Cinema: Master of Existential Suspense

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Alfred Hitchcock: 1899-1980

There were, at the minimum, two Alfred Hitchcocks. The "master of suspense" was pleased to be generally understood simply as a creator of elegant entertainments that stylishly, wittily induced the only anxiety attacks that a citizen of the Age of Anxiety could actually anticipate with pleasure. This image the rotund, British-born director shaped and nurtured almost as fussily as he did his films. In interviews he invariably doled out the same handful of childhood anecdotes and adult insights into himself, all reinforcing the notion of a person trying gamely to joke away a set of obsessions so common that anyone could identify with them?fear of heights, of closed spaces, of open spaces and, above all, of false accusation and/or arrest. Television, when he began appearing as host of a series of funny-scary stories that he supervised (but rarely directed), allowed him to burnish his public persona to a high gloss: the solemn-faced fat man with a stately pace and a sepulchral voice improbably making outrageous puns and ghoulish observations about the tales he told.

It was delicious, this role playing. Especially in its duplicity. For if TV reinforced both Hitchcock's wealth and his fame, making him the only director whose name above the title was more important than that of almost any star he could hire, it also did much more. The essentially false characterization of himself that he projected served to protect the privacy of a quiet, compulsively orderly man who was, in many of his attitudes, especially when he got to musing about sex, virtually an arrested adolescent. It also camouflaged facts that Hitchcock judged inimical to commercial success: that he took himself seriously as an artist, and that almost all of his work addressed itself, metaphorically, to the most sober existential questions. To use a clich?ppropriate to a man of his girth, he was determined to eat his cake and have it too.

Mostly, he did, though the Motion Picture Academy, which likes to give its awards to people who trumpet the loftiness of their themes, contented itself with nominating Hitchcock five times as best director. The only Oscar he got was a career-end special. Even after his death last week at 80 in his Bel-Air home, there were implacably middlebrow critics insisting that Hitchcock never placed his impeccably subtle technique in the service of "serious" matters. As if his lifelong contemplation of the way disorder violently intrudes upon the blithe assumptions of ordinary men that the world is a logical place were not a serious theme (see Kafka). Or that his insistence on the omnipresence of evil, even in the most commonplace settings, did not square with the basic drift of thoughtful philosophers (see Hannah Arendt). Or that the decline of the traditional moral order, supported by society's most basic institutions, did not throw everyone?not just Hitchcock's heroes, who were so often forced to run both from cops and crooks?back on their own desperate resources (see Camus or, on any of these points, yesterday's headlines).

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