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New York Times (17/Jan/1988) - Review: Hitchcock and Selznick



Review: Hitchcock and Selznick

Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood. By Leonard J. Leff. Illustrated. 383 pp. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. $22.50.

Movies may be the most collaborative of the arts, but you'd never know it from the majority of those Hollywood legends that have found their way into print as sober film history. Whether the subject under scrutiny is a mogul like Irving Thalberg or a director like John Ford, the scenario is always the same - they did it their way, studio queen bees abetted, if occasionally stung, by swarms of dutiful drones.

Previous biographers of Leonard J. Leff's twin subjects in "Hitchcock and Selznick" have generally followed the same line. The uneasy partnership between Hollywood's most colorful independent producer and the screen's matchless creator of psychological melodrama lasted nearly a decade - from "Rebecca" (1940) through "The Paradine Case" (1947) - a crucial period in their careers. Yet earlier books on David O. Selznick have relegated Alfred Hitchcock to a supporting role as the eccentric thoroughbred in his stable of contract talent; Hitchcock hagiographers, including no less than François Truffaut, have cast the producer as nothing more than an intrusive egotist who presumed to mar Hitchcock's genius with his own grimy thumbprint. Mr. Leff focuses instead on this team's thorny symbiosis, and comes up with a conclusion as persuasive as it is heretical.

"Hitchcock and Selznick" is an absorbing dual portrait of professional equals whose clash of wills brought out the best in each of them even if the cost, in the end, proved more than either was willing to pay. Hitchcock brought a darker dimension to Selznick's taste for glossy romances and high-middlebrow literature, while Selznick taught Hitchcock how to weave his patented thrills into a more coherent narrative fabric. Mr. Leff further argues that the dissolution of their bond left both the poorer. That Selznick made few films of stature after Hitchcock's departure is beyond dispute. Yet the author likewise contends that once free of the Selznick yoke, for several years Hitchcock himself floundered before recovering his stride with "Rear Window" (1954) - a statement that will reek of lese-majeste to the director's diehard fans.

As Mr. Leff painstakingly documents, the Hitchcock-Selznick collaboration was forged from the parallel self-interest of two remarkably disparate temperaments, which was also what doomed any chance of longevity. In the late 30's, the director longed to escape the pinch-penny economics and antiquated technology of the British film industry, while the producer sought to keep his momentum going after the travails and triumph of his "Gone With the Wind," then before the cameras. Their only shared qualities were an unrestrained indulgence at table and a quest for superlatives in their work. Once their partnership began in earnest with "Rebecca" in 1940, Hitchcock and Selznick learned that they both got more than they had bargained for. Hitchcock reveled in the top-rank talent and production facilities at his disposal. Yet he chafed at Selznick's obsessive supervision of every phase of production, from the preparation of the script to final cut. Hitchcock's insistence on a measure of autonomy likewise rankled Selznick, who felt compliance and efficiency were a director's cardinal virtues.

As "Rebecca" was followed by "Spellbound" (1945) and "Notorious" (1946) - which Selznick packaged and sold to the RKO studios, where it was actually filmed -what Mr. Leff refers to as their "volatile chemistry" continued to simmer. Their increasing mistrust had as much to do with ego and lucre as it did with the clash in their working methods. Selznick feared that Hitchcock's flair for publicity threatened to steal his own thunder as the name above the title - even if it did increase the value of their pictures. At the same time, Hitchcock felt exploited by a contract that permitted Selznick to pocket most of the fee when he was loaned out to make such films as "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Lifeboat" for other studios. The rupture came at last after "The Paradine Case," an expensive calamity that brought out the esthetic worst in both of them.

Mr. Leff, who teaches film history at Oklahoma State University, ably exploits the resources of the Hitchcock and Selznick archives of documents. He has sifted painstakingly through studio memos, production schedules, script drafts and other minutiae, and traces this story with microscopic scrutiny. His understanding of the intricate ways Hollywood did business in its heyday is nearly impeccable, and his errors of fact (Ronald Colman was not a Selznick contract star) are rare. Yet what's most illuminating is his critical insight - particularly concerning the contribution Selznick made to Hitchcock's maturation as an artist, despite the director's fitful resistance. As he points out, Hitchcock's pre-Selznick pictures featured staccato rhythms - what Selznick referred to as his "goddam cuttiness" - meant to disorient the viewer, and an emphasis on symbolically fraught objects at the expense of characters, who became human puppets tangled in gimmicky plots.

Selznick sought instead to draw the audience in with seamless editing and emotionally nuanced characters; the sensuous "Notorious," reputedly the most "Hitchcockian" of Hitchcock movies, is largely a product of Selznick's insistence on more resonance and clarity from the gifted man behind the camera. From then on, Hitchcock's best work would meld his own matchless gamesmanship with these lessons learned from his exasperating boss. Despite the persistent legend that producers always stifled the talents of those artists in their employ, Hollywood's past is littered with examples to the contrary - Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Darryl F. Zanuck, Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed. "Hitchcock and Selznick" is a compelling chapter in that largely ignored story.