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American Film (1977) - Books: Cult and Puffery

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  • "Under the guise of a book review, Gilman disparages Hitchcock's overblown reputation. He claims Hitchcock is neither a great not bold film artist because of 'his conception of the audience as a malleable and ... naive set of witnesses' and because of 'his refusal to take real chances.'" — Sloan, page 426



Cult and Puffery

On Hitchcock

One is bound to feel helpless in the face of a cult. The sense is of being steamrollered, your questions made irrelevant, your objections or demurrers driven into the ground by all those salutes, those genuflections, that ecstatic certainty. There being no more feverish and aggressive cult in film these days than that of Alfred Hitchcock, my first impulse on being presented with a new, elephantine study of the director — 523 pages of sectarian adoration and evangelical zeal, together with stills from the movies, photos of Hitchcock and a "storyboard" for Family Plot, sketches taken from the shooting script and depicting each piece of action — my first impulse, as I say, was to get out of the way.

Yet, cultural duty and all that. Someone has to stand up to the juggernaut and perhaps do a little to throw it off its track. And since I have at least one qualification for the job, which is that I'm very far from being a Hitchcock fanatic, admiring him in what I think is the proper mild measure and no more, I suppose it might as well be me. I must say that the assignment is made a good deal easier by the fact that Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock is an especially melancholy example of the practice of cultic puffery, a plodding, simple-minded tome, entirely without wit or subtlety or weight, a dull graduate student's magnum opus.

Like Raymond Durgnat, Hitchcock's other run-on exegete, Spoto covers every film, every single one, most of them at great length, and I suppose this has a use for fact seekers and the like. But though he resembles Durgnat in assiduousness, his mind is really closer to that of Robin Wood, whom he now displaces as Hitchcock's most unabashed, most uncritical enthusiast. At least Durgnat offered some strictures, some caveats. Hitchcock, he wrote, "usually conjures up our nightmares only to shunt our minds into complacencies of conformism and unreality." And again, "It is the need for safety which clips Hitchcock's artistic wings." (Just so, and one wonders how, after such observations, Durgnat could have mustered the elan to fill all those hundreds of pages.)

For Spoto, whose Hitchcock course at the New School is very popular, the dust jacket tells us, such judgments would be unthinkable cases of lese majesty. When it's impossible to avoid a dip or a real slide in Hitchcock's earlier work — misfortunes like Jamaica Inn or Mr. and Mrs. Smith — he wriggles out of it by finding some "arresting" detail or two and declaring that for the rest of those films the master was "on vacation" or fulfilling some obligation to a star. Everywhere else Hitchcock is a supreme artist, as much in the last four strained, foolish, and flaccid works (as I consider them) as in pictures like Strangers on a Train or Vertigo which we can all agree have a claim on our appreciation.

To get it out of the way, since my primary task is to report what Spoto has to say, I think that Hitchcock is kept from the company of great and bold film artists by his conception of the audience as a malleable and, at bottom, naive set of witnesses, by his inability or refusal to take real chances (to be "boring," for example, the way Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Eric Rohmer sometimes strategically are), by the "acceptable" conclusions he always arrives at, and by the predictability of his denouements, however pleasantly mysterious are the routes to them. He may be a movie lover's answer to a boring Saturday night, he may even be an inspiration on purely technical grounds to other directors, but I think his imagination rests squarely on that safety island where things "work" nicely, are successes, satisfy routinely, and change nothing of what we see and feel and experience.

On a number of occasions, Spoto speaks of Hitchcock's genius as lying in his ability to control or maneuver audience reaction. He says that Dial M for Murder's "most intriguing element ... is the manipulation of the audience's feelings and desires," that one of the great strengths of Psycho is "the manipulation of the audience's reaction at every moment," that a scene from Vertigo is "a splendid example of audience manipulation." The astonishing thing about Spoto's aesthetic sense is his absolute inability to see that "manipulation" is the clue to Hitchcock's prowess as an entertainer, all right, but at the same time a devastating indictment of him as anything more.

For manipulation is exactly what truly serious artists, ones with respect for the dignity of the imagination and the mysteries of communication, don't do. Bernard Shaw once wrote that like anyone else he could be "coerced" by clever effects in the popular theater into grossly oversimplified and trivialized responses; he could be made to guffaw, gasp, undergo blatant terror. But, he went on, he resented it, he saw through his own victimization, and a moment after leaving the theater he was able to restore his sense of the authentic, the undragooned.

At his best Hitchcock is, of course, more than a puller of emotional strings, a stacker of narrative cards. A little more. He touches on moral issues, flirts with them, and sometimes breaks momentarily into minor revelation. But whatever he is, Spoto's case for him can't possibly affect anyone who isn't already passionately convinced. And this is because, to begin and end with, the quality of Spoto's mind is so deficient, so attracted to the obvious, so mired in clichés, so unsubtle and undemanding, that all of his more specific knowledge, the film technology he's absorbed, the details he remembers, are in the service of a remarkable emptiness.

Spoto says that "as with the governess of James's novella [The Turn of the Screw] an important idea in Suspicion is that the source of psychoneurosis may lie in childhood experience." He says of The Trouble With Harry that "the film may make the healthy suggestion that there are worse things in life than death [sic!] and that real maturity lies in accepting that, like everything in nature, 'we all have to go sometime' (thus Mark Rutland in Marnie). Such acceptance leads to a life without whimpering." He tells us in regard to Psycho that "birds and knives, as in psychology and literature, are female and male symbols, respectively." He says of a character in Vertigo that "there is something statuesque about her. She represents something eminently desirable and yet infinitely remote — the quintessence of the mystery of Woman."

Woman. Singular. Capitalized. It's all banal, sententious, commonplace. What are we to think of a critic who can say, about Rebecca, that "the light appealing blondness of Miss Fontaine contrasted with the darkly glowering form of Miss Anderson tells the story on a literal and metaphorical level"? (Spoto finds deeply impressive the same painfully obvious contrast between Gay Keane and Mrs. Paradine in The Paradine Case.) Or one whose vocabulary of praise is made up almost entirely of "haunting," "achingly beautiful," "rich," "appealing," or, running out of emotives, "fine," "admirable," "great," "splendid"?

And then there is a side to this devotee which I can only call the cabalistic. It manifests itself in an indefatigable trek through the Master Text in search of arcane significances revealed through homely, abstract details, and it results in a thicket of absurdities such as would be hard to find in even the wildest jungles of theosophy.

"It may not be too subtle, in exposing the couples' similarities," Spoto writes of Rear Window, "to suggest that these four are linked with the letter L: Lisa Freemont; L. B. Jeffries; Mr. and Mrs. Lars Thorwald." (It's too subtle.) "Scottie Ferguson (in Vertigo) — he is linked to the city by his initials!" (In the same way, of course, that Louis Armstrong is linked to Los Angeles by his.) "Marion's car license (in Psycho), NFB-418. Could that stand for Norman Francis... Bates?" (Well, yes, it could, but also perhaps for nine flower baskets or nechevo florissi bulganni — Russian for never trust florid Bulgarians. And then there's the problem of the 418, which might stand for the number of tracking shots in Hitchcock's previous films, or perhaps....) "Eve (in North by Northwest). Is her name a deliberate reference to the archetypal biblical temptress?" (Oh, so that's who that was. No, the reference was accidental.)

At the other extreme from this demented symbol hunting is a grandiose attempt to place Hitchcock in a line of classical accomplishment in literature. Spoto frequently equates him with Henry James, says of a minor entertainment like Shadow of a Doubt that it's "part of a tradition that starts with Dante," and apotheosizes Hitchcock's works as having "striking resemblances in both theme and tone" to those writers as well as to Dostoevski (whom, he tells us, Hitchcock has called "a master," as though that proves their equality) and Graham Greene.

Now I don't mean by citing this foolishness to put films "in their place," God knows. I've no interest in the kind of hierarchies so many academic trustees of culture are committed to. It shouldn't be necessary to keep saying that film is a legitimate and major art. But I find it distressing and obnoxious when I come upon this borrowing of prestige, this effort to validate popular cinema by hauling it into the neighborhood of great literary works. The book smacks of defensive-ness and sectarian hyperbole at the same time.

Hitchcock may not be as trivial as Graham Greene said he was, the creator of works that "mean nothing" and "lead to nothing," but to propel him into the company of Dante and Dostoevski and James is to be obtuse to a remarkable degree. It's to be blind, it seems to me, to literature and, I'm afraid, to film art as anything more than camera angles, color schemes, and box-office hits.

Richard Gilman teaches at the Yale University School of Drama. He is the author of The Making of Modern Drama.