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Cinema Journal (1977) - The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures





Donald Spoto. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1976. 523 pp.

I find much to praise in Donald Spoto's scholarship. His references to more than fifty films directed by Hitchcock are more accurate than Raymond Durgnat's in The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, Spoto frequently points out and corrects Durgnat's errors. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock is more comprehensive than Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films. Spoto examines more films and some in greater detail. His interests and preoccupations are similar to those of Durgnat and Wood, however. His appreciation of Hitchcock is founded upon a personal response to the films. His criticism is a search for serious themes and moral ambiguities. He values the distinction between appearance and reality, which he suggests is central to Hitchcock's art. Spoto's willingness to declare one of Hitchcock's films a masterpiece is dependent upon his recognition of "organic unity" in it.

Spoto's longest chapter is devoted to Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film which he considers a masterpiece. He claims to have seen Vertigo twenty-six times, after having been deeply affected by it. The organization of the Vertigo chapter is made explicit by its author, "a schematized treatment with

... a plot summary; excerpts from discussions with Samuel Taylor, who collaborated with the director on the final shooting scenario; observations on Hitchcock's method during shooting, from conversations with others involved; some remarks on the original French novel on which the film is based, and on some relevant myths; and a scene-by-scene analysis of the work as we have it.

This smorgasbord approach to Vertigo is representative of other chapters as well. It is the end result of Spoto's varied interests, his pursuit of comprehensiveness (analyzing Hitchcock's entire corpus chronologically in a single volume), and his concern with original research ("there remains much that has not yet been treated in print"). The Vertigo chapter offers a close textual reading of plot, settings (Spoto visited many of the actual locations), and characters. The chapter moves, perhaps too easily, from production secrets gleaned from interviews to the analysis of themes and techniques the author has inferred from repeated screenings.

The three most impressive contributions that The Art of Alfred Hitchcock makes to the advancement of film scholarship come at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the book. Chapter one focuses upon "The Early Films (1925-1934)." Spoto provides helpful plot summaries and speculates about the traits they share with later films. His analysis of all seventeen early films is fifteen pages shorter, however, than his analysis of Vertigo, the second major contribution. Finally, Hitchcock's fascinating storyboard of "The Runaway-Car Sequence" in Family Plot is presented near the book's conclusion. This storyboard can serve as primary source material for film scholars and as an instructive tool for film production teachers who are considering the merits of the storyboard.

Spoto's work also leaves much to criticize. A rather curious contradiction is evident in the disparity between Spoto's brief treatment of the early films and his exhaustive study of Vertigo. In the introduction he states that, as "my research progressed, I discovered that with a few exceptions the director's early films (those released from 1925 to 1934) were not easily available to general audiences. I chose, therefore, to treat these pictures briefly." But at the end of his analysis of Vertigo Spoto admits that "at the time of this writing, Vertigo is not available for public screening in the United States." In fact, the film has not been available for public screening for quite some time, and was last shown on television more than five years ago. Both chapters provide a valuable service to scholars. It is simply a pity that the early films are not treated more extensively.

Although Spoto investigates the films with a seriousness of purpose, he never seriously investigates the implications of authorial study as a critical methodology. His research into the production processes of Hitchcock's films is extremely valuable, but he fails to challenge or develop the theoretical implications of Samuel Taylor's claim (which Spoto quotes) that Hitchcock " 'is the quintessence of what the French call the auteur.'" Implicit in Spoto's failure to challenge or qualify this statement is the notion that what is not attributed by him to someone else is attributed to Hitchcock. No one familiar with Hitchcock's creative methods seriously questions his great control over production relative to many other directors, but Spoto leads the reader down a dangerous path by seeming to suggest that nothing is left to chance in Hitchcock's films; every car, every streetlight, every image in every location serves a thematic purpose (ideal "organic unity"), having been selected in advance by the auteur-director. The a priori assumption of total coherence based upon the subjective personality of Hitchcock as the selector of all plastic material contradicts the critic's a posteriori attempt to infer a structure or a coherence, which he attributes to the name "Hitchcock" as an objective abstraction, which represents the collective production process.

Spoto's tendency to approach the films from a "high culture" perspective also leads to many problems. He makes frequent references to poets and novelists who by association help to elevate Hitchcock's films from mass art to someplace between popular and elite art. He mentions Henry James six times, T. S. Eliot four times, Poe and Dostoevsky twice, and Kafka and Melville once each. His references to popular American films, other than Hitchcock's, are relatively infrequent, and the reader cannot help but wonder if it is Spoto's background, Hitchcock's background, or the popular cultural context of popular films that is most important. Spoto's viewpoint is perhaps revealed in a near "Freudian slip." He refers to Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) in Dial M For Murder as a novelist. In fact, Halliday is a television writer. Cummings's characterization seems to offer an intentional, if subtle, joke at television's expense (the film was made in 3-D in 1953, a period of film history when many other films reflected a much less disguised antipathy towards television). Spoto's failure to examine Hitchcock's television productions ("Since I wanted to deal only with his movie productions") may offer supporting evidence of his cultural perspective.

Spoto's search for serious themes presents another problem. He denigrates To Catch A Thief for being "sweetish confection" and "not to be taken all that seriously." Trapped in his own web or rhetorical seriousness he suggests that The Trouble With Harry be resurrected as pure "film noir." This seems an altogether too American response to the film and an instant justification of its success elsewhere in France and England.

A lack of clarity and consistency surrounds Spoto's use of the term "documentary," specifically in reference to The Wrong Man.

Robert Burks' cinematography subverts an objective viewpoint and a sense of balance. Little is shown at eye-level: high and low angles of vision predominate. We see what Manny sees, and in such a way that we are made to feel both his impotence in coping with a frequently rigid police system, and his growing sense of despair. These angles of vision also remove The Wrong Man from the sphere of documentary.

The subjective/objective dichotomy, which is apparently used here to distinguish documentary from non-documentary, is more problematic than Spoto seems to assume, and he is capable of recognizing certain documentary conventions which are operative in Blackmail.

There is also in Blackmail an accurate sense of locale, of vibrant London life, of feeling for neighborhoods. The pub, the police station, the restaurant, the tobacconist and the streets deserted at dawn are designed and photographed with a keen eye for detail and a mature refusal to glamorize.

In any case, the opening scenes of Blackmail and Psycho, the unglamorized severity of The Wrong Man, and the use of stock footage in Topaz do seem to be inspired by documentary conventions which might have been more fully explored.

What is finally found wanting in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock is Spoto's reticence to confront theoretical issues and problems. Is authorial study based upon a firm methodology or is it merely a convenient excuse? Perhaps making this an either/or question oversimplifies the problem. To be sure, Spoto's analysis (motivated as it is by an intense personal response to the films) is more often than not precise, provocative, exhaustive, and open-ended. The author is completely honest about his personal approach to film criticism. Perhaps the only legitimate criticism of this approach is that its explication comes so late (in the Vertigo chapter and the afterword). Spoto's book remains an extremely valuable piece of film scholarship, even if it seems flawed in terms of film theory or inflated if seen from a less literary perspective on the cinema as a popular art.

—Gorham Kindem