SAM gets 'Hitch'-ed with spring film series

A case can be made that Alfred Hitchcock was the most successful director in motion picture history. Certainly he's the most recognized director in motion picture history. His name's a household word, he's the exemplar of an entire genre ("the Master of Suspense") and in an Internet age he did not live to see, he holds the record for most hits on film-information Web sites. His mastery of the medium remains unchallenged even though none of the half-dozen films he made in the final decade-and-a-half of his half-century career met with widespread admiration among either critics or the general public.

It's just that, when you sit down to try defining what constitutes the cinema - the movies - Hitchcock's work yields up more copious and definitive evidence than anyone else's. And that's not limited to film buffs and historians. Filmmakers have learned more from Hitchcock than from any other director. Claude Chabrol - who, back in the days before he became a founding member of the French New Wave, collaborated with fellow director-to-be Eric Rohmer on a booklength study of Hitchcock - once confessed that he uses Hitchcock's body of work as a virtual lexicon of the cinema: when director Chabrol finds himself backed into a corner by a problematical scene, he sits down and mentally sorts over Hitchcock's oeuvre until he finds a comparable challenge, then does what Hitch did to get out of it.

There may still be people who will protest, "Wait a minute, you're talking as if Hitchcock were some kind of artist. Whereas really, wasn't he just a clever commercial entertainer who made some delightful movies but also a fair share of clinkers?" (True enough up to a point: lose the "just.") That view of Hitchcock was standard for many years. Even Hollywoodians tended to share it. When Hitchcock sought Gary Cooper to star in his second American effort, the 1940 "Foreign Correspondent," Coop turned him down because thrillers were déclassé. After "Foreign Correspondent" (with Joel McCrea in the lead) went on to become a terrific film, a huge hit and a nominee for the best-picture Oscar, Cooper graciously admitted to Hitchcock that he "should have done it."

The decisive shift in thinking about Hitchcock came around the turn of the '60s, when little-magazine critics in France and Hitchcock's native England began adjusting the standards of what constituted intrinsically exciting and creative cinema. This was the era when "the auteur theory" of film criticism made a vigorous, often shrill assault on what the French termed "the tradition of quality." Challenging the tastemakers' tendency to confer honors on self-important, literary-based productions starring theatrically trained actors, the auteurists held that the true "authors" (auteurs) of the cinema were often unheralded craftsmen laboring in the vineyards of genre and bringing dynamic style and personal vision to bear on their material. Despite sometimes severe budgetary limitations, their endeavors might be a lot more exciting as film artistry and sharper in moral, political or psychological insight than the prestige pictures of the time. Hitchcock had never been a B-moviemaker, but he was a prisoner of generic pigeonholing. And second for second, his films were realized with a breathtaking precision, psychological acuity and richness of ambiguity all but unmatched in world cinema. All this while, more often than not, being great fun to watch.

Last year the Seattle Art Museum Film Series sampled 10 of Hitchcock's movies: a mostly stellar bunch, starting with his best-loved, pre-Hollywood titles ("The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes"), including the only Hitchcock film ever sanctified with a best-picture Oscar ("Rebecca" - the prize was collected by producer David O. Selznick), the director's personal favorite ("Shadow of a Doubt") and the 1958 flop now generally regarded as his masterpiece, and certainly his most personal film ("Vertigo"). Now SAM film curator Greg Olson has returned to the well for a second 10. It's a mixed lot, heavy on late-career efforts and some entries that, high-profile in their day, have not aged as well as other films neglected in that day. Still, the well is deep, and there's plenty here to fascinate and entertain.

"Lifeboat" (April 12) is a 1944 tour de force set entirely within the gunwales of the eponymous vessel, launched from an ocean liner sunk in the Atlantic by a German U-boat, which also sank. John Steinbeck is credited with the story, an allegory of how far decent people can and should go in battling the Master Race. That race is personified by Walter Slezak as a jovial, roly-poly fellow named Willy. His Allied hosts include Tallulah Bankhead as a sarcastic celebrity columnist, John Hodiak as a combative proletarian from the boiler room, Henry Hull as a wealthy industrialist and William Bendix as a guy from Brooklyn whose wounded leg is unlikely to carry him back to Roseland. Hitchcock scored an Academy Award nomination for his inventive direction, but the achievement is more limited than it seemed at the time.

"Spellbound" (April 19) also brought an Academy nod for Hitchcock, as well as several other 1945 nominations including best picture, but this, too, is an elaborately tricky production that seems minor alongside "Suspicion," "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Notorious." Screenwriter Ben Hecht was inordinately taken with the newly fashionable science of psychoanalysis, and the result is a puzzle movie - rather than a genuinely ambiguous narrative - in which psychologist Ingrid Bergman has only to decode inamorata Gregory Peck's sundry dream images to solve his problem and the attendant murder mystery that has them on the run. Salvador Dalí was drafted to create a memorably garish dream sequence, and Miklós Rózsa collected an Oscar for his Theremin-heavy music score.

Post-"Notorious" (1946), Hitchcock entered upon a lean half-decade of misfires and failed experiments till getting back on his game with the 1951 "Strangers on a Train." "Rope" (April 26) is a quasi-independent curio that harks back to "Lifeboat"'s closed universe; its 80 minutes unreel in a Manhattan apartment where two would-be Nietzscheans (John Dall and Farley Granger) have just committed a Leopold-and-Loeb-like thrill killing and concealed the body in a trunk that serves as the apartment's coffee table. The entire 1948 movie consists of eight uninterrupted shots that flow into one another (apart from one end-of-reel shock cut). James Stewart, the other important star with whom Hitchcock would make four films, plays the collegiate killers' professor, whom they expect to approve of what they've done.

Stewart returns in the 1954 "Rear Window" (May 3), universally hailed as peak Hitchcock. Yet again it's a closed arena, with the camera never leaving the Greenwich Village apartment of a photojournalist who, laid up with a broken leg, begins to take an unwholesome interest in his neighbors. This time, unlike "Rope," Hitchcock allows himself the full range of cutting as well as insinuating camera movement, and the field of action includes what's going on in those apartments across the way, and the courtyard below Stewart's window, and even the street barely glimpsed through a gap between buildings. Yet Stewart's point of view is never violated, as the film taps ever deeper into the creepiness of his fascination with "the movies" projected on his private screen. (Yes, it does have something to do with our own involvement as seated voyeurs.) Grace Kelly has her most iconic role as the glamour girl whose adoration is as suffocating to Stewart as his physical helplessness. The moment when Raymond Burr, as the traveling salesman and possible wife-murderer across the way, realizes he's being watched is one of the supreme marrow-freezing moments in the cinema.

"To Catch a Thief" (May 10) is pleasant but trivial, content to relish the Riviera in VistaVision and Technicolor, with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly as foreground distraction. The scenery won cameraman Robert Burks an Oscar; he would go unnominated for his subtler, ravishing work on "Vertigo." The plot hinges on reformed cat burglar Grant's having to nail the real culprits behind a recent string of robberies.

Arguably the last masterwork of Hitchcock's career, "Psycho" (May 17) was viewed by most 1960 reviewers as a coarsening and betrayal of the director's heretofore-elegant talent. With a serial-murder plot whose ultrapeculiar details verged on horror-film territory, harsh black-and-white cinematography by a crew from Hitchcock's TV series and one hellaciously jolting twist in the narrative scheme of things, the movie was accused of being in seriously bad taste. This is history. From the vantage of today, "Psycho" is one of those radical, visionary films that changed movies, changed popular culture and helped define the postmodern world. For the benefit of folks who have never visited the Bates Motel, nothing more will be said here except that Tony Perkins and Janet Leigh are superb in roles that permanently defined their screen identities, in retrospect and in futurity. The film was Hitchcock's last big box-office success and brought him his final Academy nomination as best director. (He never won.)

Three years passed before Hitchcock's next film was released. "The Birds" (May 24) finds him again in something like horror-film territory, a world in which our feathered friends suddenly and inexplicably seem bent on wiping humankind off the face of the earth. It's a frustrating movie, with a wildly uneven mixture of laborious exposition and deft, almost subliminal intuitions of disquiet. The director clearly found his new "Hitchcock blonde" leading lady, 'Tippi' Hedren, fascinating; audiences less so. Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the great scores for Hitchcock's recent films, here contributed a nonmusical soundtrack that's uncannily disturbing.

"Marnie" (May 31) is in some ways a throwback to "Spellbound," with a still more aggressive pattern of symbol- and syndrome-strewing and a puzzle-like personal mystery to be solved. As in "The Birds," but even more so, the viewer is pulled between what appears to be a simplistic, sometimes leaden narrative and a fully committed mise-en-scène awesome in its beauty and accumulating power. Hitchcock's infatuation with Hedren - playing a compulsive thief with a ferocious aversion to sex - here crossed over into clinical obsession, but as an actress she has improved. This 1964 movie is an acid test for Hitchcock observers, who tend either to deplore it or worship it. Sean Connery costars as a dark fellow named Rutland, equal parts predator and savior.

After a run of box-office disappointments (but worthy movies), Hitchcock returned to home ground - England and the psychological suspense film - with the 1972 "Frenzy" (June 7). The Thames is fairly chock-a-block with victims of "the Neck-Tie Murderer," and the evidence begins to point to a man (Jon Finch, fresh from Polanski's Macbeth) whose personal life is rather a mess. In classic Hitchcock tradition, he becomes a man on the run whose only hope for vindication is to get the goods on the real killer. Critics generally agreed that this was the director's most assured work in a long time, and it boasts three brilliant set-pieces: an onscreen murder; another, just-as-memorably offscreen murder; and its blackly comic aftermath. There's sharp character work by Barry Foster ("Bob's your uncle") and Alec McCowen as a Scotland Yard inspector victimized by a wife (Vivien Merchant) with a late-blooming passion for gourmet cooking.

"The Master at Work: The Continuing Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock" will show at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, April 5-June 7 at the Museum of History and Industry. Series tickets - $58 for SAM, MOHAI and SIFF members, $65 others - are available via 654-3121 or Tickets to individual films, $10, may be available at the door.[[In-content Ad]]