Raymond Durgnat delineates the many facets of Alfred Hitchcock's prolific career and the controversies that these have aroused among the critics—critics who have seen Hitchcock as master of the aesthetic "touch" and who prefer his English to his American period, or those for whom Hitchcock is a dark Roman Catholic moralist.
Durgnat's Hitchcock is a fascinating mixture of contrarieties. He tends to admire Hitchcock for his ability to tell a story and to control and manipulate order so that he can play his audience with suspense, for his "rare sense of how far dramatic conflicts can be complicated and in which ways," and for the conjunction or layering of elements in films like "Rear Window", "Vertigo", and "Psycho", which constitutes the real Hitchcock "touch."
Durgnat reminds us that Hitchcock's ability to capture a feeling of everyday realism, particularly in the background and details of his early films, is something of a feat—"realism in the '30s was a rarer and more difficult achievement... the director couldn't just point a TV camera in the street, but first had to notice [these details], then to love them enough to remember and to re-create them and lastly to slide them deftly into a thriller context."
Raymond Durgnat here examines literally hundreds of films—from Birth of a Nation to those of the 1960's, from Hollywood smashes to 'avant garde' obscurities, from all parts of the world— in an effort to isolate universals of the language of films and to loft their poetics to an articulate level.
Beyond what interest it may possess as a collection of different cinematic topics, this text is offered also as a basis for re-exploring an art-form which seems to pose certain aesthetic problems more insistently than other media have done.
In addition to the cross-references among a large number of films, a few are selected for extended analysis. These full-length features include Cocteau's Orphee, Hitchcock's Psycho, Chabrol's Les Cousins, Ray's Johnny Guitar, and Newman's This Island Earth. His succinct synopsis of the running plot functions as an analysis of it; thus, much of the critical insight is in the form of entertaining narrative.
The book is divided into four sections. The first is concerned with the union of film style and film content. The second treats the connection between the film as an entertainment and as a picture of reality, suggesting that even films that are unabashedly 'escapist' are really rooted in, and comment on, the inescapable facts of social life. The third section attempts to close the gap between the popular responses and those of 'high culture.' This is not a 'surrender to the mob and to the moguls.'
The author's standards are more stringent than those of the permissive 'camp' followers and 'pop' critics. The final section produces further evidence of the existence of cinematic poetry in the commercial movie.