The late Alfred Hitchcock, so the story goes, was cruelly terrified as a boy of six by a London policeman who locked him in a cell for five minutes at the request of his exasperated father.
For over half a century, it would seem, little Alfred got his revenge, terrifying the grownups by his own make-believe scenarios of crime and punishment: "The Lady Vanishes," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Spellbound," "The Paradine Case," "Rear Window," "North by Northwest" -- 54 in all.
Lower lip pouting, tummy outthrust in a parody of defiance, eyes a little too wide with innocence, Hitchcock never quite lost the look of a child just caught out. His genius, in fact, was to make the camera see the world through the eyes of a precocious six-year-old, proving out the serious joke of Orson Welles that movies are the best toy a boy was ever given.
By his famously meticulous direction, Hitchcock did more than record a child's memory of the dark at the top of the stairs. A child finds nocontradiction in seeing life both scary and funny, as viewers would be reminded, observing Hitchcock in his role of television host as he pronounced words like "macabre" -- eyes shining, mouth watering as though he were eating cotton candy.
When a preview audience tittered during a scene in "Shadow of a Doubt," others were distressed, not Hitchcock. The child in him understood how close a giggle is to a gasp.
The French director Francois Truffaut has smothered Hitchcock with bouquets of reverence, comparing him to Poe, Dostoevsky, and Kafka. Hitchcock himself never pretended to moral profundity. He was more interested in the plotting of misdeeds and the pursuit of their perpetrators than in the exact nature of villainy. Beyond that, he was satisfied to blur things, allowing his murderers (like Ray Milland in "Dial M for Murder") thei charms, while making his policemen (who, after all, were known to lock up six-year-old boys) no better than they ought to be. When actors -- particularly Method actors, like Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint -- asked what their "motivation" was, his reply is said to have been: "Learn your lines." The director was the boy who owned the toy, and nobody could spoil his fun.
It was Hitchcock's conviction that the whole craft of the film is to grip and hold attention, granting himself no indulgence beyond the concentration span of a squirming child. He certainly hoped to make his films more fascinating than life. He had a tendency to fall asleep even at parties -- once while next to Thomas Mann, once while seated between Carole Lombard and Loretta Young.
What made Hitchcock an artist and not just a superb technician? There is a family snapshot of him at the beach with his three-year-old daughter. Even in his early thirties, under these playful conditions, he assumes his usual grave expression. Every hair is in place, and he is wearing a three-piece suit. His tie remains uncompromisingly knotted. The only thing is, his fastidious trousers are rolled, and he is barefoot. From the knees up, he is the stuffiest of adults; from the knees down, he is at one with his child.
The ordinary and the bizarre -- a three-piece suit and bare feet, or a sleepy farmhouse full of spies -- nothing looked incongruous to Hitchcock, any more than it did to Lewis Carroll, that other Englishman with the eye of a haunted child. To a looking-glass or the lens of a camera, everything makes its own kind of sense. It was Hitchcock's special triumph to allow even murder the eccentric privileges of English whimsy.
Hitchcock was knighted a year ago, but Sir Alfred remained a sort of Gothic Puck to the end. The policeman, three-quarters of a century ago, had announced naughty boys." Hitchcock wished to frighten his fans one last time with an epitaph of his own composition: "See what happens when you're not a good boy." The two lines create the perfect symmetry of a Hitchcock script. Bot smack of a boy's never-land rather than of life. But my, that boy was -- as Lewis Carroll would say -- brillig!