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Boston Globe (02/Jul/1999) - Documentary kicks off Hitchcock centennial



Documentary kicks off Hitchcock centennial

Ego clashes and power plays are synonymous with Hollywood. But their role in the dynamic of filmmaking there is surprisingly underexplored. "Hitchcock, Selznick & the End of Hollywood," Michael Epstein's documentary, is a heads-up piece of programming by the Brattle Theatre to kick off its Hitchcock centennial that runs today through next month (Hitchcock was born Aug. 13, 1899). It focuses on the contentious contractual relationship between the producer and director, after Selznick, peaking with "Gone With the Wind," brought Hitchcock to the United States in 1939.

Hitchcock, well schooled in German Expressionist cinema from his apprentice days in Berlin, was already a star director in his native England. Not enough of one, though. Filmmaking was not highly regarded there. But, as Selznick's assistant, Marcella Rabwin, recalls: "Hitchcock expected royal treatment, and he didn't get it." What he got was a stream of interfering memos from Selznick. After aborting for budgetary reasons what was to have been their first collaboration -- "Titanic," no less -- they played out an ongoing clash-of-titans script instead.

Revealingly, the film makes the point that Selznick, although brutal and demanding to work for, wasn't always wrong. He rejected totally the first draft of Hitchcock's adaptation of "Rebecca" on the grounds that it was crude and lurid and untrue to Daphne du Maurier's novel. He claimed that by highlighting its gothic elements, Hitchcock missed the love story that would entice women in the audience to identify with Joan Fontaine's insecure new wife trying to make a go of her marriage to a nobleman in the gloomy Victorian pile dominated by the memory of his dead first wife.

By the end of the film, however, Hitchcock had become the subtle one. When Selznick insisted that the film end with the letter R formed by smoke when the mansion burns at the end, Hitchcock came up with a better idea. In the film, an embroidered letter R is glimpsed on a pillow consumed by the climactic blaze. While Hitchcock never won an Oscar, Selznick got his second-consecutive best-picture Oscar after winning the year before for "Gone With the Wind." What the megalomaniacal Selznick couldn't have foreseen was that his brilliant career as a producer and boss of his own studio was about to end after his contract with Hitchcock ran its course.

They made three more films. Two were as successful as "Rebecca." "Spellbound" (at the Brattle with "Notorious" July 16 and 17), starring Gregory Peck as a man haunted by guilt, and Ingrid Bergman as his therapist, was inspired by Selznick's own reinvigoration after undergoing treatment with a woman therapist. The battle here stemmed from Selznick's tendency to make the film didactic, extolling therapy to the point of hiring his former therapist to supervise the script and check it for realism (it was important to Selznick that the film be accepted by the psychiatric community). This resulted in Hitchcock's most famous quote. When the psychiatrist pointed out that a script detail deviated from psychiatric practice, Hitchcock, avoiding a defense of artistic license, replied: "It's only a movie."

Hitchcock's fight here involved playing down wordy explanations and substituting for them the effective dream sequences he hired fashionable surrealist painter Salvador Dali to create. Mixing the rational and the irrational always was one of Hitchcock's talents. Luckily for the film, the lectures went and the surreal tableaux stayed. Hitchcock, by now becoming adept at Hollywood power games, got lucky with "Notorious," a film whose reputation began high and has since risen higher. More than in any other film, with the possible exception of "Vertigo," Hitchcock was able to incorporate into "Notorious" his own darkly labyrinthine and often cruel sexual agendas. Billed as a wartime espionage romance starring Bergman and Cary Grant, there's nothing romantic about it. The real espionage in it is sexual.

Hitchcock was able to avoid his usual control battles with Selznick during the "Notorious" filming because Selznick was preoccupied with "Duel in the Sun." Apart from proving to the world that he could top "Gone With the Wind," he wanted to crow about his own revitalized sex life with Jennifer Jones by enshrining her in that film as Hollywood's leading sex symbol. In neither respect did he succeed. As with "Rebecca," Selznick was appalled by Hitchcock's script for their last film, "The Paradine Case," a diffuse courtroom drama that deservedly flopped. Instead of making Hitchcock rewrite it, he made the mistake of trying to rewrite it himself, only to draw most of the critical drubbing the film took.

Although they stayed in touch, Selznick went into personal and professional decline as Hitchcock flourished with "Rear Window," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," and "Psycho." At a dinner honoring Hitchcock in 1965, Selznick rambled through a downbeat movies-are- dying speech. Selznick mistook the crumbling of his own career for the crumbling of Hollywood. He died of a heart attack three weeks later. Several of those present at the dinner couldn't resist remarking that the murderer played by Raymond Burr in "Rear Window," with his white wavy hair and imposing bulk, bore an uncanny resemblance to Selznick.