WEDNESDAYS AT THE MOVIES: Murders and Maguffins from the Master of Suspense

I’m a mystery book blogger by trade, but I warned you in my very first post that, from time to time, I would also talk about films – mystery films in particular. And who epitomizes such a film better than the Master of Suspense, and my favorite film director – Alfred Hitchcock? 

I often tell the story here about how I was introduced to Agatha Christie by my babysitter, Steve Levy, who used to mesmerize my brother and me with horrific bedtime stories taken from the books and movies he had read. One of our favorites was And Then There Were None, which soon after also became my literary introduction to the Queen of Crime. The other story I remember, which Steve mined for all the gore that two 9 and 7-year-old kids could handle, was about a small California town beset by killer birds. So, really, I have Steve Levy to thank for both a lifetime of nightmares and my cultural literacy. 

Thank you, Steve!

Hitchcock with Tippi Hedren (The Birds)

I’m excited to announce that, this being the first day of autumn, I’m heading “back to school” for another film class through Stanford University’s Continuing Education and taught by my pal, Elliot Lavine. I say this sincerely, having spent more time on Zoom with Elliot over the past eighteen months than I have seen my own brother (well, he lives in Connecticut). With Elliot, I have battled bugs and pod people (in the 50’s science fiction class), rode the range with my Winchester ’77 strapped to my belt (in our Western film class), and dashed through the murky alleys and foggy dreamscapes of film noir with a surrey of femmes fatales at my back (Elliot is a noir expert, having programmed the “I Wake Up Dreaming” festival and all other programming at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre for years.) I also sat semi-puzzled through a survey of 60’ “new cinema” for ten weeks . . . but that’s another story. 

Tonight, we begin a ten-week course called “Alfred Hitchcock and the Psychology of Suspense” where we will be focusing on the richest period of the man’s career (1943 – 1963) to look at Hitch’s style, both as a filmmaker and as a self-publicist. Admittedly, I have watched most of the titles on the syllabus more times than I can count, but I relish the chance to share the experience of watching some terrific movies (including my favorite film – by any director – of all time) with a classful of Zoomheads. I know I will have to give the other thirty or so students a chance to speak. Maybe Elliot and I can figure out a safety word he can smilingly utter to shut . . . me . . . up.

On the set of North by Northwest

Whatever happens, I intend to use this class as an opportunity to further reflect on films I’ve watched, admired, and thought about for many years, and I invite Hitchcock fans and novices of his incredible body of work to come along on this journey every Wednesday, hopefully sharing their comments about the movies as I unveil my weekly posts. 

There might be no film director about whom more has been written than Hitchcock. I have tons of books about him, but I thought I might inaugurate this most recent deep dive into his work with perhaps the latest written analysis of his life and work. That would be The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense by Edward White. The structure of the book is interesting: White has divided it into twelve essays, each one looking at a different aspect of Hitchcock’s life and work. Just scanning the titles of each chapter alone – “The Murderer,” “The Womanizer,” “The Fat Man,” “The Dandy,” “The Voyeur” and so on – is illustrative of how complex a person Hitchcock was. 

James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Hitchcock on the set of Rear Window

This has been obvious to me for a long time. I cut my teeth on Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, a series of analytical essays that sought to elevate the director’s films from “mere” entertainment to art. I gained such a deep appreciation for Hitchcock through this book that of course I picked up Spoto’s biography of the man, The Dark Side of Genius, as soon as it was published in 1983. In many ways, it was a brutal hatchet job, picking up in salacious detail on every ugly story ever told about the man. 

I’m not denying that there are grains of truth in some of these tales. But so far, I’m appreciating how straightforward without being salacious White’s approach to the personal side of Hitch’s life has been. Much of Hitch’s story concerns his own willing participation in the creation of the Hitchcock Phenomenon. Because of his cameos in each film (which became much looked for by viewers) and his filmed introductions to each episode of his television show, Hitchcock is the one film director most average folks would have recognized if you showed them his picture. What’s more, he managed to face down the Hollywood system and the tendency of American film folk and journalists to make fun of him – for his weight, his mannerisms, and his attraction to suspense films – and basically control the narrative. 

It was the French who dubbed Hitchcock an auteur, the absolute creator of what we saw on screen. White offers a cogent analysis of Hitchcock’s ambivalence over this title and all it represented. On the one hand, he sought to exercise complete control over the entire filmmaking process, and he liked to take credit for every aspect of the work, even that done with collaborators. Screenwriters, especially, bridled at Hitch’s tendency to hog the credit.
Other aspects of the auteur title sat less comfortably on his shoulders, such as the tendency of film scholars to over-analyze his work (something I stand guilty of myself all the time.) 

White relates a great anecdote about Evan Hunter, who collaborated with Hitchcock on The Birds:

(Hunter) thought The Birds was the moment when Hitchcock tipped his hat to the highbrow critics and attempted to make an “art“ film. When Hunter read Hitchcock explaining to journalists that the birds “symbolized the more serious aspects of life,“ he was incredulous . . . ‘While we were shaping the screenplay, there was no talk at all of symbolism.’ The production files back him up: in one of his letters to Hunter, Hitchcock had predicted that ‘we are going to be asked again and again, especially by the morons, “Why are they doing it?”’

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who wrote North by Northwest, backs Hunter up: “ It’s those damned French critics, the auteurs. They are always coming up with all kinds of pretentious crap that has no basis in reality.”

Ernest Lehman with Hitchcock

Whenever I would show The Birds to my high school film class, I would point out one line that occurs in the background of a pivotal scene in the diner, where the besieged staff and customers discuss why the birds might be attacking. As one theory after another is proposed, we hear the waitress call out an order for fried chicken. I would tell my students, “Do we need any further explanation?” I like to think that Hitchcock would have approved of my insouciant approach to such a pertinent question. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter why the birds are attacking at all: what matters in all of Hitchcock’s films is how the extraordinary events besetting ordinary people change them, for better or worse. 

But we’ll speak more of that as we go on. We’ll talk of Maguffins, and doubles, and symbols of fear and danger that cross from film to film, of POV and tracking shots, of beautiful but icy blondes and why Thelma Ritter beats them all hands down in my book. We’ll talk of obsession and voyeurism and the dark side of espionage and why most of these films littered with murders and nightmares are really all about how a boy and girl simply learning how to get along. 

Next week, we begin with the film Hitchcock most often publicly cited as his favorite, a film White calls “his definitive effort at wreaking havoc among a nice, normal family.” We’ve even got a bonus film – something about a house afire. 

See you then.