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North by Northwest

Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[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.

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Oscars oversights

Everybody gets to gripe about the Academy Awards. Sometimes it’s a matter of “How could you nominate that mess for anything but oblivion?” Sometimes it’s disbelief at a great performance or great camerawork being passed over to reward something not-necessarily-bad but not nearly as good. Then there are the compensation awards — giving somebody an Oscar for second-tier work because their first-rate achievements have somehow never won in the past. (Certainly not meaning you, Martin Scorsese!)

Those are all fun conversations to have, but in this case we want to call attention to something different — some amazing, mostly appalling oversights. There’s a surprising abundance of great and/or universally admired and/or culturally indispensable and/or dearly beloved films that were ignored by Oscar the year they came out. In some cases, totally ignored: not even a nomination, let alone a statuette.

Fortunately, most of our candidates have been, or will be, redeemed in the fullness of time — in many instances outlasting and outshining the pictures that beat them in their day. Better yet, all of them are available for us to resee and reevaluate. Pass the popcorn.

‘The Searchers’ win an Oscar? That’ll be the day.

The Searchers (1956)

What movie most influenced the “American renaissance” filmmakers of the ’70s? If you answered The Searchers, take a cigar, pilgrim. This towering Western, acclaimed as the supreme example of its genre, the masterwork of director John Ford, featuring the best performance ever given by John Wayne, and firmly ensconced as one of the Ten Best Films of All Time in international polls devoted to such things, has left its DNA in dozens of later movies, from Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Each year, new audiences discover its visual grandeur, shattering power, and the enigma of its monstrous hero Ethan Edwards: long before it became fashionable to take a “revisionist” view of frontier life, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian wars, Ford and Wayne had wrestled with the demonic side of Western myth and achieved a deeper, more disturbing complexity than anyone would afterward.

And yet in 1956 The Searchers came and went as just another, perhaps slightly above-average Western. The film, director Ford, John Wayne, supporting actor Ward Bond, the never-more-vivid Technicolor and VistaVision cinematography by Winton C. Hoch — none received an Oscar; none was even nominated. Probably they didn’t expect to be, given the way both the industry and the culture regarded Westerns then. As Ethan Edwards would say, “That’ll be the day!”

And the 1956 Oscar went to … “Around the World in Eighty Days”

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