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It’s Only a Movie!

Hitchcock

by François Truffaut
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $3.75 (paper)

Topaz

directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Universal Pictures

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 for Murder).

Hitchcock has an omnific eye. In conversations with Truffaut, he speaks knowingly of Rouault and Cézanne; he has read Eisenstein and Pudovkin on montage; German expressionism and Murnau were early influences; he began his career drawing narrative titles for Famous Players, and he has, in a sense, been “filling out the tapestry” ever since.

In The Paradine Case, when Gregory Peck visits the manor house of Valli, the sedate film unexpectedly blossoms with a Wagnerian scented interest in the atmospheric and the artificial; the bizarre, spacious, manipulative bedroom suggests the presence of the absent femme fatale, the camera looking at things elliptically or slyly, then expertly picking through the inessentials, heightening what really matters, placing you, like Conrad, in the center of the mise-en-scène.

Here, as they always do, suspicion and sensuality mix (helped, too, by the Franz Waxman score; Hitchcock, acutely aware of textures and tones, seems as dependant on composers as on photographers, and often uses, in both cases, the same ones), and Peck, the stuffy barrister, returns to London, his skepticism allayed and his doom sealed. The usual rhythm of a Hitchcock film is very catchy, very selective, now and then, as in syncopation, shifting the regular beat, using or eliminating, as Hitchcock says, “one idea after another”; a series of step by step, blandly underplayed, occasionally overly complex, but always vividly pictorial statements, full of those condensed moments that simplify everything, including the horrific, so it strikes instantly, whether allegorical (clouds of black smoke filling the screen as the train carrying Joseph Cotten, the lady-killer of Shadow of a Doubt, enters the station), or merely Grand Guignol (the garish, grinning skeleton of the old woman, in Psycho, spinning round and round in her chair).

From The Lodger, made in 1926, with Ivor Novello as Jack the Ripper, at least until the last reel (the trouble with the star system, confesses Hitchcock to Truffaut, is that the star always has to turn out to be innocent: “Cary Grant could not play a murderer”), to Topaz, recently released (spies and skullduggery and the Cuban missile crisis good, but a bit grim, and when not that, a bit glossy), all of the major Hitchcock efforts have been tales more or less told in the same wry, dry, elegantly cater-cornered, casually cosmopolitan manner, both oddly sardonic (the homey jab, the slightly nocuous wit—isn’t Hitchcock, the humorist, a sort of cold mutton English Lubitsch?) and oddly erotic (“An English girl, looking like a school teacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open”). The settings are as prosaic as Santa Rosa, as lush as Marrakech or Cannes, where the most delectable quality, no doubt, is that Hitchcockian talent of aggravating, and then soothing. “The skillful writer,” says Johnson, echoing Horace, “irritat, mulcet.” Hitchcock, though he can at times artistically, if not thematically, vary to a surprising degree, has always been, in whole or in part, nearly flawless in that audience-pleasing way.

François Truffaut, an eloquent fan, offers us, in the introductory essay to his book, a rather different sketch. Although aware, proud, even envious of Hitchcock’s enormous commercial appeal, he nevertheless regards both the director and his work as nothing if not personal, pessimistic, metaphysical, ambiguous, profound—in short, the work of an obsessed artist, among, as he puts it, the “artists of anxiety,” such as “Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Poe,” a polemical position held by Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers du Cinéma during the Fifties, which eventually became, not too surprisingly, de rigueur, here and elsewhere, in the Sixties.

I say not too surprisingly because Hitchcock has obsessive touches or auras (anyone who had “never had a drink” or had “never been out with a girl” by twenty-three years of age, who appears, now and again, cynical as a shopkeeper, cruel as a schoolboy, can’t be all that good), but he himself, I think, is not an obsessed artist. Starbuck saying, “I will have no one in my boat who is not afraid of a whale,” may, at a different level, be summoning the condition Hitchcock creates in us, his spectators. But the terrors of Moby Dick, the terrors of the demonic, or the terrors of Hawthorne’s Wakefield, leaving his wife and his lodgings, and for twenty years remaining unobserved, though observing, in an adjacent street, an exceedingly common man becoming staggeringly uncommon, seduced by the vagaries of his head, are worlds away, surely, from the young wife trembling in her room, wondering whether her husband isn’t, after all, a murderer, and should she or should she not drink the glass of milk he holds before her.

Poe, Hawthorne, Kafka, Melville—of course these are the real unsettlers, not because each is a genius (Hitchcock, at least in technical matters, is a genius, too), but because each has a world weightier, more mysterious, ultimately more threatening than the common world we all share. Hitchcock’s terrors, like the terrors in the novels of John Buchan, who, as Graham Greene notes, was “the first to realize the enormous dramatic value of adventure in familiar surroundings happening to unadventurous men,” all take place in the common world, and they could not exist without it. The terror, as Buchan wrote, of running “like a thief in a London thoroughfare on a June afternoon,” and that, precisely, is the genre’s glory.

Truffaut sees Hitchcock as fearful of everything, especially the police. “I’m not against the police,” Hitchcock emphasizes, “I’m just afraid of them.” But in Hitchcock, as in Buchan, if the police, the instruments of stability, are never any help at all saving the hero (as, similarly, the man in the street, and the surroundings, the veneer of reality, are never any help understanding or sheltering him, except unwittingly), they, strikingly enough, never emerge as either personally corrupt, or in the pay of the underworld, or even menacing. (Hitchcock, probably the most commonsensical of the great directors, is perhaps the most conservative politically as well.) Rather, the police, like the cozy civilized world and its comic fumblers (the wonderful cricket-playing types of The Lady Vanishes, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, clutching copies of Mein Kampf, in Night Train, the best of the innumerable Hitchcock imitations), are simply unaware, or else doltish, usually regarding the hero as demented or suspect.

Reversals in Hitchcock, neither parabolic as in Kafka, nor supernatural as in Poe, suggest the suspense of the common world, the suspension of the everyday expectation, only in Hitchcock reversals take the further shape of caricature or the grotesque, a startling rearrangement of perspective, à la coup de théâtre (Hitchcock often refers to his works as fantasies, meaning stories with “suspense and atmosphere”; Truffaut prefers to call them dreams, meaning tales of the subconscious, of “time and space”), where objects are rarely what they appear to be (a plane “crop-dusting where there ain’t no crops,” suddenly swooping down, gunning the hero), people usually never what you assume they are, especially the “little people”: Dame May Whitty, motherly and memorably unmemorable, an undercover agent, of all things, in The Lady Vanishes; Oscar Homolka, with his thick, slick Scandinavian ordinariness, the saboteur of Sabotage; Edmund Gwenn, the jawing, mock-respectful, cap-in-hand cockney, attempting to shove Joel McCrea from the Tower of London.

In Topaz, a rather segmented work, a foppish air in the Cuban scenes, a peculiar flatness in the Washington ones (is Hitchcock, the arch apolitical, making a political point?),1 it is, again, the supporting players that we remember, the crotchety KGB defector, smoking cigars and serving coffee to his hosts in his Georgetown retreat, and the Harlem photographer, cool as ice, conning the Castro delegation at the Hotel Teresa. At these moments, in Hitchcock’s films, we have character matched by novelty, ruse by revelation, a terrific, if perhaps by now somewhat dissipated trick. Or in the hauntingly experimental Rope (which Hitchcock today calls, very unjustly, I think, a “stunt”), aberrant subject matter (pseudo-Nietzschean playboy killers) couples with an appropriately inverted or anachronistic form (the employment of the ten-minute take).

Truffaut, enamored of other essences (temperamentally, and roughly speaking, Truffaut’s a romanticist, Hitchcock’s a classicist),2 insists on the latter’s overwhelming preoccupation with sex and fear and death and fetishes, with mirror-images and split personalities, with the ritual confrontation scenes between the antagonist and protagonist, with “nighttime anxieties, therefore metaphysical anxieties.” But if Hitchcock’s a dramatist of the dark, or that primarily, the movements of his works do not have the languor, or the extremity, the self-questioning moods of the dark. Pathology in Hitchcock is sublimely superficial. It is never palpable as an idea, or as a concomitant of character, whatever its suggestive juxtapositions, as with Perkins and Walker; it is palpable purely as iconography.

For all his twilight arias, and all the significance Truffaut attaches to them, Hitchcock’s both much too incandescent and algebraic, even (or especially) in the chiaroscuro glimpse of Grace Kelly, looking down, like Tosca, at the man with the scissors in his back, or in Under Capricorn or Vertigo. The sustained denouements of The Fallen I dol or The Third Man are either beyond Hitchcock or beneath him; as are, of another order, the relevant works of Franju and Bergman. Truffaut, for whom “feeling is all,” whose celebrated lyricism, fetching as it is, appears to be the overflow of a perhaps all too earnest personality, who is intimately involved with his harassed piano player, his daydreaming and devouring Jeanne Moreau, his knockabout adolescent in a way Hitchcock never is with his characters, and who seems to forget that the beauty of Hitchcock’s style is in its sharp, swift, subliminal effects, that it’s an active, not an introspective, art, is I suspect, too subjectively studying the older director and his works.

Moreover, Truffaut’s infatuation with films, an infatuation shared by his generation, similar to the late nineteenth-century infatuation with the novel, is addictive and all-embracing; Hitchcock’s has never been. Fundamentally, Hitchcock’s feelings are there as effects to be achieved in his works, not, as seems often to be the case with Truffaut, in himself.

Doubtless, as Truffaut argues, the youthful and “ebullient” Hitchcock is not the same man as the later “meditative” Hitchcock (though the drugstore psychology of Marnie of the Sixties can hardly be called an advance over Murder of the Thirties). Doubtless Hitchcock has his obscurities, including the religious ones, the Jesuit education Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer have discussed, or the themes of grace and Calvinist election Hitchcock’s more peremptory admirers ascribe to him, but these obscurities, it seems to me, are always in parentheses, parenthetical statements he will clear up shortly, or if they’re left hanging that’s probably because they weren’t very real to begin with (isn’t the theology of I Confess as apocryphal as melodrama?), or perhaps they were merely Hitchcock’s “Mac-Guffin”: “The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever.”

Voltaire has a witty saying: “If flies could reason, they would complain to God of the existence of spiders.” Hitchcock’s heroes, engulfed by a thousand webs (in North by North-west, the spectacular tableau, shot from above, of the fugitive Grant, a dark speck, encompassed by the gardens and grounds of the UN), may reason, but they rarely complain, and least of all to God. In Topaz, we do hear Dany Robin cry “Horrible! Horrible!” after learning that the man with whom she has been having an affair, to free herself from the suffocating world of her husband, a French security agent, is the traitor her husband has been seeking; so events trap her and she says “Horrible! Horrible!” It is an interesting irony, but it is not developed. It is fleetingly, if tellingly, observed, and then dropped. And that, singularly, seems to be Hitchcock’s way with his weavings and unweavings.

And yet, why not? As everyone must agree, whether working in the English or the American idiom, Hitchcock has always demonstrated, indeed has been defined by, a calculating, supremely visual intelligence, a syntax, as Chabrol and Rohmer rightly state, that “does not merely embellish content, but actually creates it.” Before shooting, Hitchcock sketches on paper the grouping and maneuverings of his setups or sequences; exactness, adherence to the scale or placement of shots—these are more than a particular strategy. In effect, they are the essence of Hitchcock’s works, and to a degree simply not comparable with any other director, even the most “visual” of directors. The panoramic style of John Ford depends ultimately on “human interest”; the mannerist style of Josef von Sternberg reduces everything to “decor,” especially the drama. Only in Hitchcock is what we see so clearly connected to what the work’s about.

We know, of course, little of Hitchcock’s people, but we’re surely shown everything: the glance that tells all, or guards all, a guise or disguise. Hitchcock, in fact, delights in showing and deceiving at the same time. The rhetoric of practically everything he’s done could be characterized with one motto: “from scrutiny to recognition” or “from masking to unmasking.” Rebecca and Vertigo are virtually variations on the same theme: one woman warding off, or succumbing to, the annihilating memory of another woman; one woman fatally looking like another woman. The resonance of his films, the marvelously timed transitions, come, more often than not, from a metaphoric coupling of sight and insight, stimulus and response (Walter Benjamin’s remark that “film is the first art form capable of demonstrating how matter plays tricks on man” can have no better illustration than here), where Hitchcock’s people are always gravitating toward something or from something, burdened with having seen too much or too little, “running for cover,” a favorite phrase.

If Hitchcock shocks us, as I think he does, when remarking, in the Truffaut book, of the hero of Rear Window, “Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?” we should remember Holmes speaking to Doctor Watson, admitting his voyeuristic cravings, wanting to “gently remove the roofs” from the houses of Victorian London and “peep in at the queer things which are going on,” peep in and watch and wait for “the most outré results.” So in Rope, Farley Granger and John Dall strangle a college chum, and then they watch as the friend’s parents and fiancée and former teacher arrive, everyone wondering about the absent friend whose body rests in a chest in the room where Granger and Dall are serving the little group cocktails and canapes. Or James Stewart, a disabled photographer, looking out the window, patching together, with the help of his camera, bits and pieces of his neighbors’ lives, rather like Hitchcock himself, or the Hitchcock, at least, who wants us to be “aroused by pure film,” whose professional pride seems scandalous, almost sinful, and who can and does, with his chameleon control, momentarily alter or transform our responses, even our standards of judgment (though on the moral force of Alfred Hitchcock, another Truffaut fancy, I think it best not to dwell):

Let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!

Unsurpassed, certainly, as “pure film,” and merciless, though merciless with incredible elan, is the Krafft-Ebbing slaughter of Janet Leigh in the shower sequence from Psycho. Here and in what follows (the possessed thoroughness of Anthony Perkins, the wig and the clothing of his mother chucked away, mopping up the blood from the bathroom floor, while the stuffed owls look down, divining his guilt or reflecting it), Hitchcock, no longer playfully unpleasant, makes a “personal” or “perverse” statement quite unlike anything made before or after, really the Odessa steps of his career, releasing our buried aggressions, and becoming, at last, the obsessed auteur of Truffaut’s book.

In the bigger and better butchery of The Birds, made directly after Psycho and shot in color, everything, alas, lets Hitchcock down, including his prevenance. Poor Tippi Hedren, in that preposterous attic, with those preposterous coruscating beaks belaboring her—on that we cast a cool eye, we see that things are really too inane for Hitchcock’s common world to support, even a world as common or as colorful as Bodega Bay…

Truffaut’s book, the recorded conversations of two men of different backgrounds and generations, of different tastes and talents (so far, Truffaut has only one really first-rate work, Jules and Jim), is, necessarily, as much a portrait of Truffaut (nimble, inquisitive, adoring, submissive, the apprentice sitting at the feet of the sorcerer, now and then hoping to curl the great man’s toes, but never succeeding, quite) as it is of Hitchcock, but, of course, it is the latter, the outsize figure we remember, passing before us and changing, to judge by the photographs in the Truffaut book, from an eager-eyed, moon-faced, egg-shaped major domo, a playmate, really, of Alice’s or Tenniel’s, to the graying, balding bureaucrat in black reading the London Times in the California hills (though sans an Oscar, even an honorary one, much to Hollywood’s shame); chatting with Truffaut about everything, about money, graciously (“Psycho…has grossed some fifteen million dollars to date…. And that’s what I’d like you to do—a picture that would gross millions of dollars throughout the world!”), and about Rebecca, arguably his most romantic, mythic, satisfying work, phlegmatically (“Yes, it has stood up quite well over the years. I don’t know why”), about dream shots and Holland and murder in a tulip field (“One petal fills the screen and suddenly a drop of blood splashes all over it”), about factories and the American scene and cars rolling gently off the assembly line (“Then they open the door of the car and out drops a corpse!”).

Hitchcock’s is a sensibility formed in the Teens and Twenties, but enamored, so Truffaut tells us, of “absolute nothingness” and “absurdity,” and enamored even more of forward-zooms and two-hundred-degree turns, of cutting and inter-cutting and reverse-cutting and more cutting (“I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream”), a master of mayhem and montage, who has, in our murderous age, served us so durably, so irresistibly, with such imperious nonchalance.

  1. 1

    To be sure, Topaz presents all the conventional pieties about the missile crisis. The hero, a Frenchman, condemning neutrality in the cold war, admits his allegiance to the Americans (indeed works for them), and the CIA, in a crucial scene, exaggerates the strength of the Cuban build-up. Still, these “slantings,” if such they be, are considerably diminished by the grubby nature of the CIA people. John Forsythe, lovable “Bachelor Father” himself, comes across as a strikingly ungiving fellow, and his cohorts are even cruder. A notable departure, since in other works, from Notorious to The Torn Curtain, US agents are unequivocally the “good guys.” The “point” of Topaz, as I take it, is that power politics is a mess, dirtying everyone—no doubt a cliché, but strong stuff for Hitchcock, and not at all the assumption underlying the novel by Leon Uris.

  2. 2

    Such antipodes are most apparent in Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black, where Truffaut, attempting to emulate Hitchcockian efficiency, drowns in his innate sweetness, his sentimental over-emphases. Hitchcockian fare is not for him, but something of Hesse’s (Demian, perhaps even Steppenwolf) might prove both challenging and congenial.

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