Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock Exposed as the Man Behind the Camera

Michael Powell's portable keyhole.

The first time I saw Michael Powell’s 1960 horror classic Peeping Tom was at a local art house theater. I was alone. It had been raining. And, yes, I was wearing an overcoat. To onlookers, I must have looked as sketchy as the title character. Alfred Hitchcock believed that we are all voyeurs and that a night out at the movies constitutes an act of voyeurism. That's probably true. But he also knew something else: we've got an accomplice, the director. Peeping Tom is the director's manifesto.

How important is this movie? Martin Scorsese thinks it sums up the film director's life:
"I have always felt that Peeping Tom and [Fellini's] say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films."
In his review of Peeping Tom, Roger Ebert talked about its depiction of the "deep psychological process at work when a filmmaker tells his actors to do as he commands, while he stands in the shadows and watches." In other words, he's a sort of super-voyeur. When you look at it in this light, is it possible to imagine a good film director who isn't at least a bit of a sociopath?

Alfred Hitchcock clearly saw himself this way. Although Rear Window (1954) said it best, many of his films depict cameras as assault weapons, even death-dealing at times. A few months ago, I illustrated the point with a few examples. (If you follow that link you’ll need to scroll past my autobiographical gobbledygook to get to it.) Some of Hitch's language also indicates that he saw the movie camera as a tool that can be put to monstrous purposes.

Curiously, Hitch’s portrayal of cameras after Marnie (1964) – the film in which he had his traumatic falling-out with Tippi Hedren – takes an interesting turn. With Topaz, the camera symbolism changes. The cameras "turn against" their owners, who are exposed and themselves killed. To my knowledge, such a use of this prop was new. Here is what I had to say about it in that blog post above (with some factual corrections):
"Throughout Hitchcock's Cold War thriller Topaz (1969), cameras get passed from one spy to another, and the devices turn out to be as mobile and toxic as a killer virus. Cuban official Uribe (Don Randolph) is bribed to obtain a briefcase containing important documents for photographing. He is caught with the spy, who, camera in hand, escapes out the window and Uribe is left behind to face the music – probably execution. Later, the fate of Cuban counter-revolutionary Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) is sealed when she accepts Andre Devereaux's (Frederick Stafford) "gift" of a spy camera. She hands the camera off to her servants, also counter-revolutionaries. Masquerading as picnickers, they conceal the camera in the cavity of a roasted chicken and capture photos of Soviet-manufactured missiles entering Cuba. The photographers are found out and tortured to death. When Juanita is finally exposed, her lover executes her in one of Hitchcock's most memorable—and beautiful—death scenes. Conventional wisdom tells one to follow the money. In Topaz, to stay on the trail of death, follow the cameras."
I’m only speculating here. But, based on what is known about Hitch’s personal life, his views on film, and his film technique, I see this change in the use of the camera as an indication of a change within Hitchock’s way of thinking about cameras – and his use of them as a director. Regarding the Cuban agents' hiding a camera a gutted chicken, I'm reminded of Peter Conrad's question in The Hitchcock Murders. He asks, "Is the photographer, like the bird, an eviscerated creature, lacking a warm, sympathetic interior?" Perhaps Hitch had been musing along those lines himself. I see an elaborate pun in there: in exposing the film in the camera, the spies are themselves exposed. Likewise, a film director’s greatest fear, like that of any voyeur, might be fear of exposure.

This isn’t to say that Hitch was necessarily aware of this himself – although I wouldn’t underestimate him. His use of these props could have been subconsciously inspired by his deep sense of having been called out. (Or not -- I am speculating here!) Earlier, for the first time in his long career, one of Hitch’s leading ladies, 'Tippi' Hedren, stood up to him privately (spurning an apparent sexual advance) and in public (Hitch claims that she insulted his weight on the set). She exposed him as the man behind the camera. Such could have been the burden of his shame. Perhaps this helps account for what Spoto describes as Topaz’ "almost penitential energy." That event may have also fueled the angry sexualized violence of Frenzy (1972).

Some claim that, after Marnie (or The Birds [1963] if they happen to dislike Marnie), the director never again made a film as great as his previous best work. Various factors, such as advancing age, loss of creative control at MCA/Universal and his drinking problem likely account for this. That said, even second-rate Hitchcock is better the most anything else. Still, I think his own internal demons played into his decline as well. And I think that clues to some of these issues can be found in his films.

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Anonymous said...

Could Torn Curtain be Hitch's worst American film? Is it better than The Paradine Case, or worse? It sure is worse than the films that follow it, and definitely worse than the run of masterpieces that precede it. Still, Torn Curtain has wonderful moments, and has effective suspense. But the whole, I believe, is less than the sum of its parts. Comments?

Patrick said...

I'm just now finding this blog, and must admit it's becoming a very addictive read. Thanks so much!

It's an interesting point you brought up about Hitch's personal life, his anger, and perhaps the connection to 'Frenzy'.

While I enjoyed 'Frenzy' immensely, it always felt a little bit like to me that it was Hitch's "Dirty Old Man" picture, with the example you brought forth with the sexualized violence and even the nudity.

I, personally, could not see an actress such as Hitch's fave Grace Kelly appearing in a movie such as 'Frenzy'. The entire picture seemed filled with a dark sense of menace and yes, anger. Perhaps Hitch was going through some troubles with the studios, or it seemed like there were lots of location shoots in the film which I know Hitch detested. (I can even spot some rear-projection in some shots.)

Whatever the reason, it does seem apparent that Hitch was not in his most positive state when the film was being shot. Whatever the reason, it showed a darker side of his persona, which may have had some influence on the movie's tagline: "A deadly new twist from the original Hitchcock."

New twist? Perhaps. "Original" Hitch? I'm not so sure.