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Cinema Journal (1976) - Alfred Hitchcock and the Ghost of Thomas Hobbes




Alfred Hitchcock and the Ghost of Thomas Hobbes

Philip Dynia

In their sweeping, sometimes stimulating, but ultimately inadequate account of the interrelationship between politics and film, Furhammar and Isaksson offer this remark:

It is just possible that Alfred Hitchcock is a political innocent who imagines that his films are not about politics. In the interviews he gives nowadays, it looks as if, like Ingmar Bergman, he carefully is avoiding any discussion of the subject.[1]

Immediately following are several pages of analysis of Torn Curtain, which the authors manage to explain away as still another instance of the propaganda films with which they are so intensely concerned. While only the most obtuse filmgoer would fail to see political themes in Torn Curtain (and Hitchcock's subsequent Topaz, not discussed by Furhammar and Isaksson because it appeared after their study was completed), the more sophisticated might certainly be forgiven for asking what Frenzy or Marnie or The Birds or Psycho (or half a dozen earlier films) have to do with politics?

Yet in a qualified sense Furhammar and Isaksson do have a point. And, to be perfectly fair, they themselves add the necessary qualification to the above quotation. For they continue:

... during the period from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to Lifeboat (1943), Hitchcock's films seemed to be greatly concerned with politics, even if the particular demands of the thriller pattern into which political situations were skillfully interwoven meant that a great deal remained obscure or only partially stated.[2]

More recently, Raymond Durgnat attempted to disentangle the complex skein of Hitchcock's films, and he included some analysis of the political implications of the films to which Furhammar and Isaksson referred.[3] His study is quite as brilliant as anything he has done; but the great difficulty with a mind as fertile as Durgnat's is that every theme or overtone in a film suggests to him a veritable flood of allusions, cross-references, and intellectual or ideological antecedents. The product of this torrent-of-consciousness technique is a totality far greater than the sum of the individual films (which is certainly admirable); but those interested in singling out this supposedly obvious and yet elusive political element in Hitchcock's films must remain somewhat perplexed.

It is my own belief that this particular thread is well worth untangling and that one can indeed speak of a political dimension in certain Hitchcock films. However, it is necessary to examine not only the fairly overt political content,[4] but to enquire further whether Hitchcock is merely weaving political situations into the thriller pattern because of their strong dramatic and topical interest, or whether there are underlying political attitudes recurring in Hitchcock's work. In short, is Hitchcock the philosopher[5] also a political philosopher?

Bertolucci once suggested that we should not confuse political films with films about politics. A political film, I have argued elsewhere, is one which is largely the work of individuals (mostly writers, producers, and directors) with political awareness and convictions, contains a political message and attempts thereby to influence the audience's political attitudes, and is permeated formally and stylistically with an aesthetic derived from or influenced by political ideology.[6]

Given so stringent a definition, Alfred Hitchcock simply does not make political films. Yet quite obviously he has made films about politics (a very special kind of politics, as I will argue). Certain political activities are perfectly suited to the thriller genre in which Hitchcock's artistry thrives. These films refer, sometimes obliquely, to contemporary political events; in a few the political message becomes more overt. Indeed, public reaction to one of these particular messages so frightened that element in Hitchcock's personality concerned with the mass audience that for fifteen years he avoided political themes.


Hitchcock's peculiar blend of the thriller formula and political events first emerged with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Intermixing gangs and spies and picaresque pursuits, it set a pattern to which Hitchcock returned frequently. A middle-class English couple become involved in a plot to assassinate a diplomat, and their young child is kidnaped and held hostage by the killers in order to assure the mother's silence about the assassination (planned to take place during a concert at Albert Hall). The mother's shout saves the diplomat's life, and the couple eventually discover the hiding place of the gang. There is a shoot-out with the police, and the mother herself (who earlier in the film was established as a crack shot) shoots the gunman who is threatening the child.

The precise political allegiance of the assassins is not known (though Hitchcock told Truffaut that the final shoot-out was based on the famous Sidney Street siege of 1910, directed against "some Russian anarchists ...").[7] They are obviously European, and the political implication seems to be that a combination of continental political malignities (both Hitler and Mussolini were in power in 1934, and in England the General Strike had raised new fears of Bolshevik infiltration and disruption) are threatening to disturb the peace and order of Britain. Certainly the threat to a mere child drives the point home more intensely, and two years later (in Sabotage) a similarly endangered tyke is actually killed (to Hitchcock's everlasting artistic regret). Durgnat argues that the film "gropes" toward expressing a theme of "private involvement in apparently remote politics bringing civil anarchy in their train," but never quite finds it.[8] If there is a warning intended in the wife's cry, it is considerably muted; England chose to ignore the European threat.

Again in The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) a rather ordinary chap (Canadian, not English), played by Robert Donat, becomes privy to the existence in England of a super-secret spy organization smuggling defense secrets out of the country on behalf of some European power. The spies kill a woman in Donat's apartment, and he is accused of the murder. He must expose the spies to clear himself, but when he accuses a respected country squire of being the mastermind of the gang, the authorities refuse to believe him. The chase and the efforts of the falsely accused Donat to clear himself are far more important than any political overtones; politics and espionage are only backdrops against which the drama can be played.

The following year, Hitchcock turned once more to the world of international espionage with The Secret Agent, based on several works of Somerset Maugham. Ashenden (John Gielgud) is an intelligence agent sent to Switzerland to kill a spy. He bungles, killing instead an innocent tourist; the real spy (Robert Young) dies accidentally in a train crash. The film was, in Hitchcock's own words, an "adventure drama" in which the central figure had a purpose which was "distasteful" to him, making it difficult for the audience to identify with him.[9] If there is any political commentary in The Secret Agent, it may well be the transformation of "espionage as patriotic fun" into the realization that it is rather "sickmaking duty."[10] Certainly Ashenden's reluctance to play his assigned role dovetailed nicely with England's reticence in the face of Hitler's diplomatic challenges. With Sabotage (1936), Hitchcock brings the threat of foreign politics still closer to home. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) poses as the harmless manager of a small movie house living with his young wife (Sylvia Sidney).

Actually, he is a saboteur. Believing himself to be under surveillance by the police, Verloc gives a time bomb (disguised as an ordinary package) to John, his wife's young brother. He tells the little boy to carry it to the other end of town, but the child is delayed, and he and the passengers on a bus he is riding are incinerated when the bomb explodes. On learning the truth, Sylvia Sidney stabs Verloc, but the murder escapes detection because an explosion destroys the evidence of her crime. Verloc's politics are not clear - he may be a homegrown anarchist, or the agent of some foreign power. The film seems today an uncanny portent of the terror that within a few years would come during the blitz, but it is difficult to say what political conclusions audiences of the period drew from it.

After the interlude of Young and Innocent, Hitchcock returned to the chaotic world of international espionage, and his references to contemporary political events were more explicit, as was his political message. The Lady Vanishes (1938) is so often viewed (along with The Thirty-Nine Steps) as the epitome of the Hitchcock thriller, and one of the jewels in the crown of Hitchcock's "English period," that it is easy to overlook the political content. The film was released about the time of the Munich crisis. England's attentions were riveted on European politics and the question whether intervention on behalf of Czechoslovakia or Poland might be necessary, an action for which England was ill-prepared, psychologically and militarily.

National complacency seems echoed in the reactions of a group of English tourists to the sudden threat presented at the end of the film. Todhunter, representative perhaps of the appeasers, attempts to reason with the authoritarian forces. His efforts are rewarded with a lethal bullet from the enemy. The two "club bores,"[11] however, turn out, like the mother in The Man Who Knew Too Much, to be expert marksmen who do not hesitate to apply their skills to several unfortunate militiamen of the mysterious Ruritanian sovereignty which has been so foolish as to delay their efforts to return to England in time for a championship cricket match. Again, if this be propaganda, it is subtle. Durgnat says "its ... force lies in the skill with which it equates a general atmosphere about dictatorships with urgent dangers to Britons, so tempting even diehard appeasers to start reading dictatorship as dangerous."[12] And if the superficially ideal Ashenden is incapable of performing the grubby tasks of espionage, that outwardly improbable embodiment of English virtues, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty possibly the unlikeliest espionage operative in screen history) now relishes the task.

By 1940, war had broken cut in Europe, but Hitchcock had escaped to freedom and safety, if one can so characterize the tutelage of David O. Selznick. His first project was an un-Hitchcockian picture[13], Rebecca. It was certainly unpolitical. However, in his next film, made the same year (1940), Hitchcock returned to a political context (possibly due to the influence of his producer, Walter Wanger, who "had always been interested in foreign politics"[14]).

Foreign Correspondent starred Joel McCrea as an American newspaperman. (Gary Cooper, Hitchcock's first choice, declined to become involved in a B picture.) Ignorant of European politics, Jonny Jones is assigned to go to Europe and assess the true political situation. In London he meets an elderly Dutch diplomat who is working for world peace (and who is privy to the secret clause of an important treaty). The Nazis assassinate a double and kidnap the real diplomat. Jones discovers that the diplomat is alive, and enlists Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) to help him. She and her father, an upper-class Englishman (Herbert Marshall), are the heads of an international pacifist organization. The father is actually a Nazi agent, and as war is declared he books passage on a plane to America. The plane is attacked and crashes into the ocean, and Fisher sacrifices himself, thus saving the young couple, who are reconciled and return to London. There, in the midst of the blitz, Jones warns America that the lights are going out in Europe and that America must become involved in the great struggle both as beacon and arsenal (such mixing of metaphors undoubtedly allowable under the stress of an apparently direct bombing of one's broadcast studio).[15]

Hitchcock commented that Foreign Correspondent was "in line with my earlier films, the old theme of the innocent bystander who becomes involved in an intrigue."[16] The fascination with political machinations was also very much in keeping with the thrillers of the English period. A key difference lay in the overtness of the propaganda theme. The political message at the end is spoken directly to the audience; Hitchcock (with the aid of ringing bells and patriotic music) "set out to give American public opinion a nudge in favor of active intervention in the war against Hitler's Germany."[17]

For the usually circumspect Hitchcock, such a direct appeal was uncharacteristic, especially so, considering the still powerful forces of isolationism in America. But essentially the film is a thriller, and this last-minute propagandizing may have seemed as incongruous and disingenuous then as it certainly does today. Indeed, the "message" may have been more Wanger's than Hitchcock's, whose own political sentiments were probably akin to the simple faith of the Dutch statesman who relied upon "the little people who feed the birds."[18] Had Jones, in the grand propaganda film tradition, died at the end, the importance of his cause might have been driven home more forcefully. Instead he survived, albeit chastened and no longer politically naive. The rest of America had to experience Pearl Harbor before a similar transformation took place.

Once in the war, all of the nation's efforts were geared toward making America "the arsenal of democracy." And what greater and more insidious threat could one imagine than the enemy within? The year before, a group of Nazi agents actually had landed by submarine off the New Jersey coast (but were apprehended almost immediately by the ubiquitous FBI). And so, ever conscious of his audience's underlying fears, Hitchcock offered (after the quasi-Lubitschian interlude of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the rather impersonal Suspicion) Saboteur (1942). Its hero (Robert Cummings) is a worker in an armaments factory. Falsely accused of sabotage, he flees. He wanders into a desert ranch where he encounters its grandfatherly owner (Otto Kruger) who is actually the leader of the Nazi sabotage ring. He escapes, and the remainder of the film is not greatly different from similar manhunts revolving around the theme of the pursuer pursued. In the course of the film, Hitchcock manages to place our hero in many disparate geographical locales, ending up in New York, featuring there the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a shoot-out in Radio City Music Hall, and mortal combat atop the Statue of Liberty, from which the Nazi saboteur eventually falls to his death.[19]

Saboteur is thus another amalgam of familiar Hitchcock themes utilized to illustrate to Americans the verity of the wartime maxim about slipped lips sinking ships. The political overtones are quite straightforward - the enemy is the Nazi infiltrator and saboteur. And with the saboteur's plunge to his death, the hero's (and thus America's) grasp on Liberty seems reaffirmed. Two years later, Hitchcock ended nearly a decade of concern with politics and propaganda. Lifeboat (1944) is a film so untypical of the standard Hollywood propaganda fare that it did quite poorly.'[20] Critics were unkind to it; as Durgnat notes, aside from some comments on Sabotage, "it was the first Hitchcock film to arouse critical protests about its 'nastiness' ..."[21]

The passengers of the lifeboat are a group of survivors from a ship torpedoed by a U-boat. They represent a cross-section of American society.

The U-boat has also been sunk, and a German drags himself into the lifeboat. He is obviously the only one of the group skilled in navigation and soon takes command. His decisive actions are in marked contrast to the petty squabbling in which the others were engaged. Actually, he is no simple seaman but rather the captain of the U-boat and is steering the boat toward a German supply ship. Eventually the group discover the truth and brutally beat him to death. As they are approaching the German supply ship, an Allied gunboat appears on the horizon and sinks it. Another German survivor climbs into the boat and threatens them with a pistol; they disarm him, but instead of giving him a beating they agree to turn him over to the proper authorities.

Hitchcock is very explicit about the political intentions of the film (while simultaneously rejecting Truffaut's attempt to introduce a "shared guilt" theme). He says:

We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination.[22]

The representatives of democracy are pictured "as a pack of dogs," and it is not terribly surprising that "Dorothy Thompson gave the picture ten days to get out of town!"[23] What is striking is that Hitchcock, an eminently public-oriented film maker, would have thus challenged the propaganda banalities of the time. And more paradoxically, the unity Hitchcock was calling for seemed reasonably certain in 1944 (the United Nations was already planning for the postwar world); the squabbling of the survivors in Lifeboat seemed more reminiscent of the democracies' response to Hitler at the time of Munich.


With the end of the war, Hitchcock (perhaps badly shaken by the critical responses to Lifeboat) avoided overt or even subtle political messages. While he may have been fascinated by the Cold War, it was not until the 1960s that he attempted to utilize such themes extensively.[24]

Notorious (1946) was concerned, presciently, with uranium and atomic secrets, but these elements were distinctly subordinate to the Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman love affair and the suspense created by Bergman's role as a double agent.[25] In North by Northwest (1959), Hitchcock reshuffled elements from The Thirty-Nine Steps and Saboteur. Madison Avenue Executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a CIA agent (who doesn't really exist outside the mind of the intelligence bureaucracy) and pursued simultaneously by the (presumably Communist) spies and the police, who believe he has murdered a UN diplomat. The chase leads across the United States and ends in Rapid City, South Dakota, at the Mount Rushmore monument, the final action being played against the massive nostrils of the four American presidents there enshrined.

Durgnat sees in the film a comment on individual commitment vs. government authority,[26] but this particular political overtone must give way to the rather obvious Cold War belligerence and the conventional propagandistic contrasts between our side (which is admittedly rather callous at first to Thornhill's plight, though ultimately rescuing him) and their side. The enemy is led by the suavely sinister Van Damm (James Mason) who, in highly typical McCarthy-era Hollywood stereotype, is an intellectual and lover of the arts living in an ultra-modern, ultra-futuristic home.

It was not until Torn Curtain (1966) that Hitchcock again pursued some of the Cold War themes implicit in North by Northwest. Paul Newman plays (as he did in The Prize, a fascinating companion piece for Torn Curtain) an American nuclear physicist who pretends to defect to East Germany. Actually, Professor Armstrong hopes to make contact with the famous Professor Lindt, who has managed to solve an antiballistic missile formula. His plans are complicated when his fiancee (Julie Andrews) decides to follow him, and when later he has to kill, with great effort, Gromek, the East German security man assigned to guard him. Playing on Lindt's egotism, Newman tricks him into revealing the secret formula, and he flees with his fiancee (suitably clad in a trenchcoat which must have been left over from Foreign Correspondent and which renders her about as inconspicuous as a Howard Johnson's in Red Square). Assisted by a secret anti-Communist group, and after a series of adventures, they eventually escape from East Germany.

Hitchcock makes no attempt in Torn Curtain to challenge the fairly prevalent view of Communist regimes as gloomy ("behind the Iron Curtain") as well as malignant. East Germany offers the perfect locale for such a theme.[27] Even color is used to enhance many of the propaganda points: Armstrong, dressed in light colors, is surrounded by the darksuited representatives of the regime; skies and ruins seen through windows are shadowy and oppressive;[28] Gromek, the policeman-bodyguard, is a black-suited thug - the familiar Gestapo type of countless World War II films.

Finally, in 1969, Hitchcock offered a reprise on Cold War themes with Topaz (based on the Leon Uris novel). The film is set against the background of the 1963 Cuban missile crisis. It is a rather sprawling tale. A Soviet official defects and tells Western intelligence about Soviet missile activities in Cuba, and also that a Communist spy ring - code-named Topaz - has infiltrated the high NATO command. A French agent is enlisted to go to Cuba and confirm reports of the missile installations. Once in Cuba, he is reunited with a former love, Juanita de Cordoba, the widow of a national hero and the secret head of an anti-Castro resistance movement. Her lover, a high government official, murders her. The Frenchman returns to Paris, and the remainder of the film is devoted to the exposure of the Communists within NATO. They turn out to be senior government officials, and the highest of them, facing exposure and disgrace, commits suicide.

Hitchcock experimented with several endings to the film. In one, the French espionage agent and the Communist official fight a duel; in another, the Communist flees to the East; in the third, his suicide is implied.[29] But all three versions, including the now standard one (the third), contain another (anti) climax. On a Paris street an ordinary passerby looks over a newspaper headlining the denouement of the missile crisis. He drops the paper and walks away. "The bored indifference of the man in the street is contrasted with shots of all the Cold War's unknown warriors, who, like Juanita and the servants, have suffered in the continuous war of freedom against tyranny."[30]

Topaz opens with a military parade in Red Square and a title which tells us that the defector, Kusenov, was bothered by his country's militarism and the Communist imperialism that it represented. Such a statement in 1969, with America's Vietnam depredations at their height, pretty well indicates, if not the level of Hitchcock's political sophistication, at least his total reluctance to question the ideological predispositions of the mass American audience. Throughout the film, the Communist agents are portrayed as violent, thus maintaining "the usual polarity between our side, whose resort to force is always minimal and reluctant, and the other side, whose violence is prompt, wanton, and callous."[31]

This necessarily superficial summary of those Hitchcock films which might legitimately be considered as somehow concerned with politics would indicate that Hitchcock's preferences in political themes were topical and conventional. He never seriously questioned the basic political assumptions and attitudes of the general audience as he perceived them.

Political references and events, it could be said, served merely as a backdrop for Hitchcock's exercising his favored thriller formula. Thirty years of significant political changes produced only slight variations on Hitchcock's basic themes in the political films. It is possible that only in Lifeboat did Hitchcock come close to a rather personal political statement. But the criticism which that film elicited seemed to throw him back into a shell.[32]

Yet to stress only the predominance of the thriller formula is to do Hitchcock an injustice. Hitchcock, as Wood, Chabrol, Durgnat, and others argue quite persuasively, is not merely an entertainer. There are social, moral, and philosophical dimensions to his films, though these themes are always subordinated to a dramatic interest in the central characters. These dimensions certainly reveal Hitchcock as a film maker who is fascinated by themes or concerns - or perhaps simply overtones - other than those of thrillers simple and pure. And so there is good reason to raise the question whether these (and other Hitchcock films not specifically discussed above) suggest a Hitchcockian political philosophy.


The political philosopher reflects about political life. That reflection may be indulged on a variety of levels. The philosopher may seek the most appropriate means, or may preoccupy himself with ends. Philosophy may spring from purely pragmatic considerations - the grubby stuff of everyday politics - or may be guided by more general ideas, if not ideals. At its best, "political philosophy may be understood to be what occurs when this movement of reflection takes a certain direction and achieves a certain level, its characteristic being the relation of political life, and the values and purposes pertaining to it, to the entire conception of the world that belongs to a civilization."[33] And it is at this level - relative to his view of the worldthat we must seek the political philosophy of Alfred Hitchcock.

Our starting point must be the comment of Richard Schickel - "We're living in a Hitchcock world, all right." The Hitchcockian Weltanschauung, evident in his films over the past fifty years, is a vision of the world as "essentially a less reasonable place than nice people like to think," a point of view that modern man increasingly has come to accept.[34]

As Schickel summarizes it, Hitchcock's vision is one permeated with anxiety, informed with an appreciation of "how thinly the membrane of civilization is stretched over an essentially irrational existence..." Hitchcock's art "reflects his fear of disorder, in particular the breakdown of rational mental and emotional processes and of those institutions - especially the law - which we depend upon to maintain a sense of security and continuity in everyday life."[35]

Such a view implies quite a profound notion about man's nature and the nature of human society. In addition, it raises most fascinating questions of political philosophy, which is inextricably intertwined with problems of individual nature, social organization and coercion, and a reconciliation of their sometimes competing demands. Corollary questions include an examination of the nature of political activity, of the ideal state, of the role of the state in human affairs, of the justification of state authority, and of the individual citizen's obligation to the state.

These perennial questions of political philosophy, juxtaposed with Schickel's analysis and Hitchcock's films, must inevitably recall the ideas of the only true genius among English political philosophers, and invite (as Durgnat occasionally pursues) specific comparisons between the film maker and the philosopher. I refer, of course, to Thomas Hobbes.

The parallels between Hitchcock and Hobbes are indeed striking. On a fundamental point they would I think, disagree. Were they to sit down for dinner and later talk philosophy, the disagreement would undoubtedly be seen to stem from Hitchcock's perception through his films of a paradoxical weakness in Hobbes' political philosophy. Hitchcock frequently echoes Hobbes, but he also goes beyond him, bringing Hobbes' philosophy into the world of international politics in the twentieh century. Hitchcock's perception of this universal dilemma is accurate, but his solution is highly personal. Hitchcock poses the problem incisively (as well as entertainingly), but each of us must extricate ourselves.

Hitchcock's world is uncannily similar to Hobbes' famous "state of nature," described in Leviathan:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for because the fruit thereof is industry; uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.[36]

Anxiety, and ultimately the fear of death are essential ingredients in Hobbes' political philosophy. They drive men to agreement whereby they place above them a sovereign who will maintain peace, safeguard their lives, and guarantee enough stability for them to pursue their most basic desires. This compact is more than simply consent; it is a unity of will. Each gives to one man (or an assembly of men) sovereignty - absolute power. "This done, the multitude so united in one person, is called a Commonwealth.... This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence."[37]

While Hitchcock may agree with Hobbes as to the essentially chaotic and "brutish" condition of man, he cannot, it seems, agree with Hobbes' solution - mutual subjugation to an absolutely sovereign government. For Hitchcock, I believe, finds government ultimately inadequate. Even on the level of everyday, simple political activity, Hitchcock is hardly enamored of politics. Schickel quotes his remark that politics is "one of the meanest forms of man's attitude toward his fellow man."[38]

Numerous incidents in the films examined thus far illustrate this notion. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, for example, the fugitive Danay (Robert Donat) wanders into a political meeting, is mistaken for a candidate, and is thunderously applauded after delivering an absolutely nonsensical speech filled with ambiguities and empty rhetoric. As Durgnat quite rightly notes, the scene is a comment on "the idiocy of political rhetoric, and of the political process, in this democracy."[39] In The Lady Vanishes, the gentle Miss Froy says that "one mustn't judge a people by its politicians. After all, we British are very honest at heart."

That the agents of the state appearing in Hitchcock's films are inept is rather obvious. Worst of all are those who attempt to carry out one of the state's most crucial functions - the administration of justice. Even outside the political films, Hitchcock seems obsessed with the theme of ordinary individuals suddenly being subjected to gross miscarriages of justice. The most obvious representatives of the supposedly legitimate authority of the state - the police - are not only bunglers but maniacs, as witnessed by the recurrence of scenes in which police, in pursuit of suspects who may or may not be guilty (the police frequently have no way of knowing), fire wildly at them and anyone else who happens to get in the way.[40] Their irresponsible use of force is but a small portion of the misuse of authority by a state which so frequently apprehends "the wrong man." And it will not suffice to say that Hitchcock is simply mirroring the oftcited American disparagement of politics and politicians. The above examples suggest Hitchcock's belief that the state itself is deficient.

In Hitchcock's more obviously political films, the state fails miserably to protect ordinary individuals suddenly involved in utterly irrational and potentially fatal machinations. Hitchcock's heroes must rely on their own strengths if they are to be vindicated, let alone survive. They are in the same position as man in Hobbes' state of nature, who must "use his own power ... for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently ... [do whatever] he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto."[41]

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of these films is that the political situation is directly related to international politics. And it is in this respect that Hitchcock both reflects and seeks to resolve a paradox inherent in Leviathan, one which Hobbes recognizes but does not adequately explicate. Hobbes writes:

But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of war against one another; yet in all times, kings, and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their kingdoms; and continual spies upon their neighbours; which is a posture of war.[42]

The independent sovereigns of the world - nation-states in our own time are in a state of nature vis a vis each other; the warlike condition of the state of nature is their everyday experience. The reason is simple - there is no sovereign above them. Hobbes recognized this fact yet never fully considered the possible consequences for domestic peace and order of this intersovereign, perpetual rivalry. His greatest concern, after the frightful experience of the English civil wars of the seventeenth century, was with the domestic peace and the creation of a powerful domestic sovereign. He failed to consider the consequences to the citizen and to the domestic order when the sordid world of international politics begins to impinge upon them.

Hitchcock, however, perceives those consequences only too well. Chaos intrudes into ordinary lives, and the domestic sovereign, consumed with the problem of its own survival in a world of competing sovereigns, must necessarily give short shrift to the demands of ordinary citizens. Moreover, in a world where political ideologies are adhered to with theological fervor, Nazism vs. Democracy or Communism vs. Capitalism become Manichean conflicts between absolute good and absolute evil. Thus the agents of these death struggles (whether they are played out in Europe or Korea or Cuba or Vietnam) can justify wiretapping, assassinations, and every other conceivable assault on domestic political civilities in the name of "national security." In the world of Machtpolitik, the Roger Thornhills are totally expendable.

While Hitchcock's box-office impulses may have contributed to or reinforced this lunatic dichotomy, as in his pre-war propagandizing, he has also shown, as in Lifeboat, an ability to criticize democracy as much as his most recent political films criticize Communist systems. And ultimately Hitchcock is concerned with the common citizen and his increasing awareness that all political systems, having no sovereign above them, must engage in a perpetual state of war which can all too easily engulf their innocent citizen-victims.

Basically, American experience with international politics since 1940 seems to have been one constant state of emergency. The anxieties bred by such a situation have evidently affected our domestic politics, and along with them, a paranoia bred by the international situation and exacerbated by a sudden realization that our own government is not all that it claimed to be. Or rather, that the actions perceived by political leaders to be necessary to save our system have almost totally eroded that which was most worth saving. Such paranoid anxiety can easily lead to the desire for an authoritarian system - the very solution Hobbes opted for in a condition of civil war. Does Hitchcock the political philosopher suggest such a solution?

It would be tempting to dismiss Hitchcock as an incipient totalitarian (or at least authoritarian), and it would be child's play to mass evidence from his personal life. The famous incident of the young Hitchcock being arbitrarily incarcerated as an object lesson - and his subsequent life-long fear of policemen - may go far toward explaining his feelings about law and justice evinced in many of his films. A typical response to paranoid anxiety is a search for rigid control. Hitchcock's total planning of his films is constantly noted - he himself boasts of it. Schickel tells us that Hitchcock does not drive, seldom travels, books the same rooms in hotels whenever he does travel, hates "suspense, shock, even mild surprise," and works for Universal Studios, the most rationalized and controlled in Hollywood.[43]

Hitchcock's fear of disorder may actually surpass Hobbes' legendary distaste for chaos. Yet the above analysis should indicate that Hitchcock does not trust the state to provide any more order than religion or any other form of organized social control. At one point, Schickel refers to Hitchcock as a post-Christian moralist. God is indeed dead in our own and Hitchcock's world, but equally moribund is that mortal deity Leviathan. Or, if not dead, at least hopelessly inadequate. The disorderly, the unruly, the irrational in man's nature is all too essential a part of twentieth century experience. The absurdity of man's existence is inescapable; and Hitchcock, he tells his interviewers, practices absurdity religiously. Yet in his own life and in his art, he has introduced into the world some element of order, realizing perhaps that here one finds the only cohesion on which to rely.

Hitchcock's political message is that we must recognize the limits of state-imposed order. We must set our own limits and create within them. This is certainly not Hobbes' advocacy of an authoritarian state. It is advocacy of the understanding (intuitive, perhaps) that the membrane of individual civility is as thin as that which is stretched over the general civilization, but that only personal strength and effort can sustain man in this kind of world. At best, man can hope to control only portions of his personal life, and even those he may have to control totally to withstand the forces of his own unreason as well as those of other men in a deficient society. Above all, man must learn to live with the expectation that at any moment the membrane may snap, and chaos ensue. Certainly politics, even (or perhaps especially) the politics of Leviathan, is not a solution.[44]

Notes & References

  1. Leif Furhammara nd Folke Isaksson, Politics and Film (Translated by Kersti French. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), p. 139
  2. Ibid. Having thus rescued themselves, they manage, two sentences later, to raise again the hackles of those who may have reflected upon the implications of Hitchcock's political films by saying: "[Hitchcock] was also a fighting democrat, as he showed with particular clarity in Foreign Correspondent (1940)."
  3. Raymond Durgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1974).
  4. Which Furhammar and Isaksson quite correctly perceive, though they do not bother to explicate it beyond the above quotations
  5. I refer here to the spate of studies of Hitchcock as a moralist. Durgnat develops this theme quite sensibly; also, cf. Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films (2d ed.; London: Zwemmer-Tantivy, 1969) and Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock (Paris: Editions Universitaries, 1957).
  6. See my forthcoming Politics on Film.
  7. François Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 60.
  8. Durgnat, p. 125.
  9. Truffaut, p. 73.
  10. Durgnat, p. 132.
  11. Ibid., p. 154.
  12. Ibid., p. 155.
  13. Truffaut, p. 91.
  14. Ibid., p. 96. Also, cf. the discussion of Wanger in David M. White and Richard Averson, The Celluloid Weapon (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972).
  15. David Zinman, perhaps tongue in cheek, quotes McCrea's speech as an example of the Hollywood tradition of "saving the best line for last." See his article in The New York Times, July 6, 1975, section D, p. 9.
  16. Truffaut, p. 96.
  17. Durgnat, p. 170
  18. Thought here is certainly an implicit awareness that such faith is inadequate to the historical situation since the diplomat, shortly after reaffirming this creed, succumbs to torture (one of the elements which must have delighted Dr. Goebbels, who reputedly so admired Foreign Correspondent).
  19. A mistake, Hitchcock felt, from the point of view of audience identification, and one which he corrected in North by Northwest.
  20. Except for a successful run in New York; possibly, Hitchcock believes, because of fascination with the technical challenge of the film.
  21. Durgnat, p. 90.
  22. Truffaut, p. 113.
  23. Again, Hitchcock's own words.
  24. See Karel Reisz's article, "Hollywood's Anti-Red Boomerang," Sight and Sound, vol. 22, no. 3 (1953).
  25. I have omitted any discussion of the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Those who have seen the second version will understand why. In only two respects is it significantly different from the original: the scenes in the Albert Hall are far more interesting cinematically; and in the ending Doris Day manages to accomplish with her singing what Edna Best had to achieve with her shooting
  26. Durgnat, pp. 306-308.
  27. Other Eastern European countries would have been more difficult and would have required, according to Furhammar and Isaksson, "more subtle nuances of characterisation and setting" (p. 139).
  28. But red, as Furhammar and Isaksson point out, stands not for revolution, socialism or danger, but Freedom. Ibid.
  29. See the account in Durgnat, p. 379.
  30. Ibid., pp. 379-80.
  31. Ibid., p. 380.
  32. Almost literally. His next several pictures were all set in closely confined spaces, allowing him to indulge his preoccupation with the fascinating but narrowly technical problems involved in such film making.
  33. Michael Oakeshott, "Introduction" to his edition of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1047), p. ix.
  34. Richard Schickel, "We're Living in a Hitchcock World, All Right," The New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1972, p. 42.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Edited with an Introduction by Michael Oakeshott (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1946), p. 82. My italics.
  37. Ibid. p. 112. Italics in original.
  38. Schickel, "Hitchcock World," p. 46.
  39. Durgnat, p. 127.
  40. Durgnat cites such incidents in Strangers on a Train and To Catch a Thief, and Furhammar and Isaksson note that "East German police shoot wildly in the centre of Berlin..." Cf. Durgnat, pp. 221, 249-50; Furhammar and Isaksson, p. 140.
  41. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 84.
  42. Ibid., p. 83.
  43. Schickel, "Hitchcock World," p. 22.
  44. In Blackmail (1929), the forces of disorder run rampant through the British Museum, while the impassive face of an Egyptian deity stares at them; but in Saboteur and North by Northwest, these forces are loosed against a background of massive governmental symbols. Hitchcock the post-Christian moralist is also, and always has been, the post-Watergate political philosopher.