Alfred Hitchcock: from silent film director to inventor of modern horror
Friday 15 June 2012
Cary Grant runs through a desolate cornfield, pursued by a crop duster overhead. Ingrid Bergman risks her life to go into a wine cellar, looking for a secret. Eva Marie Saint clambers over the faces of the American presidents at Mount Rushmore. Tippi Hedren is pecked at by mysteriously aggressive gulls. James Stewart watches helplessly from a window as Grace Kelly creeps into a murderer's apartment. Kim Novak drives through San Francisco in a trance-like state wearing a grey suit. Janet Leigh takes a shower at the Bates Motel and never comes out.
These movie images could only belong to one director: Alfred Hitchcock, who from the end of June until October is being celebrated in a definitive season at the British Film Institute in London. What is most striking is that all these scenes are wordless. The new BFI retrospective, The Genius of Hitchcock, is a chance to see how his phenomenal instinct for generating moving photographs that etch themselves on the brain and under the skin went back to his roots in the silent era. Alongside his better-known later work, from both Britain and Hollywood, the season features gala screenings of Hitchcock's nine silent features of the 1920s, which, thanks to valiant fundraising from the BFI, have been fully restored. The pleasures of silent Hitchcock cannot compare with those of the polished all-American studio pictures of the 1940s and 1950s.
Nevertheless, it is startling to observe that his sensibility and knack for unsettling imagery were already formed. Take The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), about a landlady who suspects that her "queer" lodger is actually a homicidal maniac who targets blondes. With its mix of the domestic and the macabre, we are not too far from Strangers on a Train 24 years later. "Be careful – I'll get you yet!" the putative murderer smilingly warns the landlady's blonde daughter as they play a flirtatious game of chess. Hitchcock's final silent movie, Blackmail (1929), contains a murder with a hand thrashing out of a curtain, foreshadowing the shower scene in Psycho.
This retrospective is a reminder of how prodigious Hitchcock's body of work was. This greengrocer's son from Leytonstone in east London (born in August 1899) had the energy of Dickens and the facility of Picasso, able not merely to adapt his style to changing artistic values but to shape the entire culture of popular film. In Rear Window, he played with the idea that we are all voyeurs at the cinema. With Psycho, he invented modern horror. He was the master of the overhead shot (to signal menace, isolation or omniscience) and the MacGuffin (a plot device that motivates the characters without needing to make any objective sense). His influence is still everywhere. The character of Betty Draper in Mad Men – overgroomed blonde hair, mental fragility, love of horseriding and tailored dresses – is surely a copy of Tippi Hedren's kleptomaniac in Marnie. And would the final section of last year's Oscar-winning The Artist have felt anything like as powerful if it hadn't borrowed large chunks of soundtrack from Vertigo?
There's an endearing photo of the director from 1966, in his trademark black suit next to a tower of all his films. He stands on tiptoe to place the latest addition on the top: Torn Curtain. This was a rare disappointment, a cold war thriller starring Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. But taken as a whole, it is astonishing how many outright masterpieces he created, films you can watch repeatedly, sometimes noticing a new angle, sometimes just thrilling all over again to the same brilliantly framed moments of danger, humour or fear. My top 10 would be Notorious, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, The Birds, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second colour version, not the first, though that is memorable too for Peter Lorre's glowering villain). But 10 is nothing like enough. I haven't mentioned To Catch a Thief from 1955. Ostensibly, this is a piece of fluff about cat burglary set in the French Riviera, but it is crammed with moments that are resonant, suspenseful or just plain fun, such as a cigarette being extinguished in a fried egg, Grace Kelly wearing the most ridiculous – yet stunning – gold frock, and one of Hitchcock's most delicious cameos, on a bus, giving Cary Grant a look of plump consternation.
Hitchcock's personal favourite of his movies – a surprising choice – was the relatively unknown Shadow of a Doubt (1943) starring Joseph Cotten as a serial strangler who comes to stay with his adoring older sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California. Bit by bit, the strangler's niece Charlie – who has always doted on her uncle – starts to suspect him. One of many visual cues is the moment when we see Cotten strangling a piece of toast at breakfast. As the tension builds to its climax, the film manifests what the critic Arthur Vesselo called Hitchcock's mastery of contrast, "balancing the normal against the abnormal, slowness against speed, sound against silence, humour against terror".
The cliché about Hitchcock is that the quality of the work was achieved through obsessive control freakery, but consider this: he never gave himself sole writing credit on any of his films. He was happy to work with a range of writers, including John Steinbeck (who wrote Lifeboat, a strange 1944 disaster movie featuring Tallulah Bankhead and a motley assortment of survivors, who end up being saved by the Nazi officer who torpedoed their ship), Thornton Wilder and John Michael Hayes, who wrote four scripts for Hitchcock, including the wonderfully witty Rear Window. Compare and contrast with Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane was directed by Orson Welles, was produced by Orson Welles, starred Orson Welles and was written by Orson Welles (albeit with the assistance of Herman J Mankiewicz). Having spent two formative years designing title-cards for a movie production company, Hitchcock always understood that film was a collaborative business. Vertigo is as much a showcase for Edith Head's costume designs and Bernard Herrmann's music as it is for Hitchcock's images.
His first and fondest collaborator was his wife Alma Reville, an editor and scriptwriter whom he met in 1921 when working for Famous Players-Lasky in London, on the set of a silent picture called The Prude's Fall. He delayed marrying her for five years, until he had three films under his belt, because – he later hinted – he needed this status to be sure of securing her. Alma's remained the one opinion he minded about most because – their daughter Pat said – "she was the one person who he relied on to tell him the truth". After watching the initial cut of Vertigo, Alma said it was terrific but he must ditch a shot of Kim Novak running across a square where her legs looked fat. "Well, I'm sorry you hate the film, Alma," Hitchcock responded. Sure enough, he cut the offending shot out, even though it caused continuity problems, because without the running, Novak seems to leap from one side of the square to the other. But to please Alma, he changed it. In 1979, when accepting a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, he begged permission to thank four people who had given him the most "constant collaboration". One was a film editor, the second a scriptwriter, the third the best cook he knew and the fourth the mother of his daughter, "and their names are Alma Reville".
The other enduring cliché about Hitchcock was that he was sadistic and controlling to his leading ladies. Donald Spoto's 1983 biography The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock depicted him as a creep with a mother fixation – a wannabe Norman Bates – whose films were autobiographical projections of his own sick erotic fantasies. For Spoto, he was a "macabre" artist whose unquenchable desire for perfect blondes led him to torture them both on screen and off. It is admittedly true that late in his career something went wrong in his relationship with Tippi Hedren, with whom he became fixated. She was a fashion model when he "discovered" her for The Birds, and he took it upon himself to mould her acting. "I controlled every movement on her face," he told a journalist. The relationship soured on the set of Marnie. Hitch made some kind of indecent proposal to her, as well as chiding her once too often. She then did "what no one is permitted to do. She referred to my weight."
With most of his actors, however, male or female, Hitchcock was remarkably hands-off. "One doesn't direct Cary Grant," he liked to say, "one just puts him in front of a camera." When it came to Grant's clothes, Hitchcock told him to "dress like Cary Grant". This did the trick. The pleasure of watching Cary Grant in a suit – he has a certain debonair way of putting a hand in one trouser pocket – is never greater than in his Hitchcock performances. The director had much the same confidence in James Stewart, mostly leaving him to do his own thing; and well he might, given that Stewart's presence in a Hitchcock film meant an extra million dollars at the box office compared with Grant (or so he told the actor James Mason).
Hitchcock also gave free rein to Doris Day, Stewart's co-star in the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, even though the role was a significant departure from her usual musical comedy. Day played Stewart's wife, a famous singer who is driven to hysteria when her only child is kidnapped on a trip to Morocco. After the location shoot was finished, Day was left feeling puzzled because "not once, in any situation, did A Hitchcock say a word to me that would have indicated that he was a director". When she eventually asked what was wrong, he replied: "But dear Doris, you've done nothing to elicit comment from me." Sure enough, her undirected performance is one of the best in any Hitchcock film, entirely convincing in its depiction of a controlled woman unravelling in grief.
If he did not allow the same latitude to Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (whom he needled into by far the best performance of her career as the nameless heroine) or Kim Novak in Vertigo, it was not because he was a sadist to women, but because it was what the part required. For Vertigo, the script stipulated that the lead character of Madeleine wore a grey suit; indeed it is integral to the plot. So it wasn't exactly helpful when Novak said she'd prefer to wear any colour "except grey". In forcing Novak to wear the grey suit – just as Scottie forces poor Judy to wear it – Hitchcock was only putting the work first.
Colour was not a trivial detail to Hitchcock: the shading of light and dark on a screen was the larger part of cinema. The critic David Thomson argues that an appreciation of Vertigo is a "test case" for whether you are "a creature of cinema"; if you find it implausible – "well, there are always novels". Hitchcock's movies always kept the strong visual sense of his earliest silent pictures. Patrick McGilligan, author of the finest Hitchcock biography (A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003) notes that the most "celebrated sequences" in his films "might as well be silent".
That is certainly true of the famous kiss in Notorious between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Bergman is Alicia, who agrees to go under cover in Rio de Janeiro, worming her way into the affections of a Nazi Claude Rains on behalf of intelligence officer Devlin (Grant). With its dream cast, it is the most romantic and – for my money – the most perfect Hitchcock film. The scenes in which Alicia is slowly poisoned by the Nazis are as tense as anything he ever did. The kiss between Alicia and Devlin – who spend most of the film proudly denying their love – was cooked up to circumvent the production code's ban on kisses longer than three seconds. Hitchcock asked Grant and Bergman to kiss for a couple of seconds, then disengage and nuzzle each other, then resume, as they talk in low voices about dinner plans. The embrace lasted a total of two and a half minutes, and Bergman said it made her and Grant feel "very awkward". But when you watch it now, the details behind its production fade away. It is so beautiful, you could just sink into it.
If Hitchcock's desires were creepy, it is a creepiness shared by millions of us. Hitchcock once remarked that the Notorious kiss gave the public "the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together". As usual, he was right. And though the stars were better and the budgets were bigger, the thrills such a kiss offered were not so very different from the dramatic pictures he and Alma dreamed up in their old silent days.
The Genius of Hitchcock at the BFI, Southbank, London SE1
28 June - 30 November 2012