Sure, his movies are fun and scary and all that, but Hitch’s appeal is pretty genuine. A quick search for “Hitchcock” on Etsy, the original hipster homemade haymarket, returns hits like a pair of Psycho themed graphic print flats and host of word art/poster art prints including a headshot of Hitch with sunglasses and a Union Jack bowtie printed on a vintage dictionary page. Hipsters love Hitch, and there are some compelling reasons why.
Like the bicycle, the transportation of many urban-chic hipsters intent on being healthy and going green, Hitch knew he had audience appeal. He was not only good at creating suspense, he knew audiences loved the thrill. Hitch worked the crowd, posing for promotional photos like the one above, and letting his persona help sell his product. He made cameo appearances in all of his films, and his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents became such a cultural staple that the opening (where he walks into an outline of his silhouette) and the music (Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette) are still recognizable. Hitch created a cult following. My metaphor here is pretty weak, but bicycles are a popular, recognized item, and so is Hitch. He made himself an icon. So Hitch understood pop cult appeal…
…But Hitch was anti-mainstream. His movies were popular product, but they were anything but Hollywood cliche. The happily-ever-ending of the big budget studio movie was nowhere near Hitch’s thrillers and chillers. Hitch toyed with audiences. His intention was to show how “mainstream” thought, especially post WWII American thought, covered up a lot of things no one wanted to acknowledge. Pyscho is a great example. Our heroine, Marion Crane, is sleeping with her boyfriend and steals cash from the boss. The other main character is a guy who killed his mother, preserved the body, and takes on her persona in order to kill others. Not exactly Andy Hardy or Ward and June Cleaver.
Hitch was one clever psycho, and Hipsters love clever. His films are full of winks and jokes. The very idea of Cary Grant’s unflappable 1960s persona being run down by a crop duster and drunked up by thugs is intended to be funny. From his cameos to visual jokes to ironic situations, Hitch used humor to make sinister subjects approachable. The characters may be crazy, but the movie had to be fun. They were fun, mostly because Hitch could handle heavy subjects with irony and detached observations.
Hitch’s style included visual and musical elements that are the kind of vintage throwback Hipsters eat for brunch. There’s all that Edith Head-ness in the later films, 1960s couture at its most delicious. But all of his films had strong quality in production design. Iconic designer Saul Bass is responsible for the opening sequences and posters for Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest (Bass is also the guy responsible for the posters and titles for West Side Story and The Man With the Golden Arm, and his influence is homaged in the designs for Catch Me If You Can and Mad Men). And there’s Bernard Herrmann, whose musical scores make several of the most notable Hitch films into near-operas.
Until Andrew Sarris started writing about him as an auteur, Hitch was largely dismissed by the critics. Hollywood knew he was popular, but he was never married to one studio, working independently with David O. Selznick, as well as for studios like MGM and Universal. Hitch was a part of the system, but he never really fit it, or its expectations. Sarris called out Hitch’s great use of form, which helped bring around critical response to a filmmaker who had up to that point be largely ignored. In a review of Psycho, which was also Sarris’s first appearance in The Village Voice, he gave Hitch an “all out rave:”
“A close inspection of “PSYCHO” indicates not only that the French have been right all along, but that Hitchcock is the most-daring avant-garde film-maker in America today.
Besides making previous horror films look like variations of “Pollyanna,” “Psycho” is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain. ”
His characters as complicated. We often are made sympathetic to criminals and psychopaths (like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo). People struggle with moral choices (like Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train). No one is wholly innocent, yet the culpable are often made sympathetic, or at least understood as complex (like Lawrence Olivier in Rebecca, Anthony Perkins in Psycho, or Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt). This complexity prefigures an understanding of the world that is more comfortable holding what seem on the surface as competing ideas in tension. Postmoderns question, analyze, and see truth as, well, at least multi-faceted. Hitchcock’s truth was always multifaceted, and often defied total recognition or discernment. We’re not sure who is good or bad in a Hitchcock movie. But we know things are always more than they seem.
Hitch’s films are downright smart. While many can appreciate, it takes attention and intention to understand them. Many of the stories were based off of novels and plays. Hitch took good source material and added to it the sophistication of remarkably good shooting and editing. Hitch’s meticulous storyboarding is well documented. And his influence on the world of editing (with a shout out to Alma, who was half the editing genius) is downright palpable. Hitch made smart movies, and he made them intelligently. Hipsters are unrelentingly academic. Or at least, they want to appear so. (Note Ira Glass’s introduction This American Life episode 293 “A Little Bit of Knowledge,” in which he cites a story of people talking about architecture who only know enough about the subject to hold a conversation with each other, not with an architect, and say “You know what? We sound like we’re in a magazine, a magazine called Modern Jackass.”)
For all the above reasons and more, Christians who fall into the Hipster category, or Hipsters who fall into the Christian category (a postmodern shift many Christian Hipsters embrace because of its irony and epistemological shift), already love Hitch.
So there’s another twist to the plot:
Christian Hipsters love commentary on mainstream society, because they’re changing the way we understand Christianity.
And Hitch loved to expose how society, the small town, the home, and the everyday person were always more than what they appeared on the surface.
Hitch’s films intentionally point out that everyone “goes a little mad sometimes.” This has HUGE Christian Hipster appeal. All people are in need of grace. Categorical rejection of certain demographics because they do not meet social expectation is no guarantee of purity when it comes to action or intention. There is a dark side to humanity (you know, like people intent on trying to kill women in showers, the wives of people they meet on trains, ambassadors, widows, women in bell towers, next door neighbors, and the list goes on). There are pernicious forces in nature (birds.) Life on Earth is a dangerous business, and should not pretend to be otherwise. Hitch brought that to the front of our consciousness and made us deal with it. We have to deal with disturbed people and disturbing circumstances. We will never be free from them in this life. Not even in cute little towns or normal, everyday life. Our world needs redemption. Showing this need is what many important Christian artists and writers have tried to do. Flannery O’Connor said,
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him. His job will be to make these appear as distortions to a world that’s used to seeing them as natural. To accomplish this, the writer may be forced to take even more violent means to get his message across. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.”
If anything, Hitch drew large, starting figures (and was one, himself). His work undoubtedly, even if it wasn’t his primary goal, intends to point out “distortions” in modern life. In this sense, Hitch’s voice qualifies as something more than just clever, fun, and exciting.
He qualifies as prophetic.
So wear your Hitch swag with pride, and own the ironic messed-up-ness. For Christians intent on engaging in popular culture and shunning the mainstream in favor of vintage goods, mustaches, and coffee, Hitch just might be a director of choice.