Hitchcock and Twentieth Century Cinema

John Orr,
Hitchcock and Twentieth Century Cinema.
Wallflower Press, 2005.
ISBN: 1 904764 55 X
£16.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)

Harold Bloom, the prolific and eccentric literary critic, has argued not just that Shakespeare is English literature’s nonpareil, but that he created modern humanity, by establishing patterns of language, thought, and wisdom that, whether we are conscious of it or not, shape the way we talk, think, and reflect. John Orr does not go as far as that in this study of Hitchcock, but he does claim that Hitchcock, whose most creative decades spanned the middle of the twentieth century – which was cinema’s century (and its only one so far) – consolidated all that was good in the cinema that preceded him and influenced almost all that was good in cinema that came after him. He makes this claim without ever quite stating it. Instead, he offers various elements of an argument for it that imply the claim. He does not persuade, but the reason lies not in the claim, which to my mind is tenable if a bit of exaggeration is allowed, but in his method, which emphasizes exhaustive detail at the expense of a discernible structure. He does not seem to know what to emphasize, what to minimize, what to leave out, and how to tie one major phase of his argument to another. The result is a book that, although rife with scattered insight, leaves one with a fuzzy impression overall.

From the cinema that (barely) preceded him, Hitchcock consolidated Lang and Murnau, but he also drew from others working in German cinema. Hitchcock influenced his competitors, filmmakers such as Billy Wilder and Carol Reed. And he indelibly impressed aspects of his sensibility and style on the French New Wave and almost every interesting English-language director who came after him.

Orr’s attempts to trace these influences both on and of Hitchcock constitute the least interesting aspect of his book. His most intriguing idea is off-point: that Hitchcock worked and thought in an empirical tradition reaching back to the great skeptical philosopher David Hume. Orr seems to be saying – it is not always clear what he is saying – that Hitchcock wants the audience to see and experience his films directly rather than be told, either through dialogue or paradigm, what they are watching and experiencing. I can’t follow the details of his argument. But if that is essentially what he means, then there is a rather simple way to make the case. Through his use of point-of-view shots, Hitchcock makes us perceive and experience exactly as his characters do. And no other director has made such unembarrassed use of the informative close-up: the initials on the emerald ring in Shadow of a Doubt (US 1943); the labels on the wine bottles in Notorious (US 1946); the piece of Rope in Rope (US 1948); the broken pair of glasses in Strangers on a Train (US 1951); the necklace in Vertigo (US 1958); the matchbook in North by Northwest (US 1959). At the same time, though, Hitchcock does occasionally make room for the numinous (which Orr seems to deny), such as the breathtaking moment in The Wrong Man (US 1956) (ironically, Hitchcock’s most fact-based film) when over the wrongly convicted Manny Balestrero’s prayer he superimposes an image of his look-alike, the real offender, who, striking again, will be caught, thus exonerating Manny.

There is something about Orr’s style that makes him elusive and hard to follow. He tends toward abstraction a bit too much, so one is often unable to conjure up an image from his words. He uses commas rarely, and when he does, he puts them where they are not needed. The sentences drone on, the reader fights distraction. Oddly, since he is clearly erudite, he peppers his dryly academic prose with common clichés. By the time the book is finished, someone has learned which side her bread is buttered on, audiences have been observed at the edge of their seats, an actor brought in from the cold, a baby thrown out with the bath water, a shiver sent up a spine, and chickens come home to roost.

Orr can make pronouncements about Hitchcock’s that suggest an idiosyncratic sensibility. Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt is “a girl-child so physically developed but yet so short she could pass for being pubescent” (90). I don’t see how that is possible given her poise, her mature walk, her grace, her confidence, and her chaste but radiant sexuality. And she doesn’t even seem particularly short. Melanie Daniels, he says, cannot fully bring herself to love Mitch and never will. If there is evidence in The Birds (US 1963) that Melanie can’t fully love Mitch, Orr doesn’t cite it, and if Melanie never will love Mitch, it is because at the end of the film she has been reduced to a little more than a vegetable by the traumatic final attack of the birds. Re Vertigo, Orr calls Judy’s participation in Scottie’s makeover of her into a replica of Madeleine “eager,” but Judy protests at every step, yielding only because she loves Scottie and has a weak sense of self.

But the book has rewards for the patient reader. The insights in the book outnumber the clunkers by far. Some are minor, such as the likening of the puppy in Rear Window (US 1954) to the child its owners never had, or a comparison of the chess match in The Seventh Seal (Sweden 1957) with Mitch’s duel with the birds. But others are provocative. At times the cut in a Hitchcock film is “a leap of faith” (50), exonerating a character of ill-founded suspicion or fear. Although Roger Thornhill of North by Northwest is “a complete nobody, he is definitely played by somebody, namely Grant at the height of his fame” (127) – which creates a compound enigma, given Grant’s previous shady, ambiguous roles in Suspicion and Notorious. Orr has an interesting section in which he identifies as Hitchcock’s main rival not another director but the writer Graham Greene, who, raised a Catholic like Hitchcock, was similarly concerned with themes of depravity and guilt, and also was a frequent critic of Hitchcock. In this section, Orr notes that Joseph Cotton’s two greatest roles were Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt and Holly Martins in The Third Man (UK 1949), a film directed by Carol Reed but in theme and plot quintessentially Graham Greene, whose screenplay Reed reverently brought to life. And of course there is Orr’s long exposition of Hitchcock’s affinity with Hume, which if not always clearly presented is one of the more intriguing notions about Hitchcock’s art that I’ve come across in a long time.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Friday, 10 November 2006

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →