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Hitchcock Annual (1997) - Alfred Hitchcock: registrar of births and deaths





There is no body in the family plot.
— Advertising slogan for Family Plot, 1976

Throughout his career, the Master of Suspense was a Master of Ambiguity as well, in everything from narrative development to nuances of montage and mise-en-scène. Alfred Hitchcock had a clear distaste for self-enclosed discursive systems, and took a carnivalesque pleasure in disrupting traditional notions of what constitutes "correct" content and "proper" procedure in creating a cinematic text. This tendency marks the structures and stories of most of his major films, shining most brightly through deliberately transgressive works like Rope and Psycho. It also underlies the themes and subtexts he favored most. The celebrated "transference of guilt" and "knowledge equals danger" motifs, for instance, are ways of particularizing his disdain for rigid demarcations of innocence and culpability, power and vulnerability, good and evil. More to his liking are the shades of philosophical gray that signal ambivalence, interdeterminacy, and the paradoxically he finds at the root of social and individual experience.

Hitchcock's last completed work, Family Plot, takes his characteristic ambiguity to extremes that are all the more surprising given the tone of mild whimsy that typifies much of the movie's atmosphere. Even its title is multivalent, suggesting several meanings, as Donald Spoto has observed.1 While the film's profound ambivalence is partly the culmination of a set of discursive positions Hitchcock had been refining for decades, it may also reflect biographical factors, particularly as he found himself in the unique (for him) position of filming a death-related story while nearing the end of his own life. Slavoj Žižek notes that in his Family Plot cameo Hitchcock appears "as a shadow on the windowpane of the registry office, as if wishing to inform us that he is already dose to death."2 True, he was not on the way out just yet — he worked conscientiously, if fretfully at times, on both the planning and execution of the picture. Still, his physical and emotional capabilities swung drastically up and down during the process, and contemporaneous accounts portray him as edgy, irascible, and "more ambivalent about making this, his fifty-third feature film, than about any picture in years."3 Although he still had a few years to live, he appears to have felt dispirited and disempowered by his clearly worsening health. While this situation might have weighed down a lesser artist's work, however, it may have deepened Hitchcock's accomplishment as he poured his fears, hopes, and uncertainties into detailed instructions on everything from dialogue to camera angles during the bursts of enthusiasm that intermittently energized his creativity. If a single formulation can sum up his impulses as he assembled the film with screenwriter Ernest Lehman and other collaborators, one might say he was searching for loopholes in the human condition — hitherto unnoticed signs pointing toward renewal and regeneration rather than finality and closure. While the movie's cemetery represents a "dead end ... dead and buried" for the George Lumley character, Hitchcock identifies with the Mrs. Mukoney figure who barges into the stor...

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David Sterritt, film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, teaches at Long Island University (C.W. Post campus) and Columbia University. He is author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock (Columbia University Press, 1993).


  1. Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures (New York: Hopkinson and Blake, n.d.), 448
  2. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge: MET Press, 1991), 180.
  3. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), 531.
  4. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, trans. Stanley Hochman (New York: Continuum, 1979), 98.
  5. Spoto, Dark Side of Genius, 554-55.
  6. William Rothman, Hitchcock - The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 341, 54, 235, 339.
  7. For an extended discussion, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 368-436.
  8. Spoto, Dark Side of Genius, 534.
  9. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 129.
  10. Chion, 131.
  11. Chion, 130-31.
  12. Žižek, 180.
  13. Žižek, 118.
  14. Žižek, 90.
  15. See Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), 92.
  16. Zizek, 91.
  17. Raymond Durgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, or, The Plain Man's Hitchcock (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974), 48.