Alfred Hitchcock's Catholic guilt



Hitchcock/Truffaut (PG). Director: Kent Jones. Starring: Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Arnaud Desplechin, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut. 79 minutes

The question at the heart of this French and American co-production — Was Alfred Hitchcock, director of popular thrillers such as The Birds, Psycho and The Man Who Knew Too Much, an entertainer or an artist? — has long been asked and answered (he was both).

Kent Jones takes as the fulcrum for his thesis a series of conversations in 1962 between Hitchcock and the great French New Wave auteur François Truffaut (The 400 Blows), who had cited the older man as a key influence on his work. These conversations eventually constituted a book, whose publication in 1966 is seen as key to cementing Hitchcock's reputation as a great filmmaker.

That Hitchcock's greatness is never in question — and will not be among the cinephiles who are this film's primary audience — does not make the premise less interesting. The film combines recordings from those conversations, with interviews with modern American, French and Japanese filmmakers. Ostensibly this is to explore the influence of Hitchcock's work on their own, but it becomes an exercise in valorisation, as these filmmakers who also are film fans enthusiastically discuss one of their favourite directors. The brief running time allows little space for concrete analysis; nor will anyone hoping for a fair-minded examination of the more divisive aspects of Hithcock's oeuvre be much satisfied.

It is telling, for example, that all of the subjects are men. They acknowledge that Hitchcock often had a fractious relationship with actors, who he described as 'cattle', there to do his bidding. But there is no mention of, for example, his reportedly abusive relationship with Tippi Hedren — one of the iconic 'Hitchcock blondes' — who is on the record describing sexual harassment by the director on the sets of The Birds and Marnie.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in VertigoAlso the interviewees regard Vertigo with awe, waxing lyrical about its potent psychosexual subtext that bubbles up to supplant even plot and story; but not a word is said about the inherent misogyny of a film that is explicitly about a man's objectification of a woman. Linklater does observe, intriguingly but also revealingly, that a more interesting film might be one told from 'the girl's' perspective (Kim Novak was 25 at the time).


"There is a sense of the divine spectator, interested but inactive, in Hitchcock's films, that comes especially from the use of stylised overhead shots."


Many an effusive word is said about Hitchcock's achievements as a visual stylist, in Vertigo and elsewhere; his then unmatched skill at manipulating and eliciting a response from his audience, notably in the gleefully rule-breaking Psycho; and his exquisite sense of space, and of cinema's potential for stretching and contracting time, to create and sustain suspense. None of this is new.

The film's most interesting segment however concerns the pre-eminence of guilt in Hitchcock's films, with specific reference to The Wrong Man, and the role it plays in shaping human activity. This, says Scorsese (a filmmaker similarly preoccupied with guilt and sin), may define Hitchcock as an essentially Catholic filmmaker. (Both men were raised Catholic.)

Indeed there is a sense of the divine spectator, interested but inactive, in Hitchcock's films, that comes especially from the use of stylised overhead shots. Perhaps the most famous of these is in The Birds where, following an explosion in the small town that is about to come under siege from winged assailants, the film cuts to an aerial view, as the birds begin to swoop in.

That Hitchcock says he merely wanted to avoid having to show the detail on the ground, of people rushing around with fire hoses, does not diminish the visceral impact of this image or the evoked sense that God is watching, alluded to especially by Scorsese and Fincher. It is one of the marks of a great artist that their art communicates more to its audience than even the artist intended.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut



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