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Film review: My Name is Alfred Hitchcock

04 August 2023

Stephen Brown reviews a new film about the Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock, in an image from the film My Name is Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, in an image from the film My Name is Alfred Hitchcock

“AT TIMES my shots did touch on what they call metaphysics” — My Name is Alfred Hitchcock (Cert. 15). So asserts the Master of Suspense in tones unmistakable. But are they? Minutes into the film, he is talking anachronistically about 5G smartphones, a statue erected 20 years after his death, etc.

Hitchcock the narrator tells us that movies are a trickster’s medium. They question what passes for reality. His final picture, Family Plot, ends with a straight-to-camera wink. This new film is an audio equivalent. Alistair McGowan impersonates the man. The writer-director Mark Cousins has skilfully woven many insights by and about the filmmaker into a fine testament — not to mention his own valuable take on the visual language of a great director. We come to see how Christianity shaped Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

The word that he uses is omniscience. When the petrol station ignites in The Birds, we are given a God’s-eye view of the conflagration. “Hitchcock” comments on the scene: “Many of you think that God is watching you. Does that comfort you or scare you?” He employs cinema as theological inquiry. “I view it as a kind of omniscience.” We look through a glass darkly; for more is going on in the universe than we perceive. Even those in high standing are dwarfed by the viewpoint that Hitchcock depicts.

In The Paradine Case, Gregory Peck’s barrister, defeated by forces beyond his control, looks physically diminished by virtue of the crane shot selected. North by Northwest’s crop-duster scene is introduced with a vast overhead view of deserted countryside. Cary Grant has no power of himself to help himself and can hope only for divine intervention.

Hitchcock’s is a lonely world, often manifested by false accusations and man-on-the run plotting, e.g. Saboteur, To Catch a Thief, or The 39 Steps. In The Wrong Man, he is, like Hitchcock, a Roman Catholic; and he is found guilty of a crime that he did not commit. The director’s intention is to put us in the situation, as Hitchcock does himself in his cameo appearances. “I know something of the sacred world, its force, its addiction,” says our guide through this labyrinth. We are seeking, perhaps in the wrong places, he suggests, fulfilment.

This is often by way of atonement. In Psycho, Marion repents of her sinfulness. She tells Norman at the motel of her intention to return to Phoenix (with its connotations of resurrection) and admit her wrongdoing. Taking what, in effect, is a baptismal shower proves a costly redemption.

Guilt by association is another theme. Montgomery Clift’s priest (I Confess) hears a murderer’s confession, bound to keep this secret. Fulfilment may come only by playing his part in the full tale of Christ’s affliction here on earth. Hitchcock’s point is that this is our story just as much as that of those on screen. Society has overprotected us from nightly fears and fantasies. He saw his job as helping us to recognise our fractured selves to become children of light. That is what cinema does: it sheds light on darkness. To do this, Hitchcock says, “I play with your comfort or fear.”

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