For Hardened Hitchcock Fans: The Master, Sliced and Diced

So you think you know your Hitchcock? O.K., let’s play a game. I

want you to link up the following Hitchcock movies, but without using date,

genre or actor. All you’re allowed is theme or, at a push, subtext-or

sub-theme, or inter-text, or whatever lingo is the flavor of the month on the

nation’s campuses.

Let’s start with an easy one: Strangers

on a Train and Psycho ? “Murderers

with oppressive mothers,” of course, dating back to Hitchcock’s own. Alright,

now what about Psycho and Torn Curtain ? Come on, the answer’s

staring you in the face: “torn curtain” … torn shower curtain, and thus all the

other rent veils in Hitchcock’s work, including the veil torn from the face of

the Arab woman in The Man Who Knew Too

Much .

Getting the hang of things? Right, let’s raise the bar a notch. Vertigo and North by Northwest ? Try Jimmy Stewart’s Pygmalion complex, and thus

Cary Grant’s disparagement of Eva Marie Saint as “this little piece of

sculpture” and all the other icy blondes Hitchcock attempted to defrost. Easy.

Now for a difficult one: North by

Northwest , Notorious and To Catch a Thief in one move, and don’t

even think of saying “Cary Grant” or you’re out on your lapels. “Cary

Grant’sroad-safety record,” on the other hand …. He is thrown around some

pretty lethal curves in North by

Northwest , is taken for a spin by a drunken Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and around the French Riviera

by a speeding Grace Kelly in To Catch a

Thief . In Hitchcock’s films, people don’t drive cars: As Peter Conrad

writes in his new book, “cars drive people.”

The Hitchcock Murders

takes its own share of interpretative hairpin turns at high speed, all the

better to negotiate the highest reaches of the masterpieces, as well as the

lonelier roads of his lesser-known works, from both ends of the career. How

long is it since you got Topaz out on video? And had you even

heard of Aventure Malgache , a

propaganda film for the French Resistance that Hitchcock directed in 1944, in

which the master of the McGuffin took appropriate delight in booby-trapped

codes which turn out to mean nothing: “Get stuffed, where’s the butter?” and

“The chestnuts will be ripe on 35th April.” As the film’s police chief wearily

points out, Madagascar doesn’t have chestnuts. Nor, for that matter, does April

have 35 days.

This is, in short, a quite terrifying book, designed to give even

hardened Hitchcock fans the jitters, but then Peter Conrad is a scary guy: an

Oxford don who has published criticism so sharp you can cut your fingers on it,

two installments of autobiography and, more recently, a novel. One pities his

students. He is the Professor Who Knew Too Much, and to anyone whose nerves

simply aren’t up to taking on-board yet another Oxford polymath whose work

demands their closest attention, I can only apologize-I’m sorry, but the man does exist. (At least he was foolish

enough to call his novel Underworld .)

The Hitchcock Murders

isn’t a biography, or even a proper work of criticism, if by “proper” you mean

a stately chronological procession through the oeuvre . Mr. Conrad kicks off halfway through, with Psycho , which first got its claws into

the 13-year-old Mr. Conrad and hasn’t relinquished its grip since. For what we

have here is Hitchcock’s work sliced, diced and served up in a series of

essays-“Playing God,” “The Crimes Of The Camera,” “The Philosophy Of Motion”-in

which the

only organizing principle is the author’s eye for detail, his taste for a theme

and the nervy, shuttling instincts of the Conrad brain. This is Synapse

Criticism, firing off in about 10 different directions at once and demanding

you keep up, if only so you can be in a good enough position to disagree.

A discussion of the bomb

detonation in Saboteur , for instance,

leads us to the setting of Joseph Conrad’s The

Secret Agent -Greenwich, the “home of time.” From there, it’s but a short

step to relativity theory and the shattering of space-time conducted by Breton

and Dalí. Mr. Conrad clearly has Hitch pegged as a proto-surrealist-modernism

in a fat suit-lobbing bombs

into the laps of his audience, which is O.K. up to a point and certainly

enormous fun to argue. One can’t miss the looming modernist angles of his early

movies; nor can one miss the casual blasphemies and streak of mischief that marble all his work.

But he was no Buñuel, and far too popular an artist to relish the

lofty audience-alienation techniques of the modernists-look at the number of

potshots he takes at modern art in the course of his career. Mr. Conrad’s

response is a swift tactical retreat into Hitchcock’s source material, where he

finds as much subversion as he can take his fill of: David Dodge’s 1952 book To Catch a Thief , for instance, in which

Robie the cat burglar-later to be played by Cary Grant-“shins up drain-pipes

just as Nietzsche’s Zarathrustra vaulted over canyons” and “hangs ‘suspended’

from a sagging gutter … the dangling man addressed by the existentialists.

Perhaps, in that heavenly villa, Robie possesses a copy of Camus’ L’homme révolté , published in 1951, and

translated into English as The Rebel

in 1953, the year Dodge’s novel first appeared.” As Doris Day might say:

perhaps.

Then again: perhaps not. What all this has to do with Grace Kelly

looking criminally good in 50’s summer gear is anybody’s guess. Any discussion

of To Catch a Thief which claims to

detect existential angst in so sunlit and light-fingered a movie-its mysteries

opening and snapping shut with the satisfying click of a Louis Vuitton

handbag-is quite clearly barking up the wrong drainpipe. Hitchcock may have

thought actors were cattle, but his authors were mincemeat. “It’s going to be a

long night,” says Eva Marie Saint on board the overnight train in North by Northwest , “and I don’t

particularly like the book I’ve started”-a pointed barb which rightly prompts

Mr. Conrad to throw his source books out the window and write his best chapter.

Phew. Just as you were about to have Mr. Conrad pulled up on

charges of reckless close reading and illegal levels of literature in his

bloodstream, he goes and redeems himself with a dizzying analysis of North by Northwest , Hitchcock’s “most

breathless exercise in motiveless motion”: “Miss Kendall, you’ve got to get

moving,” urges Leo Carroll (as the Professor) in a movie that never stops from

there. Inertia-let alone the pause for thought it allows-was a horror to Hitchcock,

a man mired in his corpulent form, who therefore produced films in love with

motion for its own sake, with all the dangers it entailed.

Admittedly he also gave us, in Vertigo , the slowest car chase in the history of cinema-with James

Stewart trailing Kim Novak at speeds of anything up to 10 m.p.h.-although not

without its own creepy ennui. But look at that out-of-control Ferris wheel in Strangers on a Train , or all those

white-knuckle rides on which Cary Grant is taken. Hitchcock, as Mr. Conrad

reminds us, hated driving, or being driven, which is why he delighted in

producing films which drove audiences round the bend. “Alone among filmmakers,

Hitchcock found the mobility of the medium scary … [his] movies made a proud

contribution to the store of our ailments by afflicting us with new varieties

of motion sickness.”

This is great stuff: firmly rooted in cinema, not books, leafed

with choice biographical detail, and branching off in all sorts of fruitful

directions, not least the future history of cinema. For lose the sickness and

keep the motion, and very soon you have Steven Spielberg and his truck in Duel , George Lucas and his X-wings in Star Wars , Bob Zemeckis and his DeLorean

in Back to The Future , Keanu Reeves

and his runaway bus, James Cameron and his trucks and cruise liners …. It all

goes back to Hitchcock.

And much of it gets gathered up here. Mr. Conrad is the genuine

article: a true Hitchcock obsessive and detail nut (the only thing to be,

really, what with Hitchcock’s own obsessions being so lovingly fetishized in

his films: keys, telephones, telephone directories, handcuffs, the color red,

purses, handbags, matchbooks …. ) I particularly liked Mr. Conrad’s

disquisition on glasses of milk in Hitchcock’s work-frequently poisonous, like

the mothers they come from, presumably. In fact, I would go so far as to say

that he’s pretty sound on dairy products in general, for there’s some good

stuff on eggs here, too. Dairy products, surrealist leanings, chestnuts used

for propaganda purposes ….

Peter Conrad has produced, if not the best book about

Hitchcock-that prize still goes to Truffaut-certainly the one which puts the

most Ph.D. theses out of business.

Tom

Shone is the New York film critic for the Daily Telegraph of London .