Literature Film Quarterly (1999) - It's the cold war, stupid: An obvious history of the political Hitchcock
- article: It's the cold war, stupid: An obvious history of the political Hitchcock
- author: Thomas M. Leitch
- journal: Literature Film Quarterly (Summer 1999)
- issue: volume 27, number 1, pages 3-15
- journal ISSN: 0090-4260
- keywords: Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, American Film (1983) - Fear of spying, Andrew Sarris, Ben Hecht, Criticism, Critics, Film, Film directors, Film theory, Foreign Correspondent (1940), François Truffaut, Ideology, James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Lifeboat (1944), MacGuffin, Marnie (1964), Michael Balcon, Motion picture criticism, North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), Psycho (1960), Rebecca (1940), Robert E. Kapsis, Robin Wood, Sabotage (1936), Strangers on a Train (1951), Tania Modleski, The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Thomas M. Leitch, Topaz (1969), Torn Curtain (1966), Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, Universal Studios, Vertigo (1958)
It's the cold war, stupid: An obvious history of the political Hitchcock
At the risk of sounding stupid and obvious, I'd like to point out that this paper is only incidentally about Alfred Hitchcock. Its true subject is indicated by the prominence of the two most important words in my title, which are stupid and obvious -- that is. the words "stupid" and "obvious." What I'd like to talk about, A propos of some ideas about Hitchcock's cold-war films, is the role of the stupid and the obvious in the process of interpretation. And the best way for me to begin is with two anecdotes, both ostensibly about Hitchcock, but really about the vital importance of the stupid and the obvious.
The first anecdote is one of the best-known stories in the Hitchcock annals. Having decided that uranium hidden in wine bottles would make a good MacGuffin for Notorious, Hitchcock and his screenwriter Ben Hecht went to see Robert Milliken at Cal Tech to ask him how big an atom bomb would be. This was still before Hiroshima, and Milliken's reaction was to ask if Hitchcock and Hecht were trying to get themselves arrested along with Milliken. The filmmakers were working on an impossible idea, Milliken went on, and they'd better think of something less preposterous. Later, Hitchcock found out that following this subversive meeting, the FBI had put him under surveillance for three months.
Now the point of this anecdote isn't to tell us anything new about Hitchcock, who's presenting himself as a lucky guesser about the topicality of uranium rather than a director with unexpected expertise in quantum mechanics. (Many readers, in fact, will probably share my suspicion that it doesn't really tell us anything new about the FBI, either.) If you told this story to a student who said, "Wow, I never thought about the possibility that Hitchcock might be a Nazi spy," you'd just roll your eyes because the student had missed the point of the story, which is precisely not to suggest any new reading of history, but to remind us of a reading we already know: in this case, that only somebody as stupid as the FBI could possibly suspect somebody like Alfred Hitchcock of being a danger to national security. The story raises the possibility of Hitchcock as a threat to national security only to ascribe that belief -- the belief even in the possibilitv that Hitchcock might be a security threat -- to somebody else, somebody too stupid to realize what everybody knows: that Hitchcock's reputation as an important filmmaker ought to indemnify him against such wild accusations as Milliken's and such paranoid behavior as the FBI's.
The story works, then, by drawing a line between what everybody knows -- what I'll call the obvious -- and the people who are too stupid to realize what everybody knows. People like the FBI agents are so stupid, in fact, that they can hardly be called people at all, since (by definition) they don't know what everybody knows, and therefore aren't part of everybody. In drawing a line between the FBI and the rest of us, the story -- and this is its real function -- provides a comic bonding experience for the rest of us by congratulating us on knowing what everybody knows. Why do we deserve to be congratulated for knowing no more than everybody knows? Because we're smarter than the FBI, which is too stupid to know it.
This dialectic between the obvious and the stupid motivates a lot of great anecdotes that congratulate their audience on what they already know, but it may seem to have little to do with the writing of interpretations that propose to tell people things they don't already know. I hope my second anecdote, however, will clarify this relation -- although the anecdote itself is so much less well-known that, as far as I know, this is the first time it's ever been told.
One morning at Baylor University's 1996 Hitchcock conference, I wandered into a session on Hitchcock and the Cold War. The first paper in the session argued that Marnie, though it might seem apolitical, was actually structured by a cold-war logic of the sort outlined in Robert Corber's admirable book In the Name of National Security. The second paper discovered a similar cold-war logic in North by Northwest and James Cameron's True Lies. The third paper, again citing Corber, found it in Vertigo. Although I hadn't then read Corber's book, I found its leading argument pretty familiar by now -- that Hitchcock's films of the 1950s "limited the potentially endless dispersal and displacement of the spectator's desire by bringing it into alignment with the nation's security interests," and, "by invoking the homophobic categories o...
(c) Literature Film Quarterly (1999)