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New York Times (28/Apr/1974) - After 50 Years, He Still Gives Us the Creeps



After 50 Years, He Still Gives Us the Creeps

Two years ago it was Charlie Chaplin. Last year it was Fred Astaire. Tomorrow night it will be Alfred Hitchcock who will be honored at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual fund-raising gala at Avery Fisher Hall. Unlike Chaplin, who had become inactive by the time the Film Society honored him, and Astaire, who had more or less abandoned dancing, at least professionally, to become a character actor, Hitchcock is still doing what) he's always done most brilliantly.

At 74 going on 75 he's still making films, being currently involved in a new project with Ernest Lehman, who wrote the screenplay for "North by Northwest." Like the great Luis Bunuel, one of the few directors for whose films Hitchcock has expressed admiration, Hitchcock refuses to acknowledge the passing of time by retiring (Bunuel keeps threatening to retire but then he makes just one more), or by making inferior films. Hitchcock's career began with silent films in 1922 and has survived such tests as sound, Robert Cummings, VistaVision and Tippi Hedren. It is now a marvelous treasure for film students as well as for the members of the public who couldn't care less about the history of the cinema.

The professional lives of most directors are so short that we seldom have the opportunity to study the work of a single man over the more than 50 years that Hitchcock's career has occupied. All novelists, poets, musicians and painters are mortal, but film directors are most mortal. They can live into their 90s and still have been 40 years dead by the time death calls. The Hitchcock career allows us the unusual opportunity to watch the growth and refinement of a unique style by means of accumulation. After looking at most, or even some, of his 50-odd films, there is little doubt about the witty but, deep-down, abrasive personality.

Luckily, Hitchcock has survived long enough for film criticism to catch up to his work, which, being so popular at the box office, was generally condescended to by the critics who took films seriously, or thought they were taking films seriously, in the thirties, forties and fifties.

But Hitchcock is a perverse sort of man; At just about the time he was being recognized as something more than a master of suspense, he began making films whose idiosyncrasies challenged easy appreciation of his gifts.

There was "Marnie" (1964), which seemed to be a suspense melodrama but was actually a compressed case history of a fetishist love, starring Tippi Hedren, an actress who was completely beyond her depths. In "Torn Curtain" it was difficult to notice the sometimes dazzling variations Hitchcock was playing upon a worn East-West espionage theme because of the upfront landscape that included Julie Andrews, the Priscilla Lane of 1966.

"Topaz" (1969) is a practical anthology of Hitchcock's methods and manners but it has a plot that defies synopsis and contains performances that spell out Hitchcock's highly publicized opinion of actors as either children or cattle, depending on which Interview you read.

The Plausibles, those sniffy moviegoers who insist that plots be logical, had a field day with various things in "Frenzy" two years ago. They fell all over themselves pointing out the fact that the central character of the film, which was set in contemporary London, was described as a former RAF ace, meaning that he should have been about 60 years old, though he was clearly not much over 30.

It isn't that his own age had made Hitchcock forgetful, but rather that it had rearranged his priorities. He's never given a hang for absolute realism, or even semi-absolute realism. In "Frenzy" he wanted to make a film set in contemporary London and, for purposes of the story, he wanted his leading man to be a former RAF hero down on his luck. The man would hardly invite the same sympathy if he had simply completed his national service without getting into trouble. Heroism was demanded.

For the greater good of the film, Hitchcock took it upon himself to rearrange facts, perfectly aware that anyone who was going to be a stickler about the character's age was probably "lost to the cause of the film anyway.

Like the later films of Bunuel, the later films of Hitchcock display a technical command so complete that style has become almost invisible. The events that occur within the films may have connections to the world that we know but the rules that apply to the characters are those that have been formulated by the director.

This makes the movies difficult to accept on quite the same level that we might accept an episode of "Mannix," but it also makes them vastly more rewarding. The world of any Hitchcock film is as thoroughly realized an expression of the art of fiction as the worlds created by such different sorts of writers as Nathanael, West, Evelyn Waugh and Harold Pinter.

The man who will be honored at Lincoln Center tomorrow night has become something of a piece of fiction himself, largely through his T.V. appearances and the gently dyspeptic public pronouncements that make him wonderfully quotable: "Television has brought murder back into the home – where it belongs," or "I always say that the most difficult things to photograph are dogs, babies, motor-boats, Charles Laughton (God rest his soul) and method actors."

Behind this fiction is a very firm man who has been able to withstand the sort of minute and metaphysical critical analysis that might exhaust and possibly derail a lesser talent. You don't have to know Hitchcock to be aware of his steadfast art. You have only to, look at the films, from "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (1935), "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), "Notorious" (1946), "Rear Window" (1954) and "Vertigo" (1958) up through "Frenzy." Those, of course, just happen to be my favorites but almost any half-dozen Hitchcock films would make the same point, with the exception of his costume films, "Jamaica Inn" and "Under Capricorn."

"I couldn't seem to lick the costume film," he said to me in a rather pensive moment, of an interview some years ago. "Perhaps because nobody ever seems to go to the — well — dentist. When, I do a film, I like to know how much a loaf of bread would cost the characters."