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Monsters and Critics (12/Oct/2008) - The Alfred Hitchcock Story (review)

(c) Monsters and Critics (12/Oct/2008)

Feature: The Alfred Hitchcock Story (and analysis)

The Alfred Hitchcock Story, recently reissued by Titan books, was originally published in 1999. The book features write-ups by Ken Mogg on every feature film that Hitchcock directed.

Other authors contribute inserts on everything from Hitchcock’s foray into television and radio to his famous cameo appearances and his notorious obsession with blonde women in his films.

The book includes many details about the various stages of production in Hitchcock’s films, as well as providing readers with an idea of how Hitchcock’s films fared critically and financially at the time of their release.

The general tone of the book is casual, with Mogg referring to Hitchcock affectionately as ‘Hitch’; Mogg even writes about being on set during the shooting of Family Plot, Hitchcock’s final theatrical release before his death.

Overall, the book works as a general summary of Hitchcock’s career, as well as a nice visual representation of Hitchcock’s life and work via the many photographs the book supplies. That said, the book does not really work to challenge assumptions about Hitchcock’s films, at a time when a truly critical look at his work would have been valuable.

Early in the book, in a section called “Behind the Scenes Collaborators,” writer Philip Kemp addresses one of the main issues that has affected Hitchcock’s reception over the years:

“No film-maker has gained more than Hitchcock from the auteur theory: an ‘Alfred Hitchcock film’ is widely taken as being entirely his achievement, an impression Hitch did little to contradict. Nonetheless, Hitchcock owed a lot to his collaborators, as he well knew.”

While the book does go into detail about Hitchcock’s collaborations, thoroughly examining the evolution of his scripts and the various sources and screenwriters that produced them, the book does not further examine the Auteur theory and its impact on Hitchcock’s reception.

In the context of Kemp’s statement, it would appear that the Auteur Theory, developed by French critics in the mid-20th century, merely failed to credit all of those who worked on a film, besides the director.

The reality is a little more complicated, as the Auteur theory attempted to locate artistic ‘authorship’ in a collaborative discipline; it didn’t deny that film was collaborative, but it attempted to find the filmic equivalent of the writer, the painter, and the composer—the driving artistic force behind the artwork.

Though a director might work with different screenwriters throughout their career, the unique ‘stylistic signature’ and ‘personal vision’ of the director was supposed to be evident when looking at their entire oeuvre.

This is where Hitchcock has most benefited, because his films work perfectly in the context of this theory. Hitchcock’s technical mastery, as well as all of those recurring elements in his films that mark them as “Hitchcockian” (the cameos, the blondes, the overpowering mother figures, etc.) did give the impression of a singular force behind films that were often penned by multiple screenwriters and adapted from various novels.

Isolating these and other aspects that make Hitchcock’s oeuvre appear unified, one can miss the wildly differing quality of the scripts and the acting throughout his films. In short, in their attempt to find ‘the author,’ the critics neglected to look at the actual artwork, and at what exactly constitutes a great film.

In this way, the Auteur theory continues to be influential. Though French critics initially applied the term ‘auteur’ to Hollywood directors such as Howard Hawkes, the word is now colloquially bandied about for any director that is thought of as being ‘an artist’ (whether merited or not), as opposed to your average working director of no stature.

Though notions of ‘authorship’ in film may no longer be central to the academic study of film, the general idea of focusing only on the ‘cinema-specific’ endures, with most Cinema Studies departments ignoring the impact of the literary and dramatic aspects of film.

As for Hitchcock, uncritical views of his work are promoted both via academia and companies marketing his films, and this extends to The Alfred Hitchcock Story as well. The book doesn’t challenge any of these conventional approaches to film or Hitchcock specifically, and this is because the book probably wouldn’t exist if Hitchcock weren’t seen as an unassailable master.

Ironically, Hitchcock himself, in a section on ‘Hitchcock and his Writers,’ is quoted as saying, re: the Auteur theory, “I suppose they mean that the responsibility for the film rests solely on the shoulders of the director. But very often the director is no better than his script.”

Elsewhere, there is even a quote from screenwriter and Hitchcock collaborator John Michael Hayes, where he says “Hitch relied on stars and suspense to sell his pictures, when he should have been concerned with the script more than anything else.” These are hints that a re-assessment of Hitchcock’s films, including the quality of their scripts, is needed, but the book doesn’t explore this.

The book does get into how the script for a Hitchcock film typically evolved, which can be interesting. The final scripts for many Hitchcock films were often written by several contributing writers, and could draw inspiration from multiple sources.

For instance, Strangers On A Train was adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel by Raymond Chandler, but Mogg writes that the screenplay was completed by Czenzi Ormonde, and that the merry-go-round scene was actually taken from Edmund Crispin’s novel The Moving Toyshop.

Many of the films Hitchcock made had their origins in novels, even if Hitchcock only ended up plucking a single idea from that source. All of this indicates the importance of the literary component of Hitchcock’s films, for without the substance of those literary works, and the stylings of the various screenwriters, Hitchcock’s directing skills would have had no application.

What the book is lacking is any critical commentary on which scripts worked and which didn’t, and why. Mogg does make evaluative judgments on the films, particularly some of the earlier ones, which he admits are conventional melodramas; but with those films that are truly in need of re-evaluation, Mogg plays it safe and sticks to accepted ideas.

While Mogg and his collaborators supply lots of behind-the-scenes information, bits of biographical fact, and trivia, they do not provide a truly critical approach to Hitchcock’s films.

For example, in the section on the popular Rear Window, Mogg discusses the film in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis (or a simplified version of such that is often applied to artistic works, and which permeated many of Hitchcock’s own films):

“...Oedipal problems—all of which recur, with variations, in Rear Window. For example, Jeff confined to his wheelchair feels himself ‘infantilised’ and rendered impotent because of his broken leg, and is forced into a state of passive looking. (Hitchcock here implies a parallel with the cinema spectator, whose ‘relative narcissism’ has been remarked on by critics Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson.) Over the way, he sees a quarrelling couple whose relationship reflects some of his own current feelings towards Lisa. And when the wife disappears, Jeff sends his note asking ‘What have you done with her?’, whose wording represents the classic question of a child who observes the ‘primal scene’ (the parents’ love-making). Finally, Jeff confronts the father-figure himself, Thorwald, and engages with him in a life-death struggle.”

The discipline of psychology was developed to study the human mind, not artworks, which is why using psychoanalytic theories (or linguistic, political, or any other ‘borrowed’ approaches not specific to the genre of art in question) to assess the value of art, or to understand how it works as art, is wholly inappropriate.

Mogg’s comments range from stating the obvious (Jeff’s ‘impotence,’ due to his broken leg, is self-evident; psychoanalytic theorizing isn’t needed) to imbuing parts of the film with a significance they don’t really have (Does Jeff’s note to Thorwald really have anything to do with ‘the primal scene’?)

Passages like this attempt to give the film a greater depth than it has, and conveniently overlook weaknesses in the script. Compare Mogg’s comments to those of the film critic Dan Schneider, from his review of Rear Window:

“While not a great film overall, Rear Window is a technically great film. The camera work by cinematographer Robert Burks is first rate, and the film goes over many standard Hitchcock themes such as voyeurism- especially apt in this cyberworld of 24/7 voyeurism, marriage as a horror, and challenging technical restrictions, as in Lifeboat and Rope. There are many small moments in the film that work for effect - such as pure mise-en-scene shots of Jeff or the neighbors doing minor things unrelated to the main tale. And, there is some comedy, such as after Jeff is tossed out the window, and Thorwald is arrested, Stella comments to the cops, ‘I don’t want any part of it’, when asked about assisting in the search for Anna Thorwald’s body. Still, none of the many pluses of the film are enough to lift the film up from a good, solid period piece, for Rear Window’s reputation is based largely upon its claim to being a slice of ‘realism’. It’s not. It’s far closer to melodrama with its reliance on coincidences and implausibilities - not to mention the very sexism of the premise that a woman is so predictable that even her murder can be deduced by small deviances from that predictability, to propel the main action along. And melodrama, while it can often be great fun, is almost never great art.”

This analysis is much more in keeping with Hitchcock’s filmmaking background that The Alfred Hitchcock Story lays out, for as Mogg details in the book, Hitchcock directed many melodramas in his career.

The Schneider quote also acknowledges Hitchcock’s technical mastery, yet doesn’t confuse such with the quality of the script, which is a key aspect of what makes an individual film great. The Auteur theory only recognized the former, which has allowed Hitchcock’s overall reputation to soar beyond what some of the individual film’s merit.

Generally, Mogg seems to just regurgitate the conventional wisdom about various Hitchcock films, such as the notion that the film Vertigo is Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Like the more popular Hitchcock films covered in the book, Vertigo gets an extended write-up.

Mogg provides some behind-the-scenes details and technical minutia, such as the fact that the film was shot in VistaVision, where the film runs horizontally through the camera. While these kinds of details are not unusual for this kind of book, they really do not contribute to an understanding of why the film succeeds or fails as art. Mogg’s comments about the actual film are typically unhelpful:

“...the film is about Romanticism. The term ‘transcendental pretence’ refers to an attitude that dominated Western thinking after Rousseau (1712-78). That attitude was based, somewhat wilfully, on the assumption that the Self is a microcosm of humanity and that everything needful to know can be found there. Out of such an attitude came Romanticism, which Goethe (1749-1832) called a ‘disease’. In Vertigo, Scottie catches that disease.”

Despite all the references to Romanticism, Rousseau and Goethe, this passage really says nothing substantial about the film, or what makes it work. If a film has a badly written screenplay, or is badly acted, tenuous connections to Romanticism or the ideas of various thinkers and writers cannot make up for those shortcomings.

Too often Mogg will try to connect a Hitchcock film to an idea from Schopenhauer, or to some comment by Camille Paglia about ‘mother figures’. This means that instead of finding depth within Hitchcock’s actual films, he has to look outside of it. Compare this to Dan Schneider’s critique of Vertigo, and one can see why this is the case:

“It’s not that Vertigo is an awful film, for technically it’s very well made - especially considering that era, but the flaccid and absurd screenplay simply does not hold up a half century on. Add to that the fact that the film is glacially paced, and you have a fairly boring film; one that even Jimmy Stewart’s crotchety presence can barely enliven. However, I have long lauded films that do not place plot ahead of character development, so one might ask why am I asking for a better plot and more briskly paced film? Well, simply put, all of the characters are cardboard cutouts, and plot details are easier to resolve than character depth. If one is going to give mere archetypes (and that’s being generous, the characters are really more stereotypes than archetypes) then the plot better zing and have a good payoff. This one does not. Part of the problem with the screenplay is the utter dependence for the propulsion of the plot upon the Neolithic psychiatric pseudoscience of the era, which too many of Hitchcock’s films are dependent upon, and which leave most of his films in very shallow waters intellectually. This lack of intellectual and emotional depth is part of the reason he is rightly looked down upon when compared to greater masters of film, such as Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, or Martin Scorsese.”

Notice how this is much more specific in its assessment, with regards to aspects of the screenplay such as characterization and plot. As with Rear Window, Schneider goes on to detail the melodramatic aspects of the film, as well as critiquing the acting ability of one of the film’s leads, Kim Novak.

Again, these aspects of film have generally been neglected in the academic study of cinema, where only the cinema-specific aspects of a film (mise-en-scene, editing, etc.) are seen as important.

This is, in part, why a ‘technically well made’ film like Vertigo (as Schneider acknowledges) has been given a free pass by those unwilling or unable to evaluate the quality of the script or of the acting, both of which contribute to the film’s overall artistic success.

Thus, people like Dan Auiler, in the section on Hitchcock’s final years titled “Languishing,” claim things like:

“Indeed, the acceptance of Vertigo as Hitchcock’s masterpiece ... is symbolic of the entire reassessment of Hitch’s career since his death. His position in cinema history is now unassailable.”

Well, apparently not. But the idea that Vertigo is a masterpiece is symbolic of the state of film criticism at the present time.

If the book is unreliable as a critical assessment of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, it at least makes up for this intellectual lack by sprinkling bits of gossip throughout. For instance, Hitchcock apparently propositioned actress Tippi Hedren on the set of the film Marnie; Hedren, evidently not impressed, made a comment about Hitchcock’s weight, and thereafter the two refused to speak directly to one another on set.

While these tidbits are the sort of thing that dumb down discourse on the arts, they admittedly make The Alfred Hitchcock Story more fun to read.

Otherwise, the book provides a basic sense of Hitchcock’s biography, though it did make me want to seek out a proper biography that would elaborate on certain aspects of Hitchcock’s life and flesh him out a bit more as a character (no insult intended, Hitch!).

Despite the various inserts, reading pages of film summaries does get boring, particularly if you’ve not seen a particular Hitchcock film. While the excerpts I’ve quoted from Mogg aren’t particularly useful as criticism, his prose style is generally clear, and appropriate for a general audience, unlike the garbled prose of most film academics.

The overall format of the book, coupled with the lack of anything truly new to say about the films, is what makes The Alfred Hitchcock Story a ho-hum read for anyone looking for more than trivia.

In truth, the book is not one to read cover to cover; instead, it works better if consulted in pieces, for those who want some background information as they watch Hitchcock’s films.

The best thing about the book is its images; the publicity stills, movie posters, and candid shots of Hitchcock behind the scenes, all reproduced on glossy paper stock, are what make this book worth looking at.

It would make a very nice coffee table book for an admirer of Hitchcock. Those who want a more in-depth look into the man’s life, or a truly critical approach to his films, will have to look elsewhere.

Anthony's blog: http://rocket-to.blogspot.com/index.html