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What Should We Watch Tonight? Our Critic Says Anything From Alfred Hitchcock

Stan Osborne/CC BY 3.0
Alfred Hitchcock directing Family Plot inside Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California in 1975.

When I present movies in public, I am amazed that audiences continually respond to Hitchcock’s films as if they were made yesterday, and not decades ago.  Hitchcock made movies from the 1920s into the ‘80s, but what he’s getting at are the fundamental anxieties of human lives. We feel guilty about something we do; we distrust someone we love. Hitchcock’s characters are often extreme and exotic –spies or murderers – but at their core they’re tortured by the same things that bedevil all of us.

In the 1946 Notorious, Cary Grant plays a CIA agent. He enlists Ingrid Bergman to go underground and romance a post-World War II Nazi in Brazil. She’s the daughter of a Nazi spy, yet while she despises Nazis, no one knows that – except the CIA. Grant is her handler, but the issue between them is about them, not about old Nazi spies plotting to make an atom bomb. They’re in love but can’t admit it.

Grant covers his jealousy with nastiness; he betrays her. And that’s what holds you in the film, not international intrigue – that’s just the disguise for the real stuff.

Lots of filmmakers say that film is a visual art, but few of them actually know how to do it. Hitchcock characters never tell the story; they are the story. They talk about what they talk about and the audience puts the story together. That’s how good dialogue and filmmaking work. The audience watches a story unfold on screen – the characters live their fictional lives. But it’s remarkable how few filmmakers fully understand and practice that.

Hitchcock built his films on what he considered suspense. In his great example, a couple sits at a table at an outdoor café. They chat about the weather or whatever, but the audience sees that there is a bomb under the table – and sweats it out wondering why these people chit chat when the bomb might go off. That’s suspense. The two don’t talk about people wanting to kill them – they’re oblivious.

If the bomb then goes off, Hitchcock says the audience will be furious because they’ve come to know the couple. If you want to set off the bomb, it has to come right away, before the conversation. But for Hitchcock, that’s terror, which he finds uninteresting because it’s just an explosion. What matters is how we worry about people, and the suspense of seeing people who don’t know what dangers lurk in their lives.

There’s some standard poop on Hitchcock:

He believes in something like “original sin.” Some say that comes from his Catholic upbringing. But it’s not shown as theological; it boils down to something like, if you’re a human being, you’ve got it coming. There’s no explanation in The Birds about why the birds started attacking people, although while people are wondering about it out loud, they’re in a restaurant ordering things like fried chicken.

Most Hitchcock pictures turn on something called “the transference of guilt.” One person has a guilty secret which they pass on to someone else, who’s trapped by it. In both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, a man has been stabbed. As he dies, he whispers to another person, who is then pursued and forced to act on what he’s learned. In Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, James Stewart, confined by a broken leg, becomes a Peeping Tom. He spies on his neighbors – and believes the man across the courtyard  has killed his wife. Stewart tells Grace Kelly, who shares this guilty pleasure, and she’s then hooked.

And so are we all. We share Stewart’s secret; we enjoy his sarcastic observations. We even – temporarily – share the fear of Norman Bates in Psycho, after he’s committed murder. Hitchcock is one perverse filmmaker, and you can’t resist loving it.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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