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Calgary Herald (29/Apr/1990) - Hitchcock




Alfred Hitchcock's end came April 29, 1980 when the London-born director died in Beverly Hills shortly before his 81st birthday. Intimates who knew of his fear of the dark were not surprised that he waited until morning, 9:17 a.m. to be exact, to make his exit.

Though Hitchcock died 10 years ago, the critical controversy about him is still very much alive.

Was he a minor English artist who became a major American entertainer, as the more persuasive evaluations have it? Or was Hitchcock a masterful storyteller who happened to have toiled in a suspense genre considered trivial?

Was he a visionary blessed with unusual psychological insight or a manipulator who cursed his audience by implicating it in crimes of strangulation and slashing?

Hitchcock is guilty of all charges. But these indictments serve to obscure rather than illuminate his extraordinary output.

The British Hitchcock encompasses 1927 to 1939, when he worked in England, making 23 films, most of them comic thrillers, in a mere 12 years. The American Hitchcock spans 1940 to 1976, during which he made 30 features and 20 TV episodes, the majority of them slick mysteries drenched in blood and irony.

In Hitchcock's case, geography was not destiny. Throughout his career, wherever he was working, his films are characterized by unusual thematic and visual consistency.

This primary theme is as marked in the 13 (he would have liked the number) most famous Hitchcock movies as they are in the director's under-known works. The best-known Hitchcocks are The Lodger, Blackmail, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.

Alas, Hitchcock's best movie, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is not among his best-known, but should be for the way it crystallizes the Hitchcockeyed weaving of innocence and guilt.

During the 1950s French critics Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol observed that in all of Hitchcock's films they discerned the recurring theme of transference of guilt, the curious affinity between heroes and villains. Hitchcock expressed this cinematically, implicating you, innocent viewer, by filming from the killer's vantage point.

As English film historian Raymond Durgnat noted, perhaps because Rohmer and Chabrol shared Hitchcock's Roman Catholicism, they were sensitive to the director's notion of original sin, that the apparently innocent are also guilty.

In Hitchcock films, as Durgnat astutely observed, the villains embody temptations to which, on some secret or unconscious level, the heroes have yielded and for which they must be punished or from which they must be purified. Thus Hitchcock films are suspenseful parables of sin, expiation and redemption.

What attempt at moral cleansing is more potent than the sight of embezzler Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960), having decided to give the money back, stepping into her "purifying" — and deadly — shower?

Shadow of a Doubt is more resonant than Hitchcock's later, slicker efforts because it doesn't trade in absolutes, but rather confronts ambiguities.

In Shadow, a frustrated small-town California girl, Charlie welcomes her big-city uncle and namesake into the household in hopes that he will bring some color to drab Santa Rosa. Suave Uncle Charlie is as worldly as his family in Santa Rosa is provincial. He covets the good life; they covet a good name.

Of course, Uncle Charlie is not who he pretends to be. In order to prevent him from killing, his niece may have to kill her namesake — becoming, like him, a killer. Which Charlie is the hypocrite? Which the hero?

The answer to the former is "both." To the latter, "neither." The film is a gripping story of the dangers of moral relativism, of sins that cannot be expiated. It's the first Hitchcock film in which he denies his audience the cleansing catharsis of his heroine's redemption. For Hitchcock, the loss of innocence — sexual or moral — necessarily required the assumption of guilt.

Spoto quotes G.K. Chesterton's observation of Robert Louis Stevenson and applies it to Hitchcock: "It can be said of him that he knew the worst too young; not necessarily in his own act or by his own fault, but by the nature of a system which saw no difference between the worst and the moderately bad."

This could be Hitchcock's epitaph. Wherever his soul rests, it is probably not at peace.