Paul Duncan begins his Pocket Essentials take on Alfred Hitchcock recounting a dream he once had. He’s at the baggage reclaim at Los Angeles airport, an ordinary chap doing mundane things. He picks up his case and heads for the exit. While walking he trips on his shoelace and crashes to the floor. A Customs officer comes to help and as he’s getting up Paul realises that the case he’s collected is not his. The officer sees Paul’s look of horror and asks that he follow him to his desk. At the desk the officer opens the luggage and enquires ‘Is this your case, sir?’ He’s found something bad inside. Paul wakes up.
Aside from adding a personal touch to his book largely missing from these pocket guides, Duncan’s little reverie is a remarkably shrewd way into the flavour of Hitchcock’s work. It’s being used to illustrate a quintessentially Hitchcockian dilemma. It’s being used to remind us of the far-reaching effect the fat man’s cinema has had. It’s there in our heads, colouring our dreams and thoughts. Duncan is Cary Grant mistaken for a spy in North by Northwest (1959) or Jon Finch fleeing a murder charge in Frenzy (1972); to this author Hitch’s films are that pervasive.
This is the third edition of Paul Duncan’s original Hitchcock treatise and it is, presumably a direct reason for its publication, considerably larger than most of the other Pocket Essentials books. At 160 pages Duncan has clearly saw fit to expand a little and present not only every Hitchcock film in chronological order but also an opening segment that looks into the director’s approach to filmmaking. This introductory chapter (entitled Alfred Hitchcock: Inspiring Public Unease) sees Duncan deconstructing the Hitchcock method in an attempt to account for his popularity and mass appeal. In a larger-than-normal print and with a straightforward, succinct style Duncan first examines Hitchcock’s unique brand of fear.
‘We have seen the world through his eyes’ he writes ‘and we find it frightening’. Duncan suggests that audiences are scared of the characters in Rear Window (1954) because they’re normal and neighbourly; unsettled by the spaces of Psycho (1960) and North by Northwest (1959) because they’re bright and open; troubled by the endings of The Birds (1963) and Vertigo (1958) because they’re implicit and indirect. That many of Hitchcock’s films and themes lend themselves to far deeper theoretical interrogation is not of interest here. This book is about laying the groundwork and it does so amiably.
Duncan’s snappy intro also moves to sort out the Hitchcock from the Hitchcockian. ‘Hitchcock is not Hitchcockian’ he declares with relish. People who regard contemporary filmmakers ‘as being Hitchcockian…are usually referring to certain camera movements and angles. They refer to the visual language that Hitchcock used.’ For this author saying Brian De Palma is ‘Hitchcockian’ means little more than saying he tilts the camera every now and then and circles his onscreen lovers as they kiss.
Before getting to Hitchcock’s first major theatrical release, The Pleasure Garden (1925), Duncan continues with his effective resume. He takes us through the director’s obsessive need for control in his life (he wore the same kind of suit everyday to avoid wasting time), his commitment to experimenting with narrative structure and visual elements, the notable writers he collaborated with, his interest in horror and his pessimistic world-view. By the time you arrive at the first section on the films themselves – Silent Hitchcock (1922-1929) – you feel nourished and ready to engage with the familiar format.
As one might expect the rest of the book is devoted to Hitchcock’s considerable film list. From The Manxman (1929) to The Wrong Man (1956), from Murder (1930) to Psycho (1960), Paul Duncan deals with each film in a surprisingly honest way that belies the praise and adulation of his introduction. He gives ample attention to the films that matter, less attention to the ones that don’t and explains what the MacGuffin is. The only strangely confusing section is The Mastermind Returns (1929-1939) which, contrary to what its title suggests, looks at some very bad films Hitchcock made over that ten year period.
When the Pocket Essentials strategy works, it works very well. The Pocket Essential: Alfred Hitchcock is an entertaining and keenly-observed condensation of one of the greatest careers in cinema.