Alfred Hitchcock and the Joke of Film Criticism

Alfred HitchcockI’ve watched two Alfred Hitchcock films this last week: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Foreign Correspondent (1940). In the past, I’ve said that Hitchcock was a great genre filmmaker. I think that is a case where my friends are right: I do overuse superlatives. Watching both of these films was depressing.

Foreign Correspondent is the better of the two. It can be forgiven its propagandistic character. But in terms of pure cinema, it’s boring. D W Griffith was doing far more interesting work 25 years earlier. And that’s to say nothing of Sergei Eisenstein. It’s a by-the-numbers directorial job. But overall, the film reminded me of nothing so much as what Howard Hawks would produce if he lacked the talent and care. And as much as I love Hawks’ work, film critics (rightly) don’t pick over his films for deep meanings.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is typical of Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s and 1960s. I think it is fine to use rear projection. But I can’t think of a major filmmaker who used it so obsessively and so badly. Every time it is used, it pulls me out of the story. And that’s especially true here where much of the early second unit work from Morocco is gorgeous. But it doesn’t too much matter because the story itself is so anemic, it could almost be an episode of Leave It to Beaver.

Greatest Film Ever

But it was Foreign Correspondent that really got me thinking. It was made less than a year before Citizen Kane and the contrast could not be more stark. Whereas Correspondent told an utterly predictable story in a totally conventional way, Kane presented a modern tragedy if a revolutionary way.

This turn toward thinking of Alfred Hitchcock as a great film director has everything to do with fetish made of him by the French New Wave.

But okay, Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever blah, blah, blah. That’s always been a bit hard to stomach, but sure: Kane is a spectacular film. But where does this business of it being the “best” film come from? It’s a silly idea, so it should surprise no one that it comes from polling of film critics. It comes specifically from Sight & Sound magazine. Since 1952, they’ve been asking every ten years.

In 1952, Citizen Kane didn’t even make the list. The film was, of course, hugely influential among filmmakers. But critics had not yet been told that they should admire the film. It wasn’t until the 1962 poll that Kane showed up on the list at all — and at number one no less. It stayed there until the 2012, when it dropped to number two.

Alfred Hitchcock Becomes “Great”

What was the new greatest film ever made? Vertigo. That’s right: not only an Alfred Hitchcock film, but not even one of his better films. But I guess the critic community had to pick some Alfred Hitchcock film. And it couldn’t be an obvious one like Psycho. So why not Vertigo? It works as well as any other.

The interesting thing is that the critics who would now have us believe that Vertigo is the greatest film ever are only doing so because they’ve been taught to. Hitchcock didn’t even show up on the list until the 1982 poll, when Vertigo tied for 7th place with two vastly superior films: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

This turn toward thinking of Alfred Hitchcock as a great film director has everything to do with the fetish made of him by the French New Wave. And the modern critics just can’t get past that. They’ve all read Hitchcock/Truffaut. François Truffaut thought Hitchcock was great, so not only is Hitchcock great, but everything he touched is a masterpiece. It’s just sad. Of course, the same thing happened to Welles. But at least Welles was a brilliant and important filmmaker. The more important point is that it’s just not quite so cool anymore to obsess about him. Trust me: in 2032, Vertigo will not top the Sight & Sound list.

Where Are the Greats?

What’s absurd is that nowhere on the list is anything by Griffith (although Intolerance was number five in 1952). Eisenstein suddenly disappeared in 2012. That’s not to say that the 2012 list is a bad one. It’s a list that contains nine great films. And at the top of list is an odd, moderately entertaining film by Alfred Hitchcock. It shows what a joke film critics are.

  1. Vertigo
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. Tokyo Story
  4. Rules of the Game
  5. Sunrise
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  7. The Searchers
  8. Man with a Movie Camera
  9. Passion of Joan of Arc

For the record, I think The Searchers is an odd film to pick for John Ford. And there are lots of Fellini films I like more than . For that matter, many of these films are odd selections. But they are all important films — all except for Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock was not an important director.

10 thoughts on “Alfred Hitchcock and the Joke of Film Criticism

  1. That’s the thing — even among the undeniably groundbreaking films on this list, admirers could easily pick others by the same creative team. “Rules Of The Game” vs. “Grand Illusion” is strictly a matter of taste, for example.

    And if we’re going by groundbreaking, why isn’t Robert Flaherty in there? Riefenstahl? Eisenstein? Altman? If “2001”‘s included, why not any work by Ray Harryhausen?

    I get that Ford’s films are really often beautifully shot. Leone’s are often better shot. I get that Hitchcock and Ford influenced many aspiring filmmakers. Well, what about musicals? Sturges comedies? The lovely epic photography in “Lawrence Of Arabia”? “Night Of The Hunter” is one of the most influential films ever made, and to me it was way more suspenseful than anything Hitchcock did.

    It really does come down to the silliness of the “auteur” stuff. If you look hard enough at any movie, you can find hidden meanings the creators never intended. “Vertigo” is considered a masterpiece because it’s supposedly about how Hitchcock was expressing his demons, his need to control beautiful women, as Jimmy Stewart does in the film. Many of the movies on that list can be seen as applauded because they represented a director having the most control over his work; Kubrick’s retakes, Fellini’s autobiographical obsessions, etc.

    To me this is a complete misunderstanding of how art works. The best art doesn’t express YOU. It expresses something human in a way your experience helps to frame it. It can be autobiographical, it can be about characters whose obsessions parallel yours, it can have nothing to do with YOU whatsoever. It’s about you being excited in sharing it, and sharing it effectively

    I still like Hitchcock, but I could care less about his inner turmoil. I like him because he gave Thelma Ritter and James Mason fun, memorable parts in his silly movies.

    • I also think that Vertigo was picked because it wasn’t really successful at the time. It was rather different from his typical stuff. I used to enjoy Hitchcock quite a lot. And to some extent, I still do. But his disdain for craft slaps me in the face far too much. For some reason, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Birds are always linked in my mind. There’s no question but that Body Snatchers is the far superior film, even though I’m fond of The Birds. But critics don’t obsess about Don Siegel. They see him for what he was: a fine, inventive director. That’s what Hitchcock should be seen as.

      You are completely right about the other directors and films. Personally, I prefer Grand Illusion to Rules of the Game. But that’s mostly because of the themes the two films deal with. What’s interesting if you look at the lists is how recent films will show up. For example, The Godfather showed up and then disappeared. It’s a silly exercise. But it bugs me that Hitchcock is on the list. I can make the case for every other director on the list. But not Hitchcock. I think I could make a far better case for Russ Meyer than for Hitchcock.

      There’s also the fact that so many films have been made that none of these critics have seen. It reminds me of something Gary Taylor said about people just “knowing” that there is more humanity contained in Shakespeare’s 30-odd plays than in the 500 plays of Lope de Vega they have not seen.

      • In defense of some of Hitchcock’s production shoddiness, he did start off in the ultra-low-budget British film industry. So maybe old habits die hard. Still, later in his career, he could have gotten the bigger budgets quite easily. It’s one thing to put rear-projection behind Cary Grant in an action scene; you don’t risk Cary Grant. But the first kiss in “Vertigo,” the music swells, and Stewart/Novak are kissing in front of a rear-projection ocean. Huh? It’s almost being cheap for the sake of being cheap. And other Brit-trained filmmakers like Lean or Carol Reed were making movies in the 1940s and 50s that looked much less shoddy. Shit, “From Russia With Love” looks less shoddy.

        The whole list thing is a silly exercise, but DYLAN WON THE NOBEL PRIZE! This is actually awesome. It validates all the great singer-songwriters who came before Dylan and influenced him, in blues, country, folk, and jazz. It’s a tribute to the best of America. I love this particular silly exercise right now!

        • Generally, Hitchcock’s apologists will state that he used rear projection so much because he wanted “control.” But I’ve never been clear what exactly he was controlling for given that his films aren’t that interesting to look at. Regardless, it doesn’t explain why he took so little care.

          Yes, congratulations Bob Dylan!

          • There’s also how critics see old films. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively on DVD. Crappy production values look less jarring on a TV. The Apu Trilogy, or “Treasure Of The Sierra Madre”, or “Shoeshine” are almost unbearably visually dense on a movie screen; they’re overwhelming experiences. Seen on a TV, you focus more on the plot and the actors. Hitchcock often had good scripts, and always had good actors. “Touch Of Evil” on TV is a fun little potboiler; in a theater, it’s jaw-dropping. Same with “The Wild Bunch”, which almost loses all its impact entirely on the small screen.

            In a way, Hitchcock pioneered the kind of TV shows I enjoy today. And “Psycho”, of course, started out as a TV episode. My favorite films of his, “39 Steps”, “The Lady Vanishes”, “Strangers On A Train”, “Shadow Of Doubt”, and “North By Northwest”, all are like cool episodes of a murder mystery anthology series. Not great filmmaking. Although Bernard Herrmann’s music does rise to big-screen standards. But again, if we’re letting a great score elevate a film into the pantheon, where’s Leone? Whose films are actually gorgeous to look at?

            Somewhat off-topic. What are some movies you find woefully undervalued? Obviously, you write all the time about idiosyncratic filmmakers who put major guts into their work. I’m thinking more along the lines of films that had a major release and a decent budget, which for some reason are forgotten today.

            One that really sticks with me is “A Passage To India.” It’s not quite true to Forster’s spirit. Yet, to me, that feels right. No profound book can be transferred successfully to film (the best films of books are ones based on solid, professional books like “Godfather” or “Jaws.”) Lean started with Forster and made the movie his own. Kael described it as “the moral hideousness of empire” and that’s quite right. Colonialism is played for both high comedy and dark tragedy. Yet the theme Forster was probably most passionate about, that of friendships being impossible when people inhabit different legal statuses of power, does come through. Kael disliked the film’s last 20 minutes. To me they’re the most devastating. Aziz’s voiceover of his letter to Quested destroys me. And talk about a musical score!

            “Gosford Park” is, to me, a masterpiece. Any silly list I made would have that right near the top. The last time I saw my mom before she got sick, we saw “Park” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Talk about a double feature! And both films got standing ovations. Quite rightly so.

            A non-masterpiece, but a vastly underrated film to me, is “A.I.” It’s unusually hopeless for a Spielberg movie (even “Schindler” had the possibility of good amidst evil) and unusually spiritual for a Kubrick movie. Why would a loving God create sentient beings with a consciousness of mortality? Knowing that everyone you love will eventually die is the cruelest joke ever played by a cosmic asshole frying ants under a magnifying glass.

            And finally, and I know most people can’t stomach this film, “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover.” When I was a teenager working in a movie theater, we had a full refund policy for anybody who walked out of that one. Which about half the audience did. My SO couldn’t make it through the first five minutes. It’s intentionally repugnant. It didn’t bother me, though, because the repugnance isn’t for shock value. It’s a pure expression of rage.

            Ebert considered it an anti-Thatcher protest, and I think that’s mostly right. But it’s not a liberal protest, like “Tramp The Dirt Down.” It’s a conservative protest, like Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now.” It’s an old-school conservative, one who believes civilization comes from a gentrified, thoughtful elite, infuriated that Thatcher turned over the reins to bullying uncouth thugs. England voted to get rid of Lord Duke Fauntleroy Percival Wellingshirebottom, and got handed Donald Trump. If I saw politics as a choice between Rockefeller and Trump, I’d take Rockefeller every time.

            • That’s a good point about screen size. In the old days, I was always impressed with low budget films shot on 16 or Super-16 mm that were blown up to 32 mm. On the big screen, they always looked fairly bad. But once they were reduced to video, they looked as good as any native 32 mm films. Although I still maintain that Hitchcock looks bad on video. But it isn’t always the case. Hitchcock was generally better in black and white. And like I’ve said: I like Hitchcock. In fact, that’s a big part of the problem. I think pretending that he’s important gets in the way of the enjoyment of what is just gold ol’ genre filmmaking. I’d probably complain if people started calling Don Coscarelli a great filmmaker. And I actually think he is!

              It’s hard to say that A Passage to India is underrated because I think it is widely admired. At least, it was at the time — as I recall. I just checked Rotten Tomatoes and it gives it an 85% fresh rating. In an absolute sense, that’s probably about right. But given all the dreck that RT gives 90%+ it seems awfully low. And I don’t think that anyone questions but that Lean was a great director. I’ll have to watch it again. I haven’t seen it since it was in the theaters. (I just found this that I wrote almost two years ago: “On this day in 1879, the great writer E M Forster was born. Admit it: you wouldn’t even know who he was if it weren’t for Merchant-Ivory or maybe that David Lean character. Oh, okay: you would know because you are a Frankly Curious reader — a better class of person. But it is definitely the case that Forster has been done pretty well by filmmakers in the 1980s and early 1990s. It might be because Forster wrote so much about hypocrisy and these were especially great times for hypocrisy in the the US and UK.”)

              As you may know, Gosford Park is in my “top ten favorite films that may have more than ten films in it.” Michael Moore is kind of like a blogger on film. As a result, I think he will be remembered more as a political activist than a filmmaker. I suspect that he would be fine with that. There are powerful moments in his films. But I kind of doubt he will ever make anything as great as Harlan County, USA. But he’s been of enormous help in keeping me (and countless other liberals) from going insane these last 20 years.

              I haven’t seen AI so I can’t comment. I just requested it. I haven’t see The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover for 25+ years. But I’ve seen it a couple of times. I never much engaged with the film on a thematic or even plot level. It was just so visually thrilling. I really should watch it again. I think of it often — every time I think of Titus Andronicus. But I don’t feel up to requesting it at the moment.

              It’s hard to come up with films that are underrated off the top of my head. Certainly Mr Arkadin is a badly neglected film. I still find it thrilling to watch. Although one needs to be careful given there are 5 different versions of it — some very different. I don’t think people appreciate Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! as much as it deserves. But we could get lost in discussing independent filmmakers. Samuel Fuller, right? Oh, here’s something that makes almost everyone I know mad: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is better than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Let’s leave it at that!

              • That’s a fair assessment of Moore. He’s not using film as a journalism tool, although many filmmakers are today. Which wouldn’t be possible without the financial success of Moore’s movies. And he’s really grown as a filmmaker, which to me is a sign of greatness. (Tarantino’s movies are always interesting, but never improve on his flaws.) I liked Moore’s early films, but Fahrenheit was the first one I really admired the craft of it. And they’ve stayed good. What’s better, they’ve gotten more hopeful. Still angry, yet hopeful. We need that!

                • I suppose we do. Just the same, I only made it halfway through his most recent film. It was very hopeful in a way. But it drove home an important point: we have problems not for lack of solutions but for lack of the political will to solve them. We live in a practical oligarchy. And I don’t think there’s anything we can do about that. But that is opening up a big subject that I’m not up to at the moment.

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