Jump to: navigation, search

Hitchcock Annual (2005) - Hitchcock on Griffith




Throughout his career Hitchcock was an avid film watcher, and on several levels his films bear the traces of his deep immersion in the ongoing history and development of filmmaking. His characteristic "touches" and innovations all have a lineage, sometimes complex and subtle, other times strikingly obvious and direct. His works regularly include visual homages, witty allusions and borrowings, and extended recapitulations and transformations of key films (Potemkin, Variety, and Diabolique, for example), as well as imaginative contests with important filmmakers (such as Lang and Antonioni), illustrating the extent to which he was focused on and energized by a creative engagement with film history. T.S. Eliot's notion of the fundamental link between tradition and the individual talent applies to Hitchcock just as surely as it does to Shakespeare, and to claim that Hitchcock's cinema is composite and backward — as well as forwardlooking, communal and dialogic rather than solitary, usefully reformulates rather than attacks and undermines his originality and greatness. And while Eliot and Shakespeare are useful touchstones in this regard, perhaps I should use cinematic rather than literary reference points: two of the most Hitchcockian modern filmmakers — Godard and Scorsese — are so not only because of their use of some of Hitchcock's distinctive and recognizable techniques, notions of vulnerable and volatile characters, and vision of the perils of modernity, but because of their shared passion for film history, embedding this history in their films in inventive and provocative ways. These three all know that even creatively original films are often made substantially out of other films, and that individuality is supported by a bedrock of other individuals one can stand on and push against. Each knows that a good way to history is through film history, and that one's own films to some extent have already been made by others.

But (strikingly unlike Godard and Scorsese) Hitchcock did not frequently praise other filmmakers, talk about cinematic influences, or specifically acknowledge predecessors (or contemporaries) that had an impact on him. Perhaps this is tied in with what some critics see as his general reticence to share credit and public attention with his cinematic competitors and even with his closest and most substantial and reliable co-workers, often causing rifts with such valuable but underappreciated contributors as Eliot Stannard, John Michael Hayes, and Bernard Herrmann...

[ to view the rest of the article, please try one of the links above ]

Sidney Gottlieb is Professor of Media Studies and Digital Culture at Sacred Heart University.


  1. I would also add Chaplin to this brief list. Hitchcock more than occasionally mentioned Chaplin, and the connection between the two is very intriguing. It would be well worth studying Hitchcock's appreciation of Chaplin's narrative economy, auteurial control, "presence," and individual style; the substantial influence on him of A Woman of Paris; and their shared dark sense of humor, Cockney attitudes (despite the attempt of each to be "cosmopolitan" and worldly, they never lost all traces of provinciality), and grim "take" on the world. Chaplin's influence on Hitchcock is not nearly as deep as Griffith's, but it is substantial and rarely discussed.
  2. Sidney Gottlieb, ed., Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995).
  3. I discuss Hitchcock's technical and stylistic, thematic, and conceptual debts to Griffith in detail in a companion piece to this present essay, titled "Hitchcock and Griffith."
  4. Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 556. As will be evident in what follows, I rely heavily on Schickel's remarkably well-documented and insightful study for information about Griffith.
  5. Schickel, D. W. Griffith, 556.
  6. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 149.
  7. From very early in his career Hitchcock was outspoken about the central importance of the director of a film. For example, at a meeting of the London Film Society in 1925, he argued for the starstatus and high visibility of the director: "We make a film succeed. The name of the director should be associated in the public's mind with a quality product. Actors come and actors go, but the name of the director should stay clearly in the mind of the audiences (quoted in Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius, 80). And in another early essay, "Films We Could Make" (1927), while making a case for what he called "One-Man Pictures," he suggested that films are the "babies" of a director "just as much as an author's novel is the offspring of his imagination. And that seems to make it all the more certain that when moving pictures are really artistic they will be created entirely by one man"; reprinted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 167.
  8. Schickel, D. W. Griffith, 552-56.
  9. This ad is reprinted in facsimile and discussed in David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, fourth edition (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2004), 63, and also nicely analyzed in Schickel, D. W. Griffith, 202-03.
  10. What he chooses to leave out is also interesting. This is a short essay and we should not expect Hitchcock to give a comprehensive account of Griffith and his influence, but it is at least worth noting some of the most striking and in some respects surprising omissions here. There are at least three characteristic elements of Griffith's films valued very highly by Hitchcock (as we know from other writings and interviews) not mentioned in this essay, even in passing: Hitchcock does not talk here about the chase, which in a much later interview he describes as "the core of the movie" (see his essay with that title, reprinted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 125-32); he doesn't mention suspense, a central part of Griffith's films, as he notes in his "Lecture at Columbia University" (1939), reprinted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 272, and of course a defining mark of his own films — although not so much the ones he had made by the time he wrote this essay; and he doesn't bring up montage (either in general as the linking of bits of film, or more specifically in terms of Griffith's signature mode of intercutting), which comes to be the key component in his definition of "pure cinema."
  11. See, for example, Sidney Gottlieb, "Early Hitchcock: The German Influence," Hitchcock Annual 8 (1999-2000): 100-30; Joseph Garncarz, "German Hitchcock," Hitchcock Annual 9 (2000-01): 73-99; Thomas Elsaesser, "Too Big and Too Close: Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang," Hitchcock Annual 12 (2003-04); and Hitchcock's own comments on the subject in an interview with Bob Thomas, "Alfred Hitchcock: The German Years" (1973), reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), 156-59.
  12. See, for example, Hitchcock's comments on being "deeply entrenched in American cinema" in François Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 124-25.
  13. Cited as the epigraph in Joseph McBride, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006), vi. As McBride notes, Godard made this statement in The Orson Welles Story, a 1982 BBC television documentary produced by Leslie Megahey and Alan Yentob.