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Financial Times (07/Aug/1999) - Nothing is what it seems



Nothing is what it seems

Nigel Andrews describes how his perception of Alfred Hitchcock changed from waddling human balloon to movie-making genius

There are great wonders of growing up, from riding your first bicycle or drinking your first glass of wine to finding that the human body can enjoy other things undreamt of in the kindergarten. So can the mind. One growing-up wonder is the change that can come over one's perception of Alfred Hitchcock.

As a child I watched a fat man with a droll tombstone voice make a weekly clown of himself on TV. "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" read the title, and the silhouetted human balloon waddled in. filling the space behind a translucent screen scrawled with the outline of his caricatural logo. All this to the tune of a tripping, elephantine danse macabre. Then came the cockneyish voice, resembling a 45rpm record played at 33. "Good evening. In tonight's episode, a man uses a lamb chop as a deadly weapon ..."

Not much older I went, or was taken, to Vertigo and North by Northwest. I loved them both but still assumed that Hitchcock was low down or nowhere on the art totem-pole. Then a few years later came, or must have, that moment when I learned names like Truffaut and Godard and realised that these folk - at the very top of the pole! - thought Hitchcock was some kind of god. The phrase "Hitchocko-Hawksienne" boomed religiously from Cahiers du Cinema, to which I had graduated from Film Fun, indicating that the fat director should be regarded as a genius at least equal to Howard Hawks (whom I had barely heard of).

Ah the French! We need them even when they drive us mad. Today, in 1999, aged 99 years 350 days (how the man who regaled us with his horror of the police would relish those emergency-service digits). Hitchcock sits not just atop the totem pole but above and beyond, somewhere in filmic eternity. No present-day critic has to argue that this Jesuit-educated Londoner who made films about blood, murder and all things catchpenny was a great artist. No one watching Psycho, The Birds or Marnie need feel any more unclean than if visiting the Uffizi Gallery.

So what does make Hitchcock great? For each film-goer there is a different answer - which alone may be the answer - but for me it is the sense of infinite doors and mirrors in a single event.

In Spellbound a first passionate kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Pock is followed by the vision of a long vista of identical doors identically opening. It's a signature image for the oeuvre. Every great Hitchcock scene has reverberances that recede into a knowable, then an unknowable distance. The Psycho shower murder is not just a shower murder but an aborted cleansing, a variant on a baptism, a catharsis without closure ... We can no more clean up all the meanings than Norman Bates can the clues. There is always an unfound scrap of message. How else explain why the scene haunts us after so many sequels and parodies and one near-identical remake?

Other Hitchcock images, dozens of them, replay in the head. Cary Grant pursued by a plane ("Crop-sprayin' where there ain't no crops?" puzzles the local) or mountaineering over Presidents. James Stewart peering down a stairway while his view concertinas. A camera dollying across a hallway towards a hand closing on a key (Bergman's in Notorious). A chattering woman whose use of the word "knife" is amplified on the soundtrack each time it recurs (Blackmail).

Hitchcock took ordinary fears - being chased, being in danger in a high place, being "found out" -- and made them dreamlike, delirious, poetically contagious. A filmmaker born to banality in working-class London 100 years ago next Friday performed a micro-pathology on the banal, uncovering everything that made that concept untenable.

Nothing is ordinary in his cinema, not even that thing rendered platitudinous by Hollywood, romance. Boy meets girl, end-of-story, never happens in Hitchcock. Love can be jealous (Dial M for Murder), distrustful (Rebecca), flippantly brittle (To Catch a Thief), haunted (Spellbound), obsessive (Mar-nit) or exploitative (Notorious). There are always extra doors, even beyond the bedroom. And his best films suggest that a love not tried by fire, not tested by danger or irrationality, is weak and unweaned.

Growing up - the idea we began with - is central in Hitchcock. Count the mother or mother-in-law figures. Not just Mrs Bates, Norman's retarding parent-demon, but the matriarchs in Rebecca, Notorious, Strangers on a Train. To Catch a Thief; North by Northwest, The Birds, Marnie ... a list almost literally without end.

Heroes and heroines must run their gauntlets not only to escape unjust suspicion or preying villains but the shadow and impotence of childhood or of an untested maturity. Aren't Hitch's famous glacial blondes -those teasing, ironic, detached provocateuses -- defined by being all things non-motherly?

In another way too Hitchcock's cinema is about growing up. Appearances lie. People lie. To become an adult is to learn to dissimulate; to become a stronger adult is to detect dissimulation. A penny-plain definition of Hitchcockian cinema might be "Nothing Is what it seems." The woman thought to be Norman's mother isn't; the man stabbed by Cary Grant in North of Northwest wasn't; the kindly uncle in Shadow of a Doubt never was.

At the same time, in a reality built from Chinese boxes, appearances may become more perverse still by proclaiming their truthfulness in the face of bids to deride or discredit. In Rear Window -- that Neighbourhood Watch recruiting commercial before its time -- the seeming wife-killer in the flat opposite James Stewart's is a wife-killer. And the gull that first pecks Tippi Hedren in The Birds is real and ominous, not the fluke avian scoundrel dismissed by a lady bird expert.

The joy for audiences, whether the surface "reality" lies or tells the truth, is in the depths below that surface: in the resonances, reflections and refractions. Hitchcock goes from room to room in our minds, changing or rearranging everything. A cooker isn't the same after Torn Curtain; a chair by a window is sinister after Vertigo; a shower-room makes us think twice after Psycho; a pair of binoculars or long-focus camera is a guilty possession after Rear Window.

A definition of great cinema might be, with apologies to Pope, "What oft was seen but ne'er so well depicted" -- so hauntingly, memorably, troublingly or transformingly. Hitchcock's films perfected the art of the double take. But it wasn't his characters doing the bemused repeat glances, it was us. However many times we look at the same moments and images, there is always something new to discover, new to marvel at and puzzle over.