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Montreal Gazette (03/May/1980) - Alfred Hitchcock was delightfully deadly deceptive



Alfred Hitchcock was delightfully deadly deceptive

He looked like a mobile pear, and had the voice of a frozen plum. In a sense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock was a physical symbol of the message contained in his best movies — appearances can be deceptive.

Delightfully, deadly deceptive.

When he died Tuesday at age 80, director Hitchcock had created 54 films. Some were clinkers, others were unforgettable masterpieces of soaring suspense. He was the most recognizable director in the western world and one of the very few whose names became synonymous with both a style and a standard of excellence.

Most often he is referred to as a master of terror, and in Psycho he created one of the screen's most horrifying sequences. When Anthony Perkins stalked and stabbed Janet Leigh in the shower, it created such an indelible impact that millions of viewers spent weeks fearful of approaching their own stalls.

Ironically, graphic terror was not really Hitchcock's metier. Gruesome gore is a blunt weapon, and Hitchcock at his best was much too skilled a plotter to settle normally for something so blatant.

His forte was suspense, and particularly suspense created through a growing sense of threat and helplessness - and made even more telling by being balanced against a wry sense of humor.

Pieces of cake

Hitchcock often gently belittled attempts to identify his films as more than skilled entertainment. "Many films are pieces of life, mine are pieces of cake." he remarked. Yet this son of a London poultry dealer was much more than just a cinematic baker.

In an alienated world where millions felt abandoned amid the faceless hordes and urban sprawl, where the interplay of technology and nature seemed to produce forces of outright hostility from the most innocuous sources. Alfred Hitchcock was the quintessential 20th-century man and director.

If viewers felt trapped and confined in an alien world. Hitchcock gave us Lifeboat, as a group of bickering shipwreck survivors drift across the Atlantic, squeezed into a single, small craft.

Do we suffer from the inability to communicate or explain themselves? He created I Confess, with Montgomery Clift as a priest falsely accused of murder yet unable to defend himself, because the actual murderer has revealed himself to Clift in the sanctity of the confessional.

If increasingly we are held hostage by shadowy enemies, Hitchcock knew how we felt. He gave us two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, as a child is kidnapped by terrorists to stop the parents from revealing the accidentally-discovered details of an assassination plot.

Beyond anything else, however, Hitchcock understood the terrifying magic of helplessness — the terror that comes from being unable to control. or even understand, what is happening around us.

Innocent bystanders

From Robert Donat in The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) through to the Cary Grant in the 1959 classic North by Northwest and after, Hitchcock gave us the innocent bystander who finds himself embroiled in murder and mayhem, and must flee for his own life.

An even more chilling variation was the 1954 masterpiece Rear Window, a near-perfect crystalization of an urban nightmare. Wheelchair bound Jimmy Stewart takes to watching his neighbors through his window to combat boredom, and comes to realize that the man across the way, Raymond Burr, has murdered his wife. The police don't take his suspicions seriously (a constant sub-theme of Hitchcock's work) while Burr discovers he has been found out — and begins to stalk the crippled witness.

Deft psychological plotting, of course, was not the only ingredient in Hitchcock's deadly delicacies. There was his ability to counterpoint the mundane and the murderous — his fine realization that murder becomes even more horrendous when it occurs silently in the middle of a laughing throng, that our very familiarity with everyday objects and locations, like a shower stall, leaves us with no defences when they become objects and settings of horror.

Hitchcock was also a fine craftsman and one of those rare directors who appreciated the essentially visual nature of cinema and had scorn for the dialogue-dependent films he described as "photographs of people talking" - although this helped feed his famed reputation for having a low view of actors.

"I never said actors are cattle," he liked to say. "I said they should be treated like cattle." Whatever the actual remark was. the feisty Carole Lombard got her own back during the 1941 screening of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, when Hitchcock arrived on the set to find she had arranged to have a corral ready stocked with three calves bearing star nameplates.

There was little spontaneity in a Hitchcock film. He preferred to sketch out every scene on paper — he started his career drawing advertising layouts, and himself drew the famous profile that marked his television series - right down to every movement of actor and camera. The actual filming bored him, while the performers found themselves expected simply to follow instructions, rather than delving into character analysis and motivation.

Although Hitchcock loved to display a macabre wit — which peaked in the TV series segment where a wife murders her husband with a frozen lamb chop, then destroys the evidence by serving the chop to the police — it was rarely found in dialogue. He believed cinema was dependent on image and action, and that sound was but a minor accessory.

Reports critic Charles Champlin: "Shooting the climatic scene of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock watched James Stewart race up the stairs of the Royal Albert Hall in London, spilling pages of exposition to Doris Day while the orchestra played nearer and nearer a cymbal crash that would cover the sound of an assassin's bullet.

"After a second take, Stewart recalled the other day, Hitchcock said: "Dear boy, you're talking so loud I can't hear the lovely music. This time don't say anything." The fact was that the audience didn't need to hear a word of the exposition, only to see that it was being said, and Hitch had realized it.'