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Boston Globe (05/Jan/1984) - Hitchcock's cynical slices of cake



Hitchcock's cynical slices of cake

"Some films are slices of life," Alfred Hitchcock once said. "Mine are slices of cake." The remark, delivered with such deadpan self-deprecation that it couldn't possibly be taken seriously, was characteristically Hitchcockian. It also doesn't begin to account for the hooks that Hitchcock's films sink into us.

Hitchcock was the movies' master craftsman of suspense. One reason is that his films are captivatingly many-layered. They turn us into psychological accomplices.

Both "Rear Window" and "Vertigo," two of his best, rub our faces amusingly in the fact that film is a voyeuristic activity. The two films, only recently back in circulation, also make vividly immediate some fears that Hitchcock himself felt keenly. For example, in his personal life Hitchcock was intensely cautious, almost phobic. So, in "Rear Window" Jimmy Stewart, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, is helplessly immobile when the murderer from across the way stalks him. And in "Vertigo" Stewart finds himself afraid of heights just as he begins to be yanked out of his deterministic world into a dizzying and disconcerting passion.

Although "Rear Window" was the vintage film hit of 1983 and "Vertigo" is well on its way to repeating the honors for 1984, you can't really speak of a Hitchcock revival, for the fact is that Hitchcock's films never have been in eclipse.

Only legal reasons have kept "Vertigo," "Rear Window," "The Trouble with Harry" and the remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" out of circulation for so long. Back in 1953, Hitchcock wanted all rights of his forthcoming films to revert back to him. His agents at the time, Lew Wasserman and Jules Stein, then set up a deal with Paramount wherein Hitchcock got back "Rear Window," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Trouble with Harry," "Vertigo" and "Psycho." Eventually, Hitchcock sold the rights to "Psycho" to Universal for a block of stock that made him the studio's third largest stockholder. The first and second largest were Wasserman and Stein.

After Hitchcock died in 1980, Universal bought the distribution rights to "Rear Window," "Vertigo," "The Trouble with Harry" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Company officials declined to disclose the price paid to the Hitchcock estate, but industry insiders peg it at about $6 million. It's this package, plus a fifth Hitchcock film whose rights he owned, the 1948 "Rope," that's responsible for the latest flurry of Hitchcockian excitement.

"Vertigo" recently opened at the Brattle Theater and at one of the Nickelodeon theaters. "Rear Window" is also staying on at the Nickelodeon, has been booked into the Newton Academy Cinema, and may go into wider release.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" is expected here in March.

"The Trouble with Harry" is penciled in for a post-Oscars release. This film marked Shirley MacLaine's film debut, and whether she wins an Oscar or not for "Terms of Endearment," her name will be heavily bandied about. The last to be released this spring will be "Rope," Hitchcock's first Technicolor film, and the least well-known of the five.

The most immediately apparent common denominator of all but "The Trouble with Harry" is Jimmy Stewart, whose stammering manner and gawky carriage fail to hide an iron determination. He's the man who doesn't give up, although his motives aren't always simple. Sometimes they're questionable. In the 1958 "Vertigo," for instance, the Kim Novak with whom he falls in disturbing, obsessional love is a fantasy figure. When he gets the chance to love the real Novak character, he doesn't want her.

He rather brutally insists that she dress up as the fantasy character she was impersonating when he first met her. He wants his idealized projection of her. In effect, Novak becomes the personification of the moviegoing experience, an occasion for fantasy projections!

Novak's bitterness at the male refusal to accept her for herself is more than understandable. Unlike Barbara Bel Geddes, the sane, attainable woman Stewart isn't interested in, she doesn't "put her face on" with equanimity. When she dies, Stewart may be cured of his vertigo, but the shatteringly inescapable conclusion is that he's left desolate.

Even this casual glance at the subterranean currents in "Vertigo" makes it clear that the film is no mere mechanical toy. And the 1954 "Rear Window," despite the appearance of a happy ending, sets itself up as a battle of the sexes, with news photographer Stewart and fashion maven Grace Kelly each convinced the other will change once they marry. The psychic energies in each film are still considerable. Stewart's fascination with Kelly in the film was surpassed by Hitchcock's ongoing fascination with cool, blonde and distant ladies. Where resolution is achieved in a Hitchcock film, it's on stylistic, not psychic, grounds.

Hitchcockian artifice is not only patent, but reveled in throughout "Rear Window," and not only in the carefully made-up faces of the principals. There's never any question that the building across the way from Stewart, with a drama in every apartment, is artificial, a stage setting. But the artifice somehow adds to the fun, as do the now slightly off-register colors. Sometimes they're more vivid than life. Sometimes they seem washed out. Sometimes the flesh tones have been muddied by time, especially in the case of "Rope."

It's idle to pretend that "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Trouble with Harry" or "Rope" is the equal of "Rear Window" or "Vertigo." Yet each has its fascinations.

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" is Hitchcock's 1956 remake of his black-and-white original, made in England in 1934. The first version was a taut 84 minutes. The later version stretched out for 120 minutes. The difference in running time implies a loss in swiftness and wit, and to be sure, the original is better, largely because it has the better villain in the young Peter Lorre. When Lorre kidnaps a British couple's young daughter to insure their silence about an assassination plot, and says,"She's one of the sweetest girls I ever met," the sinister innuendo is chilling.

The original was set was St. Moritz while the 1956 remake opens in Morocco. And where Edna Best was a champion rifle woman in the original, Doris Day, her 1956 counterpart, is cast as a former pop singer, which leaves Stewart, the husband, in an unflattering light. The implication is that marriage put a stop to her singing. Yet while Stewart contributes indignation, Day contributes the song, "Que Sera Sera," which won an Oscar that year.

Ultimately, one suspects that Hitchcock's chief reason for the remake was that it gave him the excuse to go back and do the famous Albert Hall scene on location. This is the scene where the assassin is scheduled to shoot his victim during a cymbal crash at a concert, but the scream by the mother of the kidnaped boy prevents it. The first time around, Hitchcock had to settle for filming the scene in a studio at Lime Grove.

In the original, too, the many unexpected intrusions of death occur more crisply and joltingly. This was, of course, a constant in Hitchcock's cinematic universe: the idea that there were no islands of safety, that complacency was a cruel joke one played on oneself.

Death's rude intrusiveness is in fact the theme of the 1955 "The Trouble with Harry," in which a corpse with big feet (Harry) won't stay buried. The film was not a big commercial success. Audiences didn't share Hitchcock's love of understatement, which pervades the film.

The gradually increasing complicity of the principals, each of whom thinks he or she did Harry in, is slyly funny — it, too, is emblematic of the audience's steadily increasing complicity. Its portraits are mischievously cynical; MacLaine is the widow who thinks she killed Harry by braining him with a bottle. Of it, Hitchcock himself said: "It was shot in autumn for the contrapuntal use of beauty against the sordidness and muddiness of death."

"Rope," based on Patrick Hamilton's play, which in turn was based on the Leopold-Loeb homosexual thrill killing, turns the claustrophobic atmosphere of the single-set stage play to its advantage, most notably when John Dall and Farley Granger invite the victim's friends, parents and fiancee to dine in a room whose decor includes a chest containing the corpse.

By filming in carefully joined 10-minute takes, Hitchcock creates the illusion of a flow so seamless that it eventually begins to feel creepy. And Jimmy Stewart, as the professor the two murdering students want to impress with their decadence, isn't entirely blameless, even though he's the one who unmasks the killers. They were motivated in part by the consequences of some ideas they heard from him. Ultimately, he's more arrogant than they, and his moral abdication is profoundly disturbing.

In other words, if Hitchcock were the pastry chef he insisted he was, you never quite know what you're going to bite into when you taste his confections.

His films are sly and tricky, even when it comes to spotting his cameo appearances in them. For the record, he briefly appears at the mantelpiece in the composer's apartment in "Rear Window," crossing a street in "Vertigo," in the Morocco marketplace in "The Man Who Knew Too Much," walking past John Forsythe's outdoor exhibit of abstract paintings in "The Trouble with Harry," and crossing the street after the credits for "Rope."