Murder, he shot | Daily News
Alfred Hitchcock

Murder, he shot

Last week I went to Manderley again. Not in my dreams, but on Netflix: the new Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley, was released on October16. I’ve been an avid fan of Wheatley’s films – particularly Kill List (2011) – but Rebecca doesn’t match up the high standard one has come to expect of him. A major disappointment, if ever there was one.

The new Rebecca, for all its flashes of glamour and showmanship, sags after it reaches its second half. It just doesn’t add up. Armie Hammer is the only cast member who tries to fit into his mould as the brooding, towering Maxim de Winter. The rest, including Lily James as the unnamed heroine and Sam Riley as a particularly venomous Jack Favell, just exist. As for Kristin Scott Thomas, whose voice to me exudes something between polite disinterest and submerged passion, even she can’t save her performance as Mrs Danvers from deteriorating into the stereotype of a woman scorned, and worse, spurned. It’s all spectacle and staccato. Nothing lingers. The taste evaporates the moment you’ve had a sip.

What a contrast to that other Rebecca, the Alfred Hitchcock version from 1940! In its depiction of relations between the classes in Depression era England, Hitchcock’s adaptation did, admittedly, depart from the novel. Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the book, intended her heroine – played in the Hitchcock film by Joan Fontaine, whose even more famous sister Olivia de Havilland died aged 104 last June – to rise up to the ranks of the old aristocracy to which, by marriage to Maxim de Winter, she gets incongruously linked.

Compensating virtues

There’s a moment in the novel when, after she wrests from Maxim the truth of his feelings for his dead first wife, she finds the confidence to talk down to the servants; until then she’d been fearful or nervous of them. Du Maurier’s sympathies are clearly with the aristocracy, specifically the British landed gentry; the bulk of her spite is reserved for the American lady, Mrs Van Hopper, who hires the protagonist as “a companion” and is depicted as a typical specimen of the nouveau riche: noisy, irksome, conceited, pushy, having all the vices of the aristocracy without any compensating virtues, and Favell, an aspirant to that aristocracy who’ll do anything to get up there. Hitchcock did well by both characters: he cast Florence Bates, the grande dame of the American cinema from then, as Mrs Van Hopper, and more significantly George Sanders (who voiced Shere Khan in the 1967 Disney adaptation of The Jungle Book) as Favell. By contrast Ann Dowd seems like a snarling, raving banshee and Sam Riley a gingerly, mother-fixated thug in the new version.

By 1940 Alfred Hitchcock had made 25 movies in Britain, 16 sound and nine silent. Rebecca marked his first foray into Hollywood; his final British production, Jamaica Inn (1939), had also been an adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel. It wouldn’t be his last; a quarter century later he made The Birds (1963), based on a du Maurier short story. In those 23 years he wound up making 23 thrillers, one every year and all of them classics.

Satyajit Ray once described him as an entertainer. Lester James Peries was of the same opinion. Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of the 10 greatest films ever made, considered the world’s most authoritative such list, had since its inception in 1952 ranked Citizen Kane (1941) at its top. In 2012, 60 years after its inception, there was a revolution: Kane fell down to the number two slot, while Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) clinched the top spot. When I met Lester in 2014, he was rueful about it: “To me Kane remains a masterly work, while Vertigo remains, then as now, the work of a technician, whose innovations never went beyond the workshop and the studio.” This is perhaps a crass judgment, perhaps even an unfair one. Yet in its own way, it provides an insight into the career of a man who singlehandedly defined the thriller genre for every aspiring filmmaker who came after him.

Femme fatale

Hitchcock’s thrillers are about ordinary men doing extraordinary things owing to reasons beyond their control. Most of the time these ordinary men are innocent bystanders accused of one crime or the other, from petty theft to cold-blooded murder. They are always paired with an intrepid femme fatale, who’s always a blonde. Usually they end up being vindicated, but not before a faceoff with the villain, who happens to be supremely confident and suave. Hitchcock tries to get us to identify with the hero, and from all his movies there’s only been one in which he’s got us into the shoes of the villain: Psycho (1960), considered shot to shot the single most frightening thriller ever made.

Reflecting on the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – which some in Sri Lanka will remember for its inclusion of Doris Day’s classic “Que Sera Sera” – Hitchcock called it the work of a professional, while the original (1934) remained that of a “talented amateur.” From the one to the other – from the amateur to the professional – you see his confidence build up, to a point where he leaves behind the cautiousness of his early work to the colour and the spectacle of his midcareer work. It’s the sort of transition every director has made, the kind even Lester Peries (Rekava, 1956, versus Nidhanaya, 1970) and Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali, 1955, versus Charulata, 1964) did. Yet unlike the latter two visionaries, Hitchcock never attempted consciously to be an artist conjuring up the tools of his trade: as he implied to François Truffaut in an interview, he was just trying to entertain.

Perhaps for that reason or perhaps in spite of it, Hitchcock remains one of the world’s most frequently imitated directors. Few have come close to him; everyone else has just faded away.

The cult of Hitchcock isn’t a recent phenomenon, moreover; it was there even in his day. Surprisingly for someone who dabbled in the thriller genre he never attempted a film noir, yet those who attempted them tried to emulate if not imitate him. The one man who did succeed in not just emulating but becoming him was Brian De Palma; in the posters for Dressed To Kill (1983) – made three years after Hitchcock’s death – De Palma, taking a leaf from Hitchcock’s reputation as the “Master of Suspense”, called himself the “Master of the Macabre.” Today everyone reveres him, but few pay him the compliment of trying to be like him. They want to imitate him without revealing that they are.

The circumstances into which Hitchcock was born remain as peculiar and unique as the man’s films themselves. Born on August 13, 1899 to a family of grocers – an occupation that many of the characters in his films are engaged in – he waded through childhood with what would prove to be a lifelong fear of policemen. When he turned five, he told interviewers, his father sent him to the police station with a note. The chief of police proceeded to lock him in a cell for five minutes after reading it. “This is what we do to naughty boys,” he told the horrified boy. Apparently it had been his father’s joke, a reason for which he could never fathom: “I haven’t the faintest idea,” he told Truffaut.

Practical knowledge

His fear of authority heightened when, after moving to Stepney with his family at the age of 11, he was sent to a Jesuit school. Yet despite the rigid discipline there, he gained an avid interest in geography, particularly maps and railroads and bus timetables. “When I said I’d like to become an engineer,” he remembered, “my parents took me seriously and they sent me to a specialized school, the School of Engineering and Navigation.” Having gained “some practical knowledge of engineering” at the School, he skipped from job to job before ending up at Famous Players-Lasky, a film studio in Islington, London affiliated to Paramount. He started out with titling and soon made his way to the top; in 1925 when he had turned 25, he made his directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden. The Mountain Edge came a year later, and a year after that came The Lodger, considered to be one of the finest British films ever made. Six movies later he directed Blackmail (1929), his first in sound.

Three works stand out from this period: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1939). Each of them proved to be heavily influential in its own special way: Too Much predicts Hitchcock’s fascination with bystanders pushed into the centre of political conspiracies, Steps predicts his obsession with innocent men wrongfully accused, while Vanishes predicts not just the later Hitchcock, but practically every mystery flick about affable characters revealed to be people they are not; when you watch it today, you’ll be reminded of The Girl on the Train (2016).

Of his later work, the ones he made in Hollywood, in colour, with every star Hollywood could conjure up, we needn’t dwell on them at length. These are the films of his everyone has seen and has talked or wants to talk about; suffice it to say they all reveal a meticulous attention to detail. Not every critic warmed up to them, of course. Roger Ebert, for instance, disliked Rope (1948), which like Sam Mendes’s 1917 (2019) unfolds as a single, continuous shot, while Pauline Kael found the shrill terror of The Birds too much to bear.

Nevertheless, they are plainly the work of a talented amateur turned professional. When Chandran Rutnam, who was then working at Universal Studios, chanced across him at his office, he was awed by the storyboards for his next film plastered on the walls. “When will you make it?” Rutnam eagerly asked him. “I’ve already made it,” Hitchcock replied, pointing at the storyboards. “All I’ve got to do now is shoot it.”