You have got to pull the democratic and idealistic clothes off American utterance, and see what you can of the dusky body of it underneath.
–D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
(Tolstoy’s) parody of the Nineteenth Century is very good.
–Isaiah Berlin, Enlightening Letters 1946-60
This book studies twenty-six writers, necessarily with a certain nostalgia, since I seek to isolate the qualities that made those authors canonical, that is, authoritative in our culture…. All strong literary originality becomes canonical.
–Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
The documentary movie, Hitchcock/Truffaut, is a rarity in filmdom, that place of tinsel with its endless “biopics” of creative people, films which shout out the tabloid at the expense of the subject’s quiet creativity, this under the disheartening assumption that Mencken is right: you’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of your audience.
Increasingly, you believe, Hitchcock is for art audiences. You should join the small audience who see him as likely the greatest and most important master in the young art form of cinema, a status that makes him important for us moviegoers, since seeing what techniques are essential to Hitchcock’s mastery can enrich the experience of movies.
Director Kent Jones has actually tried to make a documentary that gives an authoritative reflection on Hitchcock’s movie-making ways and means, especially in Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and Psycho, his great films created during his Hollywood years in the 1950s and 1960 when his art “soared” and, in the words of Martin Scorsese, “cast a spell.”
Hitchcock/Truffaut was inspired by the 1966 book by the latter, a rendering of several lengthy interviews with Hitchcock, then not the cinema Deity he has become, in which Truffaut focused on specifics of Hitchcock’s movie-making art. Jones gives us a peer review of Hitchcock’s genius by interviewing several contemporary directors: Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums); Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show); Oliver Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria); Arnaud Desplechin (My Golden Days); David Fincher (Gone Girl); James Gray (Little Odessa); Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Before We Vanish); Richard Linklater (Boyhood); Paul Schrader (American Gigolo); and Martin Scorcese (Casino).
Truffaut’s book is more technical than Jones’s movie, but many of Hitchcock’s art tactics are brought into the light in Jones’s film. “Logic is dull,” says Hitchcock in talking about movie storytelling, and he goes on to say that in his movies there should be “no plausibility for its own sake.” Listening to Hitchcock, you understand that as necessary (and feasible) Theme precedes Plausibility. As a most notable example, you can think of a crucial plot point in Vertigo: Hitchcock admits to Truffaut that an especially large hole in the story shows when you wonder how the murderer Gavin Elster hiding in the mission tower could have known for certain that Detective Scottie Ferguson, suffering acrophobia and vertigo, nevertheless might not have halted on the belfry stairs in pursuing the fake Madeleine Elster but pulled himself all the way up to the bell chamber and caught Elster about to toss his actual wife out of the tower?! And correspondingly, an ironic case of being fooled by the implausible in Vertigo is Director David Fincher’s earnest judgment that Hitchcock would have made a more gripping movie by telling the story from the viewpoint of Judy Barton (Kim Novak as the fake Madeleine): Judy, an ordinary shop girl, is a version of the Cinderella myth, paid handsomely by the wealthy Gavin Elster to impersonate Madeleine because of the physical resemblance. Many think that in Vertigo, of late considered widely to be the best movie of all time, Judy has what we might call “weak verisimilitude.” She is simply too versatile and sophisticated in her surrealistic ruse within Elster’s surrealistic hoax to play the classic young put-upon heroine: in short, she’s either not credible as a young and naive shop girl or not credible as a sophisticated wealthy and prominent wife. If you imagine her as central to Fincher’s reversal of Vertigo, you will soon see the implausibility and sense that Hitchcock is (a) entirely focused on telling Scottie’s story; and (b), as we shall see, with good reason in the Grand Theme of Vertigo.
Here is another example of Hitchcock’s sublime art: Two crucial senses in moviemaking, says Hitchcock with the echoing approval of several of Jones’s interviewed directors, are (1) to know when to slow down fast action and (2) when to speed up slow action. Sometimes, says Hitchcock, you must (3) stop Time itself. Here you think of his static side profiles of the face of Kim Novak as “Madeleine Elster”/Judy Barton in Vertigo, those several instances when she stands perfectly still and presents exactly the same lingering facial profile to Scottie Ferguson. The profiles in the early parts of the story are important late in the movie when Scottie recognizes the uncanny “resemblance” between Judy and “Madeleine” on an avid San Francisco street and then tries to create “Madeleine” from Judy, not knowing then they are one and the same. Hitchcock has frozen the earlier portraits, stamping the viewer’s mind, so as to set-up the later correlation of Judy and “Madeleine.”
In another and especially engrossing discussion, several of the guest directors reflect on Hitchcock’s skills obtained in his early days when he made Silent movies. They ascribe Hitchcock’s experience in Silents to his later proclivity to create meaning in extended mimetic forms such as building suspense in the dramatic sequence of several minutes in the Royal Albert Hall late in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much when neither Jo (Doris Day) nor any others knowledgeable of the threat make audible comments while the orchestra and chorale play the cantata forward to the clash of cymbals and its masking of the pistol shot fired to assassinate the foreign dignitary. Similarly, the directors ascribe the dream-like quality of many Hitchcock scenes in his movies to his early work in Silent films.
There are several other intriguing insights into Hitchcock’s art in Kent Jones’s excellent documentary. I’d encourage you to watch the film.
But I believe there are two important sides of Hitchcock’s art which are missing in Hitchcock/Truffaut. The first is his wonderful instinct for preserving people, places and times in our rapidly coursing modern history. The following passage I wrote in a review of The Paradine Case (posted elsewhere in the archives of this blog) sums up the point:
The Paradine Case was the last film Hitchcock did under contract to David O. Selznick who apparently hated Ben Hecht’s original screenplay and rewrote it himself. The redone script serves well enough for the traditional love-potion drama and Hitchcock more than earned his pay, based no doubt on how well he served his own master, Selznick, a fierce businessman whose priority had to have been, “Give ’em what they want!” But Hitchcock is so good that he does Selznick’s no-nonsense bidding wonderfully yet then goes on to tell the larger, now wistful, story of the conservation of Past Grandeur. In black-and-white movie atmospheric marvelousness equal to splendid styles among great painters–oh, those shadowy grand cinematic scenes staged by Hitchcock amidst the splendor of Imperial British wealth and privilege!–we see caught unforgettably and forever the world of Savile Row suits, the Savoy, formal dinners, elegant women, brandy-and-cigars, manses decorated in perfect taste, top hats and big black umbrellas, rainy London evening streets viewed through limousine windows, elegantly simple impeccable olden courtrooms where the wigged and robed shrewd and acute professionals/Lords-and-Sirs–gentlemen all–proceed crisply and articulately through the evidence in accordance with timeless protocols. It is the only world we see. There are terrible people there–the Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton [the perfect casting]) is thoroughly unlikable because he is an Awful, Snobbish, Perverted Person–but that is simply, you think under Hitchcock’s spell, to be expected, indeed even defining. You give it little pause. And then–the centerpiece of Hitchcock’s Real Story of Nostalgia, a nostalgia intensified by the Narrow Escape of WW2–is a magnificent sequence in the middle of the movie in which Keane journeys from London by train (Hitchcock loves train stations and trains and in these scenes he is at his best, as always) and then, beautifully symbolically, travels further by buggy to Hilldane Hall Out There in Pastoral Cumberland. There, Keane enters the grand old but seemingly timeless English Country Estate, the Great House, again in a black-and-white splendor of shadowy stairs (stairs, but of course!) and huge bedrooms safe and secure on upper floors and magnificent wood-panelled libraries and gleaming and polished furniture and high windows; but the blind nobleman (you must wear a hard hat here for fear of falling symbols) is dead, poisoned–might he have been a bored Lord Ha-Ha-Halifaxed half-assed country gentry skittish British prewar Appeaser?–and the Great House is being shuttered and prepared to be “let” and there is, therefore, the sense of An End To All That. But Hitchcock, able to bear reading History’s emblazoned handwriting on the wall, got there just in time with his camera crew together with Peck, Louis Jordan, and a few bit-part actors to save it for posterity in a beautiful, haunting cinematic homage. A masterpiece, pure and simple.
One can easily recall many other lovely acts of preservation of the culturally beautiful in the movies of Hitchcock. An unforgettable example occurs in Strangers on a Train when amidst the Modernist Decline and Fall Hitchcock performs a characteristic act of careful and artful preservation of a beautiful refuge, here the eerily perfect rescue (rivaling the literary recovery of its wonders by that supreme lover of the game, Nabokov) of the look and feel of “lawn tennis” in the fading wooden racket era in the late 1940s and here staged on the long-gone grass at Forest Hills long before the boisterous glare of today’s massive stadia, cement courts and loud crowds cheering on the fly-swatters at Flushing Meadow.
The other, and larger, concern about Hitchcock’s art is the need to think more than we have of Hitchcock as a great dramatist of his era itself, one of the canonical portrayers of our time, embodying its spirit of place: notably a revealer of our special spiritual dilemma.