Monday, April 7, 2014

Early Cahiers and Hitchcock: Godard on Strangers on a Train

As Edouard Sivière’s Tumblr account Les Cahiers Positifs beautifully illustrates: The early years of Cahiers was a fascinating period for film criticism, which was very literary and built upon the beau langage du dix-huitième, but whose heterogeneity, aside from broad interests like Italian neo-realism or the role of women in cinema, took a while to unify into a singular editorial position. Antoine de Baecque describes the magazine in these years as an outlet for the variety and eclecticism of post-war Parisian cinephilia.

The transition for Cahiers to refine their editorial line came with Hitchcock. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze would label this group of Hitchcocko-Hawksiens the ‘école Schérer’ and it would consist of Rohmer, Godard, Rivette, Chabrol and Truffaut. The first apparition of this turn came with Godard’s review Suprématie du sujet of Strangers on a Train (which I transcribed below from Godard on Godard), which he reviewed under his pseudonym Hans Lucas (German for Jean-Luc). It’s an important early text just like how later would be Truffaut’s Une certaine tendance du cinéma français (Jan ’54, N.31).

André Bazin’s interest in American cinema lied more towards Welles and Wyler and he participated in important public debates on the importance of Hollywood films to gain it respectability. This shift towards Hitchcock and Hawks, under the influence of Alexandre Astruc, would bring an emphasis on mise en scene and the film’s formal elements, as well as canonize two of the magazine’s most important filmmakers. Rohmer would create continuity between both generations with his essay De trois films et d'une certaine école (Aug-Sept ’53, N.26) by writing about Renoir, Rossellini (two of Bazin’s favorites) and Hitchcock, and highlighting their religious beliefs and formal mastery.

Godard is in interesting case. He was never too close with Bazin and was introduced into the magazine by Rohmer and Rivette, who he would follow in judgments. Godard would write two important Hitchcock Critiques (the other one is on The Wrong Man). His writing was challenging and iconoclastic. For example, he was one of Cahiers’ early champions of John Ford who was not liked in this period (see: Leenhardt’s A Bas Ford, Vive Wyler). And finally, Godard's writing would identify an emerging cinematic modernism which he would later bring to his own filmmaking starting with À bout de souffle. – D.D.
The supremacy of the subject by Jean-Luc Godard (Cahiers March ’52, N.10)

Hitchcock’s most recent film will doubles arouse controversy. Some critics will say it is unworthy of the director of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Shadow of a Doubt, others will find it mildly amusing and praise its qualities until they take on an air of false modesty. But those who have for Alfred Hitchcock, for Blackmail as much as Notorious, a vast and constant admiration, those who find in this director all the talent necessary for good cinema, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Outrageously decried by some while the rest ignore him – what is it about Hitchcock that merits attention?
            Here is the subject of Strangers on a Train: a young tennis champion, already well known, in love with a Senator’s daughter and wanting a divorce meets a stranger on a train who offers to get ride of his wife – she refuses to divorce him – on condition that the tennis champion does away with his hated father. As soon as the tennis-player leaves the train he forgets his strange companion. But the latter, believing himself pledge, strangles the more than flighty wife and insists that the tennis-player fulfill his side of the bargain he believes was made in the train. Now free, but terrified by the stranger’s audacity, the tennis-player eventually manages to convince the police of his innocence and marries the girl he loves.
            This subject owes so little to anecdote or the picturesque, but is instead imbued with such lofty ambition, that probably only the cinema could handle it with so much dignity. I know no other recent film, in fact, which better conveys the condition of modern man, who must escape his fate without the help of the gods. Probably, too, the cinema is particularly suited to recording the drama, to make the best not so much of the myth of the death of God (with which the contemporary novel, alas, is by no means backward in taking liberties, as witness Graham Greene) as the baleful quality it suggests.
            However, it was necessary that in the sign – in other words, that which indicates something in whose place it appears; in this case, a conflict of wills – the mise en scene should respect the arabesque which underlines its effect, and like Dreyer or Gance, should use it with delicate virtuosity; for it cannot shock through mere empty exaggeration. The significant and the signified are here set so high (if the idea is involved in the form, it becomes more incisive, but is also imprisoned like water in ice) that in the exploits of this criminal, Hitchcock’s art cannot but show us the promethean image of his murderous little hand, his terror in face of the unbearable brilliance of the fire it steals.
            (Let me make myself plain: it is not in terms of liberty and destiny that cinematographic mise en scene is measured, but in the ability of genius to batten on objects with constant invention, to take nature as a model, to be infallibly driven to embellish things which are insufficient – for instance, to give a late afternoon that Sunday air of lassitude and well-being. Its goal is not to express but to represent. In order that the great effort at representation engulfed in the Baroque should continue, it was necessary to achieve an inseparability of camera, director and cameraman in relation to the scene represented; and so the problem was not – contrary to Andre Malraux – in the way one shot succeeded another, but in the movement of the actor within the frame.)
            Look at these stretches of heath, these neglected homes, or the somber poetry of modern cities, those boats on a fairground lake, those immense avenues, and tell me if your heart does not tighten, if such severity does not frighten you. You are watching a spectacle completely subjected to the contingencies of the world; you are face to face with death. Yes, invention holds sway only over language, and mise en scene forces us to imagine an object in its signification; but these clever and violent effects are so only to transmit the drama to the spectator at its highest level – I refer, of course, to the strangling in the wood and the struggle on the merry-go-round, scenes which contain so many astonishing realities, such depth in their fantastic frenzy, that I fancy I breathe in them a gentle odor of profanation. The truth is that there is no terror untempered by some great moral idea. Should one reproach this renowned filmmaker for flirting with appearances? Certainly the camera defies reality, but does not evade it; if it enters the present, it is to give it the style it lacks.
            ‘It is useless to pretend that human creatures find their contentment in repose. What they require is action, and they will create it if is not offered by life.’ Could not these words by Charlotte Bronte equally well have been written by Kleist or Goethe? Today the most German of transatlantic directors offers us the most vivid, brilliant paraphrase of Faust – combining, I mean, lucidity and violence. Since The Lodger, Hitchcock’s art has been profoundly Germanic, and those who accuse him of reveling in false and pointless bombast, those mean spiritis who are foolish enough to applaud the contemptible – whether in the work of Bunuel or Malaparte – should consider Hitchcock’s constant preoccupation with constructing his themes: he makes persuasion, a very Dostoievskian notion, the secret mainspring of the drama. From German expressionism, Hitchcock consciously retains a certain stylization of attitude, emotions being the result of a persistent purpose rather than of impetuous passion: it is through his actions that the actor finally becomes simply the instrument of action, and that only this action is natural; space is the impulse of a desire, and time its effort towards accomplishment.
            I wager that the pen of Laclos could not have bettered a look of hatred from Ingrid Bergman, the Australian of Under Capricorn, lips flushing with disgust, less with self-shame than from a desire to make others share her degradation; or a shot from Suspicion where Joan Fontaine, hair wild, face drawn, feeling that she might be happier and that it would be better to lose her husband than witness his inconstancies, resents feeling consideration and even love for him, resents feeling his arms hold her gently, offering him her mouth, exposing herself to danger without the secret desire to do so, wondering if she is loved enough. She prefers to grieve, to weep tears, to languish under offences, to consent to them, make an effort to yield her heart, be upset because she does so, weave an incalculable number of difficulties in the certainty of illuminating her doubts instead of living drearily with them.
            One cannot call the director of The Paradine Case and Rebecca a descendant of the Victorian novel. This is why I would also not compare him to Griffith – even though I find in both directors the same admirable ease in the use of figures of speech or technical processes; in other words they make the best use of the means available to their art form – but instead class him with Lang and Murnau.*
            Like them, he knows that the cinema is an art of contrast, whether it describes life in society or in the heart. Murnau’s Faust also revealed this incessant change in which the actor transcends his powers, taxes his senses, falls prey to a torrent of emotions in which extravagance yields to calm, jealousy becomes aversion, ambition becomes failure, and pleasure, remorse. If Shadow of a Doubt is in my opinion Hitchcock’s least good film, as M was the least good of Lang’s, it is because a cleverly constructed script is not enough to support the mise en scene. These films lack precisely what Foreign Correspondent and Man Hunt are criticized for. Is so rare a gift really to be questioned? I believe the answer lies in the innate sense of comedy possessed by the great filmmakers. Think of the interlude between Yvette Guilbert and Jannings in Faust, or on more familiar ground, of the comedies of Howard Hawks. The point is simply that all the freshness and invention of American films springs from the fact that they make the subject the motive for the mise en scene. The French cinema, on the other hand, still lives off some vague idea of satire; absorbed in a passion for the pretty and the picturesque, in a perusal of Tristan and Isolde, it neglects truth and accuracy and runs the risk, in a word, of ending nowhere.
            Certain critics, having seen Strangers on a Train, still withhold their admiration from Hitchcock, the better to lavish it on The River. Since they are the same persons who criticized Renoir so loud and long for remaining in Hollywood, and since they demonstrate so lively a taste for parody, I would ask them: do not these strangers on a train represent them in the exercise of their trade?

* Might not the astonishing success of German directors in Hollywood be explained – for the benefit of our sociological critics – by the strongly international character which enabled the quest for universality in these mystics to expand freely?

No comments: