Friday, June 15, 2012

Mystic Hitchcock

Posted as part of the For the Love of Film: Film Preservation Blogathon

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Mystic Hitchcock

(Warning: stories, twists, and surprises of various films to follow will be discussed in close detail)

Despite his Roman Catholic background, you find a dearth of mysticism in Hitchcock. He seems more concerned with the mystery residing in the human mind, than with any unknown supernatural power residing in the world at large.

That's fine, I suppose--the mind is as complex a puzzle as any, and a lifetime's study probably won't offer any immediate solution. Hitchcock, one might say, has confined himself to specific territory, though a territory particularly rich in drama and conflict.

Original Sin

Possibly the most consistent influence Catholicism had on Hitchcock was on the idea of "transference of guilt"--of an innocent man who comes to bear the burden and suffering of one who is guilty. That idea bears more than passing resemblance to the Catholic concept of Original Sin--where all of  humanity is guilty by reason of Man's fallen state, and the only hope of redemption is through an innocent Son of God.

Hence the common thread going through films like The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps, The Lodger, I Confess, and Strangers on a Train, where a man is accused of a crime he did not commit. A scapegoat if you like, in the Old Testament sense, a creature arbitrarily chosen to be blamed for others' sins.

Which isn't the same as saying the man is a total innocent--in The Lodger one reason why the man is so suspicious, why he's always at the right place and time, why he carries so much circumstantial evidence around with him is because he does have a relationship with the killer; in I Confess the priest is suspected because he stands to profit from the murder; in Strangers on a Train the thought of murder is so tempting the hero actually blurts the thought out loud--in effect, he is guilty in all except the actual deed.

That's as far as Hitchcock went, mostly: a kind of subtle filigree of fear and paranoia, overlaid on his otherwise secular filmography.

Life after death

And then there's the idea of life after death, which Hitchcock didn't deal with often, but when he did it was with unnerving intensity.

In Vertigo Madeleine Elster dies halfway through the story--but death in one form or another was always implied in this picture. Through  color, through camera angles, through sound effects and above all Bernard Herrmann's haunting music we are made aware again and again that this is a film steeped in death and memories, that everyone is haunted by everyone else. Madeleine is haunted by Carlotta Valdez, the city is haunted by Madeleine's desolate figure, Scottie Ferguson is haunted by details and echoes of Madeleine scattered throughout the city long after she's gone. 

There's something otherworldly about Madeleine herself: Hitchcock often shoots her from a distance, in profile, constantly on the verge of turning round a street corner or stepping behind a redwood trunk or dropping off a stone pier into San Francisco Bay. Finally she evades him, slipping like a prestidigitator's assistant up the bell tower's trapdoor; Scotty catches a glimpse of her hurtling past a tower window. 

As for the body itself, crushed and broken on the Mission's rooftop, he could hardly be less interested: it's the woman's elusive ghost--her soul if you please--he's after, not its mere fleshy remains. He leaves that behind, slipping surreptitiously out a side entrance, for others to discover.

What makes the second half of Vertigo so unsettling, I submit, is Scottie's full-on attempt at resurrecting Madeleine through Judy Barton. We get a rough inventory of half the filmmaker's arsenal in realizing his ideal woman: clothes ("I want to look at an evening dress, a dinner dress, black, short, long sleeves...with a neck cut this..."), makeup and hair ("You're sure about the color of the hair?") even lighting (standing before the windows in such a way that when Judy steps out of her bathroom she's wrapped in the unnatural green glow of the hotel's street neon). "She's alive!" Scottie might have cried, the way Dr. Frankenstein did in James Whale's horror classic; she is for a while anyway before she steps off the bell tower ledge one last time, simultaneously stepping  into Scottie's despairing, devastated memories for all time. 

There is, sadly, a rational explanation behind the film's supernatural claptrap, Gavin Ellster's over-elaborate plan to kill his wife. But in mood and tone, in spirit and intent if not strictly in actual deed (and isn't that an accusation leveled at nearly all of Hitchcock's heroes?), Hitchcock manages to create one of the greatest ghost stories in all of cinema.

Then there's Psycho, where for the first thirty or so minutes Hitchcock seems to be setting up Norman Bates as one of his Wrongfully Accused. We know, of course, that his mother did it. 

Turns out we're right and wrong: Norman did it, but not as Norman. The whole case is written off as an example of split personality, presented in what has often been argued as Hitchcock's worst-directed scene--an endless expositional monologue by Dr. Fred Richman.

Simon Oakland's performance as Richman should have clued us in to what Hitchcock was really after. Oakland has the manner of a carnival barker, speaking hurriedly and energetically as if to keep his audience from leaving; a police officer enters, blanket draped over one arm: "He feels a little chill," the officer asks. "Can I bring him this blanket?" The camera follows the officer out the hallway towards a door, which he enters. The camera sits outside waiting; suddenly we hear a woman's soft husky voice call out: "Thank you!"

Cut to inside the room, the camera slowly approaching a seated Norman Bates as he wraps the blanket around him. We hear a woman--the same woman, we realize--talk: "It's sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son..." We recognize the gravelly voice of Mrs. Bates in voice-over.

Basically Hitchcock through Dr. Richman first gives us the official explanation, a tale full of cross-dressing and poison and enough guilt to kill an entire platoon of mama's boys. It's not a convincing performance; you wonder if Oakland was rushing through the text, if his heart was really into making the most of the short and specific period of time allotted to his character. It comes off like a makeshift reply, something cooked up last-minute to satisfy a deadline.

Then we have Mrs. Bates, taking slowly and deliberately while the camera brings us close and closer to Norman's glittering eyes, and we come to a realization: this is the film's true explanation, this is the film's (and Hitchcock's) true response--that Mrs. Bates is alive and well, living inside Norman's totally insane head. 

Fade to the film's final image, of a chain pulling a car out of the swamp. During the transition we catch a glimpse of an image superimposed over Bates' glittering eyes and wide grin: a human skull. We can't help but note that the shape and width of Bates' grin and eyes match those of the skull's almost perfectly. 

A final image meant to send the audience out of the theaters on an appropriately macabre note? A way of suggesting what's really going on inside Norman's head--basically cunning and implacable Death, grinning at our ludicrous need for a crumb of comfort, a word of reassurance? Or did Hitchcock in a moment of weakness betray his true attitude towards death--that certainly there's the possibility of an afterlife, but we're entirely too optimistic in thinking this a good thing?

A greater power

The Birds stands alone among all of Hitchcock's films, I think, in leaving us with no explanation, however demented, for the violence. Bruno wanted his father dead because he couldn't stand the man; Gavin Ellster wants his wife dead presumably because he wanted control of her money; Mrs. Bates wants any girl interested in her son dead because she's jealous of him (or rather, as Dr. Richman puts it, he's so intensely jealous of her he assumes she's the same way about him). The birds never tell us why they want everyone dead, they just keep at it--presumably will keep doing so until the desired end is achieved. 

There's a funny scene in a diner where different people gather together and offer explanations: changing weather, occult malevolence, biblical vengeance, none of which ultimately stick. With the film's final image--of the little sports car about to lose itself in a vast herd of fowl, inching towards a baleful sky--there's an ambivalent rise of volume and intensity in the birds' constant murmur: are they about to attack again? We can't know beyond the end credits; we can only speculate.

But the supreme moment for me isn't the film's appropriately bleak final image (not as bleak perhaps as in Daphne du Maurier's original short story, but in its way more cruel--as hope, represented by the few sun rays that manage to penetrate the gray cloud cover, is always more cruel than absolute despair); rather, it's the pause right after the gas station explosion--the breathless moment before the birds launch into their most massive attack yet.

To review: gulls attack a gas station attendant, knocking him down. Gas flows downhill, towards a parked car; the driver has stepped out to light a cigarette. The gasoline ignites, the car explodes; the flames follow the stream up the road to the station, which explodes.

Suddenly Hitchcock cuts to a high overhead shot, looking down on the town of Bodega Bay. Far below we see the flames from the burning car and gas station.

A startlingly peaceful moment, this. The panic and mayhem are all far below, out of earshot; the town itself looks like a toy diorama, where some willful boy has poured whiskey over one corner and set it alight.

Then you hear it: the sound of breathing. Barely registering on the ear but labored, as if someone were sucking air from a scuba tank. Then you see a pair of wings--here, there, gathering in increasing numbers. The birds are like skiers on a summit, looking down on the slope they plan to plunder; or like fighter planes perched above clouds waiting for the signal to attack--and suddenly you realize the burning station looks like a signal, like something they've been waiting for all this time.

Hitchcock is almost always about the point-of-view, about gliding, eye-level shots that increase our identification with the protagonist's helplessness and fear. Once in a blue moon (I'm thinking of the opening shot to the cropduster sequence in North by Northwest, or the camera swooping upwards to look down on Norman carrying his mother to the fruit cellar in Psycho) he resorts to a high overhead angle--less a point-of-view shot than a pitiless gaze assessing man's all-too-apparent vulnerability.

This was, well, different. This felt like both point-of-view and pitiless, sentient yet not quite human. The breathing (or rather the faintest suggestion of breathing) makes the moment all the more unnerving--who is this? Why is he doing all this? What does he intend to do next?

It's the closest, I submit, that Hitchcock ever comes to entertaining the possible existence of God, albeit here--and more clearly in du Maurier's story--a God in the guise of implacable nature. You do form specific impressions from this all-too-brief assumption of his  point of view, this fleeting glimpse of the world through his eyes: he seems less like the loving God of the New Testament, more like the vengeful God of old; and he seems to look down on the town and its inhabitants like so many ants--like a pestilence that must be dealt with, if a house is to be considered clean and fit to live in by more respectable inhabitants.

It's about as mysterious and terrifying an image as anything Hitchcock has ever produced--and as such, arguably one of the most mysterious, indescribably terrifying images ever created in the history of cinema. 


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