Film Commentary

BEHIND THE LENS – Alfred Hitchcock: A Manufactured Reputation

BEHIND THE LENS – Alfred Hitchcock: A Manufactured Reputation

Tom Blank

June 24th, 2014

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This summer Behind the Lens at the Baker Center will offer a program of eleven films which are connected, not by their subject member, but by style, the peculiar, commercially successful style of Alfred Hitchcock. Some of them are directed by the master himself and some by others who sought to emulate Hitchcockʼs method of constructing popular entertainment. After all, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Today Hitchcock seems to be universally admired as a great film maker, but that admiration in the popular consciousness arises from, not the films themselves, but from a series of articles and interviews written and conducted by a group of young French film critics. The articles were published in the late fifties, but that well-burnished reputation, to which most of us subscribe, did not take hold for another decade.

Hitchcock was always a master technician, a terrific story teller and a clever manipulator of audience reaction, but his “greatness” arose directly from critics who later became directors themselves, members of the Nouvelle Vague, the “New Wave” in French cinema. These writers included Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol. They had concluded that the French film makers still working were hopelessly out-dated, and it was time for youth to take over the film industry. But what did “youth” want to do with it?

With the end of World War II, European theaters were bombarded with movies from Hollywood, movies that had been forbidden to occupied countries, and they were extremely popular, like a breath of fresh air. Most of the American product were cheap crime stories, what we would call “B” pictures. Still, there were some that were better than others. They decided that the one thing that the best ones had in common was that they demonstrated a recognizable “style,” and that style had to be the work of one person, the director. The directors they liked were not the most prestigious, but they were the “authors” of their films and deserved to be called auteurs.

Alfred Hitchcock was designated “an auteur.”

Of course, Alfred Hitchcock had already been successful, both in England and in the United States, but no one could claim that he was consistent. He had a good number of flops to balance his successes, but some of the successes were so profitable that the studio bosses continued to give him assignments. Those same bosses always liked it when he stayed in the form that was the most successful, the thriller with comic overtones. Hitchcock himself wanted to broaden his appeal and to work in comedy and melodrama. Whenever the great man strayed, he often failed.

American studio heads cared very little about “art” and a great deal about profit. Most of Hitchcockʼs biographers admit that he himself always pursued the American dollar. How did that make him an “auteur?”

In 1955, when he was making “To Catch a Thief” in Monaco, he was visited on the set by the prominent film critic Andre Bazin. They chatted during the scene in the flower market, and Bazin, less than impressed, left to write his first French impression of the director. When it was published as an article in Cahiers du Cinema it had a great impact on the way the world looked at Hitchcock and started a debate that raged for several years in the pages of the magazine. Rohmer and Chabrol were partisans in the question: “Is Alfred Hitchcock a genius?”

In 1958, Rohmer and Chabrol collaborated on a long monograph that explored the Hitchcock canon, and the artistic dispute became a dogfight in the French film world.

Alfred Hitchcock paid little attention.

The concept of the auteur, the director as author, was not acknowledged on this side of the Atlantic until feature films directed by the director/critics became successful in American art houses in the sixties. Calling Hitchcock an auteur was not a question that American film buffs even considered until Francois Truffaut published his book- length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut in 1966.

The fifty hours of conversation transcribed in the book led Truffaut to the conclusion that the great master didn’t really understand his own work. He was clearly more interested in film technique than film meaning. His reluctance to discuss any deep issues in the films seemed to camouflage the apparent truth that he had never considered them, and Truffaut now understood that the glorified film maker of his imagination was something of an emperor with no clothes. Still, the publication of the book, coming out at the time that “Torn Curtain” was released to poor reviews was an event that Hitchcock used to his own advantage with the studio bosses.

Remember, Hitchcock valued his own work by the profits the films produced for the studios and the power he gained thereby.

Hitchcock never got an Oscar. Only in the twilight of his career, in 1968, did the Hollywood establishment recognize him. He received an honorary Academy Award for “career achievement.”

This summer we will screen one Hitchcock classic (Suspicion), four films in which he tried to break the mold that had served him well (Under Capricorn; The Trouble with Harry; Marnie, and Frenzy), two movies made by others using Hitchcockian techniques (The Third Man, Charade), and four movies made by French directors (Purple Noon, les Diabloliques, le Boucher, and This Man Must Die). Two of the French directors were known, separately, as the “French Hitchcock.”

Behind the Lens is sponsored by DIVA (Downtown Institute for the Visual Arts) and presented as a non-credit course by the University of Oregon Extension.

The Baker Center is located at 10th and High Streets. Each film is screened on Tuesday nights starting at 7:00 PM.

Tom Blank is a retired television director, assistant director and production manager who has worked on such hit television series as "The Bionic Woman," "Murder, She Wrote" and "Charmed." He currently hosts DIVA's "Behind the Lens" seminar on Tuesday nights at the UO Baker Center.

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