Alfred Hitchcock: Hanging with Hitch at the St. Regis


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June 22, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 25

film in focus
By Andrew Sarris

Alfred Hitchcock came to town recently to pick up an honorary degree at Columbia University to the unalloyed delight of resident Hitchcockians at the Film Division of the School of the Arts. The citation read by President William J. McGill went as follows: “For 47 years you have fashioned rousing entertainments for mass audiences without submerging your creative identity in the collective process of movie-making. As the stylistic heir of D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and F.W. Murnau, you have enriched the screen with the formal innovations and moral concerns of your 53 films. From ‘The Pleasure Garden’ in 1925 to ‘Frenzy’ in 1972, you have displayed an understanding of both the concrete and connotative power of the photographed image in the development of a visual language.

And, so often, beneath the familiar surfaces of everyday reality, you have explored and exorcized the guilts and fears of your characters and your audiences with a unique blend of macabre humor and meditative humanity.

“It is with the greatest pleasure that I bestow upon you, both as a master of your chosen medium and as a perceptive commentator upon the human condition, the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from this University.”

The New York Times of Wednesday, June 7, carried a picture of Hitch, sardonic and imperturbable as ever, in cap and gown. It was as if he were making a cameo appearance in one of his own movies, perhaps one in which even a staid academic procession might not be all pomp and circumstance. A few days later I had the pleasure of lunching with Mr. Hitchcock en famille at the St. Regis. It was just my wife and I and Alma Reville (Hitch’s wife and talented helpmeet from almost the very beginning of his career) and Hitch himself in all his reflective resonance. The fact that we were meeting on Sunday in a fashionably deserted city made it easier for us to ignore the promotional pressures connected with his new movie. There were no studio people, no tape recorders or other media distractions, no neck-craning hustle and bustle, no pretense of a formal interview. I didn’t even go through the motions of taking notes. Indeed, I feel almost as if I were betraying a very private social confidence in mentioning the meeting at all. The New Journalism supposedly snickers at this kind of old-fashioned reticence. Any social occasion, even or perhaps especially the most intimate, is merely a pretext to jump into print with hung-over moral judgments and final-draft displays of staircase wit. This is known in the trade as drinking your cocktails first and delivering the temperance lecture afterward. Even we incorrigible Old Journalists have been known to convert our surface disasters at parties into spiritual triumphs on the typewriter.

Mind you, I do not seek to intimate any undue intimacy in the encounter at the St. Regis, nor to tease the reader with suggestions of breathless revelations withheld on the grounds of good faith and good taste. Quite the contrary, I think. Whatever breathless revelations Alfred Hitchcock had to provide, he has long since provided in his 53 films. Much of the talk at the St. Regis was devoted to famous crimes, food and drink, the weather in London, New York, Paris, and California, and the lurid history of the St. Regis Hotel as a haven for the assorted mistresses of J.P. Morgan. From time to time we even digressed into film.

In a way it was all very strange. Here I had been embroiled in the bitter controversy between the Hitchcockians and the Hitchknockians for close to 15 years, and now suddenly all the passionate polemics seemed long ago and far away. I felt no compulsion to impose my critical insights on their creative source, nor to seek vindication from an artist whose cause I had championed. I was past all that. Thousands and thousands of words had been written pro and con, and I would have gladly traded in most of these words for a viewing of “Vertigo.” The greatest privilege of being a Hitchcockian is the pleasure derived from seeing his movies again and again. People tell me that they admire this director or that director, and I always wonder how often they could go back to test their enthusiasm with the films themselves rather than with the rhetoric surrounding them. The fact that Hitchcock’s films stand up so remarkably well after repeated screenings makes a mockery of his restrictively official reputation as the “Master of Suspense.” How suspenseful can a movie be after you’ve seen it a dozen times? There must be other ingredients to keep his art alive, and to enable his films, like the red Burgundies in his well-stocked wine-cellar, to improve with age.

One of these magical ingredients is the geometrical precision of his conceptions. Even in very casual conversation, Hitchcock describes events in terms of their spatial coordinates. Hence, a great deal of the cerebral pleasure one derives from a Hitchcock movie is purely mathematical, particularly in the double-barreled sensation of the relative stresses of time and space. Not that Hitchcock’s films are ever as bloodlessly abstract as so much of the overly theoretical footage reposing in the Anthology Archive. Hitchcock’s art, so delicately balanced between display and implication, organizes the visible in order to evoke the invisible. “You can’t show a man thinking,” Hitch remarked at one point in our conversation. And of course you can’t if you’re concerned with making pictures that move. Many of today’s more intellectualized movies strain for stasis in order not to corrupt their characters with anything resembling action or dramatic decisiveness. Hence, the stock telephoto shot of people and/or vehicles straining forward but getting nowhere because space has been annihilated in the name of spiritual futility and the mystical ether of the Establishment (vide Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin straining on the open road more against lenses than Life to reach and rescue his fair Elaine from the clutches of conformism in “The Graduate”). Hitch didn’t think much of either telephoto tedium (“Who wants to look at cars piled up on Fifth Avenue and not going anywhere”) or rack focus (“I’m tired of flowers out of focus”).

But there is something deeper, I think, in his remark about the unfilmable thinker, something that helps define Hitch’s position as both a classicist and a moralist. Hence, his preoccupation with crime stories as moral parables for the screen, but only certain kinds of crime stories. No murder mysteries, for example (“Murder mysteries are cerebral exercises whereas suspense stories are emotional experiences.”) The strategy of mystery is to conceal and mislead; the strategy of suspense is to reveal and prepare. Hitch has never been attracted to the chivalric theme of the private eye, again a problem of mystery versus suspense, but also a problem of a superior morality passing judgment on its inferiors in pursuit of the Holy Grail, be it disguised as a falcon (Huston-Hammett) or a good woman (Hawks-Chandler). Even the term “private eye” suggests a privileged division possible only in conjunction with the heroically bulky wholeness of the protagonist, altogether too much of a moral and visual obstacle for Hitch to contemplate between his audience and his spectacle.

Thus, time and again and now once more with “Frenzy,” we find that Hitchcock specializes in the flawed, ambivalent, often shattered protagonist, separated by a remarkably short moral distance from the antagonist, so short a distance, in fact, that in all the years of his film-making the emotional scales have registered tons of compassion without so much as an ounce of hatred. The Times obituary on Edmund Wilson quoted a sentence he had written from “Is Verse a Dying Technique?”: “If, in writing about ‘poetry,’ one limits oneself to ‘poets’ who compose in verse, one excludes too much of modern literature, and with it too much of life.” I feel the same way about critics who limit the term “film poet” to those who work in non-narrative ares with conspicuous vagueness and impreciseness and remoteness from any audience outside the immediate circle of the film poet in question. When Hitchcock described how he had adjusted the sound in two sequences of “Frenzy” once downward to convey nothingness and once upward to convey a cosmic outsiderness, he revealed himself once more to be one of the greatest of all film poets, at once lucid in communicating with others, and lyrical in expressing his own feelings. And above all selective in shooting less than he knows so that we can feel more than we see. Go see “Frenzy” before you read anything more about it. I shall have more to say about it next week, and more about Hitchcock as well.

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