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MoMA (1999) - Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette




Modern art is often seen as the product of impulse and compulsion, of the divine creative whim that reveals the turbulent depths of its creator's spirit. Alfred Hitchcock, one of the great modern artists, worked in a different manner. A conservative Catholic, Hitchcock was married to the same woman, Alma Reville, from 1926 until his death in 1980, and collaborated with her on most of his films. He made a religion of routine: every day the same dark suit (he had dozens of identical ones), the same lunch in his office, and, when he traveled to Paris or New York, the same room in the same hotel. For Hitchcock, familiarity bred order, and order allowed him to control the shape and substance of his films.

This amount of control was unusual in a commercial medium that presupposes a collaboration among director, actors, and technicians, as well as pressure from the studio bosses. But Hitchcock's commercial success and the puckish hauteur of his personality gave him the sense of security he craved. As a director inside the studio cocoon — first in Germany, then London and, from 1939 on, Hollywood — he felt free to examine his and humanity's deepest fears, and to dramatize them with a uniquely coiled energy. In those familiar surroundings he created films that exercise the same power over the viewer today as when they were made forty or seventy years ago. They are expressions of a dynamic, perpetually modern art.

For most of a career that spanned fifty-two years and fifty-three features, Hitchcock chose his own subject matter, worked meticulously with screenwriters, and minutely supervised each detail of preproduction, from the hue of a sunset to the subclause in a contract. So fully did he prepare and so richly did he imagine each element in the grand design that he claimed to be bored by the actual shooting of the script. It is commonly believed that filmmaking is what happens on the set, in the combustion of story and actors, the perfect plan and the accidental epiphany. For Hitchcock, filmmaking was what happened in his head, and then on paper, before shooting began. His movies were no accidents. Art was the distillation of his design.

It is appropriate then, in Hitchcock's centennial year, to study the artifacts of his design: the memos, set designs and architectural plans, storyboards, continuity sketches, props, and photographs that document the ways in which this master of suspense, like any of the master criminals in his films, plotted the perfect crime, over and over. The exhibition Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette provides an illuminating view of a brilliant film mind at work behind the genially macabre Hitchcock silhouette.

That silhouette was known worldwide. Hitchcock is the only director whose name has become a genre. His collective achievement seems so familiar that the phrase "a Hitchcock film" instantly evokes a comprehensive, tantalizing cinematic universe, not just of story but of style. It conjures up both the matter of his work (an intriguing narrative) and the manner (telling it with economy and flair). Though he made romantic comedies and costume dramas, Hitchcock was most at home in the suspense film; it was the simple dark suit that he filled out with the supple, troubling body of his cinematic work.

Like any complex artist, Hitchcock embraced contradictions. He said that actors should be treated like cattle, yet he relied strongly on the Hollywood system to provide figures of both star quality and reassurance — Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, Grace Kelly — to put a face on his fears and lend glamour to his thrill rides. He rightfully boasted of creating "pure" cinema from his pieces of film, yet he was keenly aware of studio expectations that he would keep producing hits. Though his films were totally controlled environments, the subject of a Hitchcock picture was typically the loss of control, the tossing of a more or less innocent person into the vortex of guilt and intrigue.

The first image of his first silent-film success, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), is of a woman screaming in terror. The last shot in his last film, Family Plot (1976), a half-century later, is of Barbara Harris, as a fake seer, winking directly at the screen after fooling her boyfriend and the audience about the extent of her psychic powers. She might be Hitchcock, finally letting moviegoers in on the trick: The screams, the shudders — it was only a game.

If a game it was, he played it brilliantly, ransacking all of cinema's resources to make a dramatic point. He certainly knew that viewers could distinguish between the queasy ache of fear in real life and the acute pleasure of experiencing it secondhand on the screen. But it was not merely a game, or even the sublime trick of "pure" cinema. It was the use of thriller conventions to call up and comment on the deepest anxieties of twentieth-century life and death: the feeling that the world had spun off its moral axis, that the end was near and could come without warning or reason. Behind the suave smile of a Hitchcock villain was the grimacing skull of chaos.

Visitors to the exhibition will find helpful hints to the careful, jovial man behind this world vision — a vision that has never lost its seductive power. Hitchcock retains his control over moviegoers. Not just in the splendid shock scenes or in his most enduring films, but in his entire oeuvre, Hitchcock's art still strikes with the suddenness of a knife attack in the shower, and leaves a lasting impression as vivid as fresh blood on a white screen.