The Three Hitchcocks

            Every time I have to face the question “do I like Alfred Hitchcock?” I find myself dissecting and differentiating among his three personas (the celebrity, the filmmaker, and the storyteller) in order to describe and define accurately my feelings towards each of them, which range from dislike and cautious doubt to the reverence that any film scholar must have for one of the greatest auteurs of all time.

First off, I’m inclined to dislike Hitchcock’s celebrity persona because of how he procured it and how it affected his career and life: lying and exaggerating anecdotes in interviews; breaking up working relationships (mostly writers and producers such as Charles Bennett and David O. Selznick[1]) due to clashing egos; turning his obesity into a sort of icon; and establishing his cameos as a final imprint that made a film exclusively a “Hitchcock film”—all of them things which worked for Hitchcock’s stardom, but that I wouldn’t take as examples to follow.

Regardless of my dislike for that celebrity persona, I still hold great respect for the filmmaker, since he was, as stated before, one of the greatest in film history. Hitchcock became so because he was one of the most knowledgeable and sly people working in the industry at the time. He knew how the industry worked, from the importance of the star system to the necessities of filmmaking as an industry, such as the value of having a solid script, knowing how to deliver a film production despite “budget constraints and casting disappointments,” and shooting just enough footage in order to both control post-production and outsmart intruding producers (such as DOS) during power struggles[2].

            Another point of praise for Hitchcock was his awareness about the audience—the final consumers and judges of his movies. Rather than sticking to the mentality of “this is my art that I make for myself” that might be associated with the auteur/eccentric artist stereotype, he did all of his films, from script to screen, with the sensibilities and needs of the audience in mind, mostly based on the idea that the public enjoys playing God and feeling fear in safe settings such as the movie theater. History proves that Hitchcock made his films at all costs the way he envisioned, the way he wanted them to become a reality, which meant several times fighting with writers, manipulating actors, inflating budgets, and tricking censors. However, history also showed that his preoccupation with audience (and even critic) appreciation and box-office success drove his filmmaking and influenced most of his creative decisions at least during the rise and pinnacle of his career as “the Master of suspense.”

            Above everything else, of course, Hitchcock was a filmmaker to be admired because of his craft. Not only did he master filmmaking amidst a wave of changes (the advent of sound and color) but he also established with his work many of the conventions that would become crucial for suspense and the thriller genre as well as for filmmaking as an art itself. Hitchcock excelled both technically and cinematically—he mastered the tools of “movie magic” such as the Schüfftan process in The Ring (1927) and Blackmail (1929), and trick editing to enhance violent scenes (for instance, the shower scene in Psycho [1960]). Knowing the technical tricks allowed Hitchcock to master and exploit the language of film (i.e. expressionistic visuals and sound), which he used to give deeper significance to each and every scene beyond the dialogue and the performances of the actors. Hitchcock’s vision for the framing and blocking of a film like Rebecca (1940) made the difference between recording a stale melodrama (with some suspense) that any studio director could execute, and producing an engaging Oscar-worthy film that became a classic. In other words, the British director knew he was “making motion pictures”[3] while others continued to film theater.

Despite his mastery of film as a language and an industry, I still question Hitchcock’s capacity as a storyteller because of that same mastery. Hitchcock was great at telling the stories he constructed on his own terms: lady-like blondes, McGuffins, and (often times extreme) suspension of disbelief to get his stories to unfold[4]. But when analyzed past the cinematic “Hitchcock touch” that enchants audiences and critics alike, Hitchcock’s movies can be rendered as stories with weak characters and plots full of implausibility and whimsical twists for the sake of having normal people in abnormal situations.

            To begin with, Hitchcock characters (at least from his British period) are all weak characters—most of them some kind of stereotype/cliché with a single special trait that happen to resolve or complicate the plot more than they define the characters (i.e. the sharpshooting wife in The Man Who Knew Too Much [1934]). The biggest marker of that habitual character weakness is the fact that the names are almost irrelevant, with their roles (i.e. the wife, the spy, the murderer) or corresponding performer (for instance, Peter Lorre, James Stewart, Carey Grant) being the common way to refer to them even by film scholars[5].               

            Second, as Hitchcock’s characters became more complex thanks to his move to Hollywood and his collaboration with different writers, they still remained not as important as their situations within the films that too often edge on the absurd. Moreover, the characters then not only had to “compete” for attention against the film’s plot or concept (take Rope (1948) as prime example), but also against the shadow of the stars playing them. For example, Alicia as character in herself in Notorious (1946) isn’t as relevant or interesting academically as Ingrid Bergman playing that role the oedipal, sado-masochistic love triangle of the story (as suggested by Robin Wood[6]).

            The third and most significant critique about Hitchcock’s storytelling is for his purposeful use of what could be called “Hitchcockian clichés.” That doesn’t mean repeating motifs like handcuffs or dreadful mother figures (i.e. Notorious and Psycho) that can be interpreted as authorial signatures, but literally transferring whole scenes (mostly action sequences) and copying other elements from previous films to fill in the gaps of newer projects—which he did with full awareness and purpose, feeling comfortable “to recycle himself.”[7] For a filmmaker who criticized and chastised the British and American film industries for “typing” characters in movies and making entire genres go stale by repetition of story elements, Hitchcock did just that when making pastiches of his own films. Many and most commercial directors, especially within the studio system, resorted to that same typing and repetition as part of the craft, but they were never harsh critics of those practices—it’s simply warranted for Hitchcock to be chastised for those storytelling sins (which people tend to justify or forgive because of his prestige) just as much as he opposed them in interviews and articles.[8]

            Ultimately, I’d rather judge Hitchcock based upon his achievements as filmmaker over any other aspect of his career and life, since that persona is the one that affected history and film the most. However, whether I like it or not, Hitchcock melded his other personas to that one so well that I cannot just put them to the side completely—I ought to include them in my judgment. So when asking “do I like Hitchcock” I must say that, all things considered—yes, I do, for the most part.


Bibliography

Hitchcock, Alfred. “”Stodgy” British Pictures.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 168-171. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Are Stars Necessary?” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 76-78. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Close Your Eyes and Visualize!” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 246-249. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Film Production.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 210-226. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “If I Were HEad of a Production Company.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 172-175. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Let ‘Em Play God.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, by Edited Sidney Gottlieb, 113-115. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Master of Suspense: Being a Self-Analysis by Alfred Hitchcock.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 122-124. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Old Ruts Are New Ruts.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 202-204. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Production Methods Compared.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 205-209. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “The Enjoyment of Fear.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 116-121. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Hitchcock, Alfred. “Why Thrillers Thrive.” In Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 109-112. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

Wood, Robin. “Star and Auteur: Hitchcock’s Films with Bergman.” In Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, by Robin Wood, 303-335. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

 


[1] McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. p. 155 & Chapters. 8-10.

[2] McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. p. 304 & Ch. 7.

[3] “Close Your Eyes and Visualize!” Hitchcock on Hitchcock. p.246-249

[4] “Master of Suspense: Being a Self-Analysis by Alfred Hitchcock.” Hitchcock on Hitchcock. p.122-124.

[5] It’s perhaps ironic that one of the few characters that seems to stand out by herself in a Hitchcock movie is Rebecca, who happens to be the title character and who nevertheless is physically absent throughout the film.

[6] Wood, Robin. “Star and Auteur: Hitchcock’s Films with Bergman.”

[7] McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. p. 297

[8] “Stodgy British Pictures” & “Old Ruts Are New Ruts.” Hitchcock on Hitchcock. p. 168-171, 202-204.

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