Master of imperfection

Hitchcock may have been a master of many things, but his goofy endings were like a dead cockroach found at the bottom of a near-perfect cinematic sundae.

By Steve Burgess
Published August 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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News of Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone's June 9 arrest in Beverly
Hills for alleged DUI and possession of hashish surely brought tears of
gratitude and relief from film buffs everywhere. It was a brilliant execution of
the feds' famed Al Capone strategy -- unable to nail the gangster for murder and
mayhem, they eventually got him for tax evasion. Likewise, Stone cleverly
stayed just this side of the law while committing a series of directorial
bludgeonings that left a bloody aftermath of overkill in theaters around
the world. Now busted on relatively minor charges, he can be tried and
quickly executed. We will sleep again.

Stone, the man responsible for "JFK," "Wall Street" and "Natural Born
Killers" among others, is an obvious target (although he may yet be granted
clemency on account of "Platoon"). But not all cinematic crimes are committed by
the usual suspects. As in any good thriller, sometimes the perpetrator is
someone whose integrity you'd never question -- someone like Alfred
Hitchcock. The implacable English director, who died in 1980, may be the
prime example of a film legend whose reputation has come to overpower
any realistic view of his work.


Not long ago on PBS's "Charlie Rose" show, there was a roundtable
discussion on the Master of Suspense. Participants included director Peter
Bogdanovich and Hitchcock's daughter Pat.
A clip was played, evidently selected to illustrate the Master's genius. As I recognized the scene in
question -- the rip-roaring climax of the 1951 film that revived Hitchcock's Hollywood
fortunes, "Strangers on a Train" -- I spoiled the reverent mood (in my own
living room, at least) with a loud guffaw. That particular classic happens to feature the goofiest ending this side of "Robot Monster."

Here's the scenario: Two plainclothes cops tail a suspect (Robert
Walker) in an amusement park. Suddenly the varmint makes a break for it. His
choice of getaway vehicle? A merry-go-round. The cops panic -- the suspect is,
well, sort of escaping! At the very least he's bound to out-duel those little
bastards for the brass ring. So, there in the crowd of kiddies and
teenage dates, the cops do the only sensible thing -- they pull out their big irons and
start blasting. First to get it is the carousel operator, whose carcass
lands on the big lever and apparently pushes it to the rarely used
"turbo" setting. (Like the safety improvements prompted by the Titanic disaster,
this incident must surely have had a silver lining -- today, merry-go-round
manufacturers no longer build their machines with a spin cycle.) Any
faster and kids will be flying in all directions like spray off a wet dog. A
brave feller crawls beneath the crazed machine to reach the lever, which he
then unfortunately seems to pull back to the "explode" setting (another
design flaw). The ride blows up. The varmint dies. The End. Another Hitchcock

I first saw "Strangers on a Train" after spotting it on a late-night TV
schedule, marked by those four glittering stars reserved only for
filmdom's most sacred works. A similar recommendation, plus a genuine fondness for
Hitchcock, drew me to "Shadow of a Doubt," identified by Pat Hitchcock as
her father's favorite among all his films. It stars Joseph Cotten as a
malevolently charming murderer who hides out with unsuspecting relatives
in a California town, and Teresa Wright as his naive and adoring niece.
Like so many Hitchcock movies, "Shadow of a Doubt" is a pleasure to watch
almost all the way through, a movie to sink into as you would a warm bath. And
like so many Hitchcock movies, it ends in the kind of crushingly lame
climax better suited to a Quinn Martin production.


We're on a train again, watching Cotten struggle with the significantly
smaller Wright, aiming to throw his niece out the door and into the path
of yet another onrushing locomotive (it was 1943 -- family counseling was
still in its infancy). Sadly for Cotten, he fails to reckon with the invisible
magnets in his ass, which suddenly cause him to fly violently out the
door and become one with the cowcatcher of old No. 409. Why was the petite Wright
able to accomplish this? Probably for the same reason Tippi Hedren went
into the attic in "The Birds." When, during the Northern California location shoot
for that 1963 movie, Hedren had the temerity to ask just why her character
would want to go upstairs, Hitchcock is said to have replied: "Because I told you to." (The final split for Hitchcock and Hedren came after a
spat on the set of "Marnie" when, as Hitchcock later explained, "She did what no one is permitted to do -- she referred to my weight.")

Certainly, Alfred Hitchcock created some of the most engrossing movies ever filmed.
But as his legend has grown, there has been a rush to canonize all his
works and a tendency to overlook their considerable flaws. Other directors
have been similarly deified, although usually it's individual movies that are
transformed over time into undeserving hall-of-fame candidates. Did anyone else notice
that Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" (1987), one of the most praised movies
of the past 15 years, made a lot more sense without the subtitles? Pauline Kael
apparently did. She wrote that the film "has a visual fascination, but
no animating force -- that's part of why it's being acclaimed as art." But was I
the only one sucked in by Kael's description of "Night of the Hunter" as "one of the most frightening movies ever made," only to discover a
ham-fisted and occasionally risible bit of hokum?

What's particularly annoying about Hitchcock's shortcomings is that they
so often turn up as the dead cockroach at the bottom of a near-perfect
cinematic sundae. His endings are chronically weak, tacked-on affairs
that give the impression the portly director was late for supper. Even after
a legitimate gem like "Vertigo," it's quite possible to leave the theater
wondering, why exactly did Kim Novak topple so readily off that tower?
Perhaps she borrowed some pants from Joseph Cotten?


If Hitchcock has been turned into a plaster saint, it was not always so.
Kael once called him "lazy," and complaints about lame contrivances in
his films were sufficiently common to inspire a defensive retort from the
director. "A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull
fellow," Hitchcock sniffed. In the sympathetic biography "Hitch: The Life and
Times of Alfred Hitchcock" (Pantheon), John Russell Taylor wrote: "He never
cared too much ... about giving more than a formal nod towards what he considered
technical inessentials." Perhaps that explains scenes like the plane
crash in "Foreign Correspondent": We are inside the cabin as the doomed aircraft
screams toward the sea. Then, impact -- and a serious mussing of hair,
along with some minor handbag displacement. The effect is that of a station
wagon that has just run over a possum.

"Foreign Correspondent" has other gaping plot holes, but they're the kind
that require you to hit the pause button and think for a bit, whereas
the airplane scene is one of those spell-breaking moments that invite
derision and disbelief as surely as the sight of a boom mike atop the
frame. Implausible scenes and devices are common to a great many movies
("Casablanca's" supernaturally powerful "letters of transit" being a
particularly famous example). The trick is to have them glide by
unnoticed, and Hitchcock is not always adept in this regard. Sometimes the problem
is heightened by the passage of time. The pop psychology of
"Spellbound" (1945), for instance, has aged hilariously. (Hitchcock was more prescient with
his next film, "Notorious," which centers on a plan to smuggle uranium for use
in atomic weapons. Pitched on the idea in pre-Hiroshima 1945, producer
David O. Selznick sold the movie to RKO because he found the central plot
device unbelievable.)


But it's in the final act that Hitchcock's films so often disappoint.
Rare is an example like "Rope" (1948), in which the ending flows naturally from
the preceding events. "Psycho" works too, although by now it's hard to
remember if it was ever a surprise. On the laziness front, actor William
H. Macy recently pointed out that when Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) first
attempts to stab the detective (Martin Balsam) at the top of the stairs,
he actually misses. Hitchcock evidently didn't feel it was worth a retake.
"To be blunt, I think a lot of Hitchcock is really lame," Macy says. "He
hated actors and I think it shows."

When was the last time you saw "The Birds"? Those once-acclaimed special
effects look cheesy now, but that's to be expected. Once again it's the
ending that really bites. Trapped in a house by marauding fowl that
we've been led to believe would just as soon peck out your eyeball as chirp at
you, our heroes devise an ingenious escape. The plan: Tiptoe out the
door past the pernicious poultry, get into the waiting car and drive away.
It works! Who knew? Twelve years later, on Amity Island, Richard Dreyfuss should
have explained to Roy Scheider that if you simply ignore the big shark,
it will lose interest and swim off in search of sea-going carrots.

Hitchcock did contemplate other endings, such as the couple's discovering
that the evil crows have overrun San Francisco, but opted for the vague
finish. It was apparently considered more "arty." Hitchcock even decided
to forego the traditional screen title reading "The End" -- the movie simply
stops. The end title should have read, "We Ran Out of Film. Good Night.
Drive Safely."


Whether it's a Hitchcock or some other dubious classic showing up in the
late listings accompanied by a multi-stellar rating, you may want to
deduct a star and a half for the rosy glow of nostalgia. For every legitimate
masterpiece like Carol Reed's "The Third Man" or Fred Zinnemann's "High Noon," there's a revered stretch of tedium like John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" or Billy Wilder's mirthless "Some Like it Hot." Remember, even the verdict of history sometimes comes from a jury of chuckleheads -- 20 years after they left the air, the Monkees were seriously being hailed as trendsetters.

In most cases though, a Hitchcock movie is still an exciting and
romantic journey, so long as you're prepared for a big letdown once you finally
check into the honeymoon suite. And many of the man's masterpieces are
truly deserving of the title -- "The 39 Steps," "The Lady Vanishes," "Rear
Window," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Psycho."

And then again, "Strangers on a Train" is actually kind of fun. So never mind.

Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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