November 21, 2014

An eerie night at the library

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Film scholar Rick Winston takes a question from the audience at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library on Oct. 17, following a presentation on the career of Alfred Hitchcock. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock, the cinema’s uncontested master of suspense, to turn a trip to the library into a nail-biting experience.

The movie was 1943’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” about a wholesome small town girl (played by Teresa Wright) who gradually begins to suspect her beloved uncle of being a murderer. The film’s turning point, when the doubts of Wright’s character become more than a shadow, is set at the Santa Rosa, Calif. public library and involves one of Hitchcock’s most virtuoso camera moves: a sweeping crane shot which begins on a close-up of an emerald ring and ends high in the library’s rafters.

On Oct. 17, Hitchcock’s patented brand of suspense was again on display in a library setting. Only this time, the venue was Williston’s own Dorothy Alling Memorial Library and the master of ceremonies was Rick Winston, a film scholar who co-founded Montpelier’s Savoy Theater in 1980 and now lectures as part of the Vermont Humanities Council.

Winston’s Wednesday evening program interspersed personal commentary with clips from 11 Hitchcock thrillers, spanning the silent cinema classic “The Lodger,” from 1926, to “Psycho,” which made audiences afraid to take a shower for weeks after its 1960 premiere.

With only an hour and a half at his disposal, Winston’s talk could only graze the surface of Hitchcock’s art, but he did an admirable job of highlighting the themes, motifs and narrative obsessions that pervaded Hitch’s 54-year career as a director of motion pictures.

Hitchcock, who often peppered his films with Freudian psychological undertones, was fond of telling a story from his own youth, in which his father, rather than sending him to his room for being naughty, had him locked in a cell at a local London precinct.

Winston used that story as a springboard to investigate the psychological motivation behind Hitchcock’s recurring theme of the wrongfully accused man on the run, explored most memorably in the British production “The 39 Steps” (1935), and its closest American heir, “North by Northwest” (1959).

Winston also examined the concept of the “MacGuffin,” the Hitchcockian narrative device that places undue significance on an incidental story element which ultimately proves to be irrelevant.

Perhaps the best example of a MacGuffin is in “Notorious” (1946), in which a cache of uranium in the wine cellar of a Nazi spy forms the basis of the first half of the narrative, but which by story’s end is immaterial in a movie more concerned with a bizarre love triangle between Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.

Although Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) was recently named the greatest movie ever made in Sight & Sound magazine’s decennial critics’ poll, Winston cited “Notorious” and “Rear Window” (1954) as his two favorite Hitchcock pictures.

It’s an opinion he shares with François Truffaut, the late French critic and director who conducted a definitive series of interviews with Hitchcock in the early 1960s.

Truffaut, in the introduction to his interview book, called Hitchcock the cinema’s “foremost technician” and lumped him with Howard Hawks and John Ford as the only heirs to silent film pioneer D.W. Griffith to be working in 1960s Hollywood.

Winston, more than 40 years later, reaffirmed Hitchcock’s preeminence as both an audience and critics’ favorite.

“I like to think of Hitchcock as perhaps the most audience-friendly of directors, and it’s because he had our viewing pleasure in mind,” Winston said. “He was not making these movies in a vacuum. He was really gauging every effect in his films.”

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