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The Times (06/May/2004) - Hitchcock - still analysed and enigmatic

(c) The Times (06/May/2004)

Hitchcock - still analysed and enigmatic

Daring work shows the tricks of the director’s trade that were to make his name

Nearly 25 years after his death, Alfred Hitchcock is still simultaneously the most analysed film director in history and the most enigmatic. He went to his grave protesting he was simply an entertainer, but the themes and preoccupations that recur throughout his work offer no end of clues to a deeply morbid psyche.

From his first released feature in 1927, The Lodger, in which an innocent man is accused of being a Jack the Ripper-style killer, Hitchcock was lovingly polishing his fascination with guilt and sex and death. One can only be grateful to the beatings and strictures of his Edwardian Catholic upbringing. A less repressed man would not have filled 65 films with such urbanely decorated fetishism.

It was after Hitchcock moved to Hollywood in 1939 that he found the technical expertise and lavish budgets to match his grand visual schemes.

But while a great director is measured by his masterpieces, it is the apprentice works that often prove the most revealing. Hitchcock’s formative British period does have two fully realised films — The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes — which overcame any limitations of budget and location with perfectly balanced blends of suspense, romance and lewdly suggestive wit.

But in between these two peaks are two of his most morally daring works — Secret Agent and Sabotage. Neither film was a huge box-office success in its day, prompting Hitchcock to reflect on the films’ flaws when discussing his work with François Truffaut in the 1960s. But viewed now it is those supposed flaws which make the films so interesting.

Sabotage (like Secret Agent, released in 1936) is the darker film, a drama of a terrorist posing as a family man. It famously killed off the heroine’s younger brother in a nerve-shredding set-piece when the boy delivers a parcel which contains a bomb, only for his bus to get stuck in traffic. Hitchcock felt that the accidental explosion was a “grave error”, saying: “The way to handle it would have been for the villain to kill the boy deliberately and then have the sister avenge her brother’s death by killing the villain.”

The heroine does in fact kill the villain — her husband — with a carving knife over the roast beef in a textbook Hitchcock mix of domestic normality and death; the drop of blood on the rose petal was the miniature example he liked to use. But the stabbing is ultimately an accidental death, like the panicked stabbing in self-defence in Blackmail. At the heart of Secret Agent is a more sickening tragedy — the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man.

The film had many of Hitchcock’s increasingly familiar elements — exotic scenery, suavely polite villains, salty minor characters, death by falling and lots of double-entendres and erotic game-playing.

Peter Lorre, playing the professional assassin, drops a penny down a girl’s cleavage — as Cary Grant would do later with his casino chip in To Catch a Thief. When Lorre whispers into a character’s ear, there is a zoomed-in close-up, just as there would be 20 years later in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

There is also in Secret Agent a glowing prototype of the Hitchcock blonde, played in many adoring close-ups by Madeleine Carroll. At this early stage Hitchcock’s ideal blonde was fun-loving, rather than glacial, and what she reveals underneath is not sexual rapacity but a profound moral disgust.

Carroll starts off treating the business of playing man and wife in the name of espionage as drawing-room comedy. When John Gielgud first meets her, her face is covered in cold cream. He dabs a finger in it and tastes it. “Delicious. What do you think of your husband?” he asks.

“Agreeably surprised,” she replies.

What is so thrilling about Secret Agent is Hitchcock’s gall in then having his giddily happy hero and heroine assist in murdering the wrong man.

The audience’s involvement in this error is deepened by the careful entrapment of the supposed spy. Killer and victim trek up a snowy mountain to a dangerous precipice, where Hitchcock twists the complicity with some grisly voyeurism as Gielgud watches the murder through a telescope.

Hitchcock would refine his technique of luring audiences into eerily enjoyable and/or uncomfortable positions of identification with the villain. In Psycho, he mischievously seduced the viewer into rooting for Norman Bates to get away with hiding all the evidence.

In Strangers on a Train, he went even farther during Robert Walker’s visit to the fairground to strangle Farley Granger’s sluttish wife. (It is amazing how promiscuity, bottle-thick spectacles and the greedy consumption of ice cream can be made to feel like more than ample justifications for murder.) But the murder in Secret Agent is the boldest earliest example of this technique.

Carroll is given the task of distracting the victim’s wife, a kindly old woman doing her knitting, while the murder is carried out. To make her guilt worse, the victim’s dog scratches and howls at the door as if psychically sensing his master’s death. The discovery of the mistake is vintage Hitchcock, and also a relatively rare pocket of self-disgust in his canon. A telegram with the bad news is delivered amid the jollity of a chorus of Swiss folk singers. Lorre’s professional assassin laughs the whole thing off but Hitchcock chooses to push in on Carroll’s face as the sickening realisation sinks in.

The second half of the film is spent uncovering the real spy with a chase that climaxes in a thunderous train crash. But it is this rich mine of revulsion at the film’s centre that makes it well worth a look.