The visual music of Alfred Hitchcock
A businessman as well as a showman, Alfred Hitchcock felt rarity would raise the value of his movies. So he took five classics from the peak of his career and put them on the shelf, where they lay for decades.
Now all five are back, in a reissue from Universal Pictures, which acquired the necessary rights from Hitchcock's estate. They've been showing up at theaters one by one and doing nicely at the box office, considering their age - and their restraint, by comparison with today's garish thrillers.
Made from 1948 to 1958, and mostly starring James Stewart, they range from the experimental ''Rope'' to the sublime ''Vertigo.'' In between are the ingenuity of ''Rear Window,'' the action of ''The Man Who Knew Too Much,'' and the comedy of ''The Trouble With Harry.''
As a longtime Hitchcock admirer, I find this a spectacular event. Yet it's hard to choose the best response.
The film critic in me wants to discourse on complexities of visual motif, narrative development, and philosophical theme. Meanwhile, the movie fan in me wants to sit back and rave about the stellar performances, inventive stories, and insinuating emotions - not to mention the laughs and suspense - that mark all of the master's best work.
It's a sign of Hitchcock's greatness that both tacks are appropriate. Taking fresh looks at ''Vertigo'' and ''Rear Window'' recently, I was struck anew by their visual audacity - their bold steps away from standard plot and character development, reflecting Hitchcock's delight in cinematic language for its own sake. Yet nobody would accuse them of being artsy exercises. As millions of fans know, these are popular ''movie-movies'' of the first rank, thrilling mass audiences even as they explore subtle byways of image and montage.
Over the years, critics have discussed Hitchcock's different ''periods,'' debating which was the greatest. Some root for his British thrillers of the '30s , such as ''The Lady Vanishes'' and ''The 39 Steps,'' agreeing with the director's own wry suggestion that he ''went commercial'' after hitting Hollywood in 1940.
That school of thought has faded, however, and rightly so. I feel his most profound expressions emerged in Hollywood during the '50s, as he manifested his deepest meditations - on guilt, fear, the split between appearance and reality, and other difficult themes - through glittering big-studio productions. The movie-star faces and bright Technicolor hues of these projects might have become ends in themselves for a less single-minded filmmaker; but in Hitchcock's hands, the most ritzy studio resources became obedient vehicles for ideas and emotions that preoccupied him throughout his career.
Hollywood also suited his yen for technical challenges. He became the only first-rank director to shoot a 3-D movie (''Dial M for Murder'') and relished such ''impossible'' undertakings as ''Lifeboat,'' a melodrama confined to one small setting, and ''The Birds,'' with its extravagant special effects. One of the current reissues, ''Rope,'' was photographed in 10-minute shots to create an illusion of continuous movement in real time. Just as unlikely is ''Rear Window, '' a suspense story that unfolds in a single room, with virtually all the action scenes - which would normally call for hard-hitting closeups - shown in telescopic long shots!
The greatest Hitchcock pictures are not marked by technical bravura alone, however. They combine his visual expressiveness with a relentless interest in human and philosophical problems that nagged at the director and invested all his work.
He was fascinated by the divergence between guilt and innocence and by nuances of behavior (and motive) that can transform one into the other. As befits a visual artist, he was deeply interested in the appearances of things, especially in ambiguities that blur the distinction between good and bad. His world also contained a strange equation between knowledge and danger; he made ''The Man Who Knew Too Much,'' with its revealing title, twice during his career.
Above all, Hitchcock was transfixed by the act of seeing. Where lesser directors merely show things, Hitchcock transformed objects and events by seeing them afresh - through the lens of his dexterously wielded camera and through the eyes of his inevitably troubled protagonists with whom he clearly and sometimes painfully identified.
This process stands out with remarkable sharpness in ''Rear Window,'' about a photographer who spots and solves a murder case while playing Peeping Tom with the neighbors across the courtyard.
But it's ''Vertigo'' that carries Hitchcock's obsession with seeing to its most visionary extreme. Asked to protect a woman who may be self-destructive, the detective hero trails her, trying to fathom her enigmatic movements. Later, overwhelmed with guilt over her death, he seeks to transform another woman into her likeness, into the image of his haunting memories - only to find he has been the victim of a murderous hoax.
While this makes for a tantalizing mystery, the filmmaker has limited interest in the whodunit aspects of the plot, which he unravels long before the end of the movie. What preoccupies Hitchcock is the hero's passionate quest for understanding through observation. Half the film, or so it seems, is taken up with rhythmic, repetitive shots of James Stewart watching, following, looking, wandering, wondering, seeing . . . .
It's radical filmmaking. That it appealed to millions despite its brooding pace and obsessive structure is proof of Hitchcock's cinematic mastery on all levels. Though film scholars have studied it exhaustively, its brilliance goes beyond shot-by-shot analysis. The sequence just before the climax, for example - as the hero waits for his transformed lover to step from a room and reveal herself - is a piece of visual music. Its rhythms and textures transcend technical explication, just as melody and harmony do in great musical compositions. There's a touch of magic at work here, and logical dissection will never quite explain it all.
Hitchcock has detractors. Often they complain of his insistence on absolute control over the stories, the characters, even the viewers of his films. There's truth to this: He visualized his movies to the smallest detail before shooting a foot of film and tried to ensure that his vision would materialize with absolute correctness, right down to the vertiginous swirl of hair on a ''Vertigo'' character's head.
But why disapprove? Control - especially over the dark, chaotic material Hitchcock usually deals with - is an essential quality in art. Nobody exercised it more elegantly, more entertainingly, or more thoughtfully than this enduringly superb director.