Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema
Author: John Orr
Publisher: Wallflower Press
As rich and dense as a brandy laden Christmas pudding I defy anyone to finish this whole book in one sitting. This is no coffee table picture book with glossy stills of shower scenes and crop sprayers but an academic study aimed at a Film Studies Course book list.
John Orr breaks the book down into chapters each of which could form the basis of a decent thesis or twenty or more topics for a study group. Once your head stops spinning at the number of references to other directors and films it is possible to gain genuinely fascinating insight into those Hitchcock movies which have insidiously crept into our subconscious and form the wallpaper to the screening room in your head. Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest are so familiar that it is possible to watch them on Pavlovian auto-pilot waiting for the key scenes, spotting the maguffin or searching for the director in his traditional walk on part.
Orr forces us to reassess Hitchcock’s work not in a strict chronological order but through diverse and distinct sections – a chapter on the influence of the cinema in Weimar Germany (Murnau, Lang) on Hitchcock’s work nestles up against one comparing Hitchcock with David Hume (a Scottish philosopher). The former topic is an unsurprising study of how Hitchcock’s time in Germany exposed the young director to expressionism, politicism and dynamic camera work, the latter a post-modern analysis of how Hume’s world view is closely allied to how the characters within a Hitchcock film are defined by their experiences (and how others experience them).
In one of the later chapters the author explores how Hitchcock’s Britishness informed his narratives even when he relocated to the USA, not just in the classic 39 Steps double chase structure (Hannay is being chased and in turn chases the spies) but through his choice of source material (du Maurier and Conrad) and the influence of the novelist Graham Green. There is no little irony to the fact that these two arch-populists are now being analysed in this ‘high brow’ way.
Should you read this book? Yes, if it is part of your coursework.
Otherwise you should really swot up on your Hitch before attempting more than a casual dip into the book. Highlight the relevant movies mentioned in the book then set aside a little time to watch the DVDs listed (by my reckoning there are at least 250 films in the index). Read a chapter. Then watch them again.
Remember you are not alone. Mr Orr must have been there before you.
And when you are finished digesting both book and films you will probably be better informed on the work of one of the greatest film directors in the history of cinema than anyone else in your circle of friends and acquaintances.