When filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock died in 1980, he had lived to see the critics come full circle on his films. In the '20s and '30s he had been hailed as one of the best English filmmakers, having such classics as ''The 39 Steps'' and ''The Lady Vanishes'' to his credit. Yet when he came to America in 1939, the master of suspense found that his thrillers were looked down upon by American critics.
Although anyone who could create films like ''Strangers on a Train,'' ''Rear Window,'' and ''North by Northwest'' was going to be popular with the public, it was not until his later years that Hitchcock's work started to be taken seriously by the critics as well.
In the past 10 years the books on Alfred Hitchcock have ranged from the coffeetable variety (long on photographs, short on substance) to Donald Spoto's ''The Art of Alfred Hitchcock'' (Hopkinson & Blake, 1976), whose thoughtful analysis only occasionally lapsed into praise more appropriate to a fan than a critic.
Now comes William Rothman, who wants to make his case for Alfred Hitchcock on the basis of five films: ''The Lodger'' (1927), ''Murder!'' (1930), ''The 39 Steps'' (1935), ''Shadow of a Doubt'' (1943), and ''Psycho''(1960). ''The Murderous Gaze'' consists of a shot by shot analysis of each film.
Rothman is thus able to cite a visual moment or sequence, then illustrate it with stills taken from the film. His chapter on ''Psycho'' alone uses over 200 stills. (Most film books, by contrast, are content to use staged publicity photos to illustrate their text.) A motion picture, by definition, is one that cannot be captured in a single still photograph. Rothman has managed to bridge the gap between the printed word and the art of cinema.
That said, it must be noted that Rothman's book is a major disappointment. His errors range from the minute (placing a superfluous ''The'' in front of Hitchcock's 1942 film ''Saboteur'') to the grandiose. Recent reviewings of the five central films in Rothman's text find point after point where, at best, he is seriously misreading the film.
For example, Rothman is preoccupied with sex. Certainly it is obvious that Hitchcock has sexual obsessions on his mind in many of his films, but Rothman finds sexual symbolism in everything from a noose in ''Murder!'' to a wine bottle in ''Shadow of a Doubt.'' By contrast, any married couple that fails to be in a constant passionate frenzy is dismissed by Rothman as being ''sexless.'' Interestingly, each of the three couples so described have children, and the last, in ''Shadow of a Doubt,'' have three, including two youngsters.
If that was all that was wrong with the text, then one could enjoy it for its several insights into Hitchcock's work, and just brush aside the sexual innuendo as a critical idiosyncracy. However, if Rothman has a preoccupation stronger than sex, it is over who ''controls'' the camera in Hitchcock's films.
Whenever we see a character engaged in thought, Rothman declares that the next scene may be one that he ''conjures'' for us. When Joseph Cotton, as Uncle Charlie in ''Shadow of a Doubt,'' sends a telegram to his family in Santa Rosa, Calif., the next shot is of the sleepy town. For most audiences, this is a signal that the locale of the story is shifting. For Rothman, it signifies that Uncle Charlie may be ''presenting these pictures to us.''
Such analysis leads to all sorts of mischief. When the camera follows Uncle Charlie's point of view, Rothman claims this indicates his ''power to direct the camera.'' Thus, for Rothman, the issue becomes, ''Has Hitchcock authorized Charles's appropriation of this power, or is Charles's gesture an act of hubris of an order that cannot go unpunished?'' One may as well ask if it was the character Ishmael or author Melville who controlled the pen that wrote ''Moby Dick.''
Rothman is, of course, entitled to try to convince others of the correctness of his views. Behind Rothman's qualifications scattered in the text, though, is a certain underlying arrogance. In the closing pages of the book he writes that his book was not written for Hitchcock ''but for his audience, which stands in need of instruction in viewing his films.''
Compare this with the final words of Donald Spoto in ''The Art of Alfred Hitchcock'': ''Frequently, if not usually, critics speak and write as if their interpretations of art were the last words. ... [I]n a work of criticism the end should only bring us back to the beginning, to the works of art themselves.''
That is perhaps the best indictment of Rothman's book. Rothman claims special knowledge that prevents the uninitiated from appreciating what the films are ''really'' about without the benefit of his guidance.
In this year of the Hitchcock revival (with five ''lost'' films recently rereleased), take comfort in the fact that you don't need William Rothman or anyone else to interpret his films for you. As Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut about ''Psycho,'' ''You have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays - for an audience.''