Death becomes Alfred Hitchcock. He died in 1980, but his reputation post-mortem seems to have grown only larger, looming across the room and up the walls like a Fritz Lang shadow. The centenary of his birth, in 1999, was the occasion for a small avalanche of books celebrating his work. In 2012, the annual poll of film critics conducted by those auteurist Grand Poobahs over at Sight and Sound magazine voted Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” the greatest film of all time, ousting Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” from its more-than-30-year reign. Quite a feat for a film about fear of heights: Hitchcock’s reputation these days induces its own form of vertigo. “One reason why the portrait of an obsession might in time overtake the portrait of an ambition,” suggests the literary critic Michael Wood in his elegant, elliptical new book, “Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much”, “is that we have become devoted to representations of what we can’t change and can’t understand, as we certainly were not in the 1950s.”
It’s a typical Wood sentence: mandarin, cryptic, sweeping. Are the 2010s really more devoted to unfathomable mysteries than the 1950s? Who is the “we” that is so certain of that fact? Some of this is the form: it’s hard to avoid sweeping judgments when you have to cover 80 years in just 119 pages. The book is more of an extended biographical essay, too slight to rival the full-length biographies of Donald Spoto and Patrick McGilligan, but full of fascinating, if underdeveloped, interpretative sallies. “The interwar years offered something like a foundation for a new set of worries about knowledge,” Wood writes. “We began more than ever to need an education in what to believe and how to believe—an education in interpretation let’s say.” Again with that “we”. I think I know what he means—something to do with the war and its shake-up of old certainties—but he makes it sound as if the interwar public was crying out for a lecture course from William Empson.
Wood comes to Hitchcock from books on Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov, and in many ways this is Hitchcock made over in their image. In place of Hitchcock the orchestrator of mass panic, calibrating his effects to the decibel levels of his audience’s screams, we have Hitchcock as modernist, and even Borgesian post-modernist; his films epistemological mazes in which suspicion, uncertainty and guilt float free of their tethers to the plot. You can hear it in the titles: “Suspicion”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Notorious”, “I Confess”, “The Wrong Man”. “The man in question there knows almost nothing, but this is still too much,” Wood writes. “Suspicion”, he says, tries to resolve itself but cannot: the last frame showing Cary Grant’s arm around Joan Fontaine’s shoulders is meant to reassure, but contains a hint of menace. In “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Hitchcock’s devotion to uncertainty is exemplary.”
Well, maybe. Hitchcock’s uncertainty was the extremely certain type—a control freak’s view of chaos. It’s consciousness of the ticking bomb that counts, not the sudden explosion. “In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved,” he said. What Wood views as indeterminacy in “Suspicion” is but the shadow play of the tussle that went on behind the scenes between Hitchcock, who wanted the murderer to be Cary Grant, and the studio, which didn’t. A critic’s interpretation can and should swing free of a film-maker’s intention, or the accidents of production, but there is also a strong tendency among critics to praise Hitchcock for his flaws. The tendency is at its strongest with “Vertigo”, a fulminous cloudscape boasting the most unsatisfactory ending of the director’s career, yet, in Wood's view, “so purely a movie—so purely involved in what movies do—that we can almost let the plot go...It doesn’t get lost. But it mimes the lostness of characters caught between conspiracy and desire, between sobriety and fascination.”
That sounds a little like a tag line for a fancy new scent—“between conspiracy and desire, between sobriety and fascination...Eau de Alfred”—and it doesn’t shake one’s suspicion that “Vertigo” is the Hitchcock movie for those who, above all, wish he had been French, in the same way that the White Album is the Beatles record for those who most wish they had been The Doors. Based on a French potboiler, the film is a maze with no exit, lots of wandering, looking, longing, and virtually no jokes. Which is not to say that it isn’t also the most wrenching of his works—if ever a film was meant to find a second life, it is this one, with its plot involving possible reincarnation, and a love story which pushes Hitchcock’s pygmalionism to its heartbroken conclusion. But excessive praise for it is something of a backhanded compliment to the rest of the oeuvre, as if Hitchcock’s fingers had first to be prised loose from the cookie jar of narrative before he could be rewarded.
“Psychology in Hitchcock is often shallow rather than deep,” writes Wood, and I'm inclined to push it further: Hitchcock shows how shallow complexity can be. This is what makes him such a modern artist, the forerunner of Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, whose “Inception” and “Memento” are mazy noirs in the Hitchcockian manner, bordering on abstraction, whose characters are but chess pieces in the far more important game being played out between the film-maker and his audience. The ludic nature of the modern-day action thriller is pure Hitchcock, who first laid down its restless blueprint in “North by Northwest”, a “film about nothing,” as Wood correctly claims, its plot hinging on the non-existent personage of Roger O. Thornhill and thus a case of “mistaken identity times two: Thornhill isn’t this person and this person doesn't exist.” Wood is great when unpicking this kind of knot, as he is at tracking the double- and triple-bluffs embedded in the love scenes in “Notorious”. And he’s a master of the zoom, zeroing in on Joan Fontaine’s way of raising one eyebrow when surprised in “Suspicion”, or Jimmy Stewart’s silent agony in “Vertigo”, “as if his patient, thoughtful manner were not a comfort to him but a quiet mode of torment.” That’s both lovely and accurate. The man knows how to watch Hitchcock.
Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much, by Michael Wood New Harvest, March 24th