NORMAL — For William Thomas McBride, Alfred Hitchcock was not only the familiar Master of Suspense but also the consummate master of pure cinematic style.
The kind in which camera movement, editing, spatial arrangements and other non-verbal gestures are employed to convey theme, mood, character and, yes, suspense.
Such as the camera's measured retreat out of a closeup of the eye of Janet Leigh's freshly fallen corpse in "Psycho" ... the symbolic coupling of innocence and evil in "Shadow of a Doubt" ... and the jarring jump-cuts suddenly appearing out the blue on the wings of chaos in "The Birds."
Or the surrealist nightmare dropped smack in the middle of "Vertigo's" waking fever dream ... the cross-cutting between tennis match and a killer's attempt to retrieve a dropped cigarette lighter in "Strangers on a Train" ... and the revelation and ambiguity of relationships expressed through the placement of objects, from coffee cups to keys, in "Notorious."
These style-driven sequences and many more are where much of the enduring artistry of Hitchcock resides for McBride, associate professor of film and drama at Illinois State University and curator of the new Six Week Film School series at the Normal Theater.
In a session starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and continuing every Wednesday thereafter, through March 8: "Alfred Hitchcock — Master of Style," showcasing a half-dozen of the director's essential masterworks that convey that mastery in full flower.
They are: "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), with Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright in the film the director often named as his favorite; "Notorious" (1946), with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman; "Strangers on a Train" (1951), with Robert Walker and Farley Granger; "Vertigo" (1958), with James Stewart and Kim Novak; "Psycho" (1960), with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh; and "The Birds" (1963), with Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor.
Admission is free and open to the public, with McBride on hand for post-film audience discussion.
The Six Week Film School debuted last fall with another exploration of cinema style, "Film Noirs — Fortune & Style," via such noir milestones as "Double Indemnity," "Murder My Sweet" and "Out of the Past."
The Hitchcock series, McBride says, grew out of a seminar he taught three years ago called "Hitchcock's Stylized Capture of Post-Adolescent Fatheads," and later published as part of the anthology, "Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock."
"As you can see, the word 'style' appears in the title of each series since that is what I investigate and interpret in my film classes and in my scholarship," he notes.
"I encourage my students to think of my Film Style & Literature course as an intensive English Department literature course in which they write essays in a 'foreign' language ... the language of film."
For the second session of Six Week Film School, "I chose Hitchcock because of all the films that most consistently and fluently speak the stylized language of cinema ... it is those directed by Alfred Hitchcock."
McBride, who has been on the faculty at ISU since 1989, has written an entire textbook on the topic of cinematic style, "Stylized Moments — Turning Film Style Into Meaning," wherein the above quote can be found in the very first chapter.
"You will see long periods of dialogue in the films I have chosen wherein the camera and editing tell the story," he says, referencing, for example, the camera's excruciatingly slow retreat from "Psycho's" first murder victim and the dizzying spiral motif that begins in the credits of "Vertigo" and is echoed and amplified visually through the film's remainder.
"This was the dream of so-called silent films, whose best practitioners, including Hitchcock, felt each time they resorted to a title card announcing some dialogue, it was a failure, a betrayal of a dream of a universal language."
McBride, who also hosted the showing of the documentary, "Hitchcock/Truffaut," at the Normal last fall, says Hitchcock spelled out his approach succinctly to his interviewer, fellow director Francois Truffaut: "It doesn't matter where the film goes. If you design it correctly, the Japanese audience should scream the same time as the Indian audience."
Through the course of the Six Week Film School, McBride promises both newcomers to Hitchcock's canon and those familiar with it the added kick of these classics returned to the big screen.
Even for McBride, some of these titles will offer him his first big-screen encounters, during which he expects some of each film's signature style moments to translate their visual ideas with even greater impact.
Such as: "Notorious," "which is one of the most stylized of all his works, with all the positioning of objects and the actors' relationships to them."
Such as: "Vertigo," "which is just a monster of a film ... and that nightmare sequence is a knockout.
Such as "The Birds," "which is his last masterpiece, and where his most stylish moment occurs right before the gas pump explosion, with a series of jump-cuts of the cast looking out the door of the diner. Another knockout."
Such as "Psycho," "which, the more I think about it, may be the best Hitchcock movie of all."
"Although I have taught these films for many years," he confesses, "I have never seen them on a screen as a big as the one in the Normal Theater."
Best of all, "No tests or pop quizzes."
P.S. Coming next fall: "Six of Martin Scorsese's most stylized films."