Hitchcock's on a High; as a New Critics' Poll Puts Hitchcock above Orson Welles for the First Time, the Creator of Vertigo and Psycho Is Being Reassessed and Upgraded from Genre Film-Maker to Genius. Pan's Labyrinth Director Guillermo del Toro Explains What He Has Learned from the Master

Article excerpt

Byline: Guillermo del Toro

IREVISIT Alfred Hitchcock's films more than those of any other filmmaker except perhaps Bunuel. I visit them like the faithful visit the Ganges. I bathe in Hitchcock, the infinite and merciful.

Nevertheless, in my own films I don't deliberately attempt to imitate him, either thematically or visually, and I would never dare to suggest that I aspire to achieve his power and reach as a storyteller. I know, in fact, that the only things I do share with him presently are his Catholic guilt and his pant size.

In my early twenties I published a book about Hitchcock and his films. It was over 500 pages long a votive offering to a god beyond reach. I was not then, and never will be, alone in my devotion. Hitchcock is among the most influential artists of the 20th century. His films have influenced music, painting, sculpture, television, literature even architecture. But the true measure of his influence is that we often describe and understand certain works of art, or experiences we have in life beyond cinema, with an adjective: "Hitchcockian". Like other giants of world art, to invoke Hitchcock's name is to summon up a flavour, a feeling the essence of his work.

Yet it is all too easy to misunderstand what Hitchcock brought to cinema. Many of his emblematic motifs have been misinterpreted or diluted in genre efforts that seem deceptively close to him, but are in reality far removed from his true essence.

The richest parts of Hitch's legacy, I think, are in the pathways he opened up for the articulating of theme through genre be it comedy, melodrama or any other with his advocacy of "pure cinema". Even now it's hard to evaluate how huge Hitchcock's impact on American genre film-making was.

When he first really turned his gaze on America (after an initial attempt in Saboteur) in 1943's Shadow of a Doubt, he subverted so many things America had previously believed about itself.

The film brought an Edward Hopperesque, noir sensibility to bear on the quintessential sleepy small town as idealised through Frank Capra's films and countless studio era comedies and melodramas. Hitchcock manages to make even the crowded daylight scenes in the film seem menacing, and shows that the supposedly idyllic town is really an agglomeration of citizens compulsively watching each other.

Made at the height of the Second World War, Shadow of a Doubt in many ways marks the death of innocence in American cinematic fiction. This deeply disturbing film prefigures many other great subversive American works, from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to Blue Velvet (1986). It serves as a great overture to the adaptations of the disenchanted noir of Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith.

Hitchcock visualised so many everyday acts in ways that have come to define them. It's now almost impossible to shoot a scene in which a character climbs stairs without thinking of Cary Grant with the glass of milk in Suspicion, or Claude Rains coming down the steps while verbally duelling with Cary Grant in Notorious, or Martin Balsam climbing to his death in Psycho, or Farley Granger entering Bruno's home in Strangers on a Train I'm 47 years old now, and every day when I go into the shower and turn on the tap I think of Psycho. In the same way, whenever I go into the ocean, I think of Jaws (1975).

I find Steven Spielberg to be among the most advanced disciples of Hitchcock especially in his early films such as Duel (1971). Spielberg's instinct for rhythm and staging is prodigious; his marriage of technical prowess with narrative flair descends directly from the storyboarding and pre-planning techniques that Hitchcock helped popularise among a new generation of film-makers. …