Saturday 22 November 2014

Stephen Volk's Leytonstone and the Secret Heart of Hitchcock

Stephen Volk’s new novella (novelette? I never did work out the fine distinctions) Leytonstone is a tangential follow up to Whitstable, his acclaimed 2013 book, also published by Spectral Press. He once more fashions a story around a particular time, place and a real person inhabiting them. Whitstable offered a heartfelt portrait of the aged Peter Cushing wandering through the sleepy Kent seaside town in which he had settled with his beloved wife Helen and made his home. It reflected upon both Cushing’s gentlemanly manner, old world kindliness and Christian worldview and the moral rectitude and certainty of the more upright, crusading characters he played onscreen. These qualities were set against the backdrop of the harsh, increasingly desensitised world of the 70s in which such moral and spiritual convictions had begun to dissipate, and to which the fantasy world of Hammer with which Cushing was so indelibly associated was struggling to adjust. New fears and terrors, allied with the uncertainties attendant upon a declining economy, were arising to eclipse the gothic staples of the Hammer universe with monsters of a more grimly realistic tenor – monsters with a human face. Cushing’s personal crisis of faith and hope in the wake of his wife’s death becomes paradigmatic of the crisis of the country at large. In the manner of Boris Karloff at the climax of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1968 film Targets, Cushing has to face a contemporary monster imbued with all the ambiguous complexities of human nature. In that film, Karloff confronted a sniper who had turned his sights on the audience at a drive-in where one of his old cobwebbed gothics was screening. In Whitstable, Cushing intervenes in order to protect a young boy who has turned to him, or rather to Dr Van Helsing, for help in driving out the father whom he believes to be a vampire. In doing so, the actor has to face his own fears of redundancy and helplessness in a world he no longer understands, and feels he has no real place in anymore. It is a deeply moving portrait, full of the compassion and psychological insight Volk brought to difficult and upsetting subject matter in his supernatural TV series Afterlife. This was a fictional iteration of Cushing, but it spoke about the man and his work with great eloquence, revealing much about the enormous respect, admiration, and indeed love with which he is still regarded by so many (myself included).

Volk treads a parallel path in Leytonstone. Whereas Whitstable viewed the compensatory imaginative world of a child from the perspective of an adult, Leytonstone invites us to see things from a young child’s point of view. That child is Fred, or ‘Cocky’ to his schoolmates. We know him better as Alfred Hitchcock, or perhaps as ‘Hitch’, the nickname which he preferred as an adult to the crude name-calling of the playground or childhood streets. At this stage in his life he is a 6 year old boy living in the east end London borough of Leytonstone, in a house attached to the successful greengrocer’s business of his father, William Hitchcock.

Volk adopts a cinematic style appropriate to his subject, setting the scene with the acute eye of the accomplished screenwriter. There is some quick cross-editing in the first few pages, with Fred’s recitation of potato varieties intercut with close-up details of the street, indicating someone approaching (‘dark legs stride in mirror-black shoes’). The imaginary camera eye then pulls out to give us an interior and exterior view of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s. Later, there are expressionist shadows which turn a policeman walking the gaslit streets into a skull-faced ghoul: a nod to the German films from which the young Hitchcock learned so much in the formative years of his career. We get a foretaste of some of Hitchcock’s own cinematic devices too. Windows and peepholes provide voyeuristic screens within the screen, iris ovals which make the audience complicit in what they watch. Fred clears the misted pane of his bedroom window to look out onto the evening street below. Volk observes that ‘it’s black and white out there, like a film’. A view at a safe distance from the pick-up he half-comprehendingly watches take place. Later, he spies on a prototype Hitchcock blonde through a hole in a matchbox he had customised for a practical joke (played upon said blonde). This tiny matchbox is a miniature model of the prying lens of the movie camera. Echoes of Rear Window resonate down the years. The fact that the matches are of the England’s Glory make provides the potential for a crude joke (the glory hole) which Fred would have no understanding of, but which the adult Hitch most certainly would. His love of bawdy toilet humour is anticipated in Fred’s nervous inscribing of a cock and balls, copied from a piece of graffiti he has seen, onto the wall of the toilets at his Jesuit school.

Other well-recorded aspects of Hitch’s character and behaviour are also anticipated, lent dramatic context and provided with psychological insight: his compulsive comfort eating, his yearning for easeful luxury, his enactment of elaborate and cruel practical jokes, and his placid remoteness and emotionally distant demeanour. His iconic image is pictured at the end of the book seated onstage at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work. It is an image of someone who is aloof and at a remove from ordinary human motivations, which he observes and sums up with a few dramatically weighted words of mordant wit. Volk describes him as ‘a vast Buddha as recognisable as any of the actors whose name he put up in lights’. It’s a description which could be applied to the giant sculpture of his head which rests, heavy-lidded and rustily bronze, in the centre of a complex of offices and flats built on the site of the Islington studios where his film directing career took flight. But this is a Buddha, Volk’s story suggests, who never achieved enlightenment; who remained in the dark, alone and filled with a paralysing fear which could only find release through his art. Behind the Buddha’s serene gaze lies a void.

Hitchcock and Truffaut
The first half of the story centres around an event which became a well-worn anecdote reeled off time and again by the mature and feted Hitch. His father took him to the local police station when he was a small boy (‘about six’, as Hitch told it). He had arranged for the policeman in charge to lock him in a cell for a short period of time (‘five minutes’ was the general estimate). ‘This is what we do to naughty boys’ the PC in charge told him by way of explanation. Hitch told this well-rehearsed tale, along with many others, as a way of deflecting any attempts at soliciting personal information. It offered a tidbit of prefabricated insight into the genesis of the ‘wrong man’ theme running through his work, along with the notion of transferable or latent guilt which attends it. The anecdote was duly brought out for the 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut which formed the basis for his 1967 book on Hitchcock. This was the only window on his early childhood he allowed his admiring interrogator, aside from a remark that, rather than being strict, his father was ‘a rather nervous man’. The only other glimpse we can get of Hitch’s childhood is the photograph of him posing next to his father, perched comfortably on a stout pony, in front of the luscious cornucopia of fruit and veg (including pineapples strung upside down like gamebirds) displayed in front of the shopfront with its proudly prominent sign reading W.Hitchcock – Fruit Salesman. William and Fred are both dressed in tropical khaki, the windows draped with flags to celebrate Empire Day (a celebration which the exotic fruits also implicitly play their part in). The photograph is incorporated into Volk’s story, which gives us some idea as to what might be going on behind the distant, detached gazes of father and son.

Volk takes the police station story and transforms it from the inflexible anecdotal shield it had become into a raw and pivotal moment in young Fred’s emotional and psychological development. The constant reiteration of the experience in the form of an amusing tale becomes a double-bluff; a piece of genuine self-revelation coated in the polished veneer of a light, carefully crafted recollection. It’s a pointer to the nature of Hitch’s films, the way in which he embedded his own deeply personal fears and desires beneath their immaculately contrived surfaces whilst never, ever admitting to any such dimension in public. In Volk’s story, the punishment meted out in the police station is a great deal more traumatic than the mild admonishment of the anecdote, the incarceration much lengthier than the brief incarceration Hitch outlined. Fred is left there overnight, bullied and tormented by a sadistic policeman who delights in telling him that Jack the Ripper is lodged in the adjacent cell. He has only a piss-stained bed with an indeterminately sticky blanket to curl up on, his lullaby sinister nonsense songs bellowed by the neighbouring drunk. It’s related with a Kafkaesque sense of existential terror. Fred feels utterly abandoned, and betrayed by his parents (his mother who let him go with a promise of his favourite steak and kidney pie upon his return). But most of all, he doesn’t understand. If he’s being subjected to this terrible punishment, he must be guilty of something. But what? Some latent sin he has yet to manifest? A universal guilt lodged within every human heart? It’s almost as if he is being guided to discover that guilt. At this juncture, he might as well be called Fred K.

The shadows of films to come are glimpsed throughout the story. There’s a certain game-like element to these allusions. They are partly speculative excavations, searching for the psychological strata underlying the stories Hitch chose to tell. But they are also offered with a nod and a wink, an enjoyable bit of movie spotting for terminal film buffs. The Ripper reference looks forward to The Lodger; the stuffed bird in the Jesuit father’s office, the transvestite and the police officer’s taunting ‘bit of a mummy’s boy, are we?’ to Pyscho; the ‘fluttering and scratching’ pigeons filling the upstairs room of a ruined house to The Birds’; the idea of hiding a body in a sack of potatoes to Frenzy….and so on.

Shadow selves - Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train
Other abiding themes running through Hitchcock’s films are also alluded to. The idea of disguised or hidden selves is present from the start in the form of metaphorical architecture – the division between the immaculate and bright streetfront display of the Hitchcock greengrocer’s and the dark interior behind in which the family lives. One of the bullying policeman’s methods of playing on young Fred’s imagination is to act as if he believes that his thorough knowledge of transport timetables and routes points to his being a potential spy. He turns something innocent, a source of intellectual pride, into something secret and despicable. Spies are key characters in a significant number of Hitchcock films: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, North by Northwest, Torn Curtain and Topaz. Volk has Fred ask his father what a spy is. His answer sheds light on their role within these pictures. His dad also inadvertently describes himself and all adults who aren’t unblemished saints (ie all adults), and presents his son with a sketch of his future self. A spy, William explains, is ‘a person who keeps secrets. Somebody who says he’s one thing but he’s really another’. The spy theme and the idea of the self hidden behind a carefully maintained surface extends to the doubled characters which cast mirroring reflections across Hitchcock’s filmography. Cary Grant and James Mason (Roger Thornhill – or ‘Mr Kaplan’ - and Phillip Vandamm) circling each other in North by Northwest is the example that most vividly springs to mind. But there are also the pairings of Cary Grant and Claude Rains in Notorious, Farley Granger and Robert Walker (Guy and Bruno) swapping murders in Strangers on a Train, James Stewart scripting Raymond Burr’s murder of his wife to alleviate his boredom in Rear Window, deadbeat Jon Finch and his psychopathic mate Barry Foster (Richard Blaney and Bob Rush) in Frenzy and many others. In Leytonstone, Fred’s father William is doubled with the monstrous, bullying policeman. The latter is a bluff brute who lives to feed his appetites, without any moral compunctions which might curb them. William is far more uncertain of himself (the ‘rather nervous man’ of Hitchcock’s recollection), filling his life with labour to allay the fear that it might all be ultimately without purpose. Or rather, that he might never discover that sense of purpose which those around him seem intuitively to possess. The doubling theme finds interesting form in Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 film Double Take, in which footage taken from introductions to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series is contrasted with interviews with and footage of a contemporary Hitchcock impersonator.

Villain as victim
There’s an often ambiguous borderline separating hero from villain in Hitchcock’s films. They are, to varying degrees, different aspects of a divided self. The hero is sometimes bland and rather weak, as with Guy in Strangers on a Train or Richard in Frenzy. The villain is contrastingly smooth, decisive and charismatic. In other cases, Psycho being the prime example, the heroes are little more than bullies, the villains damaged, fearful and misunderstood (save by the director and, perhaps, their victims). Fred exhibits sympathy towards the ‘villain’ as he appears at the beginning of Dickens’ Great Expectations. ‘I like him’, he says of Magwich after his mother has called him ‘a terrible man’.

The wrong man as Christ-like martyr - The Lodger
The doubled self also links in with the ‘wrong man’ theme. If there is a wrong man then there must also be a right man, or a man who bears the genuine burden of guilt. Fred is the wrong man (or boy) in Leytonstone. But in a sense he is also the right man. his imprisonment is a premonitory punishment (akin to the delayed punishments meted out by the Jesuit teachers at the hour of the pupil’s choosing). The notion of overwhelming and all-pervasive personal guilt, prevalent also in his Catholic upbringing and schooling, almost invites action to provide a palpably solid basis for its nebulous presence, an identifiable source for its oppressive weight. Volk suggests a religious dimension to the wrong man theme (a dimension explicitly evident in Hitchcock’s I Confess) by having Fred ask of the Jesuit schoolfather ‘but Jesus was crucified as a criminal. For a crime he didn’t commit. What was the crime they though he committed?’ So Christ was, from a certain viewpoint, and example of the ‘wrong man’ – the lamb taken for a lion. Or of the right man, taking on the guilt and sins of others, something only possible by virtue of a shared humanity. The wrong man takes on the sins of the ‘villain’ with whom he becomes inextricably linked. The guilt is, to all appearances, removed from the ‘sinner’, for the time being anyway. What happens to that guilt? Does it correspond to something that was always present in the ‘wrong’ man? Of course, it’s the nature of the plot’s progression that he tries to return it to its original owner. The analogies with Christ only stretch so far. As Father Mullins, the Jesuit teacher, states, desperately trying to evade the issue, ‘it’s complicated’.

Of course, there has to be a Hitchcock blonde. The prototype here is a girl called Olga from the local convent school. Fred is fascinated by her coolness in the face of his friends’ base schoolboy pranks. His confusion over his feelings towards her leads to the dramatic tension at the heart of the second half of the novella. A tension which mirrors that of the first, but with Fred now putting himself in a position of power. Taking up the director’s chair. It provides a psychological basis for Hitch’s treatment of the ice blondes in his mid-period classics (Grace, Kim, Eva, Janet and Tippi) which is directly linked to his experience in the police cell. The production of exquisitely manufactured scenarios of suspense and release as a means of subsuming personal, inexpressible fears, art as a means of controlling that which eludes you in real life. It is also, as the parallel events of the story make clear, an indirect way of trying to connect with someone, to create an intimacy based on shared fear. This perverse melding of romance and terror would characterise many of his films. It also suggests that if Hitchcock has his doubles onscreen, the characters which truly express the secret spaces of his heart, then they are not the suavely collected Jimmy Stewarts, Cary Grants or Sean Conneries, but the fearful, haunted Tippi Hedrens, Kim Novaks and Eva Marie-Saints.

Volk takes a certain amount of license with the facts in Leytonstone. The police cell incident took place when Hitch was about 6, and that is Fred’s stated age in the story. He attends St Ignatius Jesuit School, although Hitchcock didn’t go here until 1910, when he was 11 years old, by which time the family had moved from Leytonstone to Stepney (via Poplar). His precocious 6 year old self is already familiar with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whereas Hitch spoke in interviews about having discovered him when he was 16. There is also no mention of his older brother and sister, William jr. and Nellie, who would presumably have been living at home at this time. But this is mythography, not biography. Volk is creating a fictional portrait based on aspects of a well-known public persona and body of work, drawing on elements from a whole lifespan. Hitchock’s version of his own life was as much fiction as fact (the same could no doubt be said of us all). Volk’s story, with its compression and folding outward of time, its collision of the real with the invented, reflects on Hitch’s fundamental, Kane-like inscrutability.

There have been many attempts to psychoanalyse Hitchcock, generally undertaken in an amateurish and highly speculative manner. They seem to take their cues from the psychology for simpletons lecture at the end of Psycho. Hitch was a master of misdirection and manipulation, both in his films and as regarded his private life. It’s tempting to reach for facile simplifications when trying to penetrate his implacable exterior, to draw on particular events to neatly summarise the complex contradictions of his character. Donald Spoto’s controversial biography, whilst admirably frank and honest in some respects, is all to ready to reach instant psychological conclusions. Volk’s book is partly a response to these versions of Hitchcock, which have reached their apogee in two recent films (Hitchcock and The Girl) which cast him in a deeply unflattering light. By portraying Hitch as the young Fred, a frightened and confused boy, Volk is able to examine the roots of his art and its universal appeal from a neutral distance.

Hitch’s films have affected an enormous number of people over the year, attracting an audience way beyond the coterie of cinephiles who continue (in the wake of Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinema boys) to revere him. Vertigo has now displaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in the weighty estimation of Sight and Sound readers and critics. Volk’s Hitchcock is ultimately a mystery to himself, just as his father is depicted as being. He’s not a monster. He remains that frightened boy, bewildered by the betrayals and machinations of the adult world; torn between adoration of his father, respect for his father’s authority and a rejection of both; and disconnected from the turbulent swell of his own emotions, and thereby from real communion with others. He is a tragic figure.

Reaching out for contact (see also the Anthony Perkins photo above)
Towards the end of the book, we encounter him in the form we know at the American Film Institute’s celebration of his life and work held in 1979, not long before his death the following year. The lost little boy is still there, unable to apprehend the love and professional respect being directed towards him. He remains adrift, the world never having truly made sense to him since that night in the police cells when he was confronted with such overwhelming fear and guilt arising from an unknown place, from no identifiable source. The films are phantom emanations, attempts to reach that emotion, to create a sense of commonality through fear and suspense. The adulatory response of the AFI audience is proof that he achieved that. The tragedy is that he is unable to share in that commonality. The depth of his films lies in the perception of the tragedy lying beneath their exciting colourful surfaces (and the nearness of that tragedy to the surface of Vertigo is perhaps why it is so critically revered). Hitch also persisted in asking the questions which Volk has his Jesuit teacher Father Mullins so definitively to answer. In a strange way, he was a religious director.

Volk’s book brilliantly and movingly gives an origin myth to bring light to the ambiguous depths and tragic dimensions of the films, and to restore to Hitchcock his humanity, the wounded and confused pain and compassion at the heart of his work. The critic and playwright David Rudkin wrote, in his TV play Artemis 81, of Hitchcock’s camera being a ‘consecrating eye’, detecting the sacred aspect of his work, the yearning for a transcendent sense of connection, of profound love. This sense of the sacred, of shared fears and desires, is at the heart of Hitchcock’s great post-war work. It’s what has earned him his immortality, and has made such a profound impact on so many people over the years. We can all empathise with these feelings at some level, learn to fall together and find release from our fears. Hitch, forever Fred deep inside, remains outside, watching us with an impassive, unreadable regard, that famous profile a serenely blank mask. Perhaps he’s Buddha after all.


Andy said...

What a great film this would make - if that is not being too meta - given the subject matter. Beautiful review - must check out the book!

Anonymous said...

The Hitchcock Hotel in Leytonstone ought to have these by the bedside instead of the usual Gideon's.