Christopher Nolan: A 21st Century Alfred Hitchcock

If he can maintain a degree of autonomy from the meddling, money driven studio system, and continue to provide complex, intelligent and entertaining pictures, we’ll hopefully witness him becoming as idiosyncratic a cinematic voice as Hitchcock was in his pomp.

It came from a throwaway comment made by a friend after the release of Inception (2010) last year: €œNolan€™s like a modern-day Hitchcock€. Really? I probably scoffed at the time. Alfred Hitchcock€™s name has to be whispered in the kind of hushed, awe-filled tones that a child uses to talk about Santa. Has Nolan already built up that level of admiration? Well, like the chubby, bearded man in red, he does come bearing gifts this Christmas. Has there ever been more anticipation around a trailer - a sneak 6 minute prologue/trailer to be screened at IMAX cinemas before MI4 this December? Born in London, Christopher Nolan began at the very bottom of the filmmaking ladder. After graduating with a degree in English Literature, he plodded around for years producing corporate videos while working on the script to his first feature film €“ Following (1998). He shot it over the course of a year on a budget estimated to be around £4,000. It was well received at film festivals in the US and allowed Nolan to become visible to producers across the pond. Following, while clearly still displaying all the hallmarks of €˜independent first feature€™ €“ black and white photography, non-professional actors €“ also gives a tantalising preview to the work Nolan would later produce on bigger budgets. It features a fractured, non-linear narrative. Characters are never what they seem on the surface. A young, struggling writer wanders aimlessly around a noir-like London, following random people. He comes across a well dressed burglar named Cobb (yes, Cobb). The twists and turns that follow, enlighten us to the worlds Nolan loves to explore. Nightmarish compositions disguise conflicted characters trying to figure a path for themselves through dark and devious landscapes. His characters are drawn in complex psychological detail, concealing more than they reveal. This was Nolan€™s calling card to the industry. The industry duly answered. Sir Alfred Hitchcock, a fellow Londoner, too began working in the relative coal-face of the industry in its lower realms before becoming a director of international repute. He began working on title cards in silent cinema, before eventually reaching the position of director. Many of his early films are now lost, although work continues to uncover these forgotten early works. Throughout the 1920s and 30s Hitchcock made dozens of films in the then-prolific British industry. Classic films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). These films, before his migration to Hollywood, also display several of the tendencies that would reoccur in Hitch€™s American films. He had already shown a preference to adaptation €“ taking an existing source material and putting his own visual interpretation of it onto the screen €“ something that Nolan has too done frequently. These early films also display Hitch€™s glee in plots which twist and turn on the smallest of details (like Novak€™s necklace in Vertigo €“ or DiCaprio€™s spinning top in Inception). Characters are never who they seem, always running from something or concealing a murky past. While Hitchcock€™s British apprenticeship was considerably longer than Nolan€™s, he would also sharpen his thematic concerns in the bright lights and bigger budgets of Hollywood. Hitch had to serve another sort-of apprenticeship in Hollywood, working under the ever-watchful eye of renowned Hollywood producer David O. Selznick in the 40s, before reaching the peak of his powers €“ and creative control - in the 50s and early 60s. Nolan€™s ascent to the big time has been much quicker, but he also had to prove himself once across the pond.

Breakthrough

Nolan followed his début feature with Memento (2000), a disturbing, non-linear psychological thriller starring Guy Pearce, which found critical success (93% on RT) and, despite its challenging content, commercial success - grossing almost $40m from a $9m budget. Memento is, for many Nolan fans, still his most dazzling work. A story about an amnesiac trying to piece together the rape and murder of his wife, Memento was a film that confounded expectations and showcased Nolan€™s dazzling sensibilities towards narrative storytelling. The film offers the viewer scenes shown in reverse chronological order which alternate with flashbacks progressing the story forward, thus bringing both parallel strings together at the films€™ conclusion. It moves backward and forward, from light to dark (between black-and-white and colour) leaving the viewer just as disorientated and puzzled as the film€™s amnesiac protagonist. Nolan had now arrived in Hollywood, and was given a star vehicle to direct in Insomnia (2002). Again, themes that would recur in Nolan€™s work were prevalent: it was psychologically complex, characters were drawn in murky shades of grey and Nolan€™s fluid, visually engrossing style continued to take shape. And, again, it impressed the paying public, the industry and the press (92% approval on RT; grossing $113m from a $46m budget). Insomnia is perhaps the least personal and therefore least enigmatic of Nolan€™s films to date. An adaptation of a successful Norwegian film of the same name and packed with big-name actors (Pacino, Swank and Robin Williams), it is still an interesting film, but one clearly belonging in the more established conservativism of Hollywood. Nevertheless its relative box-office and critical success convinced the movers and shakers in Hollywood€™s upper echelons that this gifted filmmaker had the ability to manage a star-studded production. The Bat signal had been lit. Hitchcock€™s early Hollywood years were similarly productive. His first feature across the pond, Rebecca (1940) won the Academy Award for Best Picture €“ Hitch was nominated for Best Director but didn€™t win: something the great director would become all too familiar with. The pictures that followed this early success offered us more insight into the themes that would shape his great films. Suspense, fear, paranoia and misunderstandings all lead psychologically hamstrung characters down paths they€™d rather not follow. 1943€™s Shadow of a Doubt would prove Hitchcock€™s first real masterpiece €“ a dark and disturbing story of an evil uncle come to visit his sister and niece. The uncle (played by the ever brilliant Joseph Cotten) is on the lam - a suspected serial killer. The niece (Young Charlie) learns of his past crimes and survives several attempts on her life by her Uncle, before he meets his grizzly end. He is lauded by the town, and grieved over by his sister, but only Young Charlie knows the truth about her murderous Uncle, and she keeps it buried. A quiet, unassuming hero keeping evil at bay and her secrets hidden. Hitchcock€™s prolific output ensured he followed these early successes with a series of maturing films, such as: Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951). Each film finely tuning Hitch€™s cinematic traits €“ the Freudian psychoanalysis of Spellbound; a blossoming romance in Notorious; the bravura technical accomplishments and dark philosophy of Rope; and the complex and delightfully subversive Strangers on a Train.

Big Box-Office Bucks

After these initial toe-dipping expeditions into the Hollywood industry, come Nolan€™s confirmation to the big leagues with a string of films that produce the kind of box-office figures that Hollywood loves. Ok, a big part of that is down to the Batman franchise. Make a Batman film, and people will flock to see it - even Joel Schumacher€™s dreadful Batman films grossed bucket-loads of money. Nolan€™s Batman films, however - while retaining the explosive set-pieces expected of such blockbusters €“ are dark, very dark. Tim Burton offered us snippets of his own dark, macabre vision in his Batman films €“ particularly Batman Returns (1992) - yet they very much retained a sense of maudlin theatre. Nolan would elevate the franchise to a much higher level. And he€™s got the numbers to prove it: The Dark Knight€™s (2008) £1bn worldwide gross making its predecessor €“ Batman Begins (2005) €“ look silly with its measly $372m. Smuggled between the Batman pictures lie The Prestige (2006) - with its, by now typically Nolan, array of shape-shifting characters and splintering narratives, and Inception (2010). Inception marked the point where Nolan had made so much money for his studios that he was allowed free reign and, for the first time since Memento, brought a completely original idea to the screen. While not reaching the dizzy heights of The Dark Knight, Inception grossed $832m worldwide. This makes it, along with The Titanic (1997), the only film in the top 30 highest grossing of all time not in 3D, not animated and not adapted from prior material or as part of a franchise. Plus, The Titanic was rubbish. Hitchcock€™s films at their best always explored the dark side of human psychology. He was fascinated with the traumas of the past and the unreliability of memory. His glee in duping the audience and torturing their sense of expectation was unmatched: Hitchcock would surely have laughed himself silly with delight at that ending to Inception. He brought home the studio bacon too: Psycho (1960) made $32m from a meagre budget of $800,000; Rear Window (1954) took $24m from a $1m budget; and Notorious (1946) produced $24m from a budget of $2m. Might not sound like much by today€™s standards, but multiply them by ten and you€™ll approach their 2011 figure, adjusted for inflation. The 50s and 60s also brought us The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Birds (1963), North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958) and the unfairly maligned Marnie (1964). His ability to marry interesting, smart, thought-provoking material with critical and commercial success has remained unmatched (until now?). Vertigo is particularly interesting in our comparison between the two directors - it surely must have influenced Inception. James Stewart, €˜Scottie€™, becomes embroiled in an ever more disturbing dream-like web. He€™s hired as a private detective to follow Madeleine - the resplendent Kim Novak €“ by her husband. In an increasingly complicated and devilishly dark narrative, Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine: even after she€™s €˜dead€™. He follows this ideal of a woman down into nightmares of his own creation, unable to regain a firm grip on reality. The film ends just as tragically and misanthropically (depending on your interpretation) as Inception. It is to be said that Nolan€™s film perhaps riffs with more subtlety on the themes that Hitchcock liked to explore, but that€™s to be expected given the different eras the two have operated in.

Beyond Batman

Nolan€™s career to date has seen him become one of the very few directors around who can combine commercial and critical success. Films that hoover up obscene amounts of cash, enthral the public and have critics injuring their finger tips, such is their clamber to lavish him with praise. There are few directors who elicit such a response. Spielberg was one of those, once upon a time. Yet his films firmly remain in the realm of family-friendly adventure and, while there€™s nothing wrong with that, it€™s much easier to get bums on seats if your protagonists are, say, helping an alien find its way home or fighting sharks, Nazis or dinosaurs. There are, obviously, differences between Nolan and Hitchcock€™s films €“ for one, Hitch€™s obsession with the psycho-sexual torment of women isn€™t prominent in Nolan€™s films €“ yet there are increasing parallels to be drawn between their careers. Hitch was a master of self-promotion and while Nolan doesn€™t possess quite such grand stature (let€™s face it, who does?) he is more than canny when it comes to whipping us into a frenzy over his latest releases. He works closely with studio publicity departments to ensure that the sneaks, teaser trailers and online promotion serve only to offer us enticing snippets of what is to come. Nolan works with big stars (Pacino, DiCaprio, Bale) and with the major studios (Warner Bros.). Hitchcock did much the same, working with James Stewart, Shaun Connery, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant among others and always within the major studio system. Both have had the ability to make something that is becoming ever rarer in Hollywood: smart, exciting, well crafted entertainment. Nolan proves the exception to the rule in modern blockbuster cinema, managing to avoid clichéd, spectacle-driven nonsense (yes you, Michael Bay). Hitch managed to tickle the audience silly with films that drew in the crowds with big name stars, whom he then tormented mercilessly for 90 minutes - and made you enjoy it despite yourself. It'll certainly be interesting to track Nolan's post-Batman career - if he can maintain a degree of autonomy from the meddling, money driven studio system, and continue to provide complex, intelligent and entertaining pictures, we€™ll hopefully witness him becoming as idiosyncratic a cinematic voice as Hitchcock was in his pomp. Start expecting Nolan to appear unceremoniously as an extra in his own movies any time soon.
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Hi. I'm a film graduate who currently writes for WhatCulture (obviously), Eye For Film and 2012 Movies. Maybe, just maybe, I'll make a living from it one day.