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USA Today Magazine (01/May/2013) - Getting Hitched on Cameos



Getting Hitched on Cameos

Beyond the fact he was a legendary filmmaker, no small part of this fame and familiarity is tied to [Alfred] Hitchcock's signature cameo appearances in 39 of his 52 surviving major films.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), cinema's master of suspense, arguably remains the most well-known director in movie history. Beyond the fact he was a legendary filmmaker, no small part of this fame and familiarity is tied to Hitchcock's signature cameo appearances in 39 of his 52 surviving major films. In Donald Spoto's biography of the director, "The Dark Side of Genius", Hitchcock explained the motive behind these trademark guest spots, "The name of the director should be associated in the public's mind with a quality product. Actors come and go, but the name of the director should stay clearly in the mind of the audience."

Though these comments are perfectly consistent with someone who originally came out of advertising, the original catalyst was pure necessity. That is, several Hitchcock biographies, such as John Russell Taylor's Hitch, document that the first cameo, in "The Lodger" (1926), included Hitchcock "just because they needed another extra there and no one was at hand."

There is a wonderful paradox in these brief appearances. On one hand, they are fitting for a formalist director whose work often draws attention to the filmmaking process, such as the elaborate editing of the shower sequence in "Psycho" (1960). Conversely, there is irony in Hitchcock the part-time actor, since he is famous for his response to an accusation that he once claimed, "All actors are cattle." The director playfully denied the remark, adding he simply had said, "They should be treated like cattle." (Of course, as a formalist filmmaker, he often created a player's performance through editing and other special effects, thus the cattle comment.)

Regardless, what follows are, at least for this critic, the five most entertaining Hitchcock cameos, because they work at being funny, too. The first and most amusingly lengthy (19 seconds) occurs in "Blackmail" (1929). The director is riding the London subway trying to read a book when a bratty boy seated in front of him turns around and pulls down Hitchcock's hat. Upset, the director complains to the child's mother, beginning with a poke to her shoulder, causing her to turn and give Hitchcock a hard time. With no punishment, the child proceeds to yank down the hat of another nearby man, and then turns yet again to face an uneasy Hitchcock, now too nervous to read. The scene ends with this comic stalemate.

"Lifeboat" (1944) provides the second highlighted example and easily the most inventive. How does one include a cameo when your setting is restricted to a small boat in the North Atlantic, short of Hitchcock casually dog-paddling by? Simple, when one of the survivors (William Bendix) begins to read an old newspaper that has found its way into the craft, a weight-loss ad is seen by the viewer. Naturally, the before and after profiles of a happy customer juxtaposes the standard chubby Hitchcock with a doctored skinny image of the director.

The third favored cameo comes courtesy of "Strangers on a Train" (1951), with Hitchcock having trouble boarding the locomotive while carrying a large cello case. Besides the inherent physical humor of the situation, the instrument's broad lower shape seems to match the hefty Oliver Hardy-like backside of Hitchcock. (Though sans the comedy, the director's cameo in "The Paradine Case," 1947, has him exiting a train with another cello case.)

The fourth featured Hitchcock appearance is his failed attempt to catch a bus in "North By Northwest" (1959). He rushes to the door, only to have it shut in his face. This cameo appears during the opening title sequence, since the director's "Where's Waldo"-like fleeting guest spots by then had become such an entertaining distraction, many viewers often neglected to focus upon the narrative until Hitchcock appeared. Moreover, the example further documents how the director's cameos, like his movies, often involve a transportation subtext. Thus, even in this brief survey, a conventional train, a lifeboat, and a bus have been noted. Other modes of Hitchcock cameo transportation range from his exiting an elevator in "Spellbound" (1945), to being pushed in a wheelchair in "Topaz" (1969).

My final favorite, however, does not have a direct transportation link, though the setting is synonymous with travel — Hitchcock is seated in an Edward Hopper-like (one of the director's favorite painters) hotel lobby in "Torn Curtain" (1966). Borrowing a bit of comic shtick from Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock sits balancing a toddler on his right knee. Suddenly the director switches the kid to his left side and feels his right knee — the youngster obviously has peed on him.

So, what commonalities do these cameos tell one about Hitchcock, beyond the propensity for comedy and a travel motif, both of which are general components of his films? First, in each of the focus examples, the humor is self-deprecating, something by which another favored-by-Hitchcock performer, Robert Benchley, might have been influenced. Benchley has a prominent supporting role in Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940), and the director later based toe droll openings of his TV series upon the professorially self-deprecating comic short subjects made by the humorist in the 1930s and 1940s.

Second, Hitchcock's proclivity for anti-heroic cameos reinforces the core of the director's oeuvre — stories about a victimized "wrong man." Moreover, no matter how horrific the scenario, Hitchcock saw all of his work as inherently humorous.

Third, coming full circle to his comments on actors, just to play devil's advocate, maybe his cameos were yet another tongue-in-cheek putdown of performers, à la, if a non-actor director can do the task, how hard can it be?

Finally, his cameos also embrace the ultimate Hitchcock trick — the "MacGuffin," a plot point or object that acts as a decoy and, ultimately, means nothing to the final film.

Regardless, for the movie fan or film scholar, a Hitchcock cameo makes all the difference.