by David Trotter
Hitchcock liked assembly lines. In the long, consistently revealing interview he gave to François Truffaut in the summer of 1962, he described a scene he had thought of including in North by Northwest (1959), but didn’t. Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is on his way from New York to Chicago. Why not have him stop off at Detroit, then still in its Motor City heyday?
I wanted to have a long dialogue scene between Cary Grant and one of the factory workers as they walk along the assembly line. They might, for instance, be talking about one of the foremen. Behind them a car is being assembled, piece by piece. Finally, the car they’ve seen being put together from a simple nut and bolt is complete, with gas and oil, and all ready to drive off the line. The two men look at it and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful!’ Then they open the door to the car and out drops a corpse!
The putative scene has the makings of a classic Hitchcock prank or hoax. ‘Where has the body come from? Not from the car, obviously, since they’ve seen it start at zero! The corpse falls out of nowhere, you see!’ Hitchcock was just short of his 63rd birthday when Truffaut interviewed him. He had remained staggeringly inventive throughout a long, prolific and highly profitable career, and there were seven films yet to come, including The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Two American television series – Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65) – converted the ‘master of suspense’ into an international celebrity. Since his death in 1980, his reputation has continued to soar. He must by now be the most written about film director of all time. In 2012, Vertigo (1958) displaced Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound’s list of the best films ever made. But his art owed a great deal to its affinity with the assembly line.
Even the biographers, watching the life ‘start at zero’, have struggled to establish where the motivation for the inventiveness came from. The most popular hypothesis, not least because Hitchcock himself promoted it so vigorously, concerns timidity. ‘The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person,’ Truffaut observed, ‘and I suspect that this trait of his personality has a direct bearing on his success.’ The most substantial biography to date, by Patrick McGilligan, includes plenty of anecdotes about fear, but supplies little by way of evidence of its ultimate cause, and draws no conclusions. Peter Ackroyd, however, is firmly of the Truffaut school. His Hitchcock trembles from the outset: ‘Fear fell upon him in early life.’ At the age of four (or 11, or …), his father had him locked up for a few minutes in a police cell, an episode that became, as Michael Wood puts it, the ‘myth of origin’ for his powerful distrust of authority. Ackroyd rummages dutifully for further evidence. Was young Alfred beaten at school by a ‘black-robed Jesuit’? Or caught out in the open when the Zeppelins raided London in 1915? Did he read too much Edgar Allan Poe? It doesn’t really add up to very much. And yet – or therefore – the strong conviction persists. Fear is the key; and not just to the life. Interview the films, he once told an inquisitive journalist. Those who have interviewed the films often conclude that, like their creator, they too tremble. ‘Hitchcock was a frightened man,’ Wood writes, ‘who got his fears to work for him on film.’
For Wood, the question of fearfulness arises most pressingly when it comes to the tortures meted out to the women whose death or danger is a dominant feature of almost all the movies. ‘Is it sadism, as the dark view of Hitchcock proclaims, a pleasure in seeing beautiful women in harm’s way? The solitary joy of the otherwise uxorious director? A revenge on the mother the child thought might leave him for ever?’ Wood doesn’t believe that the motive was sadism. Nor does he think, like Hitchcock’s first biographer, John Russell Taylor, that Hitchcock, far from enjoying the distress he was able to inflict on them, identified strongly with his victims. The women in the movies are, Wood proposes, ‘whatever we most fear to lose’. This ‘we’ may be just a bit too comfortable. There presumably were and still are those, even among Hitchcock’s most ardent fans, who feel that they could get by in life without a regular supply of blondeness. Still, it seems possible to agree that the women in harm’s way represent whatever was most at risk, not just for Hitchcock, but for a culture heavily invested in blonde iconicity. At any rate, I find it difficult to disagree with Wood’s further conclusion. The lingering over the heroine’s demise could, he says, be masochism. ‘But it could also be just an act of thinking the worst, an act of propitiation to the gods who take these treasures away.’ Hitchcock’s films are at their most Hitchcockian, Wood proposes, when they think the very worst. They are certainly lavish in their propitiations: it takes Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) 45 seconds to die in Psycho, but the scene required seventy different camera set-ups. Ceremony enough, surely. But Hitchcock knew that the gods who took the treasures away were not the kind to be propitiated.
The best commentary on this aspect of Hitchcock’s films (and on a great deal else besides) may be Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, a poem about the specific, all-consuming fear aroused by the most general and unavoidable (that is to say, banal) of all conditions. This is the fear not so much of dying, as of death, of mortality. Waking at 4 a.m. to ‘soundless dark’, the speaker sees ‘what’s really always there:/Unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. His mind ‘blanks’, not inwardly, in remorse or despair, but outwardly,
at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
‘And soon’: the mildly querulous bit of time-keeping tucked away among the sonorous negations strikes the authentic Larkin note. For the blankness he has in mind is ‘a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels’: not faith, not courage, not the sound a poem makes.
‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night’ is how ‘Aubade’ begins. That’s pretty much what Hitchcock did for most of his life, except that as he grew older the drinking encroached increasingly on the work (champagne with lunch, vodka and orange in a flask on set). The justification for the briskness of Ackroyd’s account (259 pages of text, where previous biographers have required twice as much, or more) is that Hitchcock didn’t linger either. He liked to think he could complete one film in the studio while starting another in his mind. The transitions between films became almost as swift and as seamless as the transitions within them. ‘He already had another project in mind’ is Ackroyd’s constant refrain. By the same token, the rare periods of ‘suspended animation’ during the course of a long career, when there were ‘no stories to consider, no treatments to contemplate, no stars to pursue’, became a ‘form of torture’. The final months of his life seem to have been truly harrowing for all concerned.
As far as I’m aware, Hitchcock himself only ever approached the topic of our sure extinction obliquely, and in relation to his films. For example, he reassured Truffaut that staging violent death all day hadn’t given him nightmares. He would go home afterwards and laugh about it:
And that’s something that bothers me because, at the same time, I can’t help imagining how it would feel to be in the victim’s place. We come back again to my eternal fear of the police. I’ve always felt a complete identification with the feelings of a person who’s arrested, taken to the police station in a police van and who, through the bars of the moving vehicle, can see people going to the theatre, coming out of a bar, and enjoying the comforts of everyday living; I can even picture the driver joking with his police partner, and I feel terrible about it.
I think the police are a red herring here. All the vividness of the anecdote lies in the detail of the activities visible from the van, now conclusively beyond reach. Hitchcock identifies not so much with the suspected criminal as with the person (any person) whose number is up. The person taken out of circulation – it could be by a police van, or by an ambulance – sees, perhaps for the first time, what the world will be like when she or he is no longer in it. Hitchcock had already incorporated a version of the incident he so vividly pictures here into The Wrong Man (1956), a very good, uncharacteristically neo-realist film about a New York musician under arrest for a crime he didn’t commit. As he’s driven away by the police, the musician (it’s Henry Fonda) glimpses his wife, who doesn’t yet know he’s been arrested, moving around in the kitchen. When describing this scene to Truffaut, Hitchcock dwelled on details that either weren’t in the film to begin with, or got edited out.
At the corner of the block is the bar he usually goes to, with some little girls playing in front of it. As they pass a parked car, he sees that the young woman inside is turning on the radio. Everything in the outside world is taking place normally, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and yet he himself is a prisoner inside the car.
It’s not just that the normality will soon be gone for ever. It’s that it seems to be making precious little effort to stay in touch. The jovial policemen merely perform the indifference society at large is now understood to feel at the removal from circulation of one of its members.
The second film Hitchcock directed on his own was The Pleasure Garden (1925), a British-German co-production made in Munich. At its climax, an alcoholic husband gripped by delirium tremens is shot as he’s about to stab his wife. ‘When he is shot,’ Wood notes, ‘he comes to his senses, no longer drunk at all; he mildly says, “Oh, hello, Doctor,” to the man who has interrupted his fury and dies.’ The version of the film I’ve seen has no intertitle at this point, so I can’t be sure of the exact words. But it’s hard to mistake the jauntiness on the man’s face. The German producer complained that the scene was impossible, and in any case too brutal to be shown. Hitchcock kept it (he may have sacrificed the clarifying intertitle by way of compromise). ‘There is a sense, though, in which a casual, almost negligent registering of one’s last moment is scarier – not brutal or incredible as the German producer thought, but too natural for art, as if the erratic truth of death’s timing were more than we could bear in a story.’ I think that’s dead right. Except of course that nature has little to do with the way people die in Hitchcock’s films.
It took a very special kind of invention to get an awareness of the ‘erratic truth of death’s timing’ into a medium of mass entertainment. In the course of a shrewd and properly demanding analysis of Vertigo, Wood draws attention to sequences of shots in the first hour of the film that mark a narrative threshold: a step-change in its relation to its audience. During these moments, our eyes and ears are ‘co-opted’ for the ‘sense of the world’ somewhat precariously maintained by the agoraphobic private detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), whose old acquaintance Gavin Elster wants him to trail his (apparent) wife, the luminous Madeleine (Kim Novak). We don’t exactly see what Scottie sees, Wood says. Rather, we see what he would see if his eyes were a camera. If Scottie can establish to his own satisfaction that Madeleine is prey to fugue states in which she assumes the appearance and personality of an ancestor, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide in 1857, he will feel justified in taking the job, and falling in love with her. In the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, Madeleine sits absorbed in a portrait of Carlotta, the bouquet on the bench beside her matching the one Carlotta holds. Scottie watches from across the room. As his gaze narrows, the camera moves in on the bouquet on the bench, and then by a swerve and sudden ascent, on its equivalent in the portrait. Scottie subsequently tails Madeleine home. He peers at her car, across the courtyard from him. Is that a bouquet on the dashboard? It’s as if he believes he could get closer just by wanting to. In the event, the camera does it for him, not by moving in, but by a new set-up, from a different angle, halfway across the courtyard. Yes, it is a bouquet. In Wood’s view, the sheer ‘extravagance’ of these manoeuvres ‘beautifully and scarily exploits the possibilities of the medium’, making our dependence on such possibilities ‘something like an addiction’. We become complicit with everything that has already happened, and everything that will happen, to Scottie.
Such moments had long been a feature of Hitchcock’s film-making, as much of an authorial signature as the famous cameo appearances, if a lot less obtrusive; and a great deal more consequential than the various motifs, riddles, visual puns, and other traces he is sometimes said to have scattered throughout his films. The earliest I can think of occurs in The Lodger (1927), which he himself described as the ‘first true “Hitchcock” film’. Quite distinct from the fluid, intricately choreographed camera movements which have been taken to exemplify his virtuosity (his ‘art’), these five-to-ten-second tracks forward – or, alternatively, the abrupt transition to a new and noticeably discrepant camera set-up within the space originally defined by an establishing shot – are strictly functional. In most cases, the dolly in or the discrepant angle follows a narrowing of the protagonist’s gaze, as it does in Vertigo. In Notorious(1946), for example, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), dining in Rio with the Nazi super-scientists among whom she has been planted, notices a commotion around the bottles of wine stood on the sideboard. A dolly in on a label shows us what she would like to see, but can’t quite from where she’s sitting. Now she’s truly hooked; and so are we. In The Birds, after the avian invaders have swept en masse down the chimney of the Brenner house and laid waste to the lounge, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) watches Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), the mother of the man she’s fallen in love with, picking up broken crockery and straightening a picture on the wall, while her son bickers with the sheriff, who’s come to inspect the damage. After a couple of medium-long shots of Lydia from Melanie’s point of view, a third shot, now from a position she very evidently doesn’t occupy, takes us in much closer. The change of distance and angle is an act of moral and emotional intelligence. While the men bicker, Melanie, noticing Lydia’s distress, has understood something both about her, and about the scale of the catastrophe they all face. It’s the sort of awakening conventional in melodrama. On this occasion, however, awakening has been outsourced to a machine.
The changes of distance and angle sometimes arise out of the fiction’s premise. The protagonist of Rear Window (1954), L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), is a photographer who finds himself confined to a wheelchair by a broken leg, so it makes sense for him to put down the pair of binoculars through which he has been scrutinising the suspicious goings-on in the apartment directly opposite, and pick up a telephoto lens instead. The closer view afforded by the telephoto lens reveals a man wrapping a saw and a butcher’s knife in some newspaper. It doesn’t in fact generate a great deal by way of additional detail; but we think it must do, because we’ve seen Jefferies swap the binoculars for a telephoto lens. Even more interesting are those cases – Blackmail(1929), Suspicion (1941) or The Wrong Man – in which the camera’s swift forward movement or repositioning doesn’t stem directly from the protagonist’s immediate point of view, but nonetheless takes place as it were on her or his behalf. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for example, a dolly in on Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) from a position other than that occupied by the person currently talking to him, his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), confirms starkly to us, but not to her, that he is indeed the killer we already know him to be. In such cases, an alliance has been created between audience and camera, an alliance in suspense: sympathetic to the protagonist, but apart from him or her.
These threshold moments are engrossingly human. They engage us fully in the protagonist’s first full engagement with the world’s meaningfulness. We, too, have been reanimated – thanks to the surrogacy of a machine’s-eye view. The something too natural for art that Wood discerns in the death scene in The Pleasure Garden has found a means other than jesting last words to embed itself in the narrative. Hitchcock, who never forgot what he’d learned as a director of silent films, understood that he didn’t need words at all, jesting or otherwise. For all the light at their disposal, his threshold moments have something of the feel of Larkin’s ‘soundless dark’. They all occur either without a word spoken, or deliberately against (or over) the distractions of speech. Their discrepant soundlessness puts us back inside the police van. The threshold moment could be our last glimpse of the ‘comforts of everyday living’: a world in which a bouquet is a bouquet, a bottle of wine a bottle of wine, a saw a saw, and a woman tidying a tidy woman. We know that the people on the streets are talking to each other as people ordinarily do, but we can’t catch a word of what they say. Psycho confirms the soundless dark of the 4 a.m. hiatus. We expect the threshold to announce itself during the scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), having just set foot in the Bates motel, fences warily with Norman (Anthony Perkins) in a room full of stuffed animals. But this is a heroine who will be dead before she’s had a chance to notice anything truly suspicious. Hers is a post-mortem awakening. The camera starts on her lifeless face pressed against the bathroom floor, pans to take in the bedroom, and then speeds forward and up until it arrives at the newspaper on the bedside table which conceals the money she had stolen earlier in the day: the grim remnant of her all too human aspiration to a better life.
Of course, there are other kinds of Hitchcock film. He spoke sometimes of the need to adjust the ‘dosage’ of humour from one to the next, and the more humorous among them concern the special fear of dying only in so far as they resemble a trick used to quell it. In the films about nothing very much at all, we learn soon enough to stop worrying about what the villains have in store for the hero and heroine, and start worrying about what the hero and heroine have in store for each other. To demonstrate that romance, like danger, can keep us on tenterhooks, Hitchcock included in Easy Virtue (1928) a scene in which a switchboard operator eavesdrops on a marriage proposal. Pleasurable suspense, and its adroit resolution, took up a lot of space in his bag of cinematic tricks.
Hitchcock was an inveterate practical joker. Mercifully, the jokes themselves now seem too boring to merit much attention. But they certainly had a part to play in the publicity campaigns which transformed a film director into a media brand. Jan Olsson has shown in great detail how Hitchcock consistently manipulated celebrity gossip in order to project the image of a creative genius who was as much ‘prankster’ as ‘master craftsman’. The biggest prank of all was his own body. Despite periodic bouts of binge-dieting, Hitchcock remained until the end of his life mountainously fat. In the mid-1930s, as his ambitions turned increasingly towards a career in Hollywood, he began to parlay his corpulence – and the appetites which had brought it about – into an instantly recognisable public persona. ‘His film fame, food reputation, and fabulous physicality were supreme assets,’ Olsson observes, ‘when he signed up for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955, on the cusp of Hollywood’s television era.’ His Englishness, too, presumably: no more of a mere hoax than Larkin’s, it had nonetheless to be kept in full working order, like the corpulence, by constant reiteration (the sober suit and tie worn to work every day, regardless of the weather). Not everyone would accept Olsson’s linking of the food and the physicality to the films. Introducing the most recent of the two indispensable collections of articles, essays and stories by Hitchcock and interviews with him that he has edited, Sidney Gottlieb notes that he has chosen to exclude material concerned primarily with food, weight and family life, topics ‘perhaps worth investigating’ as an element in the construction of a public persona, but not as important as the comments on cinema. Still, the cameo appearances did put the corpulence on ample display in the films; while it’s the confirmed pranksters, like Melanie Daniels in The Birds, who undergo the most rigorous examination by 4 a.m. hiatus. Even when he was at his most serious, in his commentary on cinema, Hitchcock had the air of a conjuror explaining his tricks.
He thought that montage was cinema at its most pure. In theory, his method involved a subordination to the capacities of the camera upheld with such completeness and consistency at each stage of the production process, from script and storyboards through principal photography to editing, that it became a kind of mastery. Before cinema, montage meant the action of assembling mechanical components. Hitchcock defined it as the ‘juxtaposition’ of ‘pieces of film that went through a machine’ in such a way as to create ‘ideas on the screen’. His own conjuring was by sleight of machine rather than of hand. ‘Emotions of many varying sorts, shades, degrees and colours have to be manufactured,’ he said, ‘and all must be photographically clear.’ Montage used the machine against itself, creating out of its excess of indifference (the seventy set-ups for the shower scene) a spectacle guaranteed to wring the heart.
The best of the films about nothing very much at all end superbly, the fulfilment of the romantic fantasies they explore achieved by small miracles of montage. In his Hollywood memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade (1996), the scriptwriter William Goldman offers an admiring analysis of the conclusion of North by Northwest. When we recall what happened at the end of the film, Goldman says, we suppose that it must have taken a narrative age to get from the moment at which Eve Marie Saint dangles helplessly from Cary Grant’s hand on the face of Mount Rushmore – while America’s implacable enemies stand poised to tip them both over the edge and make off with the state secrets they’ve been safeguarding – to the moment at which he pulls her up beside him into a bunk in an express train about to enter a tunnel. In fact, it takes a mere 45 seconds, so economical is Hitchcock’s editing. North by Northwest was modelled to some extent on The 39 Steps (1935), which permits itself three minutes to get from the climax of a national emergency involving the design of a new warplane to the blissful union of hero and heroine. Both films conclude at a lick: the pieces don’t so much fall into place as cascade. There’s a kind of heartlessness in that, too. Montage has become cinema’s indispensable, delightful, futile prank. It’s not just corpses that tumble out of the vehicles rolling off the Hitchcock assembly line, but pairs of newly-weds, in radiant, fully automated succession.
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