Movie directors are supposed to be larger than life, Caesars of all they survey. From the birth of cinema—from the silent epics of Sergei Eisenstein, Abel Gance, and D. W. Griffith into the sound era—the film director has doubled as field commander. John Ford re-creating cavalry movements in Utah’s Monument Valley, Leni Riefenstahl supervising Nazi parades, Cecil B. De Mille staging biblical spectacles with throngs of costumed extras, David Lean bracing himself against the raging winds (Ryan’s Daughter) and desert sands (Lawrence of Arabia), Sam Peckinpah detonating a horse-crowded bridge in The Wild Bunch—of such stuff fearless leaders are made. But there is another traditional role, less grand but equally enduring, of the director as nimble chef, whipping up treats which contain nasty surprises. In this camp, which encompasses practical jokers from Luis Buñuel to John Waters, no one served death as a cold dish with more Jeevesian aplomb than Alfred Hitchcock. A pudgy man who seemed to hold on to his baby fat for protective padding, Hitchcock elevated the voyeurism implicit in all filmmaking into an explicit stare and aesthetic statement. Popularity meant more to him than it did to the field-commander directors, who were content to play God. Long before his name became synonymous with his droll brand of macabre, Hitchcock put his own face on his product, introducing his films in coming attractions, making cameo appearances which his fans learned to anticipate (popping up in a weight-loss ad in Lifeboat, walking a pair of dogs in The Birds), lending his name to pulp magazines, book anthologies, and board games, and becoming the only legendary director to make himself at home in America’s living room as the host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where his distinguished-penguin silhouette became the most famous profile in television. Introducing each episode, he enunciated his English vowels to suggest a wry mortician talking shop.
Do you have a desire to be remembered?
I don’t think so.
I mean, do you think about posterity?
What did posterity ever do for me?
While Hitchcock was alive, his salesmanship made him suspect in the eyes of some American critics. The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann labeled Hitchcock “a successful cynic” in the Somerset Maugham mold, chalking up Hitchcock’s success to shrewd pandering. “In the country of the bland, the wan-eyed is king,” Kauffmann aphorized in 1963. The cultural landscape has been bombed beyond recognition since then, and Hitchcock’s name has not only lasted but retained its catchphrase status as a synonym for suspense. Since Hitchcock’s death in 1980, posterity has done plenty for him. “Hitchcock is the most intuitive and prophetic of all our popular artists,” George W. S. Trow proclaims in his recent book, My Pilgrim’s Progress (Pantheon), voicing the new consensus. Nineteen ninety-nine marks the 100th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s birth, an event that will feature full-scale retrospectives of his work, the publication of Hitchcock’s Notebooks, by Dan Auiler (Avon Books), and a five-day conference being hosted by New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies this October titled “Hitchcock: A Centennial Celebration.”
These forthcoming homages amount to an avalanche on top of an avalanche. In his book of interviews with Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1983), Truffaut predicted that before the end of the century Hitchcock commentary would rival that on Marcel Proust, a comparison which sounded fanciful at the time but now appears clairvoyant. No director has inspired more word count on every possible aspect of his personal life, creative output, persistent childhood fears, and embedded psychosexual coding. He has been the subject of standard biographies; collections of interviews; “The Making of …” books about individual films; recent memoirs by the actress Janet Leigh (Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller) and the novelist and screenwriter Evan Hunter (Me and Hitch); critical studies of his scare tactics and recurring motifs, with special emphasis on “the MacGuffin,” his term for the deliberately vague pretext used to set the plot machinery into motion (a stolen briefcase or a microfilm involving unspecified “government secrets”); Lacanian-Derridean deconstructions, such as Hitchcock’s Bi-Textuality: Lacan, Feminisms, and Queer Theory, by Robert Samuels; scene-by-scene and even frame-by-frame studies of individual films (Camille Paglia’s tour de force tribute to The Birds and Stefan Sharff’s The Art of Looking in Hitchcock’s Rear Window); a scholarly newsletter published in Australia called The MacGuffin (which has its own Web site, www.labyrinth.net. au/~muffin); and a journal called Hitchcock Annual, whose latest issue offers an interpretation of Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in Torn Curtain—“In Torn Curtain we see a progenitorial Hitchcock sitting in an armchair (suggestive of a director’s chair) reacting when the infant (an extension of himself, his double, his film, his future) creates chaos in his lap.” Chaos being a soggy diaper. The Gore Vidal phrase “scholar-squirrels” applies to the Hitchcockians and their nut-gathering activities as they go theme-spotting and detail-quibbling. That same issue of Hitchcock Annual scrutinizes The Art of Looking in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, correcting the author for saying the newlywed husband is wearing white shorts when “he is actually wearing blue pajama bottoms.” Like Trekkers, Hitchcockians have no trivia threshold.
Born in 1899, in a suburb east of London, Alfred Hitchcock was raised Catholic and educated by the Jesuits, a moral education that wedded free-floating guilt to logical rigor, a combination guaranteed to leave one clear-minded but uneasy. In his biography Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978), John Russell Taylor describes the discipline at St. Ignatius College, where corporal punishment—caning—was applied with psychological subtlety. “Once the errant child was sentenced to corporal punishment, he could choose for himself when it should be administered—first morning break, lunchtime, mid-afternoon or the end of the day. Naturally the child put off the fateful moment as long as possible, sweating all day.” This desire to postpone inevitable pain as long as possible may have been the source of the delay tactics and wicked teases Hitchcock refined as a director. He made the audience wait for a violent act it both dreaded and desired.
As Hitchcock wrote in an article called “Why I Am Afraid of the Dark” (1960), “In cinematographic style, ‘suspense’ consists in inciting a breathless curiosity and in establishing a complicity between the director and the spectator, who knows what is going to happen.” He distinguished between surprise, which makes audiences jump, and suspense, which keeps them in a state of anticipation. From an efficiency standpoint, suspense is much more time-productive. As Hitchcock explained to Peter Bogdanovich:
You and I sit talking here and there’s a bomb in the room. We’re having a very innocuous conversation about nothing. Boring. Doesn’t mean a thing. Suddenly, boom! The bomb goes off and [the audience is] shocked—for fifteen seconds. Now you change it. Play the same scene, insert the bomb, show that the bomb is placed there, establish that it’s going to go off at one o’clock—it’s now a quarter of one, ten of one—show a clock on the wall, back to the same scene. Now our conversation becomes very vital, by its sheer nonsense. “Look under the table! You fool!” Now they’re working for ten minutes, instead of being surprised for fifteen seconds.
After St. Ignatius, Hitchcock studied engineering and worked as a graphic artist in the advertising department of a manufacturing firm. Drawn to movies, he began designing title cards for Famous Players–Lasky, which set up a British production shop in 1919.
It was here that Hitchcock had his first opportunity to direct. Some of his work was filmed theater (The Farmer’s Wife, 1928), while other movies, such as The Lodger (1926), had intimations of the cat-and-mouse games Hitchcock would later play in Suspicion (1941) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Hitchcock always maintained that silent film was invaluable schooling in how to tell stories without words, through composition, editing, and punctuating detail. He even married a film editor, Alma Reville, whose eye would prove invaluable. Silent film also brought out his resourcefulness regarding optical effects. He devised a trick shot involving a monocle in Easy Virtue (1927), had a glass floor built for The Lodger so that pacing feet could be shown from below, and developed a muralist’s eye for matte backdrops. “The beauty of a matte is that you can become God,” he told Bogdanovich. With the introduction of talkies, Hitchcock employed sound as an element to be used as precisely and expressively as any other film element. The lasting triumphs of Hitchcock’s English period are The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, remade in 1956 with Doris Day and James Stewart), The 39 Steps (1935), which was Phoebe Caulfield’s favorite movie in The Catcher in the Rye, and The Lady Vanishes (1938). In 1938 the producer David O. Selznick invited Hitchcock to Hollywood to direct a movie based on the story of the Titanic, which will remain one of those great what-if projects. Hitchcock and his wife left England and relocated to Los Angeles, where he instead directed Rebecca (1940), the Joan Fontaine–Laurence Olivier romance, in which he thwarted Selznick’s meddling designs by shooting the bare minimum of the script and leaving no alternative takes and angles for outsiders to reassemble. “Hitch’s material was a jigsaw which permitted of only one solution: his” (Taylor’s Hitch). Rebecca, which won the Academy Award for outstanding production, was followed by Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which Joel McCrea climbed into the trench coat to defend democracy. Alfred Hitchcock was on course to becoming the British institution that America would adopt as its own.