[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.
In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.
But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.
[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 Strangerson 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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
What do Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) have in common? Quite a lot, it seems to me. And yet, in all my reading on film, I have run across only one brief speculation on the subject: Andrew Sarris’s, in the context of his rebuttals to Pauline Kael’s Kane articles.
Both films, to begin with, deal with the search for a hidden secret in the life of an important man, and both use a flashback framework as means of narration (though Rebecca maintains a single point of view through most of its story, while CitizenKane crisscrosses the memories of several characters in a network of flashbacks). Both films are informed by the presence of a dead person, though Charles Foster Kane is the central character in Welles’s film, while Hitchcock’s title character never appears. Nevertheless, each film’s ghostly presence is signaled by the recurrent motif of an initial-monogram, ‘R’ and ‘K,’ respectively. In each film a scandal—hushed up in Rebecca, headlined in Kane—attends the end of the important man’s first marriage, and overshadows his second marriage to a “common” woman.
[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, TheStrangeCaseof AlfredHitchcock, invite—in fact, insist on—the scribbled objections of inveterate Hitchcockians of almost any camp.
Subtitled ThePlainMan’sHitchcock, 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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
The birds have really made a mess of Bodega Bay. Smoke from a gasoline fire hangs heavy over the city; bodies lie in the streets: abandoned automobiles, smashed windows, and ripped woodwork are grim evidence that the human beings have not won this battle. With Mitch Brenner’s help, Melanie Daniels has escaped the glass cage of a telephone booth and made her way to the relative safety of the town’s central meeting place, a small café.
At first, the place appears empty; but, exploring further, Mitch and Melanie discover, cringing in a back hallway, a frightened group of townspeople and visitors. As Mitch leads Melanie into this refuge, a woman comes forward. We have met her earlier: a distressed mother whose concern for the safety of her two children has prompted her to demand that the café’s patrons not discuss the inexplicable violence of the birds within the range of juvenile ears. Her escape from Bodega Bay has been thwarted by the birds’ massive assault on the town, and the violent death of the traveling salesman who was to guide her to the freeway.
Gazing at Melanie with only slightly controlled hysteria, the woman says, with mounting shrillness: “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Robin Wood points out that these words, spoken as they are to the subjective camera, can constitute an indictment of the audience, whose bloodthirst encourages the brutality of the birds’ attacks. But of course the woman’s outburst is met with a firm defensive slap in the face, also delivered by the subjective camera, and the opposition, though not defeated, is neutralized.
Hitchcock and scenarist Evan Hunter may have included this little encounter in anticipation of the likelihood that many critics and viewers would embrace that simplistic suggestion, that Melanie, witch-like, had brought a curse with her to Bodega Bay. That specific notion is dispelled by radio announcements of bird attacks in other areas, and more finally by Melanie’s own victimization by the birds. But the overtone of witchcraft is not to be discarded entirely. We have already learned that the birds’ uprising coincides with the coming of the full moon, a revelation that evokes the darker traditions of folk myth.
And—all other considerations aside—the woman’s hysterical accusation is founded in fact: the bird attacks did start with Melanie’s arrival in the town, and this inevitably gives us a sense of the birds’ significance, even though the inculpation is misdirected.
Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.
But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.
The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.
Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.
In Notorious, love is a weapon more corrosive than a heaping pile of uranium ore. And it has a longer half-life. This Nazi spy story slowly reveals the bruised, battered, but still beating heart pumping beneath its surface. As it does, it emerges as the Hitchcock love story par excellence, a bewitched romance wrapped—like Alicia herself—in shimmering black velvet. If Hitchcock’s films are often accused of coldness, Notorious proves a useful corrective. In Hitchcock’s world, love burns.
But it isn’t love that dominates most of the picture. Sex—at its most venal and transactional—is the driving force that moves the film along. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia drowns her moral agony in equal parts cocktails and coitus, a tonic perfectly suited for the job her government offers. But it’s not the government that shows up at her home; Cary Grant’s smoothly handsome Devlin crashes her party. Alicia and Devlin’s initial encounter encapsulates their relationship in a single image. Devlin—an almost too perfect name—sits silently in the corner of the frame, back to the camera, shrouded entirely in shadow. Alicia’s drunken come-ons appear to do nothing; he remains an unmovable black monolith. But as the partygoers leave or pass out, the world closes in on Dev and Alicia. Hitchcock swooningly swings his camera around from behind Devlin’s head to frame both of them in the shot. It’s a brief gesture, but it hints at Devlin’s depths. He is already falling in love.
But Devlin has a job to do. Even Alicia’s tender embrace cannot break down his stoic resistance. Much has been made about the famous kissing scene, and Hitchcock’s clever circumvention of the censors. And yes, there is a playfulness to its kiss-dialogue-kiss structure. But that structure also has a thematic purpose. The scene, as Robin Wood notes, poses a “desperate sensuality, [which] betrays the underlying instability” of their relationship. Devlin continually pulls away from her; it is he who won’t utter the word love. He won’t—or can’t—give her the love they both want. And when duty calls, he runs to his boss and gives her up begrudgingly. Grant plays this scene out subtly, seething at his superiors beneath a cool surface. He leaves the room to sell Alicia’s body, but the brief shot of Devlin’s forgotten champagne bottle breaks your heart. It’s the cinema’s most succinct image of love abandoned.
No coincidence, then, that wine bottles come up again. Sebastian’s house is overrun with them—an image that becomes more profoundly sad when connected to Dev’s forgotten bottle. Years of heartbreak cellared away en masse. But these bottles aren’t filled with heartbreak, they’re stuffed with radioactive bomb material; it’s as disturbing an image of obsessed, curdled love as anything in Hitchcock’s filmography.
When Devlin returns to rescue Alicia from Sebastian’s jealous poisoning, finally revealing his love to her, she emerges like Sleeping Beauty from her slumber. Prince Charming has returned to claim his bride. But this is no fairytale ending. There is real pain in Sebastian’s loss. He has shown Alicia deep kindness and gained nothing in return. In love and in Hitchcock, obsession is a one-way street.
More than any other film—with the possible exception of Vertigo—Notorious most potently distills Hitchcock’s singular vision of love. But whereas Vertigo posits love as an ever-ascending staircase of obsession, Notorious inverses that image: love brings us back down to earth, away from notoriousness and Nazis, and envelops us in the warm pleasure of a lover finally returning our embrace. But Notorious’s final shot leaves Sebastian out in the cold. As he walks back up his own staircase towards certain death, we realize which weapon has truly killed him. Love burns, indeed.
Once upon a time an 11-year-old boy went to see the new Hitchcock movie.
He came home crying, and didn’t understand why.
Fifty-two years later, he thinks he knows.
Scotty Ferguson, recovering from the suicide of Madeline Elster, and from his guilt at having failed to prevent it, quite casually encounters on a San Francisco street Judy Barton, a young woman who, despite profound differences, reminds him eerily of Madeline.
Scotty can have Judy. She as much as tells him so: “To tell you the truth, I’ve been picked up before.” (Of course, we soon learn—though Scotty doesn’t—that she isn’t simply “easy”; she is actually Madeline, or the woman Scotty thinks of as Madeline, and she is still in love with Scotty, even as he is with her.)
So why does Scotty so desperately need to turn her (back) into Madeline before he can love her?
It is precisely because he can have Judy that he doesn’t want her. Among the many things Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is about is the fantasies of men (underwear fetishism; necrophilia and its more common image, the defenseless sleeping woman; the confusion of dream women with real women; the seduction of a younger woman; the seduction of a stranger; dressing-up games, and undressing ones; voyeurism; playing doctor-and-patient, which Hitchcock had earlier assayed in Spellbound). And what men want is what they cannot have.
â€œIt is time that we start. Will you be kind enough to follow me? What I‘m going to show you will be mainly the traditional things. Up here let me show you details in the production, which we‘re rather proud of showing. As you see, flowers are made petal by petal, and this is an art, which has been in our factory for almost two hundred years, and you will see that it takes two days to complete … As you see, the flowers are molded petal by petal and stamen by stamen; even in very small flowers you can find as many as ten to fifteen stamens. The figurines which you see being ornated with flowers were first made as a gift from Danish women to our late king. Please follow me farther up here â€¦”
The first words in Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-first feature are spoken by an unnamed guide in a Danish porcelain works. One tends not to take great notice of them while watching the film because there is so much else to see: a high Russian official, his wife and his daughter, defecting while on holiday in Copenhagen, have been pursued since the beginning of the movie several minutes earlier. Yet here they are in cold print, such a clear outline of the entire film to follow. As ever with Hitchcock, the more you look and listen, the more you discover.
The picture begins, of course, at the very beginning, with the credit sequence. It is unlikely that Hitchcock could have secured permission to take nice crisp 35mm Technicolor images of a Soviet May Day parade, but the way he employs grainy color newsreels makes them his own. Huge red banners display history’s demigods. Crowds â€” perceptibly composed of individuals â€” watch columns of marching troops, then cars and tanks visibly bearing more fighting men. The shots get closer. Finally there is just the machinery of war, looming nearer and larger, crowding human beings right off the screen. The sole remaining crowd shot is distant, indistinct, grainily frozen; a title tells us that somewhere in this mass is â€œa high Russian official who disagrees with his government’s policy of force and what it threatens.â€
[This was written on May 15, 2001, for the Northwest Film Forum newsletter.]
Michael Powell worked uncredited as a set designer and title writer on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 movie Blackmail.Which is neither here nor there, but does serve to mark the accidental convergence of England‘s two most exciting directorial talents.
I was dreaming about movies the other night (it happens), and imagining a symposium in which key films would be set forth as teaching examples for a combination film series and class.An early Powell film came to mind, a personal favorite, one whose images and moods often claim me in idle moments.My wife (several of us were planning this series) objected that, while the film is enchanting, it really wasn’t appropriate as a specimen from which to draw lessons.I immediately recognized that she was right.Laterâ€”awake now, lying in bedâ€”I recalled the dream and found myself musing on the idea of teaching from Powell’s films.And I realized that, apart from a course on Powell himselfâ€”or Powellâ€“Pressburger, to ring in his august writing partner and co-creator of such irreplaceable classics as I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes, Emeric Pressburgerâ€”Powell movies would be inapt choices for a course on classical film style.