The 1950s: Marketing Hitchcock

**Note: Turner Classic Movies is presenting a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and featuring many of his greatest films in September. Here’s an excerpt about Hitchcock from my upcoming book, “Six Degrees of Film”.

Apart from Alfred Hitchcock’s genius as a director, he also was a master in the budding art of mass marketing. Hitchcock successfully transitioned into talkies and then was able to transition to television with some help from his longtime agent, Lew Wasserman. Wasserman helped Hitch land a nine-picture deal that included Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Psycho, and North by Northwest, some of his most enduring works.
As the studio era wound to a close, Hitchcock’s career was on the rise with hit after hit. He was greatly helped by the clever use of advertising insinuated into the opening monologues of his hit TV show, Hitchcock Presents.
At first, Hitchcock was hesitant about doing a television series when the idea was proposed to him in 1955. But he agreed after he was allowed to introduce each episode and also given script supervision. Hitchcock not only designed the signature silhouette caricature of himself but also chose the familiar music, Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” which opened each episode.
The show was an immediate success and reinforced his image as a loveable genius with a decidedly dark side to his humor. Hitch often made fun of television itself within the show, including the advertisers, which delighted his viewing audience.
Psycho was a film that, in another time, would have been almost impossible to make. For one thing, the lead actress is killed very early in the picture, and the dark, rather gruesome nature of the serial killer is exposed in the end. With Hitchcock, the marketing tease for the theatrical release was that there would be no admission once the picture had started. The prerelease ad campaign created an elaborate buildup in which Hitchcock took audiences through the Bates Motel and dropped cryptic clues concerning the storyline. This marketing proved invaluable in making Psycho one of the most successful horror films ever made.
The author of The Genius of the System, Thomas Schatz, credits Psycho for unleashing a vast era of exploitation films, the low-budget thrillers that targeted younger audiences. The flaw in this argument is that films like The Thing, The Blob, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and War of the Worlds had already been released, so there was a built-in audience for this type of low-budget grade-B movie. Hitchcock really can’t be blamed for the entire bad B genre!

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