Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Other Hitchcock books: Robin Wood vs Truffaut

(An extension of my post on Charlotte Chandler’s book It’s Only a Movie.)

The first book about Hitchcock I read was the one that remains most famous to this day – the collection of interviews by Francois Truffaut. I enjoyed it at the time (it was, after all, my initiation into what Hitchcock himself had to say about his movies and the process of making them), but my admiration has dimmed considerably over the years. Though the Truffaut interviews played an important pioneering role in the mid-1960s – a time when few American or British critics would have attempted a serious study of Hitchcock’s work – they are surprisingly lightweight when looked at today, content with discussing only the most superficial aspects of the films.

I remember being disappointed by Satyajit Ray’s patronising attitude to Hitchcock in his review of Truffaut’s book (which formed one of the essays in Our Films, Their Films). Given that Ray was usually such an open-minded, perceptive critic, I was surprised by his bull-headed insistence that the genre Hitchcock chose to work in precluded his being taken seriously as an artist. (What a hollow argument!) But I couldn’t disagree with his central point, which seemed more a criticism of the Truffaut book than a criticism of Hitchcock. “What the book fails to achieve,” wrote Ray, “and in failing defeats Truffaut’s main purpose in writing it, is to raise Hitchcock to the eminence of a profound and serious artist.”

I wonder if Ray ever read some subsequent books which in my opinion did help achieve this: notably Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, a very personal examination of the themes and ideas that lie beneath the surface of the seemingly innocuous narratives in many Hitchcock movies. Wood has been accused of over-analysis, of reading things into the films that aren’t obviously there, but his book illustrates a very important point: that a work of art must be judged by what it says to each viewer (or reader, or listener), not by what the artist himself intended (or claims he intended) it to be. Wood repeatedly invokes D H Lawrence’s “Never trust the teller, trust the tale” to remind us that 1) artists are usually not very honest about their work, and 2) even when they intend to be honest, there are inevitably layers in the creative process that they themselves are not consciously aware of.

This is especially relevant in Hitchcock’s case because he was famous for saying facetious things about his own movies, thereby confounding the efforts of his loyalists and defenders (like Truffaut). For instance, expressing his happiness with the commercial success of Psycho, Hitchcock told Truffaut:
“That’s what I’d like you to do – make a picture that would gross millions of dollars throughout the world…you have to design your films just as Shakespeare did his plays – for an audience.”
In his review, Ray pounced on this statement, holding it up as an example of Hitchcock’s concern only with the box-office and not with making “serious” cinema. But instead of just taking Hitchcock’s remarks at face value, I wish he had turned to Psycho itself, and seen firsthand what it had to say about the Master’s approach to his art. Here is a film that plays like a great ballet for most of its duration, is thoroughly compelling even on repeat viewings when all its secrets have been uncovered, and yet also makes powerful statements about loneliness, shared guilt and the cruel arbitrariness of life – most importantly, it does all this without once compromising on the demands of its genre (namely that the audience be thrilled, terrified, kept on the edge of their seats). Instead of flamboyantly holding his themes up for the world to see and appreciate (as many “serious” directors do), Hitchcock seamlessly incorporates them into the film’s narrative framework (small example: the scene of Marion’s long car journey, where the voices she hears in her head and the demonic grin on her face foreshadow a far deeper madness to be revealed at the end of the film).

Psycho is one of the most overanalysed movies ever (right up there with Citizen Kane and Un Chien Andalou), but when all the words have been exhausted, each frame of the film carefully dissected, what stays with me is its pure, poetic beauty. It’s a film I can sink myself into endlessly, and Robin Wood’s essay on it is one of the best I’ve ever read (along with the ones written by Danny Peary in Cult Movies 3 and by V F Perkins - no relation to Tony Perkins! - in his excellent analysis of film editing in Film as Film).

Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, by its very nature, won’t appeal to all Hitchcock fans - Wood’s obsession can get stifling at times and it’s my belief that this book will strike a chord in you only if a Hitchcock film got under your skin at a young age. (In Wood’s own case, incidentally, the film in question was Rope: he saw it as a 17-year-old trying to come to terms with his homosexuality, and couldn’t understand why he pathologically identified with the John Dall character Brandon; it was only later that he understood the story’s gay subtext.)

(Next on the list: The Hitchcock Murders by Peter Conrad.)


  1. Cameron Crowe did a "Truffaut" with Billy Wilder. The book is part panegyrics (can't blame Crowe for that), part analysis and part self-promotion, but still very enjoyable and insightful.

    This will sound blasphemous to most people (and I love Psycho dearly), but I think its climax has not aged very well.


  2. If you think the climax hasn't aged very well (which might be true, yes), then you should watch the 1998 version of Psycho (dir: Gus van Sant) which ENTIRELY RUINS the climax by making it timid and pale: what unemotional music, what blunt editing!

    The new movie was a joke, and a wonderful experiment to show there's some invisible filmic talent involved in between shots (after Ebert)

  3. Psycho is brilliant.
    Was watching the awful bollywood flick - bhool bhulaiyaa the other day. It is essentially based on the same concept as psycho and was made 47 years later. And yet the movie is so eminently forgettable.

    Alfred Hitchcock was miles ahead of his time.

  4. @ shrikanth : So, you are basically saying that 'Bhool Bhulaiyaa' manages to live up to its name!