Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
"Hitchcock antiquing fantasies" AntiqueWeek 42 (January 20, 2011) Let’s be honest: The day-to-day routine of the antiques trade is not very exciting.  You drive around in a truck. You pack and unpack.  You look things up in books.  There’s the housekeeping, too. If you work in a shop, you have to maintain the displays.  Online vendors have it easier: Their inventory can be stored on densely packed shelves, but it all has to be cleaned and polished for the photographer. Sure, working with antiques is the opportunity to hold history in your hands, but it’s also a job where you go through a lot of Windex. For diversion I imagine how these tasks could be interpreted cinematically.  My favorite director for these fantasies is Alfred Hitchcock. I can think of two Hitchcock movies that involve antiques.  In Suspicion (1941), Joan Fontaine is married to Cary Grant, who pays his debts by selling the Jacobean armchairs that were a wedding gift from her parents. When you know that, you know all. That he turns out to be a murderous cad comes as no surprise. Then there is the scene in North by Northwest (1959) when an advertising executive (Cary Grant again) confronts a spy ring at a Chicago auction. More resonant, in my opinion, are the Hitchcock movies that can be viewed as metaphors for the antiques trade. Here’s my list  (Bernard Herrmann soundtrack optional): The 39 Steps, 1935 Plot Summary: In London, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) gives shelter to a secret agent, who is killed in the night.  Accused of her murder, he flees to Scotland.  The police pursue him across the moors, but he escapes and arrives at the safe house, a genteel village residence.  Inside he is hidden and protected.  Outside he sees the police searching for him.  He confides in his host, who lets him know that this is no safe house but enemy headquarters. Trade Tie-in: I have never been accused of murder, but I have been accused of crimes just as heinous. Substitute threatened negative feedback for flight across the moors. My safe house was eBay and it was just as deceptive as the one in The 39 Steps. I arrived frightened and exhausted.  Here was hope, I thought, before I saw with horror that eBay was on the other side. Rebecca, 1940 Plot Summary: Joan Fontaine, in another meek-beauty role, is a paid companion who falls in love with tormented widower, Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  They marry and return to Manderley, his magnificent house in Cornwall.  Poor Joan Fontaine is completely overwhelmed.  She creeps around Manderley in her sensible shoes and schoolgirl blouses, haunted by the oppressive memory of the first Mrs. de Winter.  Her fear of the beautiful dead wife is stoked by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Bonus Line:  “Everything is kept just as Mrs. de Winter liked it.” Trade Tie-in: Should be required viewing for human resources personnel. Years ago, I was hired to replace someone who was irreplaceable.  Nothing had been changed since his departure six months before. On my desk—his desk—was a notepad printed with his name. Not a day passed without a pining allusion to him. The senior specialist, in the Mrs. Danvers role, would point to the chair I occupied and say, “There. He sat right there when we cataloged the John Dewey manuscript.”  Foreign Correspondent, 1940 Plot Summary: It’s a staple of spy movies: The hero learns vital information at risk of his life. With his back flattened against the wall and eyes widened in fear, he overhears the bad guys discussing something very, very important. Take Foreign Correspondent where an American reporter (Joel McCrea) steals into a Dutch windmill. Sometimes hiding in plain sight, other times trapped behind the grinding cogs, he learns—well, never mind what he learns.  That’s not really important.  What’s important is that he spends the rest of the movie dodging assassins. Trade Tie-in: If you’ve never deployed dramatic espionage techniques at work, you’re missing out on half the fun of office life. At my last job, a colleague would gather intelligence by crouching on the steps that lead to the manager’s office.  Privately, I thought he overrated the risks. Like most people under 30, the manager was fairly deaf.  He could have stood six inches behind her chair, and she would have had no idea he was there.  Still, he got a lot of useful information.  For example, one day he learned that that the two of us we’re going to be fired.  It’s nice to know about such things in advance. Lifeboat, 1944 Plot Summary: It’s World War II and the Allied survivors of a torpedoed ship struggle to survive in a lifeboat.   At first cooperative and resolved, they soon descend to panic, mistrust, and delusion. Weakened by hunger and dehydration, some jump while others are pushed. The rest make fitful efforts to keep going.  They have no idea if they are rowing in the right direction. Trade Tie-in: Whoa! If you don’t think this sounds like what’s happened in the last 10 years, you need to read AntiqueWeek more closely. Lifeboat is especially apt as a metaphor because there are only a handful of survivors.  All the other passengers are at the bottom of the sea.   Spellbound, 1945 Plot Summary: There is a new director at Green Manors, a private mental asylum.  But something is not right.  He is surprisingly fresh-faced (the role is played by a young Gregory Peck) and inexplicably ignorant of psychoanalytic theory.  Ingrid Bergman is the cerebral and self-contained junior doctor who unravels the mystery of his amnesia and cures him of his guilt complex. Costume: A white lab coat Bonus Line:  “I think we’d better put him under drugs for a few days.  He looks agitated.” Trade Tie-in: Lots of easy humor here. All shops have their regulars.  Sometimes you don’t even know their names, but probably you know quite a bit about them. This is the clinical side of customer relations. They deposit information with you that they do not confide in their friends.  No doubt, there are days when you feel you are presiding over your very own Green Manors (isn’t that the perfect name for a rural shop?). Keep in mind, though, that in Spellbound the real crazies are on staff. Rear Window, 1954 Plot Summary: Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer who is confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg. Bored and frustrated, he looks out the window. The neighbors’ comings and goings start to form a coherent narrative.  His voyeurism leads him to suspect a man has murdered his wife.  He watches the murderer, but sees only part of what is happening.  He is distracted by the other neighborhood dramas and his relationship with his girlfriend (Grace Kelly). Props: None. Leave the binoculars at home. Trade Tie-in:  You’re working a show. You don’t have a broken leg, but until your wife gets back from lunch, you’re trapped, like Jimmy Stewart. You stand in your booth and watch.  You watch the customers. You watch the promoter.  You watch the other dealers.  Eventually, your attention narrows to two or three scenes. Here’s an old anecdote: I was a dealer’s assistant at a big Park Avenue show. It was a warm spring.  The suit jackets were discarded and there was a lot of fanning with the show program. The exception was a French dealer, who wore a cashmere sweater.  He never took it off. This was a source of discreet fascination. “He still hasn’t taken it off,” announced the dealer I worked for, when I showed up on the last day.  But the lesson of Rear Window is that you don’t see everything.  Who knows what we missed?  Maybe someone did a strip tease or Columbian drug lords were selling cocaine in hollowed out books. Psycho, 1960 I have a mild and gentle temperament.  The only times I felt like hacking away with a knife in the grip of a screeching auditory hallucination were when I was on the phone to the eBay rep. Sorry, Tom. Take my word for it: The Hitchcock prism can enliven every dealer's day. Thrills and adventure can be yours.