Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock

Opinion | The audience as a piano: the strange case of Alfred Hitchcock

In memory of the most famous director in cinema history on his 120th birth anniversary

The 13th of August was the 120th birth anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps the most famous director in the history of cinema. He is also the only hugely commercially successful filmmaker whose films have regularly featured in critics’ lists of the greatest films ever made. In fact, in Sight And Sound magazine’s last decennial list (compiled every decade) of the 50 greatest films of all time, published in 2012, and considered to be the most authoritative list of all, Hitchcock’s Vertigo was rated No. 1 (and Psycho No. 35).

No other director’s films have probably been subjected to as much scrutiny—from amateur critics to trained psychoanalysts. No director has been interviewed for hundreds of hours—almost literally on every sequence of his 53 films—by another great filmmaker, François Truffaut; my edition of the book Hitchcock/Truffaut runs to 367 pages. No director has had the honour of having a 91-minute documentary made on a three-minute sequence in one of his movies: the shower scene in Psycho, surely the most famous scene in cinema history (Alexandre O. Phillippe’s 78/52, the title referring to the 78 set-ups and 52 cuts in the scene). Director Peter Bogdanovich recalled watching the shower scene at the film’s first New York screening thus: “There was a sustained shriek from the audience…It was actually the first time in the history of movies where it wasn’t safe to be in the movie theatre."

Hitchcock has influenced a legion of directors, from Satyajit Ray to Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski to the Coen Brothers. Quentin Tarantino called the study of his work “Film Buff 101". Truffaut termed the James Bond series as “nothing else but a rough caricature of all Hitchcock’s work, and of North By Northwest in particular". He was one of cinema’s finest ever craftsmen, with every camera angle and movement clinically precise, every cut done with a scalpel. Yet, that surgical exactitude deeply involved viewers in the fates of his imperfect, haunted, twisted characters.

Hitchcock always maintained that all he wanted to do with his films was to manipulate audience emotions. “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano," he said. The masses paid up and went home played, and it would be only in the 1950s (nearly 30 years after his breakthrough film The Lodger) that critics woke up to his artistry. They began noticing not only his technical mastery but the nuances he brought into portraying human relationships—for instance, establishing interpersonal dynamics through mere glances or subtle gestures, even clever lighting. This was pure and sublime cinema, delivered as “escapist" fare. Like a virtuoso conductor, Hitchcock was leading his viewers from one mood to another, at the rhythm of their own sensitivities. He was the first to consciously make the audience a participant in the film. As Truffaut put it, film-making was no longer a dual interplay between the director and his movie, but a three-way game, in which the audience, too, was required to play. Of course, Hitchcock set the rules of the game, based on suspense, surprise and shock.

But critics, especially of the academic variety, also dug out recurring subtexts like emotional dysfunction, voyeurism, sexual guilt and overbearing mothers in the crowd-pleasing thrillers. After his death in 1980, the attention shifted from analysing the films to analysing the director. The benchmark was set by Donald Spoto’s 1983 biography, The Dark Side Of Genius, which accused Hitchcock of acute sexual repression, casual sadism, deep insecurity, manipulative egotism, even necrophilia—he was a monster who worked out his warped fantasies through his films. This sort of analysis has never really stopped. Why was he obsessed with a certain type of blonde—Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren? What was the true nature of his extraordinary personal and professional dependence on his wife Alma? Are the many sexual innuendos in his films and subtle references to homosexuality signs of deep-seated misogyny and homophobia?

What both energizes and frustrates these analysts is that Hitchcock carefully constructed a public persona that revealed absolutely nothing of who he really was. To the world, he was the avuncular deadpan showman with a morbid sense of humour. He fended off interviewers’ questions with entertaining but patently false sound bites (“All my films are comedies"). When, in 1968, the University of California, Santa Cruz, awarded him an honorary doctorate degree, in his acceptance speech, he answered the question, “Who is the real Alfred Hitchcock?" with some incredible meta-lying, terming facts about him (even that he was fat) as lies and, then, while expounding on the lies, proving them to be untruths, but not confirming the truths. If being an intensely private person made him a mystery, it fit his public image and enhanced his commercial success. That suited him fine.

In one of the few heartfelt public statements he ever made, he reacted to a moralizing attack on Rear Window by saying: “My love for cinema is stronger than any morality." We should let matters rest there and enjoy, and marvel, and learn, from his films.

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