You Only Live Once: Early American Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

As a general practice, Parallax View doesn’t post Word files of departmental MTN offerings such as “You Only Live Once,” the ongoing survey of repertory offerings around town. However, Peter Hogue’s anticipatory survey of a Hitchcock lineup in the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series contains some exceptional insights above and beyond the call of duty. Besides, Hitchcock is always in season. —RTJ

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE

“Early/Middle Hitchcock,” roughly 1934–1946, may be the most appealing period of the great director’s career. From Strangers on a Train (1951) to date, Hitchcock is a master, a towering figure who has his complex art under complete control. But the earlier Hitchcock has a certain warmth and expansiveness that are somewhat diminished in the work of the masterful Hitch later on. Somewhere in the Forties the director’s always-ironic relationship with his audience shifts somewhat from a tolerant tantalization to a tortuous temptation. A convenient, highly visible landmark for the change comes when Hitchcock administers an ingenious shock to the audience by firing a gun in our faces at the climax of Spellbound (1945). The process, of course, isn’t as neatly patterned as all that, but a striking change in Hitch is discernible in retrospect. The basic intellectual vision behind the films remains more or less constant, but the earlier films are more relaxed and less elliptical than the later ones, and less given to inflicting themselves upon the audience. It’s as if the later Hitchcock felt he had to explain less to more recent audiences at the same time that he felt more of an inclination to teach us a lesson, to punish us even. The classic example, of course, is Psycho (1960) with its devilishly inspired manipulation of audience expectations and conventional moral assumptions (amply discussed elsewhere by Leo Braudy and Raymond Durgnat). Psycho assaults its audience repeatedly, and the current highly marketable hunger for such assaults (especially by lesser directors than Hitch) perhaps proves the master’s point, confirms his suspicions, authenticates his contempt. The Early/Middle Hitch is a little less the moralist, more the entertainer: the personal vision is fully present but there is a greater flexibility, a more playful humor, in face of the moral ambiguities that edge many of the later films toward a harrowing despair.

A group of films from the Early/Middle period are currently on view in the UW Lectures & Concerts Film Series. Though the series includes one previously unavailable British entry, the lineup is entitled “Early American Hitchcock” and features the following films:

January 14: The Man Who Knew Too Much (Great Britain, 1934) is perhaps less intense than the version Hitchcock made in Hollywood in 1956, but it remains a distinguished creation, As one of Hitchcock’s disturbingly stylish villains, Peter Lorre delivers a performance that is not quite like any other that I have seen from him. The story (kidnapping and assassination) transpires in ironic and incongruous settings—a ballroom, a dentist’s office, a chapel, a concert hall, some anonymous apartments—and the apparent protagonist is wittily portrayed as something of a boorish cold fish. Above all, however, the film is preoccupied with death, an omnipresent force which often intrudes on events here in heartbreakingly absurd ways.

January 2l: Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s first American film, won an Oscar for Best Picture. It features Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson and George Sanders in a Daphne du Maurier tale about a new bride who is very nearly driven to suicide when she gets entangled in the mysteries surrounding the death of her husband’s previous wife. The film is not lacking in Hitchcockian elements, but it impresses above all as a beautifully executed literary adaptation.

January 28: Foreign Correspondent (1940) is a thriller with a political punch: an American reporter is trying to track down a Dutch diplomat who has been kidnapped by the Nazis, and his efforts provide the impetus behind an urgent plea for American involvement in the then “European War.” A fascinating “sympathetic villain” (Herbert Marshall) and a somewhat devious “hero” (Joel McCrea) help give the goings-on a uniquely Hitchcockian tone. But the film is best known for its set pieces, and rightly so: especially an exercise in voyeuristic suspense inside a mysterious windmill, which ranks as one of Hitchcock’s most compelling sequences.

February 4: Suspicion (1941) just may be the most underrated of Hitchcock’s films, the least appreciated of his masterpieces. The film has a good deal in common with the better-known Notorious: both star Cary Grant; both put considerable emphasis on the subjective views of their heroines (Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman, respectively); both present sly mixtures of ironic appeal and behavioral disturbance; both evoke suffocating family situations; both play a great deal with the unreliability of appearances; both have a lush romanticism which partially offsets their dark moral psychology. Suspicion uses low-key suspense and a strange marriage to evoke the uncertainties of human personality; Notorious uses an espionage story and a perversely contrived marriage to evoke the amorphousness of human emotion. The latter’s character studies are devastatingly ironic, but Suspicion is the more impressive of the two because of its greater breadth of feeling and because Hitch manages to unite form and implication more fully there. The Fontaine character’s changing fearful conceptions and misconceptions of the character of her husband (Grant) are the keys to the film’s approach, but Grant’s subtly cubistic performance (nearly every side of the Grant screen persona gets at least a little attention here) is the key to its insights. Right to the end, nothing in Suspicion is ever quite what it seems to be, and Grant is especially fine as a man whose inner and outer selves are subtly and fascinatingly out of tune with each other.

February 11: Saboteur (1942), somewhat a forerunner to North by Northwest (1959), has a favorite Hitchcock situation: the innocent man trapped in someone else’s guilt. Here a falsely accused man (Robert Cummings) pursues the real saboteur across the American continent (picking up Priscilla Lane along the way), and the film concludes spectacularly with a battle atop the Statue of Liberty.

February 18: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is the high point of Early/Middle Hitchcock. The plot brings a deceptively mild-mannered psychopath to an innocent, bucolic, “typical” small town. The result is partly a dark-humored satire on provincial obliviousness, but a series of pairings and duplications also reveal how much of each other the big-time psychopath and the smalltown girl (both named Charlie) have in themselves. The film is distinguished by some very enjoyable double-edged dialogue and by exceptional acting, with Patricia Collinge (as a somewhat untypical Hitchcock mother) and Joseph Cotten (the psychopathic uncle) being especially fine. The Cotten character is one of Hitchcock’s greatest: a man who detests the modern urban world, yet forces big-city horrors onto the smalltown innocence for which he longs; a man who murders in the name of an older, more peaceful way of life that is lost to him as much as to everyone else; a misogynist who dotes on matriarchal domesticity.

February 25: Lifeboat (1944) is some kind of tour de force. “The technical challenge was enormous,” Hitchcock has said. “I never let that camera get outside the boat, and there was no music at all; it was very rigorous.” World War II again provides the background. Tallulah Bankhead heads up a good cast (Walter Slezak, William Bendix, Henry Hull, John Hodiak, Canada Lee, etc.).

March 4: Spellbound (1945) is a mystery thriller with elaborate psychological trimmings. Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, and Leo G. Carroll have key roles. A dream sequence designed by Salvador Dalí and a stunning finish are the most memorable aspects.

March 1l: Notorious (1946) has perhaps the most touching and intriguing of Hitchcock’s “sympathetic villains” (Claude Rains), and one of his most intensely menacing mother figures (Leopoldine Konstantin). The film centers on Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, but both play characters whose quietly raging neuroses disrupt and complicate their star glamour. The plot deals in postwar espionage and has Bergman marrying Rains, more or less with Grant’s grudging sanction, in order to spy on him. The move is a political one, of course, but Hitchcock characteristically focuses on the moral and psychological complexities that result. In some ways, the fake romance (Rains/Bergman) is much more fulfilling (to the characters and us) than the “real” one (Grant/Bergman): here Hitchcock not only inverts conventional responses to heroes and villains, but also calls into question the whole basis for judging emotional responses—between lovers as well as between audiences and the movies they see. In one deliciously ironic sequence, a staged kiss (ostensibly in the line of duty) is at once a fake and a reality for all three characters and in different ways for each. Ultimately, Rains’s villain may be closest to the heart of the film: he is the most nearly heroic of the film’s victims, the one character with real style and grace in a situation full of treachery. Like several Hitchcock villains (but few of the heroes), he is something of a tragic figure.

Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue