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"The Hitchcock Romance and the '70s Paranoid Thriller" - by R. Barton Palmer





Emerging in the Hollywood of the 1970s to enjoy a popularity that has now lasted for three decades, the “paranoid thriller” is commonly considered thoroughly Hitchcockian, especially since at least three of the films in this series, all directed by Brian De Palma, are more of less imitative homages to the “master of suspense.” A variety of the “suspense thriller,” these are films, according to Charles Derry, that have all been “made in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock.” Though never contested, the view that the shadow of Hitchcock looms over the appearance and flourishing of the paranoid thriller does seem problematic when the texts in question are closely scrutinized and compared. For if, as Robin Wood has shown, a key theme of Hitchcock’s films is that they tell stories “built upon the struggle to dominate and the dread of impotence,” upon, more specifically, “the form of man’s desire ... to dominate the woman,” then it is difficult to imagine how such an oeuvre could have exerted a formative influence on the paranoid thriller, which thematizes powerlessness in the face of ubiquitous and omnipotent institutional control.

Once the thematic differences between his films and their successors have been properly accounted for, however, the influence of Hitchcock on the genre is revealed as both unquestionable and deep. The intertextual tie that connects the two bodies of texts is, in fact, fundamental, but it is defined more by the reorientation of characteristic narrative structures than by shared subject matter.