A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock
Edited by Thomas Leitch & Leland Poague
Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014
Paperback. xiv+610 pp. ISBN 978-111879700-6. £29.99
Reviewed by Michael Coyne
The Open University
The literature produced on the films of Alfred Hitchcock is now so extensive that the total output to date might constitute a library in itself. Indeed, perhaps some enterprising Hitchcockian scholar might seriously consider the idea. To this vast body of work comes an ambitious, weighty tome titled A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock. Dedicated to the late Robin Wood, whose own writings on the ‘Master of Suspense’ were among the most impressive and influential – one of the cornerstones of ‘Hitchcock Studies’ – this brings together thirty essays exploring virtually every interpretive avenue of the director’s cinematic accomplishments.
I stress ‘cinematic’ because, with the exception of Richard R. Ness’s discussion of the 1960 TV drama Incident at a Corner, the entertaining (and frequently mischievous) contributions Hitchcock made to the small screen during the 1950s and 1960s are conspicuous by their absence. This is a regrettable but probably necessary compromise, otherwise this present volume may have come close to a thousand pages, and editors Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague acknowledge this omission in their Introduction. There they also take the opportunity to explain why the book is not structured, as some might have expected, on a chronological film-by-film basis: ‘In lieu of essays devoted to individual films that offer interpretations explaining what the films mean, we sought contextual essays on the circumstances under which Hitchcock’s films have been produced and received, especially essays on topics most likely to lend themselves to productive debate’ .
A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock is divided into nine broad sections. However, one other – deeper albeit unacknowledged – division threads through the book. Empirical, biographical and thematic interpretations coexist with theoretical discourses, occasionally within the same chapter. As an unabashed partisan of the former, I must confess to little affinity for over-cluttered jargon which insinuates that the masses might enjoy films, but only a precious, esoterically-educated few can truly understand them, and which leaves the general reader baffled over differences between the semiotic, the erotic and the sclerotic. The considerable corpus of theoretically-oriented studies is well represented here in qualitative and quantitative terms. It is by no means damning with faint praise to say the finished product, like Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre, has something for everyone.
Part I, ‘Background’, begins with Thomas Leitch examining biographies of the director in a chapter aptly titled ‘Hitchcock’s Lives’, with especial emphasis given to John Russell Taylor’s Hitch : The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978), Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius : The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983) and, more recently, Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock : A Life in Darkness and Light (2003). Leitch observes: ‘Taylor presents a smiling public Hitchcock, Spoto a tormented and tormenting private Hitchcock, and McGilligan a Hitchcock somewhere in the middle’ . The next two chapters in this section are in-depth and authoritative engagements with, respectively, literary and cinematic antecedents which helped inspire and shape Hitchcock’s filmic style. Ken Mogg identifies the influence of Dickens, Kipling, Flaubert and G.K. Chesterton on Hitchcock and, with a mischief worthy of ‘Hitch’ himself, traces North by Northwest (1959) back to L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wizard of Oz. Charles Barr examines Hitchcock’s stylistic debt to the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s and to Soviet montage, drawing an explicit parallel between the presentation of a murder in Foreign Correspondent (1940) and the celebrated Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). This first section of the book is rounded out with Thomas Hemmeter’s discussion of key issues of the modernist novel which also featured in the worlds Hitchcock created on screen: ‘the radical contingency of human time, the apocalyptic fear of the imminent end of human time, and an obsession with death’ .
Part II, ‘Genre’, begins with Lesley Brill’s incisive delineation of Hitchcock’s treatment of the theme of romance and, in particular, its interplay with comedy, ambiguity and irony, shrewdly and eloquently noting: ‘The majority of Hitchcock’s fifty-three feature films are either resolved in favor of romance or balanced between romance and irony, with the outcome of the plot usually favoring romance…. Even the bleakest of Hitchcock’s movies, however, hold out the hope of something better, usually until nearly the end of the story, and they acknowledge the defeat of romantic dreams with sorrow’ . Brill cites Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s personally proclaimed favourite among his own movies, and The Paradine Case (1947) as examples of his ‘ambiguous romances’, in which superficially ‘happily-ever-after’ conclusions lie unconvincingly atop the dark currents of unease and unresolved tensions still swirling underneath.
Reconstituted families were just as vital to Golden Age Hollywood narratives as reunited lovers, and Richard R. Ness focuses on Hitchcock’s handling of family-centred melodramas, with especial emphasis on his silent The Pleasure Garden (1925), the now rarely-seen Strauss Family saga Waltzes from Vienna (1943), the occasionally overwrought Under Capricorn (1949), and the aforementioned TV drama Incident at a Corner, released in the same year as Psycho (1960). Ness writes: ‘in many ways the television production can be seen as the flip side of Psycho, employing bright Sirkian color schemes instead of stark black and white, and emphasising verbal domestic exchanges over visual violence and horror’ [121-122]. He takes the comparison further, observing that ‘Psycho’s exploration of evil within a family is designed for a communal viewing experience whereas “Incident at a Corner” presents a study of community corruption intended to be viewed in a more familial environment’ . Yet the family in crisis is also at the core of Paula Marantz Cohen’s chapter ‘Conceptual Suspense in Hitchcock’s Films’, dwelling fruitfully at some length on Shadow of a Doubt; and thereafter on, among others, the director’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the third of his four collaborations with James Stewart – arguably, the least accomplished of those four. Doris Day’s uncharacteristically discordant wailing of ‘Que Sera, Sera’ might have justified retitling that misfire as The Woman Who Screeched Too Much.
This book is, by its very nature, inclined toward auteurism, but Part
Tania Modleski, author of the groundbreaking feminist study The Women Who Knew Too Much : Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (1988) is, of course, the ideal choice to write about female collaborators on Hitchcock’s films. Hers is one of several chapters to foreground the undeniably vital lifelong contribution of Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville – and also the extent to which he was emotionally dependent on her for artistic validation. Modleski’s discussion of Shadow of a Doubt is especially illuminating. She reveals that Sally Benson, author of the warm-hearted novel Meet Me in St. Louis (film directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1944), injected some dark humour into the script for Hitchcock’s far less salubrious depiction of the All-American family. Also according to Modleski, ‘Patricia Collinge, the actress who plays Emma, the mother in Shadow of a Doubt … gave the character more dignity than she possessed in the original script’ [175-176]. Is it possible that this Emma, a wife and mother wistfully longing for happier days gone by, and hemmed in by the quotidian realities of small-town life, is, in fact, named after Flaubert’s most famous creation?
Susan White’s piece ‘A Surface Collaboration : Hitchcock and Performance’ is concerned primarily with key star players in the director’s American sound films, naturally focusing on Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, James Stewart, Tippi Hedren, plus Kim Novak and Anthony Perkins. This short-list is entirely natural and predictable; quite simply, ‘the usual suspects’. After all, Grant and Stewart made four films apiece for Hitchcock; Bergman and Kelly three; and Tippi Hedren two – iconic characterisations in the only two films for which she is remembered. Yet it is significant that, for Novak and Perkins alike, their sole big-screen appearance under Hitchcock’s direction constituted the apogee of their respective careers, and certainly in Perkins’s case shaped his screen persona forever after.
Part IV, ‘Style’, comprises chapters on aesthetic space (by Brigitte Peucker); music (by Jack Sullivan), the latter part of which dwells largely – and deservedly – on Hitchcock’s splendid collaboration with Bernard Herrmann, observing, ‘a surprising consensus holds that Hitchcock-Herrmann is the greatest director-composer team in film history’ ; and Murray Pomerance’s rumination on ‘Some Hitchcockian Shots’, itself divided into no fewer than nine sub-sections. At one point Pomerance focuses on a telling and particularly stylish detail from an otherwise below-par Hitchcock film: ‘the blossoming indigo dress in Topaz (1969) that opens itself vulnerably and tantalisingly at the moment when Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) falls dead upon a cold marble floor, all this spelled out with an overhead shot … emphasises the graphic order of human frailty’ . This is, simultaneously, one of the most voluptuous, most poignant and most sinister shots in the director’s entire screen output.
If the section on ‘Style’ of necessity considers Hitchcock’s oeuvre in certain microscopic detail, as it were, Part V, ‘Development’, is by its very nature concerned with the grand sweep(s) of his career trajectory – conveniently, and appropriately, apportioned into six segments. Sidney Gottlieb deals with ‘Hitchcock’s Silent Cinema’, including those early masterpieces The Lodger (1926) and Blackmail (1929), the latter shot as both a silent and a sound feature and thus arguably the British equivalent of The Jazz Singer (1927). Next, Tom Ryall’s article ‘Gaumont Hitchcock’ scrutinises a sextet of quintessentially English thrillers that established Hitchcock as the foremost British director of the 1930s: his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); The 39 Steps (1935); Sabotage and Secret Agent (both 1936); Young and Innocent (1937); and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Several of these veer uneasily between light, sparkling romance and espionage melodramas, in which ‘plucky’ Britons outwit sinister Johnny foreigners and their desperate plots to undermine the established order. As contemporary artefacts, such narratives looked presciently toward turbulence on the European horizon. From our modern-day perspective, however, it might prove instructive to mine these texts for an underlying ideology of Euro-scepticism, a philosophy which has loomed ever larger in British political discourse in recent decades. Ryall’s arrangement of his chapter works beautifully, in both thematic and organisational terms. However, the result is a notable, if not quite glaring, omission. While this book has deliberately eschewed a film-by-film approach, fortuitously, the disparate contributors have weighed in with a wealth of interpretations and readings of most movies in the Hitchcock canon, both celebrated and obscure. Yet one film is almost entirely forgotten, limited to only three passing references throughout the whole volume. Jamaica Inn (1939), starring Charles Laughton and introducing Maureen O’Hara, just before their re-teaming in William Dieterle’s magnificent The Hunchback of Notre Dame that same year, and based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, whose works Hitchcock later adapted in Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), was Hitchcock’s last British film before departing for Hollywood. There is a specific thread of continuation, given that Hitchcock’s last pre-Hollywood film (Jamaica Inn) and his first in the United States (Rebecca, the only Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Oscar) were both from novels by du Maurier. Nevertheless, given thematic and schematic arrangements of Ryall’s piece – and the fact that the next chapter focuses on Hitchcock’s bright new beginnings in Hollywood, Jamaica Inn, a nineteenth-century costume drama about smugglers on the Cornish coast, gets lost in the shuffle – the one movie this otherwise definitive Companion has left behind.
Ina Rae Hark’s ‘Hitchcock Discovers America : The Selznick-Era Films’ is for my money one of the most incisive, intelligent and entertaining in this collection. Rebecca was Hitchcock’s transitional, transatlantic film, made in America albeit with English stars (Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine), setting and source novel. Hark gives deep yet accessible analyses of those movies with which Hitchcock hit a genuinely American stride, whether they be tales of Americans confronting Nazism overseas (Foreign Correspondent and Lifeboat ) or at home (Saboteur  and Notorious ), or his occasionally overwrought but greatly-acclaimed melodramatic thrillers (Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound ). Perhaps understandably, she gives comparatively short shrift to Hitchcock’s sole digression from the thriller throughout his Hollywood career, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), which she aptly terms ‘screwball comedy, a genre far from his comfort zone’ . In fairness, however, Hark does give some due textual consideration even to this oddity by Hitchcockian standards. It has not been sidelined ignominiously, in the manner of Jamaica Inn.
David Sterritt’s chapter on Hitchcock’s movies of the late 1940s and the early 1950s take in the director’s first two colour features, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn, each filmed under the auspices of Hitchcock’s own short-lived production company, Transatlantic Pictures. Sterritt defines them as ‘bold in conception, unconventional in execution, and disappointing in box-office appeal’ . This is a fair assessment, but by no means dismissive. Sterritt gives both Rope and Under Capricorn detailed consideration, and the same penetrating insight informs his analyses of four Hitchcock movies for Warner Bros: Stage Fright (1950), the masterful Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), and Dial M for Murder (1954), the only colour film of the quartet, and Hitchcock’s solitary foray into the early 50s fad of 3D. Though Strangers on a Train was the only one of the six films in this chapter that may be deemed an unqualified success, Sterritt writes: ‘the half-dozen years of Transatlantic and Warner Bros. productions were crucial ones in Hitchcock’s career, for this was when he acquired the skills that successful producer-directors always need, and needed with special urgency in the middle of the twentieth century, when Hollywood was moving from the classical studio era to a new age of modernism and innovation’ [309-310].
Joe McElhaney addresses Hitchcock’s expertise as a metteur-en-scène in what might be classed as his ‘Paramount period’, from 1954 to 1960. Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry, his second The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho were all Paramount releases. For the most part, this was ‘glitzy, glossy’ Hitchcock, his plots frequently laden with a mixture of romance and (sometimes light, sometimes dark) comedy, featuring iconic stars already associated with his thrillers (Stewart, Kelly, Grant). I would suggest Hitchcock was, in these years, least successful when he foregrounded comedic elements at the expense of genuine suspense (To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry). Further, despite the undeniable stylistic and narrative power of Rear Window and North by Northwest (released by M-G-M), these two movies were ultimately star-oriented champagne cocktails of all’s-well-that-ends-well. His vision became progressively darker in the 1950s, however, with the disturbing monochrome true-life tale of The Wrong Man (1956) for Warner Bros. and the compelling, multi-layered Vertigo, voted in 2012 by Sight & Sound as the greatest film of all time, thus dislodging the long-time erstwhile champion, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), from the top spot. McElhaney is especially good, especially thorough, in analysing the emphatically non-glitzy, non-glossy Psycho, particularly regarding that strained, uncomfortable but revealing conversation between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) over a spartan meal in the motel parlour, just prior to her murder.
William Rothman concludes the section on Hitchcock’s career trajectory with his sojourn at Universal. It’s no adverse reflection on Marnie, following hot on the wings of The Birds, to say that the arc of Hitchcock’s last decade-and-a-half of film-making is one of, dare I say, vertiginous descent, aside from his penultimate feature, Frenzy (1972), a brilliant if brutal return to top form. There are a couple of memorable sequences in Torn Curtain, notably Paul Newman’s protracted, grisly dispatch of a Communist heavy, one of only three suggestions from novelist Brian Moore’s screenplay which Hitchcock retained for the finished film. Moore later dismissed Torn Curtain as ‘little else than a Hitchcock compendium’. Topaz, with its starless cast, humourless narrative and unsympathetic characters, represented the nadir of Hitchcock’s post-Psycho/ Birds/ Marnie output. Veering to the other extreme, Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot, returned to light, sparkling mode – though Rothman is surprisingly generous toward this essentially inconsequential piece of fluff. His most controversial suggestion is his analysis of the traumatic honeymoon scene in Marnie, in which he absolves Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) of the charge of rape. This contention is sure to provoke heated exchanges among many Hitchcock scholars. On a quieter, less incendiary note, I appreciated his tip of the hat to my personal all-time favourite Hitchcock scene, from The Birds, in which Tippi Hedren sits quietly smoking a cigarette in the schoolyard, while the children inside are singing … and huge black crows are gathering silently on the monkey bars behind her.
By this point, one may be forgiven for thinking A Companion to Hitchcock has exhausted every conceivable avenue, yet we are barely 60% of the way through. Part VI, ‘Auteurism’, traces the evolution of Hitchcock’s status as an auteur. James M. Vest examines the cult of Hitchcock propagated by French New Wave critics who would themselves later flourish as directors – Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and, of course, François Truffaut. This segues neatly into Janet Bergstrom’s extensive exploration between differences in the original transcripts of the Hitchcock-Truffaut interview sessions and their final, translated publication; while Robin Wood’s inestimable contribution to readings of Hitchcock is assessed judiciously by Harry Oldmeadow.
Still not enough? Part
Part VIII ventures ever deeper into the mists of esoterica under the heading ‘Ethics’, with Richard Gilmore on ‘Hitchcock and Philosophy’, Todd McGowan on ‘Hitchcock and Suspense : Psychoanalysis and the Devaluation of the Object’, and George Toles on ‘Occasions of Sin : The Forgotten Cigarette Lighter and Other Moral Accidents in Hitchcock’. The cigarette lighter refers, of course, to the ‘MacGuffin’ of Strangers on a Train – an everyday object which, in the context of the narrative, is potentially lethally incriminating. Toles teases some enlightening insights from Strangers on a Train, yet by this point in the book even the most ardent Hitchcockian is likely to be suffering from symptoms of overkill – and perhaps feel utterly punch-drunk. Enough, already!
Part IX, ‘Beyond Hitchcock’, supplies the coda to this mammoth undertaking. ‘Hitchcock and the Postmodern’, by Angelo Restivo, provides a last word on behalf of the theoretical wing of ‘Hitchcock Studies’. Richard Allen concludes, in far more accessible prose, with an overview of ‘Hitchcock’s Legacy’ and his influence on other film-makers, both in Europe (Chabrol, Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni) and America (Spielberg, Scorsese, and especially Brian De Palma).
In summation, A Companion to Hitchcock will be required reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in this director’s films. No doubt, no shadow. Yet it is likely not the easiest point of departure; for ‘newbies’, it might be better to start with Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. And even for those who fancy they know their Hitchcock pretty well, they would have to choose their time and place. This book is not a beach read, or an ideal entertainment to relax with after a tough day at the office. But there is something fitting about that. Given his most notorious success of all, Alfred Hitchcock is virtually the last guy you would want to read about, just before taking that shower.
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