Anyone who has ever really gotten into an artist, regardless of medium, spends a decent amount of time thinking about what everyone else is missing out on. You assume that if your writer of choice is, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, that people have read The Great Gatsby or a classic short story or two, but they’ve probably missed out on The Crack Up or The Love of the Last Tycoon, a likelihood that both saddens and frustrates you and makes you feel like wanting to be a shill in that, come on, you must check this out way. (Alternative variant: If you liked such and such, wait until you see this and that!) Or so it feels anyway. With some artists, it’s hard to resist the temptation to take up the cause of what I call their B-sides, the material that gets overshadowed by other works that inform, shift, color, and do just about everything that can be done to the cultural zeitgeist. But when we’re talking the best of artists, all of the parts the drawer, so to speak, need to be explored; right up front, where the popular goodies are, and way in back, where the nuggets reside, those often one-off, singular creations that can give us a deeper understanding of works we’ve already felt we’ve come to know so well.
Alfred Hitchcock did more than most filmmakers to that zeitgeist. He was no critical dandy in his time, generally being hailed as a smooth and savvy enough maker of stylish and suspenseful potboilers, which both repulsed and entertained you at once. There was nothing especially dignified about a Hitchcock picture, and works like Rear Window and Psycho were akin, in the time of their release, to a kind of mainstream, popularly accredited porn, only sans the nudity, of course. Titillating, in other words, stuff to fire the imagination by going to a point that suggested there was but one more point beyond. A point there was no need to show, up on the big screen, because Hitchcock had a knack for tucking it away in your mind, an altogether more formidable big screen. There was a fright factor as well, but a Hitchcock film was generally viewed as classier than more outright horror fare. In other words, if you wanted a slightly seedy, but generally acceptable, way to spend a night out, and an easy conversation starter, post-flick, in a time before spoiler alerts, Alfred Hitchcock was your man.
He’s also a man who’s faring better than ever, in some senses, of late. For instance, 1958’s Vertigo recently knocked off Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane — after a decades long run — for the top spot on Sight and Sound’s prestigious poll of the ten greatest films ever made. And then there is Universal’s just released Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, featuring 14 restored films in high-def. That masterpiece tag will surely prove a bit misleading to some viewers. The big boys are here, the films which even the non-Hitchcock people are readily familiar with: Vertigo (the champion!), Psycho, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much (the ’56 Jimmy Stewart version), North By Northwest, The Birds. But the rest of the set is a glorious cornucopia of lesser gems that any cinephile — or lover of any of the aforementioned stand-bys — needs to spend some time with. For when you’re as good as Hitchcock — Francois Truffaut considered him the one total master of what he called “pure cinema” — the stuff around the fringes of your oeuvre would be the humdingers front and center of just about anyone else’s. And so, in the spirit of shilling for them, here’s a look at what I’d rate as the top five. Time to fire up that Netflix account.
5. Hitchcock loved a good experiment, and would sometimes take on a project almost as a sort of filmic challenge. So it was with Rope, from ’48. The plot is an ugly one, and there isn’t much offered in the way of relatability with the characters — no one is especially likable — but this could well be the one Hitchcock film where the entire film is, essentially, the MacGuffin. The term was one Hitchcock used to signify a sort of red herring; something that was ostensibly crucial to the plot, the whole endeavor of the picture, but which, really, could have been anything. An epic placeholder, if you will, that allowed the entire endeavor to function. The point of Rope seems to be less the drama unfolding than the way in which it unfolds. The plot is pretty basic: Two gay men kill a guy in their apartment, stuff him in a box, then host a dinner party with the box serving as the table. They invite the father of the guy they’ve offed, and a former teacher, played by Jimmy Stewart, who is meant to be this radical thinker who espouses that certain people have the right to conduct murder. Very Raskolnikov, but with a whiff of academia. You can imagine how this goes — there’s a tell-tale heart element — but what is most arresting is that Hitchcock refuses to cut. Or seemingly refuses to cut. The picture is one long take. That’s a trick, of course, with Hitchcock in fact cutting every ten minutes or so when the film ran out, but the cuts are disguised — by the black jacket of a character’s back, for instance. So we get what ought to be a pretty stagey affair that instead has a fluidity to it, something lacking in the script itself. Poetic transmogrification by way of cinema. A purely Hitchcockian conceit.
4. Hitchcock could do fun as well, and there’s no shortage of it in the wry, and distinctly New England-y, The Trouble with Harry (’55). In a way, it’s Weekend At Bernie’s several decades before the fact, but this would be the art house iteration of the Bernie saga. A body is found in the woods of Vermont, with no shortage of people thinking they had a role in causing it to be there. Hitchcock had a particular sense of humor, what one might think of as gallows-lite, and the body, of course, gets toted hither and yon, interred, dug up, re-interred. Conan Doyle enjoyed the occasional whodunit to which the answer was a resounding “no one,” and so it goes here, even though one comes away with this lingering feeling of tacit, albeit indirect, complicity. An odd feeling, that blend of mirth and guilt. It’s a broad daylight picture too, Hitchcock out in the sun of autumn. Almost like a field trip, really.
3. Chances are, if you know one of the two Hitchcock films starring Tippi Hedren, it’s The Birds from ’63, but she was brought back for the next year’s Marnie. Hitchcock loved his sex — or the suggestion of it on the screen, anyway — and there’s no shortage of it Marnie, although it’s the repressed kind. Which means one thing: Hitchcock getting deep down into psychotherapy and trying to visualize its effects on the screen. Pretty weird, really, especially as you watch Sean Connery in quasi-James Bond mode, doing his best to help enable everything along. Men are bad, the color red is bad, thunderstorms are bad, prostitution is bad. Fireplace pokers can be both good and bad. It’s a jumbly film, and an overloaded one — Hitchcock complained of trying to do too much in too little time — but as a flawed, would-be masterpiece there’s a scruffy dignity to it that goes along with striving for more than most people would, and coming up a touch short.
2. When I was in college, I’d come home in the summer with the goal of screening 100 films before going back to school. For some reason, I rented Frenzy (’72) every June. It’s late period Hitchcock; I mean, Hitchcock, the ’70s, really? Weird to think that both Hitchcock and John Wayne were still at it in the decade of punk rock, Star Wars, and disco, but there you have it. Frenzy is Hitchcock cutting loose, giving vent to everything, I suspect, he had thought better about saying up until that point. There are elements of a Hammer horror film, the variety that usually starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. A finger, post rigor mortis, has to be snapped free of a hand, there’s garroting galore (when in doubt, kill with a necktie, I guess), and it’s just loads of trashy fun. Like a splashy drive-in picture.
1. You don’t think of Hitchcock as a director partial to noir, but consider 1942’s Saboteur, which is akin to a dry run for the much more florid, and well-known, North By Northwest. Hitchcock loved set pieces, the chief one here being the Statue of Liberty. He also loved the idea of the wrongly accused man, and that’s exactly what Robert Cummings’ character is thanks to a syndicate intent on undermining the country’s war efforts. We have one of the all time great villains in a Hitchcock film with a guy named Fry, who anticipates the one-armed man of The Fugitive TV series. There’s a scene at a forest house that’s straight out of Bride of Frankenstein, but more interesting is Hitchcock’s take on the noir medium. Normally, noir is all lines and shadow, with elements of German Expressionism, but in Saboteur there’s a more communal slant on what was then a burgeoning movement. Good things, in short, tend to happen in the darkness, as when our wrongly accused hero and the heroine who comes to help him, are assisted by a traveling group of what were once called circus freaks. But if it’s light and bright, lookout. For sheer tension, there is little in the Hitchcock catalogue like the gala party scene, in which everyone is free to come and go, save our heroes, who are able to dance, and even make a toast, but not leave. A very different riff on chilling, and a surprising one at that. But that’s the perk of worthy, unlocked drawers — ain’t nothing stopping you from digging further and further back. Hitchcock himself would probably insert a sexual reference at this point, but any recherche paraphernalia here is of the strictly cinematic variety. The purely cinematic variety, I’d add. • 30 November 2012