In the days since my mother died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago, I’ve had, as you might expect, difficulty doing much of anything besides what’s been required of me. And that’s been pretty difficult too. In the down time—and I’ve discovered that when a relative dies, if you’re in a position of responsibility with respect to arrangements and such, stretches of intense and urgent activity alternate with seemingly longer stretches during which you’re obliged to wait out something or other—finding distraction, pleasure, stuff like that, hasn’t really been such a snap. In short, I’m depressed.
The movies I’ve been gravitating to have been those directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s movies figured mightily in my early love of cinema, and even as I made the determination to find out what made his movies tick—one of the first movie books I owned was “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” which had to have been gifted to me by my parents, either during a holiday or via allowance—I was aware of the extent to which his work also loomed large in my mom’s cultural life. It wasn’t just hearing her and her pals talk about how “that scene” in “Psycho” made them take a longer look around the bathroom (and make sure the door was locked) before stepping into the shower (and this was years after the movie’s initial release). It was the way she would react, over the years, when a particular Hitchcock film would come up. I remember telling her about the initial restoration of “Vertigo” in 1996, she gasped “Oh, that movie.” When talking over “Notorious” after it had played on television some time, we both marveled at what a horrible s**t Cary Grant’s character was to Ingrid Bergman (a topic my friend and RogerEbert.com contributor Sheila O’Malley elaborated on at rewarding length on her blog).
Hitchcock was, and in some circles still is, known as “The Master Of Suspense;” he has a much-quoted line about how where some moviemakers try to offer cinematic slices of life, he was in the business of creating pieces of cake. But whenever I spoke to my mom about Hitchcock movies, the things she and I keyed into most specifically were what they did to us emotionally: we shared tacit gasps at Johnny-O’s monstrous obsessions and the very different humiliations suffered by Midge and Judy Barton. Cringed at the vicious verbiage exchanged by Devlin and Alicia at the Rio racetrack. Shuddered at the maternal trauma of All-American Woman surrogate Doris Day in the master’s own remake of his “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” There’s a contingent of film critics who insist that the British-made 1934 “Man” is the superior film, but if you have someone in your life who was rattled by the 1956 version in an actual New York movie theater during its initial run, you’re not going to be persuaded.
“Every great artist must create for a great audience,” the great critic Greil Marcus quotes the great critic Robert Christgau apropos Randy Newman; Marcus elaborates: “an aggressive, critical audience, with a conscious sense of itself as an audience, but […] also a big, broad audience, one whose complexity and diverse needs can push an artist beyond comfortable limits.” Hitchcock’s huge popularity with the American moviegoing public made the mandarins of culture of the post-war era believe that there was therefore no way he could be a real artist—the question of artistry, as Andrew Sarris and Robin Wood could have told you, was in fact considered so absurd that you could be laughed out of the room for bringing it up—but it is in fact his ability to connect to a “great audience” that is part of what made him a great artist. There’s also the fact that Hitchcock’s audience was largely sexually integrated—while today’s suspense/action movies are largely considered a province for male audiences, talk to folks in their ‘70s and over of any gender and, unless, you know, they didn’t like Hitchcock movies (Graham Greene, what are you gonna do about him), they liked Hitchcock movies.
My mom was a terribly sensitive and highly intelligent person but during the early years of her life she did not balk at being an average person: in fact given the challenges of her upbringing, being average was something to aspire to, and getting your kids to “above average” was considered a signal achievement. Her cognizance of what Hitchcock was up to, and her appreciation of it—and her pure pleasure in the Hitchcock films that really were pieces of cake, such as “To Catch A Thief”—not only gave her something to talk about with a son whose other cinematic interests got increasingly hermetic over certain years, it gave me a frame of reference that barred me from becoming too much of a film snob at long last. Last week when I was going through her effects, I came upon a stash of Hitchcock DVDs from Universal—“The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” and so on, and I thought I might as well bequeath them to the community room of the building in which she lived. I know they will find an audience. It’s what they’re meant to do.