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The Spectator (10/May/1997) - Is Hitchcock's reputation deserved

(c) The Spectator (10/May/1997)

Is Hitchcock's reputation deserved?

No, says Michael Harrington. He was a light entertainer of great professional skill but no 'genius'

Alfred Hitchcock's reputation is a mystery worthy of the old showman himself. When his film Vertigo was re-released two weeks ago, it was greeted by film reviewers with a kind of deferential ecstasy worthy of a hitherto lost opera by Puccini. Currently the BBC is running a season of his films, though the best of them, such as The Lady Vanishes and Rear Window, are a regular feature of the television film repertoire. These pictures are trumpeted in the Radio Times and elsewhere as the work of a major artistic figure, though this assessment of Hitchcock is different from what it was during the most successful period of his career.

How did he come to be taken seriously? The truth about Alfred Hitchcock is that he was a light entertainer of great professional skill and a splendid joker. He never produced work of the originality, depth and power required for the title of 'genius', nor is it clear that the films he made should be attributed to him in the exclusive way that, say, the Sherlock Holmes stories can be attributed to Conan Doyle or Saint Joan to George Bernard Shaw. Film directors are not authors.

Take Vertigo, for example, which starred James Stewart and Kim Novak. When it came out in 1958 it was generally rejected by critics and the public as a botched job. Hitchcock gave away the secret of the plot two thirds of the way through, and Kim Novak, though nice to look at, made a dull heroine compared with earlier Hitchcock favourites such as Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. Looking at the picture now this verdict seems eminently fair. One might add that the murder plot at the heart of the film, and the career of the Kim Novak character, are so laughably implausible that even Agatha Christie would have shaken her head.

At the beginning of the picture, to take another instance, Stewart is left dangling from a rooftop about eight storeys high. In the next scene he is in his flat recovering from a sprained ankle, but he has become afraid of heights. This seems a touch puzzling but is never explained.

Yet we are told Vertigo is a brilliant and profound study of obsession or something. Certainly James Stewart becomes pretty bonkers during the course of it. Yet in circumstances as unlikely as those depicted in Vertigo no actual light can be shed on anything. There are some good bits in the film, however, especially the long, lazy passage in which James Stewart is following Kim Novak around in San Francisco. But all the time one has the sense of Hitchcock reaching beyond his grasp.

In his next picture, North By Northwest with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, Hitchcock reverted to the role of entertainer and succeeded magnificently. It is a bold, well-paced picture with an exciting and emotionally satisfying conclusion. Ian Fleming greatly admired North by Northwest and hoped that the Bond films would have similar wit and sophistication. He was grievously disappointed.

At this time in America and Britain, Hitchcock's reputation coincided with what he essentially was. He fronted a highly popular television series which presented him as a comical raconteur. He was a willing slave of the marketing department. Yet in France, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut in their magazine Cahiers du Cinema were propounding the notion of Hitchcock the great and serious artist who dealt with Catholic themes of guilt and redemption, especially the alleged `exchange of guilt' in Strangers on a Train (1951), in which Robert Walker offers to murder Farley Granger's annoying wife if he will obligingly kill Walker's father.

In Rear Window (1953) Chabrol told us that James Stewart, and through him the audience, were malevolent voyeurs because they actually wanted a murder to take place in the block opposite Stewart's apartment. Perhaps Chabrol was confusing desire with expectation. Hitchcock was the first Hollywood director to get this type of treatment but Howard Hawks and John Ford were not far behind. Robin Wood, disciple of F.R. Leavis, took up some of these ideas in his highly influential and brilliantly written Hitchcock's Films in 1965.

William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade expressed the view that this intellectual praise went to Hitchcock's head and ruined him as a director. There must be something in that because, in the 1960s, Hitchcock produced a string of duds at the same time as his cult was growing among the cineastes. Probably The Birds (1963) with Tippi Hedren was the last first-division Hitchcock picture. After that came Marnie, which was made ridiculous by obviously artificial sets and crude back projection worthy of the 1930s, Torn Curtain, which was even worse, Topaz and Frenzy, which proved to be inexplicably popular though it was extremely old fashioned. His last film, A Family Plot, was a fair effort and if it had had stars like Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman it would have been among the best. Regrettably, it has the dullness which films without stars always have.

This point touches on the root of the error. What exactly do we mean by 'a Hitchcock film'? The primary creative work on a film lies in the development of the story and the characters which is not necessarily or even usually done by the director. Let us take Psycho (1960) for example, one of Hitchcock's most famous films. It was written by Joseph Stefano in a very faithful adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel. All the 'ideas' in Psycho are in the novel. Bloch, who died last year, was a popular writer of cheap, efficient shockers. Like most writers in that genre, he was interested in Jack the Ripper. One of his better jobs was an episode of Star Trek (`Wolf in the Fold') in which the Ripper turns up on the Enterprise. Psycho was a variation on the Ripper theme, and the film essentially is a nasty bag of tricks cleverly put together. It spawned a whole wave of 'slasher' movies such as Friday the Thirteenth which may now finally have ended.

Strangers on a Train owed a lot to Patricia Highsmith's novel, and Raymond Chandler had a hand in the script. Rear Window owed a great deal to John Michael Hayes' script, not to mention James Stewart and the dazzling Grace Kelly putting the stuff across.

It is not fair to mention English pictures such as The Lady Vanishes or The Thirty Nine Steps without mentioning such writers as Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. They provided the sharp scintillating scripts for Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. Hitchcock was there, of course, in all the business co-ordinating the scripts with the set designers and the actors and getting the show on the road. He was a great organiser and something of an orchestral conductor. In fact, the role of conductor is probably closer to the role of director than that of author. When Hitchcock had good writers and stars his films did well, and his best ones will last as the best popular music lasts. It is better to have a modest but solid reputation than to be the patron saint of pseud's corner.