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The Times (07/Sep/2008) - Sir Alfred Hitchcock: Giant with a taste for bondage

(c) The Times (07/Sep/2008)

Sir Alfred Hitchcock: Giant with a taste for bondage

Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense, but the novelist and film buff Jonathan Coe believes the director’s true genius, revealed without words, shows how we live in a world of pain

We all think we know what a “Hitchcock film” consists of. More than 30 years since the release of his swan song, Family Plot, the phrase still conjures up the same images; and if a modern Flaubert were to compile a new Dictionary of Received Ideas, the entry under Hitchcock would read “Master of Suspense”. The 39 Steps, released in 1935, set the template: a cool blonde under pressure; a suave Cary Grant type plunged into bizarre and dangerous situations.

At the peak of the director’s fame and popularity, the associations surrounding his very name were so precise and saleable that it was used to market books, a television series, even a magazine. Hitchcock was more, at that point, than just a celebrated director: he became a brand.

The only other film-maker of whom that could be said, I think, is Disney; and, when you think about it, the similarities and connections between Disney and Hitchcock are intriguing. Both men enjoyed the sort of public recognition you would expect from people who starred in films, rather than just making them. Needless to say, they knew each other and admired each other’s work. Hitchcock, in particular, kept a watchful eye on whatever was going on at the Disney studios. He first paid tribute to Disney in one of his British films, Sabotage, during the uncharacteristically moving scene when Sylvia Sidney, horrified to have learnt not only that her young brother has died, but that her husband was responsible for the death, walks into a cinema auditorium where one of the Silly Symphonies cartoons is playing and can’t help but find herself laughing through her tears, caught up in the audience’s shared joy. Years later, whenever Hitchcock needed a particular special effect, it was usually from Disney that he would borrow it. The sodium process that made The Birds possible, for instance, or the fake bucking horse towards the climax of Marnie: both effects were supplied to him by Disney’s technicians.

Perhaps the most important thing Hitchcock and Disney had in common, however, was their virulent streak of sadism. After all, they were both great film-makers, and therefore, almost by definition, they were both committed sadists of the first order.

There are different kinds of sadism at work in Hitchcock’s films. One kind - the least acceptable kind - rose closer and closer to the surface as his career progressed. He always knew that the best way to keep an audience interested was to show characters in distress, and that female characters tended to attract more sympathy than men: hence his mantra, “torture the heroine”. Eventually, this instinct got the better of him. You can trace a line from the brutal staging of Janet Leigh’s death in Psycho, through the real-life brutalisation of Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds, to the showdown Hitchcock had with the screenwriter Evan Hunter over the rape scene in Marnie. Hunter argued passionately that the Sean Connery character should not rape his wife on their wedding night in that film, and in his memoir, Hitch and Me, gives a chilling account of Hitchcock’s response: “Hitch held up his hands the way directors do when they’re framing a shot. Palms out, fingers together, forming a perfect square. Moving his hands towards my face, like a camera coming in for a close shot, he said, ‘Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want that camera right on her face!’ ” A few years later, when he was making Frenzy, censorship relaxations finally allowed Hitchcock to film a rape in all its protracted glory; and very nasty viewing it makes, too.

This, I suppose, is the kind of cinematic sadism practised nowadays by the likes of Eli Roth and Darren Lynn Bousman: the torture and mutilation of women (and, occasionally, men), staged realistically, for entertainment purposes. It takes no particular skill or imagination on the film-maker’s part, so we cannot blame Hitchcock for suggesting to future generations how it might be done (they would have got there anyway). Nor can we regard it as an important part of his legacy. Moreover, his own peculiar brand of wry misogyny was merely an offshoot of a more deep-rooted sadism that is inseparable from his genius as a film-maker.

It must be an extremely sadistic impulse, after all, that makes someone want to gather together an audience of strangers, hold them captive in the dark for two hours and manipulate their emotions as uncompromisingly as possible – trying, in particular, to instil fear and dread into them at every turn. Viewed in this light, the relationship between film-maker and audience looks distinctly sado-masochistic, and both Hitchcock and Disney grasped this fact and revelled in it.

In Disney’s case, because his targets were children, there is also something sinister and uncomfortable at work. I still shudder whenever I read Disney’s reported expression of delight as he imagined the effect the death of Bambi’s mother would have on all those youngsters: “You know she’s dead, but the little guy just comes back to that thing and the snow begins to pick up and he’s crying, MOTHER!, and it would just tear their hearts out if you could get that little guy crying MOTHER.”

Even Hitchcock was never as obviously cruel as that (and his audience, in any case, did at least consist of consenting adults), but people flocked to his films in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s - and still buy them now, on DVD - because they knew they were going to be put through the emotional wringer, and they couldn’t wait. Early on, in what is now considered to be the first run of “classic” Hitchcock films (from The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1934, to The Lady Vanishes, in 1938), suspense is nearly always leavened with humour. The most striking exception, perhaps, is Sabotage, his free adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent. Its most famous sequence sends an unsuspecting young boy off on a seemingly harmless errand - to deliver some reels of film and a brown paper parcel to an address on the other side of London. The audience alone knows what the parcel contains: a bomb timed to go off at exactly a quarter to two.

In some ways, this sequence now seems rather crude in its generation of suspense. Repeated shots of clock faces alternate with close-ups of the parcel and the boy’s trusting, wide-eyed expression as a double-decker bus carries him through London, while Louis Levy’s score feels strident and overemphatic. But it’s undoubtedly effective. Sound, montage and music combine to instill in the audience a mounting, inexorable sense of dread. And, apart from a few inconsequential snatches of conversation between the boy and the bus conductor, there is no dialogue for several minutes.

We need only fast-forward about 20 years to see how fully Hitchcock’s art matured. For instance, Vertigo, considered by most critics to be his masterpiece, contains a sequence almost three times as long as the Sabotage bomb episode, during which James Stewart follows Kim Novak through the streets of San Francisco, mainly by car. Nothing much happens. Repeated cuts to Stewart’s face as he sits behind the wheel of the car show only a growing unease and bewilderment. Bernard Herrmann’s exquisite music, far from savagely cranking up the audience’s tension, as Levy’s sought to do, merely sets a certain mood: eerie, romantic and implicitly tragic. Meanwhile, we watch, utterly compelled. This is cinematic sadism of the highest order. And, once again, it is achieved with almost no recourse to dialogue.

I don’t believe Hitchcock hated dialogue, exactly, but certainly he had little ear for it (some of his greatest American films have some of the worst dialogue committed to celluloid), and certainly he ranked it low in the list of weapons in the film-maker’s armoury. Offhand, although I could quote a dozen lines of dialogue from Billy Wilder’s movies, say, I cannot call to mind a single line from one of Hitchcock’s. With Hitchcock, everybody talks about their favourite sequences, not their favourite lines; and this is as it should be. The art of cinema, he would insist again and again, did not consist of taking “photographs of people talking”, and the director’s cardinal sin, when plotting a film, was to say: “It’s all right – we can cover that with a line of dialogue.” Hitchcock started working, after all, in the silent era, and it’s the grammar and vocabulary of silent cinema that really underpins his work.

In other words, Hitchcock’s films, viewed today, take us back to the very roots of cinema, and that is what makes them perennially modern. In an interesting piece published in The Irish Times a few weeks ago, Fintan O’Toole pointed out that the best American television – The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men - has recently started to rival and in fact outstrip anything American cinema can offer in the way of dialogue. Television is the perfect medium on which to see “photographs of people talking”, and American TV now offers a platform for some of the best writers of English-lan-guage dialogue in the world.

As a result, O’Toole argues: “What we’re now seeing is the beginning of a return by cinema to its own distinctive essence - moving pictures.” By way of example, he cites the 20-minute wordless sequence at the beginning of Pixar’s Wall-E, the silent first act of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and the many long, dialogue-free - and indeed Hitchcockian - suspense sequences in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men.

This, surely, is why Hitchcock remains so important to today’s cinema: not because he upped the ante on how much horror and misogyny could be smuggled into main-stream films, but because he reminds us that cinema is at its most emotionally powerful when it speaks in sounds, music and images, not in words. In life, as in movies, people talk to each other because chatter fills the void. (“What is there to keep us here?” one of Beckett’s tramps asks, and receives the answer: “The dialogue.”) Silence frightens us, because it brings us closer to the essential unknowability of life. But that unknowability was exactly what Hitchcock wished to confront us with, so we are offered few words to protect us from the mystery and horror at the heart of his vision.

Showman he may have been, but his work does not try to palliate the pain of existence.

Instead, in the best of his films, he did something miraculous, something that only a great artist can do: he converted that pain, for two delicious hours of cinematic bondage, into pure pleasure.