13 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Hitch!

by B.K. Stevens

On August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was born in London. True, 117 is not generally regarded as a milestone birthday, but if I wait around until one of Hitchcock's true milestone birthdays falls on a date when I'm slated to write a SleuthSayers post--well, I'm not clever enough to figure out when that might happen, but I'm pretty sure I won't still be around when it does. So I'd better celebrate his 117th. I welcome any chance to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock. I admire his movies, I have fond memories of his television programs, and I'm a loyal, grateful Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine author. When the topic for this post first occurred to me, I checked on how many of my stories have made it into the magazine. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine steps, thirty-nine stories--it felt like a sign. I had to write a post about Hitch.

But although I'm a Hitchcock fan, I'm by no means a Hitchcock expert. I don't have any insights weighty enough to develop into a unified post. So I dipped into a couple of books, looking for any thoughts or scraps of information that might be of interest. I re-watched several favorite Hitchcock movies, watched a few of the less famous ones for the first time. And I got a little help from my friends.

Alfred and Edgar

(or, why short story writers love movies) 

In a 1950 interview for the New York Times Magazine, Hitchcock explains why he sees "the chase" (which he defines broadly) as "the final expression of the motion picture medium." For one thing, as a visual medium, film is ideally suited for showing cars "careening around corners after each other." Perhaps even more important, "the basic film shape is continuous." "Once a movie starts," Hitchcock says, "it goes right on. You don't stop it for scene changes, or to go out and have a cigarette."

That reminded me of a comment Edgar Allan Poe makes in an 1842 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, when he argues that works short enough to be read in one sitting can have a more unified, more powerful effect than longer works. A poem short enough to be read in one hour, or a prose tale short enough to be read in no more than two, can have an "unblemished, because undisturbed" impact: "The soul of the reader is at the writer's control.  There are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or interruption." If a work is so long that the reader has to put it down before finishing it, though, "worldly interests" intervene to "modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book." Maybe that's one reason that short story writers (or at least the ones who hang around this blog) seem to have such an affinity for movies: The movies we watch, like the stories we write, can be enjoyed without interruption and therefore, if Hitchcock and Poe are right, with an undiminished impact.

Some of Hitchcock's most memorable movies--Rear Window, The Birds--are based on short stories, and I think they do benefit from the sort of concentrated focus Poe describes. But I wouldn't want to argue that Hitchcock movies based on plays or novels are less focused, not if writers and director have done a good job of adapting them to their new medium.

Just the other night, I re-watched one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock movies, 1954's Dial M for Murder, and enjoyed it just as much as I always have. With these thoughts in mind, though, I noticed that Dial M for Murder has an intermission (perhaps partly because it's based on a play, and plays traditionally have intermissions). Lots of movies used to have intermissions, too, but I can't remember the last time I went to a new movie that does. I doubt that's because movies have gotten shorter--plenty still last two hours or more--or because theaters are now less eager to have a second chance to sell popcorn and soft drinks. Maybe it's because movie makers have become more and more convinced that, as Hitchcock puts it, "the basic film shape is continuous." Maybe they've decided an intermission breaks the mood, interrupts the suspense, and dilutes the movie's effect. But I'm just guessing. If anyone has inside information about why movie intermissions are less popular than they used to be, I'd be glad to hear it. (I should mention a relevant SleuthSayers post here, Leigh Lundin's 2015 "Long Shots," which looks at Hitchcock's use of the continuous tracking shot in Rope.)

Columbo's Uncle? 

Speaking of Dial M for Murder, when my husband and I were watching the final scenes, he commented that Chief Inspector Hubbard reminded him of Columbo--the determined police detective who gets a strong hunch about who the murderer is and won't give up until he confirms it. Like Columbo, Hubbard pretends to be sympathetic and self-effacing while setting up a clever trap to catch an arrogant, socially superior villain. And he wears a raincoat (which makes more sense in London than it does in Los Angeles). The thing that really caught my husband's attention, though, was that at one point Hubbard says, "Just one other thing" as he questions the person he rightly suspects to be guilty. That made the similarities too striking to ignore. True, Hubbard is more elegant and fastidious than Columbo. It's hard to imagine Columbo whipping out a tiny comb to smooth his mustache. (For that matter, it's hard to imagine Columbo with a mustache.) But did this supporting character from a 1954 Hitchcock movie inspire one of America's most beloved television detectives?

I have no idea. I wasted a couple of delightful hours Googling about and found many intriguing hints but no definite link (an inside joke for Columbo fans). The information I did find wasn't completely consistent--one site says one thing, another says something slightly different--but apparently the Columbo character first showed up in a 1960 short story written by Richard Levinson and William Link and published in--where else?--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The character next appeared on the television program Chevy Mystery Show, in a 1960 episode called "Enough Rope." Levinson and Link later reworked that into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, which eventually became the pilot for the Columbo series. The titles recall Hitchcock titles, and the plot and form of Prescription: Murder bear significant similarities to the plot and form of Dial M for Murder. A suave, nearly emotionless husband schemes to get rid of his wife and get his hands on her money; he underestimates the police detective assigned to the case; the audience knows from the outset that the husband is guilty. Maybe all that is coincidence. Or maybe not. Here's something that's almost certainly coincidence, but I find it charming: John Williams, who played Chief Inspector Hubbard both on stage and in the Hitchcock movie, is featured in the 1972 Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind," playing murder victim Sir Roger Haversham.

Alfred and Edgar, Part 2

(or, not taking suspense too seriously)

In a 1960 article called "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark," Hitchcock comments on ways in which he and Poe are similar, and also on ways in which they're different. Hitchcock was sixteen, he says, when he read a biography of Poe "at random" and was moved by the sadness of his life: "I felt an immense pity for him because, in spite of his talent, he had always been unhappy." Later, when Hitchcock was working in an office, he'd hurry back to his room to read a cheap edition of Poe's stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" got him thoroughly scared, he says, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The experience led him to an important discovery: "Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety." A "gruesome story" can be terrifying, but "as one finds oneself in a familiar surrounding, and when one realizes that it's only imagination which is responsible for the fear, one is invaded by an extraordinary happiness." Hitchcock compares the sensation to the relief we feel when we're very thirsty and then take a drink. It's an interesting idea. When we scream through the shower scene in Psycho, is it the fear itself we enjoy? Or do we enjoy the relief we feel when we stop screaming, look around, and realize we're still in a dark but safe theater (or, these days, when we realize we're still in our well-lit family rooms, with our cats dozing in our laps)?

Hitchcock acknowledges a kinship with Poe. "We are both," he says, "prisoners of a genre: suspense." Further, "I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe puts in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." Even so, he says, 
I don't think that there exists a real resemblance between Edgar Allan Poe and myself. Poe is a poete maudit and I am a commercial filmmaker. He liked to make people shiver. Me too. But he didn't really have a sense of humor. And for me, "suspense" doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.
You probably already know what poete maudit means. Despite five years of high-school and college French, I had to look it up. According to the Merriam Webster website, a poete maudit is an "accursed poet," a "writer dogged by misfortune and lack of recognition."

I find these comments fascinating. I don't know enough about either Hitchcock or Poe to speak with any authority--I don't know how honest Hitchcock is being, or how accurate his views of Poe may be--but he seems to present himself as a happy, successful artist who has won the sort of recognition that eluded Poe. He creates terrifying movies but stands at a distance from them, well balanced enough to realize the stories he tells are "perfectly unbelievable." Does Hitchcock imply that Poe lacked such balance, that the nightmares he created reflect his own experience of life? Perhaps. At any rate, Hitchcock presents himself as someone who makes scary movies because he enjoys making people "shiver," not because he shares the sorts of torments he depicts. So no matter how horrifying the visions on the screen become, he can see the humor in the situation.

Many would challenge the idea that Hitchcock was happy and well balanced. His sense of humor seems hard to deny. In a 1963 Redbook interview, Hitchcock comments, "In producing the movies that I do, I find it would be impossible without a sense of humor." And in the New York Times Magazine interview mentioned earlier, he says comic relief can be effective even during a chase, as long as the humor isn't too broad and doesn't make the hero look foolish. We probably all have favorite examples of comic relief in Hitchcock movies, of moments when we laugh out loud even while cringing in fear. For example, there's the climax of Strangers on a Train. (If you haven't seen the movie, please skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next paragraph, too. Then please go see the movie.) Hitchcock cuts from one frightening image to another as hero and villain grapple, as people on the carousel scream, as an old man crawls slowly toward the off switch, in danger of being crushed at any moment. It's terrifying.

But it's funny, too. The old man looks like a comic figure, not a tragic one--he's chewing on something as he inches forward, and at one point he pauses to wipe his nose. And amid all the screaming, scrambling people on the carousel, one little boy sits up straight on his horse, smiling broadly, clearly having the time of his life. Maybe he's unaware of the danger. Or maybe he's enjoying it.

That brings us to "The Enjoyment of Fear," an article Hitchcock published in Good Housekeeping in 1949. (Remember when women's magazines used to include some articles with real substance?) It echoes some ideas I've already mentioned, but I can't resist the temptation to quote a passage that, I think, gives us an additional insight into Hitchcock's technique, and into the nature of literary suspense. He says again that viewers can enjoy the fear of watching a frightening movie because they know they're safe--they're not on that madly careening carousel in Strangers on a Train. Then he takes things one step further:
But the audience must also be aware that the characters in the picture, with whom they strongly identify themselves, are not to pay the price of fear. This awareness must be entirely subconscious; the spectator must know the spy ring will never succeed in pitching Madeleine Carroll off London Bridge, and the spectator must be induced to forget what he knows. If he didn't know, he would be genuinely worried; if he didn't forget, he would be bored.
Over the years, I've gotten addicted to several television dramas that kill off secondary characters at a sometimes alarming rate. Whatever dangers they may face, we know Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, and Carrie Mathison will survive more or less intact, at least until they reach the final show of the final season. Even then, if there's any chance of a follow-up movie or a reunion show, we know the protagonist is safe. But we also know their friends, co-workers, and lovers are fair game at any moment. That's one way to keep the audience in suspense. Hitchcock describes a more delicate approach: Deep down, we know the protagonist is safe, but the suspense reaches such a height that we forget. That sounds almost impossible, but I think it happens. Think of a moment when a Hitchcock protagonist seems to be in mortal danger. Don't we forget, just for a moment, that Hitchcock wouldn't really kill Jimmy Stewart?

And then, of course, there's the shower scene in Psycho. (If you haven't seen Psycho--but everybody's seen Psycho.) Doesn't that violate the trust between director and audience, the trust that allows us to enjoy being scared? Maybe--maybe that's why many would say Psycho crosses the line between suspense and horror. But I think Hitchcock tries to make sure we don't "strongly identify" with Janet Leigh's character. After all, she's a thief. And the first time we see her, she's in bed with a lover--that might not alienate many viewers today, but I bet it alienated plenty in 1960. Also, before we have time to get deeply attached to her, she's gone. Her violent death shocks us, but I'm not sure it saddens us all that much. If Cary Grant plummeted to the base of Mount Rushmore, I think we'd be more upset.

Last Thoughts

As I said, when I started work on this post, I decided to get a little help from my friends. A birthday tribute should include some sort of biographical perspective, but I didn't feel up to doing the necessary research myself. So I turned to a promising young scholar, Shlomo Mordechai Gershone (a.k.a. my ten-year-old grandson, Moty). He contributed these insights:
I read Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? and learned a lot. Alfred Hitchcock was a very interesting person. He was big, loud, and funny, but also wrote things that were full of suspense and mystery. He told stories about being locked in a jail cell at the age of five. He would say that five minutes felt like five years to the young Hitch. That suspense was expressed in his movies, his television shows, and the stories in his magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (Where have I heard that before?) He spent his whole life talking and writing about mystery, but passed away peacefully in his sleep. (Anticlimax)
An ability to say a great deal in a short space, a sense of humor, a critical perspective--maybe I'm slightly biased, but I think this young man has a future as a writer.

Also, I thought it would be fun to do a quick survey of my Facebook friends (mostly mystery readers and writers), asking them to name their favorite Hitchcock movies. Obviously, there's nothing scientific about this survey, but perhaps it points to at least some of the Hitchcock movies that are standing the test of time.

Rear Window topped the survey with nine votes. Shawn Reilly Simmons saw it when she was quite young and still remembers "jumping out of my seat at the suspense." (Many other people put Rear Window second or third on their lists, but I decided to count only the first movie each person mentioned.) Vertigo came in second with five votes. Art Taylor admires it for many reasons, "but really what may fascinate me most is the fact that so much of it is told purely through images." Rob Lopresti is also enthusiastic, saying the movie has a "ridiculous plot that I believe completely when I am watching." (That reminded me of Hitchcock's statement that he tells "perfectly unbelievable" stories with such strong "hallucinatory logic" that viewers think "this same story can happen to [them] tomorrow." I think Hitch would love Rob's comment.) Three movies tied for third place, with four votes each--Rebecca, North by Northwest, The Birds. (Diane Vallere, the next president of Sisters in Crime, made Rear Window her top choice but loves The Birds so much she once created a Halloween costume inspired by it.) Several other movies scored one or two votes--Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, Foreign Correspondent. So even in this tiny sample, there's plenty of disagreement. In my opinion, that points to the vitality and breadth of Hitchcock's achievement: He created many masterpieces that, decades after his death, still have passionate advocates.

Finally, I'll add a couple of personal notes. As I said, thirty-nine of my stories have been fortunate enough to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. One of them, "A Joy Forever," is a Macavity finalist this year. If you'll be voting on the Macavity awards, and even if you won't, perhaps you'd like to read the story. You can find it on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/a-joy-forever/.

And two nights ago, when I took a break from working on this post and checked my e-mail, I learned that AHMM has accepted a fortieth story, "Death under Construction." I've been watching my e-mail for some time, hoping for this news. Thank goodness the suspense has ended.

(I won't be able to respond to comments on Saturday, 
but I'll respond to every comment on Sunday. I promise.)

24 comments:

Jeff Baker said...

There's a TV network called "Decades" which occasionally reruns Dick Cavett shows where he interviewed Hitchcock. And next time I watch "Dial M," I will keep a close eye on the Inspector!

Paul D. Marks said...

Great piece, B.K. And I'm with you in loving Hitchcock for a variety of reasons.

By the way, HBO is currently showing Hitchcock/Truffaut, which is worth checking out. As is the book Hitchcock-Truffaut, where the French director interviews Hitchcock. Definitely worth a look.

Art Taylor said...

Bonnie! When you mentioned on Facebook that you were going to write on Hitchcock and that you wanted to hear about your friends' favorite Hitchcock films, I expected a short little post about the films. What you've delivered is absolutely fascinating, and I love both the depth and breadth of your analysis here--especially the comparisons/contrasts with Poe and with Columbo.

And congrats on your thirty-nine stories--what a great achievement and an appropriate number here. This post really was meant to be. :-)

Anonymous said...

Oh I do love Hitch! Thank you!

janice law said...

A nice tribute to Hitchcock and congratulations on sales 39 (AHMM) and 40 (EQMM). That is surely impressive!

Melodie Campbell said...

Great research, and lovely insights, particularly about fear. Definitely have to rewatch some of these movies!

John Floyd said...

Great post, Bonnie!! I share your love of Hitchcock's movies, and of AHMM.

Sincere congratulations on your track record there. Very impressive!

Robert Lopresti said...

Congrats on #40! THanks for reminding us of the Master. I should say my favorite movies of his AFTER Vertigo are North by Northwest, 39 Steps, Birds, and Psycho.

R.T. Lawton said...

Bonnie, congrats on your 40th contract with AHMM.

Enjoyed your post. I'd have to vote for North by Northwest, with Birds as a close second and Psycho in third place.

John Floyd said...

I forgot to vote. Rear Window's probably my favorite, followed by Psycho. With NxNW and Vertigo coming in third and fourth.

Vickie Fee said...

Great post, Bonnie! The Birds is my fave. I'm such a Birds nerd Hubs and I have visited Bodega and Bodega Bay where it was filmed, and I have a still photo from the movie autographed by Tippi Hedren! (Diane's fab costume idea may make it into my Halloween wardrobe at some point!)

Eve Fisher said...

Great piece, B.K. - and add another vote for "Rear Window" as the favorite!
And congratulations on your 40th story! WOW!!!!!

Leigh Lundin said...

For some reason, my Hitchcock favorites aren’t those generally acknowledged, but your facebook friends have excellent taste. I love Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Rear Window, The Wrong Man, and To Catch a Thief … when critics said Grace Kelly was unemotional and coldly aloof, this teenager vehemently disagreed. Maybe it has something to do with melting an ice queen.

Hitchcock’s analysis of what the audience must know and be induced to forget is fascinating. For me, that feeling extends not merely to physical violence and possible death, but such things as reputation, love, success: Will the good guy’s reputation be destroyed? Will he win the girl? Will he win the race, take the prize, arrest the villains, surmount all obstacles?

As for Poe’s and Hitchcock’s observations about the enjoyment of fear, it’s well established that the emotion triggers a survival instinct, the desire to procreate: fear is a major aphrodisiac. It's a turn-on as visitors to drive-in movies can attest

I’m not a fan of The Birds, but I admire Diane’s costume. By the way, I’ve read the plot was based on an actual incident. Sleep on that!

Congratulations on AHMM and I shall vote on Macavity. Now I’m off to read your story.

Hey, a shout-out to Moty!

B.K. Stevens said...

Thank you, everyone, for your comments. Before I respond to them, I need to correct a serious omission in my post. When I mentioned that one of my stories is a Macavity nominee, I should have said that my good friend and fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman also has a story nominated, and that hers was also published in AHMM. So please go to the Mystery Fanfare site, http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2016/08/macavity-short-story-nominee-links_5.html. There you will find Barb's delightful story, "A Year Without Santa Claus," which already won the Agatha this year. (You'll also find three other nominated stories, but those weren't published in what discerning people refer to as "the magazine.") My apologies to Barb for not mentioning her story in my post, and to all of you for not steering you to it sooner.

B.K. Stevens said...

Again, everyone, thanks for your comments. I was at the Suffolk Mystery Authors’ Festival yesterday, I was on the road home today, and I’m too technologically inept to post responses remotely. I’ll try to catch up now.

Jeff and Paul, I don’t get either Decades or HBO, but I’ll watch for other opportunities to see these programs—thanks for telling me about them. I’ve heard about the book Hitchcock-Truffaut, and it sounds fascinating. It’s on my TBR list (alas, a long list). Jeff, if you come to any conclusions about Inspector Hubbard and Lieutenant Columbo, please let me know.

Art and Anonymous, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Art, you’re always too kind, and I appreciate your comments about Vertigo. Thanks.

Janice, thanks for the congratulations. I hope I wasn’t misleading—I’ve never had a story published in EQMM. I did submit two or three stories back in the 1980s, but they were rejected. Once AHMM started accepting my stories, I figured I’d found my home. As I said, I’m a loyal AHMM author (and a grateful one).

Melodie, I’m sure you’ll enjoy re-watching the movies. I’m definitely enjoying it and don’t plan to stop. My husband and I have decided Vertigo has to be next. I’ve seen it only once and didn’t much care for it, but the praise from so many people I admire has convinced me I need to take another look.

John, Rob, and R.T., thanks for your comments and congratulations. You’re the first people to mention Psycho. I don’t know if you’ve seen the 2012 Anthony Hopkins/Helen Mirren movie Hitchcock, about the making of Psycho. I don’t know how biographically accurate it is, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Among other things, it’s a fascinating, moving portrait of an unconventional but (according to the movie) loving marriage.

Vickie, I’m glad you enjoyed Diane’s costume. I think it’s hilarious, and I thank her for letting me share it here.

Eve, Rear Window is my favorite, too. And we both have many reasons to love AHMM.

Leigh, I love To Catch a Thief, too (though for some reason, while you seem to think of it as a Grace Kelly movie, I always think of it as a Cary Grant movie). And I agree that we worry about more than the protagonist’s physical safety/survival. As a reader and viewer, I worry that the protagonist will do the right thing, save the world (or some portion of it), and then be scorned rather than thanked—and all too often, that’s exactly what happens. As to the source of The Birds, I’d read that it was based on a Daphne DuMaurier story. When I did my Facebook survey, Martha Graham-Waldon pointed out it’s also based on an actual interest and pointed me to a fascinating article-http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/articles/183/. And thanks for mentioning Moty. As far as I’m concerned, his paragraph is the best part of my post.


B.K. Stevens said...

Oops--I have to correct an error in the last paragraph of my last comment. Please make that "an actual incident," not "an actual interest." Sorry--this seems to be my weekend for embarrassing typos.

Diane Vallere said...

Fantastic tribute, B.K.! Thank you for allowing my Halloween costume to share space with your magnificent piece. And congrats on your Macavity nom and 40th story!

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for the congratulations, Diane, and thanks for letting me use the picture of your costume. It's my second favorite picture in the post. (My favorite, of course, is the picture of my grandson.)

Miriam Greystone said...

What a great post! I've always admired Hitchcock while not being a huge fan - reading this made we want to rewatch some of his films!

B.K. Stevens said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Miriam. My husband and I re-watched quite a few Hitchcock movies while I was working on this post, and we can't stop even though the post is now done. We're re-watching another tonight. These movies are addictive.

GBPool said...

Going back over all the terrific movies Alfred Hitchcock made was fun. They are like a short story to be savored in one sitting, maybe with a bowl of popcorn, or maybe just looking for what you might have missed the last twenty times you saw the great movie. They don't get old.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for your comment, Gayle. Hitchcock movies are definitely best savored in one sitting--a break in the suspense would be painful.

jrlindermuth said...

Enjoyed the post. We share a love for Hitch and his work. Have you seen the Francois Truffaut documentary/book on him? Good stuff. Congratulations on the 40th sale to AHMM.

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks, John. I've heard of the book, but haven't read it--it's on the list.