Saturday, January 18, 2020

On Hitchcock

Lucy Ellmann may be an accomplished postmodern fiction writer, but her comments about how Alfred Hitchcock "tormented his leading ladies" (New York Times 12/19) repeats an erroneous slander.

Not that the famous director's behavior was always proper (he loved naughty jokes and foolish pranks). Nor can someone like me, familiar mainly with Patrick McGilligan's 850-page authoritative biography of Hitch and other sources, and having never known the subject, weigh in definitively on a complex topic.  

Hitchcock was a loner, an observer of life, a reserved person with an image of himself as ugly. He feared women, as many men do, and often treated them with jokes to relax them or with hovering attention to bring out the feelings needed for their characters. 

All that I've read about his relationship with Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, both life-long friends, and knowing how Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, and other actresses appreciated his direction,  it seems that Hitch's method was often to treat an inexperienced actress (Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Joan Fontaine) with a kind of obsessive attention, intended to create anxiety or hysteria in their characters.  Some took offense;  Marlene Dietrich called him a "strange little man."

Grace Kelly, responding to the idea of Hitchcock as a tyrant with actors, wrote that the director was skillful in getting exactly what he wanted out them, often with humor; she recalled the confidence she felt as an actor because of his presence.

I thought of all this as I watched "Notorious" (1946) again, noticing how Hitch's camera perfectly captures the warm sensuality of Ingrid Bergman, especially in her relationship with the cool, aloof Cary Grant as a CIA agent.  And I agree with the assessment of McGilligan that Hitchcock is not just a master of suspense but of ambivalent feelings. He knew exactly how to manipulate the viewer, using tension and humor.  And romance.   The Grant-Bergman relationship indicates how important the main characters' feelings are to the success of the film and how the trivial plot of Nazis in Argentina with a secret wine cellar means little in comparison with the emotional complexity of the lovers.

I've always admired the careful attention to detail that mark a Hitchcock movie.  Everything was planned in advance, and he was in total control of the script, the camera, the lighting and costuming, even the publicity in many cases. He was the total artist who knew that Cary Grant could suggest sexual ambivalence, and Farley Granger in "Strangers on a Train" had a soft masculinity and vulnerability that make him an easy prey for the wiles of the "gay" Bruno.

These are two of my favorites in the Hitchcock canon. I can watch them, along with "Rear Window," over and over, as well as "Psycho."  But I don't share the critical view that "Vertigo" is his greatest achievement: both the story and the acting of Kim Novak are implausible.   And for sheer pleasure, there's "To Catch a Thief," with Grace and Cary on the Riviera in all their elegance, a reminder that romantic comedy, not violence, is Hitchcock's great forte.