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Cinema Journal (1990) - Keeping Your Amateur Standing: Audience Participation in Hitchcock's Political Films




Keeping Your Amateur Standing: Audience Participation and Good Citizenship in Hitchcock's Political Films

by Ina Rae Hark

In Foreign Correspondent (1940) reporter Johnny Jones scornfully remarks to Carol Fisher about the Universal Peace Party, headed by her father, Stephen Fisher, "What is it that makes him or you think that an organization like this made up of well-meaning amateurs can buck up against those tough military boys of Europe?" Stung, Carol later departs from the text of her speech at the Party's banquet to inquire "I should like to ask anyone who has called us well- meaning amateurs to stand up by his chair and tell us why a well-meaning amateur is any less reliable than a well-meaning professional at a moment like this." The film situates these remarks in a context of profound irony, since it subsequently emerges that, unknown to Carol, the Universal Peace Party is a front for an espionage organization run by decidedly ill-meaning professionals. Though they are misapplied, Carol's sentiments are nevertheless validated when the amateur foreign correspondent Jones, a simple reporter with "a fresh unused mind," thwarts the spies' efforts to obtain information vital to Germany in the imminent hostilities of the second World War.

Although Foreign Correspondent is the first Hitchcock film to articulate it in explicit terms, this ideology of the amateur had operated in the director's political thrillers from their inception. The contrast between amateur and professional had been a key element in the British spy thrillers of the teens and twenties, including those novels by "Sapper" and John Buchan that inspired Hitchcock's first two spy films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935) 1 but in working the contrast out over his career, Hitchcock transformed it into his own model of the political relationship between citizen and government in a democracy. Repeated sequences in the political films portray an audience, in which the amateur sits, and a performance or lecture that the professional enemies of democracy control or manipulate. A detailed analysis of such sequences in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps will constitute a major portion of this essay; other cases occur in the Foreign Correspondent banquet; Mrs. Sutton's charity ball in Saboteur (1942); the auction in North by Northwest (1959); and the ballet in Torn Curtain (1966). These recurrent sequences work out a linkage between good citizenship and a particular kind of audience participation, as contrasted with the passive behavior of silent or easily led spectators, who represent a populace ripe for totalitarian subjugation.

Deriving this figure of the good citizen-amateur as inscribed in Hitchcock's films requires a positioning of this figure within the intersecting cultural and textual codes, and the historical moment, of its first production. That moment encompasses the years 1934 through 1938 in England, during which five of the six films Hitchcock directed were spy thrillers, with all but one (The Lady Vanishes, 1938) produced for Gaumont British by Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu and scripted (partially or totally) by Charles Bennett. The five films derived from the major strains of the British espionage novel of the early twentieth century: Sapper (The Man Who Knew Too Much began as a scenario called Bulldog Drummond's Baby); Buchan (The 39 Steps); Somerset Maugham's "Ashenden" stories (The Secret Agent, 1936); Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (Sabotage, 1936); and the Graham Greene-Eric Ambler "innocent abroad" model (The Lady Vanishes). After Fritz Lang's Spione was released in 1927, the thriller had become a popular cinematic as well as literary genre. The films of Conrad Veidt, according to Patricia Ferrara, brought the genre "most notably" into the English cinema. Ferrara goes on to observe that "Hitchcock's renewed Gaumont period, and the increasingly negative reception of Hitchcock's more downbeat B.I.P. films from 1930 to 1933 were also influential in pushing Hitchcock into light spy thrillers. Once he began making them, the public and critical enthusiasm for his output kept him working in the genre."2

Since Hitchcock had planned to film at least the first two projects before rejoini...

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  1. See John Cawelti and Bruce Rosenberg, The Spy Story (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 43; and Michael Denning, Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller (London: Routledge, 1987), 12.
  2. Patricia Ferrara, "The Discontented Bourgeois: Bourgeois Morality and the Interplay of Light and Dark Strains in Hitchcock's Films," New Orleans Review 14, no. 4 (1987): 79.
  3. John Russell Taylor, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 126.
  4. Denning, Cover Stories, 24.
  5. Joyce Haber, "Hitchcock Still Fighting Hard to Avoid the Conventional," Los Angeles Times Calendar (4 Feb. 1973): 11.
  6. Patrick Kyba, Covenants Without the Sword: Public Opinion and British Defence Policy 1931-35 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1983), 11.
  7. Uri Bialer, The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics 1932-1939 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980), 2.
  8. Kyba, Covenants Without the Sword, 76.
  9. William McElwee, Britain's Locust Years 1918-1940 (London: Faber, 1962).
  10. Denning, Cover Stories, 67-68.
  11. Taylor, Hitch, 124.
  12. Philip Dynia, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Ghost of Thomas Hobbes," Cinema Journal 5, no. 2 (1976): 39.
  13. Ferrara, "Discontented Bourgeois," 87.
  14. Sam Simone, Hitchcock as Activist: Politics and the War Films (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985), 82.
  15. Taylor, Hitch, 72; 132.
  16. John M. Smith, "Conservative Individualism: A Selection of English Hitchcock," Screen 13, no. 3 (1972): 51.
  17. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981), 19ff.
  18. Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 207-14.
  19. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.
  20. The Radio City Music Hall scene in Saboteur might be classified as a shout sequence, but movie viewers in Hitchcock films generally illustrate subjective psychological states rather than sociopolitical relationships (see, for example, Sabotage, Rebecca).
  21. Taylor, Hitch, 181. The actual phrase in the film is "moron millions." Either the scenario modified Hitchcock's expression, Viertel has misremembered the line, or Taylor has misquoted Viertel.
  22. The challenge occurs in the nonpolitical films as well. See, for instance, Maurice Yacowar's assertion: "And as characterizes the ironic artist, his work is less a matter of statement than a series of tests for his audience, a challenge to its independence from his sleight of hand and trickery of tone." Maurice Yacowar, Hitchcock's British Films, (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1977), 13.
  23. Elizabeth Weis, The Silent Scream (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982), 80. Although Weis emphasizes the moral, rather than the political implications of this contrast between silence and speaking out, our analyses of The Man Who Knew Too Much necessarily overlap in several particulars.
  24. Betty displays an immediate and vocal revulsion for both Abbott and Ramon when her parents still see them as amiable fellow vacationers.
  25. Raymond Durgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (London: Faber, 1974), 123.
  26. William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 117.
  27. These sequences are marked out as parallel not only by their diegetic similarities but by each being introduced by a shot of a sign that names the building.
  28. There is no doubt that the assembly hall sequence mocks the ideal of participatory democracy to some extent (see Rothman, Murderous Gaze, 127; Weis, Silent Scream, 160), but I see it as a mockery of professional politicians rather than a wholesale denial of the possibility that democracy can work through citizen involvement (see also Yacowar, Hitchcock's British Films, 188-89; Ferrara "Discontented Bourgeois," 82-83).
  29. See Rothman, Murderous Gaze, 127.
  30. At the music hall, Memory had occupied a similar position in the frame when he acknowledged Hannay's question and welcomed him as a Canadian to England. Directly following that shot was the sequence in which the crowd became a mob, so in both instances the linking of Hannay and Memory in the frame prefigures Memory's loss of control over his audience. At the Palladium, however, Memory is subject to Hannay's voice rather than the other way around.
  31. Torn Curtain articulates the amateur-professional dichotomy overtly once more. Michael's CIA contact, the "farmer," complains, "Why can't you leave this intelligence work to us professionals?" In the later context, however, the very notion of professionalism is unstable. Michael, while an amateur spy, is a professional physicist, and the object of this particular espionage operation is a scientific secret. So he reminds the farmer, "It takes a scientist to pick a scientist's brain."