Jump to: navigation, search

Daily News (03/Sep/1995) - Master of manipulation 'Hitchcock' tells of director's eye for perfection



Master of manipulation 'Hitchcock' tells of director's eye for perfection


Title: "Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews"

Author: Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

Data: 339 pages, University of California Press; $29.95

Our rating: Three Stars

In a 1959 article written for Norman Vincent Peale's inspirational magazine Guideposts, Alfred Hitchcock argued that God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, kept his human audience in the dark about the future: Like a good movie director, he appreciated the importance of suspense.

As for Hitchcock, the essays, interviews and speeches in this collection make clear that he enjoyed playing the role of God: In planning and executing his films, he relished the power he exerted as an all-powerful auteur.

He speaks, only half facetiously, of replacing fallible actors with machines, and revels in his abilities to manipulate his audiences, to "play them like an organ." He even talks, quite solemnly, of how he would orchestrate a young actor's career to produce another Garbo: "I should adopt the American plan of flinging them on to the screen as often as possible — at first — so that their names would become familiar to the public; and then gradually I would withdraw them from the screen, so that the better-known they were, the less they would be seen."

As assembled by Sidney Gottlieb, a professor of English at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Conn., "Hitchcock on Hitchcock" provides the reader with some telling self-portraits of the director.

Given Hitchcock's penchant for telling and retelling the same anecdotes year after year (much like a talk-show guest, perfecting his pitch on show after show), it's not surprising that many of these pieces pivot on the same examples, examples that will also be familiar to readers of Truffaut's famous book-length interview with the director ("Hitchcock"), which was published back in 1967.

Not only does this volume lack the continuity and sustained insight of Truffaut's compelling book, but it also suffers from curious gaps.

Gottlieb has drawn heavily from articles written during the 1930s (a period, it seems, when Hitchcock had the time and inclination both to conduct a lot of interviews and write about the technical aspects of his craft), and as a result, there is almost no discussion in these pages of such later masterworks as "Shadow of a Doubt," "Notorious" and "Strangers on a Train."

Still, almost every piece in "Hitchcock on Hitchcock" contains an interesting nugget of technical information, or one or two anecdotal truffles.

Hitchcock tells us that he wanted to include a scene in "North by Northwest" in which Cary Grant tries to hide from his pursuers on Mount Rushmore in one of President Lincoln's nostrils, but was dissuaded from doing so by the Parks Commission of the Department of Interior. He explicates his taste for "visual incongruity" by describing the scene, in "The Birds," where Tippi Hedren, dressed in a mink coat, gets into a motor boat carrying a birdcage.

And he discusses the dynamics of the "double chase" scene, by comparing it to a hunt, in which the audience is allowed to run with both the hare and the hounds.

Although Hitchcock does his best in these pages to purvey an image of himself as a dedicated craftsman blessed with a macabre but charming sense of humor, there is a more disturbing subtext to his reminiscences as well.

Indeed, the Hitchcock in this book has less in common with the "deeply vulnerable, sensitive and emotional man" described by Truffaut, than with the sadistic control freak depicted in Donald Spoto's 1983 biography "The Dark Side of Genius."

Hitchcock talks, almost gloatingly, of handcuffing the stars of "The 39 Steps" (Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat) together, then managing to lose the key; and he recounts, with equal relish, his decision to deliberately deprive "Madeleine Carroll of her dignity and glamour in 'The 39 Steps.' "

He did "exactly the same thing in 'Secret Agent,' " he adds: "In this last film, the first shot you see of her is with her face covered with cold cream!"

In fact, many of the articles and interviews in this volume confirm Hitchcock's alleged misogyny. He writes that "nothing gives me more pleasure than to knock the ladylikeness out of chorus girls," and speaks of wanting to "debunk" or "humanize" such actresses as Luise Rainer and Marlene Dietrich.

The "essential reason" he prefers "ladylike women," he says, is that "as a movie director I have found that an actress with the quality of elegance can easily go down the scale to portray less exalted roles."

Because Hitchcock's discussions of actors (whom he says should be treated like cattle) revolve almost exclusively around issues of power and submission, he tends to be more nuanced — and more interesting — when he is addressing technical matters that he, as a director, can completely control.

It quickly becomes clear to the reader that for all his talk about psychology and emotion, he is a formalist through and through. "I don't care what the film is about," he declares at one point. "I don't even know who was in that airplane attacking Cary Grant. I don't care. So long as that audience goes through that emotion!"

As in the Truffaut book, two central themes recur: the relationship between Hitchcock's early days in silent film and his love of a purely visual vocabulary; and his fascination with suspense as a narrative goal.

He writes how suspense can be orchestrated by letting the audience in on menaces waiting to ambush a movie's unsuspecting hero; how it must be sustained by changes of pace, tone and mood; and how it can be enhanced, rather than undermined, by the use of comedy and humor.

Even a movie's title, Hitchcock points out, can add to its suspense: In the case of "Mutiny on the Bounty," he argues, its title tells audience members that there is going to be a mutiny, and "much of their excitement is in waiting" for the mutiny to begin; "think what they would have missed," he observes, "if the film had been called 'Boys of the Bounty,' or 'Rovers of the South Seas.' "

"I am out to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups," the director declares in one essay that pretty much sums up his views on the role movies play in people's lives.

"Civilization has become so screening and sheltering that we cannot experience sufficient thrills at first hand. Therefore, to prevent our becoming sluggish and jellified, we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this."

This statement was made in 1936, and given the violent events that had already begun to transpire in Europe and subsequent historical developments, the reader can only wonder how Hitchcock would later explain the lure and function of movies in our lives.