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May 2001, Week 3


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 16 May 2001 13:21:07 +1000
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Since my post of yesterday, I've had occasion to write the following
about Hitchcock's work in America.  It may interest some SCREEN-L
readers.  I quote Father Copleston on Schopenhauer at one point.  By the
way, an excellent essay on Hitchcock's MARNIE (1964) and Kant's and
Burke's notions of the Sublime appeared in the 'Hitchcock Annual',
1999-2000 edition.  (But in my recent essay on THE BIRDS I preferred to
make use of Schopenhauer's own version of that concept - Schopenhauer is
often salutary in situations like this [another is when he uses his own
notion of the Uncanny], if only because he serves to remind us that
these nebulous concepts are not written in stone by Kant, Freud, et al.;
and as I've implied Hitchcock's art often seems closer to the
Schopenhaurean understanding anyway.)

- Ken Mogg (author of the uncut UK edition of 'The Alfred Hitchcock
Story' - I disown the cut and 'simplified' US version).

When Hitchcock arrived in America in 1939, a change came over his work
(though the seeds had been planted long before, in a film like The
Lodger [1926]).  I'll characterise it today as the depiction of extreme
situations with deliberate understatement, and use of the 'slow burn'
principle whereby the inherent shockingness of the situation is only
gradually revealed and finally demonstrated.  Almost invariably, the
climax is explosive, if not literally (e.g., the razing of 'Manderley'
in Rebecca [1940]) then figuratively (e.g., the opening of the chest
containing the body of a murdered youth, in Rope [1948]).  Of course,
some or all of the films have their set pieces along the way, which
serve to disguise the underlying 'slow burn'.  But it is there
nonetheless.  Now, consider what I mean by 'extreme situations'.  In
Rebecca, just to speak of Maxim, he has inherited a magnificent estate
and the patriarchal line of his illustrious, rich forebears; and he has
married a wife with 'beauty, brains, and breeding'.  He should by rights
be one of the happiest of men.  Instead, we learn that his wife died in
an 'accident' (and we've only Maxim's word that he didn't kill her,
which is what he did do in Daphne du Maurier's novel).  By the end of
the film he has lost nearly everything, certainly all of his 'great
expectations', and exists in a childless marriage to a rather plain
second wife (who, a suppressed postscript of the novel reveals, still
hasn't borne him children, heirs, years later; the couple are now living
in a succession of second-rate Mediterranean hotels, a far cry in every
sense from their days at 'Manderley', which had stood so proudly above
the open Atlantic).  In short, Maxim has been reduced to near-total
abjection.  Now consider Frenzy (1972).  Nothing has changed.  Critic
Tania Modleski, who has written some mean analysis of Hitchcock's
attitudes in his films to women, avers that the films are ambivalent
towards women (and the media have been happy to endorse such an
opinion).  But Modleski's thesis won't do.  Hitchcock's ambivalence is
towards people.  Hitchcock is like that most objective of philosophers,
Schopenhauer, who saw in the sheer will-to-live, manifesting itself in
egoism, self-assertion, hatred and conflict (which men are particularly
good at) the source of evil.  Schopenhauer wrote: 'There really resides
in the heart of each of us a wild beast which only waits the opportunity
to rage and rave and injure others, and which, if they do not prevent
it, would like to destroy them.'  (Quoted by Frederic Copleston S.J., 'A
History of Philosophy', Vol. VII, Chapter XIV)  There is something of
that in the ill-tempered and murderous Maxim in Rebecca, and again
something of it in ex-squadron leader Blaney (Jon Finch), another
ill-tempered man, in Frenzy.  But such is Hitchcock's sleight-of-hand
that the film's nominal villains (Rebecca herself, Mrs Danvers, Favell;
Rusk) take most of the rap, as far as the films' audiences are
concerned.  But here's my main point.  Tania Modleski says that there
are two images of women in Hitchcock: victimised and abject, and
autonomous and independent.  But that is exactly the same of the men.
Just to cite the case of Blaney, another abject figure: he is a
forgotten war hero whose mate from wartime days is 'Dicko'  (shades of
Jeff and Doyle in Rear Window [1954]), now coping as best he can with a
hand-to-mouth existence, and down on his luck - something whose
apotheosis is his loss by violent murder of the two women in his life,
then his being suspected of killing them.  An 'extreme situation'

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