On this day in 1899, the great film director Alfred Hitchcock was born. And I do mean that: he was a great filmmaker. He made excellent filmed entertainments. But to consider him some kind of artistic genius requires that you not watch his films. And the fact that he is now held in such high esteem is thanks to the French New Wave critics, especially Francois Truffaut. Hitchcock was effectively a genre filmmaker. And he made a lot of fun and even great films. But there is not much more there than that.
I often think about Hitchcock in relation to directors who almost no one makes a big deal about like Michael Curtiz and Edward Dmytryk. These are men who were shockingly consistent in their output. They both made films that I think outclass anything that Hitchcock ever did. Just take each directors’ most famous film: Casablanca and The Caine Mutiny. But consider also: The Adventures of Robin Hood and Murder, My Sweet. Or: Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mirage. Yet there is supposedly something special about Hitchcock? Rubbish.
Hitchcock did make some excellent films: Rebecca, Suspicion, Dial M for Murder. And he made other films that are kind of like candy: highly enjoyable but not good for you. To Catch a Thief is lots of fun. The Birds terrified me when I was a kid, and parts of it work really well. The same thing is true of Psycho. In fact, you can say that of most of Hitchcock’s work: there are brilliant parts, but the films rarely satisfy completely.
Consider North by Northwest. The following clip is the most famous scene from the film. The person who put the clip up, added music to the scene. It shouldn’t be there. (Hitchcock had this thing about not adding music to dramatic segments; he wanted to do the same thing with the shower scene from Psycho.) But I want to focus on the very end of the scene where the plane crashes into the tanker. This is incredibly sloppy filmmaking — even for its time:
As usual, I’m focusing on the bad for an artist who I mostly like. My problem is not with Hitchcock; it is with the adulation shown him and the reverence with which many people think of his work. The truth is that “The Master of Suspense” is a good way to refer to him. But he’s not more than that. Film scholars shouldn’t be studying his work any more than they study Joseph Mankiewicz. And he has quite a bit less to teach about film technique than Elia Kazan. It’s also offensive, because I think Hitchcock’s reputation causes people to miss what is most important about him: he made a lot of entertaining films that are still worth watching today.
Happy birthday Alfred Hitchcock!