In Black & White: gawlDurgnat

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

THE STRANGE CASE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK, or The Plain Man’s Hitchcock. By Raymond Durgnat. MIT Press. 429 pages. $15.00.

For me, Raymond Durgnat has become, over a period of years, The Man You Love to Disagree With. Not that he doesn’t often strike exactly home, or express wonderfully well what oft was thought. It’s just that he nearly always qualifies or obfuscates his arguments into obscurity or outrageous contrivance. The margins of his newest book, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, invite—in fact, insist on—the scribbled objections of inveterate Hitchcockians of almost any camp.

Subtitled The Plain Man’s Hitchcock, the book is both exhilarating and exasperating: exhilarating because it is the most complete and ambitious critical examination yet of Hitchcock’s entire body of work, and bids fair to become a definitive source for future Hitchcock criticism; exasperating because in more than 400 pages it never manages to become what it could have been. For one thing, it is hardly a “Plain Man’s Hitchcock,” since the facts on Hitchcock’s life and work, together with a good but simplistic summary of all previous Hitchcock commentary, are confined to two prefatory chapters; the specific analysis of the films, which comprise nearly 350 pages of the text, are neither comprehensive nor—even in the attempt—definitive.

Long known for his antagonism toward the more committed camps of auteurists, Durgnat in this book fragments what others have seen as a Hitchcock “oeuvre” into not only the more and the less successful, but also into those films he sees as purely studio efforts, those whose moral meanings are a product of their time rather than of the director’s ethos, those “minor entertainments” whose good and bad points arise from identification with an established genre, and those few genuine masterpieces that best express Hitchcock’s own aesthetic and moral vision. The essential conceit of the book’s structure (two parts, entitled “The Record” and “The Evidence”) is that Hitchcock, like so many of his own bewildered protagonists, is suddenly on trial. There is no section titled “The Verdict” but Durgnat’s verdict is plainly evident, and generally fair: “Hitchcock has always been an entertainer whose work can, on occasion … reach a degree of sophistication and intensity such that his material takes on sufficient truth, urgency and challenge to qualify as a significant artist.” The questionable grammar of this assertion aside (for the moment), it points up the crux of Durgnat’s concern: whether or not Alfred Hitchcock deserves a reputation as an artist.

Durgnat clearly enjoys and admires Hitchcock’s work as much as the auteurists, the social moralists, the Catholicists, the imagists, and other “schools” of Hitchcock critics (one does not, after all, write so long and exhaustive a study of someone whose work one considers trivial). His quarrel is not with those who hold Hitchcock to be a great film director, but rather with those for whom Hitchcock can make only two kinds of film: major and minor masterpieces. “The present study,” he tells us early on, “seeks to indicate a middle road between those for whom Hitchcock is a Master, but a Master of nothing, and those for whom Hitchcock is regularly rather than occasionally a profound and salutary moralist” whose philosophy and vision have not essentially changed since The Lodger.

In his discussions of every Hitchcock-directed film (except for two: The Mountain Eagle, believed destroyed, and Easy Virtue, which he simply hasn’t seen), Durgnat considers and balances the major approaches to Hitchcock: religious, moral, and aesthetic. Though he all but disqualifies himself on the religious issue by making the basic theological error of failing to distinguish between predestination and divine foreknowledge, Durgnat nevertheless presents a semi-whimsical vision of Hitchcock as Joking Jesus, and substitutes the following assessment for what the Catholic and Jansenist critics have seen as a strict “transference of guilt” in many Hitchcock films: “The good aren’t immune from the temptations which have corrupted the bad, but resist them, yielding to only a minor degree, the difference between heroes and villains remaining significant, since in matters of human behavior quantitative differences become qualitative ones.”

On the moral issue, Durgnat emerges as a basically antisocial critic, taking Hitchcock to task for “moral complacency” and “conformism,” scorning Hitchcock’s tendency “to kiss the box-office rod,” and consistently avowing his admiration for the films that most actively affront the audience, those whose plots are “cruel” in Durgnat’s terms: Blackmail, Sabotage, Lifeboat, Rear Window, Psycho.

“It is the need for safety which clips Hitchcock’s artistic wings,” Durgnat writes, and by “safety” he means Hitchcock’s customary reaffirmation of conventional morality, which Durgnat sees as pandering to the box office. Of course Durgnat has a long record of failing to see artistic greatness in many of the cinema’s moral conservatives, most notably John Ford and Howard Hawks. But the cinema is a mass medium, and conventional morality still obtains for the masses: so that Hitchcock, whose “stock-in-trade is suspense,” must have recourse to that morality if he is to manipulate—and thereby entertain—his audiences. Thus we have an entertainer, who only occasionally becomes an artist. Give him his due, Durgnat establishes and defines well his aesthetic terms and the bases of his critical approach. He demands “a spiritual challenge or development” in order to qualify a film as a work of “solid artistic interest” rather than a “mere entertainment.” By implication, Durgnat classifies as entertainment those films in which the moral vision serves the plot, opposing this approach to that in which plot is an outgrowth of moral vision, which, at its best, constitutes art—in his view. The whole issue of art versus entertainment lies at the core of this massive book—which, to me, seems to be making a mountain out of a semantical molehill. Durgnat, throughout the entire body of his critical work from Films and Feelings onward, has never admitted the possibility that there might be a difference between a good movie and a perfectly realized work of art, nor that every one of the former that’s not one of the latter is not necessarily a failure or a mere “minor entertainment.” Indeed, he approaches the entire aesthetic issue from a slightly off-balance attitude, since throughout the book he concerns himself extensively with predominantly literary matters such as theme, moral message, dramatic logic, symbol—to the neglect, and often total exclusion, of montage, mise-en-scène, camera placement and movement, sound mix, and other matters equally important to the question of whether or not film can be art. Just how committed he is to criticism of literary content rather than total cinematic experience is evident in his six-page dismissal of The 39 Steps as “a minor amusement.” He seeks a moral significance to the episode of the bullet stopped by the crofter’s Bible, demands more meaning from the handcuffs and more clarity about the political milieu, but consistently—almost, it seems, deliberately—overlooks the sheer rightness of form, composition, and montage that makes The 39 Steps unqualifiedly an Entertainment with a capital E and no prefatory “mere” (and maybe some people’s idea of art).

At its best, Durgnat’s book is very good indeed and in any case is enjoyable, challenging reading for any Hitchcock devotee. Among the most satisfying chapters are Durgnat’s discussions of the moral ambivalences of Blackmail, of symmetrical relationships in Strangers on a Train (he finds more than any previous critic, though some are a bit far-fetched), and of high comedy as moral melodrama in To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. Equally enjoyable is his examination of Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, which, for him, “form a group, moving from bleakness to a positive faith in a humiliated moral decency.” Also worth special note are the illustrations, 49 carefully selected stills, many quite rare, all genuinely appropriate to the moral and aesthetic points Durgnat makes about Hitchcock’s work.

The same praise, regrettably, cannot be given Durgnat’s often insufferable style. At his worst, he embodies an approach to language that even the stodgiest of academicians could justly call stuffy. He rarely uses two words if twelve will do, nor a two-syllable one if he can press into service a five-syllable one (preferably in a foreign language). He gets away with it most of the time through cocksure confidence and a fluidity that is jarred only occasionally by—startlingly—a basic grammatical error. When Durgnat’s grammar fails him, it does so in a big way: he serves up dangling participles, whole dangling dependent clauses, constructions like “between the four” and “comparison from,” even unfinished sentences and syntactical jungles amid whose foliage the most inveterate philologist might well despair. In the present book, these standard Durgnatisms are accompanied by a number of lapses that some copy-editor at MIT Press should certainly have caught: repetitions of whole phrases within the same sentence, inconsistent spellings of character names, the obnoxious recurrence ad infinitum of Durgnat’s favorite metaphor “yin and yang,” and unparalleled abuses of the humble comma.

Beyond that, for someone who has seen and re-seen nearly all of Hitchcock’s films, Durgnat is capable of an incredible myopia where some of the director’s basic approaches are concerned. He embraces Gavin Millar’s criticism of Shadow of a Doubt (“Small town family life is not really represented at all, but only a sort of cleaned-up Saturday Evening Post version of it”) without considering that what Millar attacks might very well be part of the film’s point. He accepts at face value Johnny Aysgarth’s final speech in Suspicion, blithely assuming that Johnny is not a murderer after all, and thus missing the whole issue of how Hitchcock’s conflict with studio heads over Cary Grant’s image actually became the film, climaxing in its deliberately ambiguous finale.

He criticizes Hitchcock’s “failure to revivify a plot by acting,” describing perfectly Hitchcock’s use of actors (as cattle, though he makes no allusion to the famous remark) without seeming to realize that this very technique is a key element of the director’s style and “message.” He discusses Vertigo in terms of Scottie’s pursuit of a “dream” and an “ideal of perfection,” though the plot of the film never implies that Madeleine is either of these things to Scottie, but only a beloved woman, now dead, whom he obsessively recreates in Judy. And he consigns to the realm of “propaganda” Hitchcock’s two Cold War films Torn Curtain and Topaz without considering whether propaganda may not be the end of the films at all, but only a means whereby the predispositions of an American audience against Communism might be played on for quite a different purpose.

Beyond such lapses, Durgnat plays several little games with himself to no satisfactory purpose in or out of the book’s context. One of these, “modifying the scenario,” consists of changing—in fantasy—the storyline of a Hitchcock film to give it what Durgnat feels would be “greater artistic and moral significance.” Among the films more brutally subjected to this treatment are The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, Spellbound, Rope, I Confess, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Torn Curtain. His neurotic refusal to accept many of the films for what they are and were intended to be, and to discuss them as such, implies that Durgnat frequently likes Hitchcock’s situations and ideas much better than he likes his films. Either that, or he is simply frustrated by his failure to recognize and accept the differences in viewpoint between himself and Hitchcock.

Another game he plays I have dubbed “Cross-Preferences.” Durgnat does not seem to be able to write about a single film—whether he likes it or not—without naming other films on a similar theme that he finds preferable. For nearly every Hitchcock film he discusses, Durgnat asserts that the “most serious Hitchcock film” on the theme is by another director. More often than not the director is Anthony Asquith, and one quickly tires of the obscure Asquith works he is able to unearth for the sake of a dubiously meaningful comparison with Hitchcock. An irritating number of chapters end with a comment such as “one may well prefer relatively minor films like Gilda, I Walk Alone, Dark Passage, In a Lonely Place, and Angel Face.…” But, Raymond, one wants to ask, isn’t it nice that we don’t have to choose?

The extent to which Durgnat asks that we choose, and seeks at this late date to enforce a “greater artistic and moral significance” on Hitchcock, is the extent to which the book ceases to amuse and enlighten, and begins instead to irritate.

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow