Blame it on Hitchcock

tumblr_nie1mse8iQ1qej1i6o1_500Mrs. T and I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest last week for the first time in a number of years. As we did so, I remembered that I’d written an essay about the film in 1998 for Civilization, a long-defunct magazine published by the Library of Congress. It’s never been collected or reprinted. I still like it, and thought you might feel the same way.

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In 1952, the British film magazine Sight & Sound asked a group of noted critics and directors to pick the ten greatest films of all time. The exercise has since been repeated at decade-long intervals, and to compare the five lists published to date is to receive a priceless lesson in the evolution of taste. Some films appear regularly (Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin made all five lists), others only fleetingly (Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema appeared in ninth place in 1962, never to be seen again). About certain films, the consensus is clear: Citizen Kane, which failed to make the first list, shot to the top in 1962 and has been there ever since. Yet the ebb and flow of fashion are no less evident: Ingmar Bergman showed up in 1962 and 1972, Alfred Hitchcock in 1982 and 1992.

Hitchcock’s belated entry into the pantheon—three years after his death and 20 years after his last important film, The Birds—is among the more revealing aspects of the Canon According to Sight & Sound. For years, the maker of Psycho was generally regarded as a purveyor of cynical shockers unworthy of serious critical consideration. His colleagues, of course, knew him to be a consummate craftsman, but even they seem to have distrusted his artistry. How could a director whose movies were so blatantly lacking in what the U.S. Supreme Court used to call “redeeming social value” possibly belong in the same boat as Bergman or Renoir? And how could anyone take seriously the rotund jokester who exhaled “Goooodeeeeeve-ning” each week on TV, poking fun at himself (and his sponsors) to the mock-macabre accompaniment of Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette?

NorthVeilingToday, Hitchcock is accepted as a great filmmaker, but the terms of his acceptance are narrowly framed: Vertigo is the only Hitchcock film ever to have made Sight & Sound’s top-ten list. Granted, Vertigo is a marvel, and surely one of his personal best—but why not North by Northwest, regarded by most Hitchcock buffs as a work of comparable stature? The two films, after all, sum up the two sides of his creative personality: James Stewart, the desperate lover of Vertigo, is perfectly balanced by Cary Grant, the supremely self-confident gent in a jam around whom the plot of North by Northwest swirls madly. Both films are technically dazzling; both have masterly scripts; both were scored by Bernard Herrmann, the film composer’s film composer. So what makes Vertigo the classic and North by Northwest the commercial?

The answer is, alas, all too simple: North by Northwest is funny, and most critics don’t like funny movies. Or, rather, they don’t trust funny movies. Take another look at those Sight & Sound lists and you’ll notice that except for Buster Keaton’s The General and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, The Gold Rush, and Modern Times, all sanctified by their great age, the only Hollywood comedy ever to have been anointed is Singin’ in the Rain, which got the nod in 1982 but predictably failed to make the cut the next time around.

I sometimes wonder whether the reluctance of film professionals to acknowledge the artistic seriousness of comedy has something to do with the fact that their medium, popular though it is, has yet to be fully accepted as co-equal with what highbrows still persist in referring to as the “legitimate” theater. (Obviously, they haven’t been to Broadway lately.) As has lately been pointed out by Roger Ebert, there is no Pulitzer Prize for film, and the Nobel Prize for literature, though it has gone to playwrights often enough, has yet to be awarded to a full-time filmmaker. Could it be that the men and women who make the movies suffer from a collective inferiority complex? Could that be why they insist on awarding Best Picture Oscars to such bloated truckloads of pompous rubbish as Gandhi and Dances With Wolves?

If so, it would also explain why Alfred Hitchcock never received an Oscar for best direction—he simply wasn’t po-faced enough—and I suspect it also has much to do with the fact that North by Northwest, his finest and most characteristic movie, has yet to be widely recognized as such. Even those Hitchcock scholars who know how good it is feel obliged to swaddle their praise in a thick blanket of symbol-snuffling. Hence Donald Spoto, writing in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, reassures us that North by Northwest “leavens the gravest concerns with a spiky and mature wit….Never has the entire hierarchy of unprincipled political expediency been so ruthlessly dissected.”

Warner_NXNW11-250The only truly illuminating thing I’ve ever read about North by Northwest is a 1970 essay by the late Charles Thomas Samuels, who spoke admiringly of its “contentless virtuosity.” That’s exactly right, and it is for this reason that North by Northwest, which turns forty this year, has stayed as fresh as this morning’s paint. Here’s how Ernest Lehman, who wrote the script, pitched it to Hitchcock: “One day I said, ‘I want to do a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures, that’s the only kind of picture I want to do, Hitch.’ And by that I meant a movie-movie—with glamour, wit, excitement, movement, big scenes, a large canvas, innocent bystander caught up in great derring-do, in the Hitchcock manner.” To which the great man wistfully replied, “I’ve always wanted to do a chase sequence across the faces of Mount Rushmore.” And off they went, unencumbered by the faintest whiff of social consciousness, in search of thrills—and, just as important, laughs.

Nothing about North by Northwest is so memorable as its high-spirited humor, which is rooted in the casting of Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, the suave advertising executive who ends up hanging by his eyelashes from George Washington’s nose. James Stewart had wanted to play the part, but Hitchcock knew he wasn’t right for it, and stalled until Stewart had to report for work on Bell, Book and Candle, making it possible to hire Grant without hurt feelings on either side. Seen in retrospect, it was the only possible choice, for Grant’s urbane presence is what gives the movie its special tone: even when he’s dodging a crop duster piloted by gun-toting Commie spies, you know he’s going to come out smelling like a dry-cleaned Brooks Brothers suit.

That, needless to say, is the whole point of North by Northwest. Though it pretends to be about the Cold War, it’s really about excitement, pure and simple: it has no more “content” than a roller-coaster ride. This is what Hitchcock had in mind when, midway through location shooting in New York, he said to Ernest Lehman, “Ernie, do you realize what we’re doing in this picture? The audience is like a great organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won’t even have to make a movie—there’ll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we’ll just press different buttons and they’ll go ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaah’ and we’ll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won’t that be wonderful?”

The only thing wrong with Hitchcock’s dream is that it came true, more or less. I have a sneaking suspicion that North by Northwest was the inspiration, acknowledged or not, for the decerebrate big-budget thrillers that blight the movie screens of America each summer. From Die Hard to Speed to ConAir, they’re all North by Northwest, only dumbed down, larded with four-letter words, and ruthlessly stripped of charm and wit. This is how far we’ve come since 1958: we started out with Cary Grant and ended up with Keanu Reeves. Yet it can hardly be denied that the first led to the second, for mindless thrills, be they cheap or costly, are still mindless thrills.

It is for this reason that any fully considered avowal of Hitchcock’s cinematic greatness must be followed by an asterisk. The trouble with Hitch isn’t that he is a comedian, but that his comedy is less black than blank. He avoids the jungle of politics by fleeing into the desert of nihilism, and while we gladly follow him there, there is no nourishment in his cold laughter, and never any tears. True comedy is different: I’ve never watched The Rules of the Game, or listened to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, without weeping unabashedly at the harsh truths about human nature that can only be spoken with an unsentimental smile.

CaryGrantSuit3Still, there are many types of greatness, and Alfred Hitchcock’s kind, idiosyncratic though it is, makes the cut with room to spare. His best films are as watchable today as they were a half-century ago, and speak as directly to the case-hardened children of Generation X as they do to graying baby boomers like me. I recently invited a 23-year-old movie buff, raised on fast-moving indie flicks, to watch North by Northwest with me; she’d never seen it, and I wondered if Hitchcock’s carefully calculated pacing would strike her as arthritic. Not a chance. She watched in rapt silence as Cary Grant slithered drunkenly along the edge of a Long Island cliff, made out with Eva Marie Saint on the 20th-Century Limited (with kissing like that, who needs nude scenes?), and choked on clouds of DDT in a deserted prairie cornfield. “Cool!” she said at the end. “That is one totally cool movie.” And so it is, and ever shall be.

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A Guided Tour With Alfred Hitchcock, a promotional short for North by Northwest:

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Love songs, R.I.P.

1-14My essay in the May issue of Commentary is occasioned by the publication of Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History:

Most pop songs are about love. So are most classical art songs. So are most folk songs. What is more, most of us take all this for granted, though a moment’s consideration suggests that we ought instead to be surprised by it. Since the range of possibilities for human action extends far beyond the compass of love, sex, and marriage, why should the representation of these three activities have preoccupied songwriters of all kinds?

Ted Gioia, a music historian and sometime jazz pianist, addresses this question and others related to it in his latest book, Love Songs: The Hidden History. The third and last in a trilogy of studies of what he calls “functional songs” that also includes Work Songs and Healing Songs (both 2006), Love Songs is a cross-cultural and engrossingly wide-ranging history. Gioia’s overarching premise is that love songs, far from being “wimpy music, for emotional weaklings and sentimental fools,” are in fact “radical and disruptive” manifestations of humankind’s “growing sense of individualism and personal autonomy.”…

This is an interesting and compelling thesis, but it has to be said that Love Songs is a bit superficial in its treatment of certain aspects of its subject. For one thing, Gioia has given us a book about lyrics, not music. He has little to say about the specifically musical matters upon which one might have expected a trained musician to shed light. And Love Songs turns highly problematic when it engages with the present moment. Gioia rightly points out that the traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song. But Love Songs says little about the underlying reasons for this shift and fails altogether to consider the possibility that the changed tone of the “love” song might be directly reflective of the splintered culture from which it springs….

Read the whole thing here.

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Just because: John Coltrane plays “Alabama”

TV CAMERAThe John Coltrane Quartet plays Coltrane’s composition “Alabama” on Jazz Casual, originally telecast on Dec. 7, 1963, five weeks after the group made its studio recording of the piece. The other players are McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Evelyn Waugh vs. an agenda-driven interviewer

INK BOTTLE“Q. Are you yourself as an individual conscious of any particular failing of yourself?

“A. I mean, are you asking me to confess to some moral lapse, or to inadequacy in talent?

“Q. Well. I should like to ask you to confess to some particular moral lapse, but what I really mean is what—in what respect do you as a human being feel that you have primarily failed?

“A. I have never learned French well, and I never learned any other language at all; I’ve forgotten most of my classics; I can’t often remember people’s faces in the streets; and I don’t like music. Those are very grave failings.”

Evelyn Waugh, interviewed on “Frankly Speaking,” BBC, Nov. 16, 1953

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To listen to this interview, go here.

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As long as the lady is paying…

In the last of three season-wrapping drama columns that appeared in The Wall Street Journal this week, I review the Broadway transfers of The Visit and Airline Highway Here’s an excerpt.

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the-visit-3_650Fourteen years after it was set to open on Broadway, “The Visit,” the final John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, has gotten there at last, extensively reworked along the way by Mr. Kander, the composer, and Terrence McNally, who wrote the book. (Ebb, who wrote the lyrics, died in 2004.) This production, previously seen last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, was worth the wait. Directed by John Doyle, the master of miniaturized musicals, and starring Chita Rivera, who made her Broadway debut 62 years ago and still has what it takes, “The Visit” is a cynical tragicomedy whose score is as gorgeous as its heart is hard. If that’s your cup of arsenic, you’ve come to the right apothecary.

Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play, “The Visit” is the story of Claire (Ms. Rivera), a rich old crone who pays a long-delayed visit to Brachen, her decaying home town, whose impoverished citizens need help and trust she’ll give it to them. And so she will—but only if they’ll be so kind as to first do her the favor of murdering Anton (Roger Rees), a well-liked shopkeeper who jilted her long ago and on whom she now means to have her revenge….

visit-chitaMr. Kander’s soaring, waltz-scented love songs are harmonized in an off-center manner subtly suggestive of dirty work at the crossroads. (Imagine a carton of cream that’s a day away from curdling and you’ll get the idea.) As for Ms. Rivera, who sounds like a cross between Hermione Gingold and Rex Harrison and is made up to resemble a walking mummy, she’s all too terrifyingly believable as Claire. When she assures Anton that “I’ve waited a lifetime for this moment,” you’ll feel your insides shriveling.

Mr. Rees, by contrast, is rather too ingratiating, and Mr. McNally’s jokey book softens the impact of the play. In addition, the Broadway version of “The Visit” has been cut down to 90 minutes, doubtless to render Dürrenmatt’s harsh parable even more accessible to Broadway audiences. As a result, the show is now too fast on its feet. (The good folk of Brachen shouldn’t take Claire’s bait that quickly.) But “The Visit” is horrifically potent in every other way…

It’s so uncommon for up-and-coming playwrights to make it to Broadway nowadays that Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway” is of interest for that reason alone. After its premiere last year by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, it has transferred to Broadway mostly intact, and Joe Mantello’s production, in which set designer Scott Pask has put a good-sized chunk of a seedy New Orleans motel onstage, is a young author’s dream.

I wish the play were as good, but it’s a wholly derivative piece of work that has been knocked together from refurbished spare theatrical parts. Ms. D’Amour might just as well have called it “The Hot L New Orleans, or, An Iceman Named Saroyan.” The formula is just that: We get to know a gaggle of beautiful losers who’ve ended up at the Humming Bird Motel, there to face their variously hopeless fates in the manner of—yes, you guessed it—a family. All are straight out of Central Casting…

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To read my complete review of The Visit, go here.

To read my complete review of Airline Highway, go here.

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The man who loved Shakespeare

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I write about Henry Folger, who amassed the collection that became the Folger Shakespeare Library, and about art collectors in general. Might they perhaps all be slightly loony? Here’s an excerpt.

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When I started buying fine-art prints, a critic told me, “You won’t be a real art collector until you own more pieces than you have room to hang.” Sure enough, there comes a point in the lives of many collectors when the urge to accumulate overwhelms the passion to appreciate. That’s what happened to Henry Folger, the founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library, whose passion for Shakespeare is chronicled in Andrea Mays’ “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio,” which will be published in May by Simon & Schuster.

Folger was a self-made millionaire who in his youth became fascinated by Shakespeare’s plays. Working in tandem with his wife Emily, he started collecting early editions of Shakespeare’s writings in 1889, when he was still a salaried executive who didn’t make enough money to fling it around. But he spent lavishly anyway, and by the time he died in 1930, the Folgers had assembled a huge collection that included 79 copies of the “First Folio,” the earliest published edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and were building a museum to house it in Washington, D.C.

64a33b0ab883f31df8da10f0b25fbe07Even after Henry became rich, the Folgers lived simply in a rented Brooklyn house. Instead of trying to buy their way into society, they sank their money into the collection and, later, the building where it can now be viewed by the public. As a result, Ms. Mays writes, they were never able to fully appreciate their holdings: “Once Henry and Emily had stuffed the rooms and closets of their modest home full of Shakespeariana, they had to banish the bulk of their treasures to warehouses, perhaps never to be seen by them again.”

That’s a symptom of Collector’s Mania, one of the most mysterious diseases known to man. Its best-known victim was Charles Foster Kane, the fictional anti-hero of “Citizen Kane,” who amassed what the film describes as “a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised, enough for 10 museums.” By the end of his life, Kane was buying sculptures without bothering to take them out of their shipping crates. Many real-life gilded-age American millionaires who collected art in bulk, like William Randolph Hearst (Kane’s model) and J.P. Morgan, did so in the same obsessive and puzzling way….

Absent the ulterior motives of personal glory or pecuniary profit, why would anyone who claims to love art buy expensive works of art, then put them in storage? What kind of love is that? The only good reason I can think of to buy a sculpture is to be able to look at it every day….

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Read the whole thing here.

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The doctor is out

In the second of three season-wrapping drama columns that will appear in The Wall Street Journal this week, I review two new musicals, Doctor Zhivago and Something Rotten! Here’s an excerpt.

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At least one of the musicals that I see on Broadway each season leaves me shaking my head and muttering “What were they thinking?” on the way out of the theater. “Doctor Zhivago,” which purports to be adapted from Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel of Russian life before and after the October Revolution but in fact appears to be based on David Lean’s 1965 film version of the book, is the worst kind of case in point. No doubt the creators thought it more respectable to claim direct descent from the book, but when you bill such a show as “one of the most romantic stories of all time,” you’re probably not much concerned with suggesting the tone and texture of a serious novel, least of all one that no less a critical heavyweight than Edmund Wilson declared to be “one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” Not so the stage version of “Doctor Zhivago,” a slow-paced commodity musical suitable only for consumption by tone-deaf tweenagers.

Dr_Zhivago_3Even in its present etiolated form, “Doctor Zhivago” is a tale told on the grandest possible scale, the kind to which the word “epic” is for once correctly applied. Such stories demand full operatic treatment, or at the bare minimum a pseudo-operatic score à la “Les Misérables.” Lucy Simon, best known as Carly’s sister and for “The Secret Garden,” simply doesn’t have that kind of equipment in her musical toolbox. Maurice Jarré’s “Somewhere, My Love,” the whiny theme song from the movie, has been interpolated into the first act, presumably so that the audience will know what show it’s seeing, but the other tunes are by Ms. Simon, and they are generically gooey in a way that will appeal to anyone who finds Andrew Lloyd Webber challenging….

Worst of all, though, is Michael Weller’s book, in which “Doctor Zhivago” is rewritten in the action-packed manner of a Classics Illustrated comic….

“Something Rotten!” is a Mel Brooks-style Elizabethan-era backstage spoof in which Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James), a failed playwright, tries to get the drop on Will Shakespeare (Christian Borle) by paying a cracked soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to prophesy the Bard’s biggest unwritten success. Alas, the signals from the future are garbled, and the result is “Omelette: The Musical.” That’s not a bad premise for an old-fashioned variety-show sketch of the sort that Mr. Brooks used to write for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, but Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick have blown it up to two and a half hours by inserting 15 mostly comic songs, none of whose lyrics is sharp enough to penetrate its target…

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To read my complete review of Doctor Zhivago, go here.

To read my complete review of Something Rotten!, go here.

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, most performances sold out, reviewed here)
Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, virtually all performances sold reviewed here)
Hand to God (black comedy, X, absolutely not for children or prudish adults, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
73Theater Review The King and IThe King and I (musical, G, perfect for children with well-developed attention spans, all performances sold out, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, nearly all performances sold out, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
On the Twentieth Century (musical, G/PG-13, virtually all performances sold out, closes July 5, contains very mild sexual content, reviewed here)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, ideal for bright children, remounting of Broadway production, original production reviewed here)

After the Revolution (drama, G/PG-13, unsuitable for children, closes May 17, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, closes May 3, reviewed here)
Hamilton (historical musical, PG-13, closes May 3, moves to Broadway Aug. 6, reviewed here)
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, PG-13, two different stagings of the same play performed by the same cast in rotating repertory, closes May 2, reviewed here)

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