I Confess

Alfred Hitchcock died thirty years ago this week, on April 29th, 1980.

I’ve always had a confusing relationship with Hitch. With several exceptions (which I’ll touch on in a moment), a large majority of his pictures fill me with a strange mixture of awe and apathy, like when the TV tells me about a new sports car that can go very, very fast, or an athlete who scores a lot of points. “Yes,” I want to say to movies like North by Northwest, “That’s a lovely sequence – a touchdown sequence – but…then what?”

Maybe it’s because we like to talk about Hitchcock in pieces. The Shower Scene, the crane shot in Notorious, Vertigo’s dolly zoom, the high-angle shot from Topaz – wonderful garnish, but sometimes I wonder, where’s the beef? (Caveat: Vertigo is 100% prime cut select.) Often, it has helped me to see the garnish as the beef: so many of these pictures tend to be as much about how we watch them as they are about their content. Rope is a famous example: an experiment in watching. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought Rear Window was one of Hitch’s best; it was a subject near to Hitch’s heart, and it showed.

Wait, did I just write “Hitch’s heart”? What does that mean, exactly?

Screenwriter David Freeman had the good fortune to work with Alfred Hitchcock late in his career, in the days when Hitch would have prints of the newest movies delivered to his office at Universal, which is how he saw Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. In his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, Freeman reports that Hitch, at the height of one of those ferocious Liv-Ullmann/Ingrid Bergman scenes, got up from his seat, wobbled to the door, and announced, “I’m going to the movies.” Then he left.

It’s a revealing anecdote, and a reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, deep in his heart-thing, was really not one for the hard stuff. He was jokester. Tilt your head, substitute Cary Grant for Alec Guinness, and you’ll see a good portion of these pictures look like sadistic Ealing Comedies. Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Lifeboat, Strangers on a Train, and a few of the films I mentioned above, all have that mischievous prankster quality, the giggly feeling of pulling the rug out from under the status quo. I like these movies, but with the exception of Vertigo and Rear Window, my personal cluster of favorites comes from the back shelf: The Wrong Man, I, Confess, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second) are perhaps his most disturbing films. Not because their composition is any more bravura than Psycho’s, but because they each feature such strong performances (Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, and Doris Day, respectively). These characters are the dead-opposite of the Hitchcock Blonde, and their films are all the better for it. But that’s very much a personal thing.

For the record: it’s only because I love Hitchcock that I let myself needle through his best films. As a former-fellow voyeur, I know he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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4 responses to “I Confess

  1. I’d love to hear your thoughts on his real Ealing Comedy, ‘The Trouble with Harry’. I don’t know whether I fell asleep, laughed once, or cared a bit, but somehow I look back on it fondly. Perhaps that’s the power of those exquisite pieces?

    • I remember thinking it was one of his more ridiculous, out of touch pictures. Hitch’s comedy is best when he laughs obliquely, but when he turns the camera on what he thinks is really hilarious (Harry) it’s generally ham-handed and dumb, beneath rimshot level. On the flipside: “Shadow of a Doubt.”

  2. David Freeman

    People have noticed Hitchcock’s amusing streak for some time. He didn’t do jokes but he did have a taste for annoying situations that sort of bounced off the possibility of a gag. I think it’s Saboteur, a very early cameo, where he’s on a bus and a rude child annoys him, poking at his hat. In another key, there’s Cary Grant and that unexplainable crop-duster that keeps threatening to fly right into him in North By Northwest. Always makes me laugh. Of course I think Psycho is amusing though of course the characters don’t seem to notice any of the humor.

    • Saboteur it is. Always one of my favorite cameos, and well placed too. It disarms you. Even after repeated viewings, I always take the bait — then the bomb goes off. As for North by Northwest, I never thought the crop duster thing all that funny. But I do love it. Graphically, I mean, in the Saul Bass sense of the term. And the pace of it is just wonderful. I wonder who cooked that thing up, was it Lehman or Hitch?

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