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Boston Globe (04/May/1980) - High on Hitch



High on Hitch

The genius of Alfred Hitchcock, who died this week at 80, lay in his uncanny ability to exploit the tension we all feel between order and anarchy.

Of his films it can be truly said that we descend into nightmare. Things always seem to be getting out of hand. We begin with the vulnerable person. It could be a flashy blonde who works in a tacky loan office and who is carrying on a sleazy affair with some guy in a hotel room in the middle of the day ("Psycho"). It could be a decent fellow falsely accused of a serious crime ("The Wrong Man"). It could be a kleptomaniac ("Marnie"). It could be anyone, male or female, rich or poor.

Let's say we're confined to a wheelchair with a bum leg and for idle amusement we look out our apartment window all day ("Rear Window"). We happen to see a murder. Fortunately for us, the murderer doesn't know we saw it. But then we see the murderer find out that there was a witness - and that we are the witness. He's got to come and get us. And so here we are, alone, trapped in our wheelchair, sitting in the gathering gloom of our apartment, waiting while someone is trying to turn the doorknob...

With "Psycho" (1960), Hitchcock achieved the apotheosis of suspense in the American cinema. He did it by breaking every rule in the book. First to go was the rule that the star (Janet Leigh) isn't killed, certainly never in the first third of the picture. When I talked with Hitchcock in Boston after "Psycho" came out, he was still chortling over the apoplexy of the Paramount executives who were convinced that the film could go nowhere but down after such a climactic beginning. They were wrong, as they so often are. What that murder did was to shock you into an awareness of how anarchic the rest of the film could be. Hitchcock loved nothing better than getting your attention, "concentrating the mind" as Dr. Johnson put it. And once getting your attention, he was determined to hold it.

By l960, the British-born Hitchcock was assured enough and powerful enough here in his adopted country to break the rules. His reputation rested on a decade of profitable, witty and suspenseful Hollywood films. I'm partial to the American-ness of "Psycho." I think it's Hitchcock's most inspired film. But there's a Hitchcock for every taste. Some like the way Hitchcock became inspired despite the inferior scripts of such films as "Notorious," "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest." This Hitchcock knew that his virtuosity would have to carry him over the rough patches in the plotting. We remember the films not for their stories but for the resonance of individual images: A woman trying to conceal a tell-tale key in a hand her husband wishes to kiss; a man with a terror of heights being forced to clamber over fire-escapes and rooftops; a man standing in a cornfield and coming to the uneasy conclusion that the pilot of the crop-dusting airplane overhead may want to kill him.

Hitchcock could infuse the most innocent scene with menace. That was his strength. The conception of "The Birds" is instructive in this regard. Hitchcock was sitting in a garden on a sunny afternoon when he saw a myna bird alight on the branch of a tree. Suppose, he thought, you filled that tree with so many birds that you couldn't see the sun through it...