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Spellbound

From a filmmaking fan, an appreciation of the master of suspense's show business

Twenty years ago, I directed an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The assignment came completely out of the blue (a producer had seen a short film of mine and liked the way I "moved the camera") and so—after a few manic days of preparation—I found myself lifted out of the obscurity of Toronto's independent-film scene and in front of Martin Landau, the legendary actor who was starring in the episode.

In this episode, special-effects artists stage an emergency fire in a devious plan to make their evil boss, played by Landau, jump to his death. It was a lot of fun to shoot, but what I remember most vividly was the time I spent with Landau talking about what it was like to actually work with Hitchcock. I couldn't believe that I was directing an actor who appeared in North by Northwest, and Martin certainly didn't disappoint me. I listened enraptured to stories about everything from Hitchcock's personal mannerisms to his lens choices.

Weeks later, as I was watching the studio's final version of this episode, I was stunned to find that Alfred Hitchcock was actually in my movie. All the authentic Hitchcock intros from the original series had been colorized and re-edited, so that the "master of suspense" had been recycled for the remake. Somehow, through the weird alchemy of imagination and digital effects, it seemed as though Hitch were drolly referring to a show he had absolutely nothing to do with.

Legend of the fall: Stewart in Vertigo
photo: Film Forum/Photofest
Legend of the fall: Stewart in Vertigo

And this, of course, is one of the most enduring legacies of this extraordinary film artist. After countless books, essays, exhibitions, retrospectives, and dialogues (the Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations are one of the most remarkable documents in film appreciation), the most disturbing artifact of Hitchcock's output may well be the image he made of himself. No other commercial filmmaker has so meticulously implicated their own directorial persona in their work.

Certainly, this cost the director in terms of his reputation. Responding to the indifference to Hitchcock's output in the early '60s, Truffaut commented that the director's "genius for publicity was equaled only by that of Salvador Dalí" and that Hitchcock had been "victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers and his deliberate practice of deriding their questions." For the longest period of time, I found it upsetting that the experience of watching my favorite films was punctuated by the Hitchcockian money shot—that odd moment when the director needed to cross the frame.

For all his status as the "master of suspense," Hitchcock was first and foremost the master of self-consciousness. He was, in the best sense of the word, all about show. He showed us how his characters wanted to present themselves, how he wanted to show them showing us who they were, and—if he could show himself off in the process, then that became part of the project. These are the sequences and moments that define Hitchcock's brilliance.

Many movies have used film directors as characters, yet Hitchcock—while never referring to the actual mechanics of film production—has given us the most compelling and complex depiction of why someone would need to direct. I'm thinking of the scene in Vertigo where Scottie takes Judy to the dress shop and tries to costume her as Madeleine. The expression on James Stewart's face as he forces this identity on the unwilling Kim Novak is one of the most astonishingly rendered depictions of obsession I have ever seen. And it is in this moment that the viewer is truly able to see Hitchcock cross the frame.

"I just want an ordinary simple gray suit," Scottie says, as he rejects a pale imitation of his beloved's garments.

"The gentleman seems to know what he wants," the shopkeeper responds.

Later, as Kim Novak's new shoes click seductively toward the camera lens, the viewer gets to know exactly what Hitchcock wants. No other director has ever put his audience in the direct line of fetishistic pursuit, made them want to see something so badly that it can tear apart all reason and sensibility. We are all implicated in this mad chase of the true Madeleine, enraptured by the sheer thrill of the elaborate psychological reconstruction. Hitchcock, through his creative genius, is illustrating the perverse core of the creative act—making something happen that isn't really there, and making us all believe in the process.


Atom Egoyan is the director of Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and most recently, Where the Truth Lies.

 
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