To Be Anal About It
For years we’ve been wondering not what is cinema, but who: Hitchcock or Renoir? Watch the minor masterpieces enough—La Nuit du carrefour, Madame Bovary, the first and final acts of Le petit théâtre de Jean Renoir—as we do, and the choice is, well, clearer than Boudu’s swamp water. It’s not just that if you don’t get Renoir, you don’t get cinema. It’s that cinema doesn’t get you.
Yet we may have hit—a hitch. What was most surprising about last month’s discovery of the script to Hitchcock’s Suspense, was not the fact that nobody had even been sure whether it existed in the first place (Hitchcock may have only mentioned it once explicitly, in a Peter Bogdanovich interview, Bogdanovich taking it as another of the master’s jokes), nor its location of discovery (an ex-storage space in MoMA Queens), nor even its extraordinary subject matter (a modern-day life of Christ in 24 hours in New York). These are curiosities for the historian. For the critic, what really counts, so highly, is that it may have been Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
Alas, your faithful correspondents at The Auteurs, like so many Hitchcock heroes, must play the infelicitous parts of infidels: we haven’t read it. So what? We’re still convinced it’s Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and to prove it, we’ve gotten lunch with a couple Hitchcock experts who not only provided us with their erudite ruminations, but, even more valuably, some excerpts from the script itself. What follows are both with our own humble interpretations. Masterpieces, of course, must be realized, even if only by the imagination. That Madeleine never existed doesn’t mean she can’t haunt us Scotties still.
The Crack of Dawn (Nothing New Under the Sun)
Act One. Scene One. 5th Avenue.
Suspense tracks time as it’s lost to the past. Everyone is dying, the Mayor is constructing a “Holy Land Theme Park” (such a place exists just outside Buenos Aires), and Christ must resurrects history from its own ruins: births, deaths, and rebirths, like the sun rising and setting and rising, and a career that cycles back to its origins—in vanishings. Lady’s vanishings: Suspense opens with the resurrection of British Hitchcock favorites Caldicott and Charters exiting a Saks 5th Ave., and passing by a dead, homeless man on the street with the cardboard sign “Dead. Please help.” just in front.
Caldicott: Well I say, that chap’s not looking so good, now is he, Charters?
[A thunderclap. Rain starts.]
Charters: A bit…under the weather, I should say.
Caldicott: Ah, quite right, Charters, quite right.
The camera follows behind them as it tracks from out the store and on to the street. But the rain commences, the men of the crowd pull out their umbrellas, and the camera continues forward, ascending into the air, and tilting down, birds-eye view, onto a street of umbrellas rushing every way. As in Touch of Evil, we discover we are being born into this world by no less an obstetrician than God himself, showing us his view.
The camera stops up high. The music cuts. A shot rings out. The camera begins to descend, and the umbrellas scurry out of the way. They leave an empty street, with a dead, bleeding body in its center.
And suddenly, a gigantic figure steps into frame, and the camera stops. He begins to walk around the dead body, as if casting a spell, and the camera, still looking straight-down, spins with him—the viewer can hardly orient himself in this two-dimensional vertigo. He stops, and the camera stops again.
Figure: Lazarus! Arise…
The blood fades out—our first signal that the real miracle-worker is the director himself. There is a close-up, from underneath, of the figure (“I said arise!”), and a full body shot of Lazarus arising. A note on the actor playing the figure—and it’s Jesus—is underlined twice. It’s Orson Welles.
Or rather, Orson Welles is Dr. Gene Christine, an actual obstetrician and part-time sculptor who discovers, as Christ did, that he must play Messiah to save the world from its sins. And why not? Hitchcock had already told the Christ tale once, as I Confess, in which an entire cast led by Montgomery Clift plays variations off of Jesus. Is there a more Hitchcockian tale? Suspect, suspicious, betrayed, a voyeur onto a world to which he doesn’t belong, a spy scared of being seen, a wrong man bearing the guilt of sins he didn’t commit (humanity did), an artist reforming the world uselessly, hounded by the law, impotent with the woman he loves, the whole world his primal scene: Hitchcock practically wrote the New Testament. Suspense is a 5th gospel.
Hindsight is 20/20
At home, Dr. Christine finishes a stone sculpture. No commandments, but a woman carved in gold, “and worth it.” Dr. Christine leans into her ear: “if only I could bring you to life.” He taps her twice on the head, playfully, and she crumbles. Two taps follow on the door. The woman, in flesh. Grace Kelly. A crash in the neighboring room. Dr. Gene runs to the peephole. A man swiping gold off the table next door. And a usual Hitchcock twist:
Christ (panicked): That would be Judus. We’ve got to get out of here immediately—if they catch you here, they’ll kill you.
Mary: Aren’t you supposed to have magical powers or something?
Christ: Ah, I can ascend. Descent, however…we’ll need to take the chimney.
Through the Back Door
He kidnaps her and takes her to a church tower as the rain gives way to fog: “this is my hide-out—you can’t tell anyone in the world about this.” She screams for him to let her go; he nearly drops her, but catches her around the waist.
POV. Thousands of feet in the foggy air, Mary’s tush dangles in the foreground. Behind her, the fog parts dramatically, as if the clouds were pulled apart, and a punch of light breaks through to a crucifix being erected down below. The theme park. Music swells.
Christ (traumatized): No… no… I can’t look.
Mary: Then don’t look at it! Just save it!
Christ (traumatized): No… no… I can’t save it. I can’t save it.
Mary: Well then save the goddamn rest of me, you imbecile!
The fog returns, the sun dies, and Dr. Gene lifts her up. She slaps him and runs away.
Like Christ, we’re faced with the usual Hitchcok motif of the ass. Merely consider titles like Rear Window and Torn Curtain, D*v*d D*nby, who asked not to be identified after reading a preview of this article, and is author of the forthcoming The Mystery of Alfred Hitchcock: A Blood-Curdling Novel and Critical Study, reminds us over cognacs. Or North by Northwest—“most men like to go straight up north,” Hitchcock would repeat at parties, “but I think they lack a certain spirit of adventure.” D*nby points out Hitchcock always equates the soul’s salvation with the body’s: no mistake that Hitchcock puns on saving Grace Kelly’s ass as saving the world. “That ass was the world to him,” says D*nby, “and I don’t blame him. Courbet painted the origins of the world. But this would have been its destination point.”
Tush of Evil
Gods are men—until the sublime, Wellesian climax, when men are Gods. Did Welles even know about the project? “I’d suspect Welles’ involvement in the project was based primarily on his knowing nothing about it,” speculates David Schwartz, head of programming at The Museum of the Modern Image and editor of the long out-of-print The Man Who Knew My Heart: Hitchcock’s Love Letters—and yet, the film’s pivotal scene has all the traces of his capital signature. Dr. Gene returns to his sanctuary, but finds a man looking out over the city. The camera tracks in, stops, and the man turns around. It’s the mayor, who’s been killing men to frame the new Messiah, tipped off by the only girl who knew. A note in the script’s margins instructs us as to the actor. It’s also Orson Welles.
As in Hitchcock, as in Welles, as in The Bible, reality has turned out to be a pack of lies.
Mayor: Ah, there you are. You’re right on time. I can tell, you know, because we’re in a clock tower.
The clock starts chiming, and as Hitchcock looks at the two men gazing out, a boy bell-ringer swings on the rope behind them, in and out of frame, as the clock strikes “like a knife” again and again.
Mayor (cleverly): What difference is there between you and I anyhow? You want to save the world, and I…well, I want to destroy it. But what difference does it really make?
Christ (smiling roguishly): “For what should a man gain the world if he loses his soul.” Why, no difference at all—but just as long as we keep on fighting.
Mayor (smiling more roguishly): Ah, but Doctor, you’re on the losing side. Haven’t you heard? We all die in the end—(eying Christ) some, just a bit sooner than others. And what difference will our little squabble make when we’re dead? (Walking away). You know, I don’t know anyone who’s ever minded being dead. (Stopping suddenly and turning back). But I’ve known so many who’ve minded being alive.
The Mayor is a Pontius Pilot navigating the clouds as he prepares himself for a Hitchcockian fall: a fall from grace, a fall into a degraded woman’s arms, the great failure to “keep it up.” The stakes are epic, thematically, stylistically. “That Hitchcock intended to show both Welleses in frame at once,” says Schwartz, “would indicate he meant to shoot in Cinema Scope, or something wider.”
The scene ends in a thrilling escape down the bell’s rope into the city below, as the bad Welles slides after the good one and tries to stomp in his head to the swoon-sounds of Bernard Herrmann. But their positions switch: suddenly the evil Welles is clinging to the good one’s hand, thousands of feet up in the air.
The Mayor: You don’t have the courage to let me die. Don’t you see how much we need each other?
Christ (shrugging shoulders): But I can only save those who save themselves!
The Mayor, screaming, falls into the fog.
In the Can
Down to Earth, Christ unwittingly heads to the 42nd st. and sees, in a window, the woman that betrayed him. He finds her packing up: she’s packing gold. And practically lead; in one of Hitchcock’s most poignant ironies—“What are you doing here? You should be ashamed, coming around a place like this!”—she wallops him in the face in her whore-house. His personal life stillborn, Christ sees the light (specifically, a red light). Save himself and bear his own guilt for giving up on humanity? Or give up on himself by giving himself up, and save humanity by bearing its guilt? Well he’s Christ, and he’s got a script to follow.
If only Hitchcock had as well. According to the Bogdanovich interview, he felt remorse about it, and even contemplated calling the movie Guilt. But if there’s one thing Hitchcock films teach us, it’s that the greater the guilt, the greater the pleasure—and Suspense is the greatest of pleasures, even, perhaps most of all, to re-imagine. At long last, it’s ours, with all the other great, abandoned Christ projects—Ford’s Horizons East, Benning’s 15 Miracles, Mann’s Walk of Shame, Wellman’s Air-born, and so on—that still have yet to be written.
Above: An artist's rendering of Hitchcock's unproduced screenplay.