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The Numinosum Blog
Along with being busy converting and editing Pulse and Numinous videos, last weekend I finished Donald Spoto's Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies. I originally checked this book out from the library to take with me on my Paris trip early last week; I wanted something light and fun for the plane ride. However the Hitchcock quote on the front cover was an indication that this book wasn't going to be what I thought: "The trouble today is that we don't torture women enough." Ah, okay. Now once I began reading the book, I found the context for the quote-Hitchcock was describing the traditional way, since the early days of film, of creating excitement on-screen: the "lady in distress" which Hitch felt (at that time) was lost. However, I'm thinking Hitchcock actually DID believe in his quote what with the treatment endured by many of his leading women, usually from Hitchcock himself, which was often rude and controlling, sometimes misogynistic, and with a few women, downright sexual harassment.
Now growing up, I knew OF Hitchcock. He was an icon--the rotund, jowled avuncular figure who made those old horror movies, Psycho and The Birds. Of course I never actually SAW Psycho or The Birds growing up. But I didn't really need to; shower scene (check!), Bates Motel (yep, check!), crazy birds attacking (you betcha!)--I knew it all without ever seeing it because it was all just part of the stream of American culture. I was young when Hitchcock died in 1980 and his death never really marked anything for me. He was apart of that long ago world which also included people such as Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Joe "Mr. Coffee" DiMaggio, Princess Grace, and Betty Davis; all of whom were alive when I was younger and while I was cognizant then that they were somebody back in the day (especially Joltin' Joe, since I was hugely into baseball), I knew little to nothing about them at the time, well except for occasional glimpses in the National Enquirer or featured on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
It wasn't until about six years ago that I began to be interested in Hitchcock and his body of films. I don't really know how it started except that I check out one or two of his movies from the library and was hooked. The 39 Steps, Notorious, Spellbound, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window (seeing Grace Kelly in that movie inspired me to write a piece about her, "Passion of a Quiet Flower"), Frenzy and yes, finally Psycho and The Birds, I saw all that the library had (seems like I had more time to watch movies back then). I was struck how Hitchcock was able to balance artistic demands, technical virtuosity, humor, and serious psychological and human nature study all wrapped up in a bon-bon that feted a wide and diverse audience, one that Joe Six-Pack and Mademoiselle Cinema-ista could both enjoy. Indeed, Hitchcock was the public's auteur. Even his last movie, Family Plot from 1976, when he was going through the motions and young, hip directors such as Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Steven Spielberg seemly past him by, there were still wonderful moments that demonstrated he still had the touch: such as the (literal) killing scene on the staircase where the woman's long purple dress gracefully flows full, all shot from a perspective high above the scene. And of course the music, especially the Bernard Herrmann scores to Psycho and Vertigo, was fantastic. Listening recently I'm still impressed and moved by the end of the shower scene of Psycho and how those strings sound like last gasps of air or the opening montage in Vertigo with the wonderful Eb minor-major 7th, contrasting motion arpeggios with the Saul Bass swirling graphics and later in the film with the growing tension and climax of the Madeleine 'revealing'.
Spellbound by Beauty is a chronological overview of Hitchcock's movies, with a focus on his relationship to not only his leading ladies but also the supporting actresses as well. Through interviews with many actors and actresses, writers, and other collaborators who worked with Hitch over his long career, most agreed that he could be charming and witty and certainly a genius but who was also frustrated sexually which manifested itself through crude sexual and bathroom humor, a controlling manner, and an often standoff-ishness with women not his ideal (of course his ideal was blond: Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren). There was one quite sad quote from Hitchcock himself which said he had the same feelings as everyone else, just "wrapped in a body of fat". The book is mostly gossipy, but there are many interesting tales and facts to be found: what wonderful and warm people Ingrid Bergman and Madeleine Carroll were, what a control freak producer David "Gone with the Wind" O. Selznick was, how Tallulah Bankhead was the Lindsay Lohan of her day, and astonished in how the treatment of Tippi Hedren during The Birds and Marnie was criminal and who NEVER happen or be allowed today--the final scene in The Birds basically involved the crew throwing live birds at Tippi Hedren for a week of filming; the isolation, controlling, stalking and sexual harassment on and off set of Marnie. Also there is some interesting analysis of how some of his films, particularly Vertigo and Marnie, could be autobiographical but overall I wasn't very happy with the writing of the book. I guess a question that could be asked is whether all of the salacious details of Hitchcock, change my high opinion of his films? Will Grace Kelly be diminished in my eyes? I hope not (I can still listen to Wagner even though he was a reprehensible person), but even I'm curious to find out if it will the next time I watch Rear Window (I guess either way, I'll always have the first time of the "Kiss")...
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:00 AM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.