LAST WEEK Alfred Hitchcock ascended his last staircase at age 80. He defined suspense in the cinema, playing with his audience's expectations, sustaining nearly unbearable levels of tension for reel after reel until everything exploded in one of his legendary roller-coaster "sequences"--the crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest, the shower scene in Psycho, the amusement park in Strangers on a Train, the back of the potato truck in Frenzy--you could go on and on. His films were really comedies, from the sick joke of Psycho to Cary Grant's "Wait a minute, fellas, you're making a big mistake" in North by Northwest.
Nobody used a subjective camera like Hitchcock, and no one could turn the camera back on us with so much contempt. Hitchcock was a moralist who said, "You like this, don't you?" The biggest joke in Hitchcock's films is that we're all guilty of something, call it "original sin"--we are at very least voyeurs. We all have a Bruno or Norman Bates in us and sooner or later someone's going to find out. Hitchcock's films were ridden with symbols--staircases, mothers, skinny blondes, birds, windows; it was a code that viewers happily followed from film to film. And he influenced every great director who followed him; even those repulsed by his sadism were reduced by his techniques.
Alfred Hitchcock was awfully fat, but his face betrayed none of the joyous gluttony of our other great obese director, Orson Welles--a loquacious whale who would swallow the world. In Hitchcock's films, food was often associated with guilt; it was a sign of indulgence. Hitchcock was a perverse brat buried in mounds of stolid grey flesh--our naughtiest virtuoso.