Article by Philip Kemp
'WHEN A DIRECTOR ... SETS out to make a thriller or a suspense picture,' wrote François Truffaut, introducing his classic book- length interview with Hitchcock, 'you may be certain that in his heart of hearts he is hoping to live up to one of Hitchcock's masterpieces.'1 And even if he (or she) isn't, you can be pretty sure that's what the producers - and the critics - are hoping for, given the freedom with which the term 'Hitchcockian' is slung around. (Even as I write, Taylor Hackford's routinely competent Dolores Claiborne is being touted as 'The best psychological thriller Hitchcock never made'.) There's only one way to make a thriller, would seem to be the implicit message, and if you ain't doing it Hitch's way, you ain't doing it right.
Of course that isn't so, and never was. Pace Truffaut, there are plenty of other ways: nothing very Hitchcockian, after all, about The Usual Suspects, strong front-runner for thriller of the year. Still, from the mid-30s onwards there's been no shortage of recognisably 'school of Hitchcock' movies - many of them, inevitably, sporting all the originality of a fake Rolex. But Hitchcockian elements have been adopted and creatively reworked by film-makers as distinctive, and as diverse, as Roeg, Clouzot and Michael Powell, whose ventures into this field call in question the further implication of Truffaut's statement: that even if you do opt for the path of the Master, the best you can hope for is to 'live up to' him. That anyone should contrive to out-Hitch him at his own game is clearly unthinkable.
To check how far this assumption
is justified - and since it would take a book just to list all the
'school of Hitch' movies, let alone analyse them - I've opted to
concentrate on six films that seem to offer good scope for comparison.
Two of them are French, two British and two American: in chronological
order, Contraband (1940), Les Diaboliques (1955), Charade (1963), Le Boucher (1969), Don't Look Now (1973) and Obsession
(1976). What's at once noticeable is that, different though they all
are, the traits they have in common cut across national boundaries.
Powell/Pressburger and Donen are the jokers; Chabrol shares with De
Palma a mood of doomed romantic melancholy; and of Clouzot's film and
Roeg's, it would be hard to say which is the scarier. Yet each takes
Hitchcock as a jumping-off point and more than one of them sets out to
do things that he wouldn't, or maybe couldn't, do.
Michael Powell had watched Hitchcock at work (he was stills photographer on such Hitchcock silents as Champagne and The Manxman) and described him as 'the most inventive, mischievous, inspiring hobgoblin in movies... the eternal Cockney barrowboy who knows it all'.2 Powell was no Cockney, but there's a certain cocky knowingness - and a good deal of mischief - about Contraband. It was his second film with Emeric Pressburger; their first, The Spy in Black (1939) had teamed Conrad Veidt with Valerie Hobson. Both pairings had struck sparks off each other and at the box office; Contraband was a frankly opportunistic bid to repeat the formula. Veidt plays the skipper of a Danish freighter detained by British Contraband Control for inspection; Hobson is a contrary-minded passenger who jumps ship and heads for London. Pursuing her, Veidt discovers she's a British agent: there are stage-Nazis, punch-ups and shoot-outs in the blackout, and all ends with a clinch. It was, Powell noted, 'pure corn, but corn served up by professionals'.3
It was also a shameless grab-bag of Hitchcockian motifs, most of them lifted from the run of six Gaumont-British thrillers, from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to The Lady Vanishes (1938), that had secured Hitchcock's international fame. The villains run a cinema as cover for their operation, just like Verloc in Sabotage; there's a stagey blackface act straight out of Young and Innocent; as in The Lady Vanishes, the plot hinges on a musical clue. Studied Hitchcockian quirkeries abound, like the showdown amidst a roomful of unsaleable busts of Neville Chamberlain, or the bowler-hatted little man planted stolidly between the sparring Veidt and Hobson on a bus, and the film even boasts its own MacGuffin, a cigarette paper listing the names of disguised German warships.
And throughout, Contraband slily apes Hitchcock's taste for setting up an erotic tension, spiced with kinkiness, between his lead actors. From their first clash when she refuses to wear a life-jacket (something of a bondage garment in itself) the exchanges between Veidt and Hobson quiver with hints of S/M games. 'Mrs S?rensen,' he growls, provoked by her wide-eyed insolence, 'have you ever been put in irons?' When they're tied up together by the heavies (shades of the handcuffed Donat and Carroll in The 39 Steps)4 he works his way free, warning as he tugs at the ropes, 'I shall hurt you.' 'Go ahead,' she murmurs.
Where Contraband parts company with its models is in its documentary strain. Hitchcock, as befitted a director who scorned plausibility, had scant interest in documentary, but Powell is clearly fascinated no less by the workings of British Contraband Control than by the eerie world of London in the blackout. The blackout element works fine, heightening the fantasy mood of the London scenes (the film was retitled Blackout for its US release), but the bureaucratic comings and goings clog the action badly for the first twenty minutes. Also, Powell enjoyed eccentric actors, which Hitchcock scarcely did. (Witness Hitch's palpable unease with Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell in Stage Fright and his abdication in the face of Laughton's Jamaica Inn barnstorming.) Evidently much amused, Powell overindulges Hay Petrie in his double role, playing off the short fussy Petrie against Veidt's craggy, towering presence. It's fun, but it dissipates the tension.
By the mid-30s, Hitchcock had
perfected his supreme trick: his ability to screw up the suspense, then
grin in our faces - and still keep us on the edge of our seats. In his
work from The Man Who Knew Too Much onwards, as Peter John Dyer put it, 'terror and levity rub shoulders'.5 Contraband has
plenty of levity, but not much terror. The blackout scenes point the
way: expressionist high fantasy was where Powell/Pressburger's interests
lay, and not until The Small Back Room would they prove that they too - in their own very un-Hitchcockian style - could be masters of suspense.
Stanley Donen comes far closer to bringing off the terror/levity trick. Remarkably close, in fact, given that Charade was his first shot at the thriller genre. Unashamedly setting up an hommage, Donen kicks off with Saul Bass-style credits (a deft pastiche by Paul Binder) leading into an Alpine ski-slope scene that reworks the opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (British version). And having cast Cary Grant, one of Hitchcock's two favourite male leads,6 Donen plays mix-and-match with all four of Hitch's Grant films: North by Northwest mostly, but with chunks of Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch a Thief stirred in.
'What has long been most disturbing in Hitchcock's films,' Andrew Sarris noted, '- the perverse ironies, the unresolved ambiguities, the switched protagonists - now marks him as a pioneer in the modern idiom in which nothing is what it seems on the surface.'7 Donen too captures this sense of pervasive unease, of a jokey facade stretched thin over betrayal and desolation. As often with Hitchcock (Blackmail, Sabotage, Shadow of a Doubt, etc) the ostensible 'happy ending' dissolves on scrutiny into something more disturbing: the heroine (Audrey Hepburn at her most appealingly vulnerable) has merely passed from the arms of one compulsive liar to those of another. 'With Charles,' she muses on her failed marriage, 'everything is secrecy and lies.' But the same is true, doubled and in spades, of Grant, who switches names and personalities with alarming fluency, and her final glad cry as she falls into his embrace, 'Oh I love you, Adam Alex Peter Brian, whatever your name is!' prompts the thought: how many more of him are there, and just how lovable will they all be?
Where Charade scores over Contraband is in deftly running these bleaker intimations in tandem with its light-hearted elements, using humour to tighten the mood rather than defuse it. Like Hitchcock at his best, Donen tosses in small offkey details - the police inspector with his nail-scissors, the twitchy little villain subject to compulsive sneezing - that at once tease and disquiet us. He can match his mentor for sadistic glee, as well. There's a ripe comedy-of-public-embarrassment scene involving Grant, an orange and an outraged buxom lady; two minutes later, Hepburn is 'put through it' as callously as any of Hitch's cool blondes, with James Coburn's folksily menacing Tex Penthollow cornering her in a phone booth to drop lighted matches down her front. Once again, the lead relationship is spiced with sadism, physical no less than psychological: Grant openly delights in keeping Hepburn scared out of her wits, and at one point threatens her with a spanking.8
For all its dark undertones, Charade is
an exhilarating experience. There's a dancing lightness about the
camerawork, a throwaway elegance in the handling of the actors, that
reminds us Donen cut his teeth on Gene Kelly musicals. Could Hitchcock
have directed a musical? The nearest he got to it was the 1933
Straussian confection Waltzes from Vienna, and his loathing for that dire assignment throbs through every frame. But it would be special pleading to claim that Charade,
to any serious degree, ever transcends its reputation as 'the best
comedy thriller Hitchcock never made'. Stylish, witty and accomplished,
Donen's film could scarcely be bettered as an affectionate salute to the
Master, but ultimately it exists wholly within Hitchcock's shadow.
If Charade was unashamedly copying Hitchcock, no one thought the worse of Donen for it. The response to Obsession, though, dealt Brian De Palma's critical standing a blow from which it's yet to recover. Not only was this upstart movie brat ripping off the great Hitch, snarled the reviewers, but he was doing it ineptly; his film was slow, arty, pretentious, utterly lacking in Hitchcockian pace and bite. From now on, the dismissive term 'derivative' would hover over De Palma's head like a small travelling thundercloud.
Two decades on, though, the puzzling thing is how Obsession ever got taken for a 'Hitchcockian thriller' in the first place. True, it borrows the theme of Vertigo - a man haunted by the memory of a lost love who tries to remodel another woman into her image - but does so like a composer writing 'Variations on a Theme of'. Whatever he may have done subsequently, in Obsession De Palma is no more trying to be Hitchcock than Rachmaninov was trying to be Paganini. Part of the blame may lie with the Columbia publicists who, perhaps befuddled by the involvement of Bernard Herrmann, rambled on about 'crackling suspense'.9 There's precious little of that in Obsession, but then on all the evidence there was hardly meant to be. Instead, the film floats in its own dreamlike, overheated melancholia. The contrast between the two films' main action set-pieces is indicative: Scottie (James Stewart) is traumatically present at Madeleine's death, while Michael (Cliff Robertson) simply watches from a distance as cops and crooks, equally inept, make a catastrophic botch-up of the kidnap/rescue.
The impression of a thriller perversely played out in slow-motion is enhanced by De Palma's timescale. Barring the odd flashback, Hitchcock never splits his films over time: most of them cover a few weeks, Vertigo a year or so. Obsession stretches over 16 years - partly a plot necessity, of course, to allow Michael's daughter time to grow up into her mother's double, but also a reflection of the film's languorous mood. San Francisco vs New Orleans; necrophilia vs incest; one could set up a whole string of cool/steamy opposites between Hitchcock's film and De Palma's. The contrast between the two Herrmann scores sums it up. Where Vertigo's mode is high and remote, poised around flute, harp and vibraphone, Obsession is dominated by the dark, chthonic outpourings of the organ, edging it towards De Palma's home territory of the horror genre.
Obsession is an
ill-starred film: even sympathetic critics seem to have trouble seeing
it straight. In his book on De Palma, Michael Bliss describes the hero
at the end as 'happy again after all those miserable years'.10
The reading's hard to sustain, given Robertson's expression of anguish
in his fiancee/daughter's embrace - the look of a man desperate to make
love to the one woman who's utterly barred to him. Earlier on, there's
what sounds like a plea for the film to be taken on its own terms, not
just as ersatz Hitchcock. When Michael first meets his reincarnated
love, she's restoring a fresco in the same Florentine church where he
met his wife. She explains that another painting's been revealed under
the one she's working on, posing a dilemma: 'Should they destroy a great
painting to uncover what appears to be a crude first draft, or should
they restore the original but never know for sure what lies beneath it?'
There may be a covert reference here to Paul Schrader's original
script, in which Michael goes to jail for killing his partner, his
daughter is driven mad, and they meet again 25 years later, broken and
desolate, after their respective releases. By all accounts it was
Herrmann who talked De Palma and Schrader out of what would surely have
been a still less Hitchcockian film.
As it stands, the least successful element in Obsession is the denouement; clumsy and undermotivated, it risks turning the film into a crass whodunit. Hitchcock famously disliked whodunits - 'Like a jigsaw or a crossword puzzle. No emotion'11 - and it's a great strength of Chabrol's Le Boucher that right from the start it's clear who the killer is. Though Chabrol pitches a curve ball or two (such as the lost-and-found lighter) to keep us alert, we're never in much doubt that Popaul, the likeable village butcher brutalised by his father and by 15 years in the Army, is behind the serial killings of local young women. The tension of Le Boucher doesn't lie in who, or even much in why, but in watching realisation seep into and corrode the central relationship - just as it does in the film's closest counterpart in the Hitchcock canon.
In the pioneering study of Hitchcock he wrote with Eric Rohmer, Chabrol identified as a key Hitchcockian theme the 'exchange of guilt'.12 The theme's at its clearest in Strangers on a Train (source of Chabrol's cigarette-lighter motif) but it's also central to Shadow of a Doubt - set, like Le Boucher, in a small and vividly-evoked rural community.13 And there are close affinities between Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie and Jean Yanne's Popaul, both bitter and misanthropic behind their affable facades. 'Do you know the world is a foul sty?' asks Charlie, echoed by Popaul's comment that the local people are a good lot, 'not like the shits you meet everywhere else'.14 But while Charlie kills for sadistic pleasure and financial gain, Popaul (like Peter Lorre in Lang's M) kills in anguished compulsion, trapped in a mist of blood. 'I can't help myself,' he tells Helène, the schoolmistress (Stèphane Audran), 'it's like a nightmare.'
Where Le Boucher elaborates - and arguably improves on - its prototype is in its handling of the 'exchange of guilt'. In Shadow young Charlie (Teresa Wright) intuits her uncle's guilt but can't bring herself to denounce him. Her complicity lies in shared knowledge, no more. Hel?ne is drawn in deeper. Her cool Parisian chic fascinates Popaul, who with touching awkwardness declares his attraction. She rejects him; she has had an unhappy affair and doesn't want to 'take any more risks'. At the climax he confronts her and confesses, knife in hand, then turns it on himself. Weeping, Helène drives him to the hospital; as his lifeblood leaks away he tells her, 'I would have liked to be with you always.... When you were there, I didn't think about blood.' Had she been prepared to give herself, she might have saved him - and his victims.
delivers on suspense, all right: the sequence when Helène scurries
desperately round the schoolhouse locking every door, only to realise
that Popaul has still gained entry, scores high on the nailbiting scale.
But Chabrol has the audacity to follow this climax with the long,
tender, agonisingly slow death scene, all the more moving for its verbal
formality: even at this extremity the two address each other as 'vous',
and Popaul's dying cry is not 'Helène' but 'Mademoiselle Helène'. In
the fatal stabbing of a flawed, remorseful hero there may be a
side-glance at Sabotage, but nothing there nor in Shadow of a Doubt can match the complex, visceral emotions of Le Boucher's final minutes.
Given that Chabrol is widely considered a 'cold' director, Le Boucher is notable for the warmth and compassion of its regard. There's little of either, though, in the pitiless gaze of Henri- Georges Clouzot. In Les Diaboliques, observed a contemporary critic, everything is 'unwholesome, tacky, foul and tainted'15 and the sole character with any redeeming traits is precisely the one (played by Vera Clouzot, wife of the director) who gets destroyed. What gives the film its lasting fascination - it's just been re-released, and a Hollywood remake is on the way - is the satisfaction Clouzot so patently derives from his sordid world and the creatures who crawl about in it. Hitchcock's often been accused of misanthropy, but Clouzot makes him look like both Cheeryble brothers [characters in Dickens's 'Nicholas Nickleby' - Ed.!] rolled into one.
Clouzot himself acknowledged his affinities with Hitchcock. 'We have preoccupations in common - notably a taste for certain physically violent elements.'16 Source material in common, too - Les Diaboliques is adapted from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose 'D'entre les morts' ('From the Dead'/'Between Deaths') furnished the plot of Vertigo. As a title, 'From the Dead' would have fitted Les Diaboliques just as well. Michel, the sadistic head of a private school near Paris, tyrannises both his wife and his mistress. Making common cause, they murder him. But the body vanishes, and there are intimations that Michel's still around. Finally he resurrects, horrifyingly, causing his wife's weak heart to give out - just as he and his mistress had planned it.
The cruel spiderweb of Clouzot's plot links it to Vertigo, though in its depiction of a petty, malicious suburban world the film recalls a lesser-known Hitchcock movie, the sardonic 1932 comedy Rich and Strange. But in mood and structure Les Diaboliques anticipates Psycho, not only for its steadily mounting sense of half-glimpsed horror, but for the way the strings of the action are pulled by a person - Michel, Mrs Bates - who's at once alive and dead. Both films keep their secrets to the last, with no Vertigo-style mid-way revelation; indeed Clouzot's final appeal to his audience not to give away the twist may well have inspired Hitchcock's publicity coup of banning late-comers from showings of Psycho.
According to Roy Armes, it's
Clouzot's 'lack of humour' that 'differentiates him most strongly from
his only serious rival as master of the thriller genre - Alfred
The point's disputable. Clouzot's humour is certainly of a very
different brand to Hitchcock's, with not a trace of playfulness. Yet if
there's little levity, there's a sardonic smile detectable behind
several scenes - as when, to satisfy Michel's penny-pinching regime,
boys and staff alike are dished up rotted fish for lunch. The incident's
all the more pointed for its setting: the snarly ambiance of the school
dining-room is exactly captured. It's through such richness of detail
that Clouzot, a master at creating atmosphere, builds his effects;
compare the opening scenes of Le Salaire de la peur (one of the
greatest of all suspense films, though utterly un-Hitchcockian) where
the dust and sweat and sour smell of defeat are so vivid we can taste
them. Hitchcock, like the sketch artist he used to be, can fill in a
background with a few bold strokes - fast, economical and quite
sufficient for his purpose. But Clouzot gives us a whole shabby world,
compelling in its harsh moral constriction.
Don't Look Now also creates its own all-pervading atmosphere, though Nicolas Roeg's style is very different from Clouzot's and Hitchcock's. His fractured, complex editing technique switches us back and forward, hinting at links and correspondences that may exist only in his characters' minds - or in ours. In his own way, while seeming to leave us scope to make our own connections, Roeg teases and manipulates his audience no less than Hitchcock, tantalising us (along with John Baxter, the bereaved father played by Donald Sutherland) with glimpses and half-grasped images to lure us into the film's emotional and physical labyrinth. Don't Look Now deftly juggles ideas of perception, of vision and blindness, reflection and prevision. Yet at the same time, for all its ludic virtuosity, the film taps into deep emotions - deeper perhaps than Hitchcock generally cares to go. Hitch gives us the scream of terror, sure enough, but rarely the howl of grief.
Like Les Diaboliques, Don't Look Now connects with Hitchcock via its source material, being drawn (as were Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds) from a tale by Daphne du Maurier. Though its theme - the influence over the living of a dead person who returns in malign guise - links it with Rebecca (and with Vertigo and Psycho), it shares with The Birds a location in du Maurier's favourite territory, the almost-supernatural - stories where things happen on the borderline, nearly but not quite explicable in rational terms. We're never sure how far Baxter has foreseen, or even unknowingly willed, his own death, any more than we're sure whether Melanie (Tippi Hedren) in some way attracts the birds' attacks.
Where Don't Look Now differs from The Birds - and, I'd venture to say, from most other Hitchcock films - is in swinging us through a far wider trajectory of emotions. Roeg's film doesn't lack humour (the gloomy, black-bearded hotel manager could almost be, as Neil Sinyard suggests, 'a forerunner of John Cleese's Basil Fawlty)18 nor sex: the bedroom scene between Sutherland and Julie Christie is deservedly famous for its frank sensuality. As for tension, the climactic sequence in which Baxter tracks the small, red-hooded figure he takes for his dead daughter through the haunted back alleys of dank, wintry Venice matches any in the history of cinema.
Yet it's worth pausing over that
sequence, since what it gives us goes beyond a mood of encroaching
menace and the chilling moment when the figure turns to reveal a
grotesque, ancient dwarf with cleaver upraised. Suspense and terror,
yes, but also pity - not just for Baxter, but for his killer, whom we
have heard sobbing piteously, and who comes towards him pathetically
shaking her head as if to say 'Why are you making me do this?' There's a
sense of the absurd, too: the last line of du Maurier's story is '"Oh
God," he thought, "What a bloody silly way to die...."', a notion
brilliantly conveyed by Sutherland without words. These and a score of
other emotions, complex and contradictory, are packed into the scene,
along with an intricate montage of visual and aural motifs - blood,
bells, water, broken glass - from elsewhere in the film. In its richness
and resonance, it's at once the most moving and the most satisfying
conclusion to any of Roeg's works.
Hitchcock was rightly proud of Psycho, noting that the audience was aroused not by a message or a great performance, but 'by pure film'19 This distilling art - the ability to create pure film, to evoke the concentrated essence of suspense or terror, nowhere more effectively than in Psycho - is Hitchcock's strength but maybe also his limitation. While his status as the Master of Suspense rests unchallenged, it's a status within a self-chosen, circumscribed field. His films operate with a high degree of technical complexity, but within a relatively narrow emotional range.
Buttoned-up, sober-suited, addicted to set routines, Hitchcock notoriously feared disorder. Making films, one suspects, was a means of controlling disorder, containing it safely within his ironic, multilayered artifices, his Piranesian prisons of the imagination. For it's the floppier, more disorderly emotions - grief, compassion, tenderness, even happiness - that rarely figure in his films. It could be argued that they don't figure much, or even really fit, in the suspense-thriller genre as a whole, where sharper sensations like fear and anger are at home. Le Boucher and Don't Look Now, though, offer evidence to the contrary.
No film-maker, needless to say, can emulate Hitchcock in everything, and anyone who tries to ends up, like Donen, making at best a witty facsimile of the Master's work. But Chabrol and Roeg show it's possible to make 'Hitchcockian thrillers' that not only live up to the key qualities of their models, but also move into areas beyond Hitchcock's chosen range. And then, of course, there are those intriguingly hybrid films that meld Hitchcockian elements with conventions derived from other genres and other film-makers altogether: Mankiewicz's Five Fingers (Hitchcock meets Lubitsch), or Katherine Bigelow's remarkable new film Strange Days (Hitchcock/Hawks/Ridley Scott). But to explore that field would need another article - at least.
©1996, 1998, by Philip Kemp
4. Charles Laughton's wicked squire in Jamaica Inn also derives pleasure from binding and gagging the heroine, 'in a bondage... which is by far the most romantically expressed emotion in the film'. (Raymond Durgnat, 'The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock', London 1974, p.165)
6. The other was James Stewart; both he and Grant starred in four Hitchcock films each. Donen follows Hitch in using Grant's screen persona to reassure us that, no matter what perils supervene, there'll be a happy ending.
14. 'Ils sont bons, les gens du Bourras, à côté des ordures qu'on rencontre partout.' English-subtitled prints of Le Boucher emasculate this line to 'The people are nice here, much nicer than elsewhere.'
16. José-Louis Bocquet and Marc Godin, 'Henri-Georges Clouzot cinéaste', Sèvres 1993, p.89. The killing of Michel in Les Diaboliques is graphically messy and long-drawn-out. Hitchcock may have recalled it when he came to the death of the East German agent, Gromek, in Torn Curtain.