Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense (Legend Films, 1995)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a 1995 made-for-video documentary called Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense, produced by Richard Chechilo with “creative direction” by Lindsay Leucht and so obscure a production it isn’t listed on It suffered from an ultra-low production budget that didn’t allow its makers to do any interviews with people who’d worked with Hitchcock and also didn’t allow them to pay royalties to use clips from Hitchcock’s films — though they solved the latter problem by using clips from the movies Hitchcock made in England in the 1920’s and 1930’s (virtually all of which are in the public domain by now) and representing his subsequent productions by the original trailers. Movie studios didn’t bother to copyright trailers — indeed they wanted them to be shown as widely as possible — and thus Chechilo and Leucht were able to put together an inadvertently interesting mix that offered a lot of insights into Hitchcock’s public image by reviewing how his films were sold to audiences over the years. Hitchcock eventually became one of the few directors in cinema history whose name could attract audiences to a new film — along with D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and, at the peak of his career, Frank Capra — and it’s interesting how his name became more prominent over the years as it essentially became a “brand,” promising people a certain sort of entertainment: a taut, exciting thriller, carefully crafted for suspense and leavened with bits of black humor.

The film also included some quite odd clips that slipped through the copyright regime, including alternate introductions for Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV episodes, clips from promotional movies shot for CBS and NBC (the show started on CBS, moved to NBC and then went back, and there’s a quite funny sequence here set in what Hitchcock grandly tells us is a “dead-letter office” that heralded the show’s return to CBS and allowed Hitchcock to plug the other programs the network was showing on the same night as his) and a bit of a 1954 awards show in which Red Skelton gives Hitchcock an award for directing Rear Window and said he’d always wanted to work with Hitchcock because he wanted to do a “serious” movie for a change — to which Hitchcock drolly replied that that’s what he thought Skelton had been doing all along. The Hitchcock persona as we know it was basically the one crafted for his TV show by writer James Allardyce, who wrote the famous introductions and delighted in placing Hitchcock in preposterous situations, including one in which he was dressed in a Beatles wig and spotted behind a drum set, and one included here — shot for a re-release of the Hitchcock Presents shows for daytime viewing, aimed at an audience he referred to as “women — and a few men who are malingering,” in which he’s shown behind an ironing board. The show also includes the incredibly droll trailers Hitchcock shot for his films Psycho and The Birds, in which he drones on and on about the motel set in Psycho and humanity’s ongoing relationship with its feathered friends in The Birds (at the end of the trailer for The Birds he’s shown about to eat a roast chicken but thinks better of it because it wouldn’t be appropriate), quite different from the all-out excitement-fests conventional trailers for those movies would have been then or now.

The show didn’t delve into the darker parts of the Hitchcock personality — his penchant for playing practical jokes on his actors (in The 39 Steps Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll spend a good deal of the film handcuffed to each other, so during rehearsals he did it to them for real and was especially curious about how they handled it when they needed to use the bathroom), his infamous statement that “actors are cattle” (in a 1970’s TV interview with Richard Schickel Hitchcock said, “I did not say actors were cattle — I merely said they should be treated as cattle,” which sounded to me more insulting than the misquote!), his treatment of ‘Tippi’ Hedren (the single quotes around her first name were Hitchcock’s idea to make it more distinctive) on the set of The Birds and Marnie — and it also didn’t really attempt any analysis of the films. It gave rather short shrift to some of my favorite Hitchcock movies, including the awesome Rich and Strange from 1931 (O.K., it was a box-office flop on its first release — guess what, so was Vertigo!) and I Confess from 1953 (a wrenching tale of confession and guilt in which the protagonist, played by Montgomery Clift, is a Roman Catholic priest falsely accused of a murder; the gimmick is that the real killer confessed to it but, bound by the absolute confidentiality of the confessional, Clift’s character can’t reveal that fact even to save himself from being executed for the crime — I’ve long thought this would be one Hitchcock movie that would be a good candidate for a modern remake, especially if the former lover of the priest character — who was being blackmailed over the affair she had with him before he took his vows — were changed from a woman to a man), and it quoted Hitchcock’s famous comment about his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much that “the first was made by a talented amateur and the second by a professional” (I’ve always liked the first one considerably better!) — but it still remained an interesting tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and a man whose mix of suspense, romance and dark wit remains unique despite all the more recent directors who’ve tried to imitate it.