Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Hitchcock had collaboraters? Shocking. Shocking.

Scholars, academics and serious media students have, it seems to me, a bit of catching up to do to take advantage of the possibilities of the Internet to enhance their published material. But that is changing. Juliet Lapidos has produced a thought-provoking "Slide Show Essay" on Alfred Hitchcock for Slate magazine, which examines the role his collaborators played in his movies.

Check it out here.

I have to admit, though, that I felt somewhat irritated by Lapidos’ effort to "debunk" the Hitchcock auteur myth. What’s more, the particulars of her argument were covered seven years ago in Bill Krohn's "Hitchcock at Work" (2000). For instance, Krohn "scoops" the SLATE article, revealing that Hitch drew some storyboards for NORTH BY NORTHWEST after the fact for publicity reasons.

Krohn's book works from the opposite direction of the Lapidos piece, dispelling the myth that Hitch pre-planned his storyboards etc. to the nth degree and eschewed improvisation. He makes his case very well (as does the SLATE slide show). Like Lapidos, Krohn also draws attention to Hitch's collaborative style. But the message from both Lapidos and Krohn is the same: Hitchcock didn't exert as much control over the details of films as he led us to believe.

Fair enough. Hitch was a showman with a showman's propensity for self- promotional hyperbole.

Then again, Hitch was more candid about the real workings of his process at other times. Krohn cites a speech he gave in 1949: "I try never to go to the floor until we have a complete shootingscript.... But for one reason or another, we often start with what is really an incomplete script."

Cameraman/Director of photography Robert Burks (circa DIAL M FOR MURDER) once said, "Frequently, [Hitch] makes a rapid-fire drawing in 30 seconds and asks you if a certain scene can be done in that particular way. But he never nails you down to those sketches. If, after discussion, Hitch finds that we can achieve better results in another way, he has no hesitancy in rewriting the action or dialogue." Obviously, Hitch wasn't upset that Burks "blew his cover." He continued to work withhim for years to come.

Still, all that is not to say that he was not the auteur, the mastermind, behind his films. His stylistic stamp is pervasive. There is no question about that. His style is instantly recognizable. To say that he was not the "auteur" Chabrol and others say he was is absurd. Whatever role Robert Burks et al had in his his films, it is clear that he and the others were hired to execute Hitch's vision, not their own. He would have fired them like he did so many writers if they failed to do so.

When Hitch hired a new writer, he would give him or her a list of his films with the assignment to watch these movies, in order to grasp his style and personal vision. Hitch could have claimed partial screenwriting credit, but he eschewed it in favor of possessory credit (i.e. "Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO"), because he wanted it to be understood that his films were HIS creation. At least one writer (Samuel Taylor, I think?) quit working with him because he chafed under Hitch's authorial control. Chandler didn't work out for the same reasons.

Like many great directors (a.k.a. auteurs), Hitch tended to work with a loyal nucleus of professionals who worked with him film after film (his wife, co-conspirator, script advisor, often co-author and more, Alma Hitchcock; Script Supervsior Peggy Robertson; Cinematographer Robert Burks; Composer Bernard Herrmann; Editor George Tomasini etc.). Clearly, he selected these people (a) for their top-flight skill, and (b) because their vision and creative style matched his own. In a sense, these people were like ghost speechwriters who understand the speaker so well that they can write on his or her behalf; that they are putting words in the speaker's mouth that the speaker would have said himself, had he the time to write the speech himself.

The debunkers make some good points in separating fact from mythology. But I think they completely miss the larger point that (to name one film) VERTIGO fully deserves the title card: "Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO."

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