Alfred Hitchcock and the domination of screen culture
The late and legendary director is currently getting a lot of attention. HBO recently aired the original movie The Girl, about Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hedren. The biographical movie Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins heavily made up in the title role, is currently playing in theaters everywhere. With this in mind, the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s weekly email alert have recalled to their readers’ collective attention a 1999 Chronicle article by Brandeis film professor Thomas Doherty titled “We Are All Hitchcock’s Children.” Doherty makes some points that are well worth considering, especially if he’s right about Hitchcock’s fundamental dominance over the collective sensibility of visual media culture. If we want to get a handle on the true nature of our current circumstance, then we may do well to recognize that the long shadow stretching over screen culture takes the shape of an iconic, portly profile.
The films are indelible, the surname is adjectival, and the silhouette of the portly profile is instantly recognizable. Nearly two decades after his death, Alfred Hitchcock still towers over American cinema. Like other geniuses of the motion-picture medium — D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and F.W. Murnau — Hitchcock bequeathed not just a list of screen masterpieces but a lexicon for the language of film. Today, at the cineplex or on television, he calls the shots for the vistas of spectatorship: the dreamy, roving camera work; the unnerving jump cuts in editing; above all, the guilty pleasures of undetected surveillance, the eyeline match that locks the hungry voyeur to the object of the gaze.
… No other director from the classical Hollywood era — not John Ford, not Frank Capra, not even Charlie Chaplin — could attract such lapdog devotion from academe and audiences alike. It was not always so. For much of Hitchcock’s working career, critics regarded him as a glib hack — a gifted technician, perhaps, but too much the showman to warrant serious consideration … [But] shortly before his death in 1980, the British bestowed a knighthood. By then, Hitchcock had long since earned another title: the best-known, most-esteemed director on the planet.
To understand Hitchcock’s appeal — and why his private obsessions have become public property — is to appreciate the dominion of the motion-picture medium over the popular imagination. At times, Hitchcock seems to have exerted the final cut in the outlook of an incessantly optical, screen-centered culture.
– Thomas Doherty, “We Are All Hitchcock’s Children,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, 1999