The world at his fingertips: Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his career. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Alfred the great... or Hitchcock the second-rate?

With the release of Mark Cousins’s new film, the question is getting asked all over again
June 14, 2023

I’ll confess to being surprised when I heard Mark Cousins was making a film about Alfred Hitchcock. The Northern Irish writer and director has long been vocal in his belief that standard histories of cinema are too blokey, too white, over-focused on American and European movies, “racist by omission”. His own documentaries, among them the 15-hour-long The Story of Film (2011) and the 14-hour-long Women Make Film (2020), are epic counter-histories, global in reach, anti-parochial in every way. Why, then, turn his attention to the man of whom Jean-Luc Godard declared, “I believe that at a certain epoch he had absolute control over the world. More so than Hitler or Napoleon”?

In 2023, Hitchcock’s stature seems undeniable. No other director has been the subject of so many biographies, cultural histories and psychoanalytic critiques. Guillermo del Toro produced a 500-page tome on him. Artists such as Douglas Gordon, Cornelia Parker and Johan Grimonprez have made work inspired by him. At film school, students learn about the fundamentals—and possibilities—of sound, shot construction and sequence length by watching the crop duster scene in North by Northwest (1959) or the shower scene in Psycho (1960). 

It wasn’t always thus. As early as 1931, CA Lejeune said she admired Hitchcock’s craft, but felt he lacked “human understanding”. In America after the Second World War, he was everywhere, a syndicated TV personality, recognisable in silhouette, quick with a quote (he likened his films to buzz bombs). Yet perhaps because of his ubiquity and success, many critics looked down on him as a crowd pleaser, a terror technician, all thrills and no heart. It took the advocacy of the Cahiers du Cinema generation—Truffaut, in particular—for him to be treated as an auteur. Even so, he never did win a Best Director Oscar.

Cousins’s My Name is Alfred Hitchcock begins by telling us that the film has been written and voiced by Hitchcock himself. Is that true—or misdirection? Most viewers will know in advance that the director is being ventriloquised by Alistair McGowan. Sounding old and stroke-slurred, this Hitchcock is still proud of his body of work (“I was a showman, a daredevil, a funfair”); insightful about form (“I am a trickster, you see. I wanted to straddle commerce and art”); adept at isolating key truths about cinema (“I knew that movies were a country you could go to. I wanted to escape to a parallel world”). For Cousins, escape is just one of the leitmotifs of Hitchcock’s life and films; others include desire, loneliness and time. 

What struck me most though was the clamminess of the script (“I love you, my audience. I love playing with you”; “I want to melt into your thoughts”). Are we being groomed? Hitchcock’s admirers have long had to fend off criticism that the director was voyeuristic. His films, they argue, are valuable precisely because they allow us to explore the ways in which cinema is so often made by and for the “male gaze”. In 1974, the lifelong bon vivant had to have a lifesaving operation in the wake of which Cousins has him address his viewers: “I want to control your heartbeat the way a pacemaker controlled mine.” That’s astute. It’s also domineering, vengeful.

In Sight and Sound’s 2022 Greatest Films of All Time Critics’ poll, Vertigo slipped from top place, to be replaced by Chantal Akerman’s feminist masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman (1975). After #MeToo it’s hard to watch The Birds (1963) and not think about Hitchcock attaching real birds to Tippi Hedren’s clothes; eventually one went for her eye and she collapsed. He once gave the actress’s daughter, Melanie Griffith, a toy version of her mother laid out in a tiny coffin.

Hitchcock’s films aren’t going to disappear. He has countless admirers who hail him as a shrink, a sociologist, a profound dissector of 20th-century America in all its modernity and alienation. But talking to film students in 2023, I find many of them view him as CA Lejeune did: a purveyor of sophisticated schlock. They compare his mastery of suspense unfavourably to more politically invested directors such as Michael Haneke. His films are “fine”, like cinematic versions of The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter—that is, mostly canon fodder.

Hitchcock would have hated that kind of respect.