Hollywood’s master showman

Hitchcock's movie trailers are a study in the art of promotion

Justin Chang: Hollywood spellbound by Hitchcock

Cinema has never been short of showmen; flair comes with the territory. Arguably, no filmmaker has had a more natural gift for self-promotion than Alfred Hitchcock, and while the director carefully positioned his movies via myriad creative methods (from personal appearances to pre-recorded instructions to theater personnel), nothing demonstrates his mastery better than a tour through the trailers created to promote his oeuvre over the years.

Thanks to Blu-ray and YouTube, the teasers that once hyped Hitch’s pictures are now easily accessible to film historians and fans. Unlike today’s movie previews, Hitchcock’s trailers were often as high-concept as the pictures they touted, from the six-minute guided tour of the Bates Motel and mansion produced for “Psycho” to his tongue-in-cheek monologue about “the birds and their age-long relationship with man” for “The Birds.”

This year, moviegoers experienced a return of sorts to this type of limited-tease, director-focused sales pitch with the Web trailers for “Prometheus” and “Looper” (the latter featuring helmer Rian Johnson and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt describing the trailer that would debut three days later on Apple). All too often, however, contempo trailers merely condense a 2 1/2-hour movie into 2 1/2 minutes of money shots. Largely lost is the more tantalizing art many Hitchcock films used of having the director or star walk out and personally talk through the film’s highlights.

The best example is “Rope,” which features the character of David Kentley (strangled in the pic’s opening scene) sweet-talking his best gal on a park bench. Then Jimmy Stewart cuts in, ominously saying, “That’s the last time she ever saw him alive. And that’s the last time you’ll ever see him alive” — a case where the trailer supplies a bit of sympathy-making backstory the film itself withholds.

In the trailer for 1956’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” after a loud crash interrupts Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera,” Stewart casually strolls out and addresses the audience directly: “You’re right, that was a gunshot you heard. That was the signal that brought all the trouble out in the open. It’s a scene from our new picture…” — just as he had from his “Rear Window” wheelchair two years earlier.

But long before Hitchcock became a household name, the British helmer was trying to steal the spotlight from his stars. According to biographer Donald Spoto, when “The Lodger” opened in 1926, Hitchcock garnered more press attention than leading man Ivor Novello. (The silent chiller also marked the helmer’s first onscreen cameo.) And as Robert E. Kapsis reveals in his study “Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation,” in December 1927, the director unveiled the prototype of his now-famous profile, mailing out a wooden cutout as a holiday keepsake to his friends.

By the time France’s film-savvy Cahiers du Cinema crowd championed Hitchcock as a poster boy of its new auteur theory in the mid-’50s, it was essentially parroting what he had been insisting all along: That the director deserved all of the critical attention for a film. And he’d been receiving it for years, as the trailers for his American films show.

An early re-release trailer for Hitchcock’s first Hollywood-backed production, 1940’s “Rebecca,” credits David O. Selznick and Hitchcock in the same breath for “the most glamorous motion picture ever made,” citing their names before those of the film’s Oscar-nominated cast. Trailers of that time were shameless in their use of superlatives, but typically focused the sales pitch on the film’s cast.

As Hitchcock’s success in Hollywood grew, and his storytelling style emerged, studio marketing departments began to sell the films on his reputation. A 1942 trailer for “Saboteur” refers to him as “the screen’s master of the unexpected” (“master” became a key word in Hitchcock marketing), and the preview for 1945’s “Spellbound” opens with a shot of a tubby fellow exiting an elevator while the announcer intones, “Don’t forget this man.” The voiceover goes on to introduce stars Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck before returning to the elevator shot (the director’s cameo in that film) and further extolling Hitchcock’s virtues.

As Hitchcock’s reputation grew with each picture, so did the prominence of his name in the trailers, to the extent that titles were soon touted under a proprietary label (e.g. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious!”). In 1953, the “I Confess” preview promised “electrifying drama with the brand of Alfred Hitchcock burned into every scene.”

That brand became far better known after 1955, when the director licensed his name to television as host of the anthology series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which brought his silhouette, name and droll sense of humor into living rooms across America.

The most entertaining Hitchcock trailers come later, as the director began to treat his coming-attractions reels like the cheeky introductory segments from his eponymous TV show. In the “North by Northwest” trailer, he poses as a travel agent, talking up “the serene nobility of Mount Rushmore” while Eva Marie Saint dangles from the national monument. For “Psycho,” he reels in audiences with the red herring, pinning the murders on Norman Bates’ mother while touring the film’s creepy locations. The bit ends in the bathroom, where he yanks back the shower curtain to reveal Janet Leigh’s screaming face.

His brilliant teaser for “The Birds” also ends with a scream — this one from a henpecked Tippi Hedren. Announcing his “forthcoming lecture,” Hitch pays deference to those species, like the dodo, that have disappeared. “Actually, they didn’t exactly disappear. They were simply killed off,” he says. At one point, he sits down to eat a roast chicken before crossing to a caged bird, which bites his finger on cue.

The 1964 “Marnie” trailer reinforces the charges of the director’s perverse predilections raised by HBO’s recent “The Girl,” as Hitchcock kids, “One might call ‘Marnie’ a sex mystery — that is, if one used such words… ” The director had been pushing the envelope in his previous films, as had such recent frisky pics as “Lolita” and “Tom Jones.” He embraces innuendo when referring to Marnie’s hysteria (“This is the problem Mark must probe”) and coyly interrupts a scene in which Sean Connery rips off Marnie’s robe (“I don’t think that was necessary”).

Though Hitchcock resurfaced in ads for “Torn Curtain,” “Topaz” and “Family Plot,” his impish piece de resistance was the trailer for 1972’s “Frenzy,” in which he can be seen floating in London’s Thames River — where the Necktie Murderer’s first victim is discovered. Later, while browsing “the fruits of evil and the horror of vegetables” at Covent Garden market, he discovers a human foot in a bag of potatoes. And finally, interrupting a scene in which police officers attend to a strangled woman’s corpse, he retrieves the necktie and casually knots it around his own neck.

In these late-career films, Hitchcock’s leading actors generally didn’t boast the marquee power of his early hits, clearing the path for the director to take the marketing spotlight. Apart from Walt Disney (whose profile also benefited from TV exposure), no other Hollywood filmmaker had acquired Hitchcock’s stature — and few would deign to put themselves ahead of their work in the way he had.

As today’s trailer copywriters might put it, “In a world where every preview looks the same, one man insisted on making his presence known.”

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