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Florence in Words

Memory Take 10: Two Hitchcock Films

Professor Joseph Sgammato
Guest Lecturer, Professor Joseph Sgammato opened the class by giving us Alfred Hitchcock’s dates (1899-1980) and describing an oft-held view of him. From seeing his films “as a guilty pleasure,” beginning early in the 1960s, critics now began to see “Hitch,” as he was lovingly called, “as the most important, famous film maker of all time." Professor Sgammato described the young Hitch as growing up in a suburb outside London, in a lower middle class household, where he was sent to a Catholic school, which “contributed to his fear of authority and physical punishment,” some forms of which he had experienced from his father.

He was attracted to cinema early, and broke into silent films by using his artistic talent to produce cards with words on them, attractive enough for him to be hired as director of that department. He worked his way up from assistant director to director, and made several films that have been lost. In 1926, his first picture, “The Lodger,” was said by the company he worked for as “too arty,” but the film “put him on the map.” And in 1929, he made his first English talkie, “Blackmail,” largely ignored. The films that drew attention to him in the nineteen-thirties were “34 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”

In 1939, he signed a contract with David O. Selznick, a control-freak who that year released “Gone with the Wind.” Hitchcock hated the control, circumvented what he could, and left at the end of seven years to go into business for himself. The fifties, as Professor Sgammato described it, “was his decade: 'North by Northwest,' 'Psycho,' 'The Birds,' and 'Frenzy.'"

Hitchcock, according to Professor Sgammato, had “whole pictures in his head and shot them so that he could not be edited—by Selznick or anyone else.” He learned his craft from Germans and Russians, apparently, “who used montage for propaganda purposes.” Hitch used montage to “juxtapose one scene with another, to move viewers.” He was also particularly inventive. For example he used a rare string instrument to provide the eerie sound that pervades “Spellbound.” About that film Hitchcock said what attracted him was “the implausible. Logic is dull. I’m not interested in logic.”

We were running out of time and Professor Sgammato described something of Hitch’s brilliant way of presenting opening credits—as in “Spellbound,” where spinning images created a vortex that was also threatening. With regard to “Vertigo,” Professor Sgammato said that Hitch was “constantly risking absurdity,” He got the story from the American poet Ferlinghetti. “And critics dismissed the film; years later, they had to look again.”

I found both films—“Vertigo” and “Spellbound”—thrilling to see especially after a few clues from our own professor about what to watch for. They are both a little unlikely as logical narratives, but they are transformed into hugely rich and compellingly interesting films. I am, as a result of the lecture and the films, ready to see more and to hear more. Read More 
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