The Lovesong of Alfred J. Hitchcock by David Rudkin, part of the Brits Off Broadway series now at 59E59 Theaters, is the playwright’s fascinating look at Alfred Hitchcock, his fantasies, heavenly muses, fears, hauntings and revelations as they are reflected in his most prized film work, including Marnie, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Frenzy, Family Plot and others. What Rudkin has done is to elicit the themes of the T.S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and used them to infuse the most vital aspects and inner workings of the great film director, showing how these elements – the child, the failed lover, the food obsessive, the emotional overeater, the harangued husband – made up the whole man, who was one of the film industry’s greatest directors.
Hitchcock, in an amusing, surprising, frenetic and relentless portrayal by Martin Miller, is both confident and witheringly shy, plagued by childhood terrors yet wise in attempting to work through them in his films. Rudkin melds the vulnerable and human man with the commanding director in rhythmic forms with scenes that alight on one another without any apparent connection, like the inner workings of the mind of the speaker in the Eliot poem. Yet, by the end of the production the whole has been formed and Alma, Hitchcock’s wife, presents the formula by which we are able to decipher the man/child/director and pull apart the elements that are his greatest frailties which ironically lead us to appreciate his most elusive artistry.
The playwright ties in Hitchcock’s obsessions and fears with notable scenes from his various films, connecting the dots for us as Hitch attempts to muddle through, employing them in his art and exorcizing his soul’s demonic debilitations. There appears to be no particular order to Rudkin’s events as they relate to Hitchcock’s films. The playwright moves from flashback to flash forward, out of order from the director’s filmography. This is not a linear revelation.
The playwright shows that scenes that rose up from Hitchcock’s unconscious and eventually arrived in his films were not in any prescribed order either. He worked with passion, using his unconscious to forge through to consciousness. With this effort he was able to form vivid images on film that are unforgettable. This was his greatest artistry, fusing himself, his creative unconscious, with his work.
For example, as the play opens we watch Hitchcock stumbling, stuttering and devising aloud the storyboard for the opening shots of Marnie, as we are introduced to the character whose back is to us as she walks away from the camera. During the play Hitchcock revisits the composition of these opening shots again and again until we recognize the final version that appeared in the film; of course, the final version is the masterpiece upon which the rest of Marnie turns. Rudkin shows us how Hitch visually put the scene together with such specificity and detail as to create an indelible image integral to Marnie’s themes.
Similar revelations follow with other scenes from other films, which at first we may not glean, but which eventually come clear. By revealing this ingenious way that Hitchcock worked, Rudkin suggests how and why this one-of-a-kind master filmmaker cannot be surpassed. His films were his blood, spirit, intellect and unconscious from which arose mythic fears, needs and desires from childhood and beyond. These Hitchcock selected; these Hitchcock shaped; his films are his mind, his emotions, his psychology, his personality.
Rudkin’s monument, his love song to the man, is apparent. And yet, he gives his director clay feet, as the speaker of Eliot’s poem admits that he has. Like the speaker Prufrock in the Eliot poem, Rudkin’s Hitchcock is not an individual whom the mermaids will sing to, nor is he a Hamlet or person of great moment or tragedy on the stage of history whom we might learn from. He is a film director who never won an Oscar, a director who was prescient and brilliant by error, mistake and emotional vulnerability. His purpose was “to swell a progress, start a scene or two,” as the speaker admits in “Prufrock,” but not necessarily to “dare to disturb the universe.”
Hitchcock never advocated against the culture’s growing demoralization from violence. His films’ themes suggested many things, but they were whisperings. They were not intended to begin a movement and indeed the superficial viewer glossed over their importance, tricked by the horror or suspense. Each of his films has these foggy echoes of import. His films suggested that spying and/or the Cold War were amoral and left casualties in their wakes (North by Northwest, Notorious); we were becoming a nation of voyeurs (Rear Window); childhood violence was often repressed and led to twisted psychology later in one’s adult life (Marnie); an abuse of nature would lead to eventual payback (The Birds). In selecting his material, Hitchcock allowed it to resonate through his own personal lens and the camera’s eye.
In Rudkin’s portrayal of Hitchcock, mediated by the portrayal of his wife Alma, we see that in life Hitchcock is “politic, cautious, meticulous; at times…almost ridiculous – at times almost the Fool,” like the speaker in “Prufrock.” There is no one who knows these painful truths better than Hitchcock himself, who recognized his weaknesses and shortcomings and is abjectly miserable for he is incapable of doing anything to correct them. Indeed, his desires are manifested in a foolish way when he makes an unwanted and indecent proposal to Tippi Hedren, one of his latter-day blonde muses. When she rebuffs him, it is shameful, hurtful and embarrassing. What was he thinking? Prufrock-like, he ends in self-immolation.
Aided by the talented cast – Roberta Kerr, Tom McHugh and Anthony Wise – The Lovesong of Alfred J. Hitchcock will entertain and intrigue. At the least, it is fun guessing which films tie in with which of Hitch’s fears, desires, needs and hauntings.
The Lovesong of Alfred J. Hitchcock at 59E59 Theaters runs until May 25.