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Columbia Daily Spectator (13/Feb/1968) - Truffaut on Hitchcock




Truffaut on Hitchcock

HITCHCOCK, by Francois Truffaut, Simon and Schuster, 1967, 256 pages, $10.00.

A recurrent situation in many of the films of Alfred Hitchcock is that of a hero, wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit, being pursued by both police and the real criminals, with only the audience (and often but a small portion of the audience) aware of his innocence and valor. Sadly enough, Hitchcock has himself suffered a similar fate.

Despised by critics (any daily newspaper reviewer is evidence of this) and scorned by intellectuals (witness Stanley Kauffman's oblique attack in a recent "New Republic") the Master of Suspense is cheered on only by those who know him best — the audience. While Resnais, Fellini, Antonioni and Penn (excellent auteurs all) become the successive darlings of the art-house crowd, the achievements of Hitchcock are ignored, his taste and intelligence dismissed.

To my mind, Alfred Hitchcock is the greatest living film director. I wish to stress "film" director, for his stature cannot be seriously appreciated by anyone still viewing the cinema (whether or not he will acknowledge this to be so) as an auxiliary of literature or the theater. It would be worthwhile to explore the objections so many serious and intelligent movie-goers have to Hitchcock's works, for any answers that can be provided to these misgivings must also be statements about the nature of film itself. The main reasons given for dismissing Hitchcock as a major artist may be summarized as: 1) "He is concerned only with suspense, and not with characterization, psychological insight, or meaningful themes." 2) "His technique is poor, alternating between the gimmicky and the unrealistic, and his actors are often inept." 3) "He is more concerned with popularity and profits than art."

The first statement is the most important objection. To many viewers — especially those with a literary orientation — suspense is little more than a form of audience machination, providing "cheap thrills" as a substitute for detached observation and rapid action as a substitution for insight. Yet is this the case? It requires little knowledge of cinema history to recognize that suspense, with its sophisticated use of those qualities so indigenous to film — plasticity of space and time, is a quality to be found in virtually every "classic," from Porter's "Great Train Robbery" to Griffith's "Intolerance" to Eisenstein's "Potemkin" to Murnau's "Nosferatau" to (incidentally) Antonioni's "Blow Up." That real suspense is anything but an abrogation of aesthetic responsibility might best be demonstrated through the analysis of a scene from one of Hitchcock's most suspenseful movies.

At a large fete given by the Nazi conspirator Sebastian (Claude Rains) for his wife Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), who is really an American spy, she and her co-agent Devlin (Cary Grant) surreptitiously break into the wine cellar, there to discover large quantities of uranium concealed in champagne bottles. Sebastian comes down to replenish the party's wine supply, the two agents feign a romantic embrace,"' thus concealing their true mission.

We at once have Aristotelean "character in action" as a component of the suspense: Sebastian has been suspicious of Devlin and Alicia throughout the party, but he assumes that they are lovers, not spies. In reality, they are both, and part of the suspense lies in the working out of their own relationship, as well as in their at-1 tempts to conceal both their emotions and espionage from him. Hence Devlin's use of the embrace to throw Sebastian off the ; track is also a revelation of his own feelings for Alicia.

There is suspense as a component off space: the ballroom and wine cellar are linked by a staircase (a staircase is later to be the link between death and freedom for Alicia). And there is suspense as a component of time: the continual cross-cutting between the diminishing stock of champagne upstairs and the spies opening champagne downstairs leads to an inexorable merger of the two.

The use of the champagne bottle as a symbol of the Nazi plot is prefigured in the relationship of the "big and small" that runs throughout the film. At the party's beginning, a dolly shot moves from an overhead view of the entire ballroom to a huge close-up of Alicia's hand, clutching the cellar key. Similarly, Devlin, Alicia and Sebastian are but themselves "symbolic" of the conflict between democracy and Nazism.

And, finally, the suspense is related to all of the film's themes: the relationship of acting and appearance to reality (Devlin posing as Alicia's lover while actually desiring to be her lover); the confusion of duty and feeling (Devlin allowing Alicia to risk her life for the CIA; Alicia having to deceive her husband); and, most important, the ambiguity of Good and Evil (although "good," Alicia must destroy the man who loves her; although "evil," Sebastian loves his wife and is hurt by her).

HITCHCOCKIAN suspense is thus not an avoidance of "characterization" and "thematic development," but rather their most skillful exposition. Hitchcock's psychology, too, is subtle and perceptive; it is not the psychology of a George Eliot or Henry James, but then Alfred Hitchcock is not a nineteenth-century novelist. (It is interesting that many of our most sophisticated critics, while readily accepting fragmentation, "absurdity," and formalism in the modern novel and play still judge films as though they were pre-Dickensian works of literature.).

The argument that Hitchcock's movies are bereft of "meaning" or "intellectual . content" is more symptomatic of the obtuseness of supposedly perceptive viewers than of any inadequacy on the director's part. Simply because Hitchcock does not advertise his themes with the agonizing pretentiousness of a Kramer or Lumet is hardly evidence that they are not there. Like all great art, Hitchcock's films require concentration and intellectual exercise in order to be understood, but their very richness and complexity make them as enthralling on the fifth viewing as they were on the first.

Such themes as the transference of guilt, the relationship of voyeurism to sexuality and aggression, and the ambiguous nature of moral absolutes, run with artful consistency throughout Hitchcock's works, and are especially well-developed in such masterworks as "Psycho" and "Rear Window." And the concept of the relationship of the individual to a political system or state is presented in his circa WW II "Lifeboat" with more understanding than in such recent tirades as "Judgment at Nuremberg" or "The Pawnbroker."

In a decade when Lesteresque rapid cutting is equated with "technique" (regardless of the type of film being directed), it should not be surprising that Hitchcock is often scorned as being dull or passe. While ignoring the slick showcases of technical "virtuosity" ("Gambit," "Arabesesque" and "Kaleidoscope", among others) that are themselves but pale jazzed-up imitations of films he was making ten years ago, Hitchcock continues to explore the full range of the film form. A list of his past achievements would be prohibitively long, yet it can be stated with confidence that the Master of Suspense is also as much the master of montage as Eisenstein, and as much the master of frame composition as Murnau, or Welles.

What he has been working towards (and,: to a great measure, achieving) in such recent films as "Marnie" and "The Birds" is a technique so wedded with content that it is as once fluid and exact — an almost transparent medium for the experience it defines (and it is through this "medium" itself that the experience is at once brought to consciousness and defined; e.g., the "red rushes" suffered by Marnie serving to at once evoke and relate an entire series of events). And in spite of what might seem to be an obsession with technical skill, Hitchcock is still very much "a director of actors." The fact that he has been able to direct such stars as Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins and Sean Connery in their finest performances is further testament to the richness of the role, he has created.

THE FINAL objection to Hitchcock's_status as an artist is perhaps the most understandable. We live in an age when the artist is supposed to exist and create apart from society, when his observations and beliefs are so revolutionary and difficult as to virtually destroy the lines of communication between himself and all but a minority of concerned and intelligent people. It is difficult, therefore, to accept a man who has amassed a fortune through his films, television shows and pulp mystery magazine as a vital creative force. The road to Hitchcock's kind of fame, we must believe (and this seems to be confirmed by the Hollywood novels of Mailer, Fitzgerald and Schulberg) is paved with compromise and vulgarity.

Yet a short study of even a rather minor aspect of Hitchcock's work can cast doubts upon such reasoning. Certainly one way to the hearts of the American people lies in propriety and/or silence in sexual matters. In a recent "Look" magazine article, a shock-provoking Judith Crist writes: "The films we are getting and that are to come" have no holds barred as far as sex and violence and language go." But more than forty years ago, in his film "The Lodger," Hitchcock was casually presenting a lesbian couple; in 1930, the villain of "Murder" was a transvestite; "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943) contains muted innuendoes of incest, while homosexuality is one of the main subjects of "Rope"( 1948) and runs through "Strangers on a Train" and "Psycho" as well. And in 1932, a scene from "Rich and Strange" involves a girl daring a young man to swim between her legs. He does, and she locks her legs around his head, while bubbles start to rise from his mouth. "You almost killed me that time," he says. She answers, "Wouldn't that have been a beautiful death?" In the light of this, it is almost amusing that Antonioni's presentation of cunnilingus in "Red Desert" was considered by many a triumph of art over convention.

IN HIS introduction to "Hitchcock," Francois Truffaut rightly ranks the subject of his interviews with such "artists of anxiety" as Poe, Dostoeyevsky and Kafka. The genial anecdotes about early life and pioneer filmmaking that follow, however, are hardly the agonizing self-appraisals common to the author, say, of "Letters to Milena." Although the tone soon changes to a more serious one, and the discussion centers on specific cinematic and, on occasion, personal problems, one still has the feeling that this is not all there is to Hitchcock. Perhaps film is simply not an art conducive to intensive (or, at least, public) self-revelation, emphasizing, as it does, such relatively uncerebral qualities as control, decisiveness and foresight. In any case, the directors who seem most voluble and self-explanatory — I am thinking especially of Elia Kazan in "Cahiers du Cinema" and Gregory Markopoulus in "Arts in Society" — also are those who have least to say on the screen.

Hitchcock's concerns, and the detached, scientific way in which he manifests them, are similar to those expressed in the only other major book by a great director, Eisenstein's "The Film Form." Yet Hitchcock's vision is wider: while he does not possess the Russian's acquaintance with literature, art and the avant-garde, neither does he limit himself to the over-use of a single technique or vision at the expense of meaningful self-development.

In his classic article in the "Encyclopedia Britannica," Hitchcock states:

The film director moves his action forward with a camera — whether that action is set on a prairie or confined to a telephone booth. He must always be searching for some new way of making his statement, and above all he must make it with the greatest economy of cutting; that is to say, in the minimum of shots.

That is theory, but it is immediately convertible into the realm of actuality. Discussing "Psycho," Hitchcock tells Truffaut:

I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream... It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.

It is a statement worthy of the most anti-Hollywood "experimentalist" or intellectual formalist; perhaps to the list of Hitchcock's precursors we should add Flaubert.

It is often argued, whether implicitly or explicitly, that the quality of films would be greatly improved if there were more collaboration between the major novelists and poets of our day and the major directors. Thus a film like "Ulysses" is praised (to use Dr. Johnson's comparison of a woman talking politics to that of a dog walking on its hind legs) not so much because it has been done well, but because it has been done at all. (For that matter, why didn't Beethoven have Goethe write the libretto for ','Fidelio'" or Mozart collaborate with Fielding?) Hitchcock's remarks on this are definitive:

There's been a lot of talk about the way in which Hollywood directors distort literary masterpieces. I'll have no part of that! What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea I just forget about the book and start to create cinema...

TRUFFAUT: ...Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfection of form, its definitive form.

HITCHCOCK: Exactly, and to really convey that in cinematic terms, substituting the language of the camera for the written word, one would have to make a six-to ten-hour film. Otherwise, it won't be any good.

TRUFFAUT has organized his series of interviews in chronological order, making it easier to follow the development of certain of Hitchcock's concerns, both technical and thematic, through time. Yet Hitchcock has worked on more than fifty films, and the fact that each one of these had to be discussed at length gives the book a somewhat lopsided orientation: his early "The Pleasure Garden, "for example, while hardly even approaching the brilliance of "Rear Window," gets nearly as much length.

The interview form itself has disadvantages; it always seems to be somewhat of a compromise, not quite "combining" the perceptions of the interviewer and his subject, regardless of how intelligent and talented they are individually. Truffaut is an excellent questioner, and Hitchcock a witty and candid interviewee, but at the end a dimension seems to be missing: more than ever, one wishes that Hitchcock would take it upon himself to write a complete study of his techniques and thoughts. The book itself is overpriced — now that film has become as modish as the fine arts, we may expect an entire series of coffee-table adornments, flashing prestigious names on heavy stock — and its layout is amazingly inept. Most of the photos from the films are interesting, but the logic of the captioning is beyond me: often a photo of several completely unknown people goes unexplained, even as far as the name of the film from which it comes, while a line under a more recent picture reads: "Hitchcock directs a scene with Sean Connery" as though neither of those men were at all familiar. The "action sequences," i.e., reproductions of successive shots comprising a tense scene, are also a mixed bag — they all look very interesting, but the order of each is different, and, of course, they are not numbered — I am still unable to figure out the sequence of the Albert Hall assassination attempt in "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

In spite of these flaws, Truffaut's "Hitchcock" is a valuable book. Hitchcock's comments about his troubles (and triumphs) are testimony to the tenacity of creative talent in the face of commercialization, varied pressures, and the bungling of the countless actors and technicians whose mistakes can destroy the best-intentioned film. Hitchcock presents himself as a man who, upset by the slightest snag or upset in production, has mastered technique so well that the upsets rarely occur; a Catholic who still feels that his desire to make films overrides any standards of morality; a man who insists that he "never has erotic dreams," and yet who. constantly projects new modes of sexual encounter and consummation on the screen; a man who never reads novels (he prefers the London "Times") but remains one of the supreme artists of the century.