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Edmonton Journal (15/Aug/1999) - Hitchcock: A Master of Contradictions



Hitchcock: A Master of Contradictions

Much has been said about Alfred Hitchcock, most eloquently by Hitchcock himself. "The whole art of the motion picture is a succession of composed images, rapidly going through a machine, creating ideas," he said in a 1966 interview.

And in that same conversation, "After all, the most enjoyable part of making a picture is in that little office, with the writer, when we are discussing the storylines and what we're going to put on the screen, searching for freshness and so forth, and also always that lovely moment when we say, 'Wouldn't it be fun to kill him this way?' "

And to Peter Bogdanovich, when he asked if Hitch ever thought of posterity, "What did posterity ever do for me?"

As we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Hitchcock's birth, Friday the 13th, posterity still owed him an effort. Hitchcock's life didn't just parallel the century of cinema; his artistry defined and refined the medium more than any other director's.

Master of Suspense, master showman, tireless innovator, pantheon auteur, world's drollest TV host -- the accolades have been many.

Early feminist (his scripts were vetted and worked out with his wife, Alma Reville, whose vital contributions he always acknowledged), twisted misogynist (what was he working out on all those cool blond actresses?), gracious collaborator, control freak, disdainful of actors, admittedly dependent on the best of them, manipulative mass-entertainer, critical darling -- the contradictions were even more numerous, and fascinating.

You could joke that Hitchcock contained everything the movies could and would become in one jumbo-sized frame and still be completely accurate.

Not only did he understand how film grammar spoke to an audience better than anyone else of his era (and, except perhaps for Steven Spielberg, anyone who's come along since), he made it speak his language, as formal and controlled as his trademark "Good eee- vening" greeting, and just as loaded with sardonic mirth and pregnant menace.

The style with which Hitchcock unnerved moviegoers for 50 years was the unexpectedly happy result of influences that are usually considered traumatic: Catholic guilt, rigorous Jesuit education, English repression, judiciously sadistic parenting.

Hitchcock downplayed, but never denied, the influence of that infamous formative moment when his father, a London grocer, sent five-year-old Alfred to the police station with a note requesting that the child be locked in a cell to teach him what happens to naughty boys. The thematic obsessions that ran rampant throughout his mature body of work -- mistaken identity, intimate betrayal, persecution of innocents, transferal of guilt -- suggest that he never got over it.

Those rich ideas and others like them were subsidiary to Hitchcock's grandest theme of all: that to be human is to be a voyeur, to desire a glimpse of the private, the dangerous, the exciting and the taboo. Which, of course, is what anybody who watches a movie does.

Hitchcock married the urge to look with a presentational genius and technical imagination (he originally was trained to be an electrical engineer) that led to constant advancement of the motion picture art form.

Here's a list of breakthroughs, terribly incomplete because, heck, who can count them all.

The Lodger (1926), Hitchcock's third feature, first thriller and initial box-office success, featured a shot of the title character, suspected of being Jack the Ripper, pacing above a see-through glass floor, chillingly evoking the downstairs neighbours' need to know what was up with this guy.

The 39 Steps (1935) represented the full flowering of everything we associate with Hitchcock -- all of the aforementioned themes plus breakneck (for then) chase action, seamless blending of comedy and suspense, perverse sexual implications (that reluctantly -- or are they? -- handcuffed couple), sophisticated sound-picture cutting and the introduction of the MacGuffin, the red-herring characters in the film care a lot about, but the audience doesn't too much.

The MacGuffin was sort of an inverse application of Hitchcock's first law of movie suspense: Show the audience a threat before the characters know about it. No more effective principle of film storytelling has ever been devised.

After coming to America in 1939 and fighting the interference of his U.S. sponsor, producer David O. Selznick, Hitchcock set about exploring the dramatic possibilities of his expansive new landscape.

Saboteur's (1942) famous Statue of Liberty climax showed how he could turn reassuring landmarks into stark, unfamiliar places of dread.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the first American masterpiece, with Joseph Cotten as the template for many aberrant killers to come, also exposed gleeful morbidity and unhealthy identification in wholesome, smalltown USA.

A series of experiments with the possibilities of limited space (Lifeboat), Dali-designed surrealism (Spellbound) and extended takes (Rope) occupied the restless formal pioneer through the latter half of the '40s, and not entirely successfully. Indeed, Hitchcock's most impressive technical coup in the immediate postwar films is Notorious' elaborate, space-contracting crane shot from a second floor landing down to a key clutched in Ingrid Bergman's hand.

Notorious' superb blend of narrative, character and cinematic virtues presaged the decade of masterworks that ran from 1951 to 1960. Limited space demands that we reductively describe Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest with the same single word: perfect.

We'll also note that the less-than-perfect Dial M for Murder (still the only 3-D feature that did anything with the process), The Trouble With Harry, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man had more great moviemaking spread among them than any given decade's worth of best picture Oscar winners.

And then there were The Three: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) showed us everything that movies were capable of and taught us everything they meant.

Hitchcock liked to call Rear Window -- a story about lenses and peeping and projecting and suddenly, horribly discovering that what's safely intriguing to watch from a distance is no such fun when it comes physically or emotionally close -- his most purely cinematic work.

Vertigo was the directors' story. In James Stewart's compulsive need to recreate the woman he lost in someone else, the filmmaker's drive to express something vital with the tools of illusions is distilled to its poignant essence. And when the manipulative creator discovers that even he's being had by a rich, unscrupulous employer, volumes more are implied about the artist's predicament in studio Hollywood.

By Psycho, Hitchcock had achieved such a command of both film language and pop movie conventions that he literally could rewrite all the rules in 109 minutes of screen time. Kill the star halfway through? Naked, in a shower? With a schizophrenic transvestite? Unheard of, yet Hitch knew instinctively how every untested, unexpected turn would affect the audience.

This, perhaps more than Vertigo, is Hitchcock's testament to what really drives the true filmmaker, the power to move viewers in ways only he knows how to.

And of course, directors have been abusing the lessons learned from Psycho ever since.

Much of this furious creative achievement was made while Hitchcock was also busy producing, sometimes directing and always amusingly hosting one of the best television anthologies ever broadcast. As great a ham as he was an artist -- or, more likely, well aware that in the growing culture of personality the movies initiated, celebrity enhanced his power -- Hitchcock became as familiar to the general public as "Hitchcockian" had become a common adjective for a certain style of filmmaking. Once again, no other movie director has been so well-recognized in either way.

There were two more influential advances in the '60s, the special- effects extravaganza The Birds, and Marnie, which opened up still deeper, more complex Freudian territory to American film. Torn Curtain (1966), the project most consider the beginning of the aging genius's final decline, shrewdly offers something of an auto-eulogy - - in moving pictures, of course.

When Paul Newman discovers that killing a Communist agent with a kitchen's available implements is no simple task, it's as if Hitchcock was telling us what he'd made look so slickly effortless for so long had gotten much more difficult.

As well as, of course, admitting that it was all a big, sardonic lie called the movies.

A lie that it was clearly the joy of his life to tell over and over, better and better, until it imparted profound truth. Throughout his prolific, accomplished and wildly popular career, Hitchcock shrugged off suggestions that he was a great artist. Indeed, when a frazzled Bergman came to him for moral support when she was having trouble with another director, she already knew what Hitch's unsatisfactory advice would be: Relax, Ingrid, it's only a movie.

Yet the man who could dismiss his life's work with such poker- faced aplomb wrote, in 1937, these very well-reasoned yet heartbreaking words: "Films suffer from their own power of appealing to millions. They could often be subtler than they are, but their own popularity won't let them."

Hitchcock's subtler creative notions were often frustrated by his own, nonpareil ability to master film's power and appeal to millions.

If posterity can do anything for Alfred Hitchcock, it might be to forget all the lesser labels and remember him purely as an artist.