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With his newest deep-dive movie about movies, prolific documentarian Mark Cousins switches up his approach by adding a heaping dollop of mischief. My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, his love letter to one of cinema’s towering greats, flaunts a title that could be an impostor’s declaration on To Tell the Truth. The opening credits announce that the film was “written and voiced by Alfred Hitchcock.” Say what? The first sound of that voice on the soundtrack, however familiar its adenoidal depths and Cockney slants, sparks reasonable doubt — suspicions confirmed when the maestro’s initial comments concern a huge bust of him in London, erected 20 years after his death.
The master of suspense is voiced by English impressionist Alistair McGowan, and eventually, once you’ve gotten past the film’s ventriloquist conceit — that Hitchcock, addressing Cousins and us, is revisiting his body of work from the perspective of the smartphone-tethered 21st century — you’ll marvel at the breathy detail of the performance. By then the film will have drawn you in with Cousins’ typically sharp connections as he delves into the visual language of Hitchcock’s creations, the narrative motifs and inventive strategies — wizardly tricks in “a trickster medium.”
My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Alistair McGowan
Director-screenwriter: Mark Cousins
Whether the “Hitchcock speaks” gambit enriches the doc is debatable, as is the question of whether he’d deign to splain it all to us as patiently as he does, his historic conversations with Truffaut notwithstanding. But the artifice adds a fitting layer of playfulness, as does Hitchcock’s promise that he’ll deceive us once during his commentary — which he does, in spectacular fashion.
Cousins’ documentary, premiering in Telluride, arrives on the centenary of Hitchcock’s first directorial effort, Number 13. Set amongst tenants of an affordable-housing building, it was pulled from production because of budget problems, its completed scenes subsequently lost. There’s no mention of it in My Name, a film that consists almost entirely of clips from the 54-year filmography. Cousins’ selections are striking for their breadth and depth, and they’re interwoven with an organic propulsion, the collection never feeling rushed or pedantic or listy (the elegant editing is by frequent Cousins collaborator Timo Langer).
Other than one of his trademark cameos, in Marnie, there are no moving images of Hitchcock himself; instead, the doc puts a few stills of the auteur in rotation. Any suggestion of TV newsmagazine-style repetition is soon dispelled by Cousins’ inquisitive camera, pulling in tighter, and by the keen liveliness of the deceased filmmaker’s voiceover.
Carried along by Hitchcock’s narration, we peer into his photographic portrait, and into his films: the “most serious” (The Wrong Man), the lesser-known silents (“You probably didn’t see it,” Hitchcock/McGowan says of 1927’s Downhill, aka When Boys Leave Home), the shimmering black-and-white nail-biters of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s (Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Psycho) and the immortal Technicolor dreamscapes (Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds).
As “Hitchcock” notes, his movies have been analyzed every which way and back again. Cousins’ fresh approach divides the work into six sections, an elegant capsule melding existential questions with the practical challenges and opportunities of big-screen storytelling. The first chapter, Escape, is the longest, and from there the film moves through Desire, Loneliness, Time and Fulfillment, culminating with Height — as in an elevated sense of perspective. It’s a damn good outline for a life, let alone a compelling blueprint for exploring the oeuvre.
Cousins’ way of looking at movies is as embedded in the narration as his research on Hitchcock’s productions. Biographical elements flicker through the dynamic cross-section of movie moments, mainly as a complement to the stories they tell. He doesn’t second-guess or dismantle the movies; he zeros in on what makes them tick. With one notable exception, this version of Hitchcock, our narrator, embraces the choices he made. Born at the tail end of the 19th century, he upended Victorian literary ideas with a vigorous modernity. Until Truffaut’s wholehearted endorsement, he was generally dismissed as a mere entertainer. But he was wielding radical methods. My Name Is celebrates the ways Hitchcock escaped the conventions of drama, replacing them with hyperrealities, not unlike his beloved Cezanne: “His geometry was not the world’s geometry,” Cousins’ Hitchcock says.
This Hitchcock is aware of how digitalized the future — our present — has become, but Cousins isn’t interested in updating him or putting him through the revisionist mill. “My little metaphor still pertains” is Hitchcock’s verdict about a scene in Spellbound. His voice rings true when he uses the now-passé “transvestite” and sometimes calls women girls. But there’s no hint here of the man who famously said actors should be treated like cattle; he speaks fondly, and on a first-name basis, of the megastars who toplined his features — Jimmy, Cary, Ingrid, Hank (Fonda).
For the Hitchcock-curious, Cousins’ film easily could serve as an introduction to his work. For others, it casts a new light on scenes you may have watched dozens of times, laying bare the ache in Norman Bates’ philosophical musings and the charged space around lonely female characters. It finds a thrilling rhyme between the phone booth in The Birds and the shower in Psycho, and links the blinding orange afterglow of flashbulbs in Rear Window, on a soundstage facsimile of Greenwich Village, to A-bomb tests in the desert on the other side of the continent.
No Hitchcock fan needs reminding that the best of his movies are endlessly, insistently watchable. And yet, viewed through the prism of this discerning and adoring doc, it’s remarkable how affecting the images still are, and how the action can still make your heart skip a beat. Wielding the camera as voyeur, detective and tense-shuffling “time phantom,” Hitchcock draws us in. By comparison, with its theatrical device of a faux narrator, the documentary keeps you at a certain distance. The resulting push-pull keeps this valentine from getting mushy and, at its strongest, it’s a robust and eloquent friction.
Production company: Hopscotch Films
Cast: Alistair McGowan
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Mark Cousins
Producer: John Archer
Executive producer: Clara Glynn
Editor: Timo Langer
Composer: Donna McKevitt
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