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TIME (12/May/1980) - Master of existential suspense





Master of existential suspense

There were, at the minimum, two Alfred Hitchcocks. The "master of suspense" was pleased to be generally understood simply as a creator of elegant entertainments that stylishly, wittily induced the only anxiety attacks that a citizen of the Age of Anxiety could actually anticipate with pleasure. This image the rotund, British-born director shaped and nurtured almost as fussily as he did his films. In interviews he invariably doled out the same handful of childhood anecdotes and adult insights into himself, all reinforcing the notion of a person trying gamely to joke away a set of obsessions so common that anyone could identify with them--fear of heights, of closed spaces, of open spaces and, above all, of false accusation and/ or arrest. Television, when he began appearing as host of a series of funny-scary stories that he supervised (but rarely directed), allowed him to burnish his public persona to a high gloss: the solemn-faced fat man with a stately pace and a sepulchral voice improbably making outrageous puns and ghoulish observations about the tales he told.

It was delicious, this role playing. Especially in its duplicity. For if TV reinforced both Hitchcock's wealth and his fame, making him the only director whose name above the title was more important than that of almost any star he could hire, it also did much more. The essentially false characterization of himself that he projected served to protect the privacy of a quiet, compulsively orderly man who was, in many of his attitudes, especially when he got to musing about sex, virtually an arrested adolescent. It also camouflaged facts that Hitchcock judged inimical to commercial success: that he took himself seriously as an artist, and that almost all of his work addressed itself, metaphorically, to the most sober existential questions. To use a cliche appropriate to a man of his girth, he was determined to eat his cake and have it too.

Mostly, he did, though the Motion Picture Academy, which likes to give its awards to people who trumpet the loftiness of their themes, contented itself with nominating Hitchcock five times as best director. The only Oscar he got was a career-end special. Even after his death last week at 80 in his Bel-Air home, there were implacably middlebrow critics insisting that Hitchcock never placed his impeccably subtle technique in the service of "serious" matters. As if his lifelong contemplation of the way disorder violently intrudes upon the blithe assumptions of ordinary men that the world is a logical place were not a serious theme (see Kafka). Or that his insistence on the omnipresence of evil, even in the most commonplace settings, did not square with the basic drift of thoughtful philosophers (see Hannah Arendt). Or that the decline of the traditional moral order, supported by society's most basic institutions, did not throw everyone--not just Hitchcock's heroes, who were so often forced to run both from cops and crooks--back on their own desperate resources (see Camus or, on any of these points, yesterday's headlines).

Hitchcock did not seem to care very much about these neglects and misunderstandings. He had plenty of prizes; Queen Elizabeth knighted him this year, even though he had moved to Hollywood when he was 40 and had long since become a U.S. citizen. Young European cineastes, such as French Director-Critics François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, began to write about Hitchcock's work with a seriousness that sometimes became unconsciously funny. But it was the beginning of a necessary re-evaluation.

"I'm not interested in content," Hitchcock said. "It's the same as a painter not worrying about the apples he's painting--whether they're sweet or sour. Who cares? It's his style, his manner of painting them--that's where the emotion comes from." Acting, he declaimed, did not really count in movies: it was photography, editing, "all the technical ingredients that [make] the audience scream."

Undeniably Hitchcock was the greatest handler of film who ever lived. He was not an innovator. Nothing he did called attention to his technique. But it was always there, if virtually invisible. His most famous scene, the shower-murder episode in Psycho, contains 78 separate shots in 45 seconds of screen time. Though a grisly homicide is portrayed, moviegoers never actually see the knife touch Janet Leigh's naked flesh; they just think they do.

Then there is Hitchcock's masterly alternation of objective and subjective points of view in almost every scene. The first is used to present the audience with a few scary facts that the protagonist does not know. Then Hitchcock cuts to the subjective, showing events from the protagonist's incomplete point of view. Thus insinuated into the hero's shoes--or sometimes the villain's--the director could induce agonies of suspense in the viewer.

Over time, the vision controlling Hitchcock's exercises in suspense darkened. The tongue-incheekiness of the lovely little English films (notably The 39 Steps in 1935 and The Lady Vanishes in 1938) gradually became more subdued, replaced first by the broody romanticism of movies such as Rebecca (1940) and Notorious (1946), then by the assured slickness of Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). It was in the middle of that last group that, in two superb, underrated films. The Wrong Man (1957) and Vertigo (1958), he directly, quite humorlessly, confronted his belief that injustice will be done and that nothing is what it seems to be. Psycho, in 1960, has no moral center at all, and The Birds (1963) shows the natural world itself in revolt against the laws that supposedly govern it. Even so, the public was pleased to take Hitchcock's word for what he was--a merry prankster--almost willfully ignoring the signs on film of his growing disillusionment with conventional morality and the possibilities for even just common decency in human nature.

How conscious all this was it is impossible to say. What is clear, looking back over the 53 films Hitchcock made, is that central to his accomplishment was his utterly unforgettable imagery. The boy unknowingly carrying a bomb on the bus in Sabotage; the chases that bring pursuer and pursued to final grips in such unlikely places as the British Museum (Blackmail), the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur), Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest) and on a runaway carrousel (Strangers on a Train). Recall the crows gathering menacingly in a playground behind the unseeing Tippi Hedren in The Birds, or Jimmy Stewart wrestling with his fear in a church steeple in order to rescue his lost love at the end of Vertigo. There is Cary Grant climbing the stairs to bring Joan Fontaine a glass of milk--or is it poison?--in Suspicion. There is sweet Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt musing about women in a small town kitchen as Hitchcock deftly used light and a simple camera move to bring out the evil implications of his seemingly innocent speech.

These enduring vignettes all reflect Hitchcock's central preoccupation: the intrusion of the anarchical, the evil, on great symbols of order (such as a society's revered monuments) or on the pleasantly quotidian (amusment park, playground, church, home). Born the son of a lower-middle-class London shopkeeper and reared as a Catholic, Hitchcock discovered early on that original sin was very likely an immutable concept, that bourgeois security was perhaps all too mutable. He never quite got over the shock. The convenient anecdotes he liked to relate--being locked in a jail cell for five minutes, so he would know what happened to bad little boys, his fear of canings at his Jesuit preparatory school--may not have shaped him totally. But surely he sensed, as he studied commercial art in his young manhood, that through art, it was possible to order things more agreeably than reality does.

This probably explains the routines he insisted upon in daily life (when traveling, he always stayed in the same rooms in the same hotels) and his methodical working style (he worked from outlines that would run to 100 pages and have every cut and angle planned). His subject might be the desperate improvisations of people whose world had collapsed, but there would be no improvisations on his sets. Surely the director's reverence for order explains the great sighing relief that attended the ending of every Hitchcock film. In his art, at least, he would resolve all ambiguity, banish the encircling darkness.

His idea of happiness, Hitchcock once said, was "a clear horizon, no clouds, no shadows. Nothing." Given a choice, it seems possible that he would have chosen to live in a blank world rather than a chance universe, where the evil and the unexpected--perhaps they were the same thing to him--could suddenly crowd in upon one, where everyone knew he was guilty of something, if not necessarily what he was being punished for. It is a measure of his achievement that he literally made light of these dark feelings, miraculously transforming them into deft and graceful popular art that permitted the world to laugh, however nervously, at the demons that pursue every feeling man and woman.

Richard Schickel