The Independent (16/May/1999) - Hitchcock Centenary: There he is - but what was he playing at?
- article: Hitchcock Centenary: There he is - but what was he playing at?
- author(s): David Thomson
- newspaper: The Independent (16/May/1999)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Blackmail (1929), Cary Grant, François Truffaut, George Sanders, Grace Kelly, I Confess (1953), Jane Wyman, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Joseph Cotten, Lifeboat (1944), Martin Scorsese, Patricia Hitchcock, Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Rebecca (1940), San Francisco, California, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Birds (1963), The Paradine Case (1947), The Wrong Man (1956), Tippi Hedren, To Catch a Thief (1955)
Hitchcock Centenary: There he is - but what was he playing at?
Small things happened to him, or happened near him; well, perhaps only in places where he had been recently. Put it this way: you felt he longed to have things happen. He was like a boy, a bystander only, hoping to edge in on the action, and wanting to be noticed for something more than a drab-suited, dumpling grace, the onlooker - an extra even, as they said in his business. And yes, he was overly large, imprisoner of his own thin men, if you like. But as I saw it, the size was simply the burden of his desire, his yearning, to be seen. Really seen. In some brave situation.
Yet it is his dedication to staying just a passer-by that I find so touching. After all, in San Francisco, in '62 or '63, how many days or weeks had he spent schooling two pedigree Sealyham terriers, so that he might inadvertently cross paths with Melanie Daniels or Tippi Hedren (from The Birds) at the pet-shop threshold? But does he gawp at the star - a lady he was stricken by, so the stories say? Not at all. Look at the way he draws the leashes aside to avoid the least risk of tripping her narrative legs. You could only guess his feelings for her from the downcast steadfastness with which he concentrates on the dogs. Without giving any hint that they are more than noisy bits of scruff on legs. There is, actually, rather more suspicion that the pet-shop owner might have hired him just to supply a bogus sense of business. To say nothing of the distant comfort two perky dogs could bring to that mouth and those jowls, so set in despair.
Sometimes there was a ghost of humour to it all - not just that he should be riding, in his black suit, at the back of a French country bus (To Catch a Thief), but that Cary Grant should sit down beside him, look at him just a little oddly and superciliously, as if ... ? Well, why not? Can't a lonely man pass a quiet fart at the back of a country bus without being humiliated?
In Rebecca, he was a one-man queue, anxious to use a telephone booth monopolised by the languid George Sanders - and there was a hint that the kiosk represented the haven of a bathroom for the little man in the dumpy coat and the Homburg hat. In Shadow of a Doubt, he is one of a bridge foursome on the train. You have to study the film closely to be sure of it - this is rather like staring through Hedy Lamarr in Ekstase to establish the Monet-ish dappling on the water she swims in. There were instances when Hitch cut out his own little piece. For he never allowed his own appearances to carry a glimmer of meaning - either directly or through some framework of symbolism. Yes, once upon a time, in Blackmail, he had been a rather stuffed figure on the Tube, beaten in the hat with a rolled- up newspaper by an impertinent child. That got laughs. It counted as an incident. And he seemed to learn from it the need to be less obtrusive, less significant, less likely to be a 1 in some 1+1 = ?. I think his best and most carefully contrived appearances were the ones most easily missed. So in Shadow of a Doubt, he hardly registers, yet there's a close-up of his stunning bridge hand - all 13 spades - unaware that Joseph Cotten's more sinister game is on board. Nor should we lose sight of the holiday in the appearances, for Mr Hitchcock was one of those film-makers who believed that every square inch of every shot had its part in the plan. The audience, he would have said, examined all those inches for information - it is quite impossible, old boy, to add in anything casual. Except for his own little strolls, glances and poker-faced passings-by. Of course, that playfulness is very tempting - how liberating if he had done just one film where the 10-second cameo was so bright, so pregnant, that at the end of the picture we realised that the right man (as opposed to The Wrong Man) must have been him himself! That rather portly gentleman seen making his way from the scene of the crime was the culprit, looking, if not like the cat that had just swallowed the cream, then the proud thief who still had it in his mouth, and wouldn't swallow until he'd rounded the corner.
Too much cream? We know how far Hitch was wounded by his own consumption - but he always said he led an uneventful life, so what was an over-active mind to do but sample French cuisine and Viennese pastries? Time and again, when he found himself in the presence of exquisite blonde actresses (several of whom he had discovered - though without proper exploration, or rights on natural resources), his fat filled him with loathing, and a reducing regime set in. The sly insert he was proudest of - in Lifeboat - is where he modelled for before and after pictures in a weight-loss advertisement in the one newspaper that had ended up with nine castaways in the lifeboat. (He had previously entertained the idea of being a corpse that floated by.)
It was his discovery that he should make his appearances early if possible. Otherwise, sharp-eyed neurotics in the audience (and what other type did he want?) might lose track of the plot as they searched for his missing piece. And so he wandered across the top of some Quebec steps in I Confess - giving nothing away. He carried a cello in The Paradine Case, and a string bass in Strangers on a Train - somehow in Hitchcock the cases did seem like possible containers for bodies, or parts of them. And in Rear Window he is the clock- winder who comes to make his service call at the composer's apartment. So we may imagine him as a walker and a music lover, taking immense whistling promenades in every city he visits. He's walking on the street when he passes Jane Wyman in Stage Fright, and looks back at her, as if he felt he'd seen her before. But that's a private joke, for Wyman looked so very like Hitch's own daughter, Patricia.
The habit of signature scenes is not uncommon in movies, of course. So many directors fancy themselves as actors, wait for a knock-out character, and then thrust themselves on camera. And often it works out well. Who'd have missed Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver asking Travis if he'd ever seen what a .44 Magnum could do to a woman's face or pussy? Well, maybe, on reflection, I could do without that - and maybe it was a first warning that Scorsese was too bloodthirsty and misogynistic for
his own good as an artist. Still, I love to see Truffaut in his own films, so defiantly without charm - and Welles, so helplessly with charm that he seems to know nothing else. Those scenes tell us so much about what those directors were afraid of, and what they longed for, whereas Hitchcock's cameos are inscrutable still. They are signals only of how difficult it is to know that large but impassive figure - warnings against making up your mind, veiled requests for deeper care.
Then there's Psycho. The fine detail of that film reaches everything, even its cameo. For it comes on a dissolve. We see John Gavin, defeated, in the hotel room Janet Leigh has just quit, as Hitchcock, his back to us, in a cowboy hat, stands outside the office in Phoenix, Arizona, where Leigh works. The dissolve settles and Leigh comes into the office, without noting or paying attention to Hitch. But as a man in a cowboy hat, just waiting, he is a premonition of the very talkative rogue in another cowboy hat who will come by and dangle $40,000 in front of Leigh's nose. See the film a few times, and the stolid Hitch is like a warning angel. If only, say, he had turned as Leigh passed and asked, "Excuse me, miss, do you possibly have the time?"
"No, no, I don't," she would have said. She is so edgy all the time: always changing her clothes.
"Ah," Hitch could have sighed. "No one does now."
That would have been going too far, yet it's the kind of lugubrious chat he did on his TV show - when, at the opening, he would step forward and occupy the outline drawing of himself on the wall, notice the audience and small-talk them - without giving much away. Not that he - with his busy mind - would have needed all that much time with Janet Leigh, not after he'd seen her in that opening scene spread out in her underwear. Maybe he put himself in the picture for the most obvious of reasons - just to get a better, close-up view. Whether it was Grace Kelly or 13 spades, he had the common man's respect for marvels. It's a vital part of Hitch the genius, as with hitching the cock, that he was a sad, polite passer- by with a very dirty mind.