One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 67
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The mighty Alfred Hitchcock was just coming out of his most brilliantly fertile period when he was interviewed in 1963 by film historian and soon-to-be-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich for a highly regarded monograph he created for the Museum of Modern Art. Hitchcock had just directed Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds consecutively over the previous half-decade—a “Big Four” that remains one of the greatest back-to-back achievements in film history.
Rather than fawning over the legendary filmmaker in his interview (one of many he conducted in the early ‘60s with great filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age), Bogdanovich came forth with sober, concise questions and commentary. During the extended sit-down’s latter half, he listed each of Hitchcock’s films for the famed director to respond to. Reading a transcription of it following Bogdanovich’s death on January 6, I was particularly intrigued by what Hitchcock had to say regarding his uncharacteristic 1948 drawing-room melodrama Under Capricorn, starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton.
“This picture was not a success, but why do you think many French critics consider it one of your finest films?” queried Bogdanovich.
“Because they looked at it for what it was and not what people expected,” answered Hitchcock.
I love that.
We’re in an era where the idea of “what people expect” from their movies is carefully stoked and manipulated via prerelease marketing campaigns, social media outreach and systematically rolled-out teasers and trailers (sometimes as many as a dozen of them in the year proceeding a picture’s release!). So, it’s refreshing to hear one of the lions of the filmmaking industry state--60 years ago!--that one shouldn’t have any expectations when they walk into a movie. It’s just that simple, isn’t it?
Add in that Hitchcock, then in his early 60s, said this to a young film journalist who would rise to prominence in under a decade as a director whose output and style was directly inspired by the Golden Age greats like Hitchcock!
It’s also tickling to note that the same years Bogdanovich had one of his biggest hits with 1972’s What’s Up, Doc?, followed up by an early, prophetic stumble with 1976’s Nickelodeon, Hitchcock was releasing what were to be his final two films: the darkly comic serial killer thriller Frenzy (1972) and the comedy-inflected crime drama Family Plot (1976). Looking back, it’s fair to say nobody expected two such acclaimed works from the aging Master of Suspense at that point in his career.
Hitchcock, who died in 1980, was 73 and 77 years old, respectively, when Frenzy and Family Plot were released, but neither of them are considered to be “old man’s movies.” That’s the kind of tossed-off expression often used to describe end-of-career summation works by filmmakers who are at an age when anything they do receives elegiac consideration based on their longevity and the respect they’ve garnered in their field. (Think Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Ran, released when he was 75, or John Huston’s The Dead, completed when he was 81.)
No, Hitchcock’s final two films as a “senior” in the Seventies were fresh, effective and unexpected offerings. Frenzy, which marked Hitchcock’s return to England for the first time in more than 20 years, disturbingly puts us into the mind of a serial strangler stalking the women of London. Simultaneously, he presents us with bizarrely humorous situations endured by the investigating detective and the man falsely accused of the crimes (who happens to be the killer’s best friend!). Family Plot, meanwhile, is an almost genteel piece, an offbeat story of two unrelated criminal couples—one a team of high-stakes jewelry thieves, the other a pair of low-end con artists who run phony spiritualist scams—and how their paths intertwine though a series of strange incidents and circumstances.
Yes, both could clearly be identified as Hitchcock movies, but they didn’t smack of being capstones to his filmography of more than 50 features. Rather, they were the works of a still-vital artist striving to deliver something fresh and lively to his audience. Indeed, it was Hitch’s previous two films—the poorly received political thrillers Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969)—which gave off the stale taste of works by a filmmaker attempting to be fashionable and jumping onto the era’s Cold War-themed bandwagon. (By that time, the subgenre had already yielded such heavily plotted efforts as Fail Safe (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) and The Double Man (1967), not to mention the James Bond series and its endless knockoffs.)
Unless Hitchcock was mixing frothy espionage cocktails like North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, he was at his most comfortable and commanding when he helmed tales of your average, everyday murderers and thieves. Hitchcock, of course, was the all-knowing arbiter who would decide what fate and other forces had in store for his players. We, as viewers, weren’t supposed to know what to expect. And as his penultimate and final movies proved, we didn’t.
Frenzy and Family Plot are available to stream on iTunes.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.