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The Observer (08/Aug/1999) - Hitchcock: The man

(c) The Observer (08/Aug/1999)

The man

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

The centenary of Alfred Hitchcock's birth will be celebrated on Friday the thirteenth. A suitable day, his admirers will say, because Hitchcock was a Christian artist and it's a date that fills us with superstitious dread. For his detractors it will remind us that Friday the Thirteenth is the title of an endless series of manipulative slasher movies inspired by his most influential film, Psycho (1960). Of all the great directors, Hitchcock's reputation is the most controversial. But it did not become so until quite late in his career, when he was in his sixties and entering a period of creative decline that began after The Birds in 1963 and continued until his death in 1980.

The general view up to the late Fifties was that he was a great cinematic technician - 'the master of suspense', a sobriquet almost certainly coined by his own publicists in the Thirties. After The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), he specialised in a single genre, the thriller, and was occasionally taken to task for overreaching himself by trying to go beyond its bounds and be taken seriously. Praise from serious critics in the English-speaking world was grudgingly given, and frequently denied (by his fellow Catholic entertainer Graham Greene, for instance). The consensus on both sides of the Atlantic was that the modest movies made in Britain during the Thirties (especially The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes) were superior to those produced on large budgets and featuring major stars after his move to the States in 1939.

A lot of this had to do with anti-Hollywood prejudice on the part of both British critics and the influential New York-based American reviewers. There was also disapproval of Hitchcock the showman, who through the signature appearances in his own films and later the deadpan trailers and pawkily humorous introductions to his American TV series had become the only dedicated film-maker to be immediately recognisable to moviegoers the world over.

From France, however, came large claims for Hitchcock as a moralist, metaphysician and avant-garde artist. They were initially mocked, but when the Cahiers du Cinéma critics making these claims - Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard - themselves became innovative directors of world renown, it became impossible to ignore them. In the 40 years since the appearance in 1958 of the slim, seminal Hitchcock by Chabrol and Rohmer, a vast library has grown up in numerous languages (including Serbo-Croat and Persian), covering every aspect of his art from almost every conceivable perspective.

But the process was gradual. The first book on Hitchcock in English, a monograph by Robin Wood, a pupil of F.R. Leavis, didn't appear until 1965. That same year over a drink in New York with a senior editor of Time , I mentioned that Hitchcock's fiftieth feature film might be a suitable cover story and he greeted the suggestion with polite astonishment.

So, 20 years after his death, Hitchcock stands as a complex figure comparable with Shakespeare and Dickens. Like them, he had little in his origins to suggest a vocation in the arts. Born in the last year of the nineteeth century, he was reared as a Catholic, went to a Jesuit school, and grew up in a suburban London background at that point where the working-class overlaps with the lower-middle-class.

As he reached his majority in 1920, Hitchcock was working as a draughtsman for an engineering company and developing a passion for the cinema. Like most lively people of his generation, his world-view and ideas about the wellsprings of action were being influenced by Sigmund Freud (though he never underwent psychoanalysis) and he was becoming aware of the liberating effect of American arts and fashions. Finally in 1925 he directed his first film.

By the time sound came, he had created a distinctive body of films in a variety of modes - frothy social comedy (Coward's Easy Virtue), urban realism (The Ring), rural drama (Hall Caine's The Manxman) - though in retrospect he regarded only The Lodger (1926) as a truly Hitchcockian film. It was with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the seventeenth of his 57 feature films for the cinema, that Hitchcock found his true métier.

A modest, self-deprecating man, he lived a life of quiet rectitude, married to the same woman, his collaborator Alma Reville, for 54 years, and declared himself as chaste before marriage and celibate for most of the time thereafter. He never claimed to be making works of personal expression, and was reluctant to discuss his religious and political views in public.

What Hitchcock preferred to talk about, and what fascinated him as an artist and craftsman, was setting up complex technical problems to be overcome by ingenuity and imagination - making Rope appear as if it were shot in one continuous take; filming Lifeboat, within a small, crowded rowing-boat out in the Atlantic; looking at at the world from the view point of a man in a wheelchair in Rear Window; killing the film's star in the first half-hour as he does in Psycho.

When he left Britain, Hitchcock became a Hollywood director but not an American film-maker. The themes and preoccupations of his pictures remained the same, only realised on a grander scale.