Hitchcock, “The Dark Side of Genius,” by Donald Ploto
Richard J. Garfunkel
I just re-read, after a period of many, many years, Donald Spoto’s excellent and unprecedented biography of Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest film directors of the 20th Century.
I had always been interested in Hitchcock, and from my young days, in the middle 1950s my parents took me to the movies and I saw many of Hitchcock’s films as they came to the big screen. They were avid fans of his works, and we all watched weekly his television series. He didn’t have much to do with its creativity, but, the themes of each show were always inspired by his vision and droll sense of irony. The special treats were his introductory remarks and his moralistic concluding statement on what had happened. Most of the time, they were the highlight of the production.
As I grew a bit older, I caught up with all of his early works from the Lodger to WWII and then on to Strangers on a Train, which spanned a period from the early 30s to the early 1950s. Hitchcock had a flair for suspense and in his visit to the Center of Advanced Studies at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, CA, he discussed at length the difference between the classic “whodunit,” or the difference between mystery and suspense.
I took this direct quotation from one of the last chapters of Spoto’s biography.
There is a great confusion between the words, “mystery” and “suspense.” The two things are absolutely miles apart. Mystery is an intellectual process, like in a “whodunit.” But suspense is essentially an emotional process. You can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information. I daresay you have seen many films which have mysterious goings-on. You don’t know what is going on, why the man is doing this or that. You are about a third of the way through the film before your realize what it is all about. To me that is absolutely wasted footage, because there is no emotion to it…There is no emotion from the audience… the mystery form has no particular appeal to me, because it is merely a fact of mystifying an audience, which I don’t think is enough.
Hitchcock, unlike other directors, was able to eventually control his “product” and “process” with great originality and uniqueness. This talent and ingenuity harked back to the early days of cinema, when silent film producers and creators like DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and a few others were able to control every aspect of their work, from selecting the material, finding the players, writing and re-writing the script, finding the money, of course, and directing the film in the direction and with the message they wanted. As the studio system evolved in the middle to late 1920s, much of this was controlled by the studio heads (Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor, and the Warner Brothers) who had actors, writers and technicians under contract, or could borrow or rent contract players from others, buy material, assign producers to guide the business end of the process and hire, and also fire, directors, if they were dissatisfied by the work in progress. As one can learn by this thorough biography, Hitchcock was able to grow dramatically in power and influence when he left London in 1939, for his future career in Hollywood. He was able to sell his name and talent to various producers starting with David O. Selznick, and his success foreshadowed the decline of the Hollywood studios and the rise of the independent producer/director.
Of course, time becomes the great judge and determinate of what lasts. The faddish tastes of the moment often whither as more retrospective is given to any subject or work of art. What thrilled audiences 75 years ago may have zero impact today? All one has to do is look at the three makings of King Kong or the two versions of Ben Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Manchurian Candidate or even Psycho and see the advances in technology, the short cuts or the differences in casting, style editing and direction.
Interestingly, Hitchcock, like many others, did change. But that change was well within his early notions of the average man/woman caught in often an intractable bind. That bind often was one caused by the legal system, the government, or others who were trying to achieve some goal with the innocent victim in the way.
Aside from the struggle of the average man against injustice, Hitchcock liked to put people in awkward circumstances. Two of the films that come to mind, was his highly rated picture Vertigo and his more controversial WWII film, Lifeboat. In both cases, which are incredibly different individuals have to deal with. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart aka Scottie Ferguson has his fear and physical problems with high places exploited. This exploitation leads to murder and retribution. In Lifeboat, a number of survivors of a U-Boat attack are forced to cope with being at sea in a drifting lifeboat, without adequate provisions, and with the prospect of being lost. Hitchcock loved to create suspense with stress. The survivors must learn how to deal we each other and with the reality that their future depends on a Nazi within their midst.
In Rebecca, Notorious and Suspicion individual relationships are at the heart of ongoing stress, fear, and hyper-anxiety. These films, which take place in the mid-1940s and all create difficulties for the women with their lovers/husbands. In both Rebecca and Suspicion the audience is never sure until the end of the film what will happen to the suffering wife. In both films, Hitchcock is forced to compromise the original author’s intent, and soften the conclusions. In Notorious, we are led into a tangled web of love, marriage, alienation, spying and international politics. In this treatment, the heroine, Ingrid Bergman/Alicia Huberman is basically forced to marry and spy on a man she does not love. Her safety and well-being becomes almost immediately compromised and her real lover, Cary Grant/TR Devlin must decide where his loyalties lie, with her or her mission.
Of course, Hitchcock liked to deal with intrigue and The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, North by Northwest, The Saboteur and Sabotage all deal with intrigue, spies, espionage and intrigue. In each one, other than Sabotage, the victim is a man or a women, who must convince their casual acquaintance of their sanity and innocence. In each situation, not only is their mental well-being questioned but, their “strange” tale must also be eventually accepted. Aside from that problem, there is always greater threat to life and limb which has to be confronted and eliminated.
Hitchcock, who is married to Alma Reville, a woman he met in his early days as a film maker, has long indulged in fantasy world revolving around many of his leading ladies from; Madeline Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Doris Day, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, to Tippi Hedren. This so-called obsession, seen as a pseudo-sexual longing, often strained their long marriage and working relationship. How profound it really was, is never really understood or even articulated. For sure, Hitchcock himself always seem to believe that eating and often gluttony, was a wonderful counter balance to the lack of sexual activity and experimentation.
After a long, unique and incredible career, Hitchcock, who goes through many psychological changes, reaches his peak of success with Psycho, the suspense thriller dealing with split-personality and misogynist violence. This film, which was released in 1960, seemed to mark a strong artistic and financial rebound for Hitchcock. But, over the last twenty years of his life, he would fail to reach the success of Psycho, no less his earlier work. The Birds, Torn Curtain, Marnie, Frenzy, Topaz and others, never were able to resonate strongly with more modern audiences, but to the end of his life, Hitchcock was always seeking that new blockbuster. In the movie bio-pic, with Anthony Hopkins, one gets the impression that Hitchcock risked all for the making of Psycho, but in reality he was quite rich from his decades of successful work, and despite his luxurious tastes, his investments were incredibly successful. At his death, in 1980, he left a considerable fortune of over $20 millions.