As I recounted in “The Complete Works of Auteur X,” my wife and I discovered the joys and revelations of watching the complete works, in chronological order, of an auteur (we use the snooty-sounding term on purpose to separate hack or craftsman directors who occasionally make a good movie, from artists who leave their fingerprints on everything they touch). The auteur spends his life producing a body of work, while it takes us mere months to consume and digest it. Watching a career this way, you learn a lot about style and technique. You come to identify periods in the auteur’s career and reactions to global shifts in politics and zeitgeist.
At the very least, you get an easy answer to the question “what shall we rent tonight?”.
Our second target (after Federico Fellini) was Alfred Hitchcock. I have notes from watching all 50 of his surviving films and may write some full-lenghth movie reviews eventually. But some high-level insights will probably be more interesting.
Of course, Hitchcock was interested in spies, tension, false accusations, and the threat of death, so let’s quickly move past that into some less obvious details.
Hitchcock deserves the term “auteur” in part because he deliberately left his mark on each of his films — his cameo appears in all of his later films and many of his earlier ones. “Spot the cameo” became part of the fun in watching a Hitchcock movie...
... and I got so that I could predict when to start looking for him. Hitchcock was never a character, he was always an extra. He never gave himself dialogue, and he almost never gave himself a role that required a costume (the cowboy hat in Psycho notwithstanding). He was never a cab driver or a doorman, but rather a passerby whose presence could not possibly affect the characters in their plots. Also, his cameo usually happens early in the film. All of that makes sense, because if he were to appear during the conflict or resolution, or as someone with dialogue, it would be much more distracting. Better to appear and disappear before things get too involved.
Weaknesses or Compromises?
Hitch’s endings are surprisingly “weak.” He would build the tension to a boil, then resolve it, then quickly send you out into the lobby, with no time to let you come down off the emotional high. His movies really were all about the tension, and not at all about the resolution. I found some of his endings to be unsatisfying and abrupt. Once you notice the trend, it becomes easier to accept and forgive — if forgiveness is even necessary — Hitchcock undoubtedly chose this tack on purpose.
I would say the same for his rear-screen projections. Back in college I scoffed at the unconvincing “special effects” in even Hitchcock’s big-budget films. But when you realize the quality of the projection has little to do with the tension, you tend not to let it distract you. Still, the worst examples were in The Man who Knew Too Much (the second one, with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day).
Alfred Hitchcock’s career spanned four decades, and you don’t last that long in the movies if you’re not flexible. He made small-time films in England, workmanlike films in the U.S., big-budget studio-produced thrillers, and TV-sized movies that required cutting more corners than usual.
Hitchcock tried his hand at 3-D, with Dial M for Murder. He didn’t just shoot with another camera, but thought hard about how to use the medium. Rather than poking you in the eye from the screen (except for once), he created layers of textured foreground, a technique you can see him use later in 2D films. I misrememberd this film as being in black and white; I assumed he used red/blue 3D. He actually shot the film in color with a polarized system not too far removed from today’s 3D revival, and produced a 2D version of the film that would stand on its own, even without special novelty glasses.
Another example of his versatility is the success of Psycho. Some of the sets in Psycho seemed really low-budget, and not just in a pick-your-battles sort of way. We later learned that Hitchcock had having trouble raising money for Psycho, and rather than roll over, he self-financed and embraced the lighter, quicker, cheaper way of shooting that many TV programs were using. Some people still call Psycho one of his greats, in spite of budgetary hardships.
Flashes of Brilliance
Under Capricorn, a costume drama set in Australia, may be Hitchcock’s most boring movie, yet there seems to be a lot going on behind the camera, with very long takes and elaborate camera moves (it’s his next film after Rope). I imagine that the visuals might be more subtly polished than those in Rope, even if they don’t translate as well into emotion. Someday, another viewing might reveal what I missed, if anything, the first time through. I assume there is a flash of brilliance that I just missed.
Lifeboat was disliked when it came out (Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the short story, disavowed the movie after it got critical reviews) and even now it’s not a fan favorite. But as a student of the philosophy of morality, I find Lifeboat to be one of the most intriguing and troubling films in the Hitchcock canon. If you haven’t seen it, it’s not as simple as the standard “overcrowded lifeboat” conundrum whereby the student must decide who lives and who dies. No, in Lifeboat, A group of English and American civilians find themselves on a lifeboat after the Nazis have sunk their ship. One of the survivors is a sailor from the ship that sank them. Their thirst for his blood is balanced by their own incompetence at sea and their reliance on him to save them. But he’s not just a misunderstood survivor; he’s believer in the superiority of the Nazis, which makes the anguished American/English reaction all the more ambivalent.
Rope was always one of my favorites because of the “real-time, single-take” gimmick. Now it’s one of my favorites because of a single word: “Brandon” spat with righteous contempt by Jimmy Stewart when he learns what the little puke has done. How could anyone like Brandon — so proud and sure — not wither at the utter, dripping contempt of his mentor whom he was trying to impress?
Rear Window is about a man who gets caught up watching the lives of his neighbors. This time I got caught up watching the lives of his neighbors and forgot that I was supposed to be tsk-tsking him for being a peeping tom.
The high point in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, for me, is North by Northwest. Hitchcock had moved from black and white into color, and from standard into widescreen. He still had the clout to hire A-list actors, and the film industry was such that studio-produced films were still the most relevant movies of the day. North by Northwest was the right film at the right time.
If you want to pick a high point within the high point, choose the crop-duster scene. It makes unbelievably good use of the wide screen, and more surprisingly, it mostly takes place in silence (Bernard Herrmann’s score stays smartly out of the way as the tension slowly builds).
An Entire Career
If I were reading an essay like this, I would want to read the two-paragraph summary of Hitchcock’s work. Unfortunately for readers, it doesn’t work that way. A career can’t be compressed that much. Someone could write the essay on camera technique, another on music, another on casting, and still more on the themes of innocence, sex, violence, and food, to name a few that scratch the surface.
I’ve given a superficial overview of my own experience. Yours would be completely different. (And wouldn’t we have an interesting conversation at a coffee shop or Hitchcock salon some day?)
Watching all of Hitchcock’s films took us about two years (factoring in work, sleep, film festivals, and new-release movies), and it was time well spent. We are eager to keep our experiment in career-watching alive.
For our next auteur series, we chose Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger. We decided not to include their films made separately; only their collaborations. We’ll let you know how it goes, hopefully in less than two years.