Jump to: navigation, search

Chicago Tribune (06/Aug/2006) - Let frenzy begin: TV, Net unlock Hitchcock trove

(c) Chicago Tribune (06/Aug/2006)

Let frenzy begin: TV, Net unlock Hitchcock trove

By Michael Wilmington, Tribune movie critic

There have always been at least two Alfred Hitchcocks: one we know and one most of us don't.

The better-known Hitchcock -- the great Golden Age Hollywood moviemaker whose name became forever synonymous with the words cinema and suspense -- will be celebrated next weekend with a special three-day Encore Mystery cable TV marathon.

Born in the last year of the 19th Century (1899), the popular Hitchcock -- or "Hitch" as he liked to be called -- was a London greengrocer's son who became a knight of the empire and the reigning master of the 20th Century's liveliest and most influential art, cinema. He was the genius who made the nerve-rending masterpieces "Psycho," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Notorious" and "Rear Window."

But he was also, unknown to most of us, a fine-but-neglected silent film director of sophisticated romantic comedies, polished dramas and sports films. He was a good transcriber of stage classics such as Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock," and even an unsung French language filmmaker.

Many talents

And not only was he a great, amusing TV host on his long-running anthology show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (1955-62) -- for which he made the witty introductions and sign-offs -- he was also director of many of its best half-hour shows, little gems of irony and perverse psychology, and of other TV classics as well. Further, he was the maker of an unfinished, unreleased documentary on the Holocaust hailed by some British critics who've seen it.

What else was he? Catholic? Moralist? Sadist? Misogynist? Paranoiac? Genius? He has been called all of those things, and each carries a measure of truth. Yet no matter how hard you dig beneath Hitch's surface -- that impassive face, London accent and dark jocular humor -- you can never exhaust his mysteries.

You can never exhaust his movies either.

We're speaking of Hitchcock now because "Psycho," "Vertigo" and many more are on the Hitchcock marathon that Encore TV's Mystery channel is presenting from next Friday evening to Monday morning. That three-day series serves up some of the many Hitchcocks most movie fans know well: his great British comic-suspense delight "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), middle-period classics such as the gothic romance "Rebecca" (1940), the small-town psychological chiller "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), the erotic Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman spy thriller "Notorious" (1946) and the Jimmy Stewart-Kim Novak romance-tragedy "Vertigo" (1958) -- right up to his last two films, 1972's "Frenzy" and 1976's "Family Plot."

For anyone who doesn't know Hitchcock well, it's a splendid opportunity -- and one that showcases the essential contributions of his major collaborators, including writer Ben Hecht, composer Bernard Herrmann and actors Stewart, Grant, Bergman, Anthony Perkins and Hitch's great crush, Grace Kelly. But I'd recommend it also to people who've seen these movies again and again, who've all but memorized the shower murder from "Psycho" or the bell-tower scenes from "Vertigo."

Like me, in fact. I've been watching Hitchcock almost all my filmgoing life, catching "Vertigo" at 12, in the Elkhorn, Wis., theater and "North by Northwest" the next year at the old Egyptian Theater in Hollywood -- and, the year after that, "Psycho" in Lake Geneva, Wis.. The next Sunday, my Williams Bay church pastor attacked "Psycho" in his sermon. But, despite the knock, all three won my heart.

Recently, though, I had the high pleasure of filling in most of the blanks, the harder-to-find Hitchcocks described above. (The Internet Movie Database lists 66 film titles in his director's filmography and mentions 12 unnamed others.) While teaching two classes on Hitchcock, I was able to screen not just the familiar classics but almost all of those rarely shown silents and early sound films, many made before Hitchcock started specializing in thrillers.

There are oddities such as the two moody 1944 French-language propaganda dramas he shot during World War II -- "Aventure Malgache" and "Bon Voyage." And there's the treasure trove he made for TV: 17 half-hour shows for his long-running "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and three (all an hour long) for "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" (1962-1965) "Ford Startime" and "Suspicion."

Little gems

The "Hitchcock Presents" shows were all introduced by that macabre theme "Funeral March of a Marionette" by Gounod and then by Hitch himself -- razzing his sponsors, joking about the stories. They're little gems, especially the ones adapted from stories by those wry, eloquent horror experts John Collier ("Back for Christmas," "Wet Saturday") and Roald Dahl ("Dip in the Pool," "Lamb to the Slaughter"). Some are available in various anthologies and boxed sets, but Universal Pictures France puts out a boxed set with all 20 of his TV films. Universal in America should follow suit.

Among those 20, "Four O'Clock" (1957), which he made for "Suspicion," is a neglected Hitchcockian masterpiece, a tense adaptation of a story by nightmare pulp specialist Cornell Woolrich ("Rear Window"). In it, a maddened husband (E G Marshall) sets a bomb in his own basement to kill the wife he believes is unfaithful and then is trapped there himself when two thieves (one played by Harry Dean Stanton) rob his home.

There are also richly entertaining movies among Hitchcock's silent and early sound films -- not just the thrillers ("The Lodger"), but a classic boxing tale, "The Ring" (1927), the moving romantic triangle "The Manxman" (1929) and the effervescent romantic comedy/travelogue "Rich and Strange" (1931). Many of the pre-1934 films are available here in cheap versions, but if you visit Amazon (France) and Amazon (Germany), you'll find superb boxed sets from Studio Canal and Concorde.

Hitchcock showed real early flair and skill in other genres. But though, as a comedy or drama director, he had peers, as a suspense director, he had none -- not even his presumed rivals, Henri-Georges Clouzot ("Diabolique") and Roman Polanski ("Repulsion"), or his supposed follower, Brian De Palma ("Dressed to Kill").

Hitchcock was fond of saying that, where some directors' movies were slices of life, his were slices of cake. But through he was a witty man, he was not a trivial one. One of his unfinished projects was "Memory of the Camps," the aforementioned Holocaust documentary that he started in 1945 and intended primarily for German audiences. According to Patrick McGilligan, in his excellent "Alfred Hitchcock -- A Life in Darkness and Light," Hitchcock finished about 55 minutes before funding was suspended, after qualms by the British military command and foreign office and the U.S. State Department. When it was shown publicly in 1984, music critic and columnist Norman Lebrecht called the uncompleted film "Truth at its most naked."

Dark and deep

What about Hitch's slices of cake? They're always darker and deeper than they first seem. In "Psycho," Hitchcock's most famous and popular movie, he sinks us in a swamp of horror, madness and murder based on the Ed Gein murders in Wisconsin. To his detractors at the time, he was provoking evil appetites, awakening the beast in his audiences. But Hitchcock, like many artists of anxiety, only awakens the beast in order to slay it, only jokes about evil to conquer it. When we watch him -- and audiences always will -- it isn't because we exult or take amusement in suffering, but because we want to vanquish it.