Overrated but Fun Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred HitchcockOn 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!

4 thoughts on “Overrated but Fun Alfred Hitchcock

  1. Well the best things about most good Hitchcock movies were the script and acting (NxNW a great case in point) and certainly he had a hand in shaping each. He was quite good at assembling talent for a movie when he cared (he seems to have lost interest around "Psycho," but he WAS getting old.)

    What’s funny about the in-depth Hitchcock criticism is that it really focuses on his obsession with blondes later on (Kelly, Hendrin, Novak) as though that MEANS anything! You might as well construct a similar argument proving Tarantino is really deep because of his sexual fixation on ass-kicking women and ignore the clever dialogue/performances.

    A lot of this comes from veneration of "Vertigo," which like "The Searchers" (the John Ford western from around the same period, and beloved by many of the same critics) has a lot of really twisted undercurrents. I think both movies are just fine (Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo" is better than fine) but came off as amazing to young film students watching 50’s American movies because 50’s American movies were largely dreck. The themes of controlling one’s sexual partner in "Vertigo" were explored a lot in earlier films (Hepburn was in a lot of them), the themes of racism in "Searchers," too. But those movies didn’t stand out at much because a lot of movies from earlier periods had dark subtexts to go with the entertaining plots.

    We should keep in mind that the critics who venerated these things were young, passionate moviegoers, and American movies had the best production values anywhere, and they enjoyed finding dark subtexts in the moves with the biggest stars and most beautiful big-screen presentations that they enjoyed watching. And this was the ’50s/early ’60s, when Europeans were recovering from war-induced hardship and American culture was very conformist. Stuff that they could imagine having subtexts relating to life NOW was much more vital, for their purposes, than equally good if not better moviemaking from a decade or two before.

  2. @JMF – Well, I think that the New Wave writers grabbed onto Hitchcock because they wanted to pick someone who no one thought of as a serious filmmaker. They certainly couldn’t have picked Ford, that’s for sure; too many people admired his contributions to film. If they were writing today, they certainly wouldn’t pick Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. They’d pick someone like David Fincher or Christopher Nolan. And that’s to take nothing away from these directors. But they couldn’t pick someone widely praised like Scorsese or someone as popular as Spielberg.

    And remember, they could have picked a truly controversial director like Samuel Fuller, but they didn’t. They picked someone really popular who made one kind of film well.

    I didn’t mention in the article: I hate Hitchcock’s use of back projection.

  3. I think they did praise Ford, a lot, but you’re right that they ignored guys like Fuller (or Anthony Mann, who made Westerns where the darkness was right up there on the surface.) And they loved Hawks, whose films are really entertaining but have no subtext at all as far as I can determine.

    Today? No, Nolan and Fincher are already critical heroes. If I’m a critic looking to pick a modern filmmaker to worship just to be different, I’d say . . . Jon Favreau, maybe? . . . ;)

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