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Hitchcock Annual (1993) - Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation




Review of "Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation" - by Robert E Kapsis


Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. Robert E. Kapsis. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 313 pages. $45.00 cloth. $16.95 paper.

Reviewed by KEN MOGG

For a work to become immortal it must possess so many excellences that it will not be easy to find a man who understands and values them all; so that there will be in all ages men who recognise and appreciate some of these excellences; by this means the credit of the work will be retained throughout the long course of centuries and ever-changing interests, for, as it is appreciated first in this sense, then in that, the interest is never exhausted.

In almost every age, whether it be in literature or art, we find that if a thoroughly wrong idea, or a fashion, or a manner is in vogue, it is admired. Those of ordinary intelligence trouble themselves inordinately to acquire it and put it in practice. An intelligent man sees through it and despises it, consequently he remains out of the fashion. Some years later the public sees through it and takes the sham for what it is worth; it now laughs at it, and the much-admired color of all these works of fashion falls off like the plaster from a badly-built wall: and they are in the same dilapidated condition.

— Arthur Schopenhauer, "On Authorship and Style"

The first half of Professor Kapsis's book traces the shifts in Hitchcock's fame during his fifty-year career in film and television, and considers his posthumous reputation. A later chapter examines the career to date of frequent "Hitchcock imitator," Brian De Palma. At issue is "whether an artist's fame is earned or unearned" (242). Kapsis tells us that the factors affecting artistic reputation are twofold, being either intrinsic (the films or texts themselves) or extrinsic. But in Hitchcock's case, at least, his continuing high status seems deserved, not just "because of the great range of his work but also because many of his films have been able to sustain a diversity of interpretations" (243).

It's equally clear, though, that non-textual factors contributed to Hitchcock's prestige. Kapsis treats several of these — the director's self-promotion, sponsorship by others, changing aesthetic codes — before he finally nominates changing aesthetic codes as having been crucial. The rise of auteur criticism in the late 1960s helped Hitchcock's selfpromotional efforts "in ways inconceivable in the pre-auteur era" (243).

Brian De Palma's case necessarily involves a different emphasis. Kapsis uses it to illustrate a "time-of-entry" hypothesis whereby a promising artist (e.g., De Palma) may be penalized for following too closely — in a double sense — the work of a towering predecessor (e.g., Hitchcock). No matter how gifted the later-comer, "critics will tend to view [his] work as imitative and unoriginal" (189).

But not all critics will react this way. Pauline Kael, with her nascent "postmodern sensibility" (200, 244), was quick to endorse De Palma as a brave new talent, and continued to write admiringly of his films into the 1980s; whereas Andrew Sarris, Kael's arch-foe, became increasingly dismayed by the films and soon leapt instead to a re-defense of Hitchcock (and Hitchcockian values). Further, Kael had always differed from Sarris in giving more weight to matters of the here and now, believing "that, on some level, a really good film was a response to [current] events and happenings in the wider society" (109). Sarris, though, was your typical auteurist who looked for "universality" and "endurance" in a work of art (112) — terms Kapsis acknowledges he has taken from Janet Staiger's 1985 article, "The Politics of Film Canons."

Kapsis shows that Hitchcock's acquaintance with critics began at about the time in the 1920s when he joined the newly-formed British Film Society. In 1925, several months before he directed his first completed film,1 he addressed a meeting of the society on the question of who made a film succeed. The answer, he insisted, was the director. He added that therefore "it was important that the public learn to associate the name of the director with a quality product" (16). So true to this masterful vision did Hitchcock's own career turn out that, as Kapsis notes, his films often seemed to be "more" than just suspense thrillers. Here I need to quote Kapsis's conclusion:

Part of Hitchcock's genius, unlike De Palma's, was his ability through much of his career to maintain a good working relationship with the media. His reputation history provides a vantage point from which to see clearly the reputation trajectories of other filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Woody AlLen, who, like Hitchcock, have straddled the line between popular genre movies and films with a more elitist intent.

Kapsis himself doesn't endorse the notion that genres impose artistic limits. He leaves that to reviewers like Terence Rafferty, who in 1987 implied that Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather was superior to a Hitchcock film because it succeeded in lifting the viewer "outside the tight little world of the thriller" (183). On the whole, Kapsis maintains a neutral stance in all such matters, only occasionally seeming inadvertently to drop his scholar's mask and reveal some area of ...

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Ken Mogg edits The MacGuffin, a film newsletter authorized by Australian Mensa.


  1. In 1922, Hitchcock started to direct a two-reeler called Number Thirteen, but it was never finished.
  2. George Orwell, "Raffles and Miss Blandish" (1944).
  3. E.W.F. Tomlin, ed., Charles Dickens 1812-1870 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), 264. An authority on Japanese film and culture, Freda Freiberg, has suggested to me that the sentimentality in some of Dickens's novels may be another factor accounting for their appeal to Japanese readers.
  4. Osbert Sitwell, Dickens (1932), quoted in Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), Vol. 4, 116.
  5. I've drawn information and quotations about Reynolds from Cyril Pearl, Victorian Patchwork (London: William Heinemann, 1972), specifically the chapter called "Mr Dickens and Mr. Reynolds" (67-94). Julian Symons's history of the detective story and the crime novel, Bloody Murder (New York: Viking, 1985) confirms that "Reynolds's early serials in particular are much concerned with torture and violence, up to the point of what Victorians considered permissible in open publication" (43).
  6. Orwell, "Boys' Weeklies" (1939). Even as Orwell wrote, James Hadley Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish was being published in England. The subject of a later essay by Orwell, calling it "sordid and brutal," the novel (needless to say) wasn't generally considered respectable writing. By comparison, the sadism and violence to be found in stories by authors like "Sapper" and Edgar Wallace seems merely exuberant, and demonstrably influenced Hitchcock's films.
  7. Orwell, "Raffles and Miss Blandish."
  8. Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1838), Chapter 50. The episode was energetically re-created by David Lean in his 1948 film-version of the novel, utilizing production designer John Bryan's expressionistic sets.
  9. The mob scene in Hitchcock's film expands what is no more than a passing reference in Mrs. Belloc Lowndes's 1913 novel: "Through their closed windows penetrated the sound of scurrying feet and loud, ribald laughter. What a crowd, nay, what a mob, must be hastening busily to and from the spot where there was now nothing to be seen!" (Chapter 15) The sound of "loud, ribald laughter" anticipates the moment in Hitchcock's Marnie when Mark (Sean Connery) and Marnie (Tippi Hedren) leave the roadside diner.
  10. Dickens, Great Expectations (1862), Chapter 57. This incident is recalled in Orwell's essay "Charles Dickens" (1939). The "flowering annuals" touch has approximate equivalents in Hitchcock: e.g., the refrigerator in the back of the truck which Thornhill (Cary Grant) steals from a hapless bystander at the end of the prairie scene in North by Northwest.
  11. Steven Connor, Charles Dickens (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 168.
  12. Concerning this description of Hitchcock's professional role — a description putting the emphasis on "entertainer" but not overlooking the "artist" — consider the relevant implication of his speech to the Film Society, mentioned in the text.
  13. Donald Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Collins, 1983), 28, 422. Spoto mentions, too, how Hitchcock as a youth had attended murder trials and made notes on them "as the young Dickens had done" (32). "His interest in patterns of murder and sadomasochistic behavior was also satisfied by a Sunday paper called News of the World, which had at the time a circulation of 7.5 million" (33). For further reading, see Edward Buscombe's excellent pioneering article, "Dickens and Hitchcock," in Screen, 11, Issue 4-5 (July-October, 1970).
  14. A majority of Hitchcock's American films are either adaptations of English stories or plays, or are re-workings of his own English films in an American setting (e.g., the 1943 Shadow of a Doubt is a re-working of The Lodger).
  15. A sign of Hitchcock's continuing popularity in Japan is his recent ghostly re-appearance there on TV "selling" cars. See Garth Alexander, "Late greats plug away in Japanese ad spots," Variety, April 12, 1993.
  16. Bordwell's Preface says, "Holding partisan debates in abeyance helps us trace out underlying norms." See David Bordwell, Making Meaning (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989), xii.
  17. Bordwell himself (1989) observes: "Many of a film's nuances now go unremarked because the interpretive optic in force has virtually no way to register them" (260). So it's instructive — and ironic — that when he compares two feminist readings of the boathouse scene in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), in which the critics' differences are confined to their respective interpretations of camera positions and the like, neither he nor they notice how in that very scene Maxim (Laurence Olivier) may be literally getting away with murder, i.e. right under everyone's noses. See Bordwell, 176-77, and — for my account of the scene — my review of Bordwell's book in The MacGuffin, Issue 6 (February, 1992), 7-10.
  18. I've put this phrase in quotes because it's the title of a fascinating book, The Quest for Love, by English academic and poet David Holbrook, which appeared at about the time of Marnie's release. Holbrook draws on the then up-to-the-minute research into early childhood development by figures like Guntrip and Winnicott in order to offer his highly suggestive reading of the work of D.H. Lawrence. I found the book to be my best guide to Hitchcock's film (although the latter is never mentioned in the text — not surprisingly, given Holbrook's condescending remark elsewhere about Psycho, quoted by Robin Wood in his 1989 Hitchcock's Films Revisited).
  19. No doubt, this elegant remark is an echo of Bogart's "hill of beans" comment to Bergman in Casablanca (1942). Marnie, of course, is a film positively replete with animal-references, of which this is one.
  20. Among the most interesting of these incidental details is the information that one of Hitchcock's friends — from whom he sought advice concerning the troublesome script of The Birds — was V.S. Pritchett, the acclaimed English author and literary figure (77). Given that another friend, so I've heard, was the poet laureate and noted crime novelist, C. Day-Lewis ("Nicholas Blake"), it's becoming clear just how allied with the English literary establishment Hitchcock was. Which is further proof that his "Englishness" was a cultivated thing. In turn, it's no wonder that his films carry so many literary references, often quite oblique or subtle ones.
  21. It has been suggested to me that this piece of characterization on De Palma's part was an attempt to allay feminist criticism of the film's sexist elements: the film's male offenders against women are clearly dumb. Which may represent good politics by De Palma, but what does it give the general audience?
  22. Compare L.B. Jeffries (Stewart) in Rear Window, sunk in a "swamp of boredom." In Scottie's case, after being sacked from the police force, he finds himself "on the bum." Now, I'm aware that the co-authors of the novel, D'entre les morts, on which Vertigo, is based, probably had some French models in mind — among them Robert Siodmak's 1953 Le grand jeu, itself a remake of Jacques Feyder's 1933 film of that title. But Boileau and Narcejac offered the rights of their novel to Hitchcock because they felt that it contained characteristic Hitchcockian ingredients — and they were right. Among those ingredients is the circumstance of a man down on his luck (and his reputation) who encounters a succession of bizarre events and ambiguous appearances.
  23. See Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London: Minerva Paperback edition, 1991), 49, 333. The second of these page-references is to Ackroyd's comparison of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) — one of the author's most picaresque novels — to "a cross between The Pilgrim's Progress and Tales of the Genji." Incidentally, I'm aware of how my point in the text comes close to calling some of Hitchcock's works (e.g., North by Northwest) a cross between John Bunyan and John Buchan. So be it. I think that's a fairly accurate description of their essential Englishness.
  24. A claustrophobic friend has contested this point with me, suggesting that claustrophobia is indeed universal. But I think there's a difference between fear of being imprisoned, i.e., of losing one's freedom, and fear of confinement per se. In any case, if the work of Erich Fromm (Escape From Freedom) is an indication, not everybody holds even the first of these fears. Thus I still maintain that neither of them is universal. Moreover, the tunnel scene in Body Double contains no actual threat of imprisonment.
  25. At one point Marnie uses a similar combination of zooms in-and-out and Herrmann's brassy music to signify its kleptomaniac character's ambivalent feelings as she approaches the Rutland company safe. But Hitchcock is here specifically referring to Marnie's dilemma — one she hasn't faced before — of whether or not she's prepared to rob her own husband (and in doing so, deprive herself of the love and security he stands for). Moreover, as I indicate in the text, the moment is part of a pattern which strongly suggests Marnie's almost continuous lack of ease. Hitchcock's scene is superior to De Palma's, on several counts.
  26. Novelist and moral philosopher Iris Murdoch's recent book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992), which has a chapter on Derrida, may serve to indicate what I have in mind here — as it exemplifies something of the larger moral concern (e.g., for contingent facts) that I associate with "Englishness" and the empirical method.
  27. I base this claim on some recent browsing. In particular, I recall one social commentator comparing postmodernism to the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Besides other possible meanings, her point was that postmodernism is already nearforgotten.