Hitchcock and 20th-Century Cinema
John Orr Wallflower Press, 224pp, £16.99
We take Hitchcock for granted. We see him ranked high in poll after poll of top ten films. We see those movies repeated over and over again on television. (ITV is at present midway through its annual late-night season.) We call him Hitch, as if he were an old friend; we call him the Master of Suspense, as if we know what he's about. And we forget how strange, how so unlike the work of other movie-makers even his most popular films are.
Take a tiny incident from his first masterpiece, Notorious (1946). Ingrid Bergman, at the behest of Cary Grant and the nameless agency he works for, has married Claude Rains the better to get the low-down on his Nazi sympathies. His secret, she soon discovers, is kept in the wine cellar.
Determined to get in there, she steals into his bedroom and palms a key - at which point Rains enters, bent on kissing his new bride's hands. Alarmed, Bergman throws her arms around his neck, drops the key behind his back and kicks it under a dresser. All this detailed action Hitchcock shoots in a succession of fetishistic close-ups - key, hand, mouth, embrace, carpet, key again, foot - the cut from shot to shot racking up the tension like a sweet-wrapper at a snooker tournament. "You must always," Hitchcock once joked, "do it with scissors." Yet no other director would have conceived of scissoring up such a scene into its component parts. And with good reason. The cumbersome ballet Bergman would have had to go through to conceal that key in long-shot would not only have looked ridiculous, it would have given the game away to Rains in a flash.
Hitchcock derived such unusual techniques, John Orr reminds us in this intriguing, inspiring new book, from Weimar cinema. In Berlin during the 1920s, the young Hitchcock served as art director for German expressionism's two abiding geniuses, F W Murnau and Fritz Lang. From them he took his belief that editing, the movement from one image to another, was the essence of filmic art: poetry in motion. Without this cutting insight, the famous shower murder in Psycho (1960) - all flash and flurry but no fleshy detail - would figure nowhere on our cultural radar. The Birds (1963) is the best disaster movie ever made because its chaos isn't just talked about but built into its fractured form. Even Frederick Knott's Dial M For Murder (1954) is invigorated by the Rubik's cube of Hitchcock's gaze. Instead of a proscenium-arched war-horse, we get an alarmingly chill study of marital dislocation.
So, it is hardly surprising that the man Orr calls "the cockney Kuleshov" soon became an influence himself. Indeed, Orr's overarching theme is that Hitchcock is a kind of cinematic Abraham: every movie-maker since is descended from him. We know the debts Claude Chabrol and Brian de Palma owe him, but what about Wong Kar-wai or Takashi Miike? Graham Greene? James Bond? All is revealed here. In the book's most awesomely insightful essay, Orr unravels the ties that bind David Lynch to the master of suspense, managing into the bargain what one had begun to think impossible - to tell you something new about Hitchcock.
For Orr's is only the latest in a long line of studies of the most famous film-maker of them all. Hitchcock made more than 50 pictures, but there must be double that number of books about him. Most of them have been boondoggling trivia about Hitchcock the feminist, Hitchcock the deconstructionist, Hitchcock the Marxist-without-knowing-it. Orr is having none of that. Though the least convincing chapter in his book is about Hitchcock's philosophy of identity, don't worry about having to overdose on Lacan and Foucault: Orr's unfashionable focus is on Hitchcock's affinities with David Hume.
One of the reasons Orr distrusts the vapourings of post-structuralism is that he knows how to put a sentence together. You would be hard-pressed to call him a stylist, but he knows how to make sense. I didn't agree with him about everything. Calling Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo (1958) "one of the great accomplishments in film acting" is like calling Michael Foot one of the great leaders of the Labour Party. Missing the fact that Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) runs scared from the darkness at the heart of Patricia Highsmith's novel is like failing to see that the Beeb's Bleak House has steered well clear of Dickens's original mire. But Orr is so full of ideas and miraculous connections that you can forgive his coming the occasional cropper. As thrilling as its subject, his book deserves to be as influential, too.
Chris Bray's Michael Caine: a class act is published by Faber & Faber