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The Moviegoer Hitchcock's Career

By Mike Prokosch

ROBIN WOOD'S book, the best in English on Hitchcock, analyzes seven of his later films in terms of guilt and cleansing. For Wood Hitchcock's plots implicate his characters in some immoral action, often a murder, and then let them make restitution. Overcoming a psychological paralysis of spirit and action that characterizes guilty men. Hitchcock's characters increase their moral breadth through their confrontation with their capacity for evil. At the same time Hitchcock involves his audiences in the guilty action or in condemnation of the guilty man, then makes them reconsider this endorsement. Wood's structural analysis explains the end to which Hitchcock manipulates his audiences' responses.

But it doesn't explain the andience's feeling about any film as a whole. It doesn't treat the film's overall style, the way it relates all the characters to their setting. It treats character descripton only in one aspect: the characters relation to a plot scheme which consists of a series of personal transformations. For viewers who follow characters' changes very closely through a film, such an analysis is useful, though still incomplete. For those like me who react to characters intuitively, immediately, and once for all, only a more general analysis of character delincation explains feelings about the characters. One experiences Veytigo not as the series of moral transformations Wood accurately describes, but as an all-out romance whose ravishingly beautiful hero and heroine glide through deep, ideal settings. To understand this experience one must look to the method of the film, considering its content as a consequence of its means of expression.

After analyzing one film this way, one can usually apply one's conclusions to a director's other works. Hitchcock, however, tailors his shooting style to each film. One can't even abstract a typical Hitchcock shot that shows how his characters fit into his world. His dramatic structures are just as varied. A strict analysis cannot attempt any more than a one by-one description of his films.

But in a more speculative analysis some films reveal the preoccupations of entire periods of his career. Those that do so the most likeably are the east manipulated. Almost all of Hitchcock's films feel excessively structured, designed to make the audience draw the morals he intends. Only in a few does his subject balance his frightening formal control and let the characters seem real individuals. Hitchcock's audience-manipulation, involving an attitude of superiority toward his viewers, generates the unpleasant feeling that his characters merely illustrate a narrow moral design-Hitchcock's. Only in Shadow of a Doubt, Under Capricorn, and Psycho do they act as whole people. These works, which realize the best tendencies of their period of Hitchcock, transcend his usual limitations by enlisting a more sympathetic audience identification with the characters. They feel unlike other Hitchcock.

HITCHCOCK'S British and early American films seem well-made and not very personal. Their thematic preoccupations-guilt or accusation of guilt, sexual re??rsesion, voyeurism-are roughly those of his later films, but they never take over these films. One sees a dreary succession of slickly put together films relieved by such brilliant sequences as the kitchen-knife killing in Sabota?e, and by that minor romantic masterpiece The Lodger.

Shadow of a Doubt brings the best of these themes into a very tightly constructed drama, Returning to the original material of melodrama, it uses a family setting for a complex and subtle interplay of moral perceptions. At the same time the plot is constructed on personal progress; it follows the growth of moral and romantic awareness of an adolescent girl. But though it ends in a clear confrontation between good and evil its use of real locations and realistic performances maintains moral complexity and resonance through the film.

One sequence reveals the tenor of the girl's growth. She has gone to the town library just at closing time to check on her uncle's possibly criminal past. As she finds the relevant newspaper, Hitchcock cuts to a shot from the ceiling of the dark deserted room, showing her surrounded by space seventy feet below. Unlike the usual Hitchcock high-angle, this shot expresses with a sort of warm detachment the romantic dimension of her personal anguish. The same attitude follows her and her uncle through the darkening stages of a deep love-attachment. Throughout they are true personalities, not walking abstractions. In parallel, the plot repeatedily breaks formulas to include sequences invented by a sympathetic, intuitive reaction to the personal material of the plot.

Under Capricorn realizes the best romantic trends of late forties and early fifties Hitchcock. It's an example of the change to dramas with few characters, and to a style which makes their relations almost tangible. The love-relations between Under Capricorn's characters become sweeping camera movements attached mainly to Ingrid Bergman.

In Shadow of a Doubt moral interplay was expressed in cross-cutting between characters. In Under Capricorn moral interplay becomes a complex flow of all the characters' emotions to a single climax and resolution. The graceful motion, deep color tonalities, rich settings unite with the characters' moral paralyses. One is completely involved in their struggles to overcome paralysis. The spaces and movements of the film are integrated as the characters' attempts to fufill their desires, now a theme beyond the person of any one character, become a part of the whole romantic setting.

Under Capricorn rises above most previous Hitchcock largely because it deals with neurosis and obsession. The advent of these themes in Hollywood during the late forties and fifties led to masterpieces from most of America's greatest directors: Hawks's Red River. Sirk's Written on the Wind. Ford's The Searchers, most of Ray. Frank Borzage is especially illuminating. His extremely strong, even deterministic way of shooting people's actions had always outweighed the romantic and sentimental conception of personality beneath his plots. The addition of an obsession with murder to a desperate love in Moonrise (1948) let his character material live up to his visual treatment of personality, and vielded a work of astonishing solidity, power, and integration. The same happened in other directors' works because the neurotic conception of character gave motivation a clarity it had lacked. The motives of a character could at last be described in terms of setting, objects, camera motions. Character description could become one more element in a worldorder which aspired to completeness in each director's expression. Character delincation had been a central element, and a central inadequacy: now it would be an organic part of a visual narrative.

Hitchcock's character delincations had always been sick, so for him Freudian notions were no great breakthrough. He merely began to construct his films like popularized case histories. His characters became illustrations of abstract psychological types: his plots became schemes of sexual interrelations. Observation of characters became an unimportant meanse of description; chance mannerisms and incidents disappeared. His formal control increased, but his tendency to neat plotting gave this advance the feeling of excessive design.

Psycho may be the ultimate in Hitchcock's fewcharacter dramas: it starts with one character, leses her in finding another, and follows him to the picture's end. But this character is observed, not determined. Perkin's magnificent performance, not Hitchcock's camera motions and edtting, shapes our feeling about him. An extraordinary mobile camera follows the characters isto their natural settings, their homes, instead of isolating them in unfamiliar places.

Hitchcock's usual superiority to his characters gives way to a character study. Despite Perkins's supposed psychological complexity, we know him through his charming mannerisms, his strong moral opinions, his reactions to other people. Hitchcock abandons a manipulative shooting style for one that is simply assured. From the opening sequence, a series of pans over Phoenix succeeded by a track into a dark hotel window, one feels a solid engagement with the character's personal situations. The people of the film exist in the world, not in relation to some abstract scheme intended for moral edification.

Characteristically for Hitchcock, this masterpiece of sympathetic shooting is followed by barren exercises. The Birds, Marnie, and Torn Curtain are as abstract as their heroes are cold and two-dimensional. Hitchcock transcended his fascination with formal schemes only rarely.

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