Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hitchcock as 'auteur'

William Goldman, in Adventures in the Screen Trade, demolishes the ‘auteur’ theory that was so prevalent when I was young, particularly in regard to Hitchcock. He writes that those young French filmmakers got hold of a theory and needed to prove it at every point, and, as far as Hitchcock was concerned, they exceeded all boundaries. Especially Truffaut, who admired Hitchcock so enormously, he apparently couldn’t see anything wrong with what he did.

There’s no doubt Hitchcock made some wonderful movies. He made some wonderful movies that had longueurs in them (since we’re into the French here) and he made some movies that were nothing but longueurs, The Birds and Marnie being particular examples. The Birds, as well, must be one of the silliest movies ever made (and Tippi Hendri’s constantly perfect hairstyle doesn’t help). More, it has no resolution whatsoever, and reviewing it again recently, it hasn’t stood up to the test of time in any way. At the end you just wonder: well, what the heck was the point?

Goldman reminds us of a few others duds in Hitchcock’s late period: Torn Curtain, Topaz and, worse of all, Frenzy, that dreadful English piece with a leaden leading actor (but a decent supporting cast), and some of the most grotesque violence ever to appear in a Hitchcock movie. The colour is appalling, as are the effects, especially some of the matte shots. It’s as if Hitchcock the master had badly let himself down. Goldman calls them ‘awful, awful films.’

And finally, there was Family Plot, that last gasp, in which again Hitchcock allowed extreme miscasting (Bruce Dern, for one), and let awful effects shots remain in the finished movie, and failed to edit a particularly bad sequence: the stupid car ride down the hill, in which both of the actors are expected to keep on performing the same idiocies over and over.

I think my favourite Hitchcock is The Trouble with Harry, and yet it’s not one of his better known movies. It too has some bad effects, but overall it has a superb cast, playing wonderful roles (Mildred Natwick’s part here is second only to her mad witch in The Court Jester). Along with the other films of Hitchcock’s top American period, it has a wonderful script (the funniest he ever directed, by far), and at the end of the day, in spite of the absurdity of the whole thing, you come out feeling you’ve watched a film that was worth watching.

Where would Hitch have been without his scriptwriters? This is something else Goldman points out: the auteur theory falls down hugely because there are at least eight or nine top creative artists involved in making any film (that’s not to speak of the dozens of other creative people at work), and to credit all their work to the ‘auteur’ is just a piece of nonsense.

Still, at the time, it seemed to make sense!

When you go back to the early Hitchcocks, you almost have to wonder how it was he became known as such a doyen of suspense movies. He was certainly an innovator, but in terms of suspense, a number of his films lack real tension, and even some of his top American movies are stretched out almost to breaking point (Vertigo, for example). Perhaps at the time they seemed more suspenseful than they do now, when suspense is so much tighter. (The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much loses all it’s gained by the overlong shoot-out sequence at the end, for instance. And the later version of it almost collapses while Doris Day sings her silly Che Sera Sera over and over.) Older films often are often slower paced, even when suspense is involved, and certainly more ‘talky.’ But the better ones integrate the talk and the action effectively.
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