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Film Comment (1974) - In broad daylight




Even his domestic dramas involve a kind of espionage in the sense that his characters, having discovered frightening realities buried beneath the surface, are obliged to turn spy themselves in order to discover the whole truth.


In broad daylight

The first condition for a work of art, T.S. Eliot said, and not the easiest to fulfill, is that it should be interesting. Of all directors, Hitchcock has most consistently fulfilled that pre-condition. Although it is a matter of record that Eliot's favorite film was Kurosawa's version of Macbeth, THRONE OF BLOOD, we also know that he was fond of Simenon's novels-particularly the Maigret series-and it seems a legitimate guess that he was also a Hitchcock fan. For this transplanted American had much in common with the transplanted Englishman: both were fascinated by the way in which, to use Eliot's words, "a magic lantern throws the nerves in patterns on the screen."

And the resemblance goes deeper. Hitchcock is unlike most directors of thrillers in that he does not deal with the horrors that lurk in the dark, or with those which only surface in glamorous locations. What happens to his heroes and heroines occurs in broad daylight-outside the Plaza hotel, in the club car of a train, in the quiet tree-lined California town of Santa Rosa.

The normal business of life is suddenly interrupted by the abnormal, the unexpected. Sometimes, as in NORTH BY NORTHWEST or THE WRONG MAN, it is 3 case of mistaken identity. Sometimes, as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, a perfectly amiable person turns out to be a dangerous psychopath. But always it is a mstter of an ordinary person being confronted with the extraordinary event.

Or, as Eliot put it in The Cocktail Party, "When you're dressed for a party and are going downstairs, with everything about you arranged to support you in the role you have chosen, then sometimes, when you come to the bottom step, there is one more step than your feet expected and you come down with a jolt. Just for a moment, you have the experience of being an object at the mercy of a malevolent staircase."

This is an experience which all of us have had at one time or another, and this is why Hitchcock's films have such a powerful effect on us. It is not a question of mere suspense: rather, it is the thing that one had always obscurely dreaded now actually materializing. The abyss suddenly opens up beneath our feet: our husband/wife is trying to poison us; our charming uncle does turn out to be a murderer; the creepy motel-keeper really is a creep, and worse.

One quarter of Hitchcock's 52 films deal with espionage, but his fascination with spies is linked to something much more profound, much more universal: the perpetual discovery by his heroes and heroines that things are not what they seem. Even his domestic dramas involve a kind of espionage in the sense that his characters, having discovered frightening realities buried beneath the surface, are obliged to turn spy themselves in order to discover the whole truth. Often it has something to do with the past, the past that comes back to confound the present, to compromise the future: the first Mrs. de Winter in REBECCA, the boyhood accident in SPELLBOUND, the childhood trauma in MARNIE.

But the discovery is only valid if it is made by the protagonist himself-one reason why Hitchcock always tries to avoid introducing the police. The protagonist, like Oedipus, must do his own detective work. Must, because the clue, the secret, so often lies within himself. And with the discovery comes painful self-knowledge. His films always have "happy ends": at the end of THE WRONG MAN the Henry Fonda character is vindicated, but his wife has been destroyed in the process; at the end of VERTIGO James Stewart has conquered his fear of heights, but his emotional life has been blighted.

"There is certainly no purpose in remaining in the dark," to quote Eliot yet again, "except long enough to clear from the mind all illusion of having ever been in the light." And all of Hitchcock's films remind us of this existential insecurity. The great paradox, of course, is that he can manage to make such a fundamentally tragic view of life so entertaining! Black humor? Yes, of course, and also his infallible sense of pace and characterization, his unfailing deftness with both camera and actors, and ultimately, his matchless talent for sheer story-telling.

Finally, just as his heroes exorcise their demons by the discovery of the truth, so they exorcise our fears by bringing them into light-and by reassuring us that we are not alone. At the end of the film, his heroes may be sadder, but they are also wiser men, and they face the future, if not with hope, then at least with the calm that comes of self-knowledge.