Hitch and Me: A Case of Vertigo

Beginning April 16, the Museum of Modern Art will present four months of exhibitions devoted to the art of Alfred

Beginning April 16, the Museum of Modern Art will present four months of exhibitions devoted to the art of Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) to celebrate the centennial of one of the world’s most fondly remembered filmmakers, and possibly its most exhaustively studied. A full retrospective of his films will run from April 16 through June 15 and Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette , an exhibition of posters and multimedia memorabilia, will be shown from April 15 to Aug. 17. This follows a previous retrospective at Film Forum and coincides with a marvelous Film Forum 3-D revival of Dial M for Murder , a minor melodrama in 2-D, but in 3-D a brilliant strategic achievement in managing the vast, empty spaces of previous efforts in the process. Fervent admirers, and I include myself among them, cannot seem to get enough of Master Alfred’s legerdemain on the screen. Even ill-advised recent remakes of Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960) serve only to confirm that what Hitchcock created remains truly inimitable.

It was not always thus even for me. I left Vertigo off my annual 10-best-list in 1958. Today I rank it among the top four or five movies ever made. Sometime between 1958 and 1960, I became aware of the writings on Hitchcock by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. Then in The Village Voice of Aug. 11, 1960, I came to the last stop on the Road to Damascus with a review of Psycho that treated Hitchcock as a trailblazing avant-garde artist. My review received an unprecedented quantity of derisive hate mail. This was my first review in The Voice , thanks to the generosity of then movie journalist Jonas Mekas, who lent me his column for the occasion. I am grateful also to Hitch for enabling me to enrage so many of the cultural elite by treating his narrative gifts as major rather than minor.

Since 1960, I have tended to assume a proprietary attitude toward Hitchcock as his first insolently uninhibited champion in America. Yet no one here or abroad can claim to have discovered Alfred Hitchcock. He was always there close to the surface of our comprehension like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter. Everyone knew that he was good at what he did, even though many thought that what he did was barely worth doing at all. For many critics he was not serious enough or socially conscious enough. Many of the admirers of his British period virtually disowned him when he came to Hollywood. The French, who could never understand British understated acting, were not handicapped by American Anglophilia in discerning the stylistic advance of Hitchcock in Hollywood. Finally, film scholar Robin Wood bridged the gap between the English-language and French-language critics with his seminal work on Hitchcock’s American films, Hitchcock’s Films (1965).

Still, the controversy raged between the Hitchcockians and the Hitchknockians. Though many of the latter enjoyed Hitchcock movies, it was only as simple fun, and Hitchcock never disabused them of their limited appreciation with highbrow interviews about the deeper meanings of his merry frolics through the morbid and the macabre. He made himself into a rotund pop figure for the public, instantly identifiable even in silhouette. He was lovably, unthreateningly whimsical with his Jeeves-like stoical demeanor. Yet way back in 1946 James Agee discerned in Hitchcock’s direction of that year’s Notorious “a cool kind of insight and control which suggests a good French novelist.”

For me the evidence of Hitchcock’s greatness is the number of times I can look at his best work without becoming jaded, and I can speak from 34 years of teaching experience. Of how many other directors can I say the same? Hardly any. So what does that do to the once prevalent assumption that Hitchcock was merely the Master of Suspense? If that were true, what possible reason could one have to see his films again and again? Once you know what happens and how, what is there left to enjoy? One can suggest subtexts, but even subtexts can get tired from endless repetition.

The never-ending pleasure I get from Vertigo , Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious and Rear Window , my four favorite Hitchcock works, may arise partly from the erotic variations the director can play on the physical, emotional and ornamental keyboards of four very different types of female. British film and television producer Mark Shivas once remarked that the difference between the films of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock is the difference between the work of an exhibitionist and the work of a voyeur. As apt as I believe this distinction to be, I am beginning to doubt that Hitchcock is merely a voyeur as the conventional wisdom would have it. I believe instead that he at least partially inhabits the women on whom he inflicts so much fear, pain and suffering, even as he is dumping gallons of guilt and shame on his male protagonists.

I met Hitch on only two occasions, the first time in 1972 after he received a Columbia University honorary degree, for which I wrote the commendation. My wife and I lunched with Hitch and his editor-collaborator-wife Alma Reville at the St. Regis where he was staying. I remember him recommending the Pouilly-Fuissé and telling me how David O. Selznick wanted to end Rebecca with a swirl of smoke ascending from the flames of Manderley in the shape of an R. I found him a genial host and an amusing raconteur, but I had read too many of his interviews to believe that I could ever penetrate his impenetrably cheerful facade. I was not surprised to discover, however, that Alma Reville was hardly Hitch’s echo, but indeed, a strong-willed, strong-minded participant in all his enterprises of the life and the art.

We met Hitch and Alma for the last time, again at the St. Regis for lunch, shortly after the release of his farewell film, Family Plot (1976) and we both agreed that the film’s star, Barbara Harris, was enchanting. Hitch noted with a chuckle that she enjoyed her little glass of wine before each day of shooting, which probably explains the special flavor of her film-ending wink, as if it were a surrogate expression from the maestro himself. As we were leaving the dining room, Alma Reville turned to me and asked plaintively, “Why won’t they let Hitch make Mary Rose ?” (the afterlife play of James Barrie). I didn’t have the presence of mind to suggest that Vertigo was his Mary Rose , and then some.

Indeed, I consider Vertigo to be the crest of Hitch’s art of self-revelation. Its critical and commercial failure sent the director back into the recesses of a canny detachment. As much as I enjoy North by Northwest (1959), and as much as I admire Psycho , I can’t help feeling that the Liebestod of Vertigo represents one of the sweetest and most profound expressions of romantic melancholy in the history of the medium. That is not to say that Hitch went into a steep decline in the 60’s and 70’s. He simply moved in a different direction with the more limited means at his disposal, and with none of the more fashionably Wellesian alibis expressed through a self-flagellatingly crude unprofessionalism and minimalism.

In perhaps the worst of his last films, the justly maligned Topaz (1969), Hitchcock came out with one of his most brilliant sequences, the French lunch with Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret, in addition to a transposed reprise of Michelangelo’s Pietà via a Cuban human sacrifice image. (The Pietà was also resurrected in a morning-after composition in Notorious .) There are similar compensations even when such romantic teams as Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain (1966) or Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane in Saboteur (1942) or Richard Todd and Jane Wyman in Stage Fright (1950) clearly lack the chemistry of, say, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps (1935) and their innumerable successors in Hollywood. Those include the messy murder scene in Torn Curtain , the reversal-of-sympathy Statue of Liberty sequence in Saboteur and the lying flashback sequence in Stage Fright . Those are merely a few examples of the glorious textual and subtextual delights to be found in the richly rewarding oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock now and forever.

812 at the Paris

Federico Fellini’s 812 has moved into the Paris Theater, and deserves to be seen by anyone interested in the evolution of the cinema as a personal director’s statement of his own limitations and frustrations in dealing with the inevitable chaos of filmmaking. It can be argued that Fellini (1920-1993) is the godfather of so-called independent cinema around the world. To my knowledge, no other movie title has referred so explicitly to the filmmaker’s own career. So when you run into still another youthful exploration of the movie-making process itself with the director either directly or by an acting proxy expressing his angst in a world full of philistines and moneygrubbers, you can credit or blame Fellini for virtually inventing the directorial striptease.

Still, would-be Fellini imitators should beware. Fellini was blessed with one of the greatest of all alter egos in the immortal Marcello Mastroianni. Fellini and Mastroianni shared a lively sense of humor about the problems both had with their muddled sense of masculinity in a world that had no patience for neurotic uncertainty.

Many critics and historians have questioned Fellini’s onetime pre-eminence among art-house audiences. Of all his films, I still prefer I Vitelloni (1953) for its classical balance of humor, satire, sentiment, farce and compassionate humanism in the service of a more oblique autobiography than is on display in 812 . Yet, the first entrance of Anouk Aimée to the melodious strains of the Rodgers and Hart classic “Blue Moon” is as affectingly romantic as anything in the Fellini oeuvre, and the final dance of life to Nino Rota’s invaluable score is as emotionally audacious as anything in all cinema.

Hitch and Me: A Case of Vertigo