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Alfred Hitchcock Becomes a Real Museum Piece

Art * The filmmaker's work and influence are vividly explored in an often eerie Montreal exhibition.

March 05, 2001|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTREAL — From the moment you enter "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences," it's clear that this is not the average museum exhibition. The first room is dark and disorienting, like a dimly lighted movie theater. As your eyes adjust, the anxious violins of the film director's favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, swell in the background. And then you see three rows of glass cases containing 21 iconic objects from his films, each spotlighted on a red satin pillow like a rare and precious artifact.

Exhibit A: Tippi Hedren's shattered eyeglasses from "The Birds." There's the monogrammed cigarette lighter from "Strangers on a Train," Janet Leigh's black lace brassiere from "Psycho." And wittily, Jimmy Stewart's camera from "Rear Window," with its massive telephoto lens aiming through the parted velvet curtains into the exhibit's next chamber.

"It is like a giant wink," said Guy Cogeval, the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who has dreamed of this exhibition with his friend, film expert Dominique Paini, since they both worked at the Louvre in Paris a decade ago. Paini now runs the Cinematheque Francais in Paris.

"Like Hitchcock, we wanted the exhibit to be theatrical, yet subtle; to show ideas that are sophisticated, but presented in a way that is very popular," said Cogeval.

The show, which runs until April 16, is an innovative excavation into the mind of the master of suspense, his myriad influences and the artists he influenced in turn. In putting the oeuvre of a filmmaker on the same footing as the past century's more traditional art forms, the co-curators wanted to showcase Hitchcock as a true inventor of form and vision.

"He is the greatest creator of images, a genius," said Cogeval. "He is one of the bridges between symbolism and surrealism, a man who brought to the 20th century the idea of modernity from the 19th century."

Cogeval and Paini approached the exhibition from several directions. They set out to show how Hitchcock put together his films, from the themes to the mechanics of the storyboards and props. A pen and ink storyboard from "The Birds," created before the shooting began, shows, image by image, exactly how filming should proceed. "He once said that the film is finished for him at the first shot," said Cogeval. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He had the montage in his head." During the actual filming, Hitchcock would often sleep.

There are unexpected treasures: While preparing the exhibition, the museum's researchers discovered home movies showing the notoriously private Hitchcock playing with his baby daughter, Patricia, allowing a glimpse of the whimsical showman who liked to appear in fleeting cameos in his own films. Like the voyeurs in his movies, we see him climbing in her crib and mouthing his fist like a teething infant, or giving her horsy-back rides on his hands and knees. And in a clip that could be the moment that inspired "The Birds," we see young Patricia being swarmed by a flock of pigeons after she tosses a spray of bread crumbs.

Hitchcock's Influences and Those He Influenced

Cogeval and Paini also document the writers, painters and filmmakers who influenced Hitchcock, and they show how his films later nourished a generation of contemporary artists, such as photographer Cindy Sherman and sculptor Tony Oursler.

The origins of his fascination with the macabre are suggested in a room hung with the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley and excerpts from Hitchcock's writing, in which he reveals his debt to the dark romanticism of Edgar Allen Poe.

"I've tried to put in my films what Poe put in his tales: a completely unbelievable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression the same thing could happen to you tomorrow," he wrote.

Hitchcock also defined one way Hollywood now views the femme fatale. One gallery explores the origins of Hitchcock's romantic ideal, the beautiful, icy blonds just beyond reach. Their beauty masks a disturbing dark side, echoing the distant ladies in portraits by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, such as "Proserpine" (1877), and Julia Margaret Cameron's photographs. In his films, Hitchcock often had his heroines gazing at--or being watched by--moody Victorian portraits.

Murders as Love Scenes, and Vice Versa

That 19th century sensibility also informed his connection of love with death; his characters infrequently attain a happy ending. Hitchcock said his favorite murders were the kind performed at home, and the show unveils his fascination with the shadows within seemingly benign characters or places.

"The love scenes are filmed like murder scenes," wrote French critic and director Francois Truffaut, "and his murder scenes are filmed like love scenes." The exhibition has the film clips to prove it.

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