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Hitchcock, Selznick & the End of Hollywood (1999)
year marks the 100th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's birth, an event that has been
marked with countless retrospectives, think pieces and television specials. Rather
than attempting yet another career overview, the season premiere of PBS's American Masters
narrows its focus to Hitchcock's first few years in America, and his clashes with
legendary producer David O. Selznick. The stormy relationship between these two strong
personalities, with their very different approaches to the filmmaking process, prefigures
the demise of the Hollywood studio system and the rise of the director as a dominant
Selznick always saw himself as the true creative vision behind his projects. The director was merely a tool, "hired to do things he didn't have time to do," as critic David Thomson points out. This method reached its absurd apotheosis with Gone With the Wind, which found control freak Selznick going through directors like undershirts. The enormous popularity of the film seemingly vindicated Selznick's methods, even as it dwarfed the remainder of his work in the public imagination.
Across the Atlantic, Alfred Hitchcock was quickly becoming a star of the British film industry with pictures like The Lodger and Blackmail. When he made overtures to Hollywood, indicating his services were available, Selznick alone took the bait. Their first collaboration, 1940's Rebecca, served as a rude awakening for both men. An early Hitchcock treatment twisted the potboiler material into what was essentially an action movie. Selznick quickly disabused the director of this approach, insisting on a faithful adaption of Daphne Du Maurier's novel. Once the production went before the cameras, however, Selznick's found himself stripped of control for the first time. Hitchcock's unique jigsaw puzzle method of shooting ensured that the film could only be assembled one particular way in the editing room. Despite the friction, the film was a huge success and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Hitchcock and Selznick reteamed for Spellbound, Notorious and The Paradine Case. Each subsequent production saw Hitchcock gaining in power and stature, while Selznick stumbled. In addition to his grand folly Duel in the Sun, an attempt to top Gone With the Wind in the spectacle sweepstakes, Selznick faced mounting gambling debts and the disintegration of his marriage. By the time of the disastrous Paradine Case, a contractual obligation filler if there ever was one, it was clear that Hitchcock had a future where Selznick did not.
Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood covers much familiar ground and will likely prove most interesting to the casual film fan. Hardcore Hitchcock buffs will have heard it all before, and the umpteenth reiteration of the fact that "Hitchcock planned the whole movie in his head - the actual filming was the boring part" does little to advance the cause of film scholarship. In addition, the documentary tends to overplay its central theme - that of the shifting balance of power between studio and director. It may be true that Hitchcock ushered in the era of the director-as-celebrity and the perception of director as auteur. It is hardly the case, however, that the fall of Selznick represented the "End of Hollywood." The director may be a more recognized force today as far as the public is concerned, but the studios still reign supreme. As for the power of the producer, one look at any Jerry Bruckheimer production reveals a house style and a disposability of directorial vision to rival Selznick's.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is Selznick's story that emerges as most compelling, if only due to the overfamiliarity of the Hitchcock material. Since little or no footage exists of these two masters at work together, their story unfolds through a succession of vintage still photographs and present-day commentary from such luminaries as Al Hirshfeld, Norman Lloyd and the inevitable Peter Bogdanovich. There are, however, generous clips of the movies in question, illustrating better than any talking head the fruits of this rocky collaboration.
- Scott Von Doviak