Hitchcock has been proposed for the national curriculum. Here are a few life lessons children might learn from watching his films
Kim Novak and James Stewart in Vertigo … 'Do men fall for the down-to-earth dame with the sense of humour? Do they heck.' Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/PARAMOUNT
Never mind that cinema is the most popular storytelling medium of our time, and that if Bill Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing screenplays, not stage plays; some people still think that, as an artform, it's automatically inferior to literature or theatre. So Heather Stewart, creative director of the BFI, caused a stir last week when she said: "The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not."
One should never underestimate the educational value of films – and not just the worthy literary adaptations or bracing social documents our nannies imagine would be good for us. Adolescent exposure to The Charge of the Light Brigade, which I went to see only because I fancied David Hemmings, sent me scurrying off to read everything I could find on the Crimean war, but it was the pulp noir Kiss Me Deadly that got me started on Christina Rossetti, and I first discovered Puccini's Manon Lescaut via the video nasty I Spit on Your Grave. You never can tell.
So what can the films of Alfred Hitchcock teach youngsters, beyond such obvious pointers as never take a shower when there's a maniac in the vicinity, and that if you stab a guy who breaks into your flat and tries to strangle you with one of your own stockings, you're liable to end up in the dock accused of murder? Here, then, are five things I learned from the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
1. "In the world of advertising, there is no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration."North by Northwest, often dismissed as a slick comedy thriller, is nothing less than an allegory of life. All it takes is bad timing, and your entire existence, like that of Cary Grant, can go off the rails, and authorities won't give a fig. Also provides tips on how to look dapper after a night in the cells, how to chat up beautiful women on trains, and how to dodge crop-dusting planes.
2."If I do what you tell me, will you love me?" Hitchcock is sometimes accused of misogyny, but while the central point of view in Vertigo is that of James Stewart's lovesick detective, the film quite clearly sides with the female characters, looking on helplessly as he pines for a suicidal blonde who doesn't exist. Tells you all you need to know about romantic obsession. Do men fall for the down-to-earth dame with the sense of humour? Do they heck.
3."Preview of Coming Attractions!" And why does Stewart find it so hard to commit to gorgeous Grace Kelly in Rear Window? All the answers are to be found in those windows across the yard, each of them illustrating one of the many different stages in the eternal battle of the sexes. This, my dears, is marriage.
4."There are 8,650 species of birds in the world today." Yes, and if they all decide to peck your eyes out, you're in deep shit. The Birds is a reminder that if nature ever decides to take back the planet, there's not much we can do about it. Also provides a reminder of why one shouldn't smoke near petrol pumps.
5. "We all go a little mad sometimes."That nice young man who loves his mother might well be a psychopath, but you should also be wary of husbands who bring you drinks in bed (Suspicion, Notorious), ever-loving uncles (Shadow of a Doubt), your psychiatrist (Spellbound) or charming strangers who offer to rid you of inconvenient wives, even if you think they're joking (Strangers on a Train).
Of course, by using Hitchcock as an educational tool you risk putting young people off his films for life, the same way they're put off Shakespeare, but there's a chance that class discussion of his storytelling techniques could result in a new generation of film-makers who know how to film an action scene without gratuitous wobblicam and incontinent editing. And if film studies could be extended to include how to watch a movie without talking or texting, then I'm all for them.