We all know, I suppose, the compound character of Alfred Hitchcock’s art. The sinister young man, for instance, outwardly affable: Robert Walker, in Strangers on a Train, with his expensive cuff links and strangler’s hands; gangling Anthony Perkins, in Psycho, motel keeper and schizophrenic. Or the theme of pursuit, neither burlesqued as in Pale Fire, nor magisterial as in Les Misérables, but both magisterial and burlesqued; the coupling of catastrophe with charm, the ghoulish with dreams:
The sleeping Hangman ties the Fatal Noose,
Nor unsuccessful waits for dead Men’s Shoes…
These arrangements, and others, make or give one, I think, a feeling of companionable terror. Sitting in the theater, the spectator suffers gladly, watching “the rising curve of interest,” Hitchcock’s term, like a bolt sliding across the door, keeping him there.
Few things, certainly, are more pleasurable than having the hair on one’s head stood on edge, so long as we sense we’re in no danger. De Quincey a century ago suggested we consider murder as one of the fine arts. With Hitchcock, so much the master of his audiences (in the François Truffaut book, speaking of Psycho, he remarks: “I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ”), every shudder casts a spell. Think of the tracking sequence in Notorious, a favorite of Truffaut’s, the smooth, sumptuous swing of the camera traveling from the chandelier above a glittering hall to the close-up of the key clasped in Ingrid Bergman’s hand (“There’s a large reception being held in this house,” Hitchcock explains, “but there is a drama here which no one is aware of, and at the core of that drama is this tiny object, this key”), or the glass of milk, with its perhaps fatal dosage, in Suspicion (“I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous. Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s attention had to be focused on that glass”).
Hitchcock, of course, is the animateur, the prop man of psychology, often unashamedly so; he hates “the plausibles,” the wearying psychological explanation, but adores props, and out of these he creates his situations or emotions: “Nowadays, I use magnified props in many pictures.” His objects, his “gimmicks,” as he calls them, are there not for reasons of ideology (analogues of modern alienation) or of hommage (quotations from other films), as they are in the works of Jean-Luc Godard.
In Hitchcock, with his spirited decisions and affected concealments, his twistings and turnings of plot that are disentangled or even more entangled in a matter of seconds, there are no essayistic ploys, only narrative ones. The guilt, the mystery, in the director’s dauntingly old-fashioned story-telling way, are always attached to a concrete circumstance (the razor in Spellbound, the name rubbed off the window pane in The Lady Vanishes) or to a gesture (the italicized image of the finger on the telephone in Dial M …