'Hitchcock à la Carte'

A figure in the pantheon of cinema -- and a gourmand extraordinaire. Scott McLemee reviews a new study of the great director's body of work.

April 1, 2015
 

During a late and tense scene in Hitchcock (2012) -- the biopic with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, centering on the troubled making of Psycho -- we see the director’s agent suggest one way to avert the disaster of being stuck with a film that neither the studio nor the censor will approve: edit it to run as a two-part episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," his successful and lucrative television series.

The director brushes off the proposal irritably, and that’s that. I find no reference to the incident in Stephen Rebello’s comprehensive Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho', so it is likely to be a screenwriter’s liberty for dramatic effect. The very idea of butchering one of the director’s most carefully constructed works for TV is as horrifying as any of his own stories involving mutilation or cannibalism.

But the cultural critic Dwight Macdonald, writing for Esquire in 1960, considered the film and the program all too similar: “Psycho is merely one of those television shows padded out to two hours by adding pointless subplots and realistic detail…. All in all, a nasty little film.” That judgment seems to have been typical of Hitchcock’s critical reputation at the time, at least in the United States. His talent, while indisputable, was in decline, and if his silly TV spots were not the cause, they certainly weren’t helping.

No such invidious comparisons occurred to the critics and filmmakers in France around the journal Cahiers du Cinema, which regarded Hitchcock as the consummate film artist, with Psycho as one more masterpiece. Questions of taste can never be settled definitively, but the opinions of cineastes and ordinary viewers alike have tended to skew overwhelmingly Cahiers-ward, with "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" now seeming about as relevant to Psycho’s status in film history as the bear-baiting pit at the Globe Theatre does to interpreting Hamlet.

So there’s something offbeat about Jan Olsson’s Hitchcock à la Carte (Duke University Press), a study that disregards not just the differences between film and video but between the director’s creative work and his public persona. Olsson, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Stockholm, insists on examining Hitchcock’s body of work through -- or at least around -- his body proper.

What swims, whalelike, into view in Olsson’s study is Hitchcock’s massive cultural presence. And yes, those were fat jokes. Stupid ones, too, but par for the course, given that critic-speak abstractions regarding “the body” here give way to considerations of a real body that went from more than 300 pounds to under 200 in a single year, before bouncing back up and plunging back down, repeatedly. However extraneous the director’s girth may seem to his art, Olsson treats them as combining in the public eye to establish the composite phenomenon we know as Hitchcock.

Many viewers become aware of his body and his corpus at almost the same time, by keeping an eye out for the walk-on parts in his films, where the director appears as a figure glimpsed off to the side or in the background. His appearances can be taken as both an inside joke and a personal signature, but they also reinforce a tendency going back at least to 1937, when he arrived in New York for “gastronomic holiday” while en route to the meetings in Hollywood. Embarked on a new phase in his career, Hitchcock turned his heft into a kind of social capital, something to joke about. Eating became a major part of his self-branding, as it’s put nowadays.

Hitch (the nickname was part of the brand) gave interviews to reporters while eating a steak or two, followed by ice cream. He blunted the barbs about his weight by joking about it himself: “I’m not really a heavy eater, unless you mean that I’m heavy, and I eat.” Flaunting his gluttony in the face of American puritanism, he also served up quips about the entertainment value of murder. Audiences learned to connect the mordant tone of his films to a personality that was, in all respects, bigger than life.

By the time Hitchcock made the transition to television in the 1950s, his persona was well established and, quite literally, scripted, with the comedy writer James B. Allardice turning out scores of skits and monologues in which Hitch poked fun at the sponsors while introducing the week’s episode. The gags often turned on his girth or his appetite, while the stories themselves often incorporated food or meals as a macabre plot point: a dining club whose delicacies include meat dishes prepared from recently murdered members, for example, or a frozen leg of lamb used as a murder weapon, then cooked and served to the policemen investigating the crime.

That blend of morbidity and sly humor is a large part of what we mean in calling something “Hitchcockian,” although Olsson also regards it as Bakhtinian: the films and escapades being examples the “carnivalized discourse” that Mikhail Bakhtin analyzed in his study of Rabelais.

Olsson has turned up an extraordinary array of photographs, interviews and publicity events that ran parallel to Hitchcock's output as a director, including work in a long-forgotten genre called “photocrime,” in which a crime story was told using a series of staged photographs. (Created in England and popularized in the United States by Life magazine, it seems to have been a prototype of the Latin-American fotonovela.) He takes all of this highly miscellaneous material as instances of paratext -- the layers of material surrounding the author’s (in this case, director’s) work, through which the reader/viewer passes in gaining access.

The echoes and cross-references between paratext and the films are interesting if, in many cases, likely to be broadly familiar to the Hitchcock viewer. The director’s name, Olsson writes, “just like ‘Salvador Dali’ and ‘Andy Warhol,’ represents intangibles beyond the oeuvre; it is a convoluted bricolage of art, commerce, marketing and celebrity indicative of 20th-century media culture at large.”

The author’s approach more or less precludes judgments of quality or a devotee’s attention to the particulars of artistry. And that’s okay -- the book is eye-opening on its own terms. But there’s a reason why some of us will watch Psycho a hundred times before we die, and I suspect it has less to do with Hitchcock’s body, as such, than with one part of it: his eye.

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