Writing about Hitchcock is daunting. Hitchcock scholarship by now fills scores of volumes, some of them by the crème de la crème of critics and film-makers. Hitchcock’s towering significance to my education about and appreciation of the film process, along with the years of undiluted pleasure and stimulation I’ve derived from his films at all kinds of levels, compels me, however, to add a few personal notes.
Hitchcock’s name on the marquee made me aware even as a child that films were made by somebody, that they had an author just like a novel or a poem.
There was, moreover, something deliciously forbidden about this author whose very titles invited the budding voyeur in me-Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window. My interest in these films was further aroused by the fact that at the ripe old age of ten my parents refused to let me see any of them. I was too well brought up a young Baptist to argue the point with them; in any case they were only screened at nights being classified A or AO (not suitable for children or suitable only for adults) and I was only allowed out to matinees. My friend Toivo Lember was the lucky Gladstone Gander to my Donald Duck who accompanied his parents to evening screenings at the Mt Gravatt Princess theatre. He crowed and I was envious.
During puberty I grew bolder and asserted my interest in pursuing Hitchcock against strong parental opposition. It was 1959 and the newly arrived television scene in Brisbane brought among other delights the weekly program Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I plotted and cajoled and wheedled my way into ensuring that the program aired regularly in our living room. I was hooked for life over my mother’s threats and protests. Hitchcock’s provocative introductions were hilarious to me but confronting for her; they quickly familiarised me with Hitchcock’s trademark black humour and mordant wit, along with his brilliant sense of showmanship. Mother simply did not know what to make of the tone but feared something central was amiss and probably downright wicked. Fortunately my father shared my opinion of these little gems as I came as close as I ever did to adolescent rebellion. In 1960 I had caught up with Rear Window on the big screen and now rushed out along with the rest of my peers to see Psycho. We had all been worked over by the clever trailer but nothing really prepared me for the reality of the experience. Psycho left me crouching in fear in the theatre with my hands up to my face in the more graphic sequences and gave me nightmares in my sleep for several nights. It also caused a predictable rift at home when Alfred Hitchcock Presents was peremptorily banned from the weekly agenda.The domino effect followed quickly; the banishment of Hitchcock also extended now to The Twilight Zone (the Little Girl Lost episode was the last straw for my mother), Boris Karloff’s Thriller (this time it was Pigeons from Hell) and The Outer Limits (several offending episodes).
I lost the battle but won the war three years later when Rebecca aired on television. Mother overcame her prejudices, watched the romantic/gothic thriller and confessed to enjoying it immensely. (She probably loved it for all the wrong reasons but I didn’t care ).
In 1966 during my last year of tertiary study I met and befriended Roger McNiven in Brisbane. At that time the auteurist film debates were in full swing with the Brisbane Cinema Group crowd, most of whom opted for the current critical establishment line on Hitchcock, that is, that he was a brilliant film technician but merely a manipulative entertainer who was not to be taken too seriously. Robin Wood’s 1967 monograph threw down the gauntlet to such scoffers with his now famous opening line “Why take Hitchcock seriously?” and went on to argue a fascinating case for doing exactly that. I had by this time been exposed to the likes of Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo, had bitterly resented the condescending sneers of the Brisbane Cinema Group crowd on the subject of Hitchcock (and other so-called “mere” entertainers ), so Wood’s challenges came as balm to my soul. Roger and I became the opposition, especially after we founded the University of Queensland Film Group. Needless to say, I quarrelled vigorously with many acquaintances at the time, including my friend Toivo Lember (on the subject of Marnie). These were doctrinaire times.
Roger, Bill Van Der Heide and I – with the help of invited guests and ardent Hitchcock experts Eamon Byrne and Ken Mogg-mounted a festival of fifteen Hitchcock films at the old Avalon Theatre, St Lucia in 1967. It was the first festival devoted to a single body of a film author’s work in Brisbane (and, I suspect, in the Southern hemisphere). We wrote polemically, more than a little naively in my case, and certainly long-windedly about our favourite Hitchcock films in our program notes. Whatever shortcomings the project may have had, it certainly fostered the debate about taking Hitchcock seriously. The next year, in Sydney, Psycho was re-released and drew strong crowds. Shortly thereafter, Truffaut’s ground-breaking book, Hitchcock, was translated into English; everybody, it seemed, was now taking Hitchcock seriously. Toivo and I were no longer at loggerheads but the falling out with some of my old Brisbane Cinema Group acquaintances and friends never really healed.
From that time Hitchcock became as firmly established a great artist in my estimation as Beethoven, Bach or Shakespeare. His mastery of his chosen medium seemed as unquestionable to me as any of those masters in theirs. I kept shifting ground about specific films but not about the overall achievement: I became at various points of time, less fond of his pre-Hollywood output and of most of his post-Marnie films (Frenzy excepted). In the former, I felt that he was relatively disadvantaged by the lack of technical resources at his disposal when the ambiences of the films cried out for them; in the latter I felt there was a considerable decline in his powers which had peaked in the years from Rear Window to Marnie. I had mixed feelings about his technical experiments. While admiring the audacity and challenge of the ten-minute takes in Rope and Under Capricorn, I didn’t necessarily think they produced great films but merely extended some of the boundaries of cinematic possibilities. On the other hand, I found the confinement of the worlds of Rear Window and Lifeboat wholly convincing and riveting cinema. At the other end of the spectrum, I felt his thrill-a-minute cross-country chases from The 39 Steps through Saboteur to North by Northwest produced brilliant entertainments but not necessarily his best art. I am not so lofty in my conceptions of art these days and now consider The 39 Steps and especially North by Northwest as among his greatest achievements.
I have long since concluded that whatever he worked at, Hitchcock’s imprint through his mise-en-scene was unique and unmistakable: one aspect of his style alone (his subjective camera alternating subjective forward-moving tracking shots with objective audience perspective) constantly draws attention to film as a voyeuristic medium. Rear Window remains the most explicit examination of voyeurism in his work, but his camera either directly or indirectly follows characters on journeys of discovery and revelation (the beginning of Marnie; Janet Leigh’s drive into the night in Psycho; Tippi Hedren’s drive into Bodega Bay in The Birds; and of course, three quarters of Vertigo are all striking examples). Hitch forces his audiences into becoming complicit in this voyeuristic process-while watching many Hitchcock films there’s a distinct sense of unease imposed on the viewer by forcing them to feel they are intruding on something either very private or very secret. Characters in the films are frequently eavesdropping or spying, and the spectator shares in the process. In Hitchcock, there is no such thing as an innocent observer. The act of watching a film in itself invites the voyeur in all of us. In his greatest films, Hitchcock shamelessly manipulates in his audiences the guilt feelings and anxieties aroused by the voyeuristic process.
Hitchcock also exploits the oneiric properties of the medium to the hilt. Some films themselves resemble nightmares of of innocent victimization (The Wrong Man, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest), or of disturbed states of mind (Psycho). The most dreamlike of all Hitchcock films, Vertigo, is like watching a life in a state of suspended animation, and just as the James Stewart character has worked his way through one nightmare, he plunges into another which finally results in similar consequences. Hitchcock often shows characters about to fall to their likely deaths (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Saboteur) but doesn’t show them being rescued-a deliberate omission which in itself reinforces the dreamlike properties of film.
His work falls into quite a few stages; the silent films already indicate his engineering and architectural/visual genius albeit in embryo; the apprentice British thrillers are all lightweight works, but not without traces of rich psychological (The 39 Steps) and visual (Young and Innocent) detail, and full of delicious black humour (the presentation of police as buffoons and incompetents in Young and Innocent, for example, is an early manifestation of a Hitchcock motif). The banter between Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps or between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes clearly looks forward to the erotic/tense/humorous exchanges between male/female protagonists more fully developed in the later works. In spite of his many budgetary limitations, Hitchcock also developed some of the narrative/suspenseful set-pieces that foreshadow the assurance of the triumphs of later years (the bomb death of Sabotage involving the boy may have been miscalculated in final audience effect, but the sequence leading up to it is thrillingly staged; and there are numerous sequences in The 39 Steps that could be singled out for comment.).Young and Innocent contains many of the kinds of visual jokes one associates with later Hitchcock, such as his framing along children’s party hats and his likening of Nova Pilbeam’s aunt Mary Clare to a witch in the same sequence. Hitchcock is also capable of bravura camera effects despite the monetary constraints: the revelation of the murderer, the man with the nervous eye twitch, in Young and Innocent, comes at the end of a travelling shot which begins on a crane at one end of a dance hall and ends at the bandstand on a close-up of his eyes.
When David O Selznick brought Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1940, he at last found the fertile ground in which his genius was able to flower. Larger budgets meant the kind of production values Hitchcock’s visual talent thrived on; his first Hollywood film, Rebecca, might on the face of it seemed like material better suited to the talents of someone like William Wyler but, in spite of considerable interference from Selznick, Hitchcock managed to bring a great deal to Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romance through his formidable mise-en-scene. He transformed the conventions of the heroine in distress into something far darker and more sinister. Joan Fontaine as the gauche and affectingly insecure heroine becomes under Hitchcock’s confident guidance her own worst enemy and victim of a sinister plan to drive her out of her mind. Laurence Olivier invests his character of Maxim De Winter with a marvelous brooding melancholy and ambiguity in his intentions towards Fontaine; but it is Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in a dominant, virtuoso role who steals the film. An openly lesbian character who has been in love with the first Mrs De Winter, she becomes one of the most concrete and literal centres of oppression in Hitchcock’s work but the overwhelming atmosphere of threat was soon to become one of Hitchcock’s most characteristic trademarks.
Suspicion, the Joan Fontaine companion piece, is even better at delineating that atmosphere. The whole film is built around the protagonist’s (and the audience’s) uncertainty about the real feelings and intentions of the Cary Grant character. Hitchcock, using Grant in the first of four outstanding characterizations in his films, exploits the actor’s dualities (his natural charm and his moral ambiguity) to this end. Grant was one of the few Hollywood performers who was equally adept at projecting the lighter and darker sides of his screen persona. The film as a result is able in quite barefaced terms to play an elaborate cat and mouse game with the Joan Fontaine character and its audience. Fontaine’s demure erotic romanticism is another key to the film’s believability. Despite her growing paranoia (Hitchcock’s clever lighting and textures suggest a spider’s web which insistently traps Fontaine amidst familiar surroundings), she wants to believe that Grant still loves her. This kind of romantic obsession became common to many of Hitchcock’s subsequent films and received its most eloquent, and dare I say, personal expression in the character of Scotty so perfectly realized by James Stewart’s intensely interior performance in Vertigo.
In between Rebecca and Suspicion, Hitchcock chose to mount a film for independent producer Walter Wanger called Foreign Correspondent about a ring of Nazi spies in pre-World War Two Europe. It’s an interesting forerunner to the kind of picaresque chase thrillers he would later excel at-in fact, as early as 1942 he used the form effectively in Saboteur but it had reached its pinnacle by North by Northwest in 1959. Joel McCrea and Laraine Day were very personable as the lovers and spy hunters; they fitted well into the Hitchcock milieu and were lent sterling support from a great character cast including the eminent European actor Albert Bassermann as well as George Sanders (who had already appeared to advantage for Hitchcock in Rebecca), Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn. Hitchcock “showed off” his growing mastery of his medium in some flamboyant visual set pieces like the scene with all the umbrellas, the mid-ocean plane crash and most spectacularly, in the long sequence in Holland with the windmills. This was a great warm-up for things to come.
In the early 40s Selznick allowed Hitchcock to make two films at Universal, Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt. The latter film is his first real masterpiece, a fortuitous collaboration with playwright Thornton Wilder whose vivid recreation of small-town Americana (uncharacteristically for its period shot on location) provides a perverse backdrop for one of Hitchcock’s morally densest works. In it, an “average” Santa Rosa family plays host to one of its own members, a beloved brother and uncle who unbeknown to them is a cold, cynical misogynist and psychopath, on the lam from the law and known to the police as the “Merry Widow” murderer because of his predilection for charming wealthy middle-aged widows before killing them. Joseph Cotten, effectively and perversely cast against type as Uncle Charlie is neatly and cruelly juxtaposed with his adoring niece and namesake, young Charlie (the excellent Teresa Wright). She innocently reads his visit as a “miracle” bestowed on the family to lift their spirits out of their provincial, humdrum, ordinary lives.
Hitchcock’s superb film traces her gradual realization that this handsome, sophisticated visitor is not what he seems, and that her romantic, adolescent illusions are about to be shattered by his vision of the world as a “foul sty”, as well as by two attempts on her life.
Hitchcock unravels this moral morass through sequences of seamless formal beauty; the famous opening with its parallel introductions to the two Charlies in comparable and contrasting sets of images; the noir atmospherics that invade and threaten the family’s sunlit domestic scenes; the recurring images of smoke surrounding Uncle Charlie which evoke a Lucifer-like presence; young Charlie’s two flights into the night (employing characteristic subjective camera movement)-one culminating in her shattering confirmation of her uncle’s identity in the library, the other in the climactic confrontation with uncle Charlie in the Til Two bar.
Hitchcock’s dark undercutting of young Charlie’s innocent dream of small-town life is aided in no small measure by sequences of unsettling black humour (young Charlie’s father Henry Travers and his neighbour Hume Cronyn fancy themselves as amateur sleuths and constantly exchange graphic details of gruesome murders); by Thornton Wilder’s and Joan Harrison’s incisive, ironic and literate screenplay that constantly portrays each member of this “average” middle-American family (including precocious children) as living in isolated cocoons with little communication among themselves; by a pulsating Dimitri Tiomkin score that pinpoints young Charlie’s steadily mounting fears about her uncle Charlie; by Joseph Valentine’s location cinematography that lends sardonic verisimilitude to the atmosphere of cosy middle American life under scrutiny and threat here; and especially by an ensemble of superlatively honed performances (Patricia Collinge, Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten all suggesting, without ever becoming explicit, incestuous undercurrents at the heart of this very American family). Even under the watchful eye of the Hays Code, Hitchcock in his sly subversiveness was always daring the moral guardians to catch him out.
Notorious is Hitchcock’s other 40s masterpiece, a noirish, brooding romantic thriller mostly set in Rio de Janeiro at the end of World War Two. Ingrid Bergman joined the ranks of Hitchcock’s good/bad women (later incarnations would include Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest and Kim Novak in Vertigo) ready to risk life and reputation through a sense of duty to her country. Claude Rains predictably lends strong humanity to his Sebastian, a tailor-made role as one of Hitchcock’s most charming and vulnerable villains. He plays the Nazi friend of Bergman’s father whom she is sent to ensnare in marriage. In doing so, she becomes herself entrapped in a complex, emotional web where she is forced to compromise her feelings and her sexuality under the nose of failed lover and fellow undercover agent Cary Grant. Grant’s performance is uncharacteristically and effectively glacial and stiff-as Hitchcock intended him to be. He joins here the ranks of Hitchcock’s growing list of thwarted romantic obsessives.
Hitchcock’s voyeuristic style is at its most compelling here, with Grant the watcher reduced to helpless impotence (at several levels) while Bergman is being slowly poisoned in a mansion that threatens to become her tomb. Bergman, encouraged by Hitchcock, projects a wanton erotic abandon in her early, inebriated scenes with such skill that the romantic obsessions of both Grant and Rains become resonant and realistic. There is some sublime subjective tracking down a staircase as Grant rescues Bergman from under the noses of her incarcerators. This is great film making!
After a string of interesting experimental works (Lifeboat, Rope, Under Capricorn) in the middle to the late 40s, Hitchcock began the 50s with an enjoyable enough throwback to the lighter English thrillers, Stage Fright. I underrated it initially largely because of its relatively weak male leads (Wilding and Todd) but it contains some of Hitchcock’s most diabolical – and characteristically English – humour, a theatrical ambience and a total lack of pretension all of which improve it over multiple viewings. Sequences like the theatrical garden-party set-piece and the resolute English-ness of the character people in the cast-Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndyke, Joyce Grenfell and Miles Malleson all contribute to the atmosphere of Hitchcock enjoying himself in a lighter vein. The plot, involving a flashback containing false information, allows Hitchcock to play deviously with audience sympathies.
Hitchcock went into really high gear again in his next effort Strangers on a Train (based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel), which presents a display of Hitchcock stylistics at their showiest. Here, he is unrepentantly upfront in his manipulation of audience complicity in a crime-an exchange of murders whereby motives will be hard to find. In making the psychopath (Robert Walker) who proposes this exchange so compelling and the tennis pro (Farley Granger) who innocently plays into his hands so weak, Hitchcock invites his audience into becoming accessories after the increasingly nightmarish facts. In the process, Hitchcock indulges in some of his most bravura mise-en-scene: the entire fairground sequence exerts a malicious fascination on the viewer. Its tone is set when Walker pointlessly bursts a child’s balloon with his cigarette, and culminates in the now famous scene of Walker strangling Granger’s wife (Laura Elliott) magnified flamboyantly in the big close-up shot of her fallen glasses. There are many other well-documented set-pieces in what is virtually a catalogue of Hitchcock strutting his stuff: Bruno (Walker) demonstrating the art of strangling on a Washington society matron; the tennis court sequence that isolates a motionless Bruno among a host of turning heads; the sequence where Guy (Granger) attempts to retrieve the incriminating cigarette lighter from a drain which wrings out every last ounce of audience suspense (Peter Bogdanovich in his first film Targets pays a nice homage to this); and the carousel sequence leading to Bruno’s death. Robert Walker in his penultimate film is one of Hitchcock’s most memorable theatrical creations, a richly multilayered and complex characterization which incorporates like Rope and Rebecca another clearly gay subtext-a running fascination for this voyeuristic artist; it provided the ill-fated actor with a fitting final bow but Farley Granger is equally well cast in the less showy role of Guy (all sweat and anxiety).
I Confess, which followed Strangers on a Train, is one of two sombre and overtly religious (Catholic) works which surprised a lot of Hitchcock’s devotees. The other work in this vein is The Wrong Man and I have a fond regard for both films. Montgomery Clift may not on the face of it seem like an ideal protagonist for Hitchcock but it’s an effectively interiorised performance nevertheless; the mismatching styles exert their own fascination anyway. For the most part, the priest’s (Montgomery Clift’s) moral and spiritual dilemma is captured in restless movement-Clift spends a lot of time in the film walking through the austere Quebec streets; one street sequence where Hitchcock evokes the stations of the cross and allows Clift to break down in an overtly Christ-like gesture is so audacious it makes me gasp.
The centrality of voyeurism (in the Catholic ritual of the confessional itself and all that that implies) to the film’s plot is totally Hitchcockian and it is worked out stylistically through some overt subjective camerawork-Karl Malden observing Clift in a street crowd, for example is a stunning visual effect. Dimitri Tiomkin’s typically relentless score is another of the film’s big pluses. The only real weakness of I Confess is Anne Baxter’s heavily theatrical performance-effective enough in the flashbacks in her romantic scenes with Clift – but out of kilter with the introspective tone of the whole.
After a relatively minor work in the Hitchcock canon, the enjoyable Dial M for Murder where he explored the possibilities of 3D, the master launched into his most creatively fertile years beginning with Rear Window. With the exceptions of the lightweight romantic comedy/thriller To Catch a Thief which deliciously exploits its Riviera locations and the fascinating star combination of the mature Cary Grant and Grace Kelly at her sexiest; and The Trouble with Harry, an enjoyable but minor black comedy centred on a corpse and set amidst a blaze of autumnal colours in a New England village, every film between Rear Window and Marnie represents Hitchcock in maturity at the height of his powers, exploring his obsessions and concerns with breathtakingly consummate film craft. Rear Window is itself the ultimate refinement of Hitchcock’s fascination with exploring a closed situation (compare Rope, Lifeboat). In this case a single set represents the courtyard and apartments viewed from James Stewart’s Greenwich Village window, where, playing a news photographer, he is stuck in his room with a broken leg. Bored because he is forced out of his customarily adventurous life in exotic locations through his present condition, and confronted with possible marital entrapment by his socialite girlfriend (Grace Kelly in a smug, unsympathetic role), Stewart becomes the compleat Hitchcock voyeur projecting his personal fantasies and obsessions onto other people’s lives. With his large binoculars blowing up every neighbour’s window like a projected screen image, a no of commentators have pointed out that Stewart becomes a metaphor for the cinema audience itself (as spectator living vicariously) and the film exploits the inherent dangers and morally questionable motives arising out of this relationship with wit, entertainment and intellectual complexity. Rear Window invites overt reflection on the film process, its deep links with the voyeur in everyone, and largely unthinking audience complicity in this process. Part of RW’s success lies in Hitchcock’s felicitous teaming with James Stewart, who like Cary Grant, was ideal putty in the master’s hands. In spite of the surface folksiness of his established screen persona, Stewart was able to demonstrate, especially in his work with Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, an unsavoury quality in his obsessiveness that both directors would develop and exploit (to an amazing extent in Hitchcock’s and Stewart’s best film, Vertigo).
The Man Who Knew Too Much presents an even more unsympathetic Stewart as an uptight, conservative Midwestern doctor; Stewart virtually plays God in his relationship with his distraught wife Doris Day by withholding information about their son, kidnapped while they are on holiday in Morocco. Ian Cameron wrote an excellent article on this film in an issue of the British Movie magazine, demonstrating how effortlessly Hitchcock manipulates his audiences through the mechanics of suspense. This remake of his 1934 film of the same name and in some ways superior to that film, is, like the minor film Torn Curtain, an elaborate series of set-pieces involving the master’s toying with the elements of his craft. (that is, the suspense thriller, the genre he almost single-handedly patented).
It includes a meticulously crafted and visually witty red herring involving the confusion around Victor Chapel. The film as a whole protracts the suspense elements to an excruciating degree, particularly in the lengthy Albert Hall sequence. Never have regular musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s contributions been so central and visible to a Hitchcock plot. (Great chunks of Arthur Benjamin’s ‘Storm Cloud Cantata’ are one of the film’s many delights). The Man Who Knew Too Much also contains some of the best work of its two stars: Stewart’s attempts to rip a chicken apart with his hands while dangling cross-legged on the floor of a Moroccan restaurant is rivaled in sublime awkwardness only by the sight of Cary Grant’s attempts to find a comfortable position in which to sleep in a bathtub in Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride. Doris Day is a convincing Hitchcock heroine, and the supporting cast includes sturdy English character actors Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie who play the villains with a perversely disorienting mix of the homely and the sinister-a Hitchcock specialty.
The Wrong Man is less entertaining but no less potent-again it is Hitchcock in full throttle, reworking the sombre territory of I Confess in a more extreme minor key. Henry Fonda plays a jazz musician mistakenly arrested as a holdup man: this provides a starting point for one of Hitchcock’s bleakest and most nightmarish presentations of victimization. The New York location shooting is done in film noir style and the narrative proceeds with a spare documentation which avoids Hitchcock’s more characteristically devious manipulation of plot. The imagery has been described as Kafkaesque in its expression of a cruel, uncaring universe full of labyrinthine dead-ends. (“The quiet Manny-Henry Fonda-journeys through his modern hell with child-like awe…this is an unrelenting depiction of the desolation of existence”). Complementing Fonda’s self-effacing, numbed performance is that of Vera Miles as his wife Rose. The film charts the course of her mental breakdown in distressingly graphic visual detail, while Fonda’s own dilemma makes him incapable of giving her the support she desperately requires. Miles was one of Hitchcock’s favourite blondes and he intended to groom her in the mould of Grace Kelly after the latter’s defection to royalty: but Miles’ natural warmth played against the “glacial blonde” image the calculating Kelly projected Hitchcock seemed to favour. She exhibited a lot of vulnerability and some insecurity, and among Hitchcock’s leading women, these characteristics were only exceeded by Kim Novak in Vertigo.
The Wrong Man contains like I Confess overtly Catholic symbolism but the mood of the film’s resolution paradoxically suggests a skeptic’s rather than a believer’s point of view. The Catholicism is, however, strongly felt in the film’s austerity; this is an exceptional film for Hitchcock in being entirely devoid of humour.
Vertigo is equally intense but quite different in tone and intention from The Wrong Man. It returns to the familiar Hitchcock territory of the thriller, but unlike his other thrillers, it is a highly reflective work whose rhythms are meditative rather than suspenseful, its imagery oneiric rather than dramatic. The film subjectively presents, from the James Stewart character’s viewpoint, a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory experience of San Francisco streets and locations. It’s one of the richest of 50s colour films in its original incarnation (the restored DVD version, unfortunately misses the original hues).
Vertigo is Hitchcock’s definitive exploration of voyeurism. It is also the most extreme expression of thwarted romanticism in his entire oeuvre. James Stewart as the ex-cop hired by his friend Tom Helmore brings an intensity to his role unparalleled even in his most neurotic forays into Anthony Mann westerns or in the darker passages of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the first few reels of Vertigo, Helmore engages Stewart to follow and observe his suicidal wife, Kim Novak. In the process, he becomes romantically obsessed with her and everything her ethereal image represents for him. The dream-like atmosphere this creates is reinforced in several ways: in the opening sequence, Stewart pursues a criminal, at night, across a San Francisco rooftop, slips and almost plunges to his death. A fellow cop then actually does fall trying to rescue Stewart and Stewart is left dangling on some guttering. Hitchcock craftily denies the audience any visible evidence of Stewart’s rescue, and the effect is to create in the audience mind not only a lack of a sense of closure but also the impression of a character who’s fallen into a state of mind somewhere between reality and dream. This almost surreal state is further extended in the imagery of mesmerizing drives around hilly San Francisco locations as Stewart tails Novak relentlessly. It is also developed by Novak’s somnambulistic screen presence (was there ever a shrewder and more precise piece of casting? – it’s hard to believe she wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice); by the haunting accounts of her ancestry; by fetishistic detail like the necklace and the hair curl; and by Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling and eerily beautiful score. It’s expressly imaged in Stewart’s intense gaze, insistently photographed during his drives and intercut with the stylistically familiar subjective forward tracking.
Halfway through the film, after rescuing Novak from a drowning attempt in San Francisco Bay, and after casting her in the role of heroine in distress with himself as her saviour, he drives her out to an old Spanish mission where she apparently leaps to her death from the mission tower. Stewart, whose vertigo renders him powerless to prevent this, sinks into a state of mourning-listlessly conveyed by this endlessly resourceful actor. Friend, wannabe lover and terminally earth-bound Barbara Bel Geddes attempts to rehabilitate him on a steady diet of mothering and Mozart but, surprise, surprise, it doesn’t help at all. He has elaborate surreal nightmares incorporating many of the haunting death-like images surrounding the mysterious Novak. Eventually, he finds a girl (also Novak) with an uncanny surface resemblance to his lost love (dream? fantasy?) but with none of the ethereality or style. He obsessively repeats the process of trying to save her, mould her, and work over her working girl, Pygmalion-fashion, into her predecessor’s image. The two Novaks are, of course, one and the same and were part of an elaborate plot to rid Tom Helmore of his wife using Stewart as the ideal dupe because of his vertigo.
Once he realizes he has been deceived, Stewart’s angry passions are given full flight. His re-enactment of the mission tower episode with a terrified Novak is one of the cinema’s most frightening experiences. Stewart’s tortured and disappointed romantic ego, it has been suggested, may well be a surrogate expression for Hitchcock’s own. I suspect this is the closest the Master of Suspense ever came to revealing his own feelings on film if the accounts in Donald Spoto’s biography are to be believed. The disturbing thing is that the romantic obsession is here rooted in voyeurism, fetishism, anxiety and impotence. For surely Stewart’s fear of heights and subsequent powerlessness at the center of the film are metaphors for sexual inadequacy and/or impotence. Tragically in the film, such inadequacies are only overcome by Stewart ridding himself of the source of his passion, that is, Novak herself.
Never has a city and its locations been used so effectively as an interior as well as exterior landscape as they have in this timeless masterpiece. The great Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks surpassed himself in the colour, lighting and atmospherics (both interior and exterior) in this film.
After such personal revelations, Hitchcock returned in North by Northwest to relatively lighter and more customary ground albeit with a vengeance. It is a flawlessly executed chase narrative, virtually the apotheosis of a form largely identified in film with Hitchcock. Exhilarating and unendingly rich in performance detail, this espionage thriller clearly benefits from the presence of Cary Grant in top form, beguilingly charming but with an edge, in the last and best of his quartet of outings with Hitch; James Mason and Martin Landau (another openly gay character) are fruitily malevolent as the villains; Jessie Royce Landis (the mother who stubs her cigarette butt into an egg in To Catch a Thief) reprises her acerbic star turn as Grant’s mother, aiding and abetting his abductors in an hilarious sequence where she just cannot help sneering in disbelief at his cries for help; and Eva Marie Saint finally gets a role befitting her talents as a morally ambivalent glacial blonde really and truly in the Grace Kelly mould who generates suitably edgy erotic tensions with Grant.
Literally traversing a great deal of territory, this sharply written (Ernest Lehman), witty, cross-country pursuit becomes a peg on which Hitchcock hangs one intoxicating location set-piece after another. These episodes are set in train by a richly comic episode of Grant’s being forced by his abductors to drink a bottle of whiskey then drive around hairpin bends and plunging cliff faces culminating (by way of a very funny star turn tailor made for Grant’s gestural skills) in a totally incoherent explanation of these bizarre activities which confounds the police and delights the audience.
The attention to formal architectural patterns in Hitchcock films, undoubtedly arising out of his early training in film set design, serves North by Northwest well and has been much raked over by Hitchcock scholars. The credits sequence with its criss-cross directional grids, the showy vignette at UN headquarters involving overhead shots of the building and grounds, the fascinating Frank Lloyd Wright house jutting out of the edge of Mount Rushmore all attest to Hitchcock’s meticulous planning of the kind of visual detail that makes North by Northwest such a thrilling and memorable roller-coaster ride.
The auction sequence and, more especially, the celebrated crop duster episode are further exercises in Hitchcock’s knowingness in juxtaposing terror with the most mundane details of daily life. In the latter case an isolated rural bus stop, a field of corn and a plane “crop dusting where there ain’t no crops” turns into a sustained nightmare in broad sunlight for the hapless Grant and his unsuspecting cinema audience.
Like Saboteur, the film’s climactic scenes are built into a national monument; in Saboteur, the Statue of Liberty serves as the backdrop to the final struggle between victim and victimiser, Mount Rushmore in this film. Hitchcock is nothing if not perversely manipulative in the visual connotations he sets up for his audiences.
North by Northwest is really a compendium of Hitchcock’s spy thriller obsessions: the search for identity (Will the real Kaplan and Lester Townsend please stand up?); romantic betrayal and divided trust (all of the ambiguity built into the paradoxical behaviour of Eva Marie Saint towards Cary Grant at various points of the film represents the most complex and extended exploration of this theme in a Hitchcock work); victimization of the innocent; the interchangeability of good/evil, heroes/villains, and so on.
After the expansiveness of North by Northwest with its breathtaking colour visual design, flamboyant use of landscapes, and extraverted Herrmann score came Psycho, an extraordinarily radical departure from any of Hitchcock’s previous work. Photographed significantly not by Robert Burks but in stark black and white by John L Russell, whom Hitchcock had used in his TV series, Psycho gives us the darkest side of Hitchcock’s genius, a Hitchcock in extremis.
Instead of the usual trappings of the thriller, Hitchcock moved directly into out and out horror film territory, complete with an imposing Gothic mansion, a swamp full of nasty secrets, some very distressing violence and a monster. In many respects Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. The film, uncharacteristically shot on a shoe-string, has had a detrimental long-term effect on the genre it exploited (it really spawned the splatter movie and encouraged lesser film makers increasingly to substitute skill in evoking terror through withholding rather than revealing detail-a la Lewton and Tourneur-with graphic in-your-face explicitness).
In other respects, Hitchcock’s decision to follow this path has been well and truly vindicated. Psycho retains its awful, unsettling, gruesome power in spite of its lesser imitators over the last four decades. It may be read as a very black comedy (Hitch himself publicly stated “it was fun”) or as a “raging, murderous shout”. It’s actually a lot of both.
It pushes Hitchcock’s voyeuristic techniques and subjective camera stylistics to the edge.
Its sensual violence was upfront and shocked many of his admirers. Even the mischievously ironic dialogue so typical of Hitchcock’s playful winks at his audience (“Mother’s not quite herself today”) skirts the boundaries of accepted taste c1960.
But mostly the film contains scenes of great formal power-even beauty-despite the nasty schlock/horror content. Some of the contributing factors to the film’s strong impact are: Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling score; George Tomasini’s razor-sharp editing; the calculatedly remote, gothic, Grand Guignol setting with its grotesque piece of Victoriana towering over twelve empty motel rooms; and especially, Anthony Perkins’ nervous, unsettling, bird-like presence photographed in bizarre angles amidst the “stuffed birds” décor of his parlour.
The atmosphere of Psycho is unsettling for its audience right from the opening establishing shot where the subjective camera (using the audience as its eyes) tracks forward and peers into a shabby Phoenix hotel room where a pair of furtive lovers (Janet Leigh and John Gavin) have been using their lunch break for a quickie and are now quarrelling about whether there is a future to their relationship. Desperate to escape her tawdry circumstances, secretary Leigh is drawn by chance into a crime while Hitchcock effortless controls audience complicity in her actions (there’s no contest: the scumbag on the make from whom she fleeces $40 000 under the anxious gaze of colleague Patricia Hitchcock richly deserves his reversal of fortune). Hitchcock further compounds audience complicity in closely recording her flight into the night with a battery of subjective visual/aural devices-including such obvious suspense tactics as her tense, prolonged encounters with the creepy cop and the garrulous used-car salesman; frames-within-frames suggesting she is being tailed by unknown forces or authorities; mirrors capturing her dualities as she fights with her dark side and her conscience; her mounting panic as the night lights become progressively blinding and unbearable, the audience sharing her terror via the eerie tracking shots of the car’s forward movement alternating with big close-ups of Leigh’s strained face and nervous hands with the soundtrack relentlessly recording her stream-of-consciousness fragments in voice-overs.
Heavy rain finally forces her into the Bates motel, isolated because the highway has been re-directed. There follow the famous encounters with Anthony Perkins and, remotely, his mother. The parlour sequence itself is the only fully developed scene between Perkins and Leigh and serves as a model of how Hitchcock plays with his audience until it is squirming with discomfort and uneasy anticipation. Something is very out of kilter here-the bizarre angles immerse Perkins in and identify him with, his stuffed predatory birds on a visual level. The threat to Ms Leigh is not properly grasped by her (why would it be?) and she remains cool throughout the scene, handling Perkins’strangeness with fine contrasting aplomb. The wonderfully edgy script by Joseph Stefano emphasizes Perkins’halting, occasionally stammering delivery of his lines at length; his over-reaction to, and misreading of, Leigh’s humane suggestion that his mother be cared for really sets the alarm bells ringing for the audience. The whole scene tips over into Perkins’amazing and deeply unsettling speech (“We’re all in our own private traps…we scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other and for all that we never budge an inch…”) which catches his unpredictability and frightening mood/tone shifts. This in turn paves the way for the shocks that almost immediately follow, Hitchcock seating his audience all the while on a knife edge.
Anthony Perkins is revealed, not unsurprisingly given Hitchcock’s carefully prepared preliminary planning, as a creepy peeping tom closely observing Ms Leigh’s body parts as she prepares to shower (clearly Ms Leigh is about to become the latest of a long line of victims in cabin one of the Bates Motel.). The audience’s only identification figure to this point in the film has been Ms Leigh and following Perkins’voyeuristic activities, “mother”saves him from himself by dispatching Ms Leigh into the hereafter in what is one of the most brutal, seemingly senseless, graphic and brilliantly filmed murders on celluloid. The disorienting effect on the film’s audience is total…where do we go from here without the key to our narrative point of view?
The Bates motel and its mysteries are, perversely, never fully revealed (the swamp it is hinted contains much more than Marion’s car and the $40 000); but Hitchcock’s imagery is endlessly resonating, ruminating as it does over the key rooms of the Bates mansion and Norman’s childhood, witnessing another pointless murder, and finally through the revelations in the cellar disgorging its human monster created through a family history rooted in troubled sexuality. In the final sequence, Norman has become his mother and, from his straitjacket, contemplates a fly on the wall. The very final image is breath-taking piece of visual sleight of hand, as in a very fast lap-dissolve, Hitchcock merges Perkins’now hollow eyes and his mother’s skeleton face with Leigh’s car being dredged up from the swamp. It is one of the most arresting and distressing concentrated images in cinema history.
Anthony Perkins’ magnificently bizarre characterization unfortunately dogged him for the remainder of his career-no following act could ever have been halfway as impressive, although he was certainly capable of subtle and layered acting vide Pretty Poison, meeting his match with the irrepressible Tuesday Weld; Leigh also contributed a detailed, intelligent performance (watch closely what she captures through her hands on the wheel of her car during her flight into the night); Gavin and especially Miles are given excellent, fleshed-out roles as the audience identification figures attempting to unravel the mystery of the Bates motel; but some of the minor vignettes are equally in tune with the film’s off-centre mood, including Martin Balsam as the ingratiating private eye who meets his doom in the Bates house and John McIntire as the county sheriff whose commanding basso profundo adds its folksy observations about the dark doings chez Bates.
Having gone thus far with Psycho, Hitchcock’s next film The Birds represents an even greater attack on audience/spectator complacency. A film whose special effects are executed on a breathtaking scale in the scenes where the birds attack, it is in the end an apocalyptic masterpiece. The disruptions to the flow of narrative and center of audience identification is carried a step further in The Birds where the stability of the characters’ known world is engulfed by a natural disaster (act of God?) through progressively intensive and baffling bird attacks.
Each of the film’s leading characters is confronted with moral/personal dilemmas coinciding with these attacks. Hitchcock invests the visual device of the fade-out with an almost moral beauty at several key points in the narrative which leave each of the characters grappling on the horns of these dilemmas.
These interior struggles, externalized and expressively underlined through the device of the bird attacks, are impressively realized by ensemble playing of a very high quality. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and particularly Jessica Tandy all create faultless, finely shaded characterizations. Tandy is one of the most impressive of a long line of dominating mother figures in Hitchcock’s work. Hedren’s debut is astonishingly committed; quite aside from the physical rigours and dangers of subjecting herself to dealing with the preternatural bird attacks-the sequence in the attic is terrifying enough for the audience observing her ordeal-Hedren brings just as much intensity to her beautifully realized conflicts with the human characters as well, especially in her scenes with the formidable Tandy.
The Birds contains one of the most stunning images in any Hitchcock film-the justly celebrated high-angle bird’s-eye view of Bodega Bay township-a concentrated picture of a world falling apart.
Marnie was the last great Hitchcock work. I hated it initially and went along with those short-sighted critics who excoriated it for its so-called naivety both on a formal level (the oneiric back-projection, old-fashioned sets mingling with location work, direct use of red filters to signify an emotional block- reminiscent as it is of the patterns that trigger Gregory Peck’s disturbed responses in Spellbound, and of course the use of zoom lenses for melodramatic emphases); and on a script level, its psychological explanations hadn’t progressed very far from the kind of simplistic explanations characterizing 40s movies like Hitch’s own Spellbound and Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door.
Based on the fetish idea that a man is obsessed by the desire to go to bed with a thief, the film now appears to this viewer far more unsettling than is suggested by its detractors. Indeed, from this historical perspective it looks better with every viewing. The formal elements of Marnie are not naïve but consciously and sophisticatedly thought out; the back-projection, for example is another of Hitchcock’s subjective techniques instrumental in portraying the dream-like atmosphere surrounding Marnie herself and establish her dislocation and distance from the real world. The use of filters and zooms further express Marnie’s subjective responses to reality. They also signal to the spectator the complex moral dilemma of a victim turned victimizer. Tippi Hedren is again perfectly cast in the role: her chillingly glacial expressions of alienation are central to the film’s impact. Sean Connery joins James Stewart as one of Hitchcock’s frighteningly unwavering obsessive males. Like Scotty in Vertigo, he is determined to rescue and “recreate” Marnie whom he employs, is robbed from and finally marries. Even her frigid responses on the honeymoon are no deterrent to this man who is determined to solve the mystery of Marnie or go down in the attempt.
This is one of the most visceral of Hitchcock experiences with its lush romantic Herrmann score, its slick (sometimes a little too slick) soap operatic screenplay, and its highly emotive set-pieces: “Just wait until you’ve been victimized”, an irate Martin Gabel utters just as Marnie enters the house, white as death, having just had to destroy her beloved horse Forio. Indeed, Marnie’s victimization is very moving at all levels. Outside of Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt, I think it’s the most perfectly realized and sympathetic role written for a woman in a Hitchcock film. Right up to the final confrontation with Marnie’s mother and what is revealed in the flashback it triggers, Marnie is a wholly engrossing and morally complex work that rewards multiple viewings.
In his farewell period, Hitchcock never again achieved the voltage level of the 1954-1964 decade. They are a patchy bunch of films, with occasional felicities that remind you that they are Hitchcock movies. Torn Curtain is another reworking of the spy thriller, with an East German Cold War setting, a pair of less than compelling leads in Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, one particularly grisly murder, excruciatingly detailed, and some cut-rate set designs. Frenzy is an odd return to Hitchcock’s English roots but easily his best work from this period. The plot contains some parallels with The Wrong Man; Barry Foster is in chilling form as the “necktie” murderer whose psychopathy is rooted in sexual dysfunction; the central rape/murder is very harrowing indeed; and one grisly set-piece involving a corpse in a sack of potatoes is vintage Hitchcock. Anna Massey is always welcome and Alec McCowen is a personable leading man as the policeman with yet another Hitchcock mother (the expressive, ill-fated Vivien Merchant). I’ve only seen it once on its first release, and suspect that Topaz probably deserves re-evaluation but my memory of it is that it lacks a central focus; the fact that Hitchcock dallied with three separate endings may have been symptomatic of the film’s overall design. I do vividly recall the death of Karin Dor in a visually arresting spreading purple dress that gradually filled up the frame. In a film largely without the usual quota of Hitchcockian set-pieces, that sequence really lingered in the mind. Family Plot, was entertaining with good performances but low voltage stuff for Hitchcock and sadly not a fitting last hurrah for this giant of the medium. But the sum total of his overall achievement needs no further comment.