Television Review

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The Independent Culture
ALFRED HITCHCOCK invited caricature. His looks were cartoonish - dewlapped, hairless head with its jutting lips flopped on top of that gross bulk - and he enhanced an air of parody with his film cameos and the macabre self-mockery of his introductions to his television programmes. But it's also there in his life: it's easy to do a comic-strip version of his career with Hitch as the frustrated artist, trapped by the demands of commerce, or as a grotesque Svengali harassing a succession of blonde Trilbys.

Tim Kirby's two films for Reputations (Sun and Mon BBC2) tried hard to avoid over-simplification and sensationalism. The first programme, "Alfred the Great", was a highly satisfying run-through of Hitchcock's formative years, from lower- middle-class Catholic childhood in east London, through his early successes in Britain and Hollywood, to his first flops, Rope and Under Capricorn. The outlines of the story were familiar, but Kirby added plenty of useful detail. For instance, we were told that the young director gathered new ideas about shadow and camera angles from seeing German directors like Fritz Lang at work; the point was illustrated exactly by the montage which followed of abruptly arty and self-consciously strange shots from The Lodger.

And the film was rarely content with restating the familiar. Hitchcock's epigram about treating actors like cattle was included, but as a footnote to another, more revealing anecdote: Hitch turning to the crew as a young actor struggled with his lines and saying, "I wound him up, I put him on the floor, and he doesn't go." That suggests more than contempt for actors; it points to his belief that cinema was a director's medium, coupled with a recognition of his own absurdity.

This attitude was a stain on his career, although anybody who has spent much time with actors is likely to sympathise. The darkest episode was his relationship with Tippi Hedren: having created her as an actress, with The Birds and then Marnie, his obsessive interest in her became so obtrusive that she rebelled; spurned, he snuffed out her career. This story was central to the second of Kirby's films; but again, this wasn't too obvious - we got a more sober, dispassionate version of events than is often heard, omitting such lurid details as the coffin with the doll in it which he is supposed to have sent her.

This second part - "Alfred the Auteur" - left me feeling rather dissatisfied, though. One reason was that too many hares were started and not chased down (Evan Hunter, original screenwriter on The Birds, thought he was supposed to be writing a screwball comedy: what on earth did his script sound like?) Another was that not enough effort went into knitting together the young, unknown Hitchcock with the older, celebrated one.

The main problem, though, was that the film was too ready to accept Hitchcock's own cartoon version of himself as a prisoner of commerce. Watching Hitchcock over the weekend, one thing that is clear is that he dissolved the opposition between art and money: Hitchcock's best films - The 39 Steps, North by Northwest - give instant pleasure and excitement, and repay repeated examination. And isn't that what all art should try to do?