The father of popular culture

Hitchcock managed to capture and throw back at us the essence of our 20th-century fears

Deborah Orr
Thursday 12 August 1999 23:02

AN ELDERLY woman is talking about her experience as one of the first people to see a screening of Psycho, in 1960. She talks of her horror and surprise, going on to qualify her reaction with the explanation that at that time you never, ever saw actresses wearing only brassieres and waist-slips.

Even the first minutes of the film, in which Janet Leigh meets her married lover in a hotel room at lunchtime, had shocked this woman rigid. Later in the screening, when the shower scene is shown for the first time to the general public, the woman can't look at all. Others around her scream, vomit ,or angrily walk out of the cinema.

The film is roundly denounced by the critics. Then, 39 years later, during the centenary year of Alfred Hitchcock's birth, it is voted by film critics worldwide to be the greatest of his 50 or so movies. Today, the very day that marks 100 years since Hitchcock's birth in the London suburb of Leytonstone, his place as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history is unassailable. The fact that he never received an Oscar merely illustrates what we know already - that the golden boys don't mean as much as they're made out to mean. But while much opinion surrounding Hitchcock and his oeuvre has been re-evaluated over the years, a few things about this film-maker, who has been written about more than any other movie-industry figure, remain oddly immutable.

We continue to believe that in Hitchcock's films, the story of his darkest desires is inscribed. Somehow this man, who never kept a diary or recorded meditations on his art, projected his life and his mind as well as his work - and his fat little figure - on to the silver screen. Poor old Hitch and his Freudian films, doomed forever themselves to remain under Freudian analysis, as critic after critic, academic after academic tries to work out ... what?

An index of some kind, whereby a neat equation can be drawn up between the creative mind and the sick mind. Here lies the 20th-century legend of alchemy. Hitchcock, in at the beginning of the cinema age, teaching us how to see in the dark, and how to see the darkness in him. It is all there on the screen for us to read - that he is a misogynist, a sadist, and a voyeur.

It is important not to let the facts get in the way of this fantasy. Why draw on the fact of a man's life to construct an image of him, when the images he has constructed tell so much more racy a story? For it is difficult to build misogyny from what we know of Hitchcock's marriage, in 1926, to a young woman who had already worked as a silent- movie actress, but was now one of the most talented film editors in this small but burgeoning industry.

Alma Reville continued to work on Hitchcock's films until well after the Second World War, and after that she advised him, even though she no longer took part in the film-making process. He continued to treat her advice with the utmost respect until their marriage ended, 54 years later, with his death in 1980.

If it seems misogynistic that she remained behind the scenes, then consider that many women continue to thrive as film editors without ever wishing to sit in the director's chair. Martin Scorsese's film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has edited all of his films to great acclaim, but is happy to remain in this role.

As for Hitch's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock McConnell, she seems to be the product of the happy family life that Hitchcock appears really to have lived. When she told him she wanted to become an actress, her parents sent her to Rada and her father cast her in several of his films. Though his disdain for actresses was said to be legendary, he by no means transmitted this disdain to his daughter. She has in turn rewarded him with endless love and loyalty.

While Patricia McConnell continues to deny that there was anything in the repeated stories about her father's obsessive behaviour towards his succession of blonde ice-maiden leading ladies, they were exhaustively explored in Donald Spotto's biography, The Dark Side Of Genius, published a year after Alma Hitchcock's death in 1982. The most damaging testimony surrounds Hitchcock's dealings with Tippi Hedren, the model he cast first in The Birds and then in Marnie.

Here, misogyny and sadism meet, first in the tales of how Hedren was so traumatised by three days of retakes of a scene in which she was attacked by birds that shooting had to be halted for a week so that she could recover, then in the accusations that Hitchcock did everything in his power to destroy her acting career after she had spurned his sexual advances. While the fact that the ever-professional Hitchcock allowed this stoppage to occur would be, to me, quite incompatible with sadism, I don't buy the idea that reacting nastily to rejection is the defining characteristic of just one gender either.

To Camille Paglia, one of the few women to have defended Hitchcock's portrayal of her sex, Hitchcock's struggles to get a perfect performance out of Hedren were rewarded with her eventual characterisation of the ultimate blueprint for a modern, independent woman. I can't see it myself, with Hedren's performance remaining throughout the film just this side of adequate. Even Hitchcock couldn't quite launch Hedren's acting career. Presumably his efforts to destroy it didn't have to be too strenuous, anyway.

Finally, and most irritatingly, is the oft-repeated accusation that Hitchcock was a voyeur. Voyeurism itself was the main subject of his romantic comedy Rear Window. The twist here is that he based the film's characterisations on confidences about the relationship of another leading lady, Ingrid Bergman, which she told to him during her affair with the war photographer, Robert Capa.

In the film, Grace Kelly becomes sucked in to the suspicion of her injured and bed-bound photographer boyfriend, Jimmy Stewart, that the man in the flat opposite has killed his wife. As they stare obsessively into the flat, the viewer is acutely aware that she too is a peeping Tom. It is in this film that Hitchcock's understanding of film-making and watching as an essentially voyeuristic activity is clear.

For the truth is that while Hitchcock has made voyeurs of generations of audiences, he himself was not a voyeur but a visionary. Somehow, his idea of what would make a great film and a great shared experience was instinctively perfect.

The epithets we bounce back at Hitchcock are not peculiar to him, but common to us all. It is this communality of experience, this ability to appeal to people on every level, that is Hitchcock's greatest achievement. The disturbing aspect of his films, irresistible to us as it is, speaks not of Hitchcock's darkness, but of our own. The modernity of Hitchcock's films is notable, even if some of the ideas seem old-fashioned to us. Hitchcock made his films in an earlier world, as the lady shocked by Janet Leigh in a bra testifies to so well. But mostly he transcends the strictures of his own time, and in the process manages to say much more about it.

This anniversary marks not only the birth of Hitchcock, but also the birth of what has become known as popular culture. For popular culture, in all its shame and glory, was born with him. However much we might search within the interstices of Hitchcock's life and work to find out why his portrayals of murder, psychological disorder, male weakness, and female victimhood are so irresistible to us, we will not find the answers there. Instead, they are with us in the dark as we watch Hitchcock's psychological cinema, which has managed to capture and throw back at us the essence of our 20th-century fears. Try as we might, we will never be able to shut the Pandora's box that was Hitchcock's mind simply by pathologising him.

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