For this week’s edition of the Chronicle, I reviewed Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, which is currently making the repertory rounds on a new 35mm print and will have a brief run at the Music Box starting this Friday.
In my review, I make mention of Clouzot’s reputation as the “French Alfred Hitchcock,” an apt though somewhat erroneous distinction. Both directors made thrillers, to be sure, but Clouzot’s style was less a distillation of Hitchcock’s and more of a mirroring—a recognition of similar preoccupations that lead to something of a friendly rivalry between the two. For instance, when Hitchcock infamously sought the rights to Le Salaire de la Peur, Georges Arnaud’s novel that provided the source material for Wages of Fear, the author proclaimed his desire for a French director and in swooped Clouzot. The result is a film that is wholly Clouzot’s (with its exotic setting and decidedly existential outlook, not to mention its comments on imperialism by way of its blatant anti-Americanism) though not without its nods to traits he shared with Hitchcock. Similar circumstances precluded the production of Les Diaboliques, where Clouzot again scooped up a project on which Hitchcock was keen. Additionally, the wild success of Les Diaboliques can be credited to the film’s ingenious promotion, in which audiences were urged not to spoil the film’s shocking twist ending—a tactic Hitchcock employed during the infamous hucksterism that was his promotion of Psycho.
All of which to say, what is it that qualifies a director as Hitchcockian? What are the traits one must posses in order to receive such a distinction? In my review, I cite Claude Chabrol as perhaps the most Hitchcockian of all French directors—more so than Clouzot or even the likes of his contemporary and friend, Eric Rohmer—because his work, as a whole, bears the mark of a director who absorbed the work of Hitchcock as opposed to merely consuming it . Of course, Chabrol has been considered Hitchcockian for decades and my labeling him as such is by no means a new idea. But this notion of absorption—of infusing the strands of another artist so that it becomes a part of your own aesthetic makeup—is the key element of being Hitchcockian (or Fordian, or Hawksian, or Minnellian, or whatever else).
Chabrol did this. As Richard Armstrong mentions over at Senses of Cinema, “From Hitchcock, [Chabrol] derived a sense of irony, the relationship between guilt and the individual, [and] the prospect of murder.” Note he used the word “derived,” and not “copied.” Too often, directors are chastised for “copying” others. The point of this blog post isn’t to point out the ways in which directors “copy” Hitchcock but to illuminate those whose work is the result of their absorption of his style, such as:
- Michael Haneke and his exploration of an implicit audience in films like Funny Games and Cache—though the latter is more concerned with the actual mechanics of a shot rather than an audience’s relation to it, a la Code Unknown.
- Pedro Almodovar and his furthering of Vertigo‘s psychosexuality under more defined homosexual terms in Bad Education, as well as his recent The Skin I Live In with Antonio Banderas playing a sort of bizzaro-world James Stewart a la North by Northwest.
- Michael Mann and his “wrong man” motif in films like The Insider and Collateral, his most “classical” film and certainly his most underrated.
Each of these directors can aptly be labeled Hitchcockian, whereas directors such as M. Night Shyamalan (whose work has a rigid and pseudo-dogmatic stubbornness that wholly betrays Hitchcock’s playfulness) and Brian de Palma are, despite fitting the popular rhetoric, far too contextual in their influence to be considered truly Hitchcockian.
Clouzot, meanwhile can be said to be Hitchcockian in solely peripheral terms. Like many French directors who preceded the New Wave, his work is less concerned with cinema as a subject and more concerned with cinema as a process or an exercise. Hitchcock was the same way. Together, they represent of form of film making that is devoid of “-ians”—not to say that they were without influence, but instead contributed to a film grammar that has since become commonplace.