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Film Quarterly (1977) - "The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock" and "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock"




Review of "The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Raymond Durgnat and "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto


By Raymond Durgnat. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974. $15.00.

THE ART OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures
By Donald Spoto. New York: Hopkinson & Blake, 1976.

Neither of these books really tries to come to grips with what is distinctive about Hitchcock, what defines his way of making films. Durgnat is concerned to fly in the face of most people's experiences of Hitchcock by denying that there is very much that is truly distinctive about his films; Spoto, on the other hand, like most people who have ever seen a Hitchcock film, is under no illusions about Hitchcock's distinctiveness and identity, but lacks any means of explaining what it is. Each book sports a blurb from Andrew Sarris on its dust-jacket: "Durgnat," we read, "is one of a handful of writers on film with an original critical personality"; and Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock is "the most comprehensive study of Hitchcock yet to appear." The depressing thing about these claims is that they may actually be true. Durgnat's "original critical personality" leads The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock up many a meandering path, all of them leading away from Hitchcock; Spoto, whose book is comprehensive, on one level, as it takes us up through Family Plot, sticks closer to Hitchcock, but his approach is lame and pedestrian. Neither book gives us anything approaching a sustained visual analysis of any Hitchcock film, although each provides some in the case of Vertigo; the really depressing thing is that we are going to have to make do with such woefully incomplete analyses of Vertigo so long as Hitchcock continues to sit on the film itself. Neither Durgnat nor his editor (if indeed he ever had one, which seems doubtful) can remember which city the film is set in.

It's no secret that Durgnat can be an infuriating writer, and prospective purchasers should be warned in advance that The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock is among his more infuriating books. Durgnat makes dubious and pretentious judgments, goes off on tangents, free-associates, drops names and — not for the first time — gets carried away by his own mercurial arguments, which leave Hitchcock himself, Durgnat's ostensible subject, high and dry, as unruffled and imperturbable as ever. Durgnat (oddly — but characteristically — enough, in the middle of discussing the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much) insists that he has "yet to find any description of the content of Hitchcock's style which doesn't either settle for Ian Cameron's entirely appropriate title, 'the mechanics of suspense'; i.e., assertions of efficacy in creating atmosphere ... or require a kind of symbolic coding which would invest with profundity any film-maker." To settle, like Durgnat himself, for the mechanics of suspense is to need reminding that "the purposes of art ... are transversal to, although they intersect with, those of entertainment; and it is to the latter category that I should assign such matters as effective suspense."

This dismissal of the artistic credentials of a director others (Spoto, for instance) consider great, and about whose films Durgnat is capable of making some telling and intelligent comments, is qualified by some rather backhanded tributes. Durgnat does not "deny that there is a Hitch-cockian vision of the world, or that it possesses some moral or poetic truth. So does a great deal of minor and middle-brow art and entertainment." It is beginning to seem that a director who has proved — with remarkably rare lapses — his ability to appeal to the most general as well as the most esoteric and cultist of movie audiences is not to be forgiven for the crime of being popular. But Durgnat does grant him his "vision." It is "revealed with some force in his major films, and, although touched on, [is] also soft-pedalled, watered-down and bowdlerized in his minor films, which certainly reveal deeper meanings if related by complex deductions and decoding based on the important ones." But "since the minor films add little or nothing to the major ones, the decoding is a fairly academic exercise." By now, Hitchcock stands condemned because of the way he has been interpreted; he's beginning to look like one of the protagonists in his own films, in for a rough time.

Hitchcock, however, is not the main character in Durgnat's plot. Part of the trouble with The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock is that its subject — indicated accurately enough by its title — is not so much Hitchcock himself but his "strange case." Durgnat is constrained to view Hitchcock through the lenses of various critical approaches to Hitchcock that differ, one by one, from his own. This makes him define his responses to Hitchcock in response to other responses to Hitchcock — a "fairly academic exercise" that gives his argumentation, proceeding as it does by indirection, its defensive, petulant and obsessive tone. It also gives rise to what might kindly be termed paradoxes. Durgnat is driven to insist that Strangers on a Train (the polarities and bi-polarities of which he interprets brilliantly) is finally "a minor achievement" because it doesn't do what Chabrol and Rohmer think it does. Durgnat takes issue with Rear Window by taking issue with Jean Douchet's interpretation of it ("all the talk ... of the spectator's vicarious punishment ... derives from ... a one-dimensional psychology ... which knows nothing of pleasurable fear ... or fear recollected in tranquillity").

It's clear by this stage that Durgnat is no longer talking about Hitchcock — who, whatever one thinks about him, knows a great deal about these very things — at all. (Cf. one famous interview: Cahiers du Cinema: Quelle est alors la logique profonde de vos films? Hitchcock: Faire souffrir le spectateur.) He is tilting at various critical windmills. His elaborate and contrived defense of To Catch a Thief (which he awards 23 pages) is undertaken largely because other critics have deemed it too slight. (Spoto regards it as a "cream puff.") The titles tell it all: Part I of The Strange Case is called "The Record" and deals mainly (after a valuable periodization) with other critical responses; Part II, 'The Evidence," deals with Hitchcock's films one by one, though never directly. Nothing so mundane or workaday as an adequate plot outline — some of Hitchcock's films are practically unrecognizable in Durgnat's plot summaries — is allowed to punctuate Durgnat's recurrent sideswipes at the critical rivals he needs so desperately to upstage.

Durgnat's trajectories lead him into errors of judgment his argument can ill afford. It's one thing, after all, to entertain reservations about the overtones Chabrol and Rohmer award to the notion of "transference of guilt"; but it's another thing to dismiss the notion as a whole as "a French Catholic importation." Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Rear Window, Vertigo, and Frenzy all spring to mind as absolving their protagonists from guilt by removing or killing the person who caused the assumption of guilt in the first place. (In The Trouble with Harry he's dead from the first frame.) Durgnat, on the other hand, does not shrink from putting forward the surprising idea that "in terms of dramatically experienced transference of guilt the most searchingly Hitchcockian films are by a wide variety of other directors" or that "Strangers on a Train is just so much footsie-footsie with guilt compared with, say Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. "The Third Man, there again, fits every requirement Chabrol and Rohmer think is specific to Hitchcock; and "the most serious Hitchcock film is by another director, Rene Clement's Plein Soleil."

The basis for these seemingly irrelevant assertions (whoever said that Hitchcock had a monopoly on transference? — you can see it in Dirty Harry if you want to) is Durgnat's disavowal of auteur theory, which once again he pushes too far. It's possible to agree with Durgnat that "the establishment of recurrent motifs ... a prevalent concern of auteur theory ... suits Hitchcock's films almost too well ... all his situations are permutations of one another"; it's possible, too, to share Durgnat's belief that auteur theory "has been a useful stepping stone, but it's high time to go beyond it." But Durgnat's idea that "the spirit of the age seems to be the demiurge behind the predominance of certain themes" (such as transference) doesn't take us very far beyond it at all. Worse still, it leads Durgnat himself into some very strange territory indeed, where he indulges himself (and wearies the reader) by playing musical director's chairs. We are asked to imagine Strangers on a Train as a "Tolkien Western" (whatever this means) or the Pabst version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, or what J. Lee Thompson might have done with The Wrong Man. Durgnat has by now slid over from the might-be (an authentically Hitchcockian tense) into the might-have-been (a cloud-cuckoo land where the wood cannot be distinguished from the trees, which is Durgnat's own preserve, and he is welcome to it).

As an introductory text, Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock is of much more value than Durgnat's book, which Spoto himself (with good reason) professes to find obscure. Spoto, unlike Durgnat, does not presume too much prior knowledge and does provide halfway-decent plot summaries. Spoto, unlike Durgnat, has an identifiable audience — the curious beginning student. And Spoto, who is himself a curious beginning student, has done some homework. His interviews turn up some fascinating detail. For instance, Ingrid Bergman on the Dali dream-sequence in Spellbound: "It was a wonderful, twenty-minute[!] sequence that really belongs in a museum. The idea for a major part of it was that I would become, in Gregory Peck's mind, a statue. To do this, we shot the film in the reverse way in which it would appear on the screen. They put a pipe in my mouth, so I could breathe, and then a statue was actually made around me. I was dressed in a draped, Grecian gown with a crown on my head and an arrow through my neck. Then the cameras rolled. I was in this statue, then I broke out and the action continued. We ran it backwards, so it would appear as if I became a statue. It was marvellous. But someone (at Selznick International) said 'What is all this drivel?' So they cut it. It was such a pity." Reading this, I could almost hear Ingrid Bergman saying it. Better still, Spoto got Hitchcock to talk about Vertigo — a film Spoto claims to have seen 26 times (o, lucky man!). In the sequence where Scottie metamorphoses Judy into Madeleine, "for that hotel room, I deliberately chose a hotel on Post Street that had a vertical green sign outside. I wanted Kim Novak to emerge from that room as a ghost with a green effect, so I put wide sliding glass in front of the camera, blurred at the top when she first appears. We raised this glass as she came toward Scottie ... he saw her first as a ghost, but with her proximity she became clarified and solid." Jimmy Stewart, kissing her, is reminded of the stable where he kissed Madeleine. "I had the hotel room and all the pieces of the stable made into a circular set," Hitchcock explained to Spoto, "then I had the camera taken right round the whole thing in a 360-degree turn. Then we put that on a screen, and I stood the actors on a small turntable and turned them around. So they went around, and the screen gave the appearance of going around with them. That was in order to give him [Scottie] the feeling that he was back in that particular spot [the stable]."

And if you think that's — well, vertiginous, listen to Spoto's account of Tippi Hedren's nostalgic reminiscences of the attic sequence in The Birds. She "was placed daily in a cage-like room on a soundstage, an opening was made for the camera, and two men, with heavy gauntlets protecting them from fingers to shoulders, opened huge boxes of gulls which they threw directly at her, hour after hour. The girl is seen fending off birds, and that's exactly what Miss Hedren did for what she has called 'the worst week of my life' ... Representatives of the Humane Society were present to see that no birds were hurt ... 'Finally,' (Tippi Hedren remembers, and no doubt would prefer to forget) 'one gull decided to perch on my eyelid ... just missing my eyeball. I became hysterical.'" Spoto certainly turns up some trumps. (I didn't know that the scissor-killing in Dial M for Murder "took an entire week to film," but now we have it on the authority of Princess Grace — whom Spoto inveigled into writing his preface — herself.) In particular, Leonard South (Family Plot's director of photography) hits the nail on the head. "To get a director with as much art and technical talent is very rare. Hitchcock makes it easy for a cameraman. Most directors, if artistic, have no technical knowledge. I've worked with him since The Paradine Case and he's uncanny. He asks what lens you have on the camera, then he looks at the scene [none of the set photographs, incidentally, show Hitchcock using a viewfinder] and he knows what will appear on the screen. He's rarely wrong. ... And he never moves the camera without a reason. When it moves, it's because the audience should be looking around with the actors. He's very specific about that."

Perhaps more important to the student than these various tricks-of-the-trade revelations is that Spoto came away from the set of Family Plot with the storyboards of two sequences, which are reproduced at the end of his book: the runaway-car episode (about which Hitchcock proudly indicates, "I show the dashboard for only one cut") and the cemetery sequence where Lumley pursues Mrs. Maloney. (Interestingly, Thomas Wright, the storyboard illustrator, portrays Lumley (Bruce Dern) as having a mustache very much like the one sported by Adamson (William Devane) in the film.) The storyboards enhance and complement what is a well-produced and beautifully illustrated book. Spoto reproduces several production stills as well as frames from the films themselves, and the quality of all of them is exemplary. (There are two stills of the set-up of the famous crane shot in Young and Innocent — the single-take progression from a high-angle overview of a hotel ballroom where a the dansant is taking place to a close-up of the eyes of the drummer in the band.)

For the most part, however, Spoto's words fail to come up to the level of the pictures in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. There are questionable judgments galore ("Hitchcock's method of dealing with the subtheme of homosexuality has never been more than stereotypical"; Rope is "probably the boldest technical experiment ever attempted"; Madeleine in Vertigo is "the quintessence of the mystery of woman"; Ernest Lehman's achievements — which include West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Hello, Dolly as well as North by Northwest and Family Plot — demonstrate his ability as a screenwriter "for whom form and content are inseparable.") Even apart from these, Spoto's prose style is quick to make you wince.

"The power of an image" is said to have "a real yet tenebrous quality, breathtakingly beautiful, mysterious." Feelings are "reinforced," dissolves are "effective"; within a certain "framework," "interesting images appear." The Man Who Knew Too Much is a "devilishly concocted caper with all sorts of technical inventiveness." Secret Agent is "profoundly disturbing yet irresistibly amusing" and "offers new riches at each viewing." Characters get "plunged" into "a morally gray, ambiguous world"; casting is "inspired," effects are "subtle" and ambiguities "surface." "Comic contrasts" are "provided" in "richly entertaining" films that might have "literate and witty" — or even "sparkling" — dialogue. "Images of startling beauty" have a habit of appearing, as do "remarkable technical achievements" and "splendid," even "flawless" acting performances. Sequences have "strong emotional resonance," and some striking images can be "unsettling." All these "admirable elements" add up to what is, of course, "a mature view of reality." The kind of cliche no editor should have let across his desk turns into a pretentiousness that has the effect of making impossible any real discussion of Hitchcock. Earnest, bland assurances that "Alfred Hitchcock is a director concerned with the inner life ... 'the landscape of the mind' " or that "the major issue in the works of Alfred Hitchcock is the disparity between appearance and reality" can hardly be said to demonstrate what is unique or characteristic about his films. From this kind of description, we would be hard put to know that he makes films at all.

If these criticisms seem harsh, it's worth pointing out that Spoto never indulges in the kind of utter meaninglessness of Durgnat's references to Hitchcock's "imperturbable ambiguity between the miraculous, the stoic, the ironic and the moralistic," and that he is capable, just as Durgnat is capable, of flashes of insight. Spoto is good on the colour coding in Topaz, for example; he reminds us that the murderers in Rope "speak of the murder in terms suggesting a sexual act (Then his body went limp ... I knew it was over ... I felt a sense of tremendous exhilaration')" — is this "stereotypical"? And there are in Spoto's book some indications of a good eye; in Strangers on a Train "Guy's punch to Bruno's jaw is photographed in doubly subjective images. We are Guy delivering the blow, but we are also Bruno receiving it." Yet all these examples are few and far between, and they lead nowhere in particular. At one point (curiously enough, during a discussion of The 39 Steps) Spoto indicates promisingly but in passing that "the manner of Hitchcock's technique reveals the meaning of his films — we may discern the director's intent if we ask the question 'How does the film mean?' rather than 'What does the film mean?' " But this remains an isolated observation, and nowhere does Spoto answer his own (or John Ciardi's) question, which is left hanging. More's the pity, since Leonard South's statement gives him — and us — a few pointers.

Answering this question — which still needs to be done — would involve some sustained visual analysis of Hitchcock's films, for the good and simple reason that Hitchcock, who is above all a montage director and orchestrates films very largely around reaction shots, uses more shots than other directors do. Neither Spoto nor Durgnat seems to have noticed this, and so each of them attempts to explain Hitchcock in different, and presumably less satisfactory ways. Durgnat refracts Hitchcock through his critics and contemporaries in an attempt to be original which finally has the effect of putting to one side Hitchcock himself. But if Durgnat has too many critical frameworks — too many of his own, and too many rival ones to offset them — Spoto seems to have none at all, except, perhaps, a rather uncritical desire to spread Robin Wood's oh-so-serious and (worse still) oh-so-humourless moralistic approach rather more thinly across Hitchcock's entire output. Nothing could be more calculated to annoy Durgnat, for whom "Hitchcock is not the penetrating moralist he is sometimes made out to be"; but Durgnat himself takes us no closer to the heart of the matter than Spoto does. I would be tempted to suggest that Hitchcock needs rescuing from his admirers (like Spoto) and detractors (like Durgnat) alike, were it not for the fact that on some level fundamental to the art of film Hitchcock, who does not share the humourlessness of either, has yet again succeeded in bamboozling them all, just as he has bamboozled his audiences all along.


(c) Film Quarterly (1983)