Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 13, 2003 1:31 pm 
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The Genius and Shortcomings of Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock was a funny man. I don't know if he was a nice one. But he said funny things and his observations were often acute. On why people were fond of his thrillers he said simply, "they like to put their toe in the cold water of fear." He reassured Anthony Perkins, "Don't worry, Tony, it's only a movie." He also said, "To me Psycho was a big comedy. Had to be." Despite the restraints of his times, his movies could be terrifying and even nasty, but there's always that element of play, either through jokes or through a sheer pleasure in the manipulation of the audience. His cameo appearances were a kind of game, as well as a gesture of "authorial intrusion" subtly calculated to make us aware that he was self conscious and separate from his work.

What he dubbed the "McGuffin" is another sign of Hitchcock's detachment: it's a motivating element for the characters, but a thing of no real importance to him: a conscious contrivance often used to fool the audience. "Psycho," though not a favorite of mine, admittedly has a brilliant "McGuffin:" the audience is completely distracted from what the movie is going to be about by the $40,000 theft at the outset. The fact is, you don't have to like a Hitchcock movie to recognize its cunning and clearheaded craftsmanship.

Hitchcock is a popular artist, but he is also a cold-blooded technician. His humor signals his detachment as a director -- a detachment also evident in his attitude toward actors, the famous, "I didn't say actors are cattle. What I said was, actors should be treated like cattle." These words would be sound very callous in the mouth of a stage director, but they realistically reflect the aggressive control a director can exercise in the more malleable medium of film, in which, as Hitch said, "The best way to do it is with scissors." A bad piece of acting can literally be cut out of the film. The shape of things on the screen is the final cut, and actors become to a greater extent only one of the tools in the game.

If I had to distinguish Hitchcock from most directors, especially modern ones, I'd say that they, in his terms, get too involved in their subjects. Hitchcock had fun with his, without taking them or himself too seriously. His job was to entertain and the essence of that entertainment was to get that toe into "the cold water of fear" and hold it there till he was ready to let it go. When we're talking about his technique we're not talking about a certain kind of shot or a style so much as in the way his movies are structured in time, paced to control the reactions of the audience.

Above all, famously, he was the master of suspense. This is nothing more than turning up the volume on that fear by manipulating time. Suspense is delay. The viewer knows what is coming, or thinks he does, but doesn't know when. Control is in the director's hands and he lets us know it. He knows when. We don't. He's not telling. "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." This is Hitchcock's fundamental principle. Through manipulating time, he manipulates our reactions.

Essentially this is done through montage, or editing --especially cross-cutting back and forth between two locations. The cops in one place are bearing down on the crook in another. The killer in one place is approaching his victim in another. There are two separate actions or scenes that are coming closer together, and Hitchcock can speed up that approach or slow it down however he wants. Editing/montage/cross cutting is the most fundamental cinematic element. In the Russian silents it's seen in the reaction shoot. Hitchcock got much more complicated, though his aims were always the simplest and that's why he succeeds so well -- though his methods may seem almost brutal at times.

When I was a kid, long before the term "auteur" was introduced, Hitchcock was the famous director whose name Americans knew and whose style they professed to admire. As movie lovers, my father and I wanted to see the latest Hitchcock film. To some extent we were often disappointed, especially because Hitch turned out some losers when I was growing up, but also because I had seen what we now know as "film noir" and films like the Carol Reed/Graham Greene" The Third Man" (1949) and René Clément's "Forbidden Games" (1952), which are more idea-driven, more subtle, and richer in atmosphere than Hitchcock even though they may owe him a debt. "No one admitted during the last half hour" and "Don't reveal the ending" seemed to me corny marketing tricks to drum up interest for "Psycho." The Hermann sound track made the shower scene seem utterly manipulative. Anthony Perkins was so over-the-top that as the movie wore on you couldn't find him believable for a minute; he is far more chilling elsewhere.

Nonetheless, you felt scared in spite of yourself: that is the essence of Hitchcock. I may have thought I had developed a more sophisticated taste in movies for directors with a less manipulative but more committed relationship to their audience and subject matter, but Hitchcock's masterful construction was still evident whenever he was in top form.

My favorites of that time are "Dial M for Murder" (basically just a play, but an elegant, fast-paced one), "Strangers on a Train" (my favorite of the period; later I became a Patricia Highsmith addict)," Rear Window" (though it's a bit tame, I loved James Stewart and the elegant milieu), "North by Northwest" (again elegant, as well as sexy and fast paced), "To Catch a Thief" (tame as a thriller, but Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and the French Riviera make it glamorous and charming to watch), and finally "Frenzy" (a stylistic shift toward naturalism and yet a return to Hitchcock's native England and to an old theme, the serial killer).

Hitchcock movies that didn't work for me from the same period are, despite the fame of some of them, "Vertigo" (I didn't get it), "The Birds" (preposterous, and with uninteresting actors), "Psycho" (high camp, nothing more), "Marnie" (a non-entity), "Torn Curtain" (creaky), "Topaz" (forgettable), and "Family Plot" (not my Hitchcock, though it may be some people's).

My Favorite early Hitchcock works are three famous ones, "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The 39 Steps," (whose spy theme anticipates "North by Northwest"), and the charming and very English "The Lady Vanishes."

In time Hitchcock came to satisfy me less and less. I can see why the French New Wave directors and "Cahiers du Cinema" writers loved him: they saw him (and Truffaut famously interviewed him) with the rose colored glasses of the French cinema buff which make Jerry Lewis a genius auteur. Alas, we do not love our own cinema as much as the French do (the best book on Buster Keaton is by a Frenchman). But for me Hitchcock came to seem too detached from what he was doing and from significant themes. Next to the humanistic concerns of Renoir and Kurosawa, Hitchcock's "pure cinema," as Truffaut called it, makes him appear too much the mere entertainer. If you want to understand how movies are made, though, and their nearly atavistic relationship to the audience, you have to go back to him and he is one of the wisest and clearest teachers.

On his tombstone Hitchcock intended to have, "This is what we do to bad little boys." It finally read, "I'm in on a plot."

Published on FilmWurld [now Filmleaf] June 13, 2003
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