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TIME (26/Mar/1984) - The master who knew too much




The master who knew too much

Five "new"Hitchcock films reaffirm his box-office magnetism

You can't keep a good man down. Like the corpse in The Trouble with Harry who just won't stay buried, Alfred Hitchcock keeps popping out of his grave to terrify and delight new audiences. The puckish shockmaster died in 1980, but his ghost is everywhere. In the bookstores: Donald Spoto's fulsome biography, The Dark Side of Genius, has racked up healthy sales as the latest of a dozen Hitchcock studies. In the news: a Hitchcock documentary on Nazi Germany's extermination of the Jews was aired last December on a national news program in Britain. In museums: Manhattan's Museum of Broadcasting is showing a two-month retrospective of the 18 films Hitchcock directed for TV. Even on the fashion pages: Couturier Paul Monroe has unveiled a new line of "Hitchcock dresses," including a Rope T shirt, with its coiling cord, and a Psycho frock that mimics a certain shower curtain in the Bates motel.

This would merely be the latest spasm of cannibal chic—the recycling of pop-culture artifacts that produces Top 40 homages to the Three Stooges and drag queens in Marilyn Monroe sequins—if it were not for a more significant revival. Five Hitchcock films are back where they belong, in the movie theaters, after 20 years in distribution limbo. Constituting the best and the least of Hitchcock's work during his most productive decade (1948-58), the "forbidden five" are once again demonstrating their director's box-office magnetism. Rear Window (1954), the first of the quintet to be rereleased, has earned $6.8 million in just five months, and Vertigo (1958) has taken in more than $3 million since the end of December. The Trouble with Harry (1955) has just opened to good business, and similar grosses are expected for Rope (1948) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

For older moviegoers, the reappearance of these films offers a chance to fit half-forgotten pleasures (the flashbulb climax of Rear Window, the clashing of cymbals in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the belltower climb in Vertigo) into familiar patterns. But a gratifyingly large part of the audience consists of young people who may know Hitchcock only as the little fat figure with the funereal air who hosted a TV show back in the black-and-white '50s. Until now, their image of the man and his work was that of a brand name without a product. "Hitchcock" might suggest a certain kind of movie—suspenseful, shocking, grimly humorous—but one that was known secondhand, through the imitations of Brian De Palma, François Truffaut, Stanley Donen, John Carpenter, the James Bond series and a hundred gory slasher movies (the deformed children of Psycho). Now young viewers can enjoy the original Hitchcocks, all of which play variations on a favorite theme: the need for a guilty person to be discovered as the perpetrator of his real or imagined crime.

There are thrills, wit, cinematic legerdemain here. But anyone who expects to find a string of masterpieces will be disappointed. The Trouble with Harry is a desultory exercise in macabre whimsy and naturalistic acting at its most mannered. The Man Who Knew Too Much, a remake (of Hitchcock's 1934 British thriller) that is 45 minutes longer than the original, languishes in travelogue for its first half, then indulges in frissons that for this director are routine. The technical bravado of Rope (the entire 80-min. film comprises just twelve shots, as opposed to several hundred for the average feature) does not quite justify the homoerotic hamminess of John Dall and Farley Granger as the two college psychopaths. That leaves Rear Window, a delicious entertainment mixing romance, voyeurism, homicide and humor with the purring sensuousness and perfect waxed beauty of the young Grace Kelly, and Vertigo, a gorgeously illustrated text-book of Hitchcock's themes that meets just about every criterion for movie greatness.

It can be risky for a viewer to sweep too many thematic generalizations into this dusty pile of celluloid. Indeed, a cynic would declare that the only thing this quintet has in common is Hitchcock's greed. The film maker always had an acute eye for commerce. He worked in an economically reliable genre with the industry's biggest stars. He would agree to dump a longtime collaborator like Composer Bernard Herrmann (who worked on eight Hitchcock films from 1955 to 1964) if the studio applied pressure. And when asked why he withheld these five films from theaters and TV, he replied, "We wanted more money." It was only after his death that his estate struck a deal with Universal Classics to release them to film fans and scholars.

There is no contradiction between Hitchcock' canny conservatism and his directorial eminence profit and honor went hand in glove. Even his brief cameo appearances (silhouetted in the neon skyline of Rope, for example) are a playful cue to the viewer to watch every frame for tricks and revelations. The qualities that made him the world's best-known moviemaker were precisely the ones that made him one of the best film artists.

Working within the narrow format of the suspense picture, he could experiment with technical effects and psychological extremes. Knowing that his audience was with him, he could take them to disturbing new places. Arguing that "it's only a movie," he could fulfill his ambition to create "pure cinema": the manipulation of universal emotions by camera placement, shot duration, the dramatic use of color, sound and editing. As two future film makers, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, wrote of the director in 1957, "In Hitchcock's work, form does not embellish content, it creates it." Hitchcock, less interested in universal theories than in the international box office, put his artistic aims more matter of factly: "The Japanese audience should scream at the same time as the Indian audience."

In the five re-released films, screams are at a minimum. Most of the mayhem—the stabbing in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the strangling in Vertigo, the dismembering in Rear Window, the death in The Trouble with Harry—takes place offscreen. Only the gruesome garroting in Rope is shown to the viewer, and that at the film's beginning. But if the viewer's desire for crime is not satisfied, the character's compulsion for punishment is. In Rope, two bright young men kill a classmate, hide his body in a living-room chest, then throw a party as a way of daring or pleading to be found out. In The Trouble with Harry a corpse, lying in supine complacence on a New England hillside, is discovered by four different people, all convinced they are either murderers or accessories. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, a bickering pair of tourists (James Stewart and Doris Day) allow their son to wander off into a kidnaper's clutches, as a dying man's guilty secret sticks to Stewart like the swarthy makeup that comes off in his hands.

Where there is an exhibitionist there must also be a voyeur; in Hitchcock's world they make a perfect sadomasochistic pair. In Rear Window it is a salesman-killer (Raymond Burr) and a photographer with a broken leg (Stewart) who lives across the courtyard. This roving lensman may be immobile for the moment, but he knows how to extract meaning from pictures—and there is something wrong with this one. He turns amateur detective and puts his "leg man" (Kelly) at risk digging holes in a mysterious garden, clambering into second-story windows, even confronting Mr. Bad. Early in the film, the exhibitionist is discovered; at the end, Stewart the voyeur is. And every Peeping Tom in the audience must feel a naked identification with a hero who is terrified and unable to flee

Vertigo takes this Hitchcockian transference of guilt—from criminal to innocent onlooker to movie watcher—one disturbing step further. Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) is another immobilized hero; the former detective's fear of heights had resulted in the death of a policeman. Now an old college chum has put Scottie on the trail of his disturbed wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who believes herself possessed by the spirit of her suicidal great-great-grandmother. Scottie follows Madeleine up and down the hills of San Francisco, a vertiginous setting where even the streets have lost their balance. At first he is the detective tracking his suspect; then he is an infatuated schoolboy duped by glamour; he could also be the moviegoer transfixed by the light on the screen, or a director turning an actress into a fantasy figure or a psychoanalyst falling in love with his patient—falling, always falling, into and out of a dream that keeps slipping beyond his reach. Then, abruptly, Madeleine dies, and Scottie finds himself still in love, in a necrophilic passion for what was or may never have been.

Hitchcock is in brilliant form here: building his seductive, nightmare logic; choreographing a wordless nine-minute sequence as Scottie develops the first stirrings of obsession; pointing Stewart's farm-boy common sense inexorably toward sexual neurosis, and fashioning Novak's street-girl sexuality into a dream girl swathed in soft light. In a way, Vertigo is also Hitchcock's sidewise confession of cinematic fetishism. Since the early 1930s he had cast as his heroines blond actresses with a cool, taunting magnetism: the aristocrat as slut. Grace Kelly was his ideal ice queen, but she fled from the movies to Monaco. And so, in her image he created a new goddess out of Novak's malleable clay. Today, a quarter-century after making Vertigo and four years after his death, the master manipulator steps from behind his camera to incriminate himself in the glorious guilt of the movies. He is not smiling.