“Mum,” said Henry the other day, giving me an odd look, “Is everything alright?” “Yes fine,” I said, briskly. “Why?” “It’s just that I was in the kitchen and happened to look at your list. It said, Clean bathroom—Hang out washing—Buy anti-snoring device—Get fence mended—Murder!”
By the latter part of this week, I’d done all of those things and had a new list: Take parcels to post office—Contact dentist—Ring Barbara—Buy vitamin tablets—Blackmail.
This week in amongst various other activities, I’ve completed Treat Number 41: watching Alfred Hitchcock’s films. A couple are lost but fifty-two have survived and I’ve now seen them all. There’s a wide range: from 1925 to 1976; silent to talkie; black and white to technicolour; horror to musical; British to American; outstanding to relatively forgettable, and Blackmail to Murder! The exclamation mark is Hitchcock’s not mine.
I watched most of these films on my own, often in moments when I should have been doing something else. They felt like stolen treasure. And as so often with treats, this one spread its wings beyond the original idea. I read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Hitchcock, and went to the cinema to see the recent documentary about the Truffaut interviews. There’s the enjoyment, too, that comes from sharing the enthusiasm with friends. Alan, if you’re reading this, I look forward to continuing the conversation we started last year. I’m now better informed so will have more to say.
The highs and the lows? Those that made the least impact were Jamaica Inn, Secret Agent, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, Juno and the Paycock, and Family Plot. But there were plenty of pleasures amongst the rest. Favourites include The Lady Vanishes (the true star is a steam train which puffs its way through pre-Second World War Europe), The Wrong Man (based on the true story of a decent man who is wrongly convicted of armed robbery and is played impeccably by a dazed Henry Fonda), Shadow of a Doubt (a strong plot and possibly Hitchcock’s own favourite), The Manxman (a powerful silent film about a love triangle) and Sabotage (engaging scenes of pre-war London and a moment that leaves you reeling. Even Hitchcock wondered whether he’d gone too far). But it’s Vertigo that I love best. I went to see it at our local Picturehouse cinema recently and the images, music and plot haunted me for days afterwards.
One of the intriguing things about Hitchcock is that he didn’t always provide audiences with feel-good endings. Some of his films have shocking final scenes. Another is his use of suspense. Psycho and The Birds make audiences scream, but in many of his works the hooks are more subtle. In the silent film Easy Virtue, adapted from a Noel Coward play, there’s a scene where the audience knows that a man is phoning his girlfriend in order to propose. Hitchcock chose not to show these characters at this point, but instead filmed a telephonist who listens in on the phone call. Her expression reveals what’s happening and builds suspense while both she and the man wait for the girlfriend to make her mind up.
Like most creative geniuses, Hitchcock had some unusual habits. One of the oddest was that every day on set he would drink his tea and then throw the cup and saucer over his shoulder. He had complex attitudes towards his leading ladies and he almost certainly had crushes on a number of them including, famously, Tippi Hedren. But in spite of that he was devoted to his wife Alma Reville who was just one day younger than him. He trusted her judgement implicitly and she worked on many of his projects as a screenwriter and editor. They got engaged after he proposed to her during a terrible storm at sea. She was prostrate with seasickness and told their daughter years later that ‘I was too sick to lift my head off the pillow. I groaned, nodded my head, and burped.’ They were married for fifty-three years and she was lost when he died, as he would have been had she gone first.
A number of themes crop up again and again in Hitchcock’s films: trains, dominant mothers, secret lives, likeable criminals, obsession, murder, and blonde women. He also loved dogs so if one of his characters owns a dog it’s a strong clue that they’re of sound character.
And just like Hitchcock, all writers have themes that preoccupy them. Hemingway’s include fear, guilt, betrayal and loss. For Hardy, it’s the damage caused by social constraints, and the role of chance in people’s lives. And JK Rowling’s writing centres around themes of mortality and morality.
Within the next fortnight, I shall become a published author too, so I’ve had a think about what my preoccupations might be. At the moment I’d say they are individual differences, coping and the unexpected twists and turns of life. Lists crop up a lot too. 31 Treats And A Marriage will be available through Amazon and other booksellers by the end of the first week in May. My previous post has a link to an audio recording of the prologue. If you’d like some more you can listen to Chapter One. Just click here. I do hope that you enjoy it.