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Hitchcock: The Hidden Power

Hitchcock et l’Art: Coïncidences Fatales (Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences)

catalog of the exhibition edited by Dominique Païniand Guy Cogeval
an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, June 6–September 24, 2001. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Milan: Mazzotta,498 pp., CAN$39.95 (paper)

Hitchcock et l’Art, an exhibition devoted to teasing out connections between the films of Alfred Hitchcock and a wide range of art from the 1850s to the 1990s, has just closed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and it is a pity that there are apparently no plans to bring it to the United States. (It has been shown in North America, having originated in a more condensed form in Montreal.) Since Hitchcock is already everywhere in American culture—in video stores and on cable TV, in film courses and in a stream of critical studies and biographies that shows no sign of letting up, in remakes and reworkings and allusions that mine the oeuvre as a kind of folklore—it would have been fitting if more of us could have had a look at an assemblage that opens up the work in unpredictable and fascinating ways. Hitchcock et l’Art amounts to a form of film criticism relying not on verbal analysis but on the deployment of images and objects. It talks about Hitchcock by speaking in his own language, and in the process raises haunting questions about the potential of what that language might convey.

I saw the exhibit under circumstances which may have heightened its emotional effects in ways not foreseen by its creators. It was only a few days after the attacks of September 11, at a point when I didn’t yet know the fate of friends and neighbors or indeed whether my apartment in the shadow of the twin towers was intact, an uncertainty that at least helped to deflect attention from more horrible certainties. To attempt to escape for a few hours from the shock of real terror in a gallery devoted to imaginary terrors made as much sense as anything in a Paris made unfamiliar precisely by its air of untroubled calm, by a sky where for the time being no airplanes flew. At that moment not only the pop-industrial façade of the Centre Pompidou but the city around it seemed flat and insubstantial, like one of those rear projections of which Hitchcock was so inordinately fond: a movie set, that might be junked without warning.

If the purpose of the exhibit had been to impart a sense of timeless solidity to works that had once been perceived as ephemera of cinematic commerce, in this new context the materials on display seemed marked by a new kind of fragility. Rather than objects securely fixed in space—brought finally for safekeeping into an unbreachable museum—they seemed messages that had been transmitted, in a twentieth century now suddenly ancient, only as far as this point in time: messages whose purport would continue to be transfigured by unimaginable circumstances, and whose perpetuation could scarcely be guaranteed. It was open to question whether we would still want to look at them, and what they would convey to us.

An issue of TV Guide from the late Fifties, a 1945 lobby card for Spellbound, a 1925 cover from The Kinematograph Weekly abruptly acquired a pathos merely by continuing to exist. They implied a chain of connections unbroken by the vicissitudes of the previous century, and took on the tranquil charm of a family album, a charm reinforced by the home movies of Hitchcock clowning with his wife and daughter that were projected in one corner of the labyrinthine show. An exhibit that, to judge by recurring phrases in its catalog, was to be defined in terms of “fatality” and “fetishism,” “malaise” and “culpability” and “the paranoia of the glance,” now fairly radiated with the colors and expressive flourishes of a threatened life.

Hitchcock may have dwelled on themes of death and disquiet, but it was always—it now became obvious—the exhilarating vitality of his work, its constant urge to invent and construct even in an atmosphere charged with fear and self-doubt, that had drawn us to it. To speak, as one of the catalog’s contributors does, of “the eruption of horror into the midst of everyday life” as a prime characteristic of his films was to overlook the fact that those films had long since become part and parcel of everyday life. Terror? Anxiety? Morbid obsession? He didn’t unleash them, he domesticated them. His films were by now almost as much a part of the culture of childhood as The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. In the pleasurable unease that was his signature, it was the pleasure rather than the unease that represented the more difficult accomplishment.

Hitchcock et l’Art takes for its epigraph (I use the present tense in the hope that the Paris showing will not be its final incarnation) an encomium by Jean-Luc Godard worth quoting at length as an eloquent reminder that it was after all in Paris, in the 1950s, that attention was first paid to the uncanny artistic originality and density of films that until then had passed for more or less efficient entertainments:

People forget why Joan Fontaine was leaning over the cliff…and what Joel McCrea was up to in Holland. They forget what Montgomery Clift was obliged to keep silent about and why Janet Leigh stops at the Bates Motel, and why Teresa Wright remains in love with Uncle Charlie. They forget what Henry Fonda was not altogether guilty of, and why exactly the American government employed the services of Ingrid Bergman. But they remember a car in the desert. They remember a glass of milk, the vanes of a windmill, a hairbrush. They remember a wine rack, a pair of glasses, a fragment of music, a set of keys. Because through them and with them, Alfred Hitchcock succeeded where Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler failed: in taking control of the universe. Perhaps ten thousand people have not forgotten Cézanne’s apples, but a billion spectators will recall the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, and if Alfred Hitchcock has been the only poète maudit to achieve success, it is because he was the greatest creator of forms of the twentieth century and that it is forms which tell us, finally, what there is at the bottom of things; and what is art except that by which forms become style.1

Passing beyond the white wall where these words are inscribed like a poem, the spectator is obliged to enter a dark room—like a latecomer at the movies trying to find a seat—to discover, laid out on satin under glass as in some very peculiar jeweler’s shop, a series of props of the kind celebrated by Godard: the glass of milk from Suspicion, the necklace from Vertigo, the yellow handbag from Marnie, the straight razor from Spellbound, the set of keys from Notorious, the broken eyeglasses from The Birds, the shrunken head from Under Capricorn, the rope from Rope. The effect is not so much to evoke the films as to subtly alter one’s impression of them by breaking them down into their constituent elements, assembling the films for the first time from the fragments gathered here.

That effect—with its sense of addressing not finished works but the process by which they were made in the first place—is multiplied by the objects in the rooms that follow, storyboards and costume sketches, production photos and private snapshots, shooting scripts and original editions of books adapted by Hitchcock. The walls vibrate with movement: clips from Hitchcock’s films flicker on all sides in the midst of paintings, posters, magazine covers. The show has the charm of an oddly tenebrous theme park. Spaces open up: a whole wall on which the panning shot of the rear window view from Rear Window is endlessly projected, Salvador Dalí’s backdrop of giant eyes for the dream sequence of Spellbound, a full-scale recreation of Janet Leigh’s motel room in Psycho. In this context many of these objects take on a singular beauty and power, none more than the prop crows arranged in battle formation on the monkey bars from The Birds: a sculptural work that acquires a disturbing monumentality, like the remnant of some wordless premonition of disaster.

Interspersed with these objects, and providing the exhibit’s chief reason for being, is a dense assemblage of works by artists ranging from Edward Burne-Jones and Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman and Tony Oursler, works chosen more for analogy than for traces of direct influence.2 Dominique Païni, one of the curators, explains their approach: “We have put our faith in intuitive constellations of images that stood out as we watched the films again.” It is to be a game of resemblances then, just like that favorite parlor game that seeks points of contact among different moments in Hitchcock’s films, looking for a system among the motifs that repeat almost to infinity: women being dressed by others; lovers handcuffed together; painted portraits; varieties of masquerades (the costume ball in To Catch a Thief, the female impersonator in Murder!, the stand-in for the diplomat in Foreign Correspondent, the changes of hair color in Marnie); criminals disguised as priests; the man of evil who offers a drink to the virtuous (Shadow of a Doubt, Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest); a cigarette stubbed out in cold cream or a fried egg.

Here the game consists in finding images from elsewhere that can mix seamlessly with images from Hitchcock’s films, so that Kim Novak strewing flowers into San Francisco Bay before throwing herself into the water is mirrored by the Ophelias of Millais and Redon; the indefinitely prolonged kiss of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious by Rodin’s Kiss; the haunted houses of Rebecca and Under Capricorn and Psycho by analogously desolate settings from Arnold Böcklin and Fernand Khnopff and Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Images may tally in the most literal fashion: Walter Sickert’s portrait of Sir Thomas Beecham at the podium rhymes perfectly with a still of Bernard Herrmann conducting the “Stormcloud Cantata” in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Saul Bass’s spirals for the credits of Vertigo could almost be superimposed on Marcel Duchamp’s “Rotoreliefs” of 1935. Hitchcock’s sealed-off maze has been punctured at a thousand points to let the world in, to demonstrate connections that were already there although unseen. It hardly matters whether the relation between the images is a matter of influence or mystical correspondence. (As it happens, Hitchcock worked with Dalí, and in a small way collected Klee, Rouault, Sickert, and some of the other artists in the show, but the curators are not concerned to chart any direct line of transmission.) The pictures talk back and forth to each other in just the winding and arabesqued manner suggested by Hitchcock’s endless stairways and tracking shots and encircling glances.

That the rooms are dimly lit adds to the impression of eavesdropping among the overlapping dialogues of a shadow world of images, a museum of the imagination where the distinction between austere abstraction and tawdry observation blurs into a common dialect. By following the path of mere resemblance, the most unlikely objects are brought into contact with one another. The sources of imagery range from a lithograph of one of Jack the Ripper’s victim’s from an 1888 issue of Famous Crimes to a painting of birds by Georges Braque, and from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of Proserpine to a Cecil Beaton photograph of Marlene Dietrich. High art is not walled off from magazine illustration or fashion design. The list of artists drawn upon makes a wonderfully eclectic band; side by side with Beardsley, Munch, Vuillard, di Chirico, Klee, Ernst, Magritte, and Hopper are such relatively more elusive figures as Alberto Martini, Fernand Khnopff, Meredith Frampton, Carel Willink, Léon Spilliaert, Ralston Crawford, and many others.

As a concept it sounds impossibly broad—Hitchcock’s visual art would by this reckoning have been a kind of indigestible potpourri of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Symbolists, the Blaue Reiter group, the Surrealists, and every variety of pop culture from London music hall posters to the cover art of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—but the show is about neither schools of art nor hierarchies of taste. The connections it looks for are almost familial: a matter of shared spaces, shared (if perhaps unspoken) desires, shared dreams, shared nightmares. A vocabulary takes shape: the drowned girl, the music hall, the crowd, the kiss, the shadower, the haunted staircase, the murder. Are these the real subjects of what is being said, or merely signs to represent something else? Are they strange to us or do we lie down with them every night? If they frighten us why do we keep looking? Moving through these rooms we become more and more aware of being part of a vast and shifting audience, onlookers at the circus in Murder! or at the Bijou Cinema in Sabotage, part of the more or less anonymous crowd milling about restlessly, from one era to the next, in Piccadilly Circus or Grand Central Station.

Of course, by dismantling Hitchcock’s films in order to come up with powerful isolated images—and it is striking how many of those images come from early and largely unsung movies like The Ring, The Manxman, The Skin Game, and Number Seventeen —the chief art of the films falls by the way. The music of narrative, the flavoring of humor and character, the structural mastery not only of individual shots but of the connections among all the shots: none of this can really be suggested in such a setting. Strangely, that makes the exhibition more rather than less interesting.

The theme of the double that weighs so heavily in Hitchcock’s movies applies also to the spectator’s experience of watching them. There is the film he is conscious of watching and in which he is effortlessly caught up, the film without slack or digression that leads him from one point to the next as if carried by a high-speed train; and there is the more abstract and dreamlike film, the subliminal film that has less to do with intrigue and story logic than with images and situations exerting a mysterious and enduring power. The outer or conscious film can be seen as a framework enabling the other to do its darker and more pervasive work, almost unbeknownst to the watcher—or even at times to the filmmaker. In exposing some portion of that inner domain, Hitchcock et l’Art becomes something of an essay on hidden powers; that they are hidden in plain sight, in the visible, is a paradox appropriate to a work concerned equally with showing and concealing.

By an interesting coincidence, Peter Conrad’s new book The Hitchcock Murders represents a very similar mining of the films for correspondences which often go far beyond any intention of the director’s. For example, a discussion of the role of art in such movies as The Trouble with Harry and Rear Window leads, by a rapid train of associations, to the “bloody lakes of congealed pigment” in the paintings of Mark Rothko and thence to Rothko’s 1970 suicide by “opening his veins into a kitchen sink.” The effect is often (as it is here) gratuitous, but just as often Conrad penetrates to highly suggestive layers of implication, precisely because of his book’s jettisoning of systematic argument in favor of something like free association. As his title suggests, his vision of Hitchcock is more cannibalistic than romantic, and he is particularly attuned to the devouring aspects of even the most apparently idyllic or amusing moments in the films.

Conrad has carefully studied the literary sources of Hitchcock’s films, and some of his freshest passages have to do with the often much rougher, more sadistic, more sexually explicit content of such novels as Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, The Paradine Case, The House of Dr. Edwardes (source of Spellbound), or Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leices- ter Square (on which Frenzy was based). The weight Conrad puts on material that neither appears in the finished films nor, usually, was ever intended to might appear questionable; but his discussions open up avenues on Hitchcock as a reader and the crucial yet so often neglected portion of the creative process that has to do with the selection of material for adaptation. Just as the Pompidou show imagines a Hitchcock inflected by Munch and Klee and Max Ernst, Conrad insinuates himself into Hitchcock’s readings of writers as disparate as John Buchan, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, Boileau-Narcéjac, and Robert Bloch. He’s equally lively on such motifs as food, scissors, bathrooms, teeth, and the recurring presence of Tristan und Isolde.

Reading Hitchcock, Conrad reads himself, as he candidly acknowledges throughout. The book’s subjectivity is its strength; having steeped himself in Hitchcock (and the evidence of the steeping is on every page and in every arcane fact and overlooked visual detail) he must write his way through the work to find out what it has made of him. If this involves a certain amount of overextension along the way—and if in search of extreme transgressiveness Conrad misses some of Hitchcock’s more delicate balancing acts—there can be no question at the end that one has been through a stretch of territory. One might have taken a different route, but Conrad has covered the ground.

Conrad has written a history of walking through someone’s head, and the Pompidou show likewise begins to feel like a literal promenade, in the dark, among sense impressions and nerve endings. Decades seem to have passed during the walk. In the beginning we were in a world of pianolas and Ivor Novello, the early English films’ drab succession of rooming houses, police stations, dance halls, and crowded tube trains, their endless round of banal prurience indiscriminately mingling the erotic and the horrific. Then, from the apparently safe distance of America, we were living through the war, its inner homefront drama enacted by Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt, in which the external enemy was replaced by a homegrown psychopath of Hit-lerian intelligence linked to the “good” people of Santa Rosa by the most intimate ties of family feeling and sublimated erotic attraction.

Through a deep-shadowed decor redolent of Surrealism and Freud as modified for the readers of Vogue, we entered the postwar world that would realize itself in poster-bright expanses of VistaVision and Technicolor. In that world Hitchcock could for a long stretch do pretty much as he wished, plot his ironic twists and make his little jokes about murder as a fine art, work out his elaborately conceived grids of visual and sonic relationships, his recurring spirals and vertiginous ramps, choose his actresses’ clothes (a crucial part of the creative process, with special attention to color schemes and hair style), divert a vast audience with meticulous realizations of his most idiosyncratic fantasies and preoccupations. A golden age, culminating in the explosive success of Psycho (a pop culture event as radical as, say, rock and roll) and followed by the slow decline of Torn Curtain and Frenzy; and then the museums with their retrospectives.

A lifetime in a dream, deliberately so: “I practice absurdity quite religiously,” he told François Truffaut. Elsewhere he remarked that he offered not a slice of life but a slice of cake. He was in some sense our Lewis Carroll, populating his Wonderland with looking-glass inversions of the same world we inhabit: a world of spies and murderers, lovers and tennis players, actresses and jewel thieves. They exist, apparently, to make fascinating patterns in which the spectator, like the director before him, can become lost. “You could look at it forever,” Hitchcock said about one of his own compositions. That the global crisis foreshadowed in The Lady Vanishes and Fo-reign Correspondent was real enough had not prevented him from weaving it into graceful, often comic fantasies that established a quite separate and extremely pleasurable alternate reality. Yet nothing about Hitchcock’s work finally seemed frivolous; too much attention had been paid to every piece and every step of it. If stepping out of the Centre Pompidou from that city of the mind into the actual city of actual dangers was like waking from a dream, it was not a dream one wanted to forget. There was, rather, a strange comfort in feeling close for a while to that nether realm where we store our shadows, as if for future use.

  1. 1

    The passage is extracted from the fourth volume of Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (Paris: Gallimard, 1998).

  2. 2

    The influence of Hitchcock on contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman and Tony Oursler plays only a minor part in the show. The subject is explored in greater detail in Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art, the catalog of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1999.

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