Men of vastly different temperaments, Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick wouldn't have been found in the same hemisphere, much less on the same soundstage, had WWII and a bestselling women's novel not brought them together. As is pointed out in the compelling but lopsided new docu "Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood," their seven-year contractual marriage was not a happy one, especially for Hitch.

Men of vastly different temperaments, Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick wouldn’t have been found in the same hemisphere, much less on the same soundstage, had WWII and a bestselling women’s novel not brought them together. As is pointed out in the compelling but lopsided new docu “Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood,” their seven-year contractual marriage was not a happy one, especially for Hitch. Cine students and casual Hitchcock buffs will find this American Masters offering addictive viewing, which will be enough to give this docu a good following.

The Selznick camp, however, may cry foul. A notorious control freak, the producer of “Gone With the Wind” and “Rebecca” is pilloried here as a dictatorial, pill-popping womanizer — “the most despised man in his studio.” Forget about Hitch’s misogynistic dark side; the David O. depicted here makes the corpulent one look like a well-mannered choirboy. Helmer-producer-writer Michael Epstein, relying on a handful of familiar experts and eyewitnesses (Peter Bogdanovich, Norman Lloyd) and some amazing archival footage, has crafted a slick, ambitious tale of two Hollywood titans — one on the decline, one on the rise.

Pluses include Gene Hackman’s modulated narration and Richard Einhorn’s haunting score; drawbacks are structural problems and Epstein’s tendency toward hyperbole and oversimplification. Docu sometimes goes so far afield in exploring Selznick’s peccadilloes, primary focus is lost.

The film will raise eyebrows from the get-go by arguing that Selznick’s “lasting contribution would have nothing to do with his grand Southern epic (‘Gone With the Wind’),” but rather with bringing Hitch to these shores in 1939.

Misleading title also poses a problem, since pic isn’t about the end of Hollywood, but the end of Selznick’s egomaniacal brand of picture-making in the latter years of the studio system.

Relying heavily on David Thomson’s Selznick bio and Leonard J. Leff’s “Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood” (both authors reiterate their views on camera), pic introduces key players through stills, archival footage and oft-told anecdotes.

Obvious differences in personality and work habits (Selznick was loud and pushy, Hitch quiet and meticulous) set the scene for the now-legendary clashes on the sets of “Rebecca,” “Spellbound” and “The Paradine Case.”

Epstein (co-helmer on “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”) opens with the backlot torching of Atlanta. An appropriate start, as pic’s premise is that Selznick spent the rest of his career trying to outdo “GWTW.”

Once obligatory parallel intros are gotten out of the way (Selznick, the spoiled rich kid who began in MGM’s story department; Hitch, the greengrocer’s son with a mania for timetables and F.W. Murnau), we’re rewarded with home movies of Hitch arriving in New York to make what he thought would be a movie about the Titanic. There was scarcely a honeymoon, as the two disagreed at once on “Rebecca” (to Selznick’s horror, articulated in a 3,000 word memo, Hitch’s treatment diverged sharply from the Daphne Du Maurier novel).

As a result of the growing animus, Hitch was continually loaned out for other films (“Suspicion,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Lifeboat”). Selznick, coping with brother Myron’s death and his very public divorce from Irene Meyer, relocated to New York, where he underwent therapy. Experiences on the couch led to the muddled “Spellbound,” with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, which the narration insists is a classic. Besides the producer’s customary interference, Hitch had to contend with Selznick’s shrink as technical adviser. Hitch fired back by hiring Salvador Dali for the surreal dream sequences.

Ironically, “Spellbound’s” commercial success made Hitch a hot commodity and led to his collaboration with Ben Hecht on RKO’s “Notorious,” the helmer’s greatest film of the period.

The story of how “Notorious” got made sans Selznick’s interference is definitely a highlight. The producer, now in love with Jennifer Jones, became hopelessly mired in the epic Western “Duel in the Sun.” The overripe “Duel” — described as “a schoolboy’s tribute to his own recently discovered sex life” — became “a shelter” protecting Hitch during “Notorious.”

The Hitch-Selznick partnership ended with the expensive flop “The Paradine Case,” a courtroom melodrama adapted by Selznick himself. Docu points out that Raymond Burr’s killer in “Rear Window” looks suspiciously like Selznick and was “perhaps (Hitch’s) final rebuke.”

Besides Bogdanovich, who hams it up with his Hitch impression, Epstein consults veteran Brit director Ronald Neame, who was assistant cameraman on “Blackmail”; caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, a former art director for Selznick; Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s personal secretary; and Selznick’s assistant and secretary, who recall being pawed and run ragged by their boss.

Tech credits are superlative, and materials on loan from Hitchcock and Selznick estates are showcased beautifully: Anny Ondra’s sound test for “Blackmail,” Hitch’s first talkie, will floor scholars and fans alike. It provides what may be the only filmed glimpse of the pre-Hollywood master at work. Teasing and playful, he’s anything but the “shy, retiring” filmmaker described earlier in this docu.

Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood

Production

An American Masters production. Produced, directed, written by Michael Epstein. Executive producer, Susan Lacy.

With

Narrator: Gene Hackman.
Camera (color), Michael Chin; editor, Bob Eisenhardt; music, Richard Einhorn; sound, Philipe Borero, Juan Rodriguez; associate producer, Eileen Wilkinson; additional camera, Don Lenzer. Reviewed on videocassette, San Jose, Calif., Jan. 20, 1999. (In Sundance Film Festival - competing.) Running time: 86 MIN.
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