|Alfred Hitchcock’s Self-Portrait|
(from the opening title sequence of
Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
[This post kicks off the USIH Blog’s participation in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III. This year’s blogathon, which began yesterday, May 13, and runs through Friday, May 18, focuses on Alfred Hitchcock. Money is being raised for the National Film Preservation Foundation’s The White Shadow Project, which will record Michael Mortilla’s score to this 1924 silent that Hitchcock wrote and on which he worked as an Assistant Director, and will make the movie available for free streaming online. Those interested in donating can click this link or the thumbnail announcing the blogathon over in the right margin. For the Love of Film III is being cohosted by Farran Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, and Rod Heath of This Island Rod.]
In his two-volume autobiography, the magnificent A Life in Movies (1986) and the messier but still fascinating Million-Dollar Movie (1992), Michael Powell writes extensively about his fellow English-born director, Alfred Hitchcock. Seven years his junior, Powell evinces great admiration for Hitchcock, calling him, along with Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin, one of “three great artists [who] have saved the film business from going completely off the rails in my time” (ALIM, 183). But despite his repeated praise for Hitchcock, Powell’s feelings about him appear to be more complicated than he is willing to explicitly admit.
In ALIM, Powell reports a story from the time in the late 1920s when he was working as the head of the stills department of British International Pictures, where Hitchcock had established himself as a director. Hitchcock took a shine to Powell and insisted that he personally take stills for his movies. According to Powell, while completing The Manxman (1929), Hitchcock asked him to help improve the final act of the screenplay for Blackmail (1929), which would become Hitchcock’s first sound movie:
When we came to the chase through the streets, I broached an idea that I had been maturing for a while.
“Hitch! Don’t let’s do an ordinary chase through the streets like you did in The Lodger. Let’s take it into some bizarre location that is entertaining in itself.”
“What do you mean? What do you think Michael means, Alma?” Alma [Hitchcock’s wife and screenwriting collaborator] looked encouragingly at me.
I had been thinking of my visits to the British Museum Reading Room to see my grandfather, and the impression that had been made upon me by his bent figure, at his desk, dwarfed by the height of the shelves and topped by the glass dome over the whole vast room, and I went on: “Let’s have him slip into the British Museum at night and get chased through rooms full of Egyptian mummies and Elgin Marbles, and climb higher to escape, and be cornered and then fall through the glass dome of the Reading Room and break his neck.”
Hitch, being a Londoner, had never been near the British Museum Reading Room, but he saw the possibilities of the idea, and so I think I can make a modest claim to being the inventor of the Hitchcock Climax, unveiled to the world through the chase in Blackmail, and which led us all on many a delightful dance from Tower Bridge to Mount Rushmore, from the Statue of Liberty to you name it. (ALIM, 193)
Powell says no more about this and immediately moves on to other matters (he would, in a sense, try his own hand at a Hitchcock Climax in his second collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, Contraband(1940)). But this little anecdote is, I think, very telling.
Not only does Powell claim to have invented the Hitchcock Climax (apparently after much careful thought), but, at least initially, Hitchcock doesn’t even understand the idea before Powell spells it out to him in great detail. And Powell at least implicitly relates Hitchcock’s lack of understanding to the defective nature of the latter’s Englishness. Powell writes, just before relating the above anecdote about Blackmail, that Hitchcock, as a Cockney from the East End, had a great way with lower-middle class characters and actors, and possessed a “knowledge of London [that] was peculiar and delightful, east of Temple Bar.” But his knowledge of the West End, according to Powell, was limited and entirely conventional. And “beyond city streets,” “Hitch was not enthralled by local colour” (ALIM 193, 191).
Contrast this with Powell, the self-described “Man of Kent,” who opens A Life in Movies with a long and poetic invocation of the Kentish countryside in which he grew up, and whose films, more often than not, are positively obsessed with local color, from Canada to Uruguay, Monte Carlo to London, Scotland to Shropshire, the Himalayas to the Netherlands, Heaven itself to Kent. Powell, it should be added, never draws this contrast with Hitchcock explicitly. But it is as clear as day to any reader of his autobiography.
Instead, Powell largely discusses Hitchcock as a parallel figure to himself. And the most significant parallel he draws, by the time we get to volume two of the autobiography, Million-Dollar Movie, involves one of the great themes of Powell’s books: the quest for artistic independence within a motion-picture industry that seems structurally designed to destroy it. Powell correctly sees Hitchcock, like himself, as a seeker of such independence. The one great difference between the two directors’ quests–and here Powell is explicit in drawing the contrast–is that Powell and his partner in movie-making Emeric Pressburger sought their independence by keeping their distance from Hollywood while, fairly early in his career, Hitchcock moved to California and tried to find independence in the belly of the beast.
This, in turn, becomes the theme of another Powell anecdote about Hitchcock, this one appearing in Million-Dollar Movie. In March, 1952, Powell travelled to the U.S. in a small plane largely, he reports, for the experience of flying over the Greenland icecap. But once in the U.S., Powell meets in New York with a wide array of past and potential artistic collaborators and financiers, including his old friend Raymond Massey, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., Arthur Loew, and David O. Selznick. All want to work with Powell and are willing to shower him with money. But Powell, untempted, dislikes and rejects the proposals and repeatedly insists on his artistic independence. (MDM, 182-194)
Flying on to Hollywood, Powell arranges meetings with a number of figures who have maintained their artistic integrity: tea with Igor Stravinsky and dinner with Alma and Alfred Hitchcock. Hollywood, Powell judges, had been very hard on Hitchcock, precisely because he had successfully asserted his artistic independence:
Hitch was off-balance–neuritis. He’d had it for nearly half a year, and it was souring his life. He had won too much independence for himself, too much responsibility for his choice of paths through the Hollywood jungle. They were narrow and dangerous trails, and one never knew where they led; sometimes nowhere, sometimes to the open country, where he was a master among masters, and all the time invisible. But near, he could hear the crashing of great beasts, their sudden roar as they charged, and their snarls as they fought and tore over the quivering flesh of their victim.
For make no mistake, these Hollywood monsters didn’t want Hitch to succeed. They don’t want any artist to succeed on his own. They fear the creative talent. Possessing none, they claim the power of money. Possessing the money, they claim the credit, too. It was in this twilight world that Hitch was preparing and making his films. He had thought he could play the Hollywood game as well as these beasts. Later he would put stars like Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren under contract to him personally, and this would make his enemies fear him, and envy him, even more. Mostly they tried to seduce him and buy him back by offering enormous sums of money at a time when he was struggling to finance his own productions and knew only too well how underfinanced he was. It was a heroic struggle, conducted mostly in secrecy except to his agent, and it went on for years.
The strain on Hitch was enormous. Only Alma, and a few devoted friends, knew how great it was. I think that I love Hitchcock more than all his films, for the struggle that he put up to keep the independence of the filmmaker in Hollywood. And in the end, it was a true Hitchcock picture, Psycho–no stars, just know-how–that saved him from going to the wall . . . (MDM, 198)
With the major difference of Hitchcock’s decision to pursue his career in Hollywood, Powell emphasizes the similarities between his career aspirations and Hitchcock’s and his great admiration for his fellow director. And he returns to these similarities–and their mutual admiration–as he summarizes his long relationship with Hitchcock and concludes his discussion of his 1952 dinner with Alma and Alfred…though he concludes with an ambiguous contrast:
I had known and loved Hitch, as a friend and fellow craftsman, for forty years. At first glance, each recognized in the other the same confidence, the same mastery of the medium. For a year or more Hitch held out his hand to me in what had become for me a strange land, England. Abroad, in Europe [at the beginning of their careers], Hitch with UFA and I with MGM and Rex Ingram in France had once and for all caught a glimpse of the grail. That glimpse was enough for us for the rest of our lives and careers. Hitch’s way was to impose himself upon the world, to exploit that marvelous personality and quick wit; mine–well, we shall see what mine was, when we come to the end of this very long book. (MDM, 199-200)
But Powell fails to mention another significant similarity between himself and Hitchcock. And he declines to discuss, at least directly, what appears to me (and I suspect to Powell as well) to be the most significant difference between their careers.
Both Powell and Hitchcock were unusual not only in their quests for artistic independence but in their desire to create a kind of cinematic brand identity for themselves. And both, for a time, succeeded magnificently.
Like few other directors of his generation, Hitchcock put his mark on his films. Hitchcock movies practically became a genre unto themselves. His famous cameos ensured that the public recognized not only Hitchcock movies, but Hitchcock himself…indeed part of the fun of going to a Hitchcock film was finding how the director would manage to get himself on screen. By the early 1940s, Hitchcock’s name was appearing prominently above the title on publicity materials for his films (see this site for a great survey of Hitchcock posters from around the world).
The great success of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, which began in 1955, expanded to become the Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962, and finally went off the air in 1965, helped cement Hitchcock’s brand identity. To this day, what’s best remembered about the long-running series is its iconic opening, which featured a nine-line self-portrait, the director himself in silhouette, and a mordantly witty introduction by Hitchcock:
By the time Psycho came out in 1960, Hitchcock was front-and-center in much of the publicity around his film:
Powell’s branding of his films was more collaborative, but just as distinct. Starting with One of our Aircraft if Missing (1942), their fourth film together, Powell shared with his screenwriter and producing partner Emeric Pressburger the unusual title card: “Written, Produced, and Directed by…”And the two became collectively “The Archers,” a name that was soon accompanied by a distinctive image at the start of their films:
During the time of their greatest fame–and among cinephiles to this day–that arrow hitting the bullseye held as much promise as Hitchcock’s name above the title. Martin Scorsese, who fell in love with Powell’s films as a child and became very close to Powell late in his life, has said that “every time I saw The Archers logo, I knew I was in for something special.”
But even as both Powell and Hitchcock began to reach the greatest heights of their fame, and had carved out a good measure of artistic independence for themselves, in the late 1940s, when Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic and Hitchcock was in the midst of a long series of cinematic masterpieces including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Notorious! (1946), and Rope (1948), their careers were in certain ways beginning to diverge.
Hitchcock’s great popular success and critical reputation would only grow through the ’50s and into the ’60s.
In contrast, in the 1950s, Powells career stumbled and his collaboration with Pressburger came to an end. Their final three movies together–Oh….Rosalinda! (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)–were not up to the standard of most of their earlier work (though The Battle of the River Plate was a big box-office hit, at least in the UK). And while Hitchcock’s critical reputation continued to soar, the Archers’ reputation, always mixed, fell, as even their greatest films often came to be regarded as over-the-top fantasies, especially as British filmmakers began to produce the grittier, kitchen sink movies of the late 1950s and 1960s.
But the body-blow to Powell’s career came with the release of his second film after the break-up of his collaboration with Pressburger, Peeping Tom (1960). Extravagantly denounced by British film critics (“it’s a long time since a film disgusted me as much”–Caroline Lejeune, The Observer; “the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing”– Isobel Quigley, The Spectator; “alternately dull and repellent”–Derek Hill, Tribune; “I was shocked to the core to find a director of his standing befouling the screen with such perverted nonsense”–Nina Hibbin, The Daily Worker; an “exercise in the lower reaches of the psychopathic”–Dilys Powell, Sunday Times), the film effectively ended Powell’s career as a director in his home country; during the final three decades of his life, he would direct a few films in Australia as well as a British television production. His independence and his brand were in tatters.
In Million-Dollar Movie, Powell describes Peeping Tom‘s reception in some detail (those quoted reviews are taken form pp. 293-295). But in his discussion of what was in many ways the greatest disaster of his career, Powell doesn’t draw attention to an oft-noted contrast: the very different reception that Hitchcock’s similarly boundary-crossing Psycho received that very same year. This is the unstated poignancy of Powell’s comment, nearly a hundred pages earlier in his autobiography, about the positive role that Psycho played in Hitchcock’s career: “And in the end, it was a true Hitchcock picture, Psycho–no stars, just know-how–that saved him from going to the wall.” Psycho saved Hitchcock; Peeping Tom doomed Powell.