Alfred Hitchcock Essay, Research Paper
Alfred HitchcockAlfred’s Cameos | Inside the Master | The Filmography | Clips & Trailers Inside the Master of Suspense by Robert HortonMidway through Vertigo, “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) and Madeleine (Kim Novak) have wandered through the redwoods and come to the edge of the crashing ocean. Despite the fact that he is an out-of-work cop, hired to follow her around by her worried husband, they are growing intimate. There is a problem, aside from the husband: Madeleine is spellbound, haunted by morbid trances. But Scottie is a man of logic. He wants to trace the problem, challenge it, explain it the same approach he’s taken to his own fear of falling. If we could just find the key, he mutters. Madeleine, despite her own secrets, knows better. She says something ironic about “explaining” away the mystery but Scottie, as usual, isn’t listening to her. Alfred Hitchcock knows better, too. In some of his films, there is an explanation given for the various pathologies on display: Psycho ends with a notoriously insufficient analysis of Norman Bates and his dear old Mum, while Spellbound is rife with psychoanalytic explication (and is one of Hitch’s least satisfying films). But these explanations are almost on a par with Hitchcock’s use of what he called the MacGuffin: that object in the plot which makes the story happen (uranium, a cigarette lighter, government secrets) but which doesn’t really matter at all. The dangers in Hitchcock’s world can’t be explained away. They’re connected to the deepest kinds of fears, which this director lived with in closer proximity than most people. His favorite anecdote with interviewers was the time he was locked in a police cell as a little kid. The police chief let him out after five minutes and said to the lad, “This is what we do to naughty boys.” Hitchcock never got away from his pervasive sense of guilt and fear, the nervous feeling that someone might start chasing you, at any moment, for no reason at all. It’s no wonder the “wrong man” story turns up again and again in his films. But this doesn’t “explain” Hitchcock, either. In his rancid biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, writer Donald Spoto tries to cram Hitchcock’s life into the author’s own agenda, and makes a strong argument that ol’ Fat Al was one messed-up guy. This allows Spoto to use Hitchcock’s biography to explain things from Hitchcock’s movies. Except that it doesn’t, save for the simplest kinds of art-and-life parallels (reading the book is a little like having Simon Oakland’s psychologist from Psycho standing over your shoulder, providing crib notes). And, more importantly, this approach can’t explain why Hitchcock was so good, why he takes us so deeply into fear and longing. Vertigo, in its lusciously-restored version, may be an introduction to Hitchcock for many people. There is a great deal beyond Vertigo, of course. His English period is still preferred by some, and those early films crackle with an appealing, youthful bounce. He perfected a blend of thrills and humor in The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), but some of the lesser-known movies are just as good. Blackmail (1929), which exists in intriguingly different silent and sound versions, is the work of an utterly confident young master, a terrific tale of murder and its aftermath. Some of the other “little” ones, such as Rich and Strange (1932) and Young and Innocent (1937), manage to be both splendid entertainments and absolutely distinctive films that could only have been made by one man. Hitchcock came to Hollywood at the behest of producer David O. Selznick, and scored an immediate success with Rebecca in 1940. His films of the following decade are things of beauty, elegantly using the tools of the studio system at its zenith, to say nothing of the glorious actors: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine. His own avowed favorite was Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which allowed him to investigate a pet theme: the presence of evil (in the form of lady killer Joseph Cotton) within a world of complete normalcy, the white picket fence town of Santa Rosa. Equally good are Suspicion (1941), in which a studio-imposed happy ending actually adds to the sinister suggestions of the plot, Notorious (1946), which is a lot of people’s favorite Hitchcock movie, and Strangers on a Train (1951), one of the director’s most playfully perverse films. It’s interesting that during this period of high craftsmanship, Hitchcock was also making some wild experiments in form, such as Rope (1948), which contains only a few visible cuts in its entire running time, and the very odd Under Capricorn (1949) and Stage Fright (1950), which play around with long-take techniques and storytelling tricks. It seems unthinkable now, but by the time of Hitchcock’s richest, deepest period, many critics were talking about his decline. The old-line critics insisted that the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was superior to the 1956 remake; auteurist critics, who suggested that Hitchcock was a serious artist, held the opposite. Dwight Macdonald’s review of The Birds (1963) is a classic example of wrong-headed critical thinking, the inability to engage a movie on its terms; among his many jabs is the observation that the main actors (icy statue Tippi Hedren, rough-hewn Rod Taylor, stage-trained Jessica Tandy) are performing in different styles, failing to connect. Good observation, but lousy conclusion, because that very disparity in styles enhances Hitchcock’s portrait of human beings in their own separate spheres or their own traps, to borrow a phrase from Psycho. The director’s level of respect has risen since the 1960s, in large part thanks to the auteurists, led by Andrew Sarris in America and Francois Truffaut in France (Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock is probably still the best print introduction a new Hitchcock enthusiast could have). In any case, Vertigo is an eloquent rebuke to the theory of Hitchcock’s decline. It regularly turns up in polls of the greatest movies ever made which is a little odd, given Vertigo’s level of weirdness, even in the Hitchcock canon. (Such a morbid, monomaniacal film, so lacking in the fun thrills that first made Hitchcock’s name.) After struggling at the box office with a string of coolly received but quite commanding films, including Marnie (1964) and Torn Curtain (1966), the director made a commercial comeback with Frenzy (1972), which brought a new explicitness to his work. He completed one more film, the minor but likable Family Plot (1976), before his death in 1980, though he was working on new scripts to the end. He was Sir Alfred by then, the Catholic grocer’s son made good. Another moment from Vertigo. Scottie and his friend Midge (even the name diminishes her she’s nice, smart, funny; and not a woman to become obsessed about) are listening to a bookstore owner tell a haunting local legend. From inside the bookstore, we can see the gloomy afternoon light outside. Inside, the light around the trio of people imperceptibly dims you might not notice it until the shot is almost over as the story told becomes sadder. By the time the tale is over, the faces of the people cannot be seen. It’s a beautiful effect, but it also describes the journey of Vertigo: by the time we get to the end of Hitchcock’s story, the world is plunged in darkness, with no solace left but the night, and the wind, and the grave. The lights that come up in the theater after the ending of the film are too late. Welcome to the world of Alfred Hitchcock.