The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes #10
There was something vaguely cringe-inducing about that passage in Hitchcock/Truffaut where François Truffaut leads off a discussion of 1940's Foreign Correspondent by calling it the kind of film a B-picture director would make (as opposed to a slightly overstuffed A like Rebecca, presumably). In fact, I seem to recall my own eyebrows heading north when reading it the first time so long ago. But I just assumed Alfred Hitchcock knew Truffaut meant well (how could he not?), and didn't take offense as other, thinner-skinned artists might have.
No egg-shell ego there, thought I.
Part Ten of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes opens with this passage; and much of what's here did end up in the published volume. What was not, however, published (indeed, could not have been published) is the supreme note of annoyance in Hitchcock's voice, stopping just short of outright anger. It's there in the tiny pauses, the throat-clearing, the ominously quiet insistence that the film did very well, the sharp elevations in volume as he describes how one sequence was rendered; as if Hitchcock were thinking to himself, "B picture? Is he serious?? After forty years of trying to get to where I am now in this demented circus of a business, I have to sit here and listen to amateur-hour insights from this cinephile fruit, this jumped-up ex-movie reviewer, and then get insulted by him??? Frig you and the New Wave you rode in on, you Renoir wannabe!".
In the book, of course, there's almost no sense of this. Hitchcock proceeds as though no insult, intentional or otherwise, had been given. But the recording bears every sign of a man trying very hard to restrain himself as his ego tries to digest what is to it an undigestible morsel. And what better way to push it through than finding in the moment occasion to bring forth . . . God help us, but it was inevitable . . .The MacGuffen.
The MacGuffen (his spelling, by the way; not reproduced in the book or anywhere else, then or now) was something Alfred Hitchcock talked about at great tedious length in interview after interview as though it were a skeleton key to his aesthetic (which it wasn't). In essence, it was a designation he dreamed up for the kind of storytelling device that advances a film's plot but does little else; a situational hook, if you will, upon which he could hang the weighty cloak of his mise en scene. As the decades mounted he never stopped trotting it out, and always emphasized (just as he does here) its essential meaninglessness; as if there were no contradiction in these conditions. The message was clear: Plot elements about secret codes and missing spies and stolen documents, those were the province of screenwriters; rudimentary irritants he had to work around on his way to realizing his art. They were interchangeable puzzle pieces, and he always maintained that the audience could not have cared less about them.
There is some truth in this, but not enough to warrant his transforming it into an ethos. MacGuffen was, after all, just another word for genre conventions; and Hitchcock . . . despite his repeatedly implying that they were a concern peculiar to his filmmaking alone . . . was scarcely the only director working in American Cinema who had to confront them (he was, if anything, the only one who felt compelled to talk about them again and again). As I say, he was somewhat correct in his assertion that audiences didn't care what the intrigue in his films centered around, but I doubt if the public's indifference, even in the aggregate, was any match for his own. In other words, Hitchcock was probably indulging in more than a bit of projection on these occasions. Which is understandable. He was, after all, far too disciplined a storyteller to ever go the post-1946 Howard Hawks route and eschew chunks of MacGuffen-like coherence in the name of really good, effective scenes. Consequently, he was forever saddling himself with plot devices he regarded as ancillary to his art. He couldn't get away from them, and it was a conflict he could not bring himself to resolve.
Thanks to Truffaut's questioning the efficacy of the MacGuffen in practice, Hitchcock deep-sixes the remainder of the excerpt by recounting its presence in his 1946 film Notorious; a long, bizarre saga in which he refuses to speak the name David Selznick, claims to have possessed inside knowledge of the Manhattan Project in 1944, and was then stalked by the FBI.
Truffaut, almost on cue, seems to swallow it whole.