock's suspense films, with scant attention to 'Rich and Strange', 'Mr and Mrs Smith' or any other non-suspense films in Hitchcock's canon. Regrettably, this documentary gives short shrift to Hitchcock's silent films, although we do see one tantalisingly brief clip of Ivor Novello in 'The Lodger'.

Over his long career, Hitchcock was interviewed far more frequently and deeply than any of the other directors in Schickel's series, so inevitably some of the interview footage in this documentary has a feeling of déjà entendu (already heard). We get one more recounting of Hitchcock's McGuffin concept, and Hitchcock retells yet again the music-hall joke that provided the McGuffin's name. We get one more repeat of Hitchcock's baseball story: Imagine two men in a room, talking about baseball. Suddenly a bomb goes off under the table. We get a few seconds of surprise. Now imagine the same scene, but this time the audience are aware of the bomb under the table, about to go off. The same idle conversation about baseball is now charged with suspense, because we know something that the on screen characters don't.

In the footage here, Hitchcock also tells an anecdote about his childhood which (to my knowledge) was never revealed in any of his previous interviews. As a boy in England, Hitchcock attended a strict Catholic seminary where students who misbehaved were ordered to 'go for three'; i.e., report to the headmaster for three strokes from a leather razor-strop. Invariably, all the students delayed this ordeal until the last possible moment. Apparently this taught Hitchcock a profound lesson about the nature of suspense. (In my own early life, I was in a similar situation - not Catholic - and I learnt that it was always best to get the punishment over as soon as possible. Maybe that explains why Hitchcock was a master of suspense and I'm not.)

Some of the clips shown here work better than others. We see the climax from 'Saboteur', in which Norman Lloyd (the baddie) dangles from the Statue of Liberty whilst Robert Cummings (the goodie) tries to save him. "I'll clear ya," says Lloyd desperately to Cummings, while Robertson's narration explains that Cummings has been accused of Lloyd's crimes, and Cummings must save Lloyd in order to clear himself. If Lloyd falls to his death (which he does), Cummings will remain a fugitive. That's inaccurate and misleading: at this point in the movie, the authorities are already convinced of Cummings's innocence. I wish that Schickel had explained this scene properly. You won't know it from what's said here, but Hitchcock eventually decided that the climax of 'Saboteur' was an error - it put the villain in jeopardy, rather than the hero - so he attempted some damage control by implying (falsely) that the hero could not clear himself if the villain was killed. The brilliant climax of 'North by Northwest' - with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangling from Mount Rushmore, at the villains' mercy - was conceived by Hitchcock as his chance to correct his previous error in 'Saboteur'. A pity that Schickel doesn't mention it.

This superb documentary ends with the virtuoso scene from 'Frenzy' in which the camera retreats down the stairs and into the street near Covent Garden while, upstairs, the rapist strangles his latest victim. I wish that Schickel or Hitchcock had explained how this remarkable sequence was filmed: Hitchcock shot two separate set-ups (one in a 'wild' interior set, one in an actual street), using the same man walking past the camera twice (at the end of the first set-up, and the beginning of the second) to mask the transition and make them appear to be one seamless camera movement. Of all the great movie directors, Alfred Hitchcock was by far the one most familiar with the camera, lighting, lenses, filters and all the technical aspects of film-making.

All eight episodes of 'The Men Who Made the Movies' are well-made, highly entertaining and informative, although they tend to concentrate on the most well-known (and most typical) films of their respective subjects. Despite a few flaws, I'll rate all eight episodes of 'The Men Who Made the Movies' a perfect 10 out of 10.
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Hitchcock on Hitchcock
blanche-26 June 2006
One of the segments of "The Men Who Made the Movies" is on Alfred Hitchcock, concentrating mainly on his sound films. It would be impossible in the time allotted to give appropriate time to all of his great films, but there is some impressive footage to be had from "Saboteur," "North by Northwest," "Notorious," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Psycho," "Frenzy," and "The Birds." My favorite Hitchcock films are those of the '40s and '50s - I've never seen "The Birds" because the whole idea scares me to death. I always felt Hitchock took a turn with "Psycho" into the horror genre that held no appeal for me (though I do like "Psycho").

The star of this segment, of course, is the man himself, sitting calmly behind his desk and continuing to talk in the same measured tones after frightening scenes like the one shown from "The Birds" or "Frenzy." He's so right on - "Frenzy" is frightening because the killer sounds so reasonable; a "villain" has to be attractive, ergo, Joseph Cotten in "Shadow of a Doubt," etc. One of my favorite Hitchcock moments is one so subtle it is never mentioned: In "Shadow of a Doubt," the younger children won't sit next to Uncle Charlie. Hitchock knew that children's instincts, unspoiled by socialization, are always correct.

In business, people used to talk about "thinking out of the box." For these early filmmakers - and Hitchcock goes back to the silent era -there was no box. They created the whole thing. There were no rules. When there finally was a box, i.e., the box they put the camera in to keep it immobile after sound came in, Hitchock took the camera out, and, as he put it, "The sound man walked off the set." There is a lot of footage of Hitchock being interviewed available and several documentaries, but somehow, I never get tired of him.
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Context is everything
tostinati24 October 2010
I count myself lucky to have been one of those young cinephiles glued to the television for all 8 weeks of this series the first time it was on. Being a hardcore auteurist, thanks to my then burgeoning Andrew Sarris library, I understood clearly what this series was: Richard Schickel's personal vision, if you will, of the careers of a handful of the greatest American directors of the period covered by fellow critic Sarris's American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

At this time, it would have been very hard for any avid reader-about-film to miss the parallel between directors and critics. Sarris, Canby, Crist, McDonald, Schickel, Wood, Durgnat, Kael were something like auteurs themselves. Each had a highly personal point of view of what a film was and, be they the Ed Wood of film criticism or the Orson Welles, each staked their territory admirably the old fashioned way, with hundreds of highly literate, finely articulated essays on the topic. We remember the rivalries and the sniping these days when we remember the era at all. But that's the Enquirer view, the Entertainment Tonight view. I wish people understood that it was as exciting a time to be reading film criticism as it was to be a movie-goer in the 60s and 70s.

If you take it in the context of today, when every show is a saturating, thick barrage of clips and chock full of two second sound bytes from multiple interviews, individual episodes of The Men Who Made The Movies may seem to fail to deliver. But judging such shows by the intelligence of the foundation, the script, and not just interview and clip counts, this series comes up champ. Schickel's insights into the style and vision of Hawks and Hitchcock and Capra, et al. are as cogent as anything written on them before or since. He put his finger right on what the smartest auteurists of the era thought made these directors' work worth a second thought. And Cliff Robertson's reading of Schickel's words was understated, steady and insightful. -- One of the best jobs of voice-over narration I have heard, almost 40 years later.

Ten of ten. I wish someone would issue this series on DVD.
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Fair documentary, with a tendency to give away endings.
quixotism13 June 2000
A fair, albeit overly glossy, "documentary" that avoids any substantial critical information or valuable historical information. I have trouble placing it. If it is to be considered as a clip reel, it is not a great one. The AFI tribute to Hitchcock is much more entertaining, for those purposes. As is Dial H For Hitchcock, a recent doc narrated by Kevin Spacey. However, all of these fail as an introduction to the Master of Suspense largely because they tend to spoil the endings of his films.

Reading Truffaut's book will do any potential viewers much better.
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