Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock and A Life With Movies

The Film Preservation Blogathon is right around the corner. This year's model is centered on Alfred Hitchcock, and proceeds raised during the blogathon will go to restore The White Shadow, a film Hitchcock himself didn't direct, but one on which he learned his craft by doing a bunch of other things. It's been a while since I watched much Hitchcock, but he's a director who is central to my love of movies. I suspect that I'm not alone in that.

I was introduced to Hitchcock by my mother. Her favorite movie was Notorious. My mother had excellent taste, though she wasn't a film buff by any stretch of the imagination. She couldn't have named any other film director. She knew who Hitchcock was, though, both because she had seen him on television and because he put himself into the trailers for his late films. Hitch was as much a star as the actors on the screen. She even knew that Hitch had cameos in all of his films, and could usually spot him. None of that is germane to Notorious, though. She loved it because she loved Cary Grant and because she thought it was the most romantic film she had ever seen. Notorious, it turns out, was to play another role in my life, though. It's one of the first films I can remember decoding: in particular, the scene near the beginning when Devlin convinces Alicia to work for him. Before agreeing, she's in shadows. When she says yes, she moves out into the light. Mind you, this scene is famous--Hitchcock wore his technique on his sleeve, it should be noted, never disguising it--but for the 13 year old me, figuring out that there was more at work on screen than just text and dialogue was a kind of epiphany and figuring it out without benefit of a film class or a book describing what I was seeing was one of the stepping stones toward a lifelong infatuation with film.

I can mark some of the events of my life by Hitchcock movies. I was in high school when the five Hitchcock movies that had been locked away in a vault somewhere entangled with the Hitchcock estate were finally liberated. I remember seeing a news story about them, and my friends and I made a mission of hunting them down when they hit video. The five movies were The Man Who Knew Too Much (which we all mostly liked), The Trouble With Harry (which we mostly thought was inane), Rear Window (which blew us all away), Rope (which we mistook for a masterpiece because it was technically impressive), and Vertigo (which we mostly thought was boring and disturbing--have I mentioned how stupid the younger version of me was before? Well, there you go). My friends and I watched all five of these movies over one long weekend shortly after the school play we were all in had struck, and it's one of the strongest memories of my teen years.

When I went off to college, my access to film exploded. The student association held a film series every semester. On the weekends, they scheduled relatively recent popular films, but on Mondays and Wednesdays, they showed classics. These showings were free, too, and I don't think I ever missed one. The first film I remember seeing there was Suspicion. It was shown the second week I was there and I went alone because I didn't know anyone yet. It was the first Hitchcock movie I ever saw with an audience. I had seen Suspicion before--it had played on the old incarnation of American Movie Classics back when they still played classic movies--but watching it with an audience completely changed the way it played. I don't think I ever realized just how effective Hitchcock was at manipulating an audience before then. I've seen, I think, a dozen of Hitchcock's movies with an audience and it's always been better than watching them on video. As an aside, the second movie I remember seeing at one of the free shows at college was George Cukor's version of Holiday, which remains one of my favorite films. That movie had a much smaller audience than Suspicion, which just goes to show the drawing power of Hitchcock's name. They showed several more Hitchcock movies, while I was there, usually one a semester.

Hitchcock is the gateway into auteurism for most hardcore movie fans. He's the poster boy for auteurism, and why not? He has an instantly recognizable private universe and, as I say, his technique is up front. He's like a grammar school primer in how to read a movie. Add to that the fact that there are famous books about Hitchcock and you have the perfect face of cinephilia: an immensely popular filmmaker whose films lend themselves to deeper analyses. I can't think of a subsequent filmmaker who managed the same mix of populism and art. Spielberg, maybe, but probably (hopefully) not.

Hitchcock has the benefit of a large filmography, too, which humanizes him. It's not like he's an infallible artist like Kubrick or Malick, whose filmographies are so small that you can't knock any of their films without shaking their status as cinematic gods. Hitch made some bad films. He made some experimental films that maybe didn't quite work, but weren't shameful, either. He made movies about which people disagree. He's a filmmaker that can be debated--derided, even--without offering one single dint to his greatness.

I think I own most of Hitchcock's movies, mostly on VHS. I never got around to upgrading the Hitchcock films I own on tape, but I've been given Hitchcock as a gift several times. I think every fan of classic films has a public domain collection of Hitchcock films. My brother has given me several, because he's usually at a loss as to what I want when it comes to movies. I had to tell him to stop after the third time, because there are only so many copies of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes one really needs, after all, let alone copies of The Manxman or The Lodger. I've seen most of Hitchcock's available films. Among the ones I haven't seen are two of his earliest films: The Pleasure Garden and Downhill. I haven't seen The Mountain Eagle, either, but no one has: it's a lost film.

In truth, I don't know what I'm going to write about for the blogathon. Writing about Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest is like adding water to the Pacific by the dram. I'm tempted to revisit the Hitchcock films I don't actually like. Those include I Confess, Under Capricorn, and Jamaica Inn. I wonder how they hold up to the forty something me as opposed to the young movie punk I used to be. Will it be a process of rediscovery? I don't know. It'll be fun to find out, though.

Note, this IS a fundraiser, so if you care about film preservation, please consider clicking the donation button and ponying up so cash for the cause:


Jim Shelley said...

Have you considered writing about some of the classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes he directed?

dfordoom said...

"it's been a while since I watched much Hitchcock, but he's a director who is central to my love of movies."

My whole obsession with movies began with Hitchcock. I still think of him as the greatest director of them all.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Jim. It did cross my mind to write about Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I also thought about writing about the version of Cornell Woolrich's "Three O'Clock" Hitch made for the Suspense television show in the late 1950s.

Hi, Doom,

I don't know that I could name Hitch the greatest director ever. I have too much love for Welles, Visconti, Ford, Hawks, Kurosawa, Ozu, The Archers, Wilder, Cukor, Minnelli, Bunuel, and probably dozens of other directors to pick just one.

Joe Thompson said...

I'm happy you mentioned the release of the five movies that had been tied up. That was an important point in my life, too. In San Francisco, each one played at the Bridge Theater. Parking was far harder than usual when those movies were playing. Reading Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock helped to turn me into a movie lover. Thanks for an enjoyable essay. I hope you find something you want to write about.

Anonymous said...

I'd vote for a rewatch of "I Confess," because I have a lot of affection for that film, and consider it among the most underrated of the Hitchock oeuvre!