Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Reflections in a hollow eye: Four by Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock was prolific enough that though he’s the most famous director in history the breadth of his filmography remains unseen to all but the most ardent admirers. One of the pleasures of Hitchcock comes from tracing the obsessions, variations and attempts at reinvention found throughout the corpus. In the latest of their economically priced packages, Turner Classic Movies has smartly curated a quartet of films under the no-nonsense title of
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers. Only one of these rests firmly in the essential canon, but the others are consistently fascinating, complex, often deliciously queer, and above all revealing glimpses into the filmmaker’s psyche. Two of these find Hitchcock deliberately working against established strengths, embracing unfamiliar styles while simultaneously imbuing the films with an unusual abundance of personal content. Not to mention casting actors in roles that ignite a compelling frisson between their star images and private lives.

Joan Fontaine meets Cary Grant on a train. He gropes her in the darkness of a tunnel, inserting himself in her cabin once she fits the bill for his bump to first-class. This is a kind of romance, but
Suspicion (1941) is choked with psychological trauma. Grant’s an opportunist, a no-good bon vivant, his ruthlessness disguised by boyish charm, his words of love accompanied by no strenuous efforts at sincerity. Like Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place (50) Fontaine spends the film’s duration wondering what violence her beloved is capable of, but in Suspicion the ambiguity never ends—even the final scene feels less like resolution than yet another of Grant’s quick-saves. Though the story was cobbled on compromise—the source novel ends very differently—the result is something marvelous, a pitch-black metaphor for everlasting romantic love. It is everlasting because it can never grow stale from comfort.

Another train, another chance meeting. What strikes me most when I revisit
Strangers on a Train, many years after my first awed teenage viewings, is just how utterly homoerotic—perhaps homophobic—the picture truly is. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, this story of men who meet by accident and agree, however tacitly, to swap murders, is most rewarding when read as one of male-to-male seduction, a sort of gay Fatal Attraction (87), where Robert Taylor’s mama’s boy pseudo-aesthete genuinely does seem to act on the hero’s behalf, strangling the hero’s conniving wife, her glasses tumbling into the grass, bearing witness to their owner’s death as he silently lays her down and puts her to sleep. That hunky Farley Granger seems not entirely convincing as the tennis-playing hero trying to marry a senator’s daughter serves the film splendidly. Hitchcock, who’d already deftly exploited Granger’s homosexuality in Rope (48), clearly doesn’t believe his hero’s innocence and neither do we, tainting the ostensible resolution with palpable unease, greatly improving what might have felt like a triumph of closeted blandness over perverse insight.

I hadn’t seen
I Confess (53) and always assumed it was a flawed curiosity. I didn’t expect it to be so boldly laced with uncertainty and so gorgeously photographed. Nor was I prepared for Montgomery Clift as the Québécois priest accused of murder. Clift’s performance is itself the most elegantly ambiguity-laden thing in the film, tormented, and conspicuously cagey. I Confess is a film of architecture and faces, mainly, of looming steeples and nerve-wracked gazes. The establishing shots seize the Quebec City exteriors in high contrast, tilted images that upset purely on a design level. Again, Hitchcock’s hero has privileged knowledge of a murder, the killer, somewhat nonsensically, taking him into his confidence, playing out some experiment in loyalty between male outsiders. The killer’s hilariously endowed not only with Hitchcock’s fear of authority but also given a wife with the same name as Hitchcock’s: Alma (Spanish for soul). Again, Hitchcock uses his star’s sexual ambivalence brilliantly. Did the beautiful, troubled Clift abandon romance and enter the priesthood because he’s secretly gay? By the end, Clift’s married ex-girlfriend spills her guts, Alma spills her guts, the killer spills his guts. Everything we need to know about the murder’s been explained. But we never learn what’s really up with Monty. The film’s hero is by far its greatest mystery.

An even more serious, less glamorous film,
The Wrong Man (56) finds Hitchcock suspended somewhere between the poles of noir and neorealism. There’s an oft-told anecdote about how Hitchcock’s father had his five-year-old son imprisoned on a lark, and Hitchcock saw his anxieties about police reflected in the strange but true story of Manny Balestrero, a Queens bassist fingered for robberies he didn’t commit. In the wake of McCarthyism Hitchcock conjured his most Kafkaesque vision of America, where the assignation of guilt has the potential to impose guilt upon you. This nightmare scenario unfolds through a hybrid of dream-like artifice—a long, weird dissolve suggests that Manny’s prayers to Jesus are instantly answered by his double, walking a lonely street somewhere—and in some of the most realistic settings in Hitchcock. The subway rumbles past the windows of apartments and offices, through the shops where the cops escort Balestrero and, in a bizarrely malevolent procedure, force him to revisit the scenes of his ostensible crimes. Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as Manny, the jazz musician who neither drinks not does drugs and is always on time. He was the everyman who could be any man. It’s a shame he’d never work with Hitchcock again.

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