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Products tied to Hitchcock now reach frightful heights

The "Master of Suspense" would have been 100 today, but he lives on through his films and, for the centennial of his birth, marketing.

When Alfred Hitchcock hosted his own television series from 1955 to 1965, the celebrated film director was introduced to viewers each week to the strains of the ghoulishly lugubrious composition Funeral March of a Marionette.

That selection was as appropriate for its suggestion of playfulness as for its mournful nature. For Hitchcock _ who was born 100 years ago today _ was arguably cinema's most skilled puppeteer. He was a master manipulator whose string-pullings caused the audiences watching his movies, as well as the characters inside his stories, to dance with surprise and fright.

It was his technical ability to create suspense and fear through images and sounds _ coupled with his canny instinct for self-promotion _ that made Alfred Hitchcock arguably the most admired and most identifiable motion picture director of all time.

"He made his pictures for the audience, not for the critics," said Hitchcock's daughter, Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, 71, in a recent telephone interview from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif. "I think that's why he's lasted so long."

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on Aug. 13, 1899, in London. He died on April 29, 1980, in Los Angeles. In between, he directed 53 feature films and several TV episodes, and became known as "The Master of Suspense."

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of some other extremely significant figures in 20th century art, including Duke Ellington (born April 29, 1899) and Ernest Hemingway (born July 21, 1899). But Hitchcock's centennial may be receiving more attention than any other birthday boy's.

In 1963, the advertising tagline for a now famous Hitchcock film was: "The Birds is coming!" The same could be said for the books, videos, compact discs and other "Hitchcock Centennial" products now swamping the market like black water over Janet Leigh's car: They're coming!

For example:

+ Universal Studios Home Video has reissued 13 Hitchcock movies on VHS under the banner of The Alfred Hitchcock Collection. The films include such masterpieces as Psycho, Vertigo, Saboteur and Frenzy, among others. The highlight of the collection is the new edition of Topaz (1969), which includes 17 minutes of extended footage. A special gift pack contains all the films plus a bonus cassette featuring four episodes from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series.

+ Anchor Bay Entertainment has released remastered videos of four Hitchcock classics from the 1940s: Rebecca, which won the Best Picture Oscar for 1940; Spellbound, with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman; Notorious, with Cary Grant and Bergman; and The Paradine Case, with Peck and Charles Laughton.

+ Hitchcock's Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock (Spike/Avon), written and compiled by Dan Auiler, is perhaps the most notable addition to the Hitchcock literary shelf this year. The book _ by the author of Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic _ reproduces many of Hitchcock's original drawings and script notations in order to explore the process of making a Hitchcock movie from conception to completion.

+ Alfred Hitchcock 100 Years: A Bernard Herrmann Film Score Tribute (Milan) is the most recent Hitchcock-related CD to hit record stores. The disc features excerpts from the Herrmann-composed scores to Psycho, The Wrong Man and other movies, intercut with comments from Herrmann, recorded in the early 1970s. The musical performances are by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by film composer Elmer Bernstein.

+ In addition, numerous Hitchcock festivals and academic conferences have been scheduled for this year, including one at New York University in October that will reunite the major surviving actors and actresses who appeared in the director's films, including Farley Granger and Kim Novak.

Despite the avalanche of Hitchcockiana available, O'Connell said she and other guardians of the director's image have been scrupulously trying to ensure the Hitchcock products are of a high quality, and not exploitative.

"He was a very dignified and very quiet person, and we don't want to do anything to destroy that," O'Connell said.

Of course, some Hitchcock biographers have presented the director as a strange, neurotic figure, whose fascination with such icy blondes as Novak, Eva Marie Saint and Tippi Hedren was unhealthy if not perverted. O'Connell scoffs at such interpretations.

"They never knew my father," she said. "They just make it up."