Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Poised over an abyss

Hitchcock has been my favorite director ever since I saw North by Northwest in Milton College's auditorium where it was shown as part of a film series. After that I sought out his movies. "Fear Is the Spur," is a review of a Hitchcock biography. From that review:
.... The theme Ackroyd identifies in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which Hitchcock regarded as the real beginning of his career, became the theme of almost all his movies: “Ordinary people, living in a familiar setting, are suddenly plunged into a ‘chaos world’ where no one is safe.” For Hitchcock, no ordinary person, the world was always a chaos world: Ackroyd recognizes that this became a Conradian vision of life reflected in all his films—a sense that civilized order, like the orderly life of an individual, is poised over an abyss we are always just a misstep (or case of mistaken identity) away from slipping into. ....

[Hitchcock] said that the difference between his English and American phases was instinct and spontaneity versus calculation. Despite a brilliantly amusing fantasia like North by Northwest (which owed much to his flawless British masterpiece The 39 Steps) and the dry humor, including his own trademark cameos, worked into other films, he lost some of his comic finesse in Hollywood. There he became the “master of suspense,” a brand name for creepiness and horror. But his best American movies, such as Notorious and Rear Window, have their impact in their unsettling ambiguities and complicities; and in some of them, especially Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and Psycho, he played variations on the theme of the double—twinned opposites, mirror images, two guises of the same person—which he first encountered in Poe. All this gives his greatest films, and even lesser ones like The Wrong Man and I Confess, their charged, uncanny psychological atmosphere. He went wrong only when he (or his screenwriters) tried to make the psychology too explicit (as in Spellbound, the end of Psycho, and the end of Marnie). ....

...Ackroyd’s book...always respects and never distorts its subject. It convinces us that Hitchcock, who made over 50 films before his death in 1980, 8 or 10 of them masterpieces, had the requisite number of inner demons to be a genius—and that despite them he was, as geniuses go, endearingly unpretentious, humorous, and civilized.