When talking about the art of special effects, Alfred Hitchcock's name may not come quickly to mind. It did, however, to Martin Anderson.
A "Den of Geek" writer (how can I not like him?), Anderson has published his list of “50 Greatest Special Effects of all Time.” I like how he made his selections. Instead of choosing famous scenes for his list, such as the opening sequence to the old Star Trek TV show, he selected those that best exemplify the craft of S/FX. In fact, in order to make the list, Anderson stipulated that “a shot has to be either a) exceptionally convincing, b) ground-breaking or c) an exemplary execution of an oft-used technique.”
Two Hitchcock movies made the list, including Frenzy (an inspired and astute choice, ranking #23; see it here.) and The Birds (a more obvious, but still astute, choice, weighing in at #6; see it here).
Lists like this are fun, and they always spark a conversation. Why, for instance, didn’t he include any of the groundbreaking live-humans-interacting-with-animation work that was going on at Disney Studios? (Think: Mary Poppins.)
The rooftop chase in Blackmail was shot using the Shufftan process.
Remember the extreme close-up of the finger and phone dial in Dial M for Murder? That was achieved using a giant wooden finger and enormous phone dial he had built when he discovered that 3-D cameras (the format in which the film was originally shot) couldn’t move in close enough to get the shot he wanted.
And let’s not forget famous shot of the staircase in Vertigo, where he zoomed in and quickly dollied out of a model of a stairwell, creating a nauseatingly vertiginous effect. That technique has been copies numerous times since then, and is simply known as a “Vertigo shot.”
Come to think of it, there’s hardly a Hitchcock film that doesn’t include special effects, which he and his collaborators often had to invent from scratch. Hitch refused to allow the technical limitations of the medium to prevent him from realizing (if that’s the right word!) the ideas he envisioned. What he left behind is a body of work that is still being examined by students of the craft.