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Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette

     Happy hundredth, Hitch! A child was born, August 13,1899.

     Locally, Sir Alfred's centenary was celebrated with the Brattle's summer retrospective. In New York City, I caught before its shutting down the Museum of Modern Art's "Alfred Hitchcock: Behind the Silhouette," a small but significant gallery showing of posters, stills, memos, storyboards, continuity sketches, and other Hitchcock memorabilia. A telephone used in Dial M For Murder. From Psycho, Norman's stuffed owl.

     Explained Mary Corliss, Assistant Curator of MOMA's Department of Film and Video, who organized the show: "For Hitchcock, filmmaking was what happened in his head, and then on paper, before shooting began. His movies were no accident, Art was the distillation of his design." The artifacts revealed an "auteur," a control freak of every phase of production. Several prime examples: Hitchcock's personally penciled storyboards for the climbing-down-Mt.Rushmore sequence in North by Northwest, featuring his closeup drawings of Washington and Lincoln; his 102 notes of January 14, 1958, each detailing a subtle change he demanded of his editor after he'd watched a rough-cut screening of Vertigo; his script breakdown of the playground attack in The Birds, comprising an Odessa Steps-like montage of 67 (!) distinct shots.

     Did anyone except his wife, Alma Reville, see Hitchcock without his gentleman's jacket and tie? He wore them even for his famous walk-on appearances in his movies. I rode up and down a mini-escalator at MOMA examining stills along the walls showing all of these cameos. In only one was he out of his conservative suit and popped into a funny 19th century costume. The movie was unnamed. Is it 1949's Under Capricorn?

     Surprise, Alfred wasn't always tubby. There was a 1924 photo in which he's size regular, he has hair in a pompadour, and he has a mustache. In 1925, he and Alma got "hitched," and MOMA offered a photo of the English couple slicing the cake. No mustache, the hair is slicked back, and the belly is taking shape. Our Alfred! A later photo revealing Hitch's famously macabre humor: he, formally attired by a swimming pool, his shoe sitting murderously on the head of his little daughter, Pat, who is bobbing in the water.

     And here's a little revelation: Gus Van Sant is vindicated a bit for his much-loathed remake, because the original lobby-card advertisements for Psycho showed scenes from the movie in color. The Bates house on the hill has snot-green lights emanating from windows. In these same ads is Psycho's dandy come-on line: "The screen's master of suspense moves his cameras into the icy blackness of the unexplored."

     The British film magazine, Sight and Sound, includes with its August issue a Hitchcock booklet with several OK articles plus bytes from various filmmakers--Woody Allen to John Waters-- describing their favorite Hitchcock movie. It turns out that even as self-absorbed a maestro as Greece's Theo Angelopoulus has a sweet tooth for Hitch: "I have seen all of Hitchcock's films, and I always had a very good time with any film of his... I have a weakness for Notorious, perhaps because of Ingrid Bergman's face."

     Not enough filmmakers are polled to make the survey mean that much, also you could vote for more than one film if you liked. Still, Psycho got 13 first place votes, Vertigo 7, to lead. The only oddity: no ballots from anybody for Strangers on a Train. And my idiosyncratic best-loved Hitchcock film, The Wrong Man, got only a single mention, one of the votes of Martin Scorsese.

     For the record, my favorite Hitchcock films, in descending order: (1)The Wrong Man (1956) (2)Psycho (1960) (3)Rear Window (1954) (4)Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (5)Vertigo (1958) (6)Strangers on a Train (1951) (7)North by Northwest (1959) (8) The Lady Vanishes (1938) (9)Marnie (1964) (10)Notorious (1946) (11)The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) (12)The Birds (1963).

(Ausgust, 1999)


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