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Love, Hitch

VERTIGO: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic;\o7 By Dan Auiler; (St. Martin's Press: 240 pp., $27.95)\f7

HITCHCOCK'S NOTEBOOKS: An Authorized and Illustrated Loo Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock;\o7 By Dan Auiler; (Avon Books: 566 pp., $30)\f7

July 18, 1999|PATRICK McGILLIGAN | Patrick McGilligan is the author of "Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast" and is working on a new biography of Alfred Hitchcock

Get ready for the 100th birthday of Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, being celebrated on Aug. 13, 1999, by a museum, revival theater, cable network or bookstore near your home.

There are probably more books about Hitchcock than any other motion picture director, yet there is room for many more. No matter how deeply reported or examined, Hitchcock's life and films remain elusive, enigmatic and open to reinterpretation.

"Hitch," as he called himself on his first job, almost 10 years before he entered the film trade, is one of the great provocateurs of the cinema. His best films, from his first important work, "The Lodger," made in the silent era, to "Frenzy," released in 1972, eight years before his death--in all, more than a half century in the business--stand out as bold, captivating, sometimes disturbing entertainment. Partly because of their meticulous craftsmanship, partly because of their unsettling modern terrain (lust, voyeurism, murder, false accusation), they continue to attract young fans and fascinate scholars while tempting remakes by a new Hollywood generation feebly in his debt.

Thanks in part to his own shrewd publicity, Hitchcock's name--and face--have become better known to the general population than any director's in history. At the same time, paradoxically, Hitchcock was a fundamentally private man who successfully guarded the sanctum of his soul--if anything, enhancing his mystique.

"There's a mystery about me," as the undercover police detective played by John Loder says of himself in "Sabotage," Hitchcock's 1936 film. "Come to think about it, there's a mystery about most people."

Dan Auiler, a Los Angeles teacher and writer, has launched a cottage industry on the subject of the mysterious Hitch. His book about the production of "Vertigo," quietly published last year, provides signal service to students and devotees of the 1958 film starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. At the time of "Vertigo's" original release, U.S. reviewers were underwhelmed, the box office was so-so and the film regarded as "neither winner nor loser," in Auiler's words.

Modern critics, the English more than the French, who have long championed Hitchcock's genius, have rescued the film and promoted it as one of several masterpieces in the twilight of the director's career. Auiler agrees: "If Hitchcock, as the critic Robin Wood has argued, is the cinema's Shakespeare, then 'Vertigo' is his Macbeth."

Martin Scorsese contributes a brief but elegant introduction to this handsome volume. Chapters on the writing of the screenplay, filming, post-production and the film's fate beyond its initial reception lay out the whole story, modestly correcting previous Hitchcock books while minimizing the abstruse analysis (Raymond Durgnat dubbed the film "Everyman in Search of His Love-Image") to which "Vertigo" is prone.

Auiler's latest book, "Hitchcock's Notebooks," is bigger, broader in scope and patently more important. It has a title that evokes Da Vinci and a subtitle that lets people know it has the imprimatur of the director's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell, who may be remembered for playing Ruth Roman's sister in one of her father's nail-biters, "Strangers on a Train."

"Hitchcock's Notebooks" consists of sketches, storyboard layouts and stills, annotated script material, production notes, correspondence and other memorabilia from the director's voluminous collection on deposit at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Although the book is more smorgasbord than gourmet feast, there is something on the table for every appetite.

Like Da Vinci, Hitchcock was a sketch artist who filled pages with doodles and drawings. He worked out his camera placement and montage in advance, on paper. He had been trained as a youth, back in World War I days, when he toiled in paste-up and design for an electrical cable supply company in London. The 12 pages of storyboarding for the "Crop-dusting Sequence" of "North by Northwest" will be valuable to Hitchcockians, even if they illustrate one of the pitfalls of the official archives. They were drawn not by Hitchcock, but by production artist Mintor Huebner, at the director's behest, based on Ernest Lehman's screenplay.

"What images are Huebner's? Hitchcock's? Lehman's?" the author muses. "The answer, which makes empiricists uneasy, is all three."

It isn't always clear in the book what was executed by the director or by his staff. One noteworthy exception is Hitchcock's renderings for "The 39 Steps," made in England in 1935, which are all the more precious because the academy collection lacks significant material on the first half of the director's filmography. Its emphasis is on the post-1939 Hitchcock in Hollywood.

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