Hitchcock in Retrospect
I’m usually skeptical about the authenticity of remarks some critics have a knack for overhearing in an audience (remarks which tend conveniently to confirm and capsulize the critic’s own view), but then the comment I actually over-heard from the audience at the conclusion of Obsession left me, at first, feeling less confirmed than bewildered. “Did you see Murder on the Orient Express?” the man behind me asked his companion as the lights went up. “This was something like that.”
Now Obsession, as both its admirers and the film itself have been anything but shy in urging on us, is a movie made, to a perhaps unprecedented degree, “in homage” to the work of another film-maker—Alfred Hitchcock—and to one of his works—Vertigo—in particular. Indeed, Obsession’s act of homage borders on outright imitation. In both films, the protagonist harbors guilty feelings of responsibility for having been unable to prevent the death of a woman he loved, and, in both, he gets an opportunity to relive the trauma of his past, only to repeat it. And the resemblances between the two films extend from basics to details. Vertigo has its misty view of a graveyard, its dwelt-on portrait of the heroine’s deceased predecessor, its vertiginous shot of a stairwell; so, too, does Obsession. And if Vertigo’s camera executes a 360-degree pan around a couple during a climactic embrace, Obsession’s will go it one (or two, or three) better. In place of the romantic San Francisco setting of Vertigo (which used the city’s locales perhaps more imaginatively than any other film before or since), Obsession offers us both New Orleans and Florence, though for all it manages to extract from either, it might as well have been shot in Newark. Then everything is bathed in a non-stop reprise of the score for Vertigo that the late Bernard Herrmann, who composed the music for the earlier film, was somehow seduced into providing for this one. (Herrmann’s reputation would have been better served had his last-written score—for Taxi Driver—also been his last released.) And this is barely to scratch the surface of the numerous parallels, big and small, between Obsession and its “inspiration.” But Murder on the Orient Express—that star-laden, period fluff with Hercule Poirot and his little gray cells solving puzzles devised by Agatha Christie? What on earth was there in Obsession to remind someone of that?
And then it dawned on me that, while Obsession was sending film buffs off to ponder its stylistic and thematic echoes of Vertigo, my presumably average man, oblivious to such esoterica, had, in his crude literal-mindedness, perceived a resemblance between two films just because of something so “trivial” as the similar premises of their plots: in both, a child is kidnaped, and then, many years later, that kidnaping triggers a violent aftermath. And, indeed, there is a kind of insight in this perception, not unlike the raw wisdom of the famous salesman who walked out of Death of a Salesman commiserating with Willy Loman on the drawbacks of the New England territory. For Obsession really is about as much like Murder on the Orient Express as it is like Vertigo, or any other film by Hitchcock. And yet, in a roundabout way, an act of homage to Hitchcock has been performed by Obsession’s director, Brian De Palma, and its writer, Paul Schrader, in much the same way as Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? ultimately was a tribute, of sorts, to Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby. What Schrader and De Palma have proved is that people, even bright and talented people, can sedulously endeavor to construct a Hitchcock movie by the numbers and still come up with a result missing everything of the original: a result lacking everything, body and soul, that one thinks of as constituting that distinctive entity, a Hitchcock movie.
The question of what does or doesn’t constitute a Hitchcock movie was raised a short while ago by another movie—this time a movie by Hitchcock. If I say Family Plot seems to me a wan shadow of a Hitchcock film, I don’t want to belabor here the various shortcomings of a film I probably went to with more good will, with a greater degree of hope and expectation, than I brought to any other new movie I saw this year. Hitchcock has said in interviews (though one needn’t believe it) that he conceives of and plans his films so thoroughly that, for him, the actual shooting is only a necessary but unexciting epilogue to the already performed, true creative act. To this version of a conceptual art, Family Plot adds the wrinkle of a film by one of the medium’s technical wizards, the basic craftsmanship of which (from the appallingly clumsy exposition to the shoddy process shots) is so slovenly that, to defend the work, one would have to argue on conceptual grounds, that what’s done poorly could have been done well if only its director had wanted to.
Will Family Plot improve with age, and look beter once we’re more able to see it for what it may be rather than in the light of perhaps erroneous expectations? Roger Greenspun has contended that Hitchcock’s films have often had such a history of gradual acceptance: tending to be hit over the head with some model of the ideal Hitchcock film when they first appeared, and only later being appreciated for their actual achievements; and though there’s some truth to this, there are times when it seems to me no less true, as I believe Michael Wood has suggested, that the ideal Hitchcock film may be a creation which exists only in our heads, and which no actual Hitchcock film has ever lived up to. It is true, for instance, that a work such as The Wrong Man, which seemed to me essentially a failure in its own time, remains a film I can continue to watch with interest almost endlessly. And yet, despite its local fascinations (I never cease, for instance, to be chilled by the inexplicable eeriness of the sequence of dissolves to an ever emptier nightclub under The Wrong Man’s credits), and my having got past my initial disappointment in not finding it whatever I’d hoped or expected it to be, it seems to me no less a failure now than it did then. On the other hand, I recently turned off a showing on television (hardly, of course, the best way to see it) of The Birds, which I’ve defended as one of Hitchcock’s strongest films, when it started to seem to me less good than I’d remembered it. Greenspun cites North by Northwest as one Hitchcock film which looms larger now than it did in its own time; and, as it happens, North by Northwest is the film that, when writing on Hitchcock for the first time, I began by arguing against, as a way of arguing for the supremacy of the Hitchcock of (the far less well received) Vertigo. And yet Vertigo is a film which, on repeated viewing, I came to see in a different light, and which, flaws and all, was probably the pivotal film in my own attempt to grasp just what it is that gives Hitchcock’s work, at its best, its unique excitement.
If, for me, that excitement is utterly lacking in Family Plot (which, my expectations disposed of, I saw again), it must be said that already, after the first wave of disappointed reaction in the popular press, the Hitchcock-as-Homer brigade has mobilized to sing the film’s praises: the main line seems to be that the film is the surprisingly sunny creation of a seventy-seven-year-old master’s autumnal wisdom. And sunny one might well call it, with its lack of (on-screen) violence, and the charmed life it grants to its principal couple, a pair of blessed innocents (broadly overplayed for farce by Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris) who are allowed magically to escape the murderous designs a subsidiary couple has on them. But to admit this is only to realize how little “sunniness” has to do with what one thinks of as the distinctive character of a Hitchcock film.
Perhaps a more fruitful defense of the film (and of Hitchcock’s films generally), and one which shows signs of overtaking the Catholicism-and-transfer-of-guilt wing in the writing-on-Hitchcock industry is the psychoanalytic—specifically, the Oedipal—one. (Straws in the wind: a 115-page Oedipal reading of North by Northwest, complete with maps, graphs, and charts, recently published by a French critic and enthusiastically hailed in a Hitchcock issue of an English-language film magazine.) Family plot, to be sure (at the least, one of Hitchcock’s best titles); and, of course, it is hard to avoid noticing that, however one may define the nature of Hitchcock’s films in comparison with other suspense thrillers, the former are certainly supplied to an unusual degree with familial relationships, and, in particular, with their protagonists’ mothers. Is it mere coincidence that the two most richly imagined and memorable characters in Hitchcock’s work (a body of work, one might add, not rich in richly imagined characters) are parricides, failed and successful: Bruno (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train and Norman (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho} And yet, in both cases, the classically Oedipal import is skirted by displacements: the mother of the would-be parricide in Strangers on a Train is surely the most silly and sexless of any in Hitchcock’s films (she’s played by Marion Lorne of Mr. Peepers fame), while it’s his (widowed) mother (and her lover) whom Norman has murdered in Psycho. Perhaps the strongest suggestion of an Oedipal situation in all of Hitchcock is that of the young man and his mother (there is no father) in The Birds, and here the mother (as played as Jessica Tandy) is given a strong sexual presence; but, even here, Hitchcock deliberately (and, I think, wisely) keeps the nature of this peculiar attachment vague.
Does a mother-son romance lurk beneath the surface of North by Northwest? Such a case can no doubt be made, but it seems to me that the essence of what goes on between this mother and this son is that he can’t get her to take seriously the danger he’s in. Evil persons are trying to kill me, he insists, but her response, in effect, is only to tease him for acting like a child who’s afraid of the dark. Yet, the “childish” perception of ubiquitous danger is right in North by Northwest, as it always is in Hitchcock’s films: films whose most vivid images are those of their protagonists reduced almost to impotence (think of the cornfield and crop duster in North by Northwest) before some threat to their existence.
Despite their Oedipal elements, the ambience of Hitchcock’s films seems to me rather pre-Oedipal,1 with the mothers mainly sexless chums, and the fathers either dimly seen or (more often) absent. Of course, his films do abound in Oedipal elements; given a critical disposition to track such things down, what films, or works of art generally, do not, since, like “phallic symbols,” such stuff is everywhere? Hitchcock has several times spoken of the traumatic effect on him of his having been, as a child, locked in a prison cell (as a cautionary jest) by a policeman, and, while one needn’t make too much of this incident as the single key to Hitchcock’s work, certainly the two most insistently recurring elements of that work are already prefigured in it: the precariousness of the constantly menaced foundations which underlie our day-to-day existence, and the inability of innocence to protect one when falsely accused. To say that such things are preeminently the stuff of which one’s earliest terrors are formed is not to belittle Hitchcock’s work, which seems to me to be in touch with a child’s perception of the world—and with certain childhood dream states—in a way I think ought to be valued highly. There can be something diminishingly childish occasionally mixed with this: one sees it in Hitchcock’s little boy’s pleasure in his ability to shock and scandalize. But, at its best, a Hitchcock film is an intricate and ingenious formal construct at whose heart lie certain nightmare images: images which render, with a child’s special clarity and acuity, a sense of the imperiled ego, fragile and all but defenseless in an indifferent universe, and facing the prospect of its extinction.
Is this version of Hitchcock’s films sufficient—does it offer an account of their unity imposing enough to vie with that of guilt transference and the Oedipus complex? For some others, undoubtedly not, but its weight is sufficient for me. For me, it’s enough that, at their best, Hitchcock’s films strike terror: terror in their reminder of how precipitously we can be snatched from the routines of our cozy existences, and, however innocent, find ourselves in peril; they are reminders of just how thin is the membrane of adulthood which separates us from a fearful realization of our vulnerability. To say that such apprehensions of terror provide the fixed points about which the web of Hitchcock’s work is spun isn’t to accuse that work of being static, or to deny that his films have undergone some real evolution: a Vertigo is significantly different from The 39 Steps. For one thing, there’s a real complication in the later films’ sense of their protagonists’ innocence: innocent of what they’re accused of, they still feel themselves somehow guilty; the protagonist of The Wrong Man, for example, though innocent of the crime with which he’s charged, is nevertheless guilt-ridden for having failed to be a good provider, much as his wife is finally unbalanced by her guilt in believing she’s failed him. And then there’s the pervasive, unnameable “guilt” of the characters in The Birds. Such complications do, I think, make the later films more interesting, if not necessarily better. Yet I’m not at all sure that, given the highly charged sense of a working through of the material of certain private obsessions which Hitchcock’s films convey, one renders the best account of them by attempting to break their codes into universal meaning: it may be enough to say, for instance, that, for Hitchcock, there’s simply something vaguely sinister about young women who wear glasses, and that his films effectively communicate this (Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, etc.), rather than to try to relate this to some scheme of signification. And, conversely, given a Hitchcock film as full of material ripe for explication as Family Plot, it may be wiser to leave such stuff as one finds it, lying there inertly.
Yet there’s no doubt that Family Plot is an exegete’s dream of a Hitchcock movie. Rather as with John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hitchcock has provided in Family Plot a kind of lecture-demonstration on the subject of what his films consist of. And just as Ford has added the challenge of bringing this off without resort to his celebrated poetic landscapes, so, too, has Hitchcock confidently run the risk of giving us a Hitchcock film without violence—even (though perhaps less intentionally) without suspense. But The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, whatever its failings as a work of art, offered the real excitement of seeing an artist, often assumed to work on an almost folk-art level of unself-consciousness, reveal that he understood fully what his greatest work encompassed; that so wily a strategist as Hitchcock knows what he’s up to is something we never really doubted. To see Ford explicitly articulating the themes that his great work so seamlessly embodies is to learn something about him well worth knowing; to see Hitchcock (a director famous for his conscious manipulation of his audience) demonstrate that he knows what he’s doing is to learn nothing. What’s worse, the magic, when it’s laid out before us, doesn’t work; everything that goes into the making of a Hitchcock film is there, but, almost to the degree of an Obsession, it just lies there: slack, tensionless, stillborn. Everything, that is, but the terror; in its place, the film’s playful sunniness. Perhaps it’s true that what one sees in Family Plot is the reflection of an aged artist’s attainment of tranquility; of a serene wisdom in which all those childhood terrors have been finally exorcised, and put behind him. If so, so much the better for Hitchcock. And so much the worse for us.
1 And to say pre-Oedipal is to say pre-sexual, which is perhaps why, despite all the titillating talk of sex in Hitchcock’s films, their actual erotic temperature is so low. Again, to be sure, there are exceptions: the star chemistry in Notorious and the opening of Psycho are perhaps most notable among them; but, in the main, the level of coolness is set and maintained by their ice-maiden heroines—Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Julie Andrews, etc.—the golden-haired princess of children’s stories onto whom Hitchcock has unconvincingly projected the dirty adult secret that such persons “do it.”