ALFRED HITCHCOCK's career had been fulfilled long before his death earlier this week at the age of 80.
Only Cecil B. DeMille in his prime was better known to a vast, loyal moviegoing public, customarily indifferent to the names and reputations of film directors. Hitchcock, who formed the habit of making fleeting, comic appearances in his own movies and later became the deadpan comic host of a popular mystery series on television, contrived a far more amusing and durable identity than DeMille. In addition, his best work seems relatively secure against critical reassessments of fluctuations in popular taste, which have already caught up with poor DeMille. It seemed peculiarly appropriate that Hitchcock, a former cariacaturist and illustrator, should begin each segment of the TV anthology by insinuating his squat, rotund silhouette into the outline of a pudgy-faced, potbellied self-caricature. Hitchcock evolved a distinctive directorial style along with a distinctive personality, manipulating the melodramatic elements of visual storytelling as deftly and assiduously as he manipulated his public image. He remains the preeminent example of a movie artist who calculated every pictoral and emotional effect in advance, frequently with the aid of detailed sketches, so that the filming process became (as far as possible) mechanical rather than creative, an automatic realization of illusions fully imagined and even blueprinted in the scriptwriting process.
This approach, as emotionally necessary to Hitchcock as spontaneous, exploratory methods would be to directors like Jean Renoir and Robert Altman, paid marvelous dividends but also imposed certain restrictions which critics have found occasion to regret over the years. For example, in the course of praising "Stranger on a Train" Pauline Kael wrote, "A pretty good case could be made for Alfred Hitchcock as the master entertainer of the movie medium: From the 1930s to the 1960s his films have been a source of perverse pleasure."
"Pretty good" is putting it cautiously: The case is probably unassailable.
Yet there's also considerable justice in the following reservations expressed by Kael: "He is an ingenious, masterly builder of mousetraps, and more often than not, the audience is caught tight; his techniques, however . . . are almost the opposite of the working methods of most great directors, for whom making the movie is itself a process of discovery."
Interviewed extensively over the course of a long, illustrious carrer, Hitchcock reaffirmed the working method he outlined in a magazine article in 1937: "With the help of my wife, who does the technical continuity, I plan out a script very carefully, hoping to follow it exactly, all the way through, when shooting starts. In fact, this working on the script is the real making of the film, for me. When I've done it, the film is already finished in my mind. . . . All that has to be done is to cut away irrelevancies and see that the finished film is an accurate rendering of the scenario."
Hitchcock's preference for low-key acting was a corollary: "This way of building up a picture means that film work hasn't much need for the virtuoso actor who gets his effects and climaxes himself. . . . Mostly he is wanted to behave quietly and naturally (which, of course, isn't at all easy), leaving the camera to add most of the accents and emphases. I would almost say that the best screen actor is the man who can do nothing well."
The British critic Raymond Durgnat wrote that Hitchcock's "stock in trade as an entertainer . . . is the provision of pleasurable fear."
One recalls this quality in recurrent Hitchcock moments which find characters danging from high places (James Stewart in "Rear Window" and "Vertigo," Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in "North By Northwest"), narrowly averting fatal discovery (Joel McCrea caught in the millwheel in "Foreign Correspondent," Ingrid Bergman concealing the purloined key to the wine cellar from Claude Rains in "Notorious") or being ambushed in incongruous settings (Cary Grant at the prairie bus stop in "North By Northwest" is surely the most sublime of Hitchcockian deathtraps).
Certain revelatory moments are also keenly distinctive and enjoyable: Godfrey Tearle playfully confronting Robert Donat with the hand that really has the cropped finger in "The 39 Steps"; the camera gliding over the ballroom to discover the band leader with the incriminating tic in "Young and Innocent"; the single head among the spectators at a tennis match in "Strangers on a Train" that does not turn to follow the back-and-forth flight of the ball.
Despite Hitchcock's prejudices, there is even a satisfying range of exceptional acting: disarming comic performances by Robert Walker in "Stranger on a Train" and Anthony Perkins in "Psycho"; the romantic-comedy rapport of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in "The 39 Steps," Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in "Notorious," Grace Kelly and Grant in "To Catch a Thief," Kelly and James Stewart in "Rear Window," Eva Marie Saint and Grant in "North By Northwest" (which would have been sexier yet as a Kelly-Grant reunion); the somewhat peripheral yet haunting pathos of Peggy Ashcroft in "The 39 Steps" and Vera Miles in "The Wrong Man."
The fearful provocations weren't invariably pleasurable. Every so often he ventured beyond the satisfying ground rules and flirted with a permanently disconcerting jolt. For example, Hitchcock came to the conclusion that he had miscalculated the audience response when orchestrating one of his most devastating suspense sequences, the agonizing passage in his 1936 thriller "Sabotage" when an unsuspecting boy, entrusted with the delivery of a parcel that contains a timebomb, is accidentally delayed in reaching his destination. He perishes, along with ill-fated fellow passengers on a London bus, when the lethal package explodes, not prematurely or precisely on time but -- a further agonizing twist -- a few minutes late.
Hitchcock found that spectators, identifying closely with the boy, were so devastated by his murder that they resented the brilliantly effective manipulation. It was no doubt the memory of this shocked tribute to his skill that prompted Hitchcock to use the time bomb as an example time and again when talking about his method of sustaining suspense. For example, in a 1974 interview, Hitchcock advised, "Don't show the audience anything. Make them think. A bomb going off in this room would produce 10 seconds of shock. But if you told the audience that there was a bomb about to go off, you'd have them in agony. The big secret is, don't let the bomb go off."
Nevertheless, the brutal stabbing of the Janet Leigh character in "Psycho" was essentially a bolder variation on the timebomb sequence in "Sabotage." In 1960, Hitchcock could risk killing his star as a shocking first-act closer without jeopardizing popular acceptance. Indeed, Janet Leigh's sensational demise became a new trend-setter, foreshadowing a period in which traditional restraints on the movimovie treatment of sex and violence became obsolete and directors began specializing in graphic depictions of violent death.
Ironically, Hitchcock seemed to become one of the victims of his own breakthrough. It's possible that his devious, macabre imagination was more often stimulated than frustrated by the censorship imposed on movies throughout most of his career. At any rate, there are prolonged, ugly kil killings in "Torn Curtain" and "Frenzy" that Hitchcock would almost certainly have visualized crisply and more abstractly in earlier decades.
For example, the stunning climactic confrontation between Sylvia Sydney and Oscar Homolka in "Sabotage," when the deadly knife thrust occurs slightly before you expect it and leaves you eternally wondering if the victim has actually willed the fatal blow, seems far superior to Paul Newman's extended, heavybreathing grapple with an antagonist in "Torn Curtain." Like many directors in the twilight of their careers, he may have been unable to judge which self-imitations were astute and which self-destructive.
The popularity of Hitchcock's most accomplished and characteristic pictures is unlikely to be diminished by the passage of time. Hitchcock classics like "The Lodger," "Blackmail," "The 39 Steps," "Sabotage," "Young and Innocent," "The Lady Vanishes," "Foreign Correspondent," "Rebecca," "Saboteur," "Notorious," "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "Dial M for Murder," "To Catch a Thief," "The Trouble With Harry," "North By Northwest," "Psycho" and "The Birds" show no signs of losing their entertainment value in the foreseeable future. He has left such an indelible imprint on the movie thriller that the term "Hitchcockian" is routinely invoked as the highest standard of ingenuity, excitement, humor, clamor and sophistication within the genre.
Although in no way cruel or premature, Hitchcock's death is a melancholy reminder that the ranks of influential, style-setting first-generation filmmakers are dwindling. Of the important directors who began their careers in the silent era, only Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel, who will soon be 80, were still actively involved in preparing or shooting features. Though still chipper, Abel Gance, King Vidor and Frank Capra have not directed new films for about 20 years, and William Wyler has not directed for a decade.
A few years ago Brian De Palma, who may emerge as the finest stylist in the Hitchcock tradition since the founder himself, remarked that "it's important to know that Hitch started in the silent era. He knew how to tell a story purely through the visuals, totally through putting the audience in the observer's eye. Very few directors know how to do that. Young directors don't really understand it because they were brought up on sound. . . . He's one of the few directors who advanced the form, the art of visual storytelling. Anybody who knows anything about film grammar cannot help but be snowed under by Hitchcock. It's like studying Bach."
Hitchcock's influence on admiring and/or aspiring fellow professionals will continue to be enormous. While many directors have taken an occasional and sometimes dazzling fling at the thriller, only Hitchcock has made it a prolific, sustained field of specialization, excelling when the emphasis was on espionage, eroticism, romance, psychological turmoil, comedy, Gothic horror, Grand Guignol, allegory, even naturalistic case histories. About the only variants he hasn't helped stylize to a significant extent are detective stories, monster melodramas and science-fiction.
Interviewed on the cemetery location of his last feature, "Family Plot," Hitchcock was asked what he'd like to see written on his tombstone. He replied, "You can see what can happen to you if you are not a good boy." It was a characteristic joke, and so was his acceptance speech at the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award ceremony last year, when Hitchcock drolly thanked the AFI for honoring him with a "life amusement award." No popular filmmaker merits a Life Amusement Award more than the late Alfred Hitchcock.