As we hurtle through a year of national back-slapping and reminding ourselves of how bloody brilliant it is to British, it seems that there could be no better time for a dedicated love-in of Britain’s most infamous and influential director. Alfred Hitchcock has long resided at the pinnacle of the British film industry, and to show its appreciation the BFI have programmed a massive three-month season to celebrate his work. Running between August and October, The Genius of Hitchcock, will see all of the director’s surviving films – that’s a staggering fifty-eight in total – screened, marking the culmination of the three-year project to restore his early silent films. Now, while we certainly loved watching Queenie go for a paddle on the Thames, as a self-confessed Hitchcockophile this is the summer highlight that fans of classic cinema have been waiting for.

But with such a comprehensive programme of the good (Psycho, Rear Window and Strangers on a Train), the occasional bad (Topaz and Rope, with the far too perky Julie Andrews) and, perhaps most importantly, the largely unknown (Murder!, Sabotage and Young and Innocent), where the hell do you begin?

Well, a good place to start is Number Seventeen – Hitchcock’s spooky send up of the crime genre, which sees a group of strangers brought together in an abandoned house with a dead body for company. As the saying goes, mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and Number Seventeen, originally released in 1932, shows Hitchcock master his knack of marrying the ridiculous with the sublime. Beautifully framed shots and Hitchcock’s trademark stillness work to build up a genuinely chilling and mysterious atmosphere that is then subverted by moments of pure farce largely at the hands of Ben, a homeless ol’ cockney with a penchant for falling down stairs and keeping sausages in his pocket. The film culminates in a remarkable and slightly comical high-speed chase between a train and a bus, leaving you with the impression that even when Hitchcock is taking the piss he still manages to produce work like no other director.

Another fantastic film from Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood period is Blackmail, one of the featured highlights of the BFI season. Forever at the forefront of innovations in cinema, Hitchcock began production on the piece as a silent film, but decided to convert to sound during shooting. The result is a film that became a landmark in cinema history and is commonly known as the first truly British ‘all-talkie’ feature. The camp, slimy-voiced blackmailer alone makes you thankful for Hitchcock’s foresight. The film’s climax at the British Museum shows the origins of another leitmotif of the Director, who went on to use famous landmarks as the concluding backdrop in films such as North by Northwest (Mount Rushmore) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the Royal Albert Hall in both the 1934 and 1956 versions). As a way of a celebration, the BFI will screen the film at the very site where the final scenes are played out, the first time a film will be projected at the British Museum.

But if you can see only one film, I strongly recommend Marnie, the film that made me fall in love with the bald, spherical man. Filmed at the height of his fame in 1964, it sees the dashing Sean Connery as Mark pursuing ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s titular character, a kleptomaniac whose prudish behaviour leads to an infamous encounter on a cruise. The film’s beauty lies in this central relationship, which rests upon an uncomfortable mix of domination, obsession and voyeurism. This is all the more significant in the light of Hitchcock’s own obsession with Hedren, the ultimate icy Hitchcock blonde, with life imitating art as Hitchcock’s controlling behaviour finally led to the breakdown of their working relationship. In short, Marnie brings together both the light and dark of Hitchcock, interweaving his love of Freud, his strong use of colour and that slow-building tension with his own egocentrism and narcissism, encapsulating perfectly the work of a director who continues to puzzle, excite and inspire generations of film watchers.

By Philippa Stubbs

Originally published in issue 39 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. June 2012