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The Globe and Mail (01/May/1980) - Master of meaning and magic



Master of meaning and magic

"Crocodile tears over the alleged decline of Alfred Hitchcock have for years been a favorite cocktatil among those who take moving pictures seriously. That has always seemed to me an impatient and cheap attitude to take toward any kind of change, or disturbance, in the work of a good artist." So wrote James Agee in The Nation, Jan. 22, 1944. Hitchcock had already been making movies for almost 20 years and he would continue to make them until 1976, when his last film, Family Plot, was released. Continually over the course of that astounding career the impatient and the cheap (and, sadly and eventually, the realistic) would shed tears over the alleged decline of Alfred Hitchcock, the most famous director in the history of movies. Agee himself would wonder, in 1945, if Hitchcock "has at last become so engrossed in the solution of pure problems of technique that he has lost some of his sensitiveness toward the purely human aspects of what he is doing." He wanted Nabokov to do a screenplay Hitch, as he was known to his friends, claimed always that his movies existed on the level of pure entertainment. Others claimed otherwise. Had Hitchcock been a pure entertainer - the Cecil B. DeMille of mystery - there would have been few tears over his decline, alleged or real. But Hitchcock was taken seriously by the serious because Hitchcock, deny it as he might, was serious: a serious filmmaker, a serious social observer, a serious psychologist.

"Not by chance," Alfred Appel Jr. writes in Nabokov's Dark Cinema, "did Hitchcock, one-time employer of Thorn-ton Wilder and Raymond Chandler, telephone (Vladimir) Nabokov from London during the winter of 1970 ... 'Yes, of course I know who you are, and I admire your work,' Nabokov told Hitchcock, whose modest introduction was predicated on the assumption that a 'highbrow' artist would be ignorant of his existence. Hitchcock wanted Nabokov to do an original screenplay ... 'Actually, I've seen very little of Hitchcock,' says Nabokov, 'but I admire his craftsmanship. I fondly recall at least one film of his, about someone named Harry' (The Trouble With Harry, 1955). Why did Hitchcock think to ask him for a scenario, 10 years after Nabokov's sole screen credit for (Stanley) Kubrick? 'Oh, his humour noir is akin to my humour noir, if that's what it should be called,' answered Nabokov. 'Perhaps there are other reasons too.' " What a collaboration that could have been! Nabokov was forced to turn the offer down - he was committed to the writing of Transparent Things - but the fact that Hitchcock made the call illustrates his deep, if disguised, devotion to art. How many "entertainers" would approach the difficult author of Pale Fire and Lolita for an original screenplay? An early Hitchcock silent movie, The Lodger, concerns a family afraid it is harboring a modern Jack the Ripper. His first talkie (and the first British feature with synchronous sound) came in 1929: the subjects of Blackmail are attempted rape, murder and police corruption. Already, the Hitchcock philosophy is fully formed, the technical experimentation in full flower. The former must be attributed with nearly as much credit for his success as the latter: the technical mastery of the medium, most clearly apparent in the famous Psycho shower sequence, cannot fully explain the ambivalent bond audiences felt toward the world Hitchcock re-created for their thrilled delectation in movie after movie.

It was a world in which ordinary people could at any moment find themselves tossed free of the comforting (but constricting) rules of society; it was a world in which order was boring, in which the breakdown of order was terrifying (but exciting). It was a damned if you do and damned if you don't world, and it evocatively caught the repressed fears and frustrations of the average North American moviegoer. At his best, Hitchcock could be compared favorably with Kafka. "I'm full of fears and do my best to avoid complications," Hitchcock once said. "I get a feeling of inner peace from a well-organized desk." From this well-ordered man, famous for completing movies in his cranium before exposing a foot of celluloid, came supremely well-ordered visions of chaos: nature run rampant in The Birds, filial obligations perverted in Strangers on a Train and Psycho, the justice system twisted in The Wrong Man. His meticulousness, he was ready to admit, was a defence: "The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them." Psychologists examining Hitchcock's oeuvre deemed him an obsessive-compulsive.

Psychology was in its infancy when Hitchcock was an infant; they grew up together. In Spellbound, the director made an obvious (and ineffective) use of Freudianism, in a dream sequence designed by Dali. Agee declared it "just so much of the Id as could be safely displayed in a Bergdorf Goodman window." Harvey Greenberg, a psychiatrist, has put the case succinctly in The Movies on Your Mind: "Hitchcock's strong attraction toward Freudian psychoanalysis has always been curiously diffident, even slapdash, in its undisguised manifestations. He is least satisfying a Freudian when trying hardest to be one, and does his best when Freudian themes are woven unobtrusively into the films."

Marnie, Torn Curtain were self-plagiarisms

That which Agee feared in 1945 came to pass in the sixties. Hitchcock ushered in the decade with Psycho, but the films to come were, in one way or another, disappointments. The Birds contained some of the most dazzling editing and camerawork of Hitchock's career, and some of the most regrettable acting. Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz were creaky self-plagiarisms (each with great moments: a thief was stealing from a virtuoso). Frenzy, the acclaimed comeback film made in England, was technically flawless, but dated in its psychology - a return to form, but not to substance. Family Plot, the final film, was a jokey, sweetly inept comedy-thriller: a Disney movie, almost.

Relishing always the sobriquet "Master of Suspense," Hitchcock referred to it in the introductions to his television shows and affixed it to his mystery magazine and its anthology offspring. It was a designation simultaneously egocentric and retiring - an expert, but "only" of suspense. Misleading. For Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian DePalma and the hundreds of other directors he influenced, for the critics who found meaning and magic in his work, and for the millions of moviegoers to whom he brought delight through fright, the nickname was unwieldy, narrow and imprecise. The one word - "Master" - would have said it all.