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The Story of Alfred H 

1: The Director Who Knew Too Much

 Alfred Hitchcock would have celebrated his 100th birthday last year, but for a director whose movies were so often concerned with death, and whose last film bore the title Family Plot, it seems more fitting to me to commemorate the anniversary of his departure from this world, which occurred on the 29th of April, 1980. Viewed from a present day point of view, probably the most amazing thing about Hitchcock is the way his reputation has continued to steadily rise since that time, although he was clearly headed for cinematic canonization in the last years of his life--perhaps the only kind that would have really excited him, in spite of his Roman Catholic upbringing. In the 1940's and 1950's, the director was mainly regarded as a kind of gifted prestidigitator of the screen by most critics, while in the 1960's he became one of the main bones of contention in the paper wars between auteurists and their antagonists that raged in those years. But today I do not think that many serious film scholars would doubt that Hitchcock, far from being only a brilliant entertainer--not that he wasn't that too--was one of the major artists in the history of the cinema, worthy of a place along side D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, Friedrich Murnau, Carl Dreyer, and Sergei Eisenstein. Probably more books have been published on Hitchcock's work than that of any other director, and it seems to me unlikely that he will be subjected to a revisionist interpretation that might topple him from that position in the near future. Nevertheless, such a profusion of critical literature is no guarantee of a corresponding degree of critical insight, and the following article is intended both as a homage and an attempt to raise some questions about the significance of his career.

Few directors in the history of the cinema have created such a totally coherent imaginative world as did Alfred Hitchcock. Yet this world does not seek to rival the quotidian one, as often happened in the films of Josef von Sternberg or Fritz Lang, the first director offering the viewer a paradise of art and the second a severely purified formal construction. Hitchcock's films do not constitute an "anti-world," but one disturbingly parallel to our own. This world sends back a reflection sometimes uncanny in its mirror-like accuracy, yet unlike the work of Jean Renoir or Roberto Rossellini, that of Hitchcock does not aim at producing an effect of total immersion in the life around it that makes the spectator gasp with astonishment. In the most remarkable films of his American period, in pictures such as Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds, Hitchcock pushed a certain kind of verisimilitude--achieved with all the resources of highly skilled studio film production--to the limit not for the sake of realism but in order to mock our naive expectations. In his hands, the more "real" the image on the screen became, the less it resembled what the audience wanted to see there. A famous example of this method occurs in Strangers on a Train, in a shot in which the viewer sees the villain, Bruno (Robert Walker) standing on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial from the viewpoint of a taxi carrying the duplicitous Guy (Farley Granger) and his fiancee (Ruth Roman). Critics have rightly commented on the symbolic value of this shot which in the words of Donald Spoto, presents "Walker...as a malignant stain on the purity of the white-marble Jefferson Memorial, as a blot on the order of things." Unfortunately, in his haste to impose a moral content on the material, Spoto overlooks its more subtle effect: by placing a psychopathic killer in front of a famous public monument, Hitchcock accentuates the façade nature of the building. Even more than a "malignant stain," Bruno functions as a catalyst who precipitates out all the violence latent in "the order of things" itself. His very existence calls into question the stability of a system of values, not merely the values of American society, but those of Western civilization as a whole--represented by the classical marmoreal edifice--by suggesting what darker, less praiseworthy forces that façade both masks and thrives upon.

According to famous dictum enunciated by Claude Chabrol and Erich Rohmer in their groundbreaking monograph on the director, Catholic doctrine played a dominant role in the creation of Hitchcock's imaginative world. I do not wish to challenge their thesis at this moment, but I would like to set it momentarily aside. Simply on the face of it, taking a survey of his total production, it would seem less accurate to describe that world as Catholic--or even Christian--than as Hobbesian. In Hitchcock's fictional world, human life is the bellum omnium contra omnes, and nearly instantaneous regression to the state of nature always lurks in the background of the most apparently tranquil, orderly setting. The Hitchcockian villain is not a Dostoevskyian sinner who breaks the law in order to demonstrate the goodness and righteousness of God, but a cunning predator intent upon capturing its prey at whatever cost. In the closest he ever came to inserting a "message" into one of his films, in the scene in Shadow of a Doubt in which Charlie (Teresa Wright) confronts her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) with his past as the "Merry Widow" killer, the latter angrily counters, "How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you'd find swine?" The opening sequence of Psycho, which starts with a series of neutral establishing shots of downtown Phoenix before moving into a cheap hotel room in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) have just previously consummated a midday scene of passion on the sly, could serve as a paradigm for all of Hitchcock's films. But this confrontation between the façade and what it masks only works where there is a real tension between the two, where the initial "effect of reality" is credible enough to provide a contrast.

Yet some people seem to never get the point. In an unbelievably obtuse article by James Wolcott entitled "Death and the Master" that appeared last year in Vanity Fair, the author informed his readers that "Hitchcock's work was always glitchy." Among other evidence, he cites the opinion of Camille Paglia who "considered the New England accent of the shopkeeper in The Birds…'a major gaffe.'" In a film whose basic premise is the highly improbable event of birds eliminating the human species, this seems to me to be a rather niggling criticism. Why not complain that it's possible to hear traces of an Australian accent in Rod Taylor's voice or that the actress (Ethel Griffies) who plays Mrs. Bundy sounds suspiciously English? The town is supposed to be a microcosm of American society in a rural town such as Hitchcock had experienced it when he kept a residence in Scotts Valley, outside of Santa Cruz. This twisted line of reasoning leads up to the rather startling declaration that "Hitchcock's greatness is as a pictorial showman…not as a conscientious realist." Hitchcock certainly did have great gifts as a creator of images, but I have some difficulty in seeing the point of the comparison. Does it matter at all whether or not he was "a conscientious realist"? Hitchcock's few ventures into realism belong to his earlier career, in films like The Ring or The Manxman, or in adaptations of stage plays such as Juno and the Paycock or The Skin Game, but these are only small deviations in a trajectory that goes from The Lodger down to Psycho. Even in a quite realistic film such as The Wrong Man, based upon a true story, the location photography of New York--surprisingly similar to that of contemporary productions like On the Waterfront or Sweet Smell of Success--mainly provides a derisive contrast to the waking nightmare Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is living through. What makes The Birds so much more effective than most recent end-of-the-world movies is how carefully Hitchcock establishes the setting before unleashing his avian apocalypse.

Continue to Part 2: Hitchcock's Family Plot

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