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Hitchcock's enduring popularity

(ran GB edition)

The master of suspense would have celebrated his 100th birthday today. Fascination with the man has skyrocketed since his death in 1980.

Nearly two decades after his death and just days before what would have been his 100th birthday, Sir Alfred Hitchcock's reputation as the most famous, most instantly recognizable and most critically acclaimed director in the history of film seems more than secure.

Not surprisingly, his Aug. 13 centennial (falling, appropriately enough, today, on a Friday) has inspired an explosion of tributes: retrospectives, exhibits, conferences, television specials, special video/DVD collections of his films and the dedication recently of a permanent monument in Hollywood.

But the truth is the Hitchcock-mania of 1999 is not really all that more pronounced than in any other year of this decade. Indeed, since his 1980 death, fascination with the man has skyrocketed, and his pouty, rotund figure has been as famous _ and as merchandiseable _ as Elvis, Bogie or Marilyn.

If you don't believe this, tune into the QVC shopping channel today, where some 18 of the hundreds of Hitchcock products on the market will be hawked _ gifts, stationary, fine art, toys, interactive collectibles and the "first-ever customized Clue Game: The Alfred Hitchcock Edition."

Or journey to Universal Studios, where his omnipresent image is equated to Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman, where millions of visitors each year walk through the popular Psycho attraction and buy Hitchcock souvenir mugs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and band wristwatches.

Or wander into any video and DVD store in the country or around the world, where a Hitchcock section (often identified solely by his famous silhouette caricature) is always a given. The Master of Suspense has no competition as the most-rented filmmaker of Hollywood's golden era.

Hollywood just can't forget him. In the past few years alone it has cranked out remakes of Suspicion, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Sabotage and, of course, Gus Van Zant's Psycho, which was so respectful of the original that it was a shot-by-shot copy.

We also have seen a record-breaking, 70 mm rerelease of Vertigo (with a similarly restored Rear Window due out this fall); an award-winning Canadian film set against the filming of Hitchcock's I Confess; and a theatrical documentary about Hitchcock's feud with producer David O. Selznick.

Books? During the past two decades, Hitchcock has become the filmmaker most written about, a publishing phenomenon second only to Princess Di and the Kennedys _ biographies, memoirs, critical studies, trivia and quiz books, chronicles of the making of Psycho and Vertigo.

Then there's the TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran between 1955 and 1965 ("Gooood eve-ning, laaadies and gen-tell-men"). It has been regularly in syndication ever since, engendering its own books, fan following and Web sites.

He's everywhere, as much a presence on the cultural landscape as he ever was _ a personality, an icon, a name that, according to Peter Bogdanovich in last month's New York Times, "remains a synonym not only for suspense but for an entire genre of film."

And what an unlikely candidate he was for such immortality! The chronically shy and overweight son of an East End London grocer, deeply traumatized by a guilt-ridden Catholic childhood, Alfred Joseph Hitchcock grew to manhood without displaying much aptitude for anything.

But he fell madly in love with the movies (an art form almost as old as he would have been), and landed an entry-level job in 1920 as a designer of titles. He gradually worked his way up through the London studio ranks to direct his first film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925.

During the next decade, he would become the boy-wonder director of British cinema, forging his own unique visual storytelling style and turning out a succession of distinctively playful suspense classics _ The Lodger, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.

Selznick brought him to America in 1939, and their first film, Rebecca, won the best-picture Oscar in 1940. His seven-year relationship with the producer would be an unhappy one, but it produced Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock's personal favorite), Lifeboat, Spellbound and Notorious.

After leaving Selznick, Hitchcock came into his own with a string of elegant, star-studded, suspense masterpieces: Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and, of course, Psycho, with its shower scene that a 1995 French poll named "the most famous single scene in movie history."

For many critics, these '50s classics _ typically about an innocent on the run, cast with major stars (Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart), buoyed by the edgy-dissident music of Bernard Herrmann, filled with technological innovations and outrageously perilous scenes (Grant hanging from Mount Rushmore) _ represent the pinnacle of elegant Hollywood entertainment.

Something of an intuitive public-relations genius, Hitchcock had early on become a familiar figure to his audience by making walk-on, signature cameos in his films; and he became even more familiar from the introductory appearances of his TV series, in which he developed the self-mocking image of a petulant and mischievous school boy.

It's hard to believe today, but Hitchcock was largely snubbed by the critics in this greatest period of his career. Though hugely popular with the public, his '50s films won no Oscars (and few nominations), and the reviews invariably dismissed him as a sellout to commercialism who had peaked during his British period.

But in the '60s, he became an idol to the French New Wave; books by Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and critic Robin Wood reassessed his Hollywood career; and his critical reputation has not stopped growing since _ to the point where he's now the subject of a veritable library of admiring critical studies.

In the '70s, he became the patron saint of the movie-brat generation of Scorsese, Spielberg and De Palma. His reputation took a giant leap after his death in 1980 when five of his '50s films, owned by his estate and long out of circulation, were rereleased over a period of several years to lavish critical praise and box-office success.

Another development that has curiously enhanced his posthumous mystique has been the testimony of several of his former leading ladies that _ despite his seemingly happy, 54-year marriage _ he displayed a streak of sexual sadism toward them on the set and even tried to control their lives offscreen.

In his 1983 biography, The Dark Side of Genius, Donald Spoto compiled some of their testimony into an impressive argument that Hitchcock's sexual repression intricately worked itself out in his films, in his blatant celebration of voyeurism and his delight in putting his blonde actresses in scenes that are, quite frankly, bondage situations.

Indeed, it's become increasingly clear since his death that all of Hitchcock's films, and especially his masterpieces of the '50s, were as personal, as self-revealing and as reflective of their maker's childhood trauma and sexual confusion as the poetry of Baudelaire, the paintings of Van Gogh or the novels of Kafka.

Behind the playful entertainer and the innovative stylist, through 50 feature films and over a 50-year career, there was a tortured artist who manipulated the studio system and used Hollywood's biggest stars to nurture his private demons and obsessions. That's a feat that no other big-budget Hollywood filmmaker has come close to matching, or likely ever will.