For the entire essay go here (The New Republic)
By David Thomson
By David Thomson
Photo: Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo
he other day, two esteemed literary figures sent me a short questionnaire on Alfred Hitchcock. They wondered, do I think about him? I do.
The questions were going to a lot of people, and I don’t know what the esteemed lit figs plan to do with the survey. But what struck me was the currency of Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980). It’s not that he has an anniversary, but those dates are telling. He has been dead more than thirty years. A group of exceptional film-makers died at about the same moment: Howard Hawks, Chaplin, Nicholas Ray, George Cukor, William Wyler, Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, King Vidor. With regret, I have to concede that those careers are now known in the halls of cinephilia but hardly anywhere else. Yet if you say “Hitch” out loud on any bus, people start looking for a bomb, or a fat man with a poker face who is studiously ignoring the search. That voice, his look, the promise, and the threat—they’re all with us still.
A package of Hitchcock’s silent films, beautifully restored by the British Film Institute’s National Archive, is traveling round the country and delighting viewers who had come to think of him as American, Technicolored, and a devotee of desperate cries and screaming music. Recently two feature films about him—The Girl and Hitchcock—had a commercial release. They weren’t any good, but someone reckoned that this director’s curious and repressed sex life was a subject for entertainment instead of biographical research. And in 2012, the poll of critics organized by Sight & Sound (it comes once a decade) determined that at long last Citizen Kane should step aside. Vertigo was the greatest film ever made.
That’s a curious shift. When it opened in 1958, Vertigo was a flop, in an age when Hitch was not accustomed to such affronts. Not long afterward, he withdrew the film, which surely helped to increase its allure. I was entranced by Vertigo in 1958, and I am fascinated by its courage still—I mean its resolve to defy the box office and expose the workings of a secretive man. But is it even the best Hitchcock film? I’d rather see Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, or Notorious. That hardly matters. As soon as you mention Psycho, the cabinet of Dr. Hitchcock is ajar, allowing us to see and hear his insolent mixture of menace and contempt, murder and mischief. My problem with Vertigo’s gloom is that there are no laughs (except for the absurd ease of parking in San Francisco). When Hitch is most himself, we laugh as we cringe, and sooner or later we get the inner message—what are the movies if we don’t know whether to smile or to shudder?
When I imagined the bomb on the bus, with the fat man taking no notice, I was alluding to a big scene in Sabotage (1936), but the example is important to most of Hitchcock. He wanted to devastate us, but he preferred to stay cool and professional about it. He was confirmed in his respect for fear, like a great artist, or a great torturer. His films were experiments in what a screen, darkness, and apprehension could do, and he liked to maintain the manner of the laboratory technician, observing but himself unmoved. So part of the recklessness in Vertigo was the way a private (if not secretive) man was prepared to disclose his own disquiet over this chronic detachment. The guilty passion glimpsed in that film was of a man falling into his own sexual fascination with a story until it drowned life. Thus the greatest film ever made (for now) is a stricken admission about film itself and the fantasy it feeds on.
Hitchcock didn’t want to be caught out. As a young man in London, drawn into film through his skill as a graphic artist, he found himself a little laughed at as a highbrow, a man who studied film very closely as a narrative technology and who was ready to go to Germany to observe the most modern treatments of terror and menace. (He stole from Fritz Lang.) That was the spirit of art struggling to emerge in the form of a plump, unappealing East London boy, a greengrocer’s son, without advantages of class and education, with only seething brilliance to belie his bulk. It’s a trial run for Harold Pinter—East End, lower-middle class, Jewish, subversive, power-minded—but Pinter ended up marrying into the aristocracy and getting a Nobel. Hitch never even won an Oscar for directing. As his first American employer, David O. Selznick, said, he wasn’t quite the man you’d want to have dinner with. That London drawl was to hide a fear of being common.