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The Guardian (08/Aug/1999) - Camille Paglia: My favourite moments...




Camille Paglia: My favourite moments...

This week sees the centenary of the birth of the world's most influential director. Observer writers examine his life and meet the people who worked with him

I view Hitchcock as a major genius of the twentieth-century arts, and I rank him with Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, and Proust. I revere him as a poet who saw the beauty, horror and comedy of life. As an analyst of sexuality, he far surpasses the pedantic ideologues of feminism and poststructuralism.

While writing my scene-by-scene study of The Birds, I realised that I am most attracted to the mime in Hitchcock, the dramatic tableaux where meaning is conveyed by spectacle and body language rather than by words. Surely this is a remnant of his roots in silent film, in London in the 1920s.

The first Hitchcock image that entranced me was the surrealist hallucination in Spellbound when door after door opens behind Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, as they embrace to a glorious burst of romantic music. I also love the opening of Lifeboat, where the camera glides over a shipwreck scene of death and destruction to arrive at Tallulah Bankhead, in a lifeboat, looking bored and cynical in her fur coat and jewels.

In Notorious, I admire the episode when the sheepish Claude Rains must wake his harridan mother to admit he has been duped by a beautiful woman. In Strangers on a Train, the explosive yet dreamily slow breakdown of the carousel is a symbol of twentieth-century chaos.

In Rear Window, Grace Kelly, as airily gorgeous as a high-fashion model, wafts into the lamed James Stewart's bedroom with the all-conquering majesty of Helen of Troy. In To Catch a Thief, Kelly traumatises Cary Grant in her sporty convertible as she speeds through hairpin turns and random pedestrians and livestock on a Riviera cliffside road.

My favourite moment in Vertigo is when Kim Novak in a sumptuous ballgown, drifts past the awestruck James Stewart in a posh San Francisco restaurant. In North by Northwest, I am always dazzled by the chilly modern architecture and weird paranoia of the murder at New York's United Nations building, where Cary Grant somehow ends up with a knife in his hand. And then, of course, there is the sober, controlled ritualism of Grant's waiting and waiting on the vast, dusty prairie for an apppointment that suddenly materialises as a dive-bombing aeroplane.

In Psycho, I favour the scene where the troubled Janet Leigh, dressed in a formidable black brassiere, hastily packs her bag as the thick sheaves of stolen money wait on her bed.

My favourite moment in The Birds is when Tippi Hedren in her fur coat and high heels mischievously ferries a bird cage in a rowboat across the bay and second when she sits tensely smoking near the schoolhouse as crows ominously gather on the jungle gym behind her. In Marnie, it's when Hedren goes mad after a drop of red ink falls on her white sleeve and then, when reunited with her beloved horse, she leaps on his back to race ecstatically across the fields.

Finally, in Frenzy, I'm fond of the scene where the panicky villain is tumbled about with a nude female corpse in a gritty potato truck as it speeds north along a highway at night.

After my lifetime diet of Hitchcock, most of today's movies seem like very bland fare indeed. Filmmaking needs to return to one of its prime creative sources.

Camille Paglia is Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia