x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Alfred Hitchcock: the master's view

On the 110th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's birth, we take a look at his enduring impact on modern filmmaking, for better and for worse.

The master himself.
The master himself.

Picture the scene: it's an inspirational moment from this summer's bombastic and knuckle-headed action blockbuster Terminator Salvation. Here in one long and seemingly uninterrupted shot, the scowling Christian Bale's post-apocalyptic guerrilla leader John Connor pops out of a data-storage hole in the middle of the desert, dodges the carnage of futuristic killing machines, leaps into a helicopter, flies it for a few seconds, is shot down by enemy laser fire and finally faces off against a giant humanoid robot with a Gatling gun for a right arm.

Naturally, this sequence is simply a knowing reference to Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 apartment-bound murder mystery Rope. No, really. The 41-year-old Terminator director McG (aka Joseph McGinty Nichol) has repeatedly stated in recent press interviews that this entire sequence was "very influenced by Hitchock's Rope" and that he wanted to "honour the audience and the passionate" by referencing Hitchcock's quiet, thoughtful and patrician movie in such a way.

The statement, despite appearances, is hardly revolutionary in the annals of Hollywood egotism. Directors, of both high art and low pulp frequently cite the influence of master filmmakers on the dramatic action, no matter how insignificant or ungainly, within their own frames. And yet it says something truly profound about the ubiquity of Hitchcock's influence, the depth of his reach and his stylistic habitualisation within the grammar of film that a genuinely empty journeyman's product such as Terminator Salvation could so openly lay claim to Hitchcockian motifs without embarrassment.

Hitchcock himself, of course, would have been a sprightly 110 today had he survived his bout of kidney failure in April 1980. At the time of his death, the reputation of this East London-born director was already assured. He had more than 50 films to his name, multiple Oscar nominations and wins, a knighthood, plus an increasingly legendary status within the world of film criticism (thanks mainly to a group of young French fans and wannabe filmmakers including François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, who wrote in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the film journal Cahiers du Cinema). Indeed, his films, from early classics such as Blackmail (1929) to later darker thrillers such as Marnie (1964), could be read, and often were, as formal textbooks on the illustrated art of creating suspense (he was, fundamentally and unapologetically, a director of thrillers). He was regarded as one of the few filmmakers, alongside silent-era masters such as DW Griffith (The Birth of a Nation), who were actually pioneers of the medium, who rewrote the language of film and who ultimately changed the way that meaning was conveyed through the screen.

Thus he was famously distrustful of dialogue and even bemoaned in the late 1920s the arrival of the so-called "talkies". Dialogue, he felt, was a stage device, whereas films were primarily visual. The result of this conviction led to large swathes of Hitchcockian dramas featuring little if any dialogue, and boasting just the haunting strings of the favourite Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann or a pre-selected music track. Famously, in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the bravura climactic assassination scene at the Royal Albert Hall unfolds without dialogue over 12 minutes to the strains of the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin's Storm Clouds (the cantata that is played in the concert hall). The sequence would later liberate the musical impulses of directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, who would frequently use music rather than dialogue to devastating effect (think Scorsese's use of Jumping Jack Flash as Robert De Niro waltzes through a bar in Mean Streets, or Tarantino using Stuck in the Middle With You in Reservoir Dogs).

Hitchcock was always looking for further and more intimate ways to heighten suspense and tension. At the climax of Saboteur (1942), for instance, the hero factory worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) tries to save the anarchist Frank Frye (Norman Lloyd) from a Statue of Liberty death plunge by holding on to the dangling villain's sleeve. Hitchcock, rather than watch the action at a reasonable distance, zooms straight into Frye's coat and observes the painful rip of the shoulder seam, stitch by tortuous stitch. It's a scene that has been replayed countless times, in films as varied as Die Hard (the sleeve is replaced by a watch) and Cliffhanger (a glove).

Similarly, in The Birds (1963), Hitchcock delights in the cheapest of camera moves while the heroine Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) sits by a school climbing frame in the Bodega Bay School playground. Here, as the climbing frame slowly fills with birds behind her and Melanie innocently follows the flight path of a single crow through the sky, the camera moves away from the climbing frame for a moment and also follows the bird. When the latter eventually lands back on the climbing frame, we discover, thanks to the returned camera position, that the structure is menacingly loaded with killer birds. This device has since become a staple of horror films, and is regularly employed when heroines or would-be victims perform ablutions in front of their mirrors, popping momentarily out of view, only to find the killer/villain standing behind them and reflected in the mirror when they are seen again.

In films such as Rope, Hitchcock tried to push the formal language of film to breaking point, by shooting an entire murder-mystery movie in a series of 10 single takes. While in a later movie such as Rear Window (1954) he took that conceit even further and made a thriller based in a single apartment, not because it was a formal experiment but because it was dictated by the immobility of the protagonist, the wheelchair bound photographer LB Jeffries (James Stewart). In this film, queasy thrills are induced by watching Jeffries squirm helplessly as his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), wrestles helplessly with the oafish killer Thorwald (Raymond Burr) in the apartment opposite him. The "helpless watcher" plot device has been a staple in modern thrillers since, cropping up repeatedly in Brian DePalma films (including Blow-Out and Dressed to Kill) and even in the recent Shia LaBeouf thriller Disturbia (a grounded adolescent watches a killer across the street from his bedroom).

And that's not forgetting the last-minute knockout plot twists of films such as Vertigo (She did it!), Stage Fright (He did it!) and Psycho (His mum made him do it!) - tasty finales that would inspire the career of the modern thriller filmmaker M Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). Then there's the famous Macguffin narrative device (an inherently worthless object that nonetheless propels the quest forward), which was a roll of microfilm in North by Northwest. By the modern era it had naturally become a highfalutin' computer dynamo called the All Spark, in the Transformers film. And that's not forgetting Hitchcock's repeated ironic nod to his abilities by appearing, however briefly, as a cameo player in his films, and thereby underscoring his own genius and simultaneously deflating his own pomposity.

And yet, for all of Hitchcock's unquestionable abilities, his legacy has been double-edged. There is a cruelty in many of his films, for instance, that was employed at the time for the purpose of suspense but can be read, in retrospect, as the beginning of an aesthetic of modern film nihilism. The death of Kim Novak's Judy, in particular, at the climax of Vertigo is particularly callous - she steps backwards out of a bell tower and falls to her doom (it is almost black humour).

Similarly the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in the shower scene in Psycho is undoubtedly a coup de cinema, but it thrills to its own perversion and to the irreverent notion that it has dispatched the movie's nominal heroine before the first act is even done. Hitchcock famously joked that actors should be "treated like cattle" off screen. On screen he was equally tough on his so-called "icy blonde" protagonists (Leigh, Hedren, Novak etc), forever placing them in sadistic peril, torturing them and watching them struggle (he is essentially Stewart watching his girl get strangled in Rear Window). It is thus hard not to see how both the casual killings in Tarantino films, or indeed the thrilling mutilation and sadism in horrors such as Saw and Hostel, had their beginnings in the brutal efficiencies of Hitchcock.

Hitchcock's dogged reliance on visual spectacle, at the expense of dialogue or thoughtful rumination, has also been the source of much modern movie malignance. Steven Spielberg in particular, a self-declared Hitchcock fanatic, has repeatedly aped the director's penchant for manipulating audiences with visual language (what is Jaws if not a sub-aquatic version of The Birds?). The result has been, ultimately, an infantile blockbuster culture that dominates contemporary Hollywood and that speaks only through simplistic and formulaic action sequences that often have their roots exclusively in Hitchcock. The personal-point-of-view chase of Cary Grant's Roger Thornton in North by Northwest, for instance, is unequivocally the central template for all modern hero-in-peril action movie sequences (think Tom Cruise on the run from alien tripods in War of the Worlds).

Worst of all, the cult of personality that surrounded Hitchcock, as seen most obviously in his cameo appearances, has confused cinema itself about its very purpose. Before Hitchcock, during the classic Hollywood era, American filmmaking was a storytelling medium. Directors were rarely known by name. The films were a continuation of the primal campfire tradition of cultural communication of myths and archetypes. But after Hitchcock, the director was foregrounded. He became an artist, or a painter at least, and movies became his canvas. A level of irony and awareness crept into films that has never left them. This irony asks us to see camera moves, cuts and bravura sequences as personal gifts, winks and nods from the director to the viewer (the entire career of the Rushmore director Wes Anderson is built on this notion). It can be satisfying and rewarding, yes. But some basic, more fundamental human impulse has been lost along the way. Again, thanks to Hitchcock.

Or perhaps it's thanks to how Hitchcock has been appropriated through the years. The director's films were indeed powerful personal statements based on fundamental storytelling material that spoke of a man troubled by the twin poles of Catholic guilt and dark desires (his entire output pings between these two obsessions - the question of who is really guilty, and how women relate to that guilt). His storytelling was thus as honest and open as anything that had come before it in Hollywood. And he has left behind a body of work so vast and so rich in technique that it has become a feeding ground for generations of ambitious filmmakers without access to the master's abilities. The result is that when we watch a movie such as Terminator Salvation, and we spot an unbroken shot, from a desert hole to a chopper to a killing machine on the ground, we can only conclude that Hitchcock lives. But sadly so.