Literature Film Quarterly (2000) - "It doesn't pay to antagonize the public": Sabotage and Hitchcock's audience
- article: "It doesn't pay to antagonize the public": Sabotage and Hitchcock's audience
- author(s): Mark Osteen
- journal: Literature Film Quarterly (2000)
- issue: volume 28, issue 4, page 259
- journal ISSN: 0090-4260
- publisher: Salisbury University
- keywords: "Alfred Hitchcock and the British Cinema" - by Tom Ryall, "Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games" - by Thomas M. Leitch, "Hitchcock on Hitchcock" - edited by Sidney Gottlieb, "Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks" - by Dan Auiler, "Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation" - by Robert E Kapsis, "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto, "The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto, "The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films" - by Lesley Brill, Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, Blackmail (1929), British International Pictures, Caroline Alice Lejeune, Chicago, Illinois, Claude Chabrol, David O. Selznick, Desmond Tester, Donald Spoto, François Truffaut, Frenzy (1972), Gainsborough Pictures, John Loder, Joseph Conrad, Lesley Brill, Mark Osteen, New York City, New York, Notorious (1946), Oskar Homolka, Robert E. Kapsis, Robin Wood, Rope (1948), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Sidney Gottlieb, Suspicion (1941), Sylvia Sidney, The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), Thomas M. Leitch, Éric Rohmer
When discussing his films, Alfred Hitchcock almost invariably emphasized neither theme nor characterization but rather techniques of audience manipulation. By the late 1950s he had solidified his signature style and his legendary reputation, as well as his stock answers and familiar explanations. One of his best-known stories involves the distinction between surprise and suspense, using the premise of a ticking bomb set to go off in ten minutes. In the first scenario, neither the three men in the room with the bomb nor the audience knows it is there. They talk desultorily and then it goes off. "What is the result?" asks Hitchcock. "The unsuspecting audience gets a surprise. One surprise. That's all." In the second scenario, the audience knows about the bomb but the men do not.
The men still talk inanities, but now the most banal thing they say is charged with excitement. The audience wants them to get out of the room but they talk on, and when one finally says, "Let's leave," the entire audience is praying for them to do so. But another man says, "No, wait a minute. I want to finish my coffee," and the audience groans inwardly and yearns for them to leave. This is suspense. (qtd. in Kapsis 36)
Hitchcockian suspense is built upon dramatic irony: the viewer knows something that the characters don't, and the director uses that privileged but limited information to manipulate the audience. It scarcely matters whether we sympathize with the men or not; the skillful director forces us to take part in the scene. It does matter, however, whether the men escape unharmed: the audience must experience the same relief that the men do for the scene to work emotionally.
Anyone familiar with Hitchcock's career can name any number of sequences in which he employs this technique: the poisoning scenes in Suspicion and Notorious; Uncle Charlie's attempt to asphyxiate his niece in Shadow of a Doubt; virtually the entire length of Rope, in which only the audience and the murderers are aware of the body in the trunk around which the guests eat and drink. But Hitchcock's early British films, though at times manifesting his mastery over audience emotions, seem less certain of which emotions to evoke. One reason is, as Robert Kapsis has suggested, that Hitchcock's relationship with the British public was "considerably less personal and direct" than the strong bond he later cultivated with American audiences (21). Several critics have argued, in fact, that critics were the director's real audience, because it was they who determined the fate of a picture (Ryall 91).
Hitchcock's 1936 film, Sabotage, loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent and the fourth of his "classic thriller sextet" of the '30s, illustrates this uncertain relationship with the public. Sabotage, I shall argue, displays a confusion of aims, as Hitchcock attempted both to please and to challenge the public, while also striving for the critical acclaim that would solidify his reputation and, eventually, garner a Hollywoo...