Sunday 23 September 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - by Philip French

A single creative intelligence
Philip French
19 September 2012

BFI Southbank, until October 9

James Bell, editor
150pp. BFI. £12. 978 1 84457 534 3

Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague, editors
624pp. Wiley-Blackwell. £120.
978 1 4051 8538 7

There are only two directors in the history of cinema immediately recognizable to moviegoers the world over: Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. Both were Londoners, one working-class, the other lower-middle-class, born within ten years and ten miles of each other on either side of the Thames, and both found their greatest fame after moving to the United States. Back in 1952 when the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound published the first of its ten-yearly international polls of movie critics to determine the ten greatest pictures of all time, the then fifty-three-year-old Hitchcock’s name did not appear on the list; his best work was yet to come. The sixty-three-year-old Chaplin, whose career was virtually over, was represented by City Lights and The Gold Rush. But he only figured in the list once more (for Modern Times in 1992). Hitchcock finally made the grade in 1982, two years after his death, when Vertigo suddenly appeared in seventh place. This strange romantic thriller about a guilt-ridden detective’s obsession with a dead woman puzzled audiences by its seemingly clumsy structure; it had been a critical and box-office failure when initially released in 1958, and was out of distribution for years. But it now climbed rapidly, coming second in 2002 to Citizen Kane, the film that had held first place for forty years. Finally, Vertigo toppled Kane this summer by a clear margin in a poll that featured the choices of an unprecedented 850 critics.

This international accolade has been the most publicized event in a remarkable year for the man now more widely referred to as The Master than Henry James ever was. Currently a three-month season at BFI South Bank (the former National Film Theatre) is celebrating “The Genius of Hitchcock” with a complete retrospective season featuring restored versions of his silent pictures, lectures, discussions, and a handsomely designed book of essays by thirty-nine authors called 39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock, edited by James Bell. Arriving at the same time as Bell’s anthology is A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock, an American symposium four times as long as Bell’s book, the work of thirty-one authors, four of whom also contribute to the BFI anthology: the authorities on British cinema Charles Barr and Tom Ryall, and the Americans Sidney Gottlieb and Jack Sullivan, respectively the editor of Hitchcock on Hitchcock and the author of the excellent Hitchcock’s Music (2006).

As well as these books and the BFI season, there are several other current works in which Hitchcock figures revealingly. The first is a stage version of The 39 Steps that’s been running in the West End since 2006. It’s an affectionate spoof in which four actors play over a hundred characters, and the author, Patrick Barlow, has gone not to John Buchan’s original novel but to Hitchcock’s movie of 1935. In addition to using Bernard Herrmann’s music from Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, Barlow expects the audience to spot the allusions to other Hitchcock films and to recognize the director’s signature appearance in a sequence set in the Scottish Highlands.

Second, there is Fear in the Sun, the title itself a quotation from Hitchcock. It’s the latest in a series of period whodunits by Nicola Upson centring on the interwar writer Josephine Tey. In this one she meets with Alfred Hitchcock and his wife and collaborator Alma Reville in 1936 to discuss a screen version of her novel A Shilling for Candles, which became the film Young and Innocent. Upson presents a shrewd portrait of the couple at a crucial point in their lives, when Hitchcock was deeply discontented with filmmaking in Britain and preparing to move to the United States.

Finally, there are two films shortly to be released about the making of Hitchcock films. The first is The Girl, a television film in which Sienna Miller plays Tippi Hedren, the last significant Hitchcock blonde, who was famously abused and humiliated by the director on the set of The Birds in 1962. Two years later, when she rejected his sexual advances during the making of Marnie (a film in which a brutal business tycoon rapes his frigid wife during their honeymoon), Hitchcock sabotaged his own movie and threatened to ruin Hedren’s career. The other film, simply called Hitchcock, is about the Master’s most controversial movie, Psycho, and stars Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville. I will not easily forget that moment in a BBC Radio programme I produced in 1959 when Hitchcock was asked about his next film. “It’s called Psycho”, he said in that deep, flat, conspiratorial voice. “It’s my first horror film.” His tone indicated the sensational response he clearly anticipated.

The shaping of Hitchcock’s reputation has taken over eighty years, and numerous factors have contributed to the process: the revolutionary change in attitudes towards popular culture; critical infighting; the rise of television; the growth of film studies; technological developments in the way films are viewed; and perceptions of what is normative sexual behaviour when considering a filmmaker in whose work voyeurism, sadism and misogyny play significant roles. And of course Hitchcock himself, by his own statements and behaviour both contributed to and helped postpone his own elevation or, some might say, apotheosis.

By 1930, when he directed Blackmail, Britain’s first talking picture, the largely self-educated Hitchcock had an unequalled command of every aspect of his medium and was well informed on other branches of the arts. But paradoxically, he was thought both too easily swayed by intellectual commentators (John Grierson’s patronizing view) and too ready to consider the reactions of the man in the street and the mass audience (the opinion of many, including Arnold Bennett, who met him in 1929 over a project that never came to fruition).

Charles Barr claims that his silent films have a position of their own as examples of the heights that the medium could reach, but admits they would have gathered dust in the archives had he not gone on to make talkies. The films of the sound era build on themes, tropes and motifs he first explored in the 1920s, and almost every recurrent aspect of his work, including the fear of authority, the transference of guilt, the innocent man on the run, are to be found in The Lodger (1927), which he always described as “the first real Hitchcock film”.

In Cinema (1931), her survey of filmmaking, C. A. Lejeune called him a brilliant craftsman. But she thought his films lacked heart, “by which we mean, I take it, human understanding”, and considered him inferior to Anthony Asquith, his principal rival in Britain. In 1943, with a certain condescending affection, she called him “a very fat man who can tell a very good story”, and a few years later bracketed him with Orson Welles, Noël Coward and Preston Sturges, as one of the few directors behind whose work you find “a single creative intelligence”.

The 1930s saw a continuing rise of Hitchcock’s standing in the film industry. He became an endlessly quoted celebrity pontificating on his métier, gave up the idea of diversifying his work, and his own publicity machine crowned him as “the master of suspense”. This typecast him and began the process of turning him into a brand, and it invited his critics to regard him as simply a popular entertainer. The adjective “Hitchcockian” was coined to characterize his style and the set-piece highlights of his films. He posed for photographers, created a reputation for practical jokes, and was known to introduce himself to new female acquaintances by saying, “I don’t have a cock” (by which he meant, “call me Hitch”). In creating a public persona, this intensely private man became public property, and he was patronized and pigeonholed by middle-class critics and intellectuals who thought themselves his superior. One of his most relentless antagonists was his fellow Catholic artist, Graham Greene, despite or perhaps because of the fact that they had so much in common, both in the themes they pursued and their aim to unite art and entertainment. Greene, in his film criticism for the Spectator and elsewhere, never failed to denigrate Hitchcock, accusing him of lacking realism, settling for poorly developed scripts and general carelessness. In a letter to his brother Hugh in 1936, Greene mentions meeting Hitch to discuss a possible movie and calls him “a silly harmless clown”. Twenty years later he refused to sell Hitchcock the screen rights to Our Man in Havana.

In that letter to his brother, Greene said: “I shudder at the things he told me he was doing to Conrad’s Secret Agent”. To give Greene his due, he wrote a favourable review of Sabotage, the 1936 picture based on The Secret Agent. It was the only major work of fiction Hitchcock adapted, and he blamed himself for its box-office failure. He had offended popular expectations through the sudden violent death of a teenage innocent, though in fact he was only following Conrad. But he deliberately confirmed his reputation for an obsessive interest in homicide by analysing the murder of Sabotage’s central character in an essay on screen direction he wrote for Charles Davy’s Footnotes to the Film, an influential symposium from 1937. This was the first time something by Hitchcock appeared between hard covers (incidentally, alongside a piece by Greene), and that year Sabotage found two illustrious admirers outside the film business. In their travel book Letters From Iceland, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice celebrated him in “Their Last Will and Testament”, a witty poem offering gifts and brickbats to various friends, enemies and assorted British celebrities:

We hope one honest conviction may at last be found
For Alexander Korda and the Balcon Boys
And the Stavisky Scandal in pictures and sound
We leave to Alfred Hitchcock with sincerest praise
Of Sabotage.

The following year, the appearance of The Lady Vanishes brought him even higher praise from the New York Herald Tribune, whose film critic Howard K. Barnes wrote: “Even in so synthetic a medium as the screen, it is possible to recognize the work of a master craftsman. The Lady Vanishes is a product of individual imagination and artistry quite as much as a Cézanne canvas and a Stravinsky score”. Hitchcock was not to read such praise again in a major paper for thirty years, though it is now commonplace. In his introduction to39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock, James Bell remarks: “Like Shakespeare, Hitchcock was both a great artist and a proud populist – someone who broke new ground while bringing audiences with him on his explorations”.

Moving to America just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hitchcock embarked on the third stage in his career. He became a leading Hollywood director working with big budgets, lengthy shooting schedules and above all major stars, the most important being a succession of alluring blondes and two men, Cary Grant and James Stewart, who became respectively his ideal and realistic alter egos. Initially his subservience as an employee of Hollywood’s most powerful producer, David Selznick, rankled. But by the late 1940s he was his own master, and during the 50s he became extremely rich and what we now call a national treasure (an American one of course) as the pawky, avuncular, tongue-in-cheek presenter of macabre stories in his long-running television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

American critics accepted Hitchcock at his own evaluation as a popular entertainer fascinated by creating and solving technical problems. In Lifeboat, for instance, a dozen people are confined to a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic. Rope was filmed in what appears to be a single take. Rear Window is shot from the point of view of a man in a wheelchair observing his neighbours in a New York apartment block. When disappointed by the result, the critics complained about his self-imposed limitations and a certain lack of ambition.

In Britain, however, he became the victim of a long-standing disdain for, and condescension towards, Hollywood. and English critics found his American movies slow, heavy-handed and overblown when compared with the lighter, wittier, less pretentious British productions. In an article for Sequence in 1949, Lindsay Anderson found little to praise in the American films except “technical virtuosity” and thought that only Shadow of a Doubt recaptured his early realism. When the Sequence critics took over Sight & Sound in the early 1950s, this approach became the magazine’s standard policy.

In 1960, neither American nor British critics seemed ready for Psycho, a relatively low- budget film in which the sixty-year-old filmmaker set out to attract a younger audience with an innovative horror film that took the genre in new, more sophisticated directions. This landmark movie, its virtuoso shower sequence as influential as the Odessa Steps massacre in Battleship Potemkin, proved to be Hitchcock’s most popular. But it shocked older reviewers. Dwight Macdonald in Esquire called it “a reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly, sadistic little mind”. C. A. Lejeune was so appalled that she walked out of the cinema and at the end of the year retired after thirty-two years as the Observer’s film critic.

What ultimately changed things was the infighting within and between intellectually competitive French film magazines, which happened to coincide with the greatest, most complex and personal period in Hitchcock’s work, from Strangers on a Train in 1951 to The Birds in 1963. There is an excellent account of this period in post-war French culture by James M. Vest in A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock, and it culminated in a victory for the Cahiers du Cinéma writers. They saw him as a Catholic moralist working through the form of the melodrama and as the ultimate auteur, confirmation of their belief in the supremacy of cinema as the great art of the twentieth century. Their aim when they took their tape recorders to interview him was to lure the Master into agreeing with their high-flown ideas. His practice of politely deflecting or affecting to misunderstand questions of a personal and philosophical nature tended to disconcert them. Eventually, however, it would become the practice to follow D. H. Lawrence’s admonition: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it”. The outcome was the first serious book, Hitchcock by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer in 1956, and a decade later François Truffaut’s much publicized book-length interview.

Though initially mocked in the English-speaking world, the ideas of these French writers would be taken seriously when they themselves became internationally acclaimed directors. Indeed, Truffaut was far more respected than Hitchcock when his book eventually appeared in 1966 and was widely translated. But it was a British writer, Robin Wood, a leading contributor to Movie, the chief English language journal devoted to auteur criticism, who wrote the seminal book on Hitchcock. The highly polemical first number of Movie appeared in June 1962 and contained a histogram of British and American film directors, proclaiming only two of them to be great. They were Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, on whom Wood was to write pioneering studies, the first being Hitchcock’s Films, in 1965, and he is rightly celebrated as the founder of what is now rather grandly called “Hitchcock studies”. Indeed A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock is dedicated to him.

I wrote the first review of Wood’s book for the Observer, and it had taken some effort to persuade a sceptical literary editor to give prominence to a fiercely Leavisite 50p original paperback that began, “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?”. Wood went on to argue that he was one of the most accomplished artists of the twentieth century, and that Vertigo was “one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us”. Wood’s book was to elevate him from schoolteaching to the groves of academe, where he made a major contribution to the development of film studies on both sides of the Atlantic. After he came out, he was a major influence on gay and feminist readings of Hitchcock, of which there are extensive surveys in A Companion to Hitchcock: Florence Jacobowitz’s essay “Hitchcock and Feminist Criticism: From Rebecca to Marnie” and Alexander Doty’s “Queer Hitchcock”.

But the revolution was a slow, steady one. Shortly after reviewing Wood’s book, I was on the way home from Los Angeles, where a friend of mine had just finished a screenplay for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. Passing through New York with a desperate urge to share my enthusiasm for Hitchcock, I was having a drink with a senior editor at Time, and suggested that the forthcoming appearance of Hitchcock’s fiftieth film would be a perfect occasion for a Time cover story. He seemed only slightly more enthusiastic than the Observer editor had been about Wood’s book. A year passed, the film opened, and Hitchcock went to his grave without the recognition of a Time cover or an Oscar for best direction.

Since then there have been over eighty books on Hitchcock covering every aspect of his career and work, including Slavoj Zizek’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), 1992, an anthology largely written by critics from the former Yugoslavia, and the handsomely produced Alfred Hitchcock:The master of suspense (2006), a fetishistic pop-up book “paper engineered” by Kees Moerbeek, featuring seven films: Saboteur, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain and Frenzy. In Hitchcock, art and entertainment, the personal and the objective, the real and surreal, merge. His movies appeal to a new sensibility that rejects conventional categorization or values. In her South Bank lecture as part of the Hitchcock season, Camille Paglia spoke of the difficulty of engaging her students in the serious, European high-art cinema of the 1960s and 70s, which they find tedious. They have no problems, however, with Hitchcock, to whom they immediately warm, and one noticed a certain wistfulness in Paglia’s response to their rejection of the truly exacting films that had shaped her sensibility.

In his essay “Hitchcock’s America” in the Bell symposium, Kent Jones writes: “On a very basic level I don’t think there is any such thing as a bad, indifferent or expendable Hitchcock film . . . . I find that Hitchcock’s body of work has become richer and more complex with each passing year, swallowing whole every complaint, demurral and objection”. There is indeed something about Alfred Hitchcock that only a handful of other filmmakers have: he creates a fascination that makes one want to explore every aspect of his life and work, however seemingly insignificant, perverse or repellent. He imposes himself on us. In this sense he does resemble Shakespeare.