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New York Times (04/Mar/1979) - Hitchcock: His True Power is Emotion



Hitchcock: His True Power is Emotion

The career of Alfred Hitchcock, who will receive the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award on Wednesday, proves that a film director can be successful while remaining true to himself, while choosing his own subjects, treating them in his own way, and making his obsessions accepted by the entire world. "The Lady Vanishes," "Notorious" and "Rear Window" would have been enough to assure the glory of any director, but if you add "The Thirty-Nine Steps," "Rebecca," "Suspicion," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Strangers on a Train," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Psycho," "The Birds" and "Marnie," you will have listed merely one-fourth of a staggering body of work — the richest, longest, and most complete filmography of the directors who began in silent film.

Unlike the other great filmmakers — Chaplin, Lubitsch, John Ford — Hitchcock hardly puts forth a humanist message: He does not lead us to like "sympathetic characters" who are thrown into situations that ennoble them. Rather, he attempts to make us feel and recognize in ourselves insecurity, fear, compassion and relief.

A man has killed, how will he be caught? — there you have "Shadow of a Doubt," "Stage Fright," "Dial M for Murder," "Psycho" and "Frenzy." A man is innocent of the crime he is accused of, how will he be able to clear himself? — there you have "The Thirty-Nine Steps," "I Confess," "The Wrong Man" and "North by Northwest."

All these intrigues would not have left such a profound mark on the history of cinema had they not been fashioned by a rigorously masterful "mise-en-scene"; in other words, Hitchcock's direction is not simply efficient, but so stylized that it gives these-tales a symbolic significance — that of a struggle between the sacred aspect of life, which is given to us, and the impure use we make of it.

To describe this "mise-en-scene" that makes Hitchcock so superior to the majority of directors today, let us say that it is less a question of technique than of écriture, a personal means of expression.

For example, almost all Hollywood directors arrange a scene as if it were theater. The actors move through the decor, they speak, and the camera films them in entirety (the master shot). Then, the director shoots various closer shots, and finally close-ups of the different actors. Each line of dialogue is thus "covered" up to 16 or 20 times, under a variety of angles. Later in the cutting room, the editor will spend three or four months assembling all this material while striving to give it rhythm, but without ultimately removing its theatrical side.

This is the form of cinema-recording that Hitchcock calls — with justifiable contempt — "photographing talking heads," to which he always opposed himself since his first film in 1924.

From the very beginning of his career, Hitchcock understood that if you read a newspaper with your eyes and your head, you read a novel with your eyes and your heart pounding — and that a film should be watched the way a novel is read. The essential thing for Hitchcock is to include us in his narration, and to never permit the action to get stuck in the marshes of documentary objectivity nor the sands of disordered reportage (he considers documentary and reportage the two inherent enemies of the cinema of fiction).

His direction thus refuses simplistic recording of the action, and adopts an "écriture" which consists of focusing on the character through whose eyes things will be seen (and felt by us, the public). This character will constantly be filmed from the front, and in close-up, so that we will identify ourselves with him. The camera will precede him in each of his movements while keeping his size constant within the image, and when he discovers something troubling, the camera will delay for a few seconds more (even too much more) on his face and look in order to heighten our curiosity.

When he will be afraid, we will share his fear, and when he will be relieved, we will feel the same... but not before the end of the film.

In a complicated and subtle scene, the point of view might change: For instance, at the end of "North by Northwest," we shift our affective participation from Cary Grant, who is entering the mansion, to Martin Landau, who suddenly realizes Eva Marie Saint is a spy and finally to Miss Saint.

This technique of telling a story according to a "point of view" has been familiar to novelists since Henry James and Marcel Proust, but has been remarkably neglected by filmmakers, even those who collected Academy Awards while "Notorious," "Rear Window" and "Psycho" were gripping audiences around the world — but never receiving the slightest consideration from critics or Festival juries. Fortunately imperturbable and confident in the control of his art, Hitchcock continued to give us almost one masterpiece per year, perhaps without even suspecting that "recognition" would finally ensue.

Hitchcock is not particularly concerned with teaching or reforming us, but with intriguing, moving, captivating us, and above all making us participate emotionally in the narrative he has chosen to conduct. He works exactly like an orchestra conductor v/ho directs his instrumentalists and advances the symphony whose every note, chord, sigh and silence has been foreseen in the score.

His work reveals how the style of a director can be recognized by the insistence with which he dwells on a certain aspect of the narrative rather than another. Whether depicting humiliation, as in "Rebecca," or voyeurism, as in "Vertigo" or simply the disquieting glances of the mothers in "Notorious" and "The Birds," Hitchcock emphasizes the person listening rather than the one speaking, the object rather than the subject, the weak rather than the strong.

In Hitchcock's personal form of cinematic storytelling, suspense obviously plays an important role. Suspense is not what is too often considered the manipulation of violent material, but rather the dilation of a span of time, the exaggeration of a pause, the emphasis on all that makes our hearts beat a little harder, a little faster. What distinguishes Hitchcock's style from that of other great directors of violent action, like Fritz Lang or Howard Hawks, is this special manipulation of slowness and rapidity, of preparation and sudden flashes, of anticipation and ellipsis.

The young directors who have surfaced in the past five years have understood this form of "écriture" and have more or less succeeded in adopting it; the new American cineastes are almost all Hitchcock's children. But behind their taste for filmed violence, they lack something essential to Hitchcock's cinema: The intimate and profound comprehension of the emotions projected on the screen.

The young Hitchcockians can eventually equal the episode in "North by Northwest" in which a plane chases Cary Grant till he takes refuge in a cornfield, but they cannot film the pain of Claude Rains in "Notorious" when he goes to his mother in the middle of the night and confesses, "Mother, I'm married to an American spy." They can plagarize the Albert Hall sequence of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," but they cannot invent the movements of Jean Fontaine's shoulders in "Rebecca," shrinking from each entrance of Mrs. Danvers. They cannot show the humility of the sexton in "I Confess" begging his wife Alma not to reveal his crime; nor the violent sincerity of Joseph Cotton in "Shadow of a Doubt" describing the world as a pigpen during the family dinner; nor the painful efforts of James Stewart in "Vertigo" to get Kim Novak to look like Grace Kelly. Even if the disciples can lay claim to rivaling the virtuosity of the maestro, they will surely lack the emotional power of the artist.

Alfred Hitchcock remains — even today, at age 79 about to shoot his 54th film — not only the man who knew more, but also the man who has moved us most.