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Dispatches from the present

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It’s All in His Name, Really

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It was a real pleasure, almost the bodily kind, to go see a minor Hitchcock film at the Metrograph. It hardly matters that it isn’t one of the great ones—Frenzy, it was called, and I very nearly had to look up the title before remembering. That must’ve been over a year ago now. In the interim the theater closed and I nearly died from the plague, both cosmic errors which remain uncorrected as of this writing.

The memory remains a pleasant one, though. I’ve already forgotten most of what Frenzy was about. Wikipedia tells me it turns out to have been Hitchcock’s second-to-last film and once again takes up serial killers, his frequent theme. In this case our perp is the “necktie killer,” a strangler of women who leaves behind the colorful murder weapon as his grisly signature. That gets the old memory banks going.

I never remember the plot in Hitchcock movies, only the actually important parts. Like the ambience: here, a seventies London plus occasional countryside that’s seen better days, just a few short years before the Winter of Discontent, sort of like a lesser-shot equivalent of Taxi Driver’s New York but with a better sense of humor. Our hero is of course falsely accused of the necktie killer’s latest murder—in these movies there must always be a reason you can’t just go to the police—though in this case the victim happens to be his own ex-wife, who runs a matchmaking office that’s depicted with a delicious satire tinged with just a pinch of misogyny. (“You’re good at business,” he growls at his ex, “if you can’t make love, sell it!”) She’s portrayed with an ugly contempt as having become frigid and unsexed by her professional aspiration. At first, anyway; until she’s killed in a scene of such terror—first cornered, then raped and strangled, in a process that’s shown from beginning to end down to her prayers and pleas with very little nudity but more horror than anything comparable in Game of Thrones—that it’s impossible not to sympathize.

But it’s hardly all horror and gloom. At one point the villain kills another girl and packs her body into a freight truck, only to realize too late that he’s left his necktie pin on her corpse. Slapstick ensues as he desperately bumbles about to get it back, at one point breaking all her little rigor mortis fingers to release it. That’s Hitchcock for you.

It’s all a bit of a wash, and at any rate none of it is terribly profound. A minor movie, as I said. But then a Hitchcock flick doesn’t have to be great to provide, pretty much without exception, a wonderful experience.

Partly I think it’s because his films make me intensely nostalgic for my childhood. A personal idiosyncrasy? Perhaps. They certainly aren’t children’s movies, and my brain makes the association largely because I watched his movies obsessively as a teenager in late high school. He was my first serious director. My father, a dilettante who’s heard of good art more often than he’s ever experienced it, was nevertheless the one who sparked my interest in him in the first place, some years earlier in middle school. His manner of introducing Hitchcock was not as “a director” at all but as pure pop—he seems to have been part of the furniture of Dad’s mind, something he’d picked up from his TV mass media consumption as a kid in the Seventies, perhaps through the famous Alfred Hitchcock Presents or his talk show appearances. Through the male bonding we often enjoyed in the years before I came out of the closet (thus ruining all that) he taught me how to watch the dirty old bastard’s movies the proper way: sitting comfortably on a soft couch or legs folded on some carpeted floor, surrounded by a tasty assortment of drinks and snacks, in sweatpants on some lazy weekend afternoon with nothing to do but make fun of the ridiculous plots, heckle the screen after every winking obscenity, and take a simple sensual pleasure in the intricate construction of each movie’s silly little game until we played it all the way through. And so Hitchcock became one of a few successful examples—alongside Bond movies, The Twilight Zone, the history of technology and salsa dura—of the tastes my father was able, in spite of all my snobbery, to get me to inherit.

But I soon developed my own reasons for adoring Hitchcock. (Or my own rationalizations, at any rate.) At bottom it’s for the same reason he seems to be a little out of fashion among the intellectuals: though called the master of suspense, Hitchcock was in fact the servant of the libido. Everything sensuous, erotic and base, all surfaces, all hungers, all obsessions were his subject matter; and while one could say he used these as the building blocks of his art, I think it’s far more accurate to the spirit of his movies to say he was their conduit. An involuntary emission, if not an altogether unwilling one. Like Joyce and Rabelais, as well as later filmmakers like von Trier, his art has to be seen as an attempt to give a sober order to the chaos of his filthy mind. That the attempt is always successful—indeed the peak of a certain clockwork style of filmmaking—is Hitchcock’s great triumph. These movies are so lucky to have been produced in their particular age, when censorship was loose enough to admit of obvious innuendo but not yet outright pornography, because as a result they explore every dark corner of human sexuality, contain every kind of perversion and obscenity, embody in their very structure the inextricable mix of violence, yearning, obsession and beauty of which human beings are capable in the pursuit of pleasure—only these are translated into a symbolic language, a language of perfectly framed images and perfectly calibrated thriller tropes, which makes these hard truths palatable even to the most deluded puritan, and lends them a dignity which we might perhaps conclude, after some personal experience of them, they do not deserve.