Lights, cameo, action!

Alfred Hitchcock's first rule of directing was to treat actors like cattle -- and even in his own cameos, he was no sacred cow.

Topics: Directors, Roman Polanski, Music,

The appeal of some of the recurring elements in Alfred Hitchcock’s 53 films — Bernard Herrmann’s scores, Edith Head’s clothes, the modernist blonds, all those hotel rooms and trains — share a kind of lurid glamour. Watching “To Catch a Thief,” “Vertigo” and “Rebecca” from this end of the century, it’s shocking how shocking they are, how sexy — sexual. From “Psycho’s” opening post-coital scene in that cheap hotel to “Rope’s” not-so-subtle homosexual buzz, Hitchcock’s films are resolutely adult. Except for one glaringly childlike device: the director’s own cameos. The cameos are eye candy, empty calories that nonetheless bring on a sugar high, and bliss, albeit temporary.

Why is that? Why is it so pleasurable, just when you’re embarking on an evening of murder, to spy a round old Englishman flicker on the screen for less time than it takes to chew a Junior Mint? Take the problematic “Marnie,” for example: Right before the viewer is thrown into such unsettling topics as repressed memory and marital rape, Marnie, played by the peculiar Tippi Hedren and described by the boss she’s just ripped off as having “evil features, good teeth,” marches down a hotel corridor with a bellboy — at which point Hitch pokes his head out of his room as if checking whether the coast is clear. It is practically the only truly light-hearted moment in this heavy-handed, heavy-hearted film.

The Hitchcock cameos are fundamentally about pleasure. Just for kicks, they do not move the stories along. It’s tempting to say they’re not symbolic, that they’re meaningless, and yet I think symbolism is the root of their appeal. Directors in general and Hitchcock in particular are inherent control freaks. They are the overseers, the bosses, the chiefs. Hitchcock wasn’t just a commanding figure, he had a commanding physical presence. He was, in every sense of the word, huge. Part of the joy of the cameos is how inconspicuous he is on screen. Frequently, he’s a bit of a boob. In “North by Northwest” he misses his bus. In “To Catch a Thief” he sits on a bus next to Cary Grant, who sits next to a bird cage. Could the man not drive? In the cameos, Hitch always plays a random everyman, frequently in transit to some no-doubt mundane routine.



A lot of other directors cast themselves in bit parts in their own films. But Hitchcock’s wry humility — no lines in no time — is not the rule. Take a survey of most director cameos and the common thread is this: Directors are bossy. They spend all day, every day, telling actors what to do, and this impulse spills over onto the screen. The purest example is Francis Coppola’s turn as a television documentary director in “Apocalypse Now.” As Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) runs past Coppola’s TV crew mid-battle, there are explosions and gunfire demanding his attention and yet Willard is only mesmerized by Coppola’s camera. “Just go by like you’re fighting!” Coppola screams at him, directing the war. “Don’t look at the camera! It’s for television!”

Coppola’s yelling tone is not uncommon. The most hilarious example of this is David Lynch’s small role as Agent Cooper’s supervisor Gordon Cole in “Twin Peaks,” both on television and in the film “Fire Walk With Me.” Cole, near-deaf, consequently screams his lines. (When Cole calls an agent played by Chris Isaak in “Fire Walk With Me” on his car phone, Isaak quickly lowers the antenna on his car to weaken the signal.) Secondly, Coppola speaks with a directorial tendency toward what the grammarians call You Understood. See Oliver Stone’s brief appearance in “Wall Street” instructing his broker “Take it and bid it!” in the same tone of voice one imagines he commands, “Action!”

Others gripe at their actors. As Dustin Hoffman’s agent in “Tootsie,” director Sydney Pollack is crabby and impatient. “I’m your agent, not your mother!” And who can forget Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” cameo? Sitting in the back of Robert De Niro’s cab, Scorsese orders the cabbie to pull up to a curb, sit there, look up at a window and “Just sit!” Then, in a twitching voice, the director confesses his wife’s up there in another man’s apartment and he’s going to kill her and kill her soon. “You must think I’m pretty sick,” he laughs.

Some directors use their cameos not just to boss their actors around on screen, but also to abuse them, scare them, let them know who’s the better man. Which is presumably what they’re doing behind the scenes. The most famous example of this impulse is director Roman Polanski’s brief but influential arrival in his “Chinatown.” He opens a switchblade and chides Jack Nicholson’s detective, “You’re a very nosy fellow. You know what happens to nosy fellows? … They lose their noses.” He jabs the switchblade into Nicholson’s nostril and cuts through his nose in one swift flick. There’s blood everywhere. And, because Nicholson has to wear a bandage through the rest of the movie, Polanski’s influence is blatantly pictured, a bloody, scabby reminder of Polanski’s control. Or in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” director John Huston is the altruistic rich man continually giving the bum Bogie money until finally chiding him, “You have to make your way through life without my assistance.” At which point Huston probably ordered, “Cut!” and then helped Bogart find his motivation or something.

Alfred Hitchcock, lest we forget, once remarked that “actors should be treated like cattle.” But he puts himself on screen as cattle. Sitting next to a star like Grant, Hitchcock is the extra. Since he doesn’t speak, he’s less a character than a logo. Viewers look for Hitchcock’s round mug to appear just as museum-goers look to the bottom of a painting for the artist’s signature. Hitchcock’s whole body acts as his signature, and this fact is wittily alluded to in his cameo in “Strangers on a Train”: Boarding the train just as Farley Granger gets off, Hitch carries a stand-up bass case his exact size and shape — his visual twin.

By the end of their lives, actor-directors such as Spike Lee and Woody Allen, who keep starring in their own films, will have amassed the equivalent of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Just as the Dutch master continually tilted his mirror so the world could watch him be savaged by time, those filmmakers will age and grow (more petty, in Allen’s case) before us. Hitchcock’s impulse to jump in and out of his films willy-nilly was less deep but more fun. Hitchcock wasn’t Rembrandt so much as Jan Van Eyck. Painting himself as a speck in the mirror of his famous “Wedding Portrait,” van Eyck, as witness of the wedding he depicted, inscribed the canvas in Latin, “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic” (Jan van Eyck was here). So the next time you’re watching “Vertigo” and a man in a suit walks past the shipyard carrying what’s either a lunch box or a bugle case, whisper to yourself, “Alfred Hitchcock was here.”

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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