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A sorcerer of the cinema

Alfred Hitchcock A Life in Darkness and Light Patrick McGilligan Regan Books: 832 pp., $39.95

September 28, 2003|John Boorman | John Boorman is the director of such films as "Deliverance," "Point Blank" and "Hope and Glory." His autobiography will be published in November.

Patrick McGilligan's "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" is a preemptive strike against anyone else planning a book on Hitch. Quoting freely from the Francois Truffaut interviews, John Russell Taylor's official biography, Donald Spoto's "The Dark Side of Genius" and dozens more books, hundreds of interviews, the testimony of Hitchcock scholars and minutiae unearthed from archives the world over -- it is magnificently exhaustive, absolutely definitive, marvelously magisterial. Yet the mystery of Hitchcock remains unsolved.

Hitchcock himself is the ultimate McGuffin, a device, a necessity serving an inner enigma. Was this devoted husband really impotent, as he often claimed, or, as Billy Wilder once told me, "That was for the benefit of his wife." His cunning and guile in dealing with producers and studios, his manipulation of the press, his carefully developed public persona of the trickster showman were all weapons to defend his movies, to gain the freedom to make them as he wanted. Any filmmaker with vision becomes a slave to his art; Hitchcock gave his life to it, sacrificed all else to it.

Hitchcock's intimidating claim that his films were fully formed at the script stage and that shooting and editing them was a boring necessity, to my great relief, turns out not to be true. He compromised with the studio, he often transformed the picture in the cutting room, and he chopped and changed after audience previews -- just like us lesser practitioners. He knew, as we all do, that film is malleable, fluid, plastic, that when a film finds its song it begins to dominate its makers and we are obliged to serve it and not bend it to our will.

In Hitchcock's formative English period, he gathered about him a team and working method that served him throughout his career. His wife, Alma, and Joan Harrison (who ostensibly did continuity) were involved in the whole process. Harrison was particularly valuable in structuring his scripts, which were initially devised during brainstorming sessions at his home on London's Cromwell Road, where at least one more writer would be involved. Coming out of the silent era, Hitch was always interested in finding ways of telling the story with the camera, the cinematic device. Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, he understood that suspense was the means by which he could connect to the audience's subconscious, that the power of film was its closeness to the condition of dreaming. Suspense invested banal objects -- a chair, a staircase -- with fearful significance, with deep meaning. He was the magician who could induce in us an altered state. The stories, the plots were devices to get us to that place.

In England, from 1934 to '39, he made "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The 39 Steps," "Secret Agent," "Sabotage" ("The Woman Alone" in America), "The Lady Vanishes" and "Jamaica Inn." Like British directors ever since, he was struggling to make his films on inadequate budgets in a constantly collapsing industry. He made the decision to leave for the States, signing a contract with producer David O. Selznick. Hitch was shocked to discover that in Hollywood the power lay with the producers, whereas in Europe the director was the prime mover. Worse still, Selznick was immersed in making "Gone With the Wind" and had no time for the new boy.

This experience inspired Hitch to begin his campaign to wrest power for himself so that he could protect his inner vision. Thus began his campaign to make himself into the amusing buffoon, the purveyor of fear, appealing over the heads of his bosses to the public at large. The power he gathered resulted in "Notorious," "Rear Window," "North by Northwest" and "Psycho," all films in which Hitchcockery took us pleasurably, fearfully to that deep place in our unconscious where we became his helpless victims.

McGilligan is wonderfully revealing in his account of the postproduction of "Vertigo." "Hitchcock ... refined his vision of a film as he never had before, reediting, stripping away the elements that made the story explicit, allowing for longer stretches for [Bernard] Herrmann's music, transforming 'Vertigo' into a haunting emotional allegory." He was dangerously dispensing with the camouflage of genre and plot, with predictable results. The film was poorly received by audiences and critics alike. Time magazine said it was "just another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares." The New York Times found it "far-fetched." This is the film universally acclaimed by critics today as a masterpiece that elevates the cinema to a peak of artistry.

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