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American Film (1976) - Hitchcock and The Art of Suspense




Hitchcock and The Art of Suspense

If you create the fear, you've got to relieve it.
— Alfred Hitchcock

To be seduced by fear and to convey it so fanatically, one must have felt its power some time before the end of childhood. Adults are not quite vulnerable enough. Uncertainty is one of the hardest things for a child to bear — and suspense, as the adult imagination conceives it, is still based on that vivid apprehensive need to know what's going to happen next. Most children have moments of paranoia when the world seems in monstrous conspiracy against them.

The first fear quickened in Alfred Hitchcock, he has often told interviewers, when he was five years old. Wishing to punish his son for an offense he never knew he'd committed, probably nothing more than an early habit of wandering off through the London streets alone, Mr. Hitchcock sent him with a note to a family friend, the local police inspector. "This is what we do to naughty boys," the inspector explained as he locked the child in a prison cell. Release came after only fifteen minutes, but it came too late to release an incurable fear of the police.

The combination of Catholic and cockney is unusual in England. Hitchcock's parents formed it. As a poultry dealer in the East End the father was socially underprivileged, a member of the lower class, "in trade" according to the merciless phrase of the time. Born in 1899, the son grows up on the wrong side of the class barrier in the early twentieth century, like D. H. Lawrence a few years before him. "Class makes a gulf," Lawrence wrote, "across which all the best human flow is lost." For the exceptional victim it also creates an image of prison and solitude.

The son recalls the father as a cunning but nervous disciplinarian, and himself as a quiet, unsocial child, saying little but observing much. Enrolled in a Jesuit college, he soon begins to fear divine as well as human law. Priests become spiritual policemen who summon the specter of evil and the terror of involvement with it. They establish a painful link between crime and punishment, the same whipping of hands with a hard rubber cane that Conan Doyle endured. For Hitchcock they also connect fear and suspense, since part of the intimidation ritual is to inform a victim that his name has been entered in the punishment register, then make him spend the day waiting for execution.

At the same time, he learns through the Jesuits the value of organization and control, and begins to see how the habit of discipline encourages the power of analysis. For obvious reasons he doesn't share the ambition of many English children to become a policeman when he grows up. But he discovers an aptitude for engineering and moves on to a specialized school, where he studies and masters the theory of mechanics, electrical acoustics, and navigation. At the age of nineteen he lands a job as technical estimator for a cable and telegraph company, and spends his evenings going to the movies and art classes. All the main impacts on his life at this time are visual: art, movies, engineering.

Coincidence takes him a step nearer the future when the telegraph company transfers him to its publicity department, and he begins designing advertisements. A year later he persuades an American film company in London to accept him as a writer and illustrator of titles, the captions for silent movies that range from a tersely factual "Later..." to "Not by accident, they found themselves alone." Introduced to movie techniques in general, he grows fascinated by one particular aspect. Titles can change the whole effect of a movie. They can not only make actors appear to speak lines they never uttered, but in extreme cases a drama that turns out unintentionally absurd is remade into a comedy by captions alone. Before he becomes a director, Hitchcock grasps and experiments with a technique of audience manipulation based on reversing appearances and exploiting the ambiguity in the single image. And in his early days as a director he sees a short film demonstration by the Soviet theorist, Lev Kuleshov. A close-up of the actor Ivan Mosjoukine is followed by a shot of a dead child. Kuleshov cuts back to the same close-up, and Mosjoukine's face appears to be expressing compassion. Then he substitutes a bowl of soup for the dead child and cuts back to the same close-up again. Mosjoukine no longer looks compassionate, but hungry.

After writing a few scenarios, Hitchcock directs his first movie, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925. By this time he's become engaged to a script girl called Alma Reville, later to work on many of his films as a writer. He recalls that until they married the following year they remained "pure," and that before he met her he'd never gone out with a girl or even taken a drink. But he'd visited a vice museum in Paris and a nightclub for homosexuals and lesbians in Berlin. Driven home by three of the girls, he accepted the offer of a cognac in their hotel room but stubbornly refused the propositions that follow. Finally, two girls got into bed together and the third put on her glasses to watch.

To the standardized trash of The Pleasure Garden scenario Hitchcock adds a few reminiscent touches of sexual deviation and cruelty, a masculine-feminine slant in the relationship between two showgirls, a scene in which one of them torments a rich and ancient lover. He also stages a murder in a way that outrages one of the producers, who wants it reshot, offering a foretaste of his ability to shock with a sudden and detailed outbreak of brutality. A commercial success, the film earns Hitchcock a review in a British popular newspaper headed "Young Man with a Master Mind."

The pattern of commercial success, with a few lapses, continues throughout Hitchcock's British career, but he immediately encounters a new form of snobbery. The British cinema — provincial and stagebound — is culturally despised, and the few critics who take movies seriously expect art only from Russia and Germany. (Apart from Chaplin, Hollywood is not favored either.) Socially the new medium is still non-U. When Anthony Asquith, member of a privileged family, becomes a director, his peers consider it "amusing." When Paramount opens its new theater in London, it sets aside a few rows of expensive seats in the mezzanine for upper-class patrons in search of amusement. While the cultural ban on British movies is lifted for documentaries in the early thirties, Hitchcock remains suspect, too popular and too anxious to entertain.

In fact, during his first ten years as a director, Hitchcock is usually working against his material. The plots of his early movies, more than half of them adapted from plays, seem impossibly old-fashioned now. But he manages to enliven them with authentic surfaces and humorous detail, and his technique never ceases to evolve, sophisticating even the creakiest moments. He learns pace and precision from American films, and absorbs expressionist devices (superimpositions, objects as symbols) from German ones. Fascinated by effects — not just in themselves, but as a means of heightening impressions — he explores every variety of process and model shot. Because of his background, rich characters tend to be satirized and everyday lives rendered with a keen, ironic attention. Aware of the gulf of class, and of the gulf between his own imagination and the conventions of the time, Hitchcock is already an exile at heart. The Britishness of his atmosphere reflects an outsider's curiosity and ambivalence. Like most of his material, it has little emotional significance for him. Only the occasional situation engages him on a deeper level, notably in the silent The Lodger (1926) and the early talkie Murder (1930), both of which center on an innocent person accused of a crime.

These two movies reach moments of genuine intensity: the angry crowd almost lynching the man it suspects of being a serial killer, the loneliness of the wrongly accused girl in jail. In The Lodger, Hitchcock also explores class antagonisms from both sides. The suspect's aristocratic manner inevitably creates suspicion in a working neighborhood, but the attitudes behind this suspicion, personified by the heroine's essentially middle-class parents, are rigid and self-righteous. In the climactic scene, Hitchcock shows the lodger handcuffed and almost impaled on a railed fence, his attitude suggesting crucifixion. The image is a striking example of the free association that Hitchcock is developing in his movies. Many years later he will say that he thinks, but is not sure, that he's outgrown religious fear. In the meantime, for more than thirty years, his movies will refer to the impact of a masochistic Christianity on his childhood.

In Murder, the real murderer turns out to be a trapeze artist who performs his act in flamboyant drag. In the original play this character was a half-caste who killed in order to prevent his origins being betrayed. Hitchcock retains the explanation, but it comes now from a creature decorated with sequins and ostrich plumes, and the word 'half-caste' clearly means homosexual. Since he'd have to kill the world to keep his secret, the sequence becomes absurd, but Hitchcock invests the character with a grotesque desperation. He based it on a famous circus personality of the twenties, a young Texan who called himself Barbette and was much admired by Cocteau. This souvenir of Paris dates from the same period as Hitchcock's visit to the vice museum, where he was struck by "considerable evidence of sexual aberration through restraint." The pressures created by sexual non-conformism and their link with violence will be developed later, especially in Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train.

An identikit of the artist as a young man emerges from the situation of an innocent accused, the images of handcuffs and crucifixion, the spectacle of a glittery female impersonator confessing to murder. Hitchcock once complained that he never overcame his fear of the police even though psychiatrists had told him that a fear could be released once its origins were understood. But as an artist he profits from this failure by making movies to release his fears and transfer them to an audience. Studying manipulation, becoming as expert as the Jesuits, he masters the technique of suggestion by image. He trains himself imaginatively by using free association within a planned dramatic structure. The idea of handcuffs as a powerful image comes from a newspaper photograph of a New Yorker handcuffed to a Negro as he's taken to jail. Hitchcock stores it away and fits it later in the structures of The Lodger, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and The Wrong Man. For many years he finds something mysteriously satisfying in the image of a clean bathroom. ("When I take a bath, I put everything neatly back in its place. You wouldn't even know I'd been in the bathroom.") Psycho shows a murderer carefully erasing bloodstains from a shower. As long as Hitchcock has to make do with stories assigned to him, dramatic structure remains an unsolved problem. But the absence of convincing material leads to another discovery: The subject of a movie is only important as a means to the kind of movie he wants to make.

When the subject is obviously flimsy, as in Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock seems less concerned to make it believable as a whole than to reach for moments of immediate suspense, most effectively in the scene of a family discussing a current murder, unaware of the feelings of the daughter across the breakfast table, who has committed it. When he's able to choose and develop his stories more freely, Hitchcock works within a deliberately limited repertory of characters and situations to build up a state of excitement in which wanting to know what's going to happen to someone becomes more important than liking or disliking him.

Suspense as Hitchcock conceives it is a curve of emotional crisis, originating in fear of immediate or latent danger. In its simplest terms the feeling can be traced back to his early experience in the prison cell. A child moves through a door from the everyday world into the dark unknown. The door closes, and finally opens again. What happens between the closing and the opening of the door is Hitchcock's raw material. The term in the prison cell no doubt felt more like ten days than a quarter of an hour, and Hitchcock echoes this in his control of the extremes of filmic time, stretching a moment to the breaking point or contracting a day to a few minutes. Based on narrative, his movies gradually reach a poetic intensity. In his earliest works Hitchcock reveals an allegiance to what he calls "pure cinema," the juxtaposition of shots to create sequences of ideas and associations and also to provide sudden collisions and shocks. "It's limitless, I would say, the power of cutting and assembly of the images...." In his finest American movies he uses "pure cinema" the way a poet uses meter or cadence, and the story becomes a pretext to fill the screen — a rectangle that Hitchcock sees as demanding to be filled — with powerful imagery. Creating realistic backgrounds in order to lead more cunningly into the improbable, he charts a precision course into dislocation. The more familiar and ordered the world appears, the greater the impact of a fearful, irrational event.

In a note on The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan portrayed himself as a writer of stories in which "the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible." Hitchcock shares with Graham Greene an admiration for Buchan's novels and has often mentioned their influence on him. It coincides with his most creative period in British films, announced by The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which borrows the idea of a terrorist group that specializes in kidnapping and political assassination from Buchan's The Three Hostages. Although sketchy and episodic, the material allows him to create sudden and disturbing transitions as he leads a comfortable middle-class couple down the shabby back alleys of terror. Particular obsessions that will often recur include the almost paranoid sense of danger attaching to public places, with the scene of an attempted assassination at the Albert Hall, and the image of vertigo, when the kidnapped child escapes across the roof of a high building.

Adapting The Thirty-Nine Steps itself in 1935, Hitchcock makes no attempt to reproduce Buchan's feeling for the anxiety of empty landscapes, but concentrates on its idea of the sustained chase, to which he adds a few ironic episodes. No longer a solitary figure, Hannay becomes handcuffed to a girl and, as well as being on the run from police and enemy agents, has to deal with the angers, discomforts, and surprises of enforced intimacy. The couple has no problem expressing antipathy under restraint, but the growth of mutual attraction proves much trickier. Unfortunately the actors are much less subtle than Hitchcock's ideas. As the first in his series of outwardly cool and inwardly passionate blondes, Madeleine Carroll at least looks right, but Robert Donat makes a dull, phlegmatic Hannay. Hitchcock was often limited by the shortage of leading movie personalities in Britain — one reason perhaps for his concentration on minor characters and incidental detail. In The Thirty-Nine Steps the most striking episode concerns a memory artist used by enemy agents for his power of total recall to take military defense secrets out of the country. In the middle of his music hall act, Hannay calls out from the audience, "What are the Thirty-Nine Steps?" Professional reflex obliges Mr. Memory to betray his employers. A moment later violence again breaks out in a public place, but before he dies, Mr. Memory enjoys the relief of unloading a particularly technical secret. This weird and touching scene, like that of the trapeze artist in Murder, was suggested by an actual music hall figure, called Datas, whom Hitchcock had seen.

Sabotage (1936), a version of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, brings a change of emphasis to the espionage cycle, focusing more on the inner emotions of suspense than on the kinetic drive of adventure. Although uneven and sometimes ponderous, it prefigures the domestic tensions of a later movie like Notorious, and builds to a final scene of chilling intensity when Mrs. Verloc decides to kill her husband. Hitchcock devises an intimate visual structure to reflect the idea forming in her mind, Verloc's sudden apprehension, and the confusion of the act. His movements imply a guilty acceptance of death; her cry when she stabs him suggests that she's stabbing herself.

The cycle ends with The Lady Vanishes (1938), a return to the mood of adventure and the first celebration of sustained virtuosity in a narrative line. A hard contemporary edge provides additional strength. (One reason The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sabotage seem dated now is that they were partially dated when they appeared, using material wrenched out their pre-1914 period.) Hitchcock anticipated the opening of The Birds as he leads into a crisis situation through a rather ordinary, complacent girl. Returning home from a vacation in the Balkans, she meets a charming, tweedy, spinsterish lady on the train. Miss Froy's disappearance is the signal for an espionage plot to unravel, and the intercontinental express becomes like Graham Greene's Stamboul Train, moving in the opposite direction. A few months after Chamberlain came to terms with Hitler at Munich, the British passengers still cling to an obstinate isolationism, reluctant to take the enemy seriously. In a lightly ruthless scene, added later by Hitchcock and Alma Reville to the original script, the train moves to a siding and a gun battle breaks out like a rehearsal for the war to come. The conservative lawyer dies fluttering a white handkerchief. Cunningly, Hitchcock never identifies the enemy but suggests dictatorship in the uniforms of soldiers outside the windows. The secret agents are all ambiguously polite: a suave immaculate doctor who might be Austrian or Slavic, an impassive baroness shrouded in black, a smiling Italian who vanishes into his own magician's trunk. Like the British, they insist on a code of manners, which is why they almost win.

Against the neutral, realistic background of the train, Hitchcock places an occasionally jolting image. Two glasses containing drugged liqueurs become magnified props, shot in close-up. When the doctor claims that Miss Froy has been found, he shoots a rear view of a woman dressed in the same clothes, then cuts to confront a false, enigmatic, disturbingly ugly face. He inserts another crucifixion image, strange and ironic, as the false nun in high-heeled shoes is shot while two men hold up her arms, trying to pull her back into the train.

Each of these movies is rooted in Buchan's idea of conspiracy and the "thin protection" separating everyday life from the attacks of espionage and terrorism. But unlike novels by Graham Greene and Eric Ambler in the same period, they are not political. Even The Lady Vanishes never moves beyond providing a topical frame of reference. For Hitchcock the presence of conspiracy becomes what he calls the McGuffin, a mechanism to set off a series of situations. The vital military secret is only a pretext to invent remarkable characters like Mr. Memory and Miss Froy who carry it in their heads. Politics exist to allow Hitchcock to make movies; spies and assassins to create reactions of fear and shock; the bomb to go off in the wrong place.

In his American movies Hitchcock refines the idea of the McGuffin, which grows progressively simpler and more abstract as its psychological effects become more complex. Whether murderers are political or self-employed, the results of their actions are more important than their motives. Hitchcock takes the basic impulse of crime for granted in order to study its effects on other people, including thousands outside the particular story: the audience.

Going to Hollywood to make Rebecca for David Selznick, Hitchcock already thinks of himself as an American director. Since Hollywood moviemaking now strikes him as the most advanced in the world, the great central studio becomes his natural destination. He has no immediate problem of adapting his imagination to the American scene, since his first movie there takes place in England. Ironically, the Hollywood experience begins with an opportunity to make a British film employing far greater technical resources, and a much stronger British cast, than he's ever been offered at home.

On the surface, Rebecca (1940) is notable for sequences in which Hitchcock relaxes his usual pace and allows the camera a greater degree of mobility than before. Beneath it, new effects parallel a new inner movement. The sentimental "modern" variation on Jane Eyre, like its inflated settings, reflects Selznick's rather than Hitchcock's taste. But it introduces a new situation to the repertory, love as an emotional counter-balance to fear, and Hitchcock extends "pure cinema" to accommodate elaborate and almost voluptuous camera movements. A few years later, in Notorious, he will bring the same style to the interactions of love and fear. The real experience of Rebecca is the release of a hidden romanticism in Hitchcock.

The credits of Shadow of a Doubt, the first American movie over which Hitchcock was granted complete control (1943), make a special acknowledgment to Thornton Wilder. An admirer of Wilder's Our Town, Hitchcock sought his collaboration in developing a story about an unsuspected murderer who arrives to stay with relatives in a small California town. But since Hitchcock later asked another writer to add "comedy highlights" to the screenplay, a few minor characters in Shadow of a Doubt (the bookish adolescent daughter, the neighbor obsessed with devising a perfect murder) are exaggerated in a way untypical of Wilder. Closer to the movie's tone is Wilder's Heaven s My Destination, a dark comedy about a bible salesman in the Midwest; with its lonely disoriented hero at odds with American life. He believes "The whole world's nuts," just as Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt tells his niece ' 'Charlie" that "the world's a filthy sty." The "merry widow" murderer, looking back with nostalgia on the past, is equally a man with a mission.

The past appears under the movie credits, with an image of couples dressed in 1900 costumes dancing to Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" waltz. Recalled at moments throughout the story, the waltz gradually becomes less charming and more sinister, like Uncle Charlie himself. The tune haunts young Charlie's mind, one of several mysterious affinities between them, beginning with their names. The first shot of Uncle Charlie shows him lying across a bed in a Philadelphia rooming house. The first shot of young Charlie shows her lying across her bed at home, their positions exactly reversed as in a mirror reflection. Deciding to send a telegram to invite him to stay, she arrives at the post office to learn of a telegram announcing his arrival. Outwardly she's bored with the dullness of small town life and expects her uncle to relieve it. But the discovery that he's a murderer coincides with a subtle revelation of her sexual longings. She doesn't go to the police but warns him to leave town, alternately threatening and pleading like a rejected lover.

No murder is shown, and apart from Uncle Charlie's disquieting outburst against silly rich women, and the uselessness of their lives, no motive is explored. Clues are dropped, none of them final. He has remained unmarried. He takes money and jewels from his victims, but lives modestly. As a boy he suffered from a concussion after a bicycle accident. He cares for his niece and is touched by her innocence, yet at the same time despises her "peaceful stupid dreams" and tries to kill her. Genial and compulsive, delicate and brutal, figure of troubling sympathy. And Hitchcock echoes the two-sidedness with his sketch of a flirtatious California widow, as silly and useless as Uncle Charlie claims his victims to be.

Refusing to make either protagonist black or white, Hitchcock gives the movie a suitably understated grey texture. His grasp only falters during and after an unconvincing final struggle on the train, when Uncle Charlie tries to kill his niece but falls to his death instead. Hitchcock told Frangois Truffaut that young Charlie will be in love with her uncle for the rest of her life, but no moment occurs to clinch the point. To another interviewer he quoted Oscar Wilde's "Each man kills the thing he loves," but the movie never dramatizes young Charlie realizing that she and her uncle have destroyed each other. "The same blood flows in our veins," he reminds her, and in retrospect the girl's desire for excitement seems like a false romanticism, as dangerous in its way as the murderer's. The trap of small town life, the touchingly anxious and faded mother, the rather gloomy father, at least has the virtue of safety. But Uncle Charlie's death leaves all this unresolved, and while a stunning shot shows him arriving in a train that belches demonic black smoke, he leaves disappointingly on a puff of air.

During the thirties, as he sat in a train moving slowly through a French suburb, Hitchcock looked out of the window and noticed a pair of lovers standing below a high wall. While the man urinated, the girl continued to cling to him. Filed away under "Romance must not be interrupted, even by urinating," the image is recalled many years later for a scene in Notorious (1946). Refusing to be separated physically, a couple continues to make love while the man answers the phone. This movie and Vertigo (1958) are Hitchcock's most lyrical yet disturbing melodramas, the romantic and the scabrous interlocked. The heroine of Notorious prostitutes or, in Hitchcock's term, "degrades" herself for love. The hero of Vertigo is necrophilic, trying to recreate the image of a dead girl in a living one. In another Hitchcock paraphrase, he really undresses her while dressing her up.

The origin of Notorious is a Saturday Evening Post story of which Hitchcock uses only a single anecdote: To gain secret information, a girl agrees to seduce a spy. With Ben Hecht he evolves a script about the daughter of a Nazi agent in the United States. The time is a year before Hiroshima. Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) knows nothing about her father's activities before his arrest, and after it she starts drinking and sleeping around too much. An FBI agent (Cary Grant) recruits her to make contact with Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father's colleagues now living in Rio, and to discover the aims of his espionage group. Less out of patriotism than a desire to stop the drift of her life, Alicia agrees. Two parallel love stories develop: Alicia falls in love with Devlin the American, and Sebastian the German asks her to marry him. They create parallel elements of suspense, physical danger, and emotional betrayal.

Although Devlin is attracted to Alicia, his mission obliges him in effect to sell her to Sebastian, the more passionate man, and to approve the marriage. When he learns that he's been tricked, Sebastian has to save face with his colleagues. He follows his mother's advice and slowly starts to poison Alicia. In a classic last scene, its tension derived from a complete lack of violence, one life is saved and another lost. Devlin rescues Alicia while the Germans merely watch, Sebastian pretending to his colleagues that she's being taken to hospital. But the movie ends with the implication that they've guessed his mistake and will eliminate him.

Until the last scene the nominal hero remains bitter and frustrated, almost outside the action, while the nominal villain is always sympathetic and involved. The pain of Sebastian's decision to poison Alicia seems deeper than Devlin's when he allows her to be prostituted. Caught between the enemy who loves but has to kill her, and the lover responsible for her situation, Alicia sinks into a kind of passive delirium. Rescued by Devlin, she is psychically raised from the dead. The McGuffin, hinged again on the conspiracy idea, has Sebastian working with a German scientist to develop the atomic bomb. It becomes one of Hitchcock's most ironic pretexts to create a private melodrama around a woman who almost loses her life trying to find it, a German forced to sacrifice his cause for love, and an American who just escapes sacrificing his love to his cause. The only other important character is Sebastian's mother, formidably autocratic, the first of several maternal predators in Hitchcock's movies.

The settings are deliberately reduced and the action in Rio centers on Sebastian's house, rich with Latin American pretentiousness and gloom. A masterly use of the fluid camera suggests both sensuality and danger. During the first love scene between Alicia and Devlin, the camera follows them slowly from the balcony across the living room to the hallway of her apartment, as they move reluctantly toward the ringing phone but continue to express a physical hunger for each other. The ritual of Alicia's poisoning is established by a close shot of a tray containing magnified coffee cups. Sebastian's mother picks up the poisoned cup, and the camera follows it, passed politely from hand to hand until it reaches Alicia. When Sebastian throws a party, the scene opens with the camera mounted on a crane, looking down a vast staircase to the crush of guests in the hallway below. It descends very gradually, moving past chandeliers, reaching the crowd, then aiming at Alicia in the center. It rests finally on a key clutched in her hand, the key to the wine cellars where uranium samples have been hidden in a few vintage-labeled bottles. The climactic movement combines erotic charge and extreme tension, as Devlin moves down the staircase with his arms around Alicia. The camera follows at their pace; pauses to register the reactions of Sebastian, his mother, and the other Germans; follows Alicia and Devlin; stops as Sebastian weakly suggests he should come to the hospital too; indicates the growing suspicion of his colleagues; moves again as Devlin refuses and guides Alicia to the front door. Their open physical intimacy, Alicia's body leaning against Devlin's, seems justified by her weakened state, but they are also playing a love scene at a moment of immediate danger, and Sebastian becomes humiliatingly aware of it. These subtle and elaborate patterns, like the movie as a whole, reflect Hitchcock's principle that the highest suspense rises from a deep emotional underground.