Is It Just Me... Or Was Hitchcock Number Two In His Field?

Henri-Georges Clouzot was a superior filmmaker

Nothing really went right for Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Dogged by ill health, branded a Nazi collaborator and spurned by the French New Wave, his career was largely one of wasted opportunity and unrealised potential.

Somehow, though, he still made a trio of remarkable thrillers – Le Corbeau, The Wages Of Fear and Les Diaboliques – that saw him proclaimed as Alfred Hitchcock’s main rival.

Not only that, but he also had a thing for blondes. But to my mind, calling Clouzot “the French Hitchcock” as many have done is a back-handed compliment.

Much as I love Hitch, I don’t revisit his films half as much as I do his Gallic counterpart.

Nor do I find Alfie’s playful, mischievous style half as mesmerising as HG’s chilly, austere worldview, for all the many pleasures his work affords.

Hitch was always a consummate showman, a skilful conjuror who delighted in wrong-footing his audience with sleights of directorial hand.

Clouzot, though, was something else: a baleful critic of humanity who, with his unflinching eye for amoral characters prompted by greed, lust and sadism, was keeping it psychologically real in a way Hitch either never could or politely declined to.

Yes, there’s ugliness and violence in Hitchcock’s flicks. But it’s normally perpetrated by agents outside the norm: cross-dressing psychopaths, for example, or birds gripped by an inexplicable malevolence.

In Clouzot’s great pictures, the monster isn’t out there. Instead it’s within – the avarice and desperation that compel Yves Montand to drive a truck over Charles Vanel in Wages, for instance, or the hysteria, suspicion and paranoia that a few poison-pen letters unlock in Le Corbeau.

For me, it is not the palm-sweating tension and expertly sustained atmosphere of creeping dread that make Les Diaboliques so fiendish. It’s the casual and calculated cruelty, inflicted without a shred of remorse with the basest of motivations.

I’ve yet to find anything in Hitchcock as unsettling, and that includes Raymond Burr’s creepy neighbour in Rear Window and Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers.

OK, so Hitch has the numbers on his side: a vast, diverse oeuvre that covered half a century, two continents and the transition from silents to talkies.

Admittedly, Clouzot is a bit of a lightweight in comparison, though the overlooked likes of Manon, Quai Des Orfèvres and La Vérité do show he that was more than a three-picture pony.

Watching 2009’s fascinating documentary on his unfinished L’Enfer, you are left in no doubt it was circumstances rather than ability that curtailed his credits.

And in any case, since when was being prolific a mark of artistic merit?

Hitchcock was a genius, of that there is no doubt. Yet because his controlling hand is forever visible, we’re always just a tiny bit distanced from his brilliantly orchestrated constructions.

Clouzot doesn’t only want us to be voyeurs, though. He wants us to be participants, enduring the same gruelling emotional cocktail as his all-too-identifiable protagonists.

Hitch might be the master of suspense, but Clouzot is the more masterly storyteller. Or is it just me?

Who do you think was the better filmmaker? Let us know below...

Comments

    • richardcullen

      Sep 16th 2012, 11:57

      "Much as I love Hitch, I don’t revisit his films half as much as I do his Gallic counterpart." Ok but I revisit Hitch's films often, as do many others, Hitchcock is currently being celebrated at the BFI. So maybe in this case, it was just you? I prefer Hitchcock , he deserves his place...his legend status in film, but that doesn't imply the work of Henri-Georges Clouzo was any less relevant and spectacular. I wish it didn't have to always be a case of who is better. I much prefer to say, they were both spectacular, I enjoy both of their work. Hitchcock has a bigger space in my heart simply because he was an early example of the brilliant the British could achieve through Film.

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    • LSJShez

      Sep 16th 2012, 11:58

      Maybe HGC's circumstances did have a massive impact on what he would have produced; maybe not. What we know for sure is the quality of work HItch produced. Weighing it up in that way, there's no comparison really. You talk about HGC keeping it real in a way HItchcock couldn't or chose not to. I'm inclined to go with the latter. Saying that, I'd say the way Scottie puts Judy through the ringer in Vertigo, is as realistic and monstrous as anything in Les Diaboliques. In fact, greed, lust and sadism course through Hitchcock's masterpiece. Being labelled The French HItchcock can be nothing short of high praise, whether or not circumstances or ill health limited what he could do. I for one would love to be labelled The English HItchcock...Wait hang on!

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    • dwt5411

      Sep 16th 2012, 18:34

      The only way to parse them is based on specifics, because comparing each individual oeuvre is fruitless. That would be completely dependent on taste, nostalgia, and other subjective arguments. In my opinion, however, Clouzot made some great films -- many of which are the equal to Hitchcock's in suspense storytelling -- but none that possess the same psychological and thematic texture. Diabolique and The Wages of Fear are dense, for sure, but films like Strangers On A Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and The Birds are about so much more than just plot machinations and character development, they can be read in infinite different ways, and they express so deeply and passionately the obsessions and trepidations of their creator. Is Clouzot an underrated filmmaker? Of course. Is he better than Alfred Hitchcock? Get real.

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    • dwt5411

      Sep 16th 2012, 19:06

      .... I should have read the article before I commented. To claim that Hitch's films always cast the viewer as a voyeur is slightly myopic. He was absolutely obsessed with character psychology and subjectivity: The stream of consciousness voice-over in Psycho as Marion drives in the rain, Alicia Huberman's drugged POV in Notorious, the dream sequence of Vertigo and the famous shot that made the viewer feel Scottie's acrophobic disorientation. There are so many, I could list them all day. It seems that to the author Hitchcock was fanciful while Clouzot was dark and cruel. How about the way Devlin puts the girl he loves in the hands of sadistic Nazis for the sake of his national duty? Or the way the characters in Lifeboat explode with mob hatred at the German and beat him to death like rabid animals? Of course, Hitch made some movies that were just for fun, but he also made movies that were dark and serious, propelled by the sadistic and hateful halves of the human beast. Clouzot made viewers participants, well, one of Hitch's most famous tricks was to make the audience feel complicit in the crimes of his characters. The author downplays Hitch's expansive breadth of themes, ideas, and subjects for the sake of persuasion, but Hitchcock is an academic's wet dream, because there is so much mystery buried beneath the surface narrative quandaries. Is Stranger's On A Train really about a criss-cross murder plot gone awry? Or is it about a burgeoning tennis star repressing his homosexuality in order to gain access to a world of privilege? Or is it about the id and the superego battling it out for control of our fragile psyche? Rear Window: a tale of murder across the courtyard, or a tale of sexual impotency funneled into an obsession with visual/vicarious climax, or a metaphor for the experience film viewing itself. To convince anyone that Clouzot is better than Hitchcock, one would need to write a book, not just some little threadbare article.

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    • TheMovieWaffler

      Sep 17th 2012, 15:38

      It's just you! If you only feel like a voyeur when watching Hitch's films I feel sorry for you. Hitch always made you a participant, often against your moral judgement.

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    • Igrayne

      Sep 18th 2012, 21:06

      Hitchcock only has one match and possibly a better, Roman Polanski.

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    • FBLPedroza

      Sep 23rd 2012, 20:08

      He could have surpassed Hitchcock, but as you said it bad luck got in his way

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