Strangers on the Set

Coming off without a Hitch: Louis Jourdan and Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock's (or David O. Selznick's?) <I>The Paradine Case</I>

Coming off without a Hitch: Louis Jourdan and Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock's (or David O. Selznick's?) The Paradine Case

In an age when the idea of director-as-auteur is debased with every appearance of A Film by Joel Schumacher, the notion of the producer-as-auteur seems oddly comforting. After all, if the guy in charge of the money isn't responsible for putting a big-screen spectacle together, who is? These days, studio-movie top gun Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, The Rock) may be the only producer whose movies could be ID'd by audiences even if his name wasn't above the title. (Some cineastes might detect one of Bruckheimer's creations just by hearing it.) But movie scholarship forever marches apace, and I suspect that one day we'll be treated to an essay about Bringing Out the Dead's "fortuitous Martin Scorsese/Scott Rudin collaboration." Or, more likely, some joker will contrive the thesis that Roman Polanski was "made" by Robert Evans, the producer-auteur godfather who gave him Chinatown.

But for now, let's talk about Alfred Hitchcock. Two strangers meet on a train and agree to murder each other's careers: That might have been the tagline for Hitchcock and Selznick, author Leonard J. Leff's recent historical recreation of "The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood," which has been followed in timely fashion by the just-aired PBS doc Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood, and by a current Oak Street Cinema retrospective that includes among its 14 Hitchcock titles all four of the director's tumultuous efforts with Selznick. The thesis--not altogether hard to buy--is that the strutting studio rooster Selznick plucked Hitchcock from the relative obscurity of his 1930s British assignments and brought him into the mainstream, essentially turning him into "Alfred Hitchcock." Which is true, in a way. Yet the character we know of as "Hitch" was cemented by the Fifties TV series that made him a household word, and even more by the bigshot studio investors who funded the director's decadelong string of masterpieces spanning Rear Window (1954) and Marnie (1964).

The real question is: Did Selznick have an artistic impact on the Master of Suspense? Generally, when the directors we champion as individual voices work for world-famous, barnstorming producers, the results don't stand out as the greatest works in their canon--look at Sam Fuller hiding around the corner as Darryl Zanuck walks by (Hell and High Water), or Max Ophuls being called an "oaf" by Howard Hughes (The Reckless Moment). Selznick gave Hitchcock an Oscar winner in 1940 with their first collaboration, Rebecca (screening at Oak Street on Sunday at 2:30 and 7:15 p.m., and Monday at 7:15 p.m.), and in 1946 he gave him an undisputed classic with Notorious (Friday and Saturday at 3:15 and 7:30 p.m.)--but is he, as the theory goes, the pinch of unabashed vulgarity that shot Hitchcock into the stratosphere? Based on the evidence at Oak Street, one of the four collaborations appears quintessentially Hitchcockian, while another, disastrous one seems eerily Selznickian.

Spellbound (Friday and Saturday at 5:15 and 9:30 p.m.) is remembered mainly as a work of Freudian camp. But seen again, this 1945 movie feels more like a stomach-churning early draft of the obsessiveness of Vertigo, with its shots of Gregory Peck's traumatized wanderer looking shaky and its images of pulsating objects, the montage woozy with meaning. The unique feeling of Vertigo (which most Hitchcock buffs consider to be the summit of his achievement--but not me) is that of being trapped inside a haunted mind as suffocation closes in. Spellbound scatters that toxic potion by the quart, with Peck playing a possibly criminal amnesiac tended to by a frigid-but-thawing psychotherapist (Ingrid Bergman) who seems aroused by the fact that he might be a multiple murderer.

As always, Peck is a wooden plank, but Hitchcock gets you inside a mind needing escape and finding brick walls. And his half-wry, half-adoring treatment of Bergman's therapist character rescinds the law of Hitchcock as a "simple" misogynist. As with his ultimate icicle, Tippi Hedren, the Master was no less inside his cool blondes' gelidity than he was delighting in it from the outside. (Has anyone noticed how much Hitch identified with these ice queens demurely crossing their legs?) In Spellbound's hundred recessed cavities of cruel wit--as when a house detective unseats a masher leching on the heroine, and then sits next to her in the exact same position--lies proof that the filmmaker closest to Hitchcock isn't De Palma but Luis Buñuel. (And that's not because of Spellbound's rather gratuitous use of Salvador Dali's dream images, which seem to have been flown in by Dali's attorney to drive up his painting prices.) And if there's any additional auteur to be credited here, it isn't Selznick, but rather the screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose adaptations of his own rat-a-tat-tat screwball plays lent Spellbound's stagy madhouse dialogue the quality of wilted, slightly unwholesome erotic farce.

In 1947's The Paradine Case (Sunday and Monday at 5:00 and 9:40 p.m.), the Hitchcock/Selznick fusion that occasioned their divorce, it seems to be Selznick who learned a thing or two from Hitch--namely, the pungency of working from personal, psychosexual obsession. Selznick had just divorced his wife of many years (the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, no less) and taken up with firebrand Jennifer Jones, the raven-haired hellcat of her day. Any wonder that Selznick came up with the eureka idea of adapting an obscure English novel about a "well-traveled" European woman accused of poisoning her rich, blind husband to steal his loot? Adding more Freudian logs to the fire, Paradine's top British barrister (Peck again, natch) is torn between the sultry, sure-to-be-lethal world traveler and his own gorgeous, devoted wife at home.

Only a mogul would find the subject of a sexy chicklet stealing an old man's coin worthy of the gravitas of high tragedy. That may explain Hitch's clear befuddlement with this dialogue-heavy courtroom drama, which toploads an already muzzy story with acres of talkie-era character actors (Charles Coburn, Ethel Barrymore), and seems to take an eternity to get to the point. Clunky yet diverting in its slow-as-molasses vibe, Paradine is a curio of mogul lust that's fascinating in the same way as The Outlaw, producer-director Howard Hughes's valentine to Jane Russell. In both cases, the audience is rubbernecking at the scene of an accident. What made these fat cats think they could actually write--and, in the case of Hughes, direct--a motion picture? Hitchcock applies a splendid perversity to the scene in which the Peck character's wife appears to be aroused by her husband's lust for the criminal female--a twitchy, almost masochistic reaction that's nowhere in the script. But for the rest of the movie, poor Hitch seems to be loitering. This just isn't his scene.

But the best evidence that Selznick isn't the power behind the throne can be found in a glance at Hitchcock's acknowledged masterpieces of the Fifties and Sixties. Where Selznick was an unabashed lover of the written word, Hitchcock, like Spielberg, was always a far better shower than a teller. He could make ordinary dialogue scenes zing with 15 creepy subtexts (see Psycho's sickly meet-cute moment between Marion Crane and Norman Bates). But small talk and exposition weren't his cup of tea, and Selznick, for his part, was too enamored of Broadway glamour to let the Master run his mouth. Long after Hitch parted ways with Selznick, the studio execs at Paramount and Universal considered him a cheap brand name, the Wes Craven of the Eisenhower era--and so they pretty much left him alone. And that isolated independence, more than any mogul's secret sauce, is what made Alfred Hitchcock.


Oak Street Cinema's "Hitchcock Centennial Celebration Part II" starts Wednesday with a double feature of Murder! and Young and Innocent, and continues through November 23.