How to Watch Hitchcock - Part 2

By Joel Gunz
Part two in a series; See the February 2005 post for Part one.

During the thirties, forties and fifties, most Hollywood directors had very little creative control over the movies they made. For every big-name George Cukor or Howard Hawks, there were dozens of no-name directors cranking out flicks with titles like Born to be Bad (1934). A director might be handed a script on Friday and be expected to begin shooting on Monday. Left with very little creative control, most directors were little more than project managers, keeping production on schedule and within budget.

Alfred Hitchcock was nearly sucked into that B-director status when he signed on with the notoriously controlling David O. Selznick. Fortunately, the director prevailed.

Hitchcock (along with his wife, Alma, who was arguably the most underrated woman in film history) was involved with his scripts from their inception—a process that often involved years of ruminating, tinkering and brainstorming. Hitch’s influence on the script was such that he could have easily obtained screenwriter credit along with directorial credit. Instead, he trumped all bets and negotiated possessory credit (e.g., “Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy), effectively stamping all aspects of the production as his own.

As a result of this thorough preparation, he claimed to rarely consult the script while on the set, for he had already memorized every shot, angle, lighting effect and camera movement. When it came time for shooting, he considered his work over; he delegated responsibility to various members of his team and simply sat back and watched. As he sat, detached, on the set, apparently lost in thought, observers might ask what he was thinking about, to which Hitch would answer, “My next movie.”

Well, that's the myth, the truth, as Bill Krohn has shown in his excellent book Alfred Hitchcock at Work, was a bit more complicated. Still, I think it's fair to say that Hitch put more thought and creative juice into his movies than just about anyone else.

And that explains why his films are so rich in character and depth and why they so easily bear up under repeated viewing. When a genius of Hitch’s caliber devotes that much time to each of his projects, even the lesser efforts are bound to be noteworthy.

Walter Pater once said, “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Music is nothing but a series of tones – abstract sounds – stacked together and strung along to create melodies. When we hear those melodies, we get all sorts of thoughts, feelings and emotions – just from a series of sounds! According to Pater’s dictum, all art aspires to that same state of unmediated emotion. This also seems to have been Hitchcock’s goal as evidenced in his declaration, “I deal in pure film … pieces of film put together like notes of music make a melody.”

Montage is the art of putting those film pieces together. And nobody did it better than Hitch. Many of his films feature long sequences that are virtually silent. Tonight’s film, Vertigo, has several long scenes in which not a single word is uttered. Yet an entire story with drama, humor and, of course, suspense unfolds.

What makes a Hitchcock movie tick?

For one thing, these films are about watching, the use of our eyes. Rear Window, of course, is his classic study on voyeurism. But other movies cover much of the same ground.

Psycho, for example, is very much about watching. Think about the opening helicopter shot of downtown Phoenix. The camera spots an open window and, in a technically brilliant flourish, seems to fly right in through that window to catch Janet Leigh and Rod Taylor just as they’ve finished an afternoon hotel tryst.

Later in the same movie, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) peeps in on Marion Crane (Leigh) as she undresses for her shower. At first, we are repulsed by his spying on her. But in the next instant, we want to elbow Norman Bates aside to peer through that tiny hole in the wall ourselves. In that moment we make a full 180, changing from a prude to a Peeping Tom.

Finally, in the last shot of the film, Bates has been arrested and awaits judgment in a jail cell. The camera dollies in and “through” the cell’s observation port to linger on the psychopath for one last look. Thus, the watcher has become the watched.

And there’s the twist. In a Hitchcock film, we are induced to condemn voyeurism and murder, even as we eagerly participate in these crimes, vicariously, as audience members. For that reason, it isn’t a good idea to enter a Hitchcock movie upon a high horse.

On a philosophical level, Hitchcock’s movies are about the world of appearances versus reality. And it’s here that Hitchcock’s films reveal the influence of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer taught that there is a dualism in the world—that of appearances (or as he would say, Representation) and of reality, which he called Will. This dualism is reflected in various belief systems, such as the Hindu belief that Brahman (alternatively called Reality or God) is obscured by the veil of Maya (or illusion). Zen Buddhists also seek to perceive reality through the illusion of appearances. The Christian scriptures speak of the light of truth that comes from God as being obscured in our world by Satan, father of the lie and the ruler of the darkness.

Likewise, in almost every Hitchcock movie, things are not what they seem. Good guys turn out to be not so good, and bad guys aren’t necessarily so bad. Identities shift, and even props turn out to have secret, sinister agendas.

The way Schopenhauer saw it, that dualism gets played out in comedy, which often points up the incongruity between our aspirations and our actuality. (Think Chris Farley’s role as a dimwit buffoon who aspires to become president of his father’s company in Tommy Boy (1995).) The dualism can also be the discrepancy between our lofty ideas and our enslavement to the blind Will that drives us forward. (Think: Bill Clinton talking on the phone with senators and sultans while Monica Lewinski undoes his belt and his presidency.)

Because our efforts to transcend our nature are to a large extent futile, Schopenhauer is regarded as a pessimist. Thus, as Terry Eagleton observes in “The Ideology of the Aesthetic” (1990), “The inner structure of this bleakest of visions is thus the structure of a joke.”

Hitchcock shared that bleak vision, which, at best, is offset by ambivalence. When he said, “Reality is something none of us can stand at any time,” he was describing not only the bitter truth of the human condition, but also the essential core from which his movies and his sense of humor emanate.

But that bleakness—and the pain, suffering and death that accompany it—are a part of life right now. If we avoid acknowledging these things, to what extent can we say we’re experiencing life?

In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) literally must fight to preserve his identity. At the end of the movie, in the oh-so-symbolic forest, He says to Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) “I’ve never felt more alive!” Thornhill felt alive BECAUSE he was facing death.

Departing from Hitchcock for a moment, in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre, Wally and Andre discuss the “lobotomizing effects of comfort.” At one point, Andre cites Heidegger, offering the philosopher’s supposition that “to fully experience ‘being’ is to experience death, because you’d be feeling your own decay. And who can stand THAT for very long?” So, we tend to turn away from pain, which is to avoid reality.

The problem is, when we turn from reality, our only choice is to turn towards the unreal, that is, fantasy of one kind or another. Put another way, if embracing reality -- which includes our mortality -- is to feel alive, then turning to fantasy -- with its corresponding fearful retreat from death -- is to begin to die. Ironic, isn't it?

Therein lies the compassion at the core of even Hitchcock’s most macabre films. Hitch saw mankind turning en masse away from reality and leaving their lives unfulfilled. He knew that we are capable of more than that. His objective, which I believe he pursued with missionary zeal, was to create nightmares so powerful that they would wake us from our delusions.