American Heritage (2007) - Alfred Hitchcock's America
- article: Alfred Hitchcock's AMERICA
- author(s): David Lehman
- journal: American Heritage (01/Apr/2007)
- issue: volume 58, issue 2, page 28
- journal ISSN: 0002-8738
- publisher: American Heritage Publishing Company
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, Bernard Herrmann, Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Creativity, David Lehman, David O. Selznick, Dimitri Tiomkin, Dorothy Parker, Eva Marie Saint, Eve Kendall, Family Plot (1976), Farley Granger, Fort Point, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, Frenzy (1972), Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, Henry Travers, Hitchcock's America (1999) edited by Jonathan Freedman & Richard H. Millington, Hume Cronyn, Ingrid Bergman, James Mason, James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Joan Fontaine, John Gavin, Joseph Cotten, Kim Novak, Leo G. Carroll, Lifeboat (1944), Madeleine Carroll, Madison Avenue, New York City, New York, Marnie (1964), Martin Balsam, Motion picture directors & producers, Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, New York City, New York, North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), Patricia Collinge, Patricia Hitchcock, Plaza Hotel, New York City, New York, Priscilla Lane, Psycho (1960), Raymond Burr, Rear Window (1954), Rebecca (1940), Robert Cummings, Robert Donat, Robert Walker, Rod Taylor, Roger O. Thornhill, Saboteur (1942), Salvador Dalí, San Francisco, California, Santa Rosa, California, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Stanley Cavell, Strangers on a Train (1951), Suspicion (1941), Teresa Wright, The 39 Steps (1935), The Birds (1963), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Wrong Man (1956), Thornton Wilder, To Catch a Thief (1955), United Nations, New York City, New York, Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock's America
It was all in the English director’s mind, of course. But what he thought about this country was passionate, scary, fond, funny, and profound.
When I think of Alfred Hitchcock’s America — the vision of America that you get from watching the films that he made during his prime Hollywood period — these are some of the images that come to mind:
- Heavy rain, poor visibility. The exhausted driver pulls up to a motel with a vacancy on a forlorn highway (Psycho).
- A low-flying crop-duster takes aim at the well-dressed man running in a wide-open Midwest cornfield devoid of people or places in which to hide (North by Northwest).
- The avuncular small-town traffic cop in the street stops an agitated teenager (Teresa Wright) from crossing against the light and says, “Just a minute, Charlie. What do you think I’m out here for?” (Shadow of a Doubt).
- Judy (Kim Novak) puts on the same necklace that the legendary Carlotta Valdes wears in the portrait in the museum to which Madeleine (also Kim Novak) had earlier paid rapt attention while Scottie (James Stewart) furtively watched (Vertigo).
- At the tennis championship in Forest Hills all heads in the crowd move back and forth, back and forth, to follow the progress of the ball — all except for one man, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), who keeps his eyes squarely on one of the players, Guy Haines (Farley Granger, in Strangers on a Train).
- The glamorous model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), looking like a million pre-inflation bucks, wheels in a catered meal to serve herself and her wheelchair-bound photographer boyfriend (Rear Window).
- At the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, Scottie saves Madeleine from drowning in San Francisco Bay (Vertigo).
- The merry-go-round at the Magic Isle amusement park spins out of control (Strangers on a Train).
- All that keeps a man from falling to certain death from the top of the Statue of Liberty is his jacket sleeve clutched by another man, and the sleeve is ripping apart (Saboteur).
- The menacing image of birds on telephone wires (The Birds).
- A montage: the hand of Cary Grant lifting Eva Marie Saint to safety atop Mount Rushmore and then, in the wink of a camera eye, making the same gesture to lift her to the sleeper top of a train compartment, followed a frame later by a suggestive shot of the train entering a tunnel (North by Northwest).
- The silhouette of an arm wielding a knife, a torn shower curtain, and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) slumping lifeless in the tub, the blood oozing out of her and flowing down the drain (Psycho).
I’ve stopped myself after a dozen such images or scenes, though I know I can easily double or triple the list. What do these cinematic moments, emblematic as they seem to be, suggest about Hitchcock’s America?
The first thing I need to declare is the filmmaker’s genius. In his lifetime considered the pre-eminent maker of thrillers, Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) acquired a knighthood and the sobriquet “master of suspense.” He has long since gained general, if not universal, recognition as one of the major filmmakers — and thus one of the major artists — of the twentieth century.
An Englishman by birth and upbringing, the son of an East End greengrocer, “Hitch” was brought up in a strict Catholic household. One day his father gave the boy a letter and had him deliver it by hand to the local police station, where the officer on duty, after perusing the contents, locked young Alfred in a cell for 10 minutes, then released him. This enhanced the boy’s appreciation of the police and helped plant in him the seeds of a somewhat cruel sense of humor that expressed itself in practical jokes. The heavyset Hitchcock signed his films by making cameo appearances in them, usually at the start of the picture. In North by Northwest (1959), Hitch is ready to mount a New York City bus when the doors slam in his face; in Lifeboat (1944), the director’s image turns up in a scrap of newspaper among the debris in the boat — in a before-and-after advertisement for a weight-reduction program.
Educated by jesuits before taking some night classes at the University of London, Hitchcock made a number of superb black-and-white films in the Britain of the 1930s; The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are perhaps the most celebrated of these. Hitchcock and his wife visited America in 1937 and 1938; he loved England, but when David O. Selznick offered him a directorial contract, Hitch signed on. In the end, the reason he abandoned London for Hollywood is simple to state: The latter could far more easily accommodate his aspirations than could England’s more provincial film industry. And in truth, Hitchcock, who became a United States citizen, made his greatest movies in his prime American period, which began with Rebecca in 1940. Although he kept making movies, through Family Plot in 1976 — and the least of these movies is worth watching more than once — the ones I find worthiest of attention in this limited context, by virtue of their aesthetic excellence on one side and their American character on the other, are Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964).
If there is an overriding theme in Hitchcock’s America, it is not that there are dangerous paranoids among us, though that is the case; it is that paranoia is sometimes a reasonable response to events in a world of menace and violence, with threats to safety and complacency close at hand, sometimes in the most intimate of places or from the most trusted of friends or relations. As the homicidal Bruno remarks to the traveler who shares his train compartment in Strangers on a Train, “Everybody has somebody that they want to put out of the way.” And it follows that everybody else is potentially a victim, an accomplice, an accessory after the fact, a witness, or a sleuth. Life is a cliffhanger. There comes a moment when the hero, or his adversary, or his lover, or a bystander may have to hang from a cliff, a rooftop, or the top of a lofty monument, and while there’s no guarantee of survival, the reassuring thing is that someone is on hand to try to save the endangered person. That’s part of the picture too.
Hitchcock’s America is vast and dwarfs the individual. Man is as alone as Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) on that wide-open cornfield in North by Northwest. If Man is lucky, Woman comes along, and they may learn to like each other against their own initial inclinations, as happens to Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane) when they are handcuffed together in Saboteur. (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, the leading man and lady in The 39 Steps, also spend an uncomfortable amount of time handcuffed together, which appears to be Hitch’s sardonic view of romance and marriage. In Saboteur the pair bicker, and someone overhearing them says, “My, they must be terribly in love.”) If our hero is extremely lucky, he looks like Cary Grant and the lady who comes along seems to be in league with the bad guys but turns out to be a friendly double agent with a feminine touch played by Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest). If, however, our hero is unlucky, the dame who comes along is a femme fatale in a plot more fantastic than even a veteran paranoid could devise. If the intricate psychological scheme at the heart of Vertigo isn’t enough to make Scottie (James Stewart) paranoid, there must be something truly wrong with him.
When I see a Hitchcock movie, as when I read a novel by Graham Greene, I feel that I have entered a universe in which evil exists. Murders happen for the usual reasons (greed, ambition, jealousy, the desire to be rid of a cumbersome parent or spouse) and sometimes for psychologically complex motives. But there is an undercurrent of sin and damnation in even a good-natured nightmare with a happy ending like North by Northwest. Just prior to the cornfield scene, Roger Thornhill in his tie and business suit looks completely out of place as he stands in the road with a gentleman who is waiting for a bus. Out of the sky comes the crop-duster. “That’s funny,” the other man says before boarding the bus. “That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” And as the bus departs, leaving Thornhill alone and unprotected in his natty city clothes, it becomes clear that the plane (whose pilot we never see) means to kill him. Evil in Hitchcock’s America is this inhuman and malevolent flying creature bearing down on a man who is desperately out of his element. Evil stands out in a crowd, the way Bruno’s head remains fixed on Guy while everyone else’s head turns to follow the tennis ball in Strangers on a Train. Evil is a disturbance of nature, but it can have the force of a natural phenomenon, as when flocks of birds thought friendly and harmless prove to be neither in The Birds. But evil is also the shadow that enters the room stealthily, taking its place noiselessly among us and turning out to be the thing that doesn’t belong in the picture. In Shadow of a Doubt Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), with his contempt for “all-American suckers,” is like a Satan who has sneaked into Eden, in this case the movie’s “ordinary little town” with “average” people in Sonoma County, California, which is a version of a pastoral and which he corrupts by his very presence, though it takes the sleuthing of his niece, young Charlie (Teresa Wright), to see through his amiable and charming facade.
The natural progress of paranoia is illustrated in Psycho in the fate of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the bank teller who steals $40,000, has sex outside wedlock with her boyfriend in a hotel room, and emits the scent of guilt as she flees the city in a newly purchased used car. She has begun to act like a guilty person: fearful, jittery. When she pulls to the side of the road, exhausted, and is approached by a highway patrol officer, she is a bundle of nerves. The officer asks, “Is anything wrong?” “Of course not,” Marion says. “Am I acting as if there’s something wrong?” “Frankly, yes,” says the cop. He means to be kind in his gruff manner when he warns her against sleeping in her vehicle on the side of the road. “There are plenty of motels in this area. You should’ve … I mean, just to be safe,” he says. The terrible irony of this statement becomes apparent only on a second viewing of the movie, for Marion would have been much safer in her car than in the motel where she does stop. The guilt and paranoia have run their therapeutic course when in the rain and gloom of night she sees the vacancy sign at the Bates Motel. What happens next is that her drama is swallowed by someone else’s larger and more lethal nightmare. It is not her dream that matters but the more lunatic dream of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). In her movie, the events are comprehensible even when things go astray: A woman gives in to temptation, takes something that isn’t hers, runs away, begins to think better of it, and might even, with the benefit of a good night’s sleep, decide to make a clean breast of things. In his movie, none of this matters; all that matters is that she is beautiful as sin. To the two sides of Norman Bates’s schizophrenic personality, Marion Crane is either (1) a sexy, blonde female and therefore a natural object of desire or (2) a sexy, blonde female and therefore wicked as Jezebel. And so Marion is dispatched in the shower scene, stabbed by Norman’s “mother,” before the movie is half over. The greatest danger is the nearest, and one reason the shower scene in Psycho is the scariest and most threatening in all of Hitchcock is that it violates the defenseless heroine in the most private and intimate of places.
In the mythic landscape that is Hitchcock’s America the murderous or perilous coexists with the homely and domestic. People aren’t who they claim to be. A son can impersonate his dead mother (Psycho). A salesgirl in a San Francisco department store can impersonate an industrialist’s wife (Vertigo). Murder is the result, premeditated in one case, spontaneous and unplanned in the other. But if murderers and their accomplices reinvent themselves, the hero, too, must be nimble enough to employ a fictive identity. In Saboteur Barry Kane’s very name suggests that he starts with a strike against him. When his friend Ken Mason perishes in the fire at the airplane factory where they work, and the fire is determined to be the result of industrial sabotage, Kane is the chief suspect because he was seen handing Mason a fire extinguisher that the saboteur had filled with gasoline. (Unfortunately, no one saw the villain, Frank Fry, hand the extinguisher to Kane.) Though he is innocent, goodhearted, and good-natured, there is a sense in which Kane has repeated Cain’s crime in Genesis: He has not been his brother’s keeper. And he must suffer the fate of Cain, who was sentenced to wander the earth. Barry Kane must cross America in his quest to absolve himself by fingering the real saboteur. The episodic film begins in Los Angeles and ends in New York Harbor. When on the run Barry claims that his name is Barry Mason, conflating his own first name with the last name of his slain buddy, we know he’s on the right path, for the progress of a Hitchcock hero is often a parable of identity, and names are sometimes changed along the way.
There’s a wonderful variety of bad guys in Hitchcock’s America. There are psychotics and con men out there, also kleptomaniacs and traitors and thieves and sometimes just an ordinary husband who has had enough of his wife’s nagging and turns murderous. From the back of his apartment, L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart), the laid-up photographer in Rear Window, monitors the lives of the people in the apartments around their common courtyard in Greenwich Village during a hot summer. He has given nicknames to some of the neighbors, and in each case we can extrapolate an entire movie from the little we learn, as if each window in the movie represented a cinematic possibility, and the voyeur in the wheelchair with the camera is a stand-in for the film director himself. There are the newlyweds, who live mostly behind shut curtains. There is the songwriter, who plays “Mona Lisa” as if in unconscious homage to Lisa Fremont, the Grace Kelly character in the movie. Rebuffed at romance, Miss Lonelyheart is in despair and on the verge of suicide, but then she begins a hopeful new friendship with the songwriter. Miss Torso, the sexy dancer with the acrobatic body, fends off handsome suitor after suitor, reserving her warm embrace for the least prepossessing fellow, who turns up at the end, a short man with a receding hairline in a U.S. Army uniform. It is a little community in a back lot, but behind one window lives one whose existence threatens all, for Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife and chopped her into pieces that fit in valises. There’s a wail in the middle of the movie when one of the neighbors discovers that her pet dog has been strangled. Behind that wail is an accusation — one of you did this — that is also a challenge to the community. So it turns out to be fortunate, after all, that the film director is a snoop. Jefferies proves that “we’ve become a race of peeping Toms,” but his paranoia is justified; his peeping leads to the apprehension of the guilty one, who must be expelled for the community to continue. This is a miniature of the logic of the generic detective story, with the twist that the rear window of the title is unmistakably a movie screen in metaphor, and we the spectators are implicated in Jefferies’s voyeurism.
When a criminal design is put into effect, it takes on a velocity of its own, like the out-of-control merry-go-round in the amusement park where the villain meets his end in Strangers on a Train. It was in the park’s tunnel of love that the out-of-control Bruno Anthony earlier approaches Miriam, Guy Haines’s unfaithful wife, and strangles her to death. An amusement park is a made-to-order Hitchcock setting, a place dedicated to wholesome fun, with songs like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” playing in the background when the violence occurs. In Hitchcock’s America, men and women are surprisingly vulnerable — to lunatics of various stripes, criminals ingenious and banal, and even flocks of birds.
Yet for all that, Hitchcock’s America is also the America of the grateful immigrant, émigré, or refugee: a haven of freedom, a light in the storm of World War II. There is something benevolent in American institutions symbolized by public monuments or by people in uniform. The cop in the street stops young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) from crossing against traffic in Shadow of a Doubt because this is Santa Rosa, California, small-town America, where the librarians help educate you and the police keep you out of mischief. (Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, wrote the screenplay.) And though Hitchcock has a sense of humor that has been characterized as sadistic, the counterweight to his dark view of humanity is also in his movies. It takes the form of an unrelenting insistence on justice, and sometimes poetic justice, and a reiteration of basic American values. Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt has a special bond with the uncle whose name she shares. She has always adored him. When she has reason to suspect him of being the Merry Widow Murderer, seducer and betrayer of wealthy old widows, it nearly breaks her heart. But not only does she prove her mettle as a sleuth, she opposes her uncle’s evil with a commensurate force of goodness, and that is why she prevails. On the basis of one purloined page clipped from a newspaper and one critical clue — the ring her uncle has given her bears the same initials as one of the murdered widows — she confronts him and gets him to confess. But he doesn’t have to tell her that he has strangled three women. She knows. What persuades her is not so much the evidence as the contemptuous way the killer talks about the “ordinary” people in the “ordinary little town” of Santa Rosa. When Uncle Charlie says, “The world’s a foul sty… . If you rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine,” it’s as good as an admission of guilt.
Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt embodies America in the same way that brash Barry Kane does in Saboteur. They radiate the optimism and innocence of an ordinary person to whom nothing truly bad has yet happened. Then one day it does, and it troubles her, and she is no longer innocent in the sense of being unaware, but she is able to resist her cynical uncle mentally and physically, and it is he who falls out of the train to his death when they struggle. The benevolence and kindheartedness of small-town America may be most apparent in Shadow of a Doubt. But you can sense the director’s affection for American ideals in Strangers on a Train when the U.S. senator played by the Hitchcock stalwart Leo G. Carroll says, “Let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has the right to life and the pursuit of happiness.” You hear the patriotic strain loudly in Saboteur when a blind man, our heroine’s uncle, fearlessly welcomes the fugitive Barry Kane to his rustic cabin in a rainstorm though he can tell the man is in handcuffs. “It’s my duty as an American citizen to believe a man innocent until he’s been proved guilty,” Uncle Philip tells his skeptical niece Patricia.
American monuments turn up in Hitchcock’s movies too often to lack significance. Take the United Nations, site of a key scene in North by Northwest. The knife that kills the diplomat in the movie is intended for someone else, which in the abstract sounds like a cutting comment on the U.N. But while Hitchcock’s intentions may never lack irony, they do not consist solely of irony, and to an important degree the monuments in his films — Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest and the Lincoln Memorial in Strangers on a Train — are invoked for the ideals they stand for.
The Statue of Liberty at the conclusion of Saboteur takes its place as the nation’s favorite monument, evoking our preferred idea of ourselves. On the observation deck, waiting for Barry Kane and the police to arrive, the heroine finds herself alone with the traitorous Frank Fry. She flirts with him to detain him, and when he grows suspicious, she stands her ground and defiantly recites the great peroration from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” The final confrontation takes place on the outside of the statue, between the thumb and forefinger of the hand holding the torch. The placement of Lady Liberty here is a ringing an endorsement of American values.
A favorite Hitchcock plot motif is that of the wrong man, the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, usually murder, who must elude his pursuers and track down the true culprit. Saboteur is a straight-forward version of this design; Spellbound, a baroque one (in which the suspect on the run is an amnesiac whose dreams are choreographed by Salvador Dali); The Wrong Man, a grim one made in a semidocumentary style; Frenzy (1972), a British version; and North by Northwest, a comic apotheosis of the theme. Both Spellbound and North by Northwest, are cases of mistaken identity and can be read as existential parables: The hero needs to discover who he is, or must adopt a made-up identity to become his true, adult self. The quest for the villain and the need to subdue him and foil his plot amounts to the hero’s rite of passage.
The tension between aesthetic and moral impulses adds an edge to Hitchcock’s movies. The better the villain, the better the movie, was a Hitchcock maxim, and often enough it is the villains who steal the show. Certainly this is true in Strangers on a Train, where Robert Walker, playing Bruno, gives a considerably more interesting, threatening, and complex performance than Farley Granger, who plays the tennis pro. Claude Rains in Notorious, James Mason in North by Northwest, Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt are, for all their villainy, attractive, charming, and urbane. The male lead in some Hitchcock films — Robert Cummings in Saboteur, Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train, Rod Taylor in The Birds — comes close to being a generic figure. None of the other male characters in Psycho, and there are quite a few, including John Gavin and Martin Balsam, can hold a candle in interest to the schizophrenic culprit.
The male lead in a Hitchcock movie has heroic qualities but is decidedly a regular guy with flaws or wounds, and even when he is played by an Englishman, he seems a type of the American. Roger Thornhill, the successful Madison Avenue advertising executive in North by Northwest, is a commitment-averse mama’s boy who drinks too much and elbows inconvenient people out of the way. As the film begins, he leaves his New York office building accompanied by his secretary, dictates an insincere apology to a miffed girlfriend, and, in the time-tested New York manner, swoops in and takes a taxi someone else has hailed. Cary Grant, who plays Thornhill, is the perfect Hitchcock actor. But Jimmy Stewart, the unpretentious average guy, is a close second. Either Hitchcock found something dark that was previously untapped in Stewart or he liked capitalizing on the discrepancy between the actor’s image and his character in the film at hand. As Jefferies, the invalid photographer in Rear Window, Stewart has less interest in his girlfriend than in spying on his neighbors. In Vertigo he plays the police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, who is hampered by a psychological weakness that the film’s criminal mastermind exploits to the hilt: Scottie has acrophobia and gets dizzy in high places, and this in San Francisco. When the film begins, a uniformed cop dangling from the edge of a rooftop clings for his life to Scottie’s hand. Scottie, beset with vertigo, lets go, and the cop tumbles to his death.
Scottie is not the only Hitchcock character to suffer from guilt. Gregory Peck in Spellbound arrives at the asylum as its new director, Dr. Anthony Edwardes, but is soon revealed to be an impostor, an amnesiac, and a suspect in the murder case of the actual Dr. Edwardes. (In a flashback resembling a psychoanalytic breakthrough, he recovers the repressed boyhood memory of sliding down a New York banister and accidentally pushing his younger brother to his death.) For much of the movie, Gregory Peck doesn’t even know who he is, proving thereby that in the asylum the doctors and the patients are hard to tell apart. The Peck character learns that his real initials are J.B., and when he checks into a hotel as John Brown, this represents considerable progress, for the entire film is metaphorically a case study in psychoanalysis in which the patient reveals his dreams, talks about his repressed memories, and discovers at long last that his name is John Ballantine and that though he was the immediate cause of his brother’s death, it is now past time to shed the burden of guilt.
Some of the wounded men in Hitchcock’s movies have their chance at regeneration and redemption. Gregory Peck gets well through the love and ministrations of the sympathetic psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), Hollywood’s greatest homage to Freudian psychology. Cary Grant in North by Northwest shows himself so adept at eluding pursuers and escaping from hot spots — by, for example, hilarious antics improvised at an elegant auction house — that by the end of the movie he has proved himself worthy of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). As in Saboteur and other Hitchcock movies, a change of name spells a change in fortune in North by Northwest. Cary Grant thinks he is the adman Roger Thornhill until he is abducted and people start calling him George Kaplan. There is even a room in the Plaza Hotel in Kaplan’s name, with suits of clothes in the closet. From the moment he answers to the name Kaplan for the first time, thereby embodying the purely notional spy that the CIA has concocted to lead the bad guys astray, the hero begins his journey through terror toward redemption. In this case, redemption is epitomized by his union with Eve Kendall in that railway compartment as the train enters the tunnel and “The End” appears on the screen.
In some ways a Hitchcock film functions as a morality play. In The Lady Vanishes (1938) the cast of characters stranded on a stalled train acts out the appeasement-versus-confrontation debate in Britain in the face of German aggression in the late 1930s. The underrated Saboteur is a series of episodic lessons in democracy. When Barry and Patricia throw themselves upon the mercy of circus performers, the troupe — in a flamboyant scene written by Dorothy Parker — debates whether to offer refuge to the fleeing pair. And then they vote. The quarreling Siamese twins cancel each other out. The fat lady declares herself neutral. The leader of the troupe votes for the couple; the malignant midget, against. And so Esmerelda, the bearded lady with her beard in curlers, casts the decisive vote, and it is in favor of the fugitives. Lifeboat (1944), about the survivors of a shipwreck adrift in a small lifeboat, is allegorically not only a parable of survival but a contest between American democracy and German totalitarian efficiency. The Birds sounds a prophetic call for an ecology movement that has not yet got off the ground in 1963. The Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell has argued that North by Northwest, whose title echoes one of Hamlet’s famous declarations (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a hand-saw”), is in fact a symbolic reworking of Hamlet, and you don’t have to agree with this unusual thesis to find the argument fascinating. Rear Window is allegorically about moviemaking and voyeurism. Vertigo and Psycho are allegories of the interior life of the wounded.
Two major Hitchcock movies end without the usual resolution that we expect in a murder mystery — Vertigo and The Birds. In other of his films as well, the element of threat is what endures beyond the solution of the puzzle at hand and the restoration of order. In a Hitchcock movie an object can vibrate with meaning and serve as a metonymy of danger: Guy’s cigarette lighter with crossed tennis rackets on it, which Bruno wants to plant at the scene of the amusement-park murder in Strangers on a Train; the victim’s smashed eyeglasses in the same picture (does any other image convey vulnerability so well?); the crack of light beneath the asylum director’s door in Spellbound; the key to the wine cellar in Notorious (1946); the glass of milk Cary Grant brings to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941); the necklace Kim Novak puts on in Vertigo. Hitchcock’s poetry of objects, as I think of it, could stand as a lesson for modern poets weaned on Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.
There is this in Hitchcock, and there is some of the most glorious music ever written for the movies, by Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin, and others. There is also glamour, as when Grace Kelly flirts with Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief or wheels in an elegant repast for James Stewart and her to consume in his bohemian pad in Rear Window. And there is the good old-fashioned Hollywood buss that ends the spectacle, as when Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck clinch at the gate in Grand Central at the end of Spellbound. But I would save the last word for Hitchcock’s humor and the marvelous way it coexists with the macabre. In Shadow of a Doubt there is a running conversation between young Charlie’s father, Joseph Newton (Henry Travers), and his neighbor and friend Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) in comic counterpoint to the plot of the Merry Widow Murderer. Both gentlemen are addicted to detective stories and make a competitive parlor game out of planning the perfect murder as a strictly theoretical pastime. When we first meet Joe, he is carrying a magazine entitled Unsolved Crimes. The best way to commit a murder, he has told Herb, is with a blunt instrument. In a later scene Herb jokes that he could have poisoned Joe’s coffee unseen. Both men are utterly oblivious of the drama unfolding in the very house in which they drink their coffee and discuss unsolved crimes. When Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) describes her husband and Herb as “literary critics,” she is more accurate than she can know, for the pair have the same relation to the crimes in the movie — murder by strangulation rather than poison or a lead pipe — that literary critics have to literary art. This comic subplot, which might seem to underscore the theme of our general vulnerability, is a variant on the archetypal story of the scholar who, with his eyes fixed on the stars, falls into a ditch. Most of us are looking elsewhere and do not see the peril immediately before us. This may make us easy prey. But the comedy is benevolent, because the “ordinary people” in Shadow of a Doubt are decent, warmhearted, and generous, the backbone of Hitchcock’s America.
(c) American Heritage, David Lehman (2007)