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New York Times (29/Oct/1972) - We're living in a Hitchcock world, all right



We're living in a Hitchcock world, all right

At a moderate hour each weekday morning — not too early, not too late — a moderate black automobile — not too long, not too short and driven by an unliveried chauffeur — slides through the main gate of the Universal City studios in North Hollywood, heading for one of the many unprepossessing stucco bungalows that cluster around Universal's stubby black executive tower as serfs' huts once huddled around the baron's castle, trading a degree of freedom for a degree of protection from the wild things beyond the gates.

The rotund figure emerging from the car and slipping quickly into the side door of one of these bungalows, which house the lot's independent production units, is not, by any means, a typical Hollywood peasant. Indeed, he owns a sizable chunk of stock in the company that is governed from the tower, is perhaps the only movie director in the world whose recognition factor with the general public is as high as that of any star he might care to employ and is now, by common critical consent, one of the dozen or so indubitably world-class artists to emerge in the relatively short history of film. He is, in addition, unique in that category, being the only Englishman among its members, having held his place there longer than any living member and at 73 (when most of his great contemporaries are either dead or retired) being the creator of a film that is not only Universal's most profitable production of the year but very probably the greatest commercial success of his own directorial career, which began in 1925.

The film maker is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, and if his current release, "Frenzy," is (disputably) a shade less fine than his very best work, which includes such masterpieces as "Shadow of a Doubt," "Strangers on a Train," "The Wrong Man," "North By Northwest," "Psycho," "The Birds," it is sufficiently like them in theme, in elegance of style and structure, to truly constitute what it has frequently been called: an artistic as well as commercial comeback from its disappointing immediate predecessors — "Marnie," "Torn Curtain," "Topaz."

Which pleases Hitchcock as he settles down to the day's work in his spacious, traditionally furnished, dimly lit office. Having no future project in mind as yet, his work consists mainly of picking and choosing among various schemes to further publicize "Frenzy" ("I don't seek out publicity, it seeks me"). Which, in turn, means promoting himself, or, more properly, the public persona he has constructed as carefully as any of his movie plots. That persona — the slightly macabre, perversely jolly fat man — emerged as the host of his extremely popular television shows in the nineteen-fifties; its function now is to screen from prying eyes the private Hitchcock, who is, among other things, a far more serious film artist than perhaps even he realizes.

Of course, he gives away some of the truth about himself in his work and in countless interviews. But it is so preposterous that a fair number of his listeners assume it to be merely part of his general put-on. It is, after all, difficult to believe that a man as wealthy, celebrated and powerful as Hitchcock is so frightened he might get a traffic ticket that he's never learned to drive. Or that when he travels he books the same rooms in the same hotels year after year in order to preserve some sense of continuity. Or that he so fears the unexpected that he may not venture out of these hostelries for days on end. Or that he even carries this fear onto the familiar Universal lot with him — not venturing out of his headquarters even for lunch at the studio commissary 100 yards distant. (The head of the studio, Lew Wasserman, who eats there all the time, keeps in touch with Hitchcock by having lunch with him every Friday when they're both in town — at Hitch's bungalow.)

The odd fact is that the alleged master of suspense hates suspense, shock, even mild surprise. And so the main drive of his life seems to be to routinize, to regularize as much of it as possible. He and his wife, he says, have few friends (none in the movies) and since she suffered a mild stroke last year, they can't even get away to their weekend house in northern California in the area where he shot "Shadow of a Doubt" and "The Birds." The drive to routinize even extends to placing severe limits on the choices available to him in matters of food and dress. Lunch is always either steak or sole — no bread, potatoes or dessert. His suit is always black, his shirt white, his tie conservative. His reading matter is mostly true crime stories (about which his knowledge is encyclopedic), rarely fictional mysteries, which don't confirm his view of the world since they always end up in a neat Q.E.D. On his desk is a copy of the master European railway timetable; from it he plans imaginary journeys he would not dare to undertake in real life. It may even he that his long, happy tenure at Universal can be explained by the fact that it is the most carefully rationalized of studios, its heavy involvement in television production, its profitable back-lot tours and its careful cost controls protecting it from the wild swings of the hit-flop cycle that afflict its competitors.

Be that as it may, Hitchcock's life and conversation suggest that his true subject is not so much suspense as it is anxiety. And that his significance as an artist has been, if anything, undervalued, that it is only now, when large numbers of us are coming to understand how thinly the membrane of civilization is stretched over an essentially irrational existence, that we can fully appreciate not only his skill but his prescience, since this has been his great theme for almost a half-century. Which is to say that he virtually invented it.

Not that it was so difficult for him. Anxiety has been present in his life as long as he can remember. Characteristically, he has a couple of anecdotes he regularly supplies interviewers to demonstrate the point. In the first he is a very small boy sent with a note by his father to the neighborhood police station, The bobby on duty at the desk reads it, beckons him to follow and without a word of explanation locks him in a cell. Five minutes later the bobby reappears to let the boy out, saying he has been instructed by the elder Hitchcock to perform this bit of sadism so the child will know what happens to naughty little boys.

In the other anecdote, a slightly older lad is sent off to a Jesuit school which disciplines its students by beating their outstretched hands with a gutta-percha strop.

"The awful part about this thing — to, say, a little boy of 10 — was that, having been sentenced, it was up to him whenever he should take it. He could take it at the first morning break, lunch-time, mid-afternoon or the end of the day. And always it was deferred to the end of the day. And then you would go into this room and the priest would enter your name in a book and then grab the hand that was to be punished and lay this thing in. Never more than three on one hand because the hand became numb and it was no good putting four on it because a fourth you'd never feel. So then they started on the other hand. And if, by chance, the crime was so great that you were sent for 12 ... you could have only six one day and then the other six the following day. Well, this was ... it was like going to the gallows."

Doubtless there are other, similar childhood wounds Hitchcock bears (for example, his very first suspense movie, "The Lodger," and the last, "Frenzy," and a good many in between, contain scenes of eggs being consumed in a disgusting fashion; Hitchcock loathes them, never touches them, because, apparently, his disliked father was once in the poultry business). Though his films are frequently resolved by discovering them, Hitchcock believes that in reality it is pointless to seek out these scars. "Psychiatrists tell you that if you trace your psychological problems back to childhood, all will be well," Hitchcock notes. "Of course, I don't believe this to be true at all." If it were, he would presumably be vroom-ing a Porsche through the streets of Bel-Air and making chucklesome situation comedies; instead he has devoted most of his 73 years to drawing upon, publicly acknowledging and theoretically discharging these ancient anxieties, which, of course, owe their enormous popular success to the fact that a huge international audience shares them.

Generally you might say that if Hitchcock's daily routine reflects a rage for reassuring order, his art reflects his fear of disorder, in particular the breakdown of rational mental and emotional processes and of those institutions — especially the law — which we depend upon to maintain a sense of security and continuity in everyday life. The majority of his films deal either with people unjustly accused of crimes or accidentally privy to compromising information about crimes. The former, of course, can't expect help from the police to clear their names; and it often works out, that, for some reason or other, the latter can't go to the police either. This situation, in turn, often propels his characters into what amounts to waking dreams, situations where, for example, they find themselves running across great open spaces but not really getting away from their pursuers. Or, conversely, they find themselves trapped in some tiny, claustrophobic space or in an indifferent crowd where a cry for help would be either impolitic or unheeded. Or, maybe, they end up simply hanging from some very high place in imminent danger of falling ... falling ... falling. Simple stuff, archetypal dream work, but the director's casual implication that it can happen here, in real life, in daylight, fills a world audience — which confronts his universal symbols of dread every night in bed — with the most delicious tremors of recognition.

That much, of course, has been obvious to the handful of critics who have troubled to understand Hitchcock as well as praise him, who have insisted that he be understood as something more than a superb technician and entertainer, which is how the mass audience prefers to see him. What is perhaps more interesting is how the world at large has come around in the last decade or so to seeing itself as Hitchcock always instinctively has seen it. That is, as essentially a less reasonable place than nice people like to think, a place where we live under constant threat of the dark forces breaking through and disrupting the careful order of our days. He made this point very explicitly in one of his earliest films, 1929's "Blackmail," when he set the concluding chase in the British Museum: cops pursuing crook past all those priceless artifacts, accidentally endangering them through the cops' zeal to restore order, the crook's to maintain his capacity for disrupting it.

Hitchcock has come back to this kind of scene several times — criminal disorder set slap up against such massive monuments to tradition and historical pride as the Statue of Liberty (in "Saboteur") and Mount Rushmore ("North by Northwest"), and the niceties of culture (the murderer in the concert hall in both versions of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," even the little chase in the china factory in "Topaz"). He likes to muse about other such scenes: a chase through the House of Representatives, perhaps, or the Queen reading the speech that annually opens Parliament and someone in the back of the hall shouting, "Liar!"

"If you take an average courtroom," he says, "which is dealing with evil, examining it, processing it every day, the interesting thing, the contrapuntal thing is the remark of the usher who says 'Order In the Court,' as though it was a special thing." Which, in Hitchcock's opinion it is, courts being in his mind literally legal fictions keeping up a pretense of rationality in an irrational world and, often as not, "examining and processing" innocent parties. In England, especially, he finds courts symbolically horrible — the very high bench, the prisoner kept in a cell below and forced to take his place, guarded, in the claustrophobic dock, having literally come up through the floor from a place we can't help but understand as an underworld.

This, of course, is just another way of saying that Hitchcock has precious little faith in the systems we erect in hopes of keeping the absurd at bay. On the contrary, he sees them partaking of the very thing they are supposed to protect us from. Religion is something he has never had anything to say about, despite his Catholic boyhood, and politics represents, to him, "one of the meanest forms of man's attitude toward his fellow man."

Not surprisingly, he is convinced that of late "evil has spread ... every little town has had its share of evil," a situation he contrasts to the time before World War I when, "you know, the world was very placid in many ways." Recently he saw something on television which epitomized this change and which causes the normally smooth flow of his sentences to break into ellipses: "An interview with two ... condemned men ... they'd murdered six people. But there ... the element of evil ... was so exemplified by their attitudes. The complete lack of remorse or ... didn't even apologize. They were ... almost ... giggling over it. And that struck me as being ... the epitome of evil ... the attitudes of these men."

It's no wonder that in his recent films the Hitchcock who once averted his camera's eye from the act of murder itself, or skimmed quickly over it, now goes into horrifying detail — Janet Leigh's dreadful death in the shower in "Psycho," the brutal killing in the farmhouse in "Torn Curtain," the rape-murder in "Frenzy," which has so exercised women's liberationists, as if its brilliant mixture of sadism and pathos could be read by any sensible person as an endorsement of the act. These scenes, quite obviously, reflect his deepening pessimism, not merely a desire to shock, "What was that old saw by Robert Burns? 'Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.' He must have had some reason to say that."

It is this, rather than age, I think, which accounts for Hitchcock's withdrawal from much of ordinary human intercourse, a certain self-protective narrowness of conversational range — one has to really work to get him to generalize about anything. In the end, in fact, the only thing he truly trusts is his own talent — "the one thing they can't take away from me."

One prominent critic emerged from a recent conversation with Hitchcock to complain in print that he seemed to have only two topics of conversation. One was true crime, the other his own film technique, especially the solutions he has found for technically difficult problems. He can remember, in detail, glass shots[1] he made during his apprenticeship half a century ago and will delightedly discuss them, and all their successors, as long as anyone cares to listen.

But these, of course, are defenses. And multi-layered ones at that. On the simplest level they defend him against intrusions on his personal and creative privacy. Beyond that, the true crime tales confirm his vision of man, which also reflects the Catholicism of his youth. He sees man as fallen, the victim of original sin and — unlike the church's teachings — irredeemably evil. This view, however, is instinctive rather than intellectualized, and since he is essentially an unpretentious man, he tries to divert questioners who press him about it with his talk of technique. In any case, it seems it will not do for a movie-maker who treasures his rapport with a huge public to dwell long on a point with which most of it would surely disagree. Duplicitous man! By peopling his films with characters — even villains — who are loaded with charm, and devising gags, both visual and verbal, that are metaphorical winks of the eye, he implies he is only kidding when, needless to say, he's not.

But it is as Andrew Sarris says: "Hitchcock's repeated invasions of everyday life with the most outrageous melodramatic devices have shaken the foundations of the facile humanism that insists that people are good and only systems evil, as if the systems themselves were not functions of human experience." Sarris points out that much of the "sick, perverse, anti-humanistic" humor pervading our life today is a reaction against the sentimentality with which "totalitarianism masks its true intentions." He contends that Hitchcock, understanding the indivisibility of man and his works, has never been taken in by such sentimentality and that, whatever humor and felicity of style he may offer to ease us along his way, Hitchcock insists "almost intolerantly upon a moral reckoning for his characters and his audience."

Hitchcock might argue that he makes no such insistence. He says he is not interested in content at all. If he were, he says, "it would be the same as a painter worrying about whether the apples he's painting are sweet or sour. Who cares? It's his style, his manner of painting them — that's where the emotion comes."

It is a familiar sound, this disclaimer of self-conscious moralism by the modern artist, And while he is at it, Hitchcock can roll on for hours about pure montage, for example, and the fact that "we don't have pages to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie house," that it "has to be filled with a succession of images" and that it is out of this succession, this montage, that ideas arise, not out of plot or character or "moral view. He can hypnotize an interviewer with a discussion of how he does this, how he throws away the book he may be adapting and with his screenwriter works for months writing a 100-page, shot-by-shot outline of the movie — no dialogue — of how by the time he finishes this process, he "knows every shot and every angle by heart" so that when he goes on the set he's in the position of "a conductor conducting an orchestra without a score."

On the set he never looks through the camera's view finder and shoots almost no alternative angles to protect himself so well has he planned his montage in advance (all 78 shots of the 45-second shower murder in "Psycho" were scripted). One recognizes that this meticulous pre-planning certainly squares with Hitchcock's rage for order, his profound desire to avoid all surprises, all threats to that thin skin of civility, So does his often repeated insistence that, once he's finished his visual "score," "I wish I didn't have to go on the stage and shoot the film, because from a creative point of view one has gone through that process." All that can happen, once the film has been shot in his head, is that something can go wrong: the special-effects man won't be able to deliver quite what Hitchcock wants, or, more likely, some actor will want to be something more than what he is in the Hitchcock scheme of things — a movable element in its visual design (he's still grousing about Paul Newman in "Torn Curtain"). In short, once he moves out of that bungalow, into the ordinary chaos of existence, Hitchcock places his pure, perfect, personal vision at risk.

But for all this talk — and good talk it is — about the primacy of images (and their sequence), for all his lifelong effort to refine his style, mostly by putting it under the intense pressure of severely limited subject matter and by restricting his physical freedom (all those closed-space films — "Lifeboat," "Rope," "Dial M for Murder," "Rear Window"), the fact is that, whether he admits it or not, Hitchcock has been developing and quite coherently expressing a view of man in his films.

He chooses to believe that this view has grown out of the necessities of his art, and there may be a certain truth in that. There are two elements in this growth. From the beginning, he says, "it seemed natural for me to put the audience in the mind of a particular character," in other words to draw it into the work by inducing "subjective" identifications with his people. Obviously he uses an objective camera fairly often, the better to orient us, but, to take the most obvious recent example, the long tracking shot in "Frenzy" that sweeps from an aerial view of the city, along the Thames, under the Tower Bridge to deposit the viewer on the Embankment is a classic Hitchcock device, seeming to pull us almost literally into the life of London, compelling a surrender of our passivity as well as our objectivity.

But besides being an instinctive stylistic choice, it is a conscious one, since this kind of thing is better done with images than with words, which suits Hitchcock's strongly held belief that "the whole art of the cinema lies in its ability to appeal to a world audience in any language," meaning "that the stress on the pictorial enables you to reach the widest possible audience." Seeing a large number of his films in a short span, as I recently have, one is struck by how many of his best, most memorable sequences are essentially silent, how often dialogue is used to make an explicit equation between banality and rationality. This, in turn, means that his work more easily clears the subtitle and dubbing hurdles of the international market. All of which is a way of saying that built into Hitchcock's aesthetic is the desire — to use a word he employs — to "nurse" the audience, soothing it with jokes, thrilling it with his elegantly conceived and carefully executed special effects, cajoling rather than bludgeoning it into the moods he wants to establish.

It is from this care for the mass audience, his entire lack of interest in the cognoscenti, that, one imagines, his present dark view of things slowly evolved. As a former engineering and art student, he had been hired in the early twenties by an American-owned studio in Britain to design title cards and had quickly been promoted to art director and scenarist. From the beginning he wanted to make pictures in the United States, mostly because he admired the technology available in the American studios. He got his chance after he established his international reputation with works like "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes," which are like his later works in that they deal with "melodramatic intrusions" on ordinary life but unlike them in that they are almost without psychological overtones. Odd things happen to their principals because... well, because odd things happen in a chance universe. There is, however, in these charming and ironic little films no attempt to probe around for first causes. "Basically, you see, the design of the early English pictures was almost instinctive. They were less calculated in terms of audience," perhaps in part because European film makers, working on low budgets and under somewhat less pressure from their studios, just didn't bother to make those calculations at the time. Anyway, "it was when I came to America that I became more aware of audiences. And then as one went on, the question came up of avoiding the cliché and trying to avoid the repetition of the same situations. The only way is through character. That's the main thing in these thriller-suspense stories — it's character that's got to motivate them rather than plot itself."

So it was out of audience concern, a concern that was rooted in his aesthetics, that Hitchcock began to interest himself in the psychology of his people. The "MacGuffin" — the device that sets his plots in motion (the plans to the fort, the uranium samples) — became more and more attenuated. And in 1943 Hitchcock gave us his first full-scale psychopath — Joseph Cot-ten's charming bluebeard in a film that remains one of the director's favorites, "Shadow of a Doubt." Thereafter, he has never for long abandoned his concern with people who are in the grip of those inexplicable, irrational compulsions that psychiatry has never quite satisfactorily explained and almost never cures. They are, for Hitchcock, humanity's bottom line, the disturbers of our illusory peace, the creators of those situations which defeat all attempts at reasonable solutions. Worse, they pass unnoticed among us all the time, their lunacy unrecognized until it is too late, until they have us — locked in some tiny room or fleeing across some endless open space where our cries for help (like those of the victims in "Frenzy") must go unheard.

Sports of nature? Not according to Hitchcock. To him, nature is irrational, as he brilliantly showed us in "The Birds," where an entire species turns psychopathic, sick of man's taking them for granted too casually — just as Hitchcock thinks we take the force of the atom too casually. Now, in his maturity, he sees that it all fits together, that there is a link between the irrational situations of his early work and the irrational people of his later work, that the former are created by the latter and that, what is improbable about his work is not his killers and thieves and spies but the notion that we can ever defeat them, as his heroes do, in single-handed combat. Indeed, he's at pains to show us that there's only a shadow line's difference between the reasonable and the unreasonable among us. Bruno (in "Strangers on a Train") may actually, crazily carry out his end of the murderous bargain with Farley Granger, but isn't the latter, the nice guy, more than a little tempted to join in this mad scheme? James Stewart, in "Rear Window," may solve a murder, but only because he is himself a voyeur. Marnie may be a compulsive thief, but the man who helps uncover the root of this compulsion does so because he is a fetishist who wants to sleep with a criminal. And what about us? How many of Hitchcock's madmen have we abhorred, yet secretly sympathized with? How is it that he can so easily make us root for even a vicious rapist-murderer, as we do in the famous potato truck scene in "Frenzy"? At this point, he says glumly, we "have no feeling for the victim," we simply want the criminal not to be caught. "You see, it's the 11th commandment, 'thou shalt not be found out.'"

In short, and no matter how he arrived there, Hitchcock Is a moralist, not merely a supremo stylist. And a very bleak one. He had read recently an interview in which Ingmar Bergman confessed that the older man's work had greatly influenced him. Puzzled, Hitchcock asked me if I could explain this. I said, of course. You are both post-Christian artists. And probably sorry about it. He smiled uncertainly, And returned the conversation to the recent case of a mass poisoner in England who fascinated him, the cozy quiet of his bungalow comforting and sheltering us — two reasonable men discussing the history, technique and aesthetics of crime films. Or so we pretended.


  1. A shot in which part of the background it painted on a glass slide and held in front of the lens so that it blends with the action which is being shot on the set — an inexpensive way to create the illusion of far-away places, and appealing to the trickster in Hitchcock.