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Hitchcock the master of suspense?


A still from Hitchcock's film

Alfred Hitchcock, accepted without argument as a great and influential film-maker today, didn't always enjoy this pre-eminent position. Long viewed by serious critics of cinema as a churner of commercial and formulaic thrillers, his art was 'discovered', as it were, by a bunch of young critics - Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and others - who were later to become pioneers of the French New Wave.

Starting out with dramas and comedies, Hitch (as he was referred to) soon made the first true 'Hitchcockian' film in 1927 - The Lodger. It was followed by a slew of more suspense films - The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Notorious, Strangers On A Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho among others. But even though most of Hitch's formidable output (he made about 60 movies) is in the genre of suspense, 'Master of Suspense' is a rather unfortunate description since it reduces him to a craftsman specialising in a certain genre. And the greatest of Hitchcock's films are about much more than the suspense he so expertly seems to create.

Take Notorious, for instance. This Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman starrer is first and foremost the deliciously disturbing love story of an American agent sending a woman he loves into the bed of a Nazi so that she can spy on him. Grant plays a deeply complex character, torn between his love for Bergman and his duty to his country. Thrown into this situation is Bergman's past as a playgirl and Grant's suspicion that she may actually be enjoying being with the Nazi - she sleeps with him and even marries him later, even as Grant continues to be tormented by the twisted situation. This is what the film is really about - but what it seems to be about (or the MacGuffin, as Hitchcock called it) is some uranium being stored at the Nazi's house, the origins of which Bergman must ascertain by putting herself into dangerous situations. The latter provides the suspense, but only because the two main characters have touched us somewhere deep and dark, in areas where other directors don't dare to go.

When Hitchcock is not dealing with his angst-ridden vision of romantic love, he turns his attention to other, equally unsettling, subjects. Psycho deals with a deranged killer with whom Hitchcock gets us to identify. We certainly don't like him, but neither do we want him caught! Or take Rear Window - it's about a perfectly respectable-seeming man spending all his time peeping into people's bedrooms!

In fact, the master craftsman often faltered when he neglected his pet concern - portraying the pain of the human predicament - and focused on dazzling the viewer with technique. Rope - a movie in which every shot is the length of one reel - remains an admirable experiment, but certainly not Hitch's best work. The Birds, a significant technical achievement, rings hollow, because the love story and characters lack depth. Hitch was at his best when he brought his craft to the service of a story with interesting, flawed characters. The famous long, unbroken take in Notorious in which Grant and Bergman kiss repeatedly is a technical achievement only because of the intense pleasure we get from seeing them so much in love. (Hitch said that ideally two people in love should never separate. Hence the unbroken take. )

The director always saw himself as an outsider - right from his childhood, he was clearly a loner, and this must have had some bearing on his work. Perhaps his way of exercising power over others was by becoming a director, since he felt inadequate in other areas of life. He controlled his own work, not ferociously, but cleverly, since he hated getting into confrontations. His films were so precisely written, designed and shot that no studio could tamper with them. As for the content, by putting his characters through fearful or obsessive experiences, Hitch is really calling attention to his own fears and obsessions. James Stewart's character's obsession with trying to control and mould Kim Novak's character's personality in Vertigo is perhaps a foreshadowing of Hitchcock's future relationship with Tippi Hedren, who acted in The Birds and Marnie. (Hitch apparently tried controlling her, with disastrous results. Hedren claimed Hitch was a misogynist and that he ruined her career because she did not succumb to him. ) Perhaps it is our good fortune that Hitchcock suffered from all these inadequacies - they produced films that continue to enthrall and stimulate.

Ironically, towards the end of his career, Hitch found himself trapped in the image of 'master of suspense' - an image of his own creation, since Hitch was also a master of publicity. He wrote in a letter: "... I am completely desperate for a subject... I... ...can only make what is expected of me, that is, a thriller or a suspense story, and that I find hard to do. " Truffaut classifies Hitchcock as an artist of anxiety, along with Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Poe. As Truffaut says, given their anxieties, these artists can hardly be expected to show us how to live. But by sharing their anxieties they help us understand ourselves.

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