Saturday, December 3, 2011

Mayhem Most British. Alfred Hitchcock: The Great Directors Retrospective



Alfred Hitchcock holds a very dear and special place in my heart, and I use the occasion of my birthday to express my thoughts about the Greatest of the Great Directors (at least in my view). 

How I came to love Hitchcock wasn't, interestingly, via his films.  Rather, it was through his television program: Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  There was something both endearing and macabre about that rotund yet courtly gentleman introducing these twisted tales of murder and mayhem with the perfect British voice.  I was highly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock Presents in my writing by working to have twists in them that were logical.  Sometimes my efforts failed spectacularly (I remember one particularly ghastly story where the murderer was in two locations at the same time--at least I didn't make the butler do it, but serves me write for mixing Hitchcock with Agatha Christie). 

Two of the best episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents are two of the few he personally directed.  Lamb to the Slaughter was a remarkably tight story where a mild-mannered housewife and expectant mother murders her husband with a large frozen leg of lamb when she wants to leave her for another woman.  Throughout the episode, the police always appear to come close to finding who done it, only to have her find a way out.  With the usual Hitchcockian twist, the murder weapon itself is served to the unsuspecting officers, much to her amusement.

Bang! You're Dead is a thriller in the good, traditional sense of the word.  It's a remarkably simple and straightforward story: a little boy in a cowboy outfit unwittingly has a real gun, fully loaded, with him.  There is a frantic search for the boy, who comes dangerously close to firing it at people. 

If one sees just Lamb to the Slaughter and Bang! You're Dead, you can see pretty much many of the themes in Hitchcock films.  In the first one, there's a fascination of bringing in the violent into a familiar and supposedly safe surrounding.  What could be more wholesome than the home, the family?  However, it's here where the most shocking acts of violence take place.  In the latter, the suspense, the fear, comes not from a foreign source but something as mundane (and sadly not-too-uncommon) than a child playing with a weapon.  Again, a mixing of innocence with danger.  Note that in Bang! You're Dead, the fear comes from what could happen, not from what has happened.

Here, Hitchcock shows his hand, as it were.  He always argued that the suspense, the fear, comes from the anticipation of something rather than the actual act.  This is a lesson that is lost on many filmmakers today, especially given how 'torture porn' has become more popular.  People today don't seem to appreciate the waiting for something to happen: they want it now, and they want it explicit.  This is a terrible disservice because part of the fear (and fun and greatness) of a Hitchcock film comes from the anticipation.

Take one of his best films (of which there are many): Rear Window.  The whole film could be seen as a commentary of film viewing.  We go beyond being mere spectators and become full participants in the goings-on because we become wrapped in the story, one that we can relate to.  When the beauty faces danger, we are just as powerless as the hero, and we soon become just as terrified for her as he is.

Hitchcock could, more than any other director, I think, manipulate the audience.  He loved playing with our emotions and what we expect from the stories.  There are just so many examples.

Psycho: we expect it to go in a certain direction, and when we get a twist (a truly shocking one for someone who has never seen it before) we're not only thrown for a loop but get something that is supposedly quite violent but if looked at carefully we see there wasn't all that much there.

Strangers on A Train: there is something in the idea of 'swapping murders' that is both gruesome and oddly attractive.  Granted, Patricia Highsmith always had a penchant for creating situations where the criminal had to find a way out (and like Hitchcock, create a complex moral situation for the audience, they becoming tense to see how he gets out of it), but with his adaptation of her novel, many become worried when the villain comes close to losing the key piece that will put the 'hero' in peril.  We should be hoping he does lose it, but because of Hitchcock's direction and the common factor of 'we've been in something like that', audiences sometimes forget he's the bad guy and actually want him to get at it.

Vertigo: I wrote that there was a strange sense of necrophilia in the film, and while I don't mean literally the idea that the dead can be brought back to life in some way, that we can hold on to a love that cannot die, is one many can relate to.  Curious that in both Vertigo and Rebecca (the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture), we have an obsession with a dead woman, beautiful, but dangerous.

Again and again, I find that for all the Master of Suspense title that is applied to him (rightly so in my view), there is also another running theme in Hitchcock films: the dangers of love.  You see it in Vertigo, you see it in Rebecca, and even in Notorious (one of my personal favorites).  Here, the danger comes from both love granted and love denied.

I've always argued that Notorious is not a thriller or a spy film, but a love story in the guise of a thriller or spy film.  It is the love Claude Rains grants to Ingrid Bergman that puts both in danger, and the love that Bergman is denied by Cary Grant that is more torturous than anything the Nazis can put her through.  Again, Hitchcock plays with us in identification: Rains' character truly loves Bergman (and who wouldn't really) and, minus being a collaborator, he's really a nice guy.  He's nicer than Grant's Devlin (even the name says it all), but while we might be put off at how casually he torments Bergman, we still should know he's the man for her. 

Alfred Hitchcock knows how to get at us, knows how to scare us.  Note what I think is his final Great Film: The Birds.  Here, it's the ultimate of another of his themes: the total loss of control.  We don't know why the birds have gone mad, why nature has declared war on us.  We only know that we are totally at its mercy.  It's how we interact with people, the end might say, that there might yet be hope.

In terms of visuals, I love Hitchcock.  In terms of story, I love Hitchcock.  In terms of cinema, I love Hitchcock.  I look over his body of work: from the silent The Lodger right on through his British films (the danger The Man Who Knew Too Much faces for his child, the confusion and danger an innocent man faces when wrapped up in the intrigue of The 39 Steps), going on to the spookiness of the gothic thriller Rebecca, the romance of Notorious and Spellbound, even the humor in North by Northwest or The Trouble With Harry (a black comedy, but a comedy nonetheless), concluding with The Birds, and I think few directors have ever achieved such a consistent level of quality in film.

His films post-The Birds I think are not all that good: from Marnie right to Family Plot don't measure up to his earlier work.  Part of it may be that he was trying to be 'modern' (the dumping of longtime composer Bernard Herrmann didn't help): for example, he was trying to be more graphic in the depiction of murder, particularly in Frenzy, and the depiction (I'd say, brutalization) of women such as in Marnie.  I may be harsh in my assessment, and those last few films are worth going over, to see if I've missed anything.

Still, my love and passion for Alfred Hitchcock is unabated and true.  Even the films that truly were bad in my view (Suspicion, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) I count as noble failures.  Of all the directors, it is Alfred Hitchcock that I turn to for inspiration.

With that, I close my Great Director retrospective for 2011: Twelve Directors in Twelve Months.  I'm sure there are many brilliant directors I left out, and note with rueful admission that of all the directors, only two are living (Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese).  I might pick up more Great Directors next year: I'm certainly spoiled for choice.  I welcome all suggestions.

To explore all these great filmmakers both foreign and domestic has been a great joy for me.  I love cinema, I love movies, and I so admire those who can make truly memorable experiences, who can make art out of moving pictures, and who can tell great stories. 

I look forward to seeing who will join these illustrious men in the ranks of The Great Directors. 

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