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Summer Film School: Hitchcock 101

By Teresa DiFalco

In the way that some parents raise their children to be doctors or lawyers, I'm raising mine to be charming dinner guests. I believe they have a great responsibility to entertain, so before I'm through they'll quote Noel Coward and hum Sondheim and have a litany of quirky anecdotes; like their summer of Hitchcock.

Yes, Hitchcock we're watching them all.

We watch movies like crazy in the summer; it's a guiltless indulgence. And while, yes, we've seen Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties — my general rule is that the plot be interesting, the dialogue quick, and the characters not curdle my brain so that we can focus on the great art of storytelling. You know, things like archetypes and plot points, creating suspense.

Enter Hitchcock. His movies are perfect for children, really. The plotlines are intriguing, like puzzles, the soundtracks are sharp, and they're infused with two things young people love: fantasy and fear. Additionally, his stories unfold with few special effects, leaving the craft — both actors' and director's — in full view.

Rear WindowThere's a playfulness, too, that kids get right away — after all, this is the director who shot cinema's first toilet (Psycho). With his protagonists in turmoil, Hitch still pauses for comic relief — Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll trying to eat while handcuffed together in The 39 Steps, for instance, or Thelma Ritter's one-liners in Rear Window. The cheeky director also famously darts through most of his films and it's great fun to look for him. (You can find a complete list of his cameos here: here).

But maybe the best hook in his films is the "MacGuffen," if only for the sheer delight of knowing the word. "MacGuffen" is Hitchcock's term for a plot device that creates suspense but never goes anywhere. The uranium hidden in the wine bottles of Notorious is one example, the mysterious "government secrets" in North by Northwest another. Explain it to your kids and have them look for them.

Make a commitment to watch more than one film. To study an artist's body of work sharpens critical thinking, and Hitchcock is a great opportunity for that. Your children, after a few films, will spot themes and even signature techniques; they'll compare and contrast plotlines. For instance, in Hitchcock someone is always running and is almost always set up and they'll see that right away—it's a perfect segue to Kafka!

As a bonus, your children will become fans—who wouldn't—of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, and you can tell them those stunning outfits on Grace Kelly are the work of costumer Edith Head (better known, maybe, as "Edna" from The Incredibles.) Take advantage of the wealth of easy-to-find supplementary materials, like interviews, biographies for young readers, and on-line trivia to pique their interest.

North by NorthwestHitchcock — or any artist — is also a great bridge to a wide range of other influences. He was an art collector and influenced by surrealists like Magritte and Paul Klee, your library likely has picture books for both which could inspire art projects. Edward Gorey is another fun artist whose work is Hitchcockian, as is Salvador Dali who designed the dream sequence in Spellbound. What's a dream sequence? Well, James and the Giant Peach has a great one, and watching it is a fun way to show different storytelling devices.

With all that it's only a bonus that some of the movies are scary (thanks in large part to composer Bernard Hermann). I know parents whose grand ambition is making sure their children aren't scared — but getting scared is one of the great thrills of being a kid. Especially in a safe place like the TV room with popcorn.

As with any media your children consume, however, it's always best if you screen it first.

Four Hitchcock classics to start:

North by Northwest
Available on
There's some heavy flirting between Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint on the train but it goes fast and no one takes off any clothes. Bonus: The close-up shots of Mt. Rushmore.

Rear Window
Yes, the guy across the street chops up his wife but you don't see it. Towards the end there's some fright when the chopper appears at Jimmy Stewart's door, but he only looms, no one gets hurt.

The Birds
Available on
Just pronouncing this title gives chills to even those who've never watched it, but this is a brilliant film for kids. There's a scene in the middle that shows a victim's eyes pecked out but it's brief and fake-looking. Your children will be thrilled with it.

Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart share embarrassingly long kisses toward the end that might get giggles. But guess what? Stuart Little was a Hitchcock fan. He and Margalo watched Vertigo in Stuart Little II, your children may recognize the scene.

Resource notes:
You can find a great collection of Hitchcock films and interviews (Dick Cavett's is great) through on-line movie services like Netflix or Blockbuster. I've had less luck finding Hitchcock in chain rental stores, but many independent video stores carry him. An even better source is your library, it's free!


About the Author
Teresa DiFalco is a mother and freelance writer in Oregon. She is currently finishing her first novel, The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.

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