Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Hitchcock Might Have Wanted to be Bad

Alfred Hitchcock's later years weren't his best by most standards; there was the lull of "Torn Curtain" and the two that followed, then "Frenzy," which succeeded maybe partly by breaking away from the Hitchcockian polish of "Rear Window," reifying the Hitchcock narrative of the wrong man accused of the raw murder, but in a way that looks like late New Wave, maybe positioning itself elegiacally. By that point, Hitchcock, I think, was watching Disney movies instead of the latest thing; when Truffaut told him that "Frenzy" was a young man's movie because of its original moves, he was reflecting partly on his own past. The daring moves, though, are less toward the minimal and more toward the lyrical; the closeup in which the sound stops, and the narrative seems to fall away, is very much the kind that Belasz means when he talks about the closeup as lyric mode, and one made most for the human face.

"Family Plot," his last film, has been dismissed as lacking the power of almost any of his that came before it, but what might seem like its problems come to seem like experiments by Hitchcock out of his own mode, especially because of what he did after he made it. Nothing, except developing "The Short Night" toward the big hit that he seemed to want to end his career on. He kept on developing it, and the natural view would be that his health kept him from carrying it out, along with Alma's. But the way he stopped development, then started it again, suggests something else: he didn't finish it when he could have, and his comment, at one point, that making it wasn't "necessary," suggests a sense of his legacy that fit "Family Plot" into it, whether or not it seemed like a Hitchcock to everyone, and maybe moreso because it seemed like one to few except himself.

There are many Hitch moments in the film, including his cameo as shadow in an office door's window, the sense of domestic life laid bare to show the mechanisms of treachery, and the overall phenomenon of the everyday person drawn into a world of intrigue that he or she is uniquely poised to unravel, because of social context and ultimately skill. There's a he and a she, who are drawn into the search for a seemingly unfindable man, whose narrative runs loosely parallel with theirs until the network narrative phenomenon of coincidence puts them together. The he of the couple is played by Bruce Dern, and his own performance might seem to take the most away from the film's impact. He's nearly a Disney dad. He mugs. He gapes at the sinister, and his teeth gleam. He anticipates Jim Carrey in his face's elasticity. He is the opposite of Cary Grant. That Hitchcock made the space for him to be that way we can see in his hair, an orange mop that seems to do what it wants.

And that's the key. Hitchcock offers the part to Bruce Dern, and Bruce Dern asks why. The studio is thinking of Pacino. Hitch says that he wants Dern, because he never knows what Dern's going to do next. This cavalier sense with the actor might have roots in Hitch's focus on the mise-en-scene, and the sense that a professional actor should generally know what to do already, but it also bumps up against what's reiterated about him with just about every telling of his legend: that the film is finished in his head before it reaches the screen, and the filming is incidental, even boring for him. Bruce Dern is not in his head. Bruce Dern is himself, and is clearly kind of frightened to be there; the thought that all of this offers is that Hitch might finally, four years before his death, after spanning the century with the seldom mutable studio of his visualization, have gotten to do that thing that he must have wanted to do since he was young, and the colored lights that washed the stage near his home made a kind of screen his imagination could shape, would shape into a world of the nerves and their infinite roots: he got to make a movie and watch it at the same time.