Slices of Cake

Gilberto Perez

  • Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks: An Authorised and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock by Dan Auiler
    Bloomsbury, 567 pp, £20.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4490 5

Alfred Hitchcock is famous for planning everything beforehand, shooting his films in his head, never looking through the camera because he knew exactly what he would find. But the photographs in Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks show him always sitting by the camera. He may not have looked through the viewfinder but he identified with the camera: the eye that knew exactly what it would find, the gaze for whose benefit everything would perform according to plan. We see him sitting by the camera on the set of Rear Window, looking out of the same rear window through which the immobilised protagonist spies on his neighbours, and using a microphone to direct the actors playing the neighbours in the apartment across the courtyard. This is a god spying on the people whose every move he commands.

Hitchcock was essentially a studio director. In the studio he made the world the way he wanted it. Even his most striking uses of real locations involved a fair amount of studio trickery. Hitchcock didn’t care for the actual place, only for the effect he could get from it; he wouldn’t go to the trouble of shooting on location if he could use a studio backdrop or a stretch of back projection instead.

In 1967, however, concerned to keep up with the times and impressed by European films – Antonioni’s especially – he decided to try something new, away from the studio and its fabrications. For this attempt ‘to reinvent the Hitchcock film’, as Dan Auiler puts it in Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks, he wrote not just a treatment but, inspired by a true story, his first screenplay in twenty years. And, even more remarkably, he arranged to shoot nearly an hour of experimental footage on location in New York City, indoors as well as out, using available light and new colour stocks that were sensitive to dimmer conditions.

It seems appropriate that Hitchcock should have been drawn to Antonioni, who in his own way is a master of suspense, though not a master ruling like a god over his creation: Antonioni is a Hitchcock who appears to have as little sense as we have of the solution to the mystery. Imagine Rear Window as directed by Antonioni: the glimpses we catch of the neighbours would have remained partial, uncertain, mysterious – they would not add up to neat little stories, still less to the neat bigger story of the murder mystery. The detective in Hitchcock’s Rear Window is the snooping protagonist, not the knowing camera; in Antonioni’s movies the camera itself is a detective looking into the mystery of the world’s appearances. In Hitchcock the camera knows because, as its knowing lets us know, this is only a movie.

‘It’s only a movie,’ Hitchcock was fond of saying to his actors and technicians when they got too worried or upset during filming. ‘It’s only a movie,’ he tells his audience in effect, reminding us, even in tense situations, that this is play. That doesn’t make him less serious than Antonioni. The artifice of art is an aspect of its seriousness.

In 1967 Hitchcock found himself in a position not unusual for an artist: the work slipping, the critical reputation on the rise. He had been taken up by Cahiers du Cinéma, and the auteur school of criticism, which included Truffaut and Godard. As Fredric Jameson has observed, the auteur theory reflected its time, with the emergence of film-makers such as Antonioni, Fellini, Buñuel, Bergman, and several of the Cahiers critics themselves, and projected it back to a time when the director was not considered the author of a film but merely one of its makers (just as the rejection of the auteur theory in academic film studies since the late Seventies reflects the current rule of the corporation in the film industry, as elsewhere). Hitchcock, in any case, is an exception. He was an auteur before auteur theory, a director recognised by the public as the author of his films. And after the repudiation of the theory he remained an indisputable auteur: personal expression may be an illusion, but Hitchcock was a master illusionist.

What is even more unusual about him is that he was able to make his signature part of the entertainment that a popular audience goes to see. In its admiration for popular cinema the politique des auteurs was populist – but not populist enough for the populism of today, which considers élitist the focus on certain directors as auteurs to be distinguished from the rest.

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