A reader recently asked me on my site why I could pan Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”and, in spite of that, rave about the works of Alfred Hitchcock. “De Palma’s a great artist,” he claimed, “and he’s inscribing Hitchcock’s language on his own page.” My first reaction was to reply: “Reader, if only it was that easy.” His point seems to argue that Hitchcock’s style is easy to copy-paste. It’s all aesthetic and no instinct. The director simply must click CTRC-C and then CTRL-V. You know the drill.
But here’s the truth. I’ve seen a lot of Hitchcock’s films – multiple times – and in those views I have discovered that his style is highly distinctive and, on the surface, almost comically patent. As Hitchcock roved through British, silent, and American films – and back again! – his style was, mostly, in constant evolution, enduringly foraying deeper into the dark cavities of human nature and sexuality. He was one of the choice auteurs, next to Nicholas Ray, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, who did things his way, exploring the landscape of cinema invested in their own, fine-tuned cinematic sensibility.
But Mr. Hitchcock was not always sanctified as a master. Ironically, it’s that epithet the “Master of Suspense” that unsettles me. Perhaps, Hitchcock produced great suspense – the best even – but this term reduces him to a magician’s act. Behold: the Master of Suspense! Watch as he makes you wiggle in your seat as Norman Bates approaches Marion Crane, her back turned and in la-la land in the shower. Ok, I won’t deride a classic scene, but audiences need to look past “Psycho” and also realize Hitchcock was the stout fella behind “The Trouble with Harry” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” – two comedies that, at first glance, seem uncharacteristic of him.
I recall in my brief review of “The Trouble with Harry” I awarded the film two-and-a-half stars and stated I could not recommend the movie because Hitchcock deliberately shelves a key ingredient of comedy: the reaction. If you have not, please watch “The Trouble with Harry” and notice that no one reacts to anything in the movie. It’s a unique, absurdist approach…but it is inherently flawed. It would, however, be proper to note that the film is stripped primarily of amped-up suspense sequences.
But back to De Palma. “I confess” (see what I did there?) I am not a devotee of his. His Hitchcockian love letters like “Body Double,” “Femme Fatale,” and “Dressed to Kill” underwhelm me. Why? Take the story (from Roger Ebert’s review of Gus van Sant’s foolish remake of “Psycho”) of the child prodigy who played Chopin “with great speed and accuracy.” His instructor approached the boy and patted him on the shoulder uttering: “You can play the notes. Someday, you may be able to play the music.” (Ebert)
Same applies here. Great artists don’t happen by mistake. They have style – no matter how replicable it looks – that is invisibly pure and divinely theirs. It can be studied, emulated, but never directly replicated. Why? I love Ebert’s quote on genius: “genius exists between the images.” It’s very true. Hitchcock knew when to cut, focus-pull, and dreamily dissolve from the far to the near and achieve the right impact. His own, exclusively rendered impact.
But I also fell into De Palma’s trap. I wrote and directed a Hitchcock homage in film school, about a struggling writer who becomes pathologically inspired by the spectacle of a cold-blonde woman across the street. Did I mention he spies on her using paper from his typescript as a telephoto lens? In many ways, I am proud of that film; having said that, I would be lying if I said I didn’t simply snatch at snippets of Hitchcock’s surface technique and steamrolled it through a six minute drama.
At my age (21), I should be able to express my admiration for Hitchcock off the page. It’s when renowned directors, in the heart of their careers, try to imitate Hitchcock for sport and some scholarly conceit. Listen: it won’t work. The good news is Hitchcock’s techniques can be explored and conveyed in a different filmmaker’s own context.
Take Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” a cruelly underrated film I just re-watched recently. I won’t deem the film Hitchcockian, but Jackson honors Hitchcock’s bag of tricks with scenes that garner genuine Hitchcock suspense. For example, when the movie’s murderer, George Harvey (played by Stanley Tucci) is being interrogated in his house by police, he notices his victim’s charm bracelet sitting on a doll house across the room. For a moment, we sympathize with Mr. Harvey because no one wants to get caught in the act of murder. Now, think back to “Psycho” when Bates just killed Crane. He tries to dispose of her vehicle in a swamp, but the car gets stuck. Bates panics and we do too; luckily, the car eventually sinks. We think, secretly: phew!
So Hitchcock’s ways can pop up here and there, and with great effect. With this post, I merely suggest to be wary of the homage. It can be your worst enemy. Create your own story, with singular feelings, and – when the time is right – employ dramatic (Hitchcockian) devices that fit your own agenda. Hitchcock was his own artist; you are your own. When I attended the Hitchcock Masterclass with Guillermo del Toro, he said something very telling: as a filmmaker, he was not Hitchcockian. He was a Hitchcockist. Reader, be a Hitchcockist.
To watch my Hitchcock homage “The First Chapter,” a nominee at Queen’s University’s Best of the Best Film Galla, visit HERE.
Parker Mott is a Canadian filmmaker and freelance film critic from Toronto, ON. He finds inspiration in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog. His favourite films are “Goodfellas”, “Fargo”, and “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Currently, he is in pre-production for a fictional film that will be considerably Kafkaesque.
More of his reviews can be found at: http://www.thefinaltake.com/
Follow him on Twitter @parkermott