Hitchcock: mere showman, philosopher-poet - or both?

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grab the headlines, and digitized epics like "Titanic" break the box-office records. But it's a master from bygone times who remains the most instantly recognizable director in motion-picture history.

Almost two decades after his death, Alfred Hitchcock is still as legendary a figure as the movie world has ever known. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Hitch's birth, and that's an excellent reason to renew the perennial set of questions about his half-century-long career. What were the secrets of his success? Why do his movies resonate with new generations of viewers, many of whom weren't even born when he capped his career with "Family Plot" in 1976? Was he the mere entertainer - or was he a brilliant philosopher-poet who couched his insights in a popular art form so the widest possible audience could engage with his ideas?

While nobody has provided a definitive set of answers to those queries, contemporary critics generally agree that Hitchcock's art probed far more deeply into the mysteries of the human condition than one might guess from his self-selected "master of suspense" label.

This is why centennial tributes are taking place at art museums as well as movie theaters and video outlets. And academic conferences on Hitchcock's life and work are being organized at institutions like New York University and Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

New York's influential Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has just launched a two-pronged exhibition that isn't likely to be outdone. One portion, "Alfred Hitchcock," is the most wide-ranging retrospective of his films ever presented to American audiences. The other, "Behind the Silhouette," is a gallery show including posters, photographs, and production designs. Also in the mix are an interactive "Multimedia Hitchcock" computer program and a Hitchcock subsite on the museum's Web site, www.moma.org.

One of the MoMA program's most valuable services is to let young moviegoers know how much excitement was created by Hitchcock and his contemporaries in the silent-movie era that ended in the late 1920s - helped into its final resting place by Hitch's own "Blackmail," the first British talkie and still one of his most fascinating pictures.

Although the MoMA show includes rarely seen silent dramas such as "The Manxman" and Hitchcock's own favorite of that period, "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog," "Blackmail" may be the most morally complex of his early films, with its haunting tale of a young woman who kills a would-be rapist in self-defense and then accepts protection from her boyfriend, a policeman whose suppression of evidence makes them vulnerable to an extortionist. No docu-drama of our ethically troubled '90s has more to say about social values or personal integrity.

"Psycho" was recently remade shot for shot, line for line by Gus Van Sant, whose only significant changes were to select a new cast and photograph the picture in color. The final score of this experiment was zero for Van Sant and 100 for Hitch, whose original version still packs an awesome punch.

The "Psycho" remake indicates Hitchcock's sway over today's filmmakers. So do recent releases like "A Perfect Murder," clearly influenced by his 1954 thriller "Dial 'M' for Murder," and "The Secret Agent," based on the same Joseph Conrad novel as his "Sabotage" of 1936. These Hitchcock originals are all in the MoMA exhibition.

The likely outcome of the MoMA show will be more attention to Hitchcock's gifts by serious scholars and everyday moviegoers alike, and a reminder that "popularity" needn't mean "triviality" in cinema or any other art. Hitchcock's best films are as stimulating and penetrating as any narrative works of our century.

Hitchcock was not a popular artist or a commercial artist or a crowd-pleasing artist. He was an artist, period. And the living power of his creations is the only support that proposition needs.

*'Alfred Hitchcock' ends June 15. 'Behind the Silhouette' ends Aug. 17.

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