“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”, said Alfred Hitchcock. Director Mark Cousins has different hopes. The man behind the 15-hour documentary epic, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), who has explored women and children in film, and the maverick filmmaker Orson Welles, has built a reputation as an authoritative voice about cinema. Undoubtedly, turning his attention to the “Master of Suspense” will stir up anticipation amongst cineastes. He surely hopes that his documentary, My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, will delight audiences beyond their anticipation.
Cousins’ familiar lyrical and seductive voice as narrator is missing here, yet he still delights us with his mischief. He asks us to play along with the pretence that Hitchcock himself has written and voiced this film. We know that’s impossible, but we’re happy to indulge his quirky approach. At the end of My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, Cousins tells us, “… Many of the things he says here are true. His voice is still alive for movie lovers.”
Introducing this premise, Hitchcock, voiced by actor Alistair McGowan, says, “I have an idea. So many people have had their say about my movies; they’ve analysed my storytelling, how I filmed catholic guilt, morality. They’ve analysed my visual fantasies, the way I’ve peeped at people, and beauty, and of course, my likely mocking Englishness. But they missed things out. There’s more to say about me. Look closely at my pictures, and you see things – I see things. I’d like to tell you some of the things I see, not suspense, mystery or movie stardom, that has all been done to death. Can we look at my movies from more unusual angles? Angles that might relate to your lives, your families? Can I prod you a little by looking into my films? Can I find your weaknesses?”
By creating this critique from Hitchcock’s point-of-view, has Cousins completed the films and become his indirect co-author? After all, the narrator talks about prodding his audience and finding their weaknesses – he’s after our emotional baggage. It’s a tantalising idea to consider in relation to Hitchcock, an important director for the Cahiers du cinéma critics and filmmakers when developing the auteur theory.
“Hitchcock’s” re-examination of his films is divided into six chapters – an organised method of approaching a 60-year career. My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock is not a lecture intended to tell us how we should think and feel. Instead, it puts forth ideas as a provocation. Richly layered, the documentary motivates us to critique anew the way we understand Hitchcock.
In the first chapter, “escape”, the narrator confesses, “I started with escaping, but you all feel the opposite, don’t you? – attraction.” Hitchcock’s cinema emphasises escape, which is a core device of the thriller. As late as Vertigo (1958), the relationship between escape and attraction is at the heart of perhaps his greatest film. James Stewart’s John “Scotty” Ferguson struggles to escape his fear of heights after a traumatic experience. Meanwhile, the antagonist tries to escape his marriage without losing his wife’s fortune, and the other woman – the lover who helps him – finds herself trapped in a fatal lie.
The narrator’s ideas draw attention to Vertigo’s thematic symbolism as it relates to Hitchcock’s own feelings of entrapment or claustrophobia. It reassesses the director’s relationship not only to the final film, also but to why he was drawn to the source novel, Boileau-Narcejac’s D’entre les morts (1958).
It’s not a coincidence that I brought up Vertigo, having recently re-watched it. Returning to Cousins’ ideas, rewatching Vertigo encourages me to perceive the themes and suspense in a context I might otherwise not have. Our understanding of film is not developed in a bubble but through direct and indirect dialogue. Cinema benefits from conversation and ideas and readings of films are not suited to introversion – they need social interaction.
Hitchcock also tells us that he tries to show the pleasure of desire, not only the jeopardy it may involve. Vertigo celebrates our attraction and desire for emotionally wrought tragedy through Bernard Herrmann’s romantic score and Stewart and Kim Novak’s melodramatic performances. Vertigo is a story of intense desire that crosses over into obsession. It remains a masterstroke film, not only for its meticulous plotting but for Stewart’s dark metamorphosis that subverted his star persona.
The conceit of the person critiquing the work of a filmmaker is to perceive conscious intent. Not doing so undermines one’s confidence in their reading: is Cousins guilty of this conceit? As much as Hitchcock spoke about his work, at least a slither of ambiguity must remain. It’s not unreasonable to think that Hitchcock was a showman, playing a character at times and saying things for dramatic effect. Cousins is aware of this because we hear Hitchcock describe himself as “a showman, a daredevil, a fun fair”.
Beyond this detailed and fascinating critique, where does Hitchcock’s intent end and instinct begin? To what extent was the “Master of Suspense” relying on or fortunate to have these unconsciously sharp instincts? Hitchcock’s films have inevitably aged because most were shot on film stages and their use of pioneering visual effects. He was, however, a director that surprised his audience, and even now, it’s clear that Hitchcock was forward-thinking about film aesthetics, grammar, pace, and rhythm.
An interesting moment of pseudo-reflection by Hitchcock is when he says, “Mr. Raymond Chandler said I was keen to escape dramatic logic for the sake of the camera effect, but I’ll put it differently: I always wanted to escape from the traditional way of doing things. I wanted to find a visual surprise.”
Reverting to the monochrome image for 1960’s Psycho, partly out of necessity over censorship concerns, was a bold and surprising choice, especially when you consider the two films that preceded it. Vertigo and North by Northwest (1959) both utilised the colour palette and, in the case of Vertigo, also colourful animation and strobe effects.
The Psycho shower scene is visually savage and beautiful in its composition. The rapid pace of the cuts is juxtaposed with a later tracking shot inside the Bates house without any cuts.
“My camera was a desiring thing,” he says. “It was a little bit like a detective, floating through my stories, looking for something – maybe a sparkle, a glint in the eye.” Hitchcock’s camera was, indeed, like a pair of eyes – the closing and opening of the eyelids served as the cut. Sometimes they violently flickered like, in the shower scene, and other times they were wide-eyed in the long tracking shots he used.
Cousins’ documentary reminds us of Hitchcock’s remarkable role in the history of film. His career spanned the silent and sound eras and his work was an integral presence in classic Hollywood and its Golden Age. In the twilight of his career, he held his own against the young generation that was reinventing cinema – the French New Wave and the burgeoning New American Cinema. French critic and director François Truffaut said that 1973’s Frenzy was a young director’s film. Hitchcock was 73 years old when he made this, his penultimate film.
My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock reminds us of the larger-than-life personality and his larger-than-life body of work. To watch it is to be carried away, distracted by our thoughts, before returning to Cousins’ commentary through Hitchcock as narrator. If you’re going to do a Hitchcock documentary, conveying the Hitchcockian sublime is a matter of necessity, if only to show respect. At two hours long, My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock goes by at a bristling pace. Reacquainting ourselves with this old friend never ceases to be a pleasure.
My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock played at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023, courtesy of Dogwoof.