Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Alfred Hitchcock—those were the Hollywood directors in whose films and careers I became interested in my youth, a by now but vaguely remembered period in my life during which most movie-going adolescents associated the business of making pictures with names like Rocky Balboa, Indiana Jones, or Luke Skywalker. My folks rarely went to the cinema, least of all together; so, my image of Hollywood emerged on the small screen and its dated, black-and-white offerings. Owing to my father’s lingering doubt about the advances of tube technology, film to me had been chiefly a monochrome medium anyway; and as much as it irked me at the time to be missing out on the colorful and the current, I am retrospectively grateful for this early if belated introduction to classic filmmaking—the happy by-product of a less happy family life.
Prolific, long-lived and distinctive, Hitchcock is a particularly good usher into the world of traditional cinema, to dramatic and filmic technique, even though we are rather too readily drawn—with him and by him—into the mythos of auteurism, of a director’s control of what is presumed to be his work. Why is it that we think of classic cinema as being “directed by,” whereas stage and radio drama are primarily thought of (if thought of at all) as being written? Granted, from the framing of a shot to the editing of the reels, the director of a motion picture is called upon—or in a position—to supervise and coordinate more aspects of the creative process than the director of a stage play or radio production. Still, filmmaking is much more collaborative than we tend to recognize.
Quite a few pictures directed by Alfred Hitchcock are hardly what we think of as Hitchcock, for which reason we conveniently overlook or dismiss them, just as Hitch tended to brush them aside to preserve his auteur image. One of those non-Hitch Hitches is the 1934 confection Waltzes from Vienna, shot during a period when the director was not yet in a position to choose his projects. Irreverent as I am, I screened it last night in commemoration of the 110th anniversary of the celebrated suspense meister’s birth.
“It had no relation to my usual work,” Hitchcock told François Truffaut in an interview that served as the source for one of the most insightful books on filmmaking. I bought my first (German) copy of it when I was sixteen; my mother and I were about to visit my father, who was working at a plant in Libya at the time. Faced with the prospect of spending seven weeks in a land hostile to Western culture (those visa stamps sure looked suspicious to the immigration officials when first I traveled to the US), I decided to pack plenty of page-turners, the Truffaut volume among them. Too excited to sleep on the night before our journey, I had turned the pages of the Truffaut volume before we headed for the airport. I don’t recall ever reading a non-fictional book quite this fast and with such enthusiasm.
Still, familiar only with the director’s most iconic works, I was unable to enter the conversation or contest Hitchcock’s self-assessment. It was not until 1999, the centennial of Hitchcock’s birth, that I caught up with Waltzes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; before then, the supposed misstep had been little more than a few brusque words and a couple of stills to me.
As it turns out, Waltzes, a “musical without music,” is not quite the, “cheaply” done and “very bad” movie its director made it out to be; nor is it true that it bears “no relation” to his “usual work,” unless “usual” refers strictly to genre, in which case one would have to regard as unrelated comedies and costume dramas like The Trouble With Harry, and Jamaica Inn. What relates these and most of Hitchcock’s works to each other is not suspense but irony, not thrills but bathos. Waltzes—which tells of Johann Strauss Jr.’s attempt to come into his own as a composer and the intervention on his behalf of a sly benefactress who, in turn, is a threat to the son’s lover—may have been a more suitable project for Lubitsch, just as Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the kind of screwball material in which we expect Preston Sturges to excel; but it is only when Hitchcock looks more like Fritz Lang that he strikes me as The Wrong Man for the job.
In his setting of scenes, as in his staging of the battle of the sexes, Hitchcock relies on queer juxtapositions that elicit laughter even as they excite us. In the opening scenes of Waltzes, set in and around a burning building, those most at risk are entirely indifferent to danger, consumed as they are by the flames of passion. In the climactic scene, a confrontation between young Strauss and the jealous husband of his benefactress, the crowds cheer the new composer, believing him to be having the time of his life, while the rhapsodized one is being thrashed by his ostensible rival, just as the true competitor, Strauss Sr., over at a deserted bandstand, comes to term with the fact that he has been upstaged. Whether employed to unsettle or amuse, incongruity plays a key role in Hitchcock’s storytelling.
While hardly danced as masterly or memorably as The Thirty-Nine Steps, Waltzes, too, benefits from clever and far from haphazard cinematography, as well as a strong interplay between image and sound, be it word or music. I suppose that in most cases, the collaborative effort is so successful that we ultimately give credit chiefly to the one we assume to have been at the helm of it all. These days, though, a director seems to matter far less than an investor in pulling the strings, which are mostly wrapped around purses. Now that popular motion pictures are increasingly, if not primarily, a medium for special effects artists, one might be forgiven for turning to a misstep like Waltzes for a sense of direction, and for pursuing the auteur—a mere Hitchcock-and-bull story such a romance may be—along the meandering, mythical and nominally blue Danube.