Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood

In his 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane Michael Epstein did a “Citizen Kane” on Orson Welles, presenting historicised accounts alongside the reconstructing testimony of friends. Here, he “Selznicks” the death of the Hollywood studio system and the demise of David O. himself, by presenting the melodrama of the life of the great producer – and of the man who helped destroy him, Alfred Hitchcock.

It’s already got the makings of a great Hollywood feature. They were both ambitious men, they were both powerful men, and if we take a long look at their pasts, there we’ll find the key to their motivations and aspirations. Selznick: his father a rich gambler, himself a gambler, womaniser, tyrant. Hitchcock: the time his father had him locked in a prison cell to teach him a lesson, the sound of the lock turning, his methodical train timetabling gone wrong, the harsh sound of the lock which never left him. Ah, folk psychology (“The father! The father!”). So intuitive, so very easy to apply – but it’s always so engrossing to see how well it applies to the extreme cases, to the giants. Already larger than life, these two men who shaped Hollywood also helped to orchestrate its demise. (The irony!)

Plotwise, it’s a very engaging tale. With emergent European dictators in the background, Epstein makes it clear that the true home of the tyrant was the studio. Only in this self-contained environment of artistic mastery was man truly free to exploit, conquer and control. While Selznick roped in promising new talent only to secure it contractually and hire it out to the highest bidder, Hitchcock planned meticulously the conditions for his own creative freedom. While Selznick demanded more footage from Hitchcock just so he’d have enough to leave his own mark by cutting away, Hitchcock invited Salvador Dali to design a dream sequence and gave him complete artistic control. And while Selznick contracted Hitchcock out to every other studio to make a profit for himself, Hitchcock thrived on the experience and the freedom and was thus instrumental in shifting the power centre from producer to director. Selznick the gambler secured the future of the sensible, methodical Hitchcock.

Stylistically, however, it’s a pretty ordinary 90mins – zoom-ins to black&white stills, testimonials from armchair has-beens, the odd bit of footage, Hitchcock poking his tongue out to camera – and the soundtrack fails to achieve a comfortable balance between melodrama and homage. Gene Hackman’s steady narration adds weight to what might otherwise have risked becoming a Selznick/bad, Hitchcock/good account of the end of the studio system. But as a story, as its own story, it works marvellously. An interesting sub-plot is the developing influence of psycho-analysis out of traditional cause-effect psychology: the increasing use of expressive Dali-type symbolism on the part of Hitchcock, while Selznick himself introverts and goes into analysis, demanding that Hitchcock make a film about it (Spellbound) with his own analyst contracted as script advisor. It’s irony of proportions only permitted to the kinds of giants who destroy themselves out of their own ambitions.

But Hitchcock survived.


First published in toto :: cinema matters in 1998