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National Post (13/Aug/1999) - In suspense for a century



In suspense for a century

Director Todd Solondz (Happiness) was working on his film Welcome to the Dollhouse, when he encountered a problem that threatened to snap his shoestring budget.

The filmmaker was about to shoot a sequence that would find his schoolgirl heroine assailed by thugs in the dark corridor of a grimy, tumbledown grade school. But when his company arrived on set, Solondz was horrified to discover that the hallways to the school his location scout had secured were hospital clean and brightly lit. There was no time to find a more menacing setting. The scene had to be shot that afternoon.

"I asked myself what Hitchcock would do," recalled the filmmaker. He had, after all, tumbled into movies on viewing the master's Shadow of a Doubt during college in the '80s"That's when I realized Hitchcock achieved his most frightening scenes by terrorizing characters in what were thought to be safe places. I remembered the scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant was attacked by a plane in the middle of a field. And I thought, I'll have the girl attacked in plain daylight, at recess, with children laughing all around her, not noticing. People later told me that it was the most thrilling scene in the movie. And it was. It was Hitchcock!"

Solondz wasn't the first director to borrow a cup of poison from Sir Alfred Hitchcock. That one sequence in North by Northwest has been endlessly imitated, most famously in From Russia with Love (1963), where James Bond is chased by an angry helicopter.

In addition to stealing Hitchcock's scenes, filmmakers have lifted the British-born director's trademark visual flourishes. In Jaws, for instance, Steven Spielberg repeats Hitchcock's Vertigo trick of zooming in while dollying back in the sequence where he has a stricken mom appear to ride a beach chair into the ocean after her lost son.

Then there are the outright plot burglaries. Most recently, Michael Douglas reshuffled Dial M For Murder into A Perfect Murder. Before that, Brian De Palma ransacked Hitchcock's work for Dressed to Kill (Psycho) and Obsession (Vertigo). Francois Truffaut turned Marnie into The Bride Wore Black. John Carpenter updated Rear Window with Someone is Watching. And Don Siegel remade To Catch a Thief into Rough Cut.

"Filmmakers love Hitchcock because he taught us we could entertain ourselves while we entertain an audience," Quentin Tarantino once observed. "All those double entendres in Psycho the audience couldn't possibly get when they first saw the film [such as when Norman Bates slyly suggests the stirring of his vengeful alter ego by announcing "mother isn't herself today" and the Freudian joke in North by Northwest where he has a train going into a tunnel] -- Jesus, can you imagine how much fun he had with writers dreaming that stuff up?"

But if Hitchcock, who passed away in 1980, were simply a filmmaker's darling we wouldn't be celebrating his 100th anniversary today. Nor would bookstores and magazine racks be generously stocked with tributes to his curious personal life and rich artistic legacy. (The best screen testimonial to the director, a thoughtful, two- hour documentary graced with judicious clips from Hitchcock's work, airs next Tuesday night on the CBC.)

No, Hitchcock endures as this century's most famous filmmaker because the director, who worked in both English and German studios during the silent film era in the '20s, managed to elaborate on the great discoveries of the pre-sound era: D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein's striking montage storytelling techniques and the baroque expressionism of German filmmakers like F.W. Murnau. The director would then bring his considerable formal skills, along with a boundless curiosity and ambition, with him to Hollywood, where his talent would be tempered by working with crass but skillful producers like David Selznick, for whom he made the striking Rebecca, his first American film, in 1940.

Gradually, in Hollywood, Hitchcock introduced into what he called his "pure cin-e-maa" a personal touch that would elevate his throbbing gothic melodramas into some of film's most entertaining and disturbing entertainments. The genius stroke was to make the voyeurism implicit in the film-going act the explicit theme of his movies. In his mature masterpieces, Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960), films where spying precipitates violence and murder, Hitchcock made the audience feel the shame and excitement of his characters' twisted lives, and slyly asked us to consider the moral consequences of our own fantasy impulses.

In doing all this, the timid, watchful son of a London grocer remained a businessman who strove to make a profit. (Even as a teenager, when the dreamy Hitchcock subscribed to movie magazines, he was drawn to trade papers, not gossip sheets.) While it would never have occurred to him to stray from genre filmmaking, Hitchcock was incapable of making anything that was not coloured by his own barbarous wit. As a result, he invented his own sub-genres. The superb Notorious (1944) was a black romance; North by Northwest , a nightmare comedy-thriller. That it took audiences a decade to get the jokes in Psycho, the first slasher comedy, offers conclusive proof that the filmmaker is finally unclassifiable. Which is perhaps why he is collected in video stores under the heading: Hitchcock.

Still, the director's most incredible creation was his public persona. Painfully reserved, Hitchcock sulked and hid from Paul Newman on the set of Torn Curtain (1969) because the star pestered him with memos about character motivation. He had no close friends other than wife Alma, whom he was neurotically dependent upon. Yet the director was Hollywood's most public-ever filmmaker -- crashing his own movies and doing droll, macabre stand-up comedy shtick on his popular TV series (1955-1966). He even allowed the silhouette of his outrageous bulk to become the show's trademark logo. (The 5'8" filmmaker bloated on meals that often consisted of three fat steaks and a mountain of french fries bracketed by rows of frozen daquiries and brandies.)

Hitchcock's American biographers inevitably draw tragic implications from the schizophrenic nature of the director's private and public lives. But surely most entertainers are private and remote. And there is much evidence in his mischievous public appearances and thoughtful interviews to suggest that Hitchcock was thrilled by his career.

It's well known that the director cared little for the act of making movies. And he never bothered to watch his films with an audience. "I can hear them when I'm making the picture," he maintained. The joy of film, for him, was in devising plots and dancing his camera through imagined dreamscapes in story-board sessions.

In the black-and-white film Foreign Correspondent (1941), Hitchcock took advantage of his Holland setting by cooking up a bit of business with spies hiding in a phony windmill that blew against the wind. Thirty-some years later, in the middle of an interview, Hitchcock sprang to life imagining what he might have done with the film in colour. Wouldn't it have been wonderful, he said, to have a murder committed in a field of pale tulips. The crime would be committed off screen and would be announced -- here was the best part! -- with a drop of spilled blood that would stain the close-up of a single petal bright crimson.

Just as Hitchcock's dreamscapes stayed with him to the end, they remain with us for ever. He changed how movies are made and seen. Fully a score of his films belong in whatever desert island list of cherished films one might hope to compile. His film legacy is vast and imperishable.