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Alfred Hitchcock and the Unstable Image

Lecturer: Mairead Phillips

Originally Taught: Winter School 2011

Hitchcock (1899 – 1980) is one of cinema’s most recognizable and influential directors. His work spanned six decades, from the silent movie era to the end of the studio system in Hollywood. During his long career he made 53 features (1925-1976) and over 300 television shows, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1955-1965).

Hitchcock was at the forefront of many pioneering film techniques. He established himself from his days in the British film industry as a virtuoso, essentially creating a new genre that carried his name: the Hitchcock Thriller. Along with his signature cameo appearances, Hitchcock’s trademarks multiplied over the years with each successive film: the double chase, the theme of the wrong man, the cool blonde, claustrophobic sets, a fascination with sex and death, and his macabre sense of humour; these visual tropes and motifs combined to make a Hitchcock film instantly recognizable.

Hitchcock is also one of the most theorized directors of all time. His films have been studied by many film scholars and critical theorists of various backgrounds and persuasions since the sixties until the present day. The critical reception of Hitchcock’s work is ever growing as his films continue to enjoy popularity not only with film scholars, but he continues to inspire contemporary filmmakers, and to reach new audiences to this day.

This course is designed to follow a chronological progression of Hitchcock’s work by focusing on the development of his themes and styles from his early days in silent cinema up to the late masterpieces of Marnie and The Birds. The weekly nature of the course encourages participants to watch a recommended viewing list of Hitchcock films over the five weeks.

The course is ideal for students interested in the study of Hitchcock as a film director of some philosophical importance. The course will present some Deleuzian and Lacanian readings of Hitchcock, but no prior knowledge of Hitchcock, cinema theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis or Deleuze is assumed, although a comprehensive background reading list will be provided prior to the commencement of the course.

The focus of the course will carry through the recurring visual motif of unstable images of perception. From very early on, Hitchcock was interested in showing experiences of extreme emotional disturbance and psycho-physical distress. This interest has produced many representations of altered mental states; amongst them are visual representations of delirium, shock, nervousness, drunkenness, seasickness, amnesia, and vertigo.

Lecture 1. Enfant terrible: Hitchcock’s origins, early influences, and rising star in the British film industry
Recommended viewing: The Lodger (1926), Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930)

Lecture 2. Thriller Sextet: Travel as a mode of perception
Recommended viewing: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Lecture 3. Thinking in Pictures: Hitchcock in Hollywood
Recommended viewing: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951)

Lecture 4. Fatal Attractions: Hitchcock’s Golden Years
Recommended  viewing: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960)

Lecture 5. Apocalyptic Visions: it’s the End of the World!
Recommended viewing: The Birds (1960), Marnie (1964)

Mairéad Phillips is a researcher in Cinema Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis is entitled Passengers of Desire: Hitchcock’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles. She has written an article for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and provided audio commentary on Secret Agent (1936) for the re-released DVDs of early Hitchcock films through Madman Distribution.