Why I Like… Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock

Round about the time the centenary of cinema was being celebrated, there was a slew of documentaries about the history of film on TV, making me realise how little I knew about all the great films that have been made. So I read Donald Spoto’s Alfred Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius, as a way of starting to get to know a little bit more about movies, and duly set about trying to watch all of Hitchcock’s surviving films. That would have been about 1995, and it’s only this year that I managed to tick the last couple off the list — Stage Fright, from 1950, notable for including Hitchcock’s daughter in her movie debut, and Family Plot, from 1976, his last completed movie, notable for a naseau-inducing first-person camera shot as a car careens down a winding road in the LA mountains.

Hitchcock is one of the few directors whose oeuvre comprises its own mini-course in the history of cinema, as his career started in the days of silent films, survived the coming of sound and colour, and even embraced the threat of television. His filmmaking ended just as the blockbuster movie came along (Jaws, Star Wars), which is where my cinema-going started, and the only significant advance since those days, which Hitch never lived to see, is digital effects. (Hitchcock would have loved digital actors. For him, making a movie was all in the planning, and having to actually get real people to perform the shots he’d already constructed in his head was the boring bit.) He even made a 3D film.

Hitchcock survived the changes in cinema because he not only adapted, but worked to make the new technological advances part of his artistic repertoire, which is another reason you can use his films to learn about the history of the medium. In the silent days, he went to Germany to work with the masters of Expressionist cinema. And although his visual style is most evident in his silent films such as The Lodger (1927, the essential Hitchcock silent), he was still using expressionist tricks in his later films, such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943): when the train bringing the villainous Uncle Charlie to small-town Santa Rosa pulls in, it is belching black smoke, but when we next see the train, near the end of the film, it’s just a normal puff of grey.

Uncle Charlie pulls in, Shadow of a Doubt

With sound, the famous scene is in Blackmail (1929), where the guilt-ridden Anny Ondra (who has stabbed and killed a man who assaulted her) blanks out all conversation but an increasingly shrill repetition of the word “knife” (it’s a breakfast scene, and the reference is to a bread-knife), and the audience hears the effect with her. The interesting point here is that Blackmail was made in both sound and silent versions. Hitch knew that each technological advance merely added a new layer to the techniques he already had — so, silent Blackmail could work purely on a visual level, but sound Blackmail could work with added sound-tricks, too. The next advance, colour, was hardly the potential career-breaker sound was, but Hitchcock still thought about how to use it. In Vertigo (1958), for instance, when we first see Kim Novak’s character, it is in Ernie’s, a restaurant with deep red walls and at which all the other diners are wearing drab colours. Novak wears a vivd green, which sets her out as an island of visual restfulness. You can’t help but notice her, which is of course what Hitchcock wants.


Amongst all this, there were various other tricks Hitchcock used as he experimented with the medium. Rope (1948), his first colour film, was filmed in a series of long takes — as long as the film technology of the day would allow — with the necessary cuts being concealed, for instance, by people walking in front of the camera. Then there were long tracking shots, as in Notorious (1946), where the camera starts high up near the ceiling of a large entrance hall and slowly moves down to get a close up of the key Ingrid Bergman is nervously clutching in her hand. (There’s a similar long zoom in the much earlier Young and Innocent (1937), centring in on the twitching eye of a drummer in a band — that twitch being the vital clue that reveals him to be the murderer.) Nowadays, such experimentation often looks a bit clunky and obvious — rather too studied, it often breaks into the storytelling — and aside from an academic interest, that’s not the reason to watch Hitchcock’s films. When you watch a film, you want to watch a story that means something.

Throughout his oeuvre, Hitchcock returned again and again to certain emotional themes, and it’s when he uses the weapons in his artistic arsenal to tell a story, rather than just impress, that he’s most successful. That’s why I’ve never really liked North by Northwest (1959), which is the film that most often gets mentioned in association with his name (aside from Psycho — I can’t believe I almost forgot Psycho), but which is really nothing more than a series of cinematic wow-factor moments strung together by a Maguffin-driven plot. (The term Maguffin is, of course, Hitchcock’s own, for the whatever-it-is thing that everyone’s searching for and which sets a plot in motion. But Hitchcock coining it is no excuse for making a film with no emotional content in it at all.)

The flying head of Jimmy Stewart, from Vertigo

But those emotional themes — they’re really quite strange when you start to isolate them. And once you do, you find them popping up in film after film after film. The most obvious one is the man accused of something he hasn’t done. The further you go into his career, the more you find Hitchcock working at making this factually innocent man nevertheless feel the guilt of what he hasn’t done, to almost extreme levels. The high point is in Vertigo — my second favourite Hitchcock movie — in which Jimmy Stewart, caught in the midst of plot convolutions I won’t even begin to untangle, is all but psychologically destroyed because of the guilt he feels for a murder that he didn’t even commit. (And, interestingly, considering the usual rules of Hollywood morality, a murder for which the murderer escapes entirely scot-free.) But this is also a film in which guilt is tied up inextricably with another Hitchcock theme that has a weird resonance with the man’s own career as a director — the obsessive need to mould, manipulate and coerce a woman (often a blonde one) into doing something against her will, and usually something immoral. In Vertigo, poor Kim Novak’s character is manipulated in this way by not one but two men. One uses her to commit and conceal a murder, the other tries to turn her into the image of a woman he once loved, regardless of her own feelings on the matter. And the weirdest thing about this theme is how much it’s tied up with the men’s love for the woman they’re manhandling. It’s messy, rather Freudian (Hitchcock was an early adopter of psychoanalysis, and in one film employed Salvador Dali as designer on an important dream-sequence), and often quite nasty, when you take a step back and look at just what’s going on in front of you. But there’s nevertheless a lot about it that rings true, in a rather dark, all-too-human kind of way.


Another theme, a sort of flip-side variation on this, is the confrontation (and, potentially, corruption) of innocence (often in the form of a young female) by evil (in the form of a murderous male). This is something I like in David Lynch’s films, too. My favourite Hitchcock film of all time is Shadow of a Doubt (also Hitch’s own favourite), and this is pure innocence-confronts-evil. Shadow of a Doubt‘s setting is like the perfect cure for the dark world of film noir: it’s cosy small-town America (Santa Rosa, CA), where the cops who help you cross the road know your name, and everyone is happily filed away into their family home each night. Into this un-noir world comes a figure straight out of film noir, Uncle Charlie, who makes his living wooing and murdering rich widows. But such activities are temporarily on hold because the police are on his trail, so he beds down for a while with the family of his oblivious sister, whose daughter (also called Charlie), has a weird affinity for her namesake uncle. When she starts to suspect what he’s done, as she inevitably does, her affinity gives her a glimpse into a dark, nasty world unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. The moment when Uncle Charlie lets loose and reveals just what he thinks of the human race is one of the most electric scenes in all of Hitchcock’s films — made effective not so much by its content, but by its contrast with the innocent world surrounding it.

Shadow of a Doubt

Hitchcock had a rather schoolboyish sense of humour, which could extend from silly jokes (such as, purportedly, framing a shot of the gay Ivor Novello so a flower seemed to be sprouting from his head), to rather nastier ones. Among the “rather nastier” is, for instance, his insistence on filming take after take of Kim Novak falling into San Francisco bay for Vertigo, and putting an unprotected Tippi Hedren into a room full of live, panicking birds (for The Birds) for so long that she had a nervous breakdown. This extended to off-screen practical jokes, too. Apparently, he once dared a member of his crew to spend a night in the studio, alone, chained to one of the heavy camera rigs. Just before turning off the lights for the night, Hitch sidled up to the man and gave him a little flask of whiskey or brandy to see him through the night. But this supposedly friendly gesture was just a further turn of the screw — the drink was laced with a powerful laxative. Hitchcock’s sense of humour also involved playing tricks on his audience. I mentioned at the start of this entry the (overlong) scene in Family Plot where a zigzagging car going down a mountain made me feel distinctly nauseous — and this was just on a TV screen, God knows how cinema audiences felt! But a dark sense of humour, I think, is one of the things that keeps his works from seeming dated.

Having watched all those Hitchcock films (a clean run from 1931’s The Skin Game, but excluding the war-propaganda films) I’ve kept five Hitchcock DVDs on my shelves. I’ve already mentioned Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo, my absolute favourites. I’ve also got Rear Window (1954), which is a bit of a gimmick film, the whole thing being shot in an (invented) courtyard surrounded by flats, but a good thriller all the same. The remaining ones are Hitch’s two major horror films, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Both are still shocking today. Psycho, with its fool-the-audience trick of killing off what had seemed to be its major character (Janet Leigh) halfway through; and The Birds with its bleak, apocalyptic, non-ending of an ending. Both films perhaps represent the point where Hitchcock’s dark sense of humour threatened to tip over into something really disturbing. The sense of humour in The Birds isn’t obvious at all, as the film is just so bleak, but recently seeing this cartoon, by Charles Addams (who, I think, Hitchcock must have liked — enough to borrow the Addams’ family mansion for Norman Bates’ home, at any rate), made me wonder if it wasn’t the film’s true origin:

Birds cartoon, by Charles Addams


Why I like… Clark Ashton Smith


The first Clark Ashton Smith story I read was “The Empire of the Necromancers“. A friend, not wanting to actually lend me his precious copy of Lost Worlds Volume 1 (the Panther paperback edition with the Bruce Pennington cover), let me read it for the half hour it took him to take a quick trip up to town. I chose to read “The Empire of the Necromancers” because, besides being the first story in the book, it was short enough that I was likely to finish it before he returned and took the book back.

I was instantly — not hooked, but bewildered. I had never read anything like it. I was 16 or 17 at the time, and I think I only managed to retain my readerly equilibrium by telling myself the story’s strangeness must be due to its being written in the 1930s. Having since read a good deal of old & classic fantasy, I still find Clark Ashton Smith’s writing irredeemably strange, and now know it’s not because he belonged to another age, but because he was that timeless, ageless thing, an individual with a genuinely unique imagination — a rare thing, even among what should be the most imaginative group of writers, fantasists. It’s only among the likes of Mervyn Peake and E R Eddison that Clark Ashton Smith really meets his match.

CAS_LW1_frontThe strangeness is all there in “The Empire of the Necromancers”. The story opens in the desert, as we follow two sorcerers, Mmatmuor and Sodosma, as they are exiled from the city of Tinarath for the practice of necromancy. Used to reading sword and sorcery tales in which the sorcerers are the villains, it was strange enough to follow this peculiar pair as if they were the tale’s heroes, but this was merely the first of many strangenesses in Smith’s story. Heading south, the necromancers encounter the skeleton of a horse and its rider, and set about reviving the dead mount to carry one of them. (Such practical use of nefarious power!) Then they continue to Yethlyreom, a vast, dead city, in which centuries of mummified nobility are waiting to be brought back to life to serve Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and to people their undead empire.

(Such names as Tinarath and Yethlyreom, I’d soon learn, were due to the influence of Lord Dunsany, not just on Clark Ashton Smith, but on the entire fantasy field, and only absent from my then-current fantasy reading because it had already become passé to imitate Dunsany’s long, poetic-sounding names. Dunsany, like Poe, was obviously an influence on Smith, but even Dunsany would never have created a necromancer called Sodosma.)

CAS_TalesofZothiqueOnce the two necromancers have their empire up and running, Smith’s story takes an abrupt turn. So far, the necromancers have been the protagonists. Now, we are introduced to a far more Smithian hero, in the shape of Illerio, the last Emperor of Cincor (of which Yethlyreom was the capital). Illerio is an even more surprising hero than the necromancers, because he is dead. Undead, in fact. Raised from oblivion by Mmatmuor and Sodosma, he is just beginning to resent the fact, in his slow-minded way. In snatches, Illerio plots with Hestaiyon, his eldest ancestor among the throngs of reanimatees. A formidable sorcerer in his own day, Hestaiyon remembers a dark secret in the depths of the palace, a door that opens upon a set of steps that descend into an ever deeper darkness. It is through this doorway that the undead emperors of Cincor descend to their second, final, irrevocable death from which no necromancer can recall them — but not before slicing up Mmatmuor and Sodosma, and enchanting their sundered body parts with a magical immortality to ensure they suffer properly for the indignity to which they put the emperors of Cincor.

Normally, I wouldn’t recount the full plot of a story I like so much, as I wouldn’t want to take the pleasure of discovering it from a new reader. But this doesn’t apply to Clark Ashton Smith stories. Once you get to know Smith, you realise that almost all his tales end in the same way: everyone meets their doom. The dead, if resurrected, long to return to death; the living, meanwhile, achieve a frequently arcane, and generally ironic demise. In a sense, there is no story. A Clark Ashton Smith tale starts with a note of doom and continues ever downwards.

Again and again, in story after story, the dead and the living mix, briefly, in their macabre way, then join one another in oblivion. The poetry of his tales — and it is as poetry they are best appreciated — most often lies, macabrely enough, in the manner of that final death. A willing descent into the abyss for Illerio and his ancestors; a drowning in jewels for the greedy Avoosl Wuthoqquan; Christophe Morand returning to the embrace of a life-draining lamia from whom he has just been saved. (Love and death, in Clark Ashton Smith’s world, are frequently inseparable.) There are exceptions — for instance, the alienated human poet Theophilus Alvor finding love in the (five) arms of an equally alienated princess from another planet in “The Monster of the Prophecy” — but most often it is as Fritz Leiber puts it: “I can hardly think of a Smith story, the principal theme of which is not death.”

young_CASEvery writer needs a defining anecdote that sums up their uniqueness. With Smith, it is the fact that he withdrew himself from school and set about educating himself, primarily by reading an unabdridged dictionary all the way through several times, paying particular attention to the etymologies of the words.

Somehow, he remembered it all. Smith’s primary aim was to be a poet. Wilfully anachronistic, he not only set about making a name for himself as a lyric poet in an age that was about to embrace the modernism of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound — and doing so at the boy-genius age of 19 — but also set about making himself a Decadent poet, remotely tagging himself onto the already dying Decadent scene in San Francisco, when European Decadence, as a literary movement, had ceased to be fashionable about twenty years before.

WT_Apr1938And as if being a Decadent poet wasn’t showing enough disdain for the Modern Age, when Smith wrote for the pulps (which he did, prolifically, for about a decade) he wrote what must surely be some of the most uncommercial fiction in the most uncommercial, archaic style, but still managed to become one of Weird Tales‘s most popular regulars, through, I can only conclude, the sheer strangeness of his imagination.

And then, at the height of his success, finding that he didn’t need the money from pulp-writing anymore (he’d had to support his ageing parents, and now both of them were dead), he stopped writing fiction and turned to his new love of rock-carving, producing weird little primitive-looking statuettes with names like “Antehuman Grotesque”, “Lemurian Ghost”, and “Sorcerer Undergoing a Bestial Change”.

And, of course, he returned to poetry.

CAS_LOSmith wrote what is, for me, the greatest of all fantasy poems, the stupendous blank-verse “The Hashish Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil”, with its torrent of dream-visions building to a crescendo of horror, and an ending borrowed from Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. There’s also “Nero“, a monologue in which the insane pyromaniac Roman Emperor, watching his city burn, regrets he can’t do the same to the universe itself. Among his shorter lyrics, “Lunar Mystery” has a particularly beautiful word-music, and “Nyctalops” is a good example of Smith’s use of fantasy/horror imagery to achieve an effect of enchanting, unsettling strangeness.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I think it is strangeness that is the key to Clark Ashton Smith. He felt a kinship with his fellow pulp-writer H P Lovecraft (with whom he corresponded from 1922 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937) in the need to capture, whether in fiction, poetry, sculpture or painting (Smith painted weird little scenes of alien plant-life) a glimpse of something utterly otherworldly. But, although he wrote a few Lovecraftian horror tales, and did desire at times to unsettle his readers, Smith was never as bleak in his outlook as the Gent from Providence. For Lovecraft, the otherworldly was terrifying, because it proved the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence. Smith may have been disdainful of the petty endeavours of his own age, but found great beauty and meaning in the strangeness of the otherworldly, in the freedom of his imagination from the merely mundane. He felt:

“…a wild aspiration toward the unknown, the uncharted, the exotic, the utterly strange and ultra-terrestial. And this aspiration, as I know with a fatal foreknowledge, could never be satisfied by anything on earth or in actual life, but only through dream-ventures such as those in my poems, paintings and stories.” [Letter to HPL, 24th Oct 1930]

Smith’s beloved death, and the world of the dead, was just another realm of the imagination, another otherworldly place in which to achieve the ultimate “escape from the human equation”. [Letter to HPL, 16 Nov 1930]

Ambrose Bierce (who disappeared shortly before Smith entered the San Francisco literary scene) once said, “A jest in the death-chamber conquers by surprise.” Smith, who had a very dry, very dark sense of humour, might well have replied, “But of course it is death itself that is the jest.”

If it is, then only the dead are really in on the joke — the dead, and their fantasist-laureate, Clark Ashton Smith.

(The best place to find out more about Clark Ashton Smith is The Eldritch Dark, including a gallery of his paintings and rock-carvings.)