Alfred Hitchcock's films take place in the land of guilt, where we are all passport-holders. His favorite theme is suggested by the title "The Wrong Man" - it is the innocent person accused of a crime and powerless to prove his innocence.
The obscure feeling that we must be guilty of something is implanted in childhood, when we always seem to get the blame no matter whose fault it was. And so Hitchcock films are universal and timeless, because we can always identify with the weaknesses of his characters, who may be innocent but harbor secret guilt about their feelings of greed, lust, voyeurism, jealousy and paranoia.
A major new retrospective of 21 of Hitchcock's best films, including 14 new 35mm prints, several of which have been restored, has started to tour - and is touring so widely, indeed, that I encountered it at the Calcutta Film Festival a week ago. If Steven Spielberg is Hollywood's most famous export to the world, Hitchcock is certainly the best-known among classic directors, popular in all lands at all times, treasured not just by film students and cinema buffs, but by ordinary ticket-buyers, who attend his movies not because they are art but because they are fun.
In Chicago, the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, will show 19 of the films, and Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton, another two. The Music Box begins its series today with a screening of a restored version of "Psycho," still possibly Hitchcock's most famous film, and continues over the weekend with new prints of "The Birds," "Frenzy" and "Family Plot." Also coming up: "Vertigo," which I think may be his best film; the 1956 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much"; "Shadow of a Doubt," which Hitchcock sometimes named as his own favorite; "Saboteur"; "Marnie"; "Rope," with its 10-minute takes stitched together to make the film seem like one continuous shot, and "Topaz."
There will be a three-week run starting Feb. 25 of the newly restored "Rear Window," which has been returned to pristine condition by experts Robert Harris and James Katz, the same men who restored "Vertigo" and "Lawrence of Arabia."
There will also be matinee screenings Dec. 11-Feb. 20 of "Blackmail," "Murder," the 1934 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "The Lady Vanishes," "Suspicion," the Oscar-winning best picture "Rebecca," "The Paradine Case" and "To Catch a Thief." Both "Rebecca" and "Paradine," many of which will be seen in new prints.
For years Hitchcock was the leading brand name in American movies - the only director everyone knew, and certainly the only one whose name sold his films as efficiently as his stars. Hitchcock liked to use big stars ("a star saves you the having to make the first reel of a film, because the audience already knows him") and used the biggest: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine. But the moviegoing public talked of "the new Hitchcock picture" in a way they did not talk about the new John Ford, Howard Hawks or Cecil B. de Mille.
They thought they knew what to expect. In a sense, they were right. In another sense, they were always wrong, because Hitchcock's plots ran diabolical double-crosses on the audience, and often on the characters themselves. (Has there ever been a mutual deception more cruel than the one in "Vertigo"?)
Often in a Hitchcock film, you find a character doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Consider "Notorious" (1946), one of my own favorites, where Cary Grant is an American intelligence expert who convinces Ingrid Bergman, the patriotic American whose father was a Nazi spy, to infiltrate a secret Nazi group in Brazil. Grant knows she can win the trust of its leader (Claude Rains), because Rains once loved her. And Grant knows she will do it for him, because Bergman now loves Grant. Devious already, but look what happens when Grant's jealousy leads him to suspect that Bergman is a promiscuous lush, when actually . . . but that you will have to see for yourself.
Even more tortured is the relationship in "Vertigo" (1958), where James Stewart plays a detective hired to shadow a beautiful woman (Kim Novak). He falls in love with her, but it is an unhealthy obsession. When he finds another woman who looks just like her, he courts her - but he is really trying to seduce a ghost. The other woman feels pity for him (and guilt), and there is a scene where she approaches him across a hotel room, and there are such labyrinthine currents of deception and desire that no matter how many times you view this moment, you will never be able to solve it.
The real subject of the film, I think, is how humans can be compelled by deep erotic obsessions to act heedlessly and recklessly. That's half of it. The other half, the even more interesting half, is how the subjects of their erotomania may be attracted to them by pity - and fascination.