What Does the End of Hitchcock's Career Have to Say About the Start?

Credit: Harry Benson/AP Images
Hitchcock went out still challenging audiences to laugh and scream. 

Alfred Hitchcock could potentially be named the most famous director of all time. His name rings in every film buff's ears. He's the master of suspense, someone who knew how to squeeze every last drop of fear and paranoia out of every scene. His early career was defined by experimentation and the development of style, and the middle of his career delivered some of the greatest films of all time, like Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo

Still, like one of his protagonists, Hitchcock's luck changed.

Though rightfully considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, the final decade of Hitchcock's career is defined by struggle. His final four films were all trying to recapture the glories of his golden age.

This video essay from Eyebrow Cinema is an attempt to make sense of Hitchcock's dark ages, through analysis of his final four films: Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot. The excellent critiques of each help us to understand the final decade of Hitchcock's career, as well contextualize the period within the rest of Hitchcock's career.

Check it out and let's talk after the break. 

What Does the End of Hitchcock's Career Have to Say About the Start? 

The breadth of Hitchcock's effect on cinema is hard to contain. The guy received five Oscar nominations; one Thalberg Award (1967); Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award (1972); the AFI Life Achievement Award (1979); eight Directors Guild of America Award nominations; and four Emmy nominations, including “best male personality” as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His run of all-time great movies is absolutely incredible. 

But the end of Hitchcock's career is marred by a weird stretch of films that have more to say about his early days than his last.

We remember many of Hitchcock's first films and the ones from the middle of his career, but in the end, no one really talks about his last ones. The reason is that Hitchcock took the lessons he learned early on but wasn't able to capitalize on them for the last ones.

Early in Hitch's career, he learned that he needed to use stars to help carry the audience's expectations about his characters. He also knew that his pursuit of telling a story about an everyman sucked into a situation was powerful. Lastly, his cinematography had to be engaging, and the music that scored his films needed to be as courageous as the stories. 

Hitch used these lessons to make movies like Rear Window and Vertigo. But at the end of his career, he was struggling to put them back together. Stars were becoming increasingly hard to deal with, his collaborators were dying or taking other projects, and he and Bernard Hermann were on the outs after some creative differences. It seemed like Hitchcock's keys to success were no longer a viable option for him. 

Torn Curtain is a boring movie that wastes its star, Paul Newman, and never seems to get going. Topaz is complicated and dull. Frenzy is the only movie people consider to be Hitchcock's final masterpiece, and it's criminally underseen and still suffers from not having a recognizable star that would help carry the movie overseas. Family Plot has funny moments and a fine ending, but it meanders through its middle without much suspense at all. 

While Hitchcock's ending movies are a bit of a letdown, they'll always leave us wondering what his career would have been like if he could have had one more hit. If he had gotten the clout to do one last movie with the right budget, stars, collaborators, and story. 

Let us know what you think in the comments.     

Your Comment

1 Comment

Thanks for sharing this Jason, I always enjoy looking back on Hitch's career for both the good and the bad. While his last 4 films weren't exactly a quality match to his previous 50, I think there's something to be said about the context you and the video touched on, namely with the state of Hollywood at the time. His lifetime achievement award from the Oscars came a decade before his final film--after 40 years of directing--all while squeezing in hosting/producing 350 episodes of tv shows with his name on them.

I'm reluctant to say he couldn't change with the times, as Frenzy proved otherwise near the end, but especially considering that he started in the silent era making title cards for movies, then directed his first feature in his 20s, less than a decade after WWI. He was able to switch to talkies when many struggled to do so, and jumped across the Atlantic to make his most memorable films in the studio system during the golden age of Hollywood. His biggest hits were popular with audiences at the time but critics didn't fully embrace him as an auteur until Truffaut and the other French film writers began acknowledging how groundbreaking his technical and thematic work was in their Cahiers du Cinema, decades later.

By that time, he was already in his 60s, and Hollywood was certainly changing. His longtime collaborators were dying or separating from him, and during his final stretch of 4 films, he was attempting to keep up as indie film was on the rise along with the New Hollywood movement, which as you know was changing the power structure of the industry, and the Vietnam War's ripple effect was shifting what audiences were looking for in entertainment. He still found room to experiment and play in those last films, and the changes with the film ratings board let him do things he had never been able to put on celluloid previously (for better or worse).

Final thoughts and context: his last film was released the year between Jaws and Star Wars, the movies that created and defined the term "blockbuster." Still, he was making films every 2-3 years and he worked up to the end, dying after a long period of increasingly poor health just 4 years after Family Plot was released. To me, what's most telling about Hitch in his "dark ages" as the video calls it, is his determination to keep telling human stories. Some were boring departures to the moviegoing public, some were on a smaller scale than usual or didn't have as many familiar names and faces, but he found them all interesting enough to try to share with the world. His time and energy went into them even when young new filmmakers were finding success riffing on his established style and stories. His friends and collaborators were gone, and his own body was failing him in the process, but he wasn't afraid to take chances when he had the opportunity, even if it risked subverting expectations and disappointing fans.

December 29, 2021 at 1:45PM, Edited December 29, 1:45PM