It’s the sinister little secret of The Pink Smoke that we don’t much care for Alfred “Under Capricorn” Hitchcock. And while we certainly have zilch-o interest in debating the merits of a filmmaker that everyone can agree is “the greatest of all-time and you’d have to be some sort of malcontented and willful iconoclast to disagree,” we are interested in a strange phenomenon: while we don’t adore the man himself, we have a tendency to love Hitchcock knock-offs.
From William Castle’s lazy copy-catting to Francois Truffaut’s loving pastiches, there’s a chance that if a film shamelessly apes the master of suspense, we’re really going to enjoy it. Brian DePalma, Jonathan Demme, Stanely Donen; the list of great filmmakers who tried their hand at a Hitchcockian shtick is extensive and hugely appealing to explore – and honestly, we’ll take either “French Hitchcock” over the real thing any day, whether you consider the mantle to rightfully belong to H.G. Clouzot or Claude Chabrol.
In this series, we’ll look at parodies, assiduous imitators, and off-brand “Hitchcock-like Film Product” in order to dig into just what it is that we love so much about these movies. Sure, you’ll blanche at the suggestion,* but we think these films are Better Than Hitchcock.
mel brooks, 1977.
"BART OF DARKNESS"
jim reardon, 1994.
I'm trapped! I feel like I'm caught in a web!
This can't be what it looks like. There's gotta be some other explanation!
I’ll be the first to admit that my antipathy for Alfred Hitchcock is a strange and suspicious thing. What cinephile genuinely doesn’t have some measure of enthusiasm for the Master of Suspense? There’s such a wide smorgasbord to sample from, surely there must be something to anyone’s taste amongst the tv shows, silly trailers, spy thrillers, Peter Lorre quiet chair-fights and critically consensus-ified greatest films in the history of le cinema? And of course there are: Joseph Cotton’s two bizarre monologues in Shadow of a Doubt about the detestability of womankind are marvels of pathological sincerity and I enjoy The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes or the original The Man Who Knew Too Much as much as anybody (provided that anybody was not a writer for the Cahiers du Cinema or an insufferable, derivative-to-his-core dipshit à la Richard Brody.*)
But I can trace my dubiousness towards the Myth of Hitchcock back to its source. In high school, I made my way through The Canon as anyone does when they are determined to immerse themselves in the medium but, like, for real: you seek out your half-dozen plus one samurais and you watch death play board games and you hunt down Jack Lemmon in drag and take all those offers you can’t refuse and, of course, you get into some creepy peepin’ with ya boy, Jimmy-Jam Stewart.
So at a formative age, when I was deciding what art meant something to me and what maybe, juuuuuust maybe, was empty hype, I saw Rear Window.
And it fizzled. It didn’t do anything for me. It was brutally boring, titteringly puerile, and more than a little cheesy. It just didn’t work. It had literally no effect on me, insofar as “annoyed disappointment” is not an effect that qualifies for the discussion. And I’m easy. I cry during trailers if they feature noble enough dogs or wet-eyed hunks who are (finally) putting their hearts on their sleeves. I jump at cat scares featuring actual cats and laugh without irony nor derision at Paul Blarts. To affect my response is a very low bar to clear. And Rear Window failed. Completely.
“Wait one moment!” you might say (especially if you think almost exactly as I did back then), “Isn’t that the fault of the parodies?” At the time, I cut Hitchcock’s film an incredible amount of slack because I (pretty reasonably) believed that the constant, heavy parodying of the material had drained away its ability to surprise, to beguile & captivate, to entertain. Of course it felt listless and lifeless and lackadaisical - how could it not when dozen and dozens of films and television programs and detergent commercials had aped and imitated and burlesqued it to a point where its every pleasure and revelation had been spoiled like yogurt spilled down a leg-cast one week ago?
What whammy was there to be had when the film had already appeared to me in advance like a premonition via mimics and counterfeits? Everyone from Frank Tashlin (in Artists & Models) to the Sega-CD video-game Night Trap had done a Rear Window shtick. With Brian DePalma’s films, Curtis Hanson’s The Bedroom Window and even Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love, in the 80’s there was an entire sub-genre of “lonely heroes who spy on their neighbors” inspired directly by Hitchcock’s film.
The Simpsons take-off on the concept, “Bart of Darkness,” premiered in 1994 just after I had turned 15 and I had seen it a dozen times before I saw Hitchcock’s original. As a Rear Window parody, it is one of the more direct and complete: a broken leg, a tele-photo lens, a mind driven mad by isolation, an seemingly innocuous neighbor who can’t quite be proven guilty of nefarious deeds, a chilling and ambiguous scream, even a stand-in for concerned Grace Kelly in l’il Lisa Simpson who ends up being endangered on an investigative home invasion gone awry. The Simpsons take-off was so complete I think you will forgive me for expecting to see at the end of Hitchcock’s film a little naked boy’s butt as he stands in a shattered above-ground pool.
It’s one of the best episodes of any television show in the history of The T.V. and it worked on me. Even now I crack up thinking about Bart’s one-act play. “'Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga?' ‘Is it St. Swithin’s Day already?’ '’Tis!’ replied Aunt Helllllga.” For me, in a major way, “Bart of Darkness” completely stole Rear Window’s thunder.
So there I was, ready to forgive Rear Window its trespasses against boredom and cheesiness, when I saw Casablanca. If there was any film more parodied and imitated than Rear Window, any film that had more completely appeared to me like a premonition in advance of seeing it, Casablanca was it. I knew every line, every plot point, every single goddamned thing that would happen before it happened - the beginnings of beautiful friendships and Sams playing it again - and, goddamn, did Casablanca still work on me. I think you will agree with this controversial assertion: Casablanca is very good regardless of our shameful, culture-wide programme of Casablanca-spoilage.
But then what excuse is there for Rear Window?
And you may expect my answer to be: there is none. There is no excuse whatsoever to temper my furious and unyielding judgment. But it’s not that simple. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand Rear Window and why I can’t get anything out of it. You might have noticed that for a guy who doesn’t much care for Hitchcock, I sure have seen a striking number of his movies and spent a lot of time analyzing them, certainly more time and effort than I’ve invested in the work of other filmmakers who simply aren’t much to my taste, like Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola or R.L. Frost.
So what I’ve decided is that by looking at two meticulous parodies of Hitchcock, one successful and one unsuccessful, I can understand what it is that doesn’t work about Rear Window for me. I’ve already mentioned “Bart of Darkness” but I’m also going to take a look at Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety. Like any reasonable human being, I have no small amount of affection for Brooks - as a comedic performer with Carl Reiner, as a director of some of the most enduring feature comedies of all time, as the force behind Brooksfilm which brought us The Elephant Man and Solarbabies. Like any reasonable human being, I love Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and really want to love more of his films while being more than willing to offer unconvincing defenses of personal favorites like Spaceballs or Dracula, Dead and Loving It!
Like Rear Window itself, I’ve spent a fair amount of time and effort trying to talk myself into High Anxiety - and in a way, I have. It’s a movie I really enjoy while not believing that it’s any good. It co-stars Madeline Kahn, which is basically all a movie needs for me to like it, and there’s something about it that’s easy and charming while never quite being funny or even tonally coherent. The jokes slip between “Mel Brooks-style super-broad” and “Mel Brooks-style super-deadpan,” as is his wont, but here the goofball stuff is jammed into a story that runs for long stretches without any humor whatsoever and the film seems to take its suspense elements seriously to an almost baffling degree.
It’s hard to know what to do with it. There’s a joke in the first shot of the film during the credits sequence: the camera tracks slowly down a row of airplane windows, passing over the excited passengers inside the plane as it prepares for landing. When the tracking camera gets to Brooks’ character, he’s freaking the fuck out. Look at this goofy face he’s making:
That’s kicking off a movie that on some level wants you to take seriously the character’s anxiety about heights. Because of its aesthetic construction and plot mechanics, that’s an image that the film needs you to take seriously.
Shortly thereafter, following a brutally unfunny over-the-top bathroom pick-up gag, Brooks is nervously riding an escalator and then walking through the airport. The scene is still cut within the credits, but this “walkin' through the airport” bit leaves you in anticipation of a joke that doesn't come until several minutes later when the credits are over. Just a nervous guy riding an escalator and then walking hurriedly with other passengers. It’s as though the film transforms from a silly lark to a regular movie over the course of a credits sequence.
And then when the credits end Brooks says to no one, “what a dramatic airport!”
That lame tag is particularly strange because the film is using the credits sequence to try to build some kind of a “dramatic” tone: it's all dutched angles of disembodied hands and feet zooming across the screen, blurs of bodies in motion zipping down moving sidewalks. The joke goofs on something the film simultaneously wants you to take seriously. It really is supposed to be a “dramatic airport” - the sequence leading up to Brooks’ one-liner is entirely sincere. There’s a secondary issue of the sequence resembling nothing that would appear in a Hitchcock film (honestly, the way it’s constructed brought to my mind Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera) but the fact is the sequence isn’t dramatic enough to work on its own and then a lazy, near-worthless joke undercuts the film’s fumbling attempt at building tension.
That’s the movie in a nutshell: it tries with all sincerity to sketch a "dramatic airport" and then feints at a non-joke that somewhat (and only somewhat) undercuts the attempt at tone-building. And it's not even a good joke - you can only tell it's an attempt at humor because it's so broad and so incongruous to the preceding section that it can't be understood as anything but "comedy." Brooks constantly veers into being a human cartoon while the movie around him just as constantly resets as a “real” film. Maybe calling it a “cartoon” is unfair to cartoons - the film definitely violates Chuck Jones’ adage, “We didn’t want our films to be realistic, we wanted them to be believable.”
It’s an interesting contrast where “Bart of Darkness” never undermines its central conceit that Bart is being driven a little bonkers by being trapped in a cast and locked away from the summer fun happening just outside his window in the brand new above-ground pool in his backyard. The Simpsons episode makes a strange yet logical commitment to its plot - Bart believing his neighbor Ned Flanders has killed his wife isn’t played as a joke in and of itself. It’s a weirdly serious take on the story bolstered by the anarchic humor of the show; it’s the inverse of High Anxiety in that it's a load of goofy jokes elevated by their narrative frame.
Even the idea that the Simpsons kids want to believe their too-wholesome neighbor Ned Flanders is up to no good works as character development - it’s believable without being realistic. They hate Ned’s goodie two-shoes** kids Rod and Tod, they find the whole family’s Godliness and Goodliness act disquieting. They’ve been trained by their dad to spit on the Flanders name and it’s easy to see how they talk themselves into believing that Ned is up to something sinister and weird. Bart’s obsession with proving that Ned killed his wife Maude works from both those angles: a frenzied mind locked within itself and denied the simple childhood pleasures of summer combined with a disdain for the weirdos next door.
As a parody, it functions by taking a framework, emptying out its specifics and re-filling it with absurdity. The more specificity there is in the framework to begin with, the more opportunity there is in the re-filling. That is, a vague “Hitchcock parody” like High Anxiety begins with less specificity and has to work much harder to create a coherent artwork, while a concrete Rear Window parody can immediately get down to the business of emptying out the ominous portly neighbor and refilling his role with the unnaturally virtuous Ned Flanders. Instead of dragging himself to rescue his helper while being hampered by a wheelchair, Bart can be hampered by a garden hose, a waste basket, a tricycle and an angry dog.
High Anxiety grasps at every facet of Hitchcock - it’s a wrong man thriller, a spy game, a psychological hang-up picture - and it struggles continuously to press these disparate elements into a coherent form. When Madeline Kahn appears, her character can never come together because she’s a little bit of of mysterious femme fatale of the Kim Novak in Vertigo stripe, a little bit of an average woman in over her head like Janet Leigh in Psycho or Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (two characters that in and of themselves have almost nothing in common) and a little bit of a duplicitous insider in imitation of Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. Kahn’s a great actor (beyond being my favorite comedic actor), but the character tries to be everything about Hitchcock so it ends up being nothing.
And I think that points to what doesn’t work for me about Rear Window itself: apart from Jimmy Stewart’s character, almost every single other person in the film is an empty projection. That’s intentional, of course: the plot functions by putting in front of Stewart’s peepin’ lens generic types in broadly intelligible situations. The trick is making everything that happens in front of Stewart readily comprehensible so that when he is confronted with a situation that can most readily be interpreted in nefarious terms, the film has already reinforced the notion that he should believe what he sees according to the most readily intelligible interpretation.
But that’s a really cheap trick.
One of the things I’ve always found toughest to stand about Hitchcock is what folks seem to love about him: the brazen and frequently idiotic manipulation of his audience - in their book on the man, Claude Chabrol & Eric Rohmer refer to this tendency as Hitchcock's "sovereign contempt" (!) for his audience. Examples range from the false protagonist of Psycho (at the most clever) to the falsified flashback of Stage Fright (at the most barf-y.) Rear Window’s trick is to insist on the obviousness of human behavior and the clear narratives that can be gleaned from silent, incomplete observation and then use that false premise to fuel a simplistic murder-mystery "either/or." But human behavior and human lives are messy - the basic archetypes and generic situations Stewart observes through his long lens have only ever existed on unconvincing artificial backlots like the proscenium-aping set where Rear Window was filmed. The world in Stewart’s backyard exists only to help Hitchcock pull off his trick.
I’m reminded of Neil Jordan’s The Miracle where the main characters spend their days on a seaside pier coming up with back-stories for the folks they see pass. The stories are wild and sad and beautiful and as true as whatever the truth may be. The storytellers’ talents are for seeing a glimmer of humanity in all those that pass and expanding the minor details they observe into caricatures that are powerful and funny and memorable for their possibility of being true, for the reality in their complete fabrication. The truth could, of course, be anything. The stories they make up are poetic the way poetry is a fantasy of truth more beautiful and truer than the truth itself. In Rear Window, the truth of what Stewart observes is a carefully constructed track that Hitchcock insists on steering you down.
There’s nothing human about it, nothing real about any of it. Hitchcock’s Rear Window has all the poetry of a limerick.
It reminds me of the failures of High Anxiety where the plot carries no weight because every character is an indeterminate and inhuman “Hitchcockian type.” There’s nothing true (and even less that's "truer than true") in Madeline Kahn’s character nor in the dumb sadomasochistic crypto-Nazi villains. Rear Window might work with a protagonist as great as Bart Simpson instead of Stewart's fairly generic "adventurous man forced to sit around his apartment" - but even more than that, it sure could use a villain as de-diddle-e-lightful as Ned Flanders and a backyard over-run with the likes of Nelson Muntz, Martin Prince and Milhouse Van Houten.***
But don’t set up empty types and expect me to care about them, to be scared if they live or die or to give half a shit about the truth of their hollow murder-mysteries. It’s all too cartoonish to be believable.
~ NOVEMBER 29, 2016 ~
* This is your opportunity to tweet something coolly dismissive of the very concept! Do it! You’ll be an internet hero for your brave defense of the much-maligned Alfred Hitchcock! Take this bold stance now - sneer, snark and shrug in a gesture of dismissive superiority! "People write some crazy stuff on the internet," you'll tweet and you'll put a little whattayagunnado emoticon next to it and everyone will think "Well there's a guy who knows movies. Not like those guys who think Frenzy and Topaz are terrible." I just hope someone out there has the courage, integrity and intelligence to take this stance. Our willfully provocatively iconoclasm would be empty without an establishment orthodoxy to stick it to!
Or just, like, accept that not everyone likes the exact same films and filmmakers that you do, even ones as endlessly venerated as "Il Porco Spaventoso" (that was his nickname, right?) It happens. The fact of the matter is, we know our opinion on Hitchcock will be unpopular and we'd just like to move past it. If you think our assessment of him is indefensible, just know we have no desire to defend it.
* Can you believe that clown put Marnie on his Top 10 list in 2012 for Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade critics' poll? If you were to create the character of “Richard Brody” for your sitcom as a way of poking fun at the pretentiousness of snooty/clueless/detestable big city film critics, CBS’s Monday night audiences would say “That’s too broad and simplistic of a caricature! This character of ‘Richard Brody’ that you have created is too much of a buffoon for us to take seriously, even in this less than serious context!”
** In my opinion, “two” is the correct number of shoes.
*** I'm not joking - think of how much more rich and strange it would be to observe Milhouse's weirdness in incomplete fragments than it is to watch a personality-free buxom blonde doing toe-touches in front of her fridge.