The shadow of the Mas­ter

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

o it with scis­sors,” was Al­fred Hitch­cock’s ad­vice for prospec­tive mur­der­ers, though a glance at th­ese two new bi­ogra­phies re­minds us that scis­sors are also the cho­sen im­ple­ment of the sil­hou­et­tist. Hitch­cock’s pro­file — beaky nose, pro­tu­ber­ant lips, con­joined chin and neck — is em­bla­zoned on both dust jack­ets like a logo.

A logo is what it was. You don’t be­come the most fa­mous film direc­tor in the world merely by di­rect­ing movies. Hence the word­less walkons Hitch­cock made in al­most ev­ery one of his 53 pic­tures. Hence the city gent uni­form (blue suit, white shirt, black tie) worn through­out even the most sti­fling Cal­i­for­nian sum­mers. Hence, one some­times sus­pects, the pen­du­lous jowls and gar­gan­tuan gut — trade­marks made flesh. Long be­fore the mar­ket­ing boys, Hitch­cock knew all there was to know about brand cre­ation.

Cer­tainly he knew how he didn’t want to be la­belled. Happy to be called the Mas­ter of Sus­pense, he was rather less pleased with any sug­ges­tion that he might be some kind of artist. Peter Ack­royd says that when, in the mid-1950s, Cahiers du Cinema started talk­ing about Hitch­cock as some kind of moral­ist vi­sion­ary, this son of a cock­ney green­gro­cer rolled his eyes in baf­fle­ment.

There was com­mer­cial logic be­hind that re­ac­tion. Thrills mer­chants are pretty much bound to reach a big­ger au­di­ence than moody thren­odists — and Hitch­cock never made any bones about the need to put pun­ters on seats. Yet dis­par­age the heavy­weight ex­egetes though he might, Hitch­cock was for­ever dis­cussing his work in the lan­guage of high modernist the­ory. Con­tent, he said, was of no im­port, story and char­ac­ter nei­ther here nor there. What counted was emo­tion en­gen­dered by cut­ting and cam­era place­ment: “pure cinema”, as he liked to put it.

Pure cinema got its ef­fects, as any­one who has seen Sab­o­tage or Strangers on a Train or what Michael Wood rightly calls the un­der­rated Fam­ily Plot can at­test. Still, as Wood shows in his in­tro­duc­tion to Hitch­cock stud­ies, in the mas­ter’s great­est movies the for­mal per­fec­tion was at the ser­vice of some­thing more knot­ted and nervy than he per­haps knew.

Hitch­cock liked to say that a movie wasn’t a slice of life but a slice of cake. Wood gives us a Hitch­cock who, fit­tingly enough, has his cake and eats it, a Hitch­cock whose light­est ro­man­tic thrillers — Sab­o­tage, Shadow of a Doubt, No­to­ri­ous — are es­says on the fas­cist mind­set. Even though the man him­self would have scorned such read­ings, he’d have loved show­ing them to those di­rec­tors and ac­tors who in 1939 had called him out for tak­ing up an of­fer

Marnie from David ( Gone with the Wind) Selznick and de­sert­ing Bri­tain in its hour of need.

Not that Wood’s Hitch­cock is any kind of hero. In­stead, he’s “a fright­ened man who got his fears to work for him on film”, a para­noid dreamer whose “fan­tas­tic fic­tion be­comes … psy­cho­log­i­cal truth”, a sex­ual neu­rotic (Hitch­cock of­ten claimed that he had never made love to any­one but his wife Alma, and then only the once) ob­sessed with “the trou­bled, of­ten vi­o­lent re­la­tions be­tween men and women”.

Tippi He­dren would have some­thing to say about those re­la­tions. A model whom Hitch­cock spot­ted in a soft drink ad and im­me­di­ately set about re­tool­ing for star­dom, He­dren has long claimed that dur­ing the shoot­ing of Marnie her less than svelte Sven­gali asked her to touch him in what Ack­royd calls “a cer­tain place”. There is noth­ing cer­tain about He­dren’s story, of course, but that hardly gives Ack­royd the right to ar­gue that even if it were true then Hitch­cock “was sim­ply be­hav­ing like an old fool”.

Brisk to the point of blase though his book is (Ack­royd can’t even quote film dia­logue ac­cu­rately), it nonethe­less re­minds us that from Marnie in 1964 on­wards, Hitch­cock was al­ways on at his writ­ers to work a rape scene into their scripts. What­ever went on in He­dren’s dress­in­groom, there were dis­turb­ing things go­ing on in Hitch­cock’s mind. Ack­royd’s cosy cuts job gets nowhere near to dis­in­ter­ring them.

If Wood’s book does, it’s be­cause it ac­knowl­edges those dis­tur­bances — in­deed, be­cause it ar­gues that Hitch­cock’s art works to make us ac­knowl­edge them: “His pe­cu­liar­i­ties, or more pre­cisely the mix­ture of his gen­uine pe­cu­liar­i­ties with his bland, per­sis­tent or­di­nar­i­ness, have struck chords in mil­lions.” Wood’s achieve­ment in this star­tling, in­sight-laden book is to point up how strange Hitch­cock’s pic­tures re­main, how so un­like con­ven­tional movies even his most con­ven­tional movies are. Af­ter an hour with Wood you go back to Hitch­cock more un­set­tled than ever.

Al­fred Hitch­cock and Tippi He­dren on the set of 1964’s

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