Duos have been a fixture both in front of and behind the camera almost since the inception of cinema. A combination of supremely talented individuals creates an on-screen alchemy that is nothing short of unforgettable. That has certainly been the case with classic movie duos such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and even Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi when they did appear together, just to name a few.
Then there are the heralded combinations of star and director that have consistently produced priceless cinematic gold. Such has been the case with Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (a personal favorite), and a classic example of this, John Wayne and John Ford. All of these provide unmistakable proof of what can happen when you have a visionary director combined with a star who can bring that vision to vivid cinematic life-true movie magic which stands the test of time.
Well, what has been true in front of the camera has also been true behind the camera. Though less recognized, certain collaborations of talented individuals have worked out so well it could truly be said that what is onscreen would not be as good if both were not involved. That has certainly been true of some writer/director unions, but there are other situations where this would also be true. Such is the case with this truly dynamic duo: Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks.
Robert Burks was the singular cinematographer used by Hitchcock during what could be called his most dynamic period of moviemaking, from 1951 to 1964, with the only exception being “Psycho”, which Hitchcock chose to shoot primarily using the crew from his television show. It has been said that Burks, besides being Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, may have also been his most important collaborator during that period since he worked with him the most consistently. But that’s not the only reason. Through 12 movies, Burks had the innate ability as well as technical mastery needed by Hitchcock to create the look and mood that allowed him to remain the ‘Master of Suspense’. From the dreamlike mood and dizzying heights of “Vertigo”, to the stark and bleak Quebec City setting of “I Confess” (Montgomery Clift pictured above), to the semi-documentary look and feel of “The Wrong Man” (Henry Fonda pictured above), to the high gloss and Technicolor sophistication of the French Riviera in “To Catch a Thief” for which he won an Academy Award, Burks captured it all, and in his own way made his mark on cinematic history.
Starting in 1951 with “Strangers On a Train” down to “Marnie” in 1964, Hitchcock brought out the best in Burks, allowing his versatility and visual range to be used to the full, and in a sense, Burks brought out the best in Hitchcock, giving him free rein for his visions to come to full fruition in large or small budget movies. Think of classic scenes from their films together and you can see both working at the height of their powers: the out of control merry-go-round in “Strangers on a Train” (Farley Granger and Robert Walker pictured above), the hulking figure of Raymond Burr facing off against a wheelchair bound James Stewart in “Rear Window”, the iconic crop-duster sequence as well as the chase on Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest”, the desperate hand of Grace Kelly literally reaching right out of the screen in all its 3D glory while being attacked in “Dial M For Murder”, an attic full of birds preying on a terrified Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” (Tippi Hedren pictured above)- indelible movie memories made all the more so by the images Burks brought to the screen.
An innovator in the use of both telephoto and wide-angle lenses as a means to create a specific mood, it’s interesting to note that once his partnership with Hitchcock ended after “Marnie”, with the exception of “A Patch of Blue” for which he was nominated for an Oscar, it has been said that the quality of his work declined. Some have said the same about Hitchcock’s quality of work after that as well, illustrating how much each one benefited from the other during their fruitful years together. Whatever the case, it can clearly be seen that when it comes to cinematic duos, what’s on the screen in teams of timeless quality can be equaled by those behind it, creating truly classic cinema that can be enjoyed both now and for years to come.