Hitchcock OlympiadThe summer games have also been a late summer for the director reclaimed for Britain and acclaimed for the greatest film ever made
Written by Richard Combs
It might be an Olympic event. Nine hundred people have assembled in front of a London landmark, and for a moment you might think they are here for a marathon perhaps, because from a distance such spectators all look alike. They all have one face. But actually, crowds have gathered for a bit of stage hocus-pocus, a vanishing trick (call it The Audience Vanishes). They are standing in front of the British Museum, and all of them have donned cardboard cutout masks of Alfred Hitchcock. A restored print of the silent version of his 1929 film Blackmail is about to be projected on a huge screen in the forecourt of the museum (scene of the film’s big chase climax), with a score composed by veteran silent-film accompanist Neil Brand and performed by the Thames Sinfonia.
The masks are a token of the fact that Hitchcock was everywhere in the city this summer. Blackmail is one of five of his silent films that have been restored by the British Film Institute’s National Archive and presented with new scores at live performances around town; his boxing film The Ring (27) played at the Hackney Empire in East London, a venue that Hitchcock apparently visited in his youth. All bar one of his silent films are due to come back to life in the BFI’s biggest-ever restoration program, “Rescue the Hitchcock 9.” Still missing is his second film, The Mountain Eagle (26), made in Germany, which has pulled off a complete vanishing trick. But it might still magically reappear: in a fascinating recent discovery, three reels of The White Shadow (24)— on which Hitchcock worked as writer and designer—came to light in New Zealand and were included in a three-month Hitchcock series at BFI Southbank.
All the Hitchcockery became fused this past summer with the hyperbole surrounding the Olympic Games. The Hitchcock season, for instance, was part of the London 2012 Festival, which despite its name was a U.K.-wide festival of the arts and was in turn a culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, “the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements,” which was four years in the making. So Hitchcock has been returned to the city as a local hero—he is now regularly referred to as London’s (i.e., Britain’s) greatest filmmaker— on an Olympian (in the original sense) scale. He took the city into himself and now he gives it back to us—not just the kind of national monuments he liked to film wherever he went, but the ordinary street scenes used as back projections in Blackmail—with added value.
It may now even be necessary to bring the later non-British Hitchcock home. In one of the essays in the BFI collection 39 Steps to the Genius of Hitchcock, Matthew Sweet recounts how the Hollywood Man Who Knew Too Much (56) “suddenly forgets not to be British” (as if Hitchcock had foolishly been trying not to be) when it lands on a London location. The essay then stretches the point by trying to label the Hollywood Hitchcock an “exile.” It also seems part of the Olympic moment that the term “genius” is now regularly applied to Hitchcock—as it once was to Orson Welles, and in a way which may similarly come back to haunt Hitchcock’s reputation. Though that may soon suffer a much more blatant haunting. In this Hitchcock-takes-all season, Vertigo (58) also usurped the top spot (from Citizen Kane) in the Sight & Sound all-time Top 10 poll, and two new films about the director are about to turn the theme of neurotic desire from a matter of art into one of biography. In The Girl, a BBC drama soon to be broadcast in the U.K., Toby Jones gives a prosthetically aided and vocally uncanny impersonation of Hitchcock. His drawling growl echoes through the film like the beast in search of beauty, who is never quite as fully evoked, though the film is about the trials of Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), having real birds flung at her on The Birds and being sexually propositioned during the making of Marnie. But apart from these now well-known scandals, The Girl is perfunctory about the two Hitchcock films (shooting in South Africa lends a bright but hard light that doesn’t really evoke Bodega Bay, for instance), and it remains an echo chamber for the beast. When a member of the audience at the Q&A after a screening objected to this demonizing of an “English hero”—slipping into Olympics-speak— the filmmakers suggested we should be prepared for worse when Anthony Hopkins dons the prosthetics in the upcoming Hollywood take on the making of Psycho.
2. “DON’T FORGET. THE BIRDS WILL SING AT 1:45.”
The Pleasure Garden
How should a silent Hitchcock film sound? Neil Brand’s solution for Blackmail was to move toward the Hitchcock we know, conjuring the symphonic scores of Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa, and Franz Waxman. (As Brand put it: “Where tonality seldom enters pure major or minor keys but lurches between the two, matching the characters’ flailing moral choices.”) For The Lodger (26), the first recognizably Hitchcockian thriller, Nitin Sawhney’s new score goes partly in the same direction (slashing Psycho strings, a touch of North by Northwest in the final chase and near-lynching of the wrong man). But it also moves backwards. In its playfulness, a lurking brassiness in the menace, and even a little ballad for the burgeoning romance, the score has an air of carnival, of the shows, circuses, and musical entertainments of Hitchcock’s youth. “The hardworking Hitchcocks loved all manner of entertainment,” states biographer Patrick McGilligan. “They always attended the annual Easter Fair in nearby Wanstead Flats, which had magicians and marksmanship contests and amusement rides.” In fact, the resurrection and restoration of the “Hitchcock 9” should reveal something interesting about Hitchcock’s silent cinema: it’s all show and (The Lodger and Blackmail apart) no thrills. These are basically romances in which the instability of the central couple—the women are generally fickle or faithless, the men somehow unfixed in life, unformed—is set within the fakery of show biz.
The very first shot of Hitchcock’s first film, The Pleasure Garden (26), has feathered showgirls tripping down a spiral staircase, which incorporates the show with a touch of the vertigo to come. The Ring begins with a lengthy celebration of the whirling-around pleasures of the fairground before going on to develop the “ring” motif in more balefully expressionist terms. Even Downhill (27), an Ivor Novello project to follow The Lodger that Hitchcock subsequently scorned, proves fascinating: no thrills, and virtually no plot, simply the downward progression of the hero after being falsely accused of getting a girl pregnant, slipping through all the circles of hell in “the world of make-believe,” until he winds up in virtual prostitution.
There is hurdy-gurdy music in the sound films—even in Stage Fright (50), which is set in the world of “legitimate theater” but also takes in the fairground and a marksmanship contest. An early sound film, Murder! (30), locates a thriller—in fact, a rare whodunit— in a theatrical milieu (an actress is accused of murdering the fellow member of a touring company). Like The Ring, this allows for some rigorous, expressionist image-pairing—the prison as a stage, the stage as a prison—but also for something more indefinable in the pairing of Sir John (Herbert Marshall), the distracted, dreamy theater producer, who sets out to solve the murder, and the culprit, Handel Fane (Esme Percy), a melancholic “half-caste” who does a circus trapeze act in showgirl costume.
Hitchcock uses various kinds of show—including the cinema itself—as a source of puns for what is happening in the plot. The Manxman (29), set on the Isle of Man, in the hard terrain of “the lowly fisherfolk,” couldn’t be further from the world of make-believe. But in one crucial scene between the heroine and her two suitors, an ambiguous promise—which will have tragic consequences— is made behind a bedroom blind that becomes a screen for an amorous performance. At the beginning of Sabotage (36), an on-screen dictionary defines the meaning of the word as “alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness,” which seems to apply as much to the saboteur behind the camera. A cinema here serves as both a family home and a meeting place for a nest of anarchists, and a bird shop doubles as a bomb factory. “Don’t forget. The birds will sing at 1:45,” says a note on a canary cage with a bomb hidden underneath.
Allied to this is another kind of “performance” that runs through Hitchcock’s films from the earliest silent days: a stream of messages, letters, lists, telegrams, and then telephone calls. In the silent films they are a useful substitute for intertitles, and in the spy thrillers a way of planting clues—or MacGuffins (the note in the shaving brush of the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). But they can also take more baroque forms: the Vanishing Lady’s existence is confirmed by the name she has traced in the dust on a train window. And in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, when the hero and sidekick/heroine have smuggled themselves into the chapel congregation that is the villains’ cover, they carry on their tactical talk by disguising it as a hymn. It’s time for Doris Day to sing—something other than “Que Sera, Sera.”
3. TRISTAN AND ISOLDE & ISOLDE
The Mountain Eagle
Hitchcock began to incorporate his own music cues early in the sound period. In Murder!, in a complicated sound impasto, Sir John is musing in voiceover into his shaving mirror about the woman he has just helped to convict of murder, interwoven with a radio SOS broadcast and then the overture to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. It’s a lowering operatic hint in this context, but Wagner’s score for doomed lovers was something to which Bernard Herrmann could allude in his music for Vertigo. Suzanne Pleshette’s schoolteacher in The Birds (63) has Tristan and Isolde in her record collection, and it is quoted in the music for The Girl, as the director undertakes his doomed pursuit of his star.
In fact, the Tristan and Isolde legend features two Isoldes—Tristan’s eternal love and his wife (called Iseult of the White Hands) whose jealousy of the lovers leads to a lie that seals their fate. Something of this comes through the split female roles, even good girl/bad girl pairs, of Hitchcock’s early cinema. The Pleasure Garden is showbiz Wagner, with two mismatched pairs of lovers. The heroine, a showgirl, marries a heartless libertine; her gold-digging stage sister is engaged to the hero. Finally, delirious with fever, the hero kisses the heroine, in the belief that she’s his reprehensible fiancée. Even more radical, the recently rediscovered reels of the first half of The White Shadow, largely written by Hitchcock for director Graham Cutts, has actress Betty Compson playing twin sisters, one blessed with a soul, the other coldly lacking. A deathbed metempsychosis (unseen here) ensures that the latter winds up with both a soul and the hero. They’re not divided into good girl/bad girl pairs, but the heroines of The Ring, The Manxman, and Blackmail are all romantically of two minds. And as historian Charles Barr pointed out when presenting The White Shadow at the BFI Southbank, its doubling looks forward to Vertigo’s dynamic, only reversed: from two women who seem to be one, to one woman who becomes two. What makes all this doubling possible in the silent films—what to an extent must even inspire it—are the stylistic figures Hitchcock is developing, borrowed in the first instance from German expressionist cinema. Apart from qualities of lighting, what’s distinctive about the silent films is their persistent use of one device: the dissolve. Dissolves make ironic or sinister connections between characters, and one of the first, in The Pleasure Garden, spells out the subject: the wife waving her husband goodbye on his ship to the East merges with his mistress waving him welcome.
In the sound films, dissolves are used for more functional transitions. And the mirroring of female roles is replaced by another kind of doubling: the “wrong man.” The first of these had appeared in The Lodger, but that was forced on Hitchcock: originally, the lodger turned out to be the serial killer stalking London, but the producers balked at Ivor Novello playing a murderer. By the time of North by Northwest (59), the concept of the hero being pursued for something he hasn’t done while he pursues the real culprit is given an absurd twist that more or less obliterates it. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for someone who doesn’t exist, a fictive agent invented by U.S. intelligence to deceive the spies they’re after. This makes Thornhill most akin to the hero of Downhill, ejected from his comfortable world and caught in a whirl of make-believe. In fact, there’s usually a quality of abstraction about the “wrong man” motif. The real villain may be a problem for the hero, but he’s not actually a doppelgänger; once he is caught, the films show little interest in him, or even (as in The Lodger) in who he is. What’s “wrong” may operate as much at a formal as a character level; it’s a disruption in the scheme of things, a cosmic lapse, or at least a torque in the plot that has to be corrected. That’s clearest in one film in which it isn’t the hero who becomes the wrong man. In Secret Agent (36), John Gielgud and fellow agents are despatched to Switzerland during the First World War to eliminate an enemy spy. Their clues seem to point to an affable old English gentleman, whom they duly push off a mountain, only to find it was a premature push.
This leads to a temporary collapse in the narrative. It is followed by a strange false idyll before the spy hunt can be resumed: Gielgud decides to quit espionage and tries to cement a real relationship with Madeleine Carroll, a fellow agent who has been pretending to be his wife as a cover. Their forced gaiety plays like a charade, like the screwball to come in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (41). What’s gone “wrong” is a narrative misdirection—a derangement of the state of things—from which the film has to recover. Consider the similar narrative collapses in Vertigo or Psycho (60), or even the wrong moves Hitchcock felt he himself had made, from which the films didn’t recover: the “lying flashback” in Stage Fright or the killing of the boy in Sabotage.
In Vertigo, of course, the doubled female comes back with a vengeance. Or is that tripled, if we include the real Madeleine Elster, or quadrupled, if we include the spirit of Carlotta Valdes? And what about Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), past romantic interest of Scottie (James Stewart) but now reduced to Girl Friday in glasses? One of the strangest scenes occurs before Kim Novak’s Madeleine has even appeared, in Midge’s studio where Scottie is recuperating from the evidently fatal fall he was about to take in the opening scene. The room is filled with Midge’s designs for women’s underwear; she explains a prototype bra (“It’s brand-new: revolutionary uplift”—for the new woman?). They discuss how common it is for men to wear corsets (as he now has to). Midge is in mothering/mending mode; Scottie is adrift, or with the spirits himself. He might still be in free fall, or swinging like Handel Fane in his corset high above the circus floor.
The now certified chic-ness of Vertigo, of its themes of romantic obsession and controlling desire, may have fixed it in a way that belies the chaos at its center. It is a kind of wonderland of broken parts, of shifting roles and dreams of existence such as might fit a fairy tale—which is how Hitchcock occasionally referred to his films. His most charming is Young and Innocent (37), with its young couple on the run being saved by a fairy godfather, and his darkest is Notorious (46), with a princess in need of rescue and a wicked stepmother recast as den mother to neo-Nazis. If Hitchcock had a fantasy version of himself, it has been said, it would have been Cary Grant. But when discussing The Girl, the screenwriter, Gwyneth Hughes, has suggested he might have identified more with his female stars—that the beast’s fantasy was to be beauty.
4. A WALK THROUGH H
Hitchcock would have enjoyed being celebrated in carnival fashion, with the live-music screenings of the Olympic Festival. But did the city take him back or was the city simply reinvested with his spirit, a cinematic presence it was impossible to escape anyway? That presence had even pre-empted the Festival. In spring, pop-up showings of four of his films spread across town: could a candlelit church be the appropriate venue to watch Psycho? Simultaneously, Mary Rose, the J.M. Barrie play that Hitchcock had tried and failed to film for so long, was back on stage.
As it happened, the Olympics themselves, the main sporting venues, usurped Hitchcock’s original London in the east. They brought with them the promise of regeneration for a decaying area, but you only had to walk around the corner from the new pleasure domes, into the High Road Leytonstone where he was born, to see the promise evaporate. Here the Olympics had strangely little presence (elsewhere the aggressive corporate branding was inescapable). There was a sign of something else, though. The Hitchcocks were part of the busy expansion of working families in this area in the late 19th century, and more cultural expansion has followed: cafés advertise “Bulgarian Breakfast” or “Ghanaian & Caribbean Takeaway.” The block of houses containing No. 517 is gone, though on the wall of a pizza shop is a blue plaque testifying that Alfred Joseph Hitchcock “was born near this site.” On the door of the shop is a sign testifying that it is halal.
Everything is food, as Hitchcock, the son of a greengrocer and dedicated gourmand, understood. He had another unmade dream project, an unusually expansive one, which he described to François Truffaut: “It starts out at 5am, at daybreak . . . I’d like to try to do an anthology on food, showing its arrival in the city, its distribution, the selling . . . the various ways in which it’s consumed . . . The end of the film would show the sewers, and the garbage being dumped out into the ocean.” The idea of “filming everything” seems to contradict Hitchcock’s ideal of “pure cinema,” the rigorous selection and distillation of material. But perhaps there’s no reason why one ideal shouldn’t emerge from the other, why Hitchcock shouldn’t have been pushing for something that surpassed all other cinema. It might be most pure when it could dispense altogether with the boundaries between itself and its subject, itself and the world.
One could say he made that happen anyway: in the many manifestations of his own self, in the way certain scenes (the shower murder in Psycho) have sprung free of his films to exist as artifacts in their own right. There was a proto-Conceptual artist in Hitchcock, as a Conceptual artist like Douglas Gordon recognized with his gallery installation 24-Hour Psycho. Douglas also intervened in Rear Window (54), picking up on the address that’s spelled out for wife murderer Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). “So I sent him a letter asking: what have you done with her?”
And then there’s a brief, unexpected epiphany in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho, in the final brutal shot of Marion Crane’s car being winched from the swamp. This now has to be prolonged to accommodate a longer roll of end credits, and the shot pulls back and back until we also see the attending police cars, then the surrounding countryside, and finally, twinkling in the distance, cars on a highway. There’s a shock of recognition. This must be the highway that is talked about but is never part of the landscape in Hitchcock’s film, that has bypassed the Bates Motel and marooned it and its inhabitants in their 1930s, Universal Pictures, Old Dark House limbo.