I'm always pleased to see the Times Literary Supplement dealing with matters of cinema. In the issue of 21 September 2012 Philip French gives an excellent summary of the rise and rise of Hitchcock's reputation over the past eighty years, an essay occasioned by the current season entitled 'The Genius of Hitchcock' at BFI Southbank, and the publication of 39 steps to the Genius of Hitchcock edited by James Bell, and A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock edited by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague.
This is where Shakespeare comes in because French quotes a remark by James Bell: “Like Shakespeare, Hitchcock was both a great artist and a proud populist – someone who broke new ground while bringing audiences with him on his explorations.” French concludes his review as follows: “[Hitchcock] creates a fascination that makes one want to explore every aspect of his life and work, however seemingly insignificant, perverse or repellent. He imposes himself on us. In this sense he does resemble Shakespeare.”
I have my own take on the comparison between the two because in the last chapter of my book Film Past Film Future (2011) I included a section entitled 'A Shakespeare for the Cinema?' and considered the claims of various film-makers ending up with Alfred Hitchcock.
I began by calling him the director who many may consider the strongest contender for the Shakespeare crown, judging by the books and articles that have started to fill the shelves in film-study libraries. A career of six decades; sixty feature films; an early, middle and late period; the outstanding sequence of films between 1956 and 1964; "the supreme chronicler of twentieth-century anxiety." And here I pause to go on: “And yet to describe him [as a contender] is to give away the reason why he misses the cut: Shakespearean genius requires a humanist foundation, something that has made his plays speak across cultures and across the ages. Do Hitchcock’s films do that? Certainly as a master of suspense he could arouse audiences anywhere. He had a remarkable gift, worthy of Shakespeare, for the vivid characterisation of cameo roles. But his heroes, whether English or American, have a brittle quality, and his heroines a heart of ice. It is true on the other hand that no director has made their villains more fascinating. No one does these types better but his sympathies, if that is the right word, were narrow: sensuousness, for example did not interest him. His is not a survey of mankind in all its manifold variety, more an obsession with our neuroses. This speaks powerfully to us now, but will it continue to do so in the following centuries?”
While to conclude with any finality any comparison between Shakespeare and Hitchcock would be sterile, the process of comparison is highly creative and stimulating.
© Tim Cawkwell 2012