A PASSIONATEanalysis of Alfred Hitchcock's films reveals as much about the writer as the written-about
I am thrilling, presently, to “Hitchcock's Films Revisited”, Robin Wood's extraordinarily passionate analysis of the Master's oeuvre, and my career as a pop-culture chronicler – as a disseminator of pop-culture joy; as a bustling bee flitting from reader to reader, impregnating blossoming minds with pop-culture pollen – would be incomplete if I didn't share at least some of my excitement. This tome's tone and the author's estimation of his subject can only be described as an opium-fuelled love, bordering on devotion yet clear-headed enough to deflect deification.
To use a coinage that came long after Wood's writing, he's fanboy enough to assert the superiority of Hitchcock by attacking Otto Preminger. (You don't have to pull down an obviously lesser filmmaker to prop your idol up.) At the same time — and in a more illuminating comparison — he admits that “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is “an almost painfully unfunny screwball comedy,” and that “[when viewed against a landmark of the genre like Leo McCarey'sThe Awful Truth] McCarey's genius [is] as compatible with the genre as Hitchcock's is alien to it”.
What's startling about the book, however, is that Wood, in a lengthy preface, talks about himself before getting anywhere close to talking about Hitchcock. This early portion could well be called “Robin Wood Revisited”, for he looks back — in devastating detail — on his life before and after he came to terms with his gayness, and he thus sees Hitchcock's films with two sets of eyes, as a closeted gay man and as an out-and-proud (if not exactly happy; Wood's self-lacerations are painful to read about, and you can only imagine how these experiences must havefelt) homosexual.
And by doing this, he quietly trots out the unsurprising truth that not only do two different people watch the same film differently, even the same person, at different points in life, will watch the same film differently. Thus, the “Black” seen by a man with a disabled sister will not be the “Black” seen by someone with a perfectly healthy family. The “Kannathil Muthamittal” that a teenager sees will be an entirely different movie from the “Kannathil Muthamittal” he sees after he grows up and gets married and adopts a child. And it is with this in mind that a critic should be read, that reviews should be absorbed — as the record of the viewing experience of a particular person from a particular background at a particular stage in life and with a particular taste.
But not everything about Wood's book is as sobering. His hilarious engagement with the question of “realism” in the cinema — through the following instance of editing — kept me in high spirits for a good part of a week. “Consider the apparently simple moment in Notorious where Ingrid Bergman [disposes of Claude Rains' key that she has stolen]... Filmed by say, Preminger, in a single-take long shot from across the room, this simple action would be ludicrously implausible.”
“Bergman would have, first, to crane her neck over Rains' shoulder to see where the key had fallen (and, short as the actor was, this would involve some craning); she would then have to wrap one leg round his body to maneuver her foot into position, then move the foot several inches to conceal the key — and all this, of course, without Rains noticing. Hitchcock breaks down the incident into a characteristically detailed and fragmented montage, culminating in a close-up of the foot pushing the key, both bodies out of frame: it is doubtful, such is the tension and involvement generated by this admirable scene, whether any spectator at the time has questioned the plausibility of the action.” I know I never have.