Tuesday 14 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - One - A Baptist boy finds a new god

Alfred Hitchcock’s name on the marquee made me aware even as a child that films were made by somebody, that they had an author just like a novel or a poem. 

There was, moreover, something deliciously forbidden about this author whose very titles invited the budding voyeur in me - Dial M for Murder (1954), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954). My interest in these films was further aroused by the fact that at the ripe old age of ten my parents refused to let me see any of them. I was too well brought up a young Baptist to argue the point with them; in any case they were only screened at nights being classified NSC or AO (not suitable for children or suitable only for adults) and I was only allowed out to matinees. My friend Toivo Lember was the lucky Gladstone Gander to my Donald Duck.  He accompanied his parents to evening screenings at the Mt Gravatt Princess theatre. He crowed and I was envious. 

During puberty I grew bolder and asserted my interest in pursuing Hitchcock, against strong parental opposition. It was 1959 and television had newly arrived in Brisbane. It brought among other delights the weekly program Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I plotted and cajoled and wheedled my way into ensuring that the program aired regularly in our living room. I was hooked for life, over my mother’s threats and protests. 

Rear Window
Hitchcock’s provocative introductions were hilarious to me but confronting for her; they quickly familiarised me with Hitchcock’s trademark black humour and mordant wit, along with his brilliant sense of showmanship. Mother simply did not know what to make of the tone but feared something central was amiss and probably downright wicked. Fortunately my father shared my opinion of these little gems as I came as close as I ever did to adolescent rebellion. In 1960 I had caught up with Rear Window on the big screen and now rushed out along with the rest of my peers to see Psycho (1960). We had all been worked over by the clever trailer but nothing really prepared me for the reality of the experience.  Psycho left me crouching in fear in the theatre with my hands up to my face in the more graphic sequences and gave me nightmares in my sleep for several nights. It also caused a predictable rift at home when Alfred Hitchcock Presents was peremptorily banned from the weekly agenda. The domino effect followed quickly; the banishment of Hitchcock also extended now to The Twilight Zone (the Little Girl Lost episode was the last straw for my mother), Boris Karloff’s Thriller (this time it was Pigeons from Hell) and The Outer Limits (several offending episodes)!

I lost the battle but won the war three years later when Rebecca (1940) aired on television. Mother overcame her prejudices, watched the romantic/gothic thriller and confessed to enjoying it immensely. (She probably loved it for all the wrong reasons but I didn’t care ).

In 1966 during my last year of tertiary study I met and befriended Roger McNiven in Brisbane. At that time the auteurist film debates were in full swing with the Brisbane Cinema Group crowd, most of whom opted for the current critical establishment line on Hitchcock, that is, that he was a brilliant film technician but merely a manipulative entertainer who was not to be taken too seriously. Robin Wood’s 1967 monograph threw down the gauntlet to such scoffers with his now famous opening line “Why take Hitchcock seriously?” and went on to argue a fascinating case for doing exactly that. I had by this time been exposed to the likes of Shadow of a Doubt (1942) and Vertigo (1958), had bitterly resented the condescending sneers of the Brisbane Cinema Group crowd on the subject of Hitchcock (and other so-called “mere” entertainers ), so Wood’s challenges came as balm to my soul. Roger and I became the opposition, especially after we founded the University of Queensland Film Group. Needless to say, I quarrelled vigorously with many acquaintances at the time, including my friend Toivo Lember, on the subject of Marnie (1964)

Poster for Kent Jones film
These were doctrinaire times. Roger, Bill Van Der Heide and I, with the help of invited guests and ardent Hitchcock experts Eamon Byrne and Ken Mogg, mounted a festival of fifteen Hitchcock films at the old Avalon Theatre, St Lucia in 1967. It was the first festival devoted to a single body of a film author’s work in Brisbane (and, I suspect, in the Southern hemisphere). We wrote polemically, more than a little naively in my case, and certainly long-windedly about our favourite Hitchcock films in our program notes. Whatever shortcomings the project may have had, it certainly fostered the debate about taking Hitchcock seriously. The next year, in Sydney, Psycho was re-released and drew strong crowds. Shortly thereafter, Francois Truffaut’s ground-breaking book was translated into English; everybody, it seemed, was now taking Hitchcock seriously. Toivo and I were no longer at loggerheads but the falling out with some of my old Brisbane Cinema Group acquaintances and friends never really healed.

From that time Hitchcock became as firmly established a great artist in my estimation as Beethoven, Bach or Shakespeare. His mastery of his chosen  medium seemed as unquestionable to me as any of those masters in theirs. I kept shifting ground about specific films but not about the overall achievement: I became at various points of time, less fond of his pre-Hollywood output and of most of his post-Marnie films, Frenzy (1972) excepted. In the former, I felt that he was relatively disadvantaged by the lack of technical resources at his disposal when the ambiences of the films cried out for them; in the latter I felt there was a considerable decline in his powers which had peaked in the years from Rear Window to Marnie. I had mixed feelings about his technical experiments. While admiring the audacity and challenge of the ten-minute takes in Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), I didn’t necessarily think they produced great films but merely extended some of the boundaries of cinematic possibilities. On the other hand, I found the confinement of the worlds of Rear Window and Lifeboat (1944) wholly convincing and riveting cinema. At the other end of the spectrum, I felt his thrill-a-minute cross-country chases from The 39 Steps (1935) through Saboteur (1942) to North by Northwest produced brilliant entertainments but not necessarily his best art. I am not so lofty in my conceptions of art these days and now consider The 39 Steps and especially North by Northwest as among his greatest achievements.

(Editor's Note: Noel's most personal memoir will be continued  daily)

North by Northwest

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