A wide-ranging, though eccentric, tour of Alfred Hitchcock’s agreeably scary cinema.
Conrad (English/Christ Church, Oxford; Modern Times, Modern Places, 1999) will have no truck with the extensive literature already published on the Master of Suspense, which he dismisses as “pseudo-scientific” and “bogus cerebration.” Nor, evidently, does he have much patience with the division of Hitchcock’s work into discrete films from The Pleasure Garden through Family Plot. Instead of considering the films one by one, he has pulverized them all into a puree in which, for example, an excursis about the director’s preoccupation with bathrooms (in which he set scenes in The Lodger, Number Seventeen, Secret Agent, The Lady Vanishes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Spellbound, The Trouble with Harry, and Psycho) can range freely over half a dozen examples before moving on to films mysteriously without bathrooms, from The 39 Steps to Lifeboat. Although his determination to avoid earlier critics leaves Conrad spending a fair amount of time reinventing the wheel, his investigation, organized loosely around the question of how Hitchcock makes fear entertaining, yields some piquant insights, such as Hitchcock’s affinity with Surrealists like André Breton to the self-portraits he left in the fat men who peopled his films. But Conrad’s cavalier annexation of literary sources for the films to provide further examples, as if Hitchcock had created Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Robert Bloch’s Psycho as well as the films he based on them, creates an unhappy confusion of boundaries, as if he could not decide whether Hitchcock was remarkable because his films were so distinctive or because they were so exemplary. In the end, all but the largest contours of Conrad’s analysis become blurred as well, sunk beneath reams of absorbing detail.
Even if the argument sometimes seems like an endless series of digressions, however, it never makes less than an entertaining and illuminating case for the unity of Hitchcock’s half-century of films. (20 b&w photos)