I’ve been sick for a few days, but luckily not so sick that I can’t enjoy some streaming Netflix movies and an excellent book based on the lengthy interview Francois Truffaut did with Alfred Hitchcock back in the 70s.

I’m a bit obsessed with Hitchcock at the moment. I’m taking a class about him at the NWFF, and all the reading and watching has me losing much of the exasperation I’ve usually felt about his films.

When I make a list of the movies I’d seen before the class, I’m a little shocked: The 39 Steps, Saboteur, Lifeboat, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56), Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds. There aren’t many directors about whom I can say I’ve watched 12 of their movies, and even fewer who I also have an uneasy irritated feeling about.

Of those films, Rope was the only one that I thoroughly loved. I’m a sucker for movies that give themselves an intriguing technical obstacle (witness the frequency with which I mention Russian Ark), and the link between that obstacle (“make it look like one shot”) and the criminals’ plan (“host a dinner party half an hour after committing the perfect murder”) always made delicious sense to me. The films gets extra credit for letting Jimmy Stewart play a capable and decisive character instead of playing his usual warm but hopelessly dithering self (The Man Who Knew Too Much was awful in this respect).

I was pretty dazzled while watching Psycho for the second time last Halloween, especially by a few sequences that don’t get a lot of attention. But the nagging irritation was still there, and I think I can now summarize a few things I’ve figured out in the past week or so about what Hitchcock is “up to” in his films.

“His films are implausible” — In the Truffaut interview, he says “A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.” Learning to turn off my continuity traffic cop while watching these movies has greatly enhanced the experience. Hitchcock plays tricks and cuts corners in order to grab your attention early and keep it. He’s telling a story, not filming a documentary.

“He merely an entertainer” — Many of his critics dismissed him for being too popular, or because they felt the thriller genre was hopelessly shallow. But from the very beginning he was determined to please his audience, by capturing and then holding their interest. Passion for crafting such stories drove screenwriting, technical and cinematic innovations, including clever ways to blur questions of plausibility.

“He’s always about murder” — Suspense (driven usually by a murder) is the mechanism by which Hitchcock grabbed his audience in virtually every film; the few exceptions (e.g., Mr. & Mrs. Smith) prove the rule. The constant barrage of violence and fear is compelling, but I usually found it depressing. Now I’m so fascinated by the storytelling and cinematic ideas he’s exploring that I don’t mind a little murder. Besides, his motivations are such that the display of violence is never gratuitous.

“He’s unfair” — I was never sure when watching a Hitchcock film whether I was being cheated out of information that I felt I needed in order to understand the story, or as though I was being manipulated unfairly. Did that actually happen, or did a character only imagine it? Do the characters know what we know? Did we just skip forward by three days, or three seconds? Hitchcock insists on clarity of presentation, but by that he only means that he wants the images and the impressions to be clear, not that every meaning or association be spelled out.

“He’s a snob” — There’s a scene early in The Lady Vanishes (below) where star Margaret Lockwood and her friends occupy the hotel owner’s time with carefree banter and whimsical requests while dozens of other tourists cool their heels. Lockwood’s imperious manner and obliviousness to the needs of others is infuriating, and my impression is that characters with this blithe grace are omnipresent in Hitchcock’s films.

Until recently I believed he was sincerely promoting this view, and now I’m not sure. Breezy upperclass characters may be a hero, a villain or an incidental nobody in his films; I’m less convinced than I was that he’s rooting for them. After all, following the scene above, we get a nice sympathetic shot of those affected by Iris’ self-absorption (below).

“He’s a moralist” — Raised Catholic, Hitchcock appreciated the tension and emotional power of guilt. Was Marion Crane’s death punishment for stealing money? For having extra-marital sex? There’s no answer in Psycho, but the film absolutely makes us feel the question.

In the past few days I’ve seen The Lady Vanishes, Sabotage and Blackmail and rewatched The 39 Steps twice, and I’m happy to have gotten over — or at least begun to identify and examine — my problems with Hitchcock. The man directed 53 movies, and there are many more I have to watch in order to come up to speed. I might post something more declarative later, but for now I’ve switched solidly into his camp.

Speaking of which, I created another set of screenshot images at Flickr, this time from The Lady Vanishes. Catherine Lacey is striking as the nun who switches from darkness to light:

Here’s the set.

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5 Responses to Truffaut/Hitchcock

  1. Ha. As I read this post, I can hear the sounds of Saboteur coming from the other room. We just finished watching Foreign Correspondent; before that was Young and Innocent and before that was Under Capricorn. Basically I’m going through the ones I’ve never seen or have not seen for a long time. And they’re all pretty fascinating. UC was a bit of a mess plot-wise, but the cinematography was spectacular. And FC is a pretty amazing adventure story with some crazy sequences and a total propaganda undertow.

    Anyway, Hitchcock is great!! No kidding.

  2. i like Hitchcock, but i haven’t seen enough of his films. my absolute favorite of his is Rear Window, though. it’s so beautiful and tense and scary and smart and… i just love it a lot.
    i’ll have to check some of these out, though. i’m familiar with a lot of them but have never watched them.

  3. lolarusa says:

    Funny you should mention the Truffaut Hitchcock book. We were just visiting friends in DC and talking about the book, which was on their coffee table.

    One thing I’ve always loved about Hitchcock is the way his “heroes” can be completely unadmirable, not in some Clint Eastwood “dirty work but somebodys’ got to do it” way, but in much more subtle ways, like the thoughtless sense of entitlement you mention in The Lady Vanishes, or, more disturbingly, James Stewart’s warped relationships with women in Vertigo or The Man Who Knew Too Much. His films feel like they’re all about the surface, yet they’re constantly subverting their straightforward messages with moments that make you question characters’ motivations, questions that often linger in the mind more vividly than the plot twists and action sequences.

  4. Erik L. says:

    “Was Marion Crane’s death punishment for stealing money? For having extra-marital sex?” … For making us desire her by taking off her clothes all the time? In this sense Hitchcock has turned everyone in the audience into Norman Bates.

    lolarusa, nice thoughts on the Hitchcock protagonist. It’s true even when the actors are the most likeable in Hollywood history (Stewart, Grant).

  5. unclevinny says:

    Great comments y’all, I’m so glad to have such interesting friends.

    I’d forgotten that I also had pure affection for “Lifeboat”, now I’m looking forward to rewatching that one.

    Of the early films, I still want to see “Murder!”, “The Ring”, “Rich and Strange”, “Secret Agent” and “The Lodger”.

    Both “Sabotage” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much (’34)” have some amazing sequences, I’d recommend them if you are looking for some early gems.

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