Jump to: navigation, search

Cinema Progress (1938) - Mysterious Mr. Hitchcock



Mysterious Mr. Hitchcock

Strange case of a British director who has made an art of producing "penny shockers."

When Alfred Hitchcock, internationally renowned English gourmet who dabbles in shadowy psychoses on the side, arrived for a short stay in New York some time ago, a score of Gotham's movie houses took advantage of the occasion to institute revivals of such spine-chillers as "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Woman Alone," "Secret Agent," and "The 39 Steps."

The last named of these films, as a matter of fact, was accorded the unique distinction of being publicly advertised as follows:

It was the first instance within recent memory of a director being billed above two top-flight stars.

In order to comprehend this extensive hubbub, usually reserved only for the stars of Hollywood, it is necessary to understand both the critical and popular esteem that Hitchcock enjoys in America. His name, for one thing, is repeatedly mentioned in erudite and esoteric works on the cinema and is often coupled with that of Alexander Korda as representing the flower of the English screen. In 1936, "The 39 Steps' was not only one of the most popular films of the year, but also one of the most highly praised by the reviewers. Quite recently, the veteran critic of one of New York's leading daily newspapers cited a scene from "The Woman Alone" (the moments leading up to the explosion of the bomb the boy is carrying) as being one of the truly memorable sequences in the entire history of the cinema and worthy of ranking with the scene where the baby-carriage careens down the steps in Eisenstein's "Potemkin."

Hitchcock's melodramatic thrillers, equal in substance to the "penny shocker," quite naturally attract the average moviegoer in quest of an hour or so of exciting entertainment. What endears these films, however, to the intelligentsia is his masterful and subtle execution of material which in other hands would probably become conspicuously shoddy.

The most recent Hitchcock film shown in America, "The Woman Alone," is representative of his work. The story deviously traces the machinations of an unmotivated band of London terrorists, one of whose hirelings is a craven cinema proprietor, Verloc (Oscar Homolka). A handsome Scotland Yarder (John Loder), assigned to keeping Verloc under surveillance, falls in love with the letter's young and pretty wife (Sylvia Sidney). When the mysterious group of saboteurs give Verloc a time bomb with which to blow up Picadilly Square, the spineless Verloc gives the live bomb to his wife's little brother with instructions to deposit it at the Picadilly Station by such and such a time. Carrying the disguised bomb in a box, the boy sets out for his destination, unaware of the real nature of his mission. Enthralled by a passing parade, he lingers too long on the way, and enters a bus just as the bomb explodes, killing everyone in the vehicle.

When Verloc's wife discovers her husband's guilt she stabs him to death and is about to surrender to the police for his murder when, opportunely enough, another bombing wipes out the entire cinema house (including Verloc's corpse) leaving Mrs. Verloc sobbing in the arms of the sympathetic Scotland Yarder.

The quarrel is not with Hitchcock's method, but with his material. His purpose is to provide fast-paced, visually exciting melodramas for moviegoers. He intends, by his own admission, to "shock" them out of their normal selves. If one is perfectly satisfied with art that does nothing but entertain, then good and well—Hitchcock's melodramas are probably supreme in their genre. Despite the fact that he is gifted with a mastery of his medium and human insight that must ultimately lead to a greater art, if honestly pursued, Hitchcock seems to have no such lofty aspirations.

Furthermore, Hitchcock's melodramas are not of the most honest and compelling kind. Although he lavishes a keen and searching scrutiny on his characters, they remain lifeless puppets. They are unconvincing, for they are not internally conceived; they have no basic motivation, no essential humanity. The camera selects every salient detail of Verloc's murder, but the murder itself does not affect us, simply because we do not believe in Verloc. Realism, as Willa Gather once remarked, is not a matter of scrupulous, external detail, but of basically essential fidelity to the object, of underlying veracity.

In reply to these criticisms, Hitchcock now offers a refutation in his article on "Direction" in "Footnotes to the Film" (Lovat Dickson, London, 1937). "I know there are critics who ask why lately I have made only thrillers," Hitchcock writes. "Am I satisfied, they say, with putting on the screen the equivalent merely of popular novelettes? Part of the answer is that I am out to get the best stories I can which will suit the film medium, and I have usually found it necessary to take a hand in writing them myself. I choose crime stories because that is the kind of story I can turn most easily into a successful film. I am ready to use other stories, but I can't find writers who will give them to me in a suitable form."