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Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews.

Richard Flood

Sidney Gottlieb's Hithcock on Hithcock bothered me from its acknowledgments page to its bibliograpy. The acknowledgment problem was a concluding pat on the head to X (her anonymity is my choice), who, Gottlieb states, "helps, more than she knows, in part by reading proofs and watching me watch Hitchcock movies." Is he talking about a person or a house pet? It's such a creepily self-reflexive citation that I formed a mental picture of X's days spent poring over Gottlieb's manuscript and then padding adoringly into the den to glimpse him sagely taking notes while watching Rebecca on the VCR. The bibliographic annoyance was occasioned by Gottlieb's mean-spirited citation of Jane Sloan's much more necessary Alfred Hitchcock: A Guide to References and Resources as "not complete" although he patronizingly allows that it is "useful." What he doesn't add is that his own project would have taken years to produce without Sloan's earlier, mammoth undertaking. Pathetically, Gottlieb is even compelled to add that he does "call attention to a few substantive writings not listed by Sloan." Thus, I assume, is tenure jockeyed for at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, where Gottlieb is a professor of English.

The book itself is a collection of essays, articles, interviews, and speeches from sources as diverse as the New York Times Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Sight and Sound, all "more or less" authored by Hitchcock over the course of his career. The hedge as to authorship is occasioned by the fact that a fair amount of the material here, while credited to Hitchcock, was probably ghostwritten and approved by him later. Unsurprisingly, then, the most fascinating pieces are the Q&A's, in which the interviewers sometimes push the director into areas where his battery of formulaic responses is of no use. Such is the case with a 1967 interview from American Cinematographer, where Hitchcock talks cogently about the use of color and light in Torn Curtain, a film as curiously but less compellingly off-center as Marnie in its chromatic composition.

A 1963 interview from Cinema 1, conducted shortly after Hitchcock had concluded the 50-hour-long dialogue that became the text of Francois Truffaut's book Hitchcock, rather endearingly captures an oddly ingenuous voice. During a fairly predictable exchange with his anonymous interviewer (whom Gottlieb, characteristically, makes no attempt to identify), and after a kittenish swipe at Truffaut's fidelity to the fictional source of Jules and Jim, Hitchcock is asked if he believes Truffaut shares his view as to the hierarchy of style over content. Hitchcock answers that he doesn't know, and doesn't remember if they ever discussed it, and then interjects, "You know he's doing a book on me." It's a surprisingly, sweetly needy moment from a man who elsewhere and everywhere appears as invulnerable as an armadillo.

Naturally Gottlieb, in his introduction, has already handily dismissed Truffaut's brilliant interview as neither definitive nor capable of providing "all the material necessary for a definitive study of Hitchcock." There is something truly rancid in Gottlieb's petty handling of Truffaut, whom he accuses of "egotistical self-aggrandizement" while parenthetically attempting to sotto voce his slur by qualifying that trait as "charming and forgivable." Forgivable? Excuse me! Hitchcock on Hitchcock is forgivable (although far from charming); Hitchcock by Truffaut is essential. No other director has ever received quite as exhilarating a tribute as Hitchcock did from Truffaut, and you can still feel Hitchcock's giddiness from the experience in the Cinema 1 interview.

There are other moments of surprise in the compilation, but they are often trodden down by a patented distributor's voice that pushes image and product in equal degrees. The whole thing might have been more interesting if Gottlieb had used the material (at least in part) to explore the exigencies of the studio's needs versus the director's in getting their often divergent messages to the public. Clearly, at some moment, there was a decision to have Hitchcock continue to spout a number of deadening cliches about "actors as cattle" and the erotic potential of "ladylike blondes." A lot of stuff keeps popping back up like the cadavers in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Okay, it's kind of interesting as strategic self-imaging, but jeeze, give it a rest Hitch! We keep coming across musings like this one on Claudette Colbert: "I have often visualized her in the role of a beautiful mannequin who, having risen from the gutter, has to keep up a good appearance but who is, in her soul, lazy, good-natured, irresponsible, and slightly sluttish." Again we don't know if Hitchcock wrote this or simply agreed to it, but nevertheless it's somewhat depressing.

In the essay containing the Colbert makeover (which is insinuatingly titled "What I'd Do to the Stars"), we are exposed to a more chillingly careless observation about Paul Muni: "Probably I should cast him as a Jew in some subject dealing with the problems of his race." The year of this article was 1939. Now let's all think really hard: what Jewish problem could Hitchcock address to get the best out of Paul Muni. Not surprisingly, Gottlieb has absolutely nothing to say about this particular aside. Instead, in his predictably flat-footed introduction to the section of the book containing "What I'd Do to the Stars," he devotes his deductive powers to a feeble analysis of something called "Nova Grows Up," which he calls "Hitchcock's most extensive commentary on molding one of his actresses." Never mind that the article is about the maturation of Nova Pilbeam, who played the kidnapped child in The Man Who Knew Too Much and the ingenue in Young and Innocent, and whom Hitchcock used more or less as he would a gooseberry bush that had migrated from the set of one film to another. Ignore the fact that, in one of the deeper insights in his consideration of Nova, Hitchcock comments that "she had improved tremendously from a photographic point of view since The Man Who Knew Too Much." Or that Hitchcock's interest in her was such that he didn't even mention her in his interview with Truffaut, or that the part of the child in The Man Who Knew Too Much was so irrelevent in terms of gender that, in his 1956 remake, he substituted a little boy for the 1934 version's little girl. What's even more incredible is that the weight of "molding" an actress is thrown to Nova Pilbeam in a book that contains only one reference to Ingrid Bergman and none to such illuminatingly idiosyncratic Hitchcock heroines as Shirley MacLaine, Janet Leigh, and Kim Novak - all of whom are, naturally, discussed fascinatingly in Hitchcock (Truffaut.).

Hitchcock on Hitchcock is a journeyman compendium of articles attributed to Hitchcock, that will serve if you're desperate, but its main effect on me was something like the annoyance I'd felt back in high school when, after buying what I'd thought was a nickel bag of pot, I realized I'd been dealt a Baggie of parsley. Not good at all.
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Author:Flood, Richard
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
Words:1162
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