A tale of geniuses

Documentary: PBS' `American Masters' examines the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick.

November 01, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

They were, actor Norman Lloyd recalls, "two sticks rubbing together to make fire."

David O. Selznick was a producer at the top of his game, at a time in Hollywood when producing was the only game in town. As head of his own studio, he delighted in telling his directors what to do, operating on the spur of the moment and trusting his instincts, even if those instincts told him it was time to start from scratch.

The result of that scattershot approach to moviemaking: "Gone With the Wind," a film that still stands as the crown jewel of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Obviously, what he was doing worked.

Alfred Hitchcock was a director without peer in his native England, at a time when that wasn't saying much. He'd already shown himself a master of suspense, with such films as "The Thirty-Nine Steps" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much." He worked carefully and analytically, carefully planning every shot, sketching out practically an entire film before an inch of film was exposed. He did not like turning on a dime, and he did not like being told what to do. Which worked fine in Britain, where there was no one to tell him.

But the English film industry had stagnated, the country was about to go to war, and Hitchcock desperately wanted to work in Hollywood.

Thus did Mr. Hitchcock link up with Mr. Selznick -- a pairing that, according to writer-director Michael Epstein's "American Masters" documentary, "Hitchcock, Selznick & the End of Hollywood," brought forth a trio of film classics and a seismic shift in the Hollywood balance of power. Once Hitchcock came to Hollywood, Epstein maintains, it was only a matter of time before directors became the dominant forces in film.

"Hitchcock & Selznick" isn't clear on how the two men came to the attention of one another, beyond saying Selznick's was the only studio willing to hire the rotund British director (a point disputed by other film historians). But given their differing styles, and their unquestioning belief in their own infallibility, it was inevitable they would clash.

According to Epstein, the result of what became a serious yin and yang between the two renowned filmmakers was a pair of films, "Rebecca" (which won Selznick a second-consecutive Best Picture Oscar) and "Spellbound," regarded as among Hitchcock's finest. Epstein argues, however, that the films were as much the products of Selznick's vision, which was far more romantic and melodramatic, than Hitchcock's, which tended to be more languid and less concerned with character than atmosphere.

By the time of their third collaboration, Hitchcock was calling the shots -- primarily because Selznick, whose grip on reality was becoming as tenuous as his position among the Hollywood elite, was busy trying to make a star out of new wife Jennifer Jones with "Duel in the Sun." The result was 1946's "Notorious," an unqualified masterpiece that Hitchcock would use as a springboard to even greater films, including "Rear Window" and "Psycho."

Although Epstein's documentary backs up its points with myriad interviews, it's curious that few of Selznick's thousands of written memos (his preferred method of communication) are quoted. And the idea that Hitchcock alone was responsible for the rise of the director might come as news to such other talents as John Ford and Frank Capra, who also had their share of power struggles with producers.

But even if you argue that the premise is flawed, the featured players in "Hitchcock & Selznick" are fascinating (and legendary) enough to keep you interested. Just like their movies.

`American Masters'

What: Documentary, "Hitchcock, Selznick & The Death of Hollywood"

When: 9 p.m.-10: 30 p.m. tonight

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

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