The Master: Alfred Hitchcock

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There have been enough books and articles on Alfred Hitchcock and his work to fill a library wing.  Doubtless little can be said here about one of the most examined careers in movies which hasn’t already been said several times over elsewhere.  Still – and sadly, to those of us of a certain age — the director’s familiar rotund silhouette inevitably becomes less familiar with each new generation as, no doubt, does his work.  It therefore remains a worthwhile endeavor to stir the memory to remember why Hitchcock holds such a revered place in the cinema canon, and why 30 years after his passing so many in the critical community still widely acknowledge him as the Master of Suspense.

By 1950, Hitchcock had already become a force in commercial American cinema.  By the end of the decade, he was the premier maker of big studio suspense pictures, advancing his position enough to become a recognizable brand, seen as synonymous with the thriller genre with his name on a marquee as familiar to moviegoers as those of the stars in his movies.  The same circle of French critics who had developed the concept of film noir were so impressed with Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematic vocabulary they included him in their pantheon of Hollywood auteurs as a moviemaker with a unique, idiosyncratic style imprinting a personal vision on even his most commercial movies.

Hitchcock, however, had a more humble view of his work, denying auteur status for himself:  “When I’m asked how I feel about Truffaut and other French critics describing me as a metaphysician and so on, I can only say that it’s very nice…(but) all these ‘philosophical’ theories hold no water at all.”  He was, in his own eyes, not an artist but an entertainer.  His material was generally populist, his movies – particularly in the 1950s – increasingly directed toward the box office mainstream.

His commercial instincts were as acute as his aesthetic ones.  Of the eleven pictures he made 1950-1959, two – North by Northwest (1959) and Rear Window (1954) — were among the 60 top performing pictures of the decade.  Understandably, it is his work from the 1950s and early 1960s – his most popular films – with which he is usually identified, but, in fact, his career went through several evolutionary cycles.

In his native England, though he made a variety of films, even during the earliest years of his career Hitchcock had begun gravitating toward thrillers.  With their restrictive budgets, his English work doesn’t have the big studio high gloss of his later Hollywood films, but he was already demonstrating a unique technical expertise, and many of his recurring themes and tropes – well-mannered villains, accused innocents, ordered worlds tipping into chaos – had emerged.  American producer David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock to the U.S. for a string of – ironically – English-set mysteries including the gothic romance/mystery Rebecca (1940) and the courtroom suspenser The Paradine Case (1947).

His strongest work during his early Hollywood years, however, was done out from under Selznick’s legendary controlling hand where Hitchcock could more fully express himself in more thematically noir-ish works like Rope (1948) and, one of his best films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943).  Set in a small, sun-kissed town beautifully detailed by Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder (working with Sally Benson and Alma Reville from Gordon McDonell’s story), Shadow is full of the moral muddles which are the noir trademark as a teenaged girl (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect the charming, worldly uncle (Joseph Cotton) she idolizes and who has come for a visit might be a serial killer.

Hitchcock’s career took yet another turn in the early 1950s as he cast off the gloomy airs of his noirs to embrace color and the wide screen, and even dabble with 3-D in Dial M for Murder (1954).  There was a simultaneous change in the dramatic substance of his work as well as he leaned away from the real world moral confusion and unease of Shadow of a Doubt toward stories with an almost escapist affirming moral clarity.  His Good Guys were unquestionably good, his Bad Guys – despite their unctuous charm – inarguably bad, and clearly defined good – with rare exemption – triumphed over equally well-defined evil.  He cared little for the interior lives of his characters, and he had little interest in stories reflecting or responding in any fashion to the circumstances of the world around him.

That said, there were noteworthy exceptions.  The starkly shot I Confess (1953) deals with the intriguing moral conundrum of a priest (Montgomery Clift) who hears the confession of a murderer, but then, bound by the strictures of the confessional, is unable to defend himself when falsely accused of murder; James Stewart’s ex-cop turned private eye in Vertigo (1958) is straight out of the noir mold of damned and haunted souls, tormented by his failure to stop a woman’s suicide, then trying to “resurrect” her in the woman he meets years later who resembles the dead woman, finally discovering he’s been a dupe in an elaborate spouse murder scheme and ultimately losing the woman he’s become obsessed with a second time; Hitchcock shot the gritty docudrama The Wrong Man (1956) in bleak black-and-white on the locations where the true story of a musician (Henry Fonda) wrongly accused of robbery had played out; behind Rear Window’s front story of a photojournalist confined to his Manhattan apartment with a broken leg who suspects one of his neighbors of murdering his wife is a subtext of urban isolation, with Hitchcock (working from John Michael Hayes’ elegant adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich story) flitting about several independent stories playing out around an apartment building’s inner court, all told in vivid non-verbal vignettes framed by apartment windows – a compassionate mosaic of human loves, frustrations, and loneliness.

As a rule, however, the credibility of the elements which catalyzed his plots, and the reasoning of his characters and their actions were of little importance to him.   For Hitchcock, what he referred to as “the MacGuffin” – a bit of microfilm (North by Northwest), an assassination plot (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934 remade in 1956), an incriminating bit of evidence (Strangers on a Train, 1951) – was, in his own words, “…the least important…” part of the plotting.  To the director, it was nothing more than a spark to get the suspense machinery moving and provide a venue for him to indulge his considerable technical gifts.  The other noirs of that time were all about human frailty and foible, but Rope is less about the psychology of two young thrill killers than it is about Hitchcock’s virtuoso display of technique in filming the entire picture in a single take (although Hitchcock’s ambition was to shoot Rope in one take, film magazines at the time could only hold ten minutes of film, so the director choreographed the shooting to be done in ten takes with some object blocking the camera to conceal each cut as the magazines were changed, giving the movie the appearance of being filmed in a single 80-minute shot).

Double Indemnity (1944)and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) two prototypical noirs – have simple spouse murder schemes triggering elaborate webs of moral, emotional, and psychological repercussions.  Conversely, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) offers an elaborate spouse murder scheme with little emotional resonance at all, and Rear Window conceals the banality of its spouse murder with an impressive studio recreation of the interior court of a Manhattan city block and Hitchcock’s dexterity at moving from one peripheral vignette to another.

He preferred plots which twisted and turned and looped back on themselves not in any organic, natural, or even credible progression, but in ways which managed to deliver his heroes into artfully crafted peril.  Strangers on a Train and Vertigo involve enormously elaborate methodologies to accomplish what adulterer John Garfield managed in Postman with a simple conk on Cecil Kellaway’s head.  The espionage/chase plot of North by Northwest was so tangled, even bewildered leading man Cary Grant publicly confessed during shooting, “…I still can’t make head or tail of it!”

Hitchcock’s stories deal regularly with murder, kidnapping, assassination, extortion, and assorted other misdeeds, but in an abstract, undisturbing way.  He could compose a violent act for shock value i.e. North’s murder in broad daylight in the lobby of the United Nations; and/or for stylish visual effect i.e. the dying “Moroccan” in 1956’s The Man Who Knew too Much whose make-up comes off in James Stewart’s hands revealing the non-Arab spy beneath.  Yet, for all this mayhem, the acts of violence in Hitchcock’s movies are rarely violent.  There is little or no actual brutality, nor does witnessing bizarre murders seem to have any lasting emotional effect on the “civilian” protagonists regularly sucked into a Hitchcock movie’s intrigues.  There might be an initial moment of shock, but then the hero resourcefully moves on to the next bit of adventure with little thought to or reflection on the trail of bloodletting left behind.  Malevolent acts are simply another tool propelling the plot forward.

Any grim effects of violence are further undercut by the liberal exercise of a droll and often morbid comic sensibility.  Said screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who worked on several Hitchcock pictures including North by Northwest: “There had to be a certain amount of wit…No matter how melodramatic the goings-on were, the characters had to have a sense of humor…”

Characters were “designed” for function.  He cast his heroes with an eye toward the innate charisma – as well as box office appeal – of stars like Stewart and Grant which compensated for the fact that, on the script page, his heroes had little life outside the central plot.  Hitchcock heroes have labels – Farley Granger is a tennis pro in Strangers on a Train, Robert Cummings a thriller writer in Dial M for Murder, Cary Grant an ad agency executive in North – but other than sometimes supplying a plot device (Granger must desperately hurry the playing of a match in a race against time with the man that, at that moment, is framing him for a murder) there is little of substance to their identities.  Though the director often extracted compelling performances from leads and supporting performers alike – despite being accused of dismissing actors as “cattle” – actors and their characters were just parts in his “…elaborate machine…”


The exceptions are his villains, and here he seemed to delight in providing a breathing space he did not grant his heroes.  Yet – like his heroes – his villains are built for entertaining effect rather than believability:  well-spoken, charming, witty in a black comic way…all in all, wonderful cocktail company.  There is Robert Walker, the mother-oppressed psychopath of Strangers misanthropically popping a child’s birthday balloon; Ray Milland in Dial M never losing his suave urbanity even while being arrested for murder, pouring himself a drink and offering one to the “guests” placing him under arrest; James Mason, the elegant antique dealer/spy of North and his weary condescension in dealing with Cary Grant whom he’s mistaken for an American espionage agent – “Games, Mr. Kaplan?  Must we?” Mason’s silky, chatty spy is, said Ernest Lehman, a perfect example of the Hitchcock villain.  However murderous and manipulative he may be, he is, said Lehman, always “…a gentleman about it.”

In a Hitchcock profile, film critic Stephen Whitty pointed out that the director was often considered “…a cold, callow craftsman…” Yet even the director’s detractors have always agreed on his technical mastery of the medium, a skill matched by few – if any – directors in American cinema.  His unquestioned ability to capture the attention of an audience and subject them to exquisite constructions of suspense is best exemplified – from his work in the 1940s/1950s – by North by Northwest.  Typical of some of Hitchcock’s most entertaining pictures, North’s plot is one which trades logic for surprise.  Yet Hitchcock keeps the increasingly tangled threads of his plot moving through his suspense machine in so rapid and stylish a fashion one never gets a moment to question its improbabilities.

Cary Grant is an ad man mistakenly identified as an American spy by a ring of agents of an unnamed foreign power led by James Mason.  The spy Grant is supposed to be is, himself, a fiction created by the Americans to confuse the enemy.  Grant becomes romantically involved with Eva Marie Saint, Mason’s mistress who, it turns out, is also an American agent.  Grant’s interest in Saint threatens to expose the woman’s true identity which she can only protect by feigning antipathy toward the fate of Grant at the hands of Mason et al.  To save her, Grant pretends to be the non-existent spy the enemy agents have assumed him to be.

All the Hitchcock tropes are there:  unpredictable twists in the plot (Grant trying to locate the spy he’s been mistaken for only to discover the man doesn’t exist), black humor (Grant, cornered by Mason’s henchmen at an antique auction, escapes by bidding crazily to the point where the management has him escorted out by police), and a shocking murder or two.  North also contains some of the most memorable set pieces in the Hitchcock oeuvre: a climactic chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore, and – one of the director’s most famous sequences – the crop duster scene.  It is this last which shows Hitchcock at his manipulative best.

Grant has been summoned to a meeting on a country road cutting across an expanse of empty fields.  There’s a sense of expectant threat, but Hitchcock goes to great pains to visually “explain” there is no place in such open country for a threat to conceal itself.  Grant watches first one car pass by from horizon to horizon, then another.  The shots are long, relaxed, bordering on the tedious for the purpose of putting the viewer at ease.  The first indication of lurking danger comes when a passing farmer points to a crop dusting plane flitting back and forth in the distance.  “That’s funny,” says the farmer.  “He’s sprayin’ where there ain’t no crops.” Soon, the plane evolves from background detail to hounding threat as the scene’s deliberately restrained pace gives way to rapid acceleration and lethal action.  Writes Louis Giannetti in his seminal work on film aesthetics, Understanding Movies: “Even with a visually uninteresting setting, Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene…is exemplary.”

Hitchcock’s creative direction veered yet again with two hits in the early 1960s.  Not only did the new work cut against the grain of his own preceding films, but they flouted most of the conventions of mainstream moviemaking at the time.

In Psycho (1960), Hitchcock turned away from the high gloss of most of his 1950s work.  Shot on a quick 36-day schedule in black-and-white with the unit from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series,most of the story takes place at the decidedly non-exotic location of a seedy, back road motel.  Unusual for Hitchcock, the film is character-driven, erotic, overtly violent, and simply laid out, the story’s twists taking place not in a gimmicky plot but in the damaged psyche of shy motel manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).  Hitchcock shocked audiences by killing off his presumed main character (Janet Leigh) early in the story, then daring viewers to sympathize with a mother-smothered serial killer.  Though it was reviled by critics at the time, Psycho was a tremendous success and, in time, would be reconsidered as one of Hitchcock’s best works.

He followed Psycho with The Birds (1963), his one, true horror film which pulls off the trick of being a monster movie without a monster.  Instead of some massive, stalking creature, Hitchcock finds menace in seemingly innocuous gatherings of birds.  Evan Hunter’s precisely constructed expansion of Daphne du Maurier’s short story lays out a favored Hitchcock paradigm:  an insulated, secure enclave of ordinariness – the seaside village of Bodega Bay – descending into fear and chaos as the avian threat escalates in meticulously crafted stages.  By the time Hitchcock was done with his audience, no one could ever look at birds sitting innocently on a phone wire the same way again.

Thereafter, Hitchcock’s career veered yet again, but this time with less than glowing results.  Going into the mid- and late 1960s, amidst the social turmoil of the time, the graphic on-screen violence of movies like Point Blank (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Wild Bunch (1969), the in-the-street realism of movies like Mean Streets (1973) and the topical relevance of films like Fail-Safe (1964), Hitchcock’s work seemed out-of-step, stale and artificial.

He attempted two projects which uncharacteristically reflected real-world milieus:  the Cold War thriller Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969), an espionage tale set against the Cuban missile crisis.  The results were widely considered unimpressive.  The audience already had available to them James Bond derring-do at one end of the espionage thriller scale, and the informed real-world cynicism and Cold War weariness of John LeCarre (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965) and Len Deighton (The Ipcress File, 1965) at the other.  Measured against them, Hitchcock’s films seemed hollow and forced.

He would have one more late-career hit with Frenzy (1972), a surprisingly graphic story of a serial sex murderer on the loose in London, but it was clear The Master’s heyday was over.

Still…

Most of Alfred Hitchcock’s pictures – particularly those from his 1950s/early 1960s peak — remain entertaining and exciting decades later.  This may come, paradoxically, from their oft-criticized emotional aloofness.  There are no topical matters to date them, no provocative elements or wincing brutality to alienate or distance an audience.  Emotionally superficial, morally simplistic, yet wonderfully crafted, they remain perpetually untroubling, reassuring, and infinitely entertaining.  They are confections, set in a real-but-unreal Hollywood realm which, because of its very unreality, remains a timeless and eternal place of fantasy and fable.  Hitchcock had been right:  he had, after all, been nothing more than an entertainer…but a Masterful one.

– Bill Mesce





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