When Alfred Hitchcock, the British Labour Party, and Margaret Thatcher are all mentioned on the same page—and it’s the first page—one can surmise that this slim book is going to be both entertaining and edifying. While the volume’s length might signal it as merely an introduction to its subject, in this case, Alfred Hitchcock’s films, author Michael Wood’s insightful review of those of Hitchcock’s fifty-three films he believes are worth commenting on, not to mention his erudition, qualifies it as a fascinating read. It is worth noting that Wood, a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University, acknowledges the work of Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light), Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock), and François Truffaut (Hitchcock), among others, and in the debate over the probity of Hitchcock’s personal life he shades more toward Spoto’s position, at least regarding the director’s late-life attitude and manipulation of Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie). Wood also touches upon the complexity of Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife, screenwriter and film editor (among her many titles) Alma Reville, and it is a casualty of the book’s length and subject matter, that he cannot make more of this for theirs was indeed an interesting marriage.
Wood’s overall thesis is that Alfred Hitchcock was an inventor and “a man [and artist] exploring not so much our pursuit of knowledge as the reasons why it is so hard to come by” (p. 24). Just prior to that quote, he lists a number of Hitchcock film titles that “glance at questions of knowledge” (p. 240): Blackmail, Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), I Confess (1953), The Wrong Man (1956), and the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, 1956). He might have added Foreign Correspondent (1940) as well. Wood also presents a tripartite framework that is the fate of Hitchcock’s characters: “to know too little, to know too much (however little that is), and to know a whole lot that is entirely plausible and completely wrong.” Judging by his subtitle for this book, we can see where Wood places Hitchcock the artist.
The two Hitchcock early films to which Wood devotes the most attention are The Lodger (1926), which is almost unanimously considered the first true “Hitchcock film,” and Blackmail (1929). With the former, a serial-killer tale based on a popular novel of a decade earlier, he focuses on Hitchcock’s artistic and technical inventiveness, and the seemingly against-type casting of Ivor Novello that can lead to some viewers, such as Wood, feeling ambiguous about the ending. Two versions of Blackmail were filmed: it was the director’s final silent and first talking picture. Wood’s brief analysis provides a nice insight into the open-endedness of the film.
Of Hitchcock’s British talkies, Wood can’t help but consider the much-discussed trio of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). After all, these are the films that propelled Hitchcock’s career toward Hollywood. Of this trio, Wood is most critical of The 39 Steps (“some rickety plotting all around… this film seems like a good idea rather than a good movie” (p. 30)), but his larger effort in discussing these three movies is to show the more than quarter-century timeframe of their sources and influences, and the updating to the 1930s political milieu which made Germany the antagonist.
With the outbreak of war, it was natural for Hitchcock to carry this mindset to Hollywood when he made Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur (1942), the two 1942 short British War Ministry films he made to bolster morale in Free France: Bon Voyage, and Aventure Malgache, and even the postwar Memory of the Camps (1945, an unfinished work in which he helped select of footage of the Nazi death camps) and Notorious (1946). But among these, also, is a film that perhaps reveals Hitchcock’s ambivalent feelings toward Germany and Germans—Lifeboat (1944). This is not to say that Hitchcock was not ardently anti-Nazi, but he did admire and was influenced by the German avant-garde of twenty years earlier. German Expressionism was one of the earliest influences on the director. So it is nice that Wood devotes a little extra space to the film, pointing out that the situation—a group that is a microcosm of American society, plus a German U-boat captain, stuck on a lifeboat—is a little more ambiguous than it appears to be. He mentions how early reviewers, including Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, saw the film as an endorsement of “Nazi strength and willpower” (p. 58). Wood links this film with Notorious in which a group of Nazis work toward the resurrection of their ideology. Though he does not mention it, Notorious is probably the first film of a subgenre that included books as well as films, and which came to fruition in the 1960s in the years after the arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann.
Of Hitchcock’s early Hollywood period Wood also admires Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for the doubling, for the musical trope of the “Merry Widow Waltz,” and for the contribution of Thornton Wilder. Wood even links this tale of an American Bluebeard with the Second World War, though his linkage could use a little more support.
After Notorious, Wood pretty much skips over the next half-decade of Hitchcock’s work with one exception, Rope (1948), which he describes as “a complex technical experiment in which echoes of Nazi theories took on a new philosophical life” (pp.69-70). The best-known part of Hitchcock’s “technical experiment” involved the long takes in which he shot the film and the manner by which he disguised the breaks so that the film appeared seamless. Wood admires the film despite its lack of plot, not simply for its technical achievement but for Hitchcock’s again depicting the ease of perversion of Nietzschean philosophy (for that is what the film is about). Yet he considers it a stepping-stone in Hitchcock’s artistic growth. “To go from Rope to Strangers on a Train,” he declares, “as Hitchcock did in three years, is a huge step artistically, from interesting practice to accomplished performance; but intellectually it is only a small hop” (p. 73). Wood then goes on to deliver a fine explication and analysis of Strangers on a Train (1951), including its departure from the logic of the real world and the psychology of the manipulative killer, Bruno.
Following this, Wood glides over most of Hitchcock’s 1950s work, what Patrick McGilligan called the “glory years.” Then he comes to Vertigo (1958). For Wood, Vertigo is the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s artistry, the capper to all the director’s psychological films—including those to come. After a couple of introductory paragraphs that chronicle briefly Vertigo’s history among critics and fans, he then discusses the film’s source material as a run-up to the nearly nine-page explication in which his enthusiasm for the film is unbridled. Thus: “For the first hour or so of Vertigo, the film’s curious authority, its extraordinary hold on us, arises from a mixture of the implausible and the irresistible. After that everything changes and all kinds of new questions appear and fail to go away” (p. 88). Clearly, Wood has thought about Vertigo quite a bit, and in the ensuing pages, he gives us something of a bravura performance in brevity and insight. The section on Vertigo is a nice little essay in itself.
One might expect a letdown after that, but fortunately for Wood (and filmgoers), Hitchcock followed up Vertigo with North by Northwest (1959). Wood devotes six pages to the film, in which he discusses, among other things, the notion of the MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s term for a narrative element—no matter how improbable—that keeps the plot moving along. He also quotes Hitchcock (in an interview with Truffaut) that in North by Northwest “the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!” (p. 101). And while he discusses the film’s iconic scene of a crop duster chasing and firing upon the protagonist (played by Cary Grant), he smartly declines to analyze the film’s ending.
If this book is any indication, the rest of Hitchcock’s career does not have much to offer Wood aesthetically. His reading of Psycho might startle those who consider it Hitchcock’s best, or even best-known, film: “Psycho looks, in the best sense, like a long television show made for a movie audience…” (p. 107). As if there is a “best sense” to that notion. Again he discusses briefly the iconic scene—in this case, the shower scene—but he also imparts a nice insider technical tidbit that helps the reader understand Hitchcock’s artistry all the more. The director insisted the entire film be shot with 50 mm lenses rather than 35 mm because they more closely approximated human vision. Regarding The Birds (1963), Wood is more inclined to discuss l’affaire Hedren than provide any analysis of the film other than to admit that it seems a throwback to Hitchcock’s prime. Of Hitchcock’s next four films, Wood adheres to the adage “the less said the better.” Wood’s interest is revived for Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot (1976), in which he declares “I am probably alone in thinking that this film is almost in the same league as North by Northwest” (p. 114). He then goes on to discuss the film’s irony, the double meaning of the title, Hitchcock’s attraction to the source material, and connects the film to earlier Hitchcock films.
Since this is a book about Hitchcock’s films and not his life, Wood does not devote much time to the director’s final, unproductive years. Nevertheless, there is a melancholy feeling to those two pages that can only be relieved by watching a Hitchcock film—perhaps the catharsis that Hitchcock sought all along.
Freelance writer and editor residing in Hartford, CT. He is the author of “Robert Altman: In the American Grain.”