Thursday 20 July 2023

The Master: "My Name is Alfred Hitchcock"

What's left to say about Alfred Hitchcock? If you're Mark Cousins, quite a bit. The coronation last year of Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielmann... as Sight & Sound's Greatest Film of All Time - toppling Hitchcock's Vertigo - had been interpreted by some as a decisive shift in critical tectonics: a sign we might now be done with discussing the life and work of certain canonical filmmakers. Cousins, marking the centenary of Hitch's debut feature with a two-hour essay, proposes that a filmography as vast, deep and frankly perverse as this one can't be so easily dismissed as stale, pale and male; that this might just be an oeuvre impervious to trends in gatekeeping; and - crucially and inarguably - that the films still speak to us. My Name is Alfred Hitchcock's USP is to have Hitchcock make the case for himself - hence the somewhat jolting "written and narrated by Alfred Hitchcock" with which the film opens, a full 43 years after The Master's death. It's Cousins, in fact, who's put these words in Hitchcock's mouth - or, rather, in the mouth of impressionist Alistair McGowan, enlisted to give a broadly convincing approximation of the director's wheezy-rheumy East End syntax. This Hitchcock - alternately chummy and wryly mocking - continues to challenge us: he meets our gaze head on, jabs a plump finger into our complacent bellies, and dares to question whether we are as sophisticated as we like to believe we are. Yet he also continues to entertain and dazzle. The film proceeds on the (correct) assumption that any time spent in the company of its subject's movies is time well spent; Cousins allows us to revisit these key texts with what DVD nuts will recognise as an especially informed director's commentary.

As with 2018's The Eyes of Orson Welles - where Cousins first had the idea of having a hallowed director address a 21st century audience - what strikes you first is the sheer density of material assembled here. My Name is Alfred Hitchcock again rounds up biographical info, an overview of a sprawling body of work (vastly more sprawling than Welles's, for one), judiciously selected clips from individual films, and a heightened level of critical engagement, prepared to double and triple back on itself or isolate details within the frame so as to underline and reinforce any given point. There's no denying the breadth of this survey: Hitchcock's formative silents are afforded as much air time as Vertigo and Psycho, Cousins intuiting that these fledgling efforts establish themes and obsessions that were lurking within their maker all along. (Similarly, this script unpacks the significance of Hitchcock's least typical undertaking: his non-fiction contribution to producer Sidney Bernstein's long-shelved German Concentration Camp Factual Survey.) Cousins retains his gift of making trenchant observations on these texts without spoiling the magic (you still come away wanting to rewatch entire films) or lapsing into academic jargon (here is film criticism freed from the tyranny of the Metzian paradigm). He remains committed to renovating the longstanding bridge the best critics have built between cineaste and cinephile, a task that looks ever more honourable at a time when a lot of critics often seem to be talking among themselves. (Which is what happens when arts coverage gets slashed across the board.)

His words have the knack of putting fresh spins on familiar images, noting and detailing, say, a thoughtful, poetic parallel between the ocean enveloping Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief and the cornfield doing likewise in North by North-West. Hitchcock always had our eyes, but Cousins here allows him to gain our ear, in the way the searching, close-miked narrations in this essayist's other films typically have us leaning in. In McGowan's interpretation, this Hitch is perhaps justifiably pleased with himself, confident in his reputation and legacy (you sense his household probably wouldn't take Sight & Sound), and keen to make us look again, to show us what cinemagoers may have missed first time round. Cousins is particularly strong on the spotty late-period films, which arguably require more of a case making for them than Rebecca or Strangers on a Train: Marnie, a film about which this viewer has always been slightly sceptical for narrative reasons, is here persuasively reframed as a collection of beautiful things, keepsakes only a truly sly pickpocket of a director might steal off with. (Do they become less beautiful, knowing that Hitchcock also laid hands on his leading lady?) There is, granted, a little mansplaining involved in all this, a fair bit of presumption and extrapolation, and there are points where McGowan's Cockney threatens to turn My Name is Alfred Hitchcock into My Name is Michael Caine - you can hear it loudest in the repetition of the fetish-phrase "Do you see?" Yet we do, indeed, see - and what we see proves very nearly as playful, stimulating and crafty in its execution as anything to which the real Hitchcock ever signed his name.

My Name is Alfred Hitchcock opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, and is also available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, YouTube and Dogwoof on Demand. 

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