I’ve been Alfred Hitchcock-crazy for years. I’ve savoured books/collections of writings with deep analyses of his work that critics never much bothered with when he was actually making his best films; seethed silently (sometimes vociferously) when nimrods designated him a clever showman rather than an artist; and snapped at blasphemers who mentioned his name in the same breath as The Three Investigators (an entertaining detective series to be sure, but linked to Hitchcock only in the use of his name as a brand). Which is why I didn’t think twice about sacrificing a few hours of my Sunday to meet Richard Allen – film prof at New York University and Hitchcock expert – for an interview. (Allen is in Delhi for a few days, chairing a 10-day-long seminar at the India Habitat Centre.)
Unfortunately the meeting was rushed, because of time constraints, and a bit uncomfortable because we had to manage in the waiting area outside the All-American Diner (there being no tables free in the restaurant). We also had to ignore the gawkers gawking at sight of the White Man gesticulating furiously and the studious-looking reporter scribbling notes.
But if two people find common ground, and if that ground is the career of one of the most interesting, provocative artists of the last century, such distractions seem trivial. Allen and I spent half an hour quizzing each other about our favourite Hitchcock moments, discussing films, themes and undertones, bemoaning the snobbish dismissal of Hitchcock as a mere entertainer, and equally bemoaning the fact that critics subsequently went too far in the opposite direction by overanalysing his work. (I have a book of essays on Hitch, co-edited by Allen; I told him frankly that I found some of the writings in the book mind-numbingly academic and over-baked, and he took the point gracefully.)
Part of the problem, we agreed, is that a Hitchcock film must, first and foremost, be experienced. Though personally speaking I’ve always enjoyed reading books on Hitchcock, I concede that there is something fundamentally paradoxical, even futile and self-defeating, about writing reams and reams on his movies. I’ve watched Hitchcock movies with people who are palpably stirred by the film while they are watching it; they respond in all the right ways to all the key scenes; the Master does indeed “play them like an organ”, as he once boasted to Francois Truffaut; and then these same people come out of the film theatre/screening room and (having unfrayed their nerves and allowed cerebra to silence instinct) say, “Well, that was nice time-pass but it’s not a serious film.” And it’s unspeakably tragic when even someone like Satyajit Ray - otherwise a gentle, perceptive commentator on film, and a great admirer of American directors like Ford, Hawks and Wilder – questions Hitchcock’s value as an artist simply because of the genre he worked in.
There’s the Hitchcockian tragedy for you: he’s suspended for eternity between one group that doesn’t take him seriously because of the “flippant” subject matter of his movies, and another group that - in a wild attempt to overcompensate for the former’s apathy – has reduced his career to a litany of often-painfully didactic essays.
Which is why the part of my conversation with Richard Allen I’ll treasure most is the part where, eyes shining with childlike enthusiasm, he told me how, shortly after watching The Birds at the age of 11, he was riding along the highway with his sister when they were frightened out of their wits by a flock of birds suddenly flying low over the car. That was the first of many occasions when Alfred Hitchcock came out of the screen and made his presence felt in Richard Allen’s life. The immediacy of the experience is what really counts.
It reminds me of the great moment in Psycho where the shower curtain is ripped apart – destroying the invisible barrier between the audience and the film – and making us part of the nightmare.