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Literature Film Quarterly (2011) - Hitchcock's terrorists: sources and significance




Hitchcock's Terrorists: Sources and Significance

Alfred Hitchcock occasionally injected episodes of terror into his suspense films - particularly memorable are Psycho and North by Northwest - but they had no relation to terrorism as acnnlly experienced in the past several decades, most notably the September eleventh attack. Only in Sabotage (1936) and The Birds (1963) does terror have a political dimension, and the difference between its manifestations in those two films can now be seen as bearing greater significance than the director could possibly have anticipated.


Sabotage, based on Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent, is a curious choice for a tide, since sabotage is not a factor in the film after the first five minutes. The Secret Agent would have been a more appropriate tide but could not be used since it was the tide of Hitchcock's previous release. Although sabotage plays even less of a role in the novel, Hitchcock took extraordinary pains to draw attention to the word. Filling the screen prior to the credits is a dictionary page on which it is defined, and when the credits appear, behind them is the definition enlarged to dominate the screen:

<indent>Wilful [sic] destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.</indent>

The second part of the definition seems to have been invented for the film, since it is not found in any dictionaries or encyclopedias consulted. It does, however, describe the intention behind the act of sabotage with which the film begins. Verloc, the central character in both the book and film,1 causes a major power blackout in London by putting sand into a generating plant's machinery - yet another invention not corresponding to anything in Conrad's novel.

An even more radical departure from The Secret Agent is the placement at the center of I the film's plot of an attempted deed of genuine terrorism, which is discussed below. Yet even while int...

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Merritt Abrash, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


  1. Hitchcock's Verloc is a professional saboteur, of no identifiable political persuasion. Conrad's Verloc, on the other hand, is an agent provocateur, used to encourage anarchist outrages so that the relatively lenient British government will join others in crushing radical movements.
  2. Donald Spoto, for example, initially called The Birds a "modem horror story, or a bizarre science fiction thriller" (The Art, 1st ed. 383). In the revised edition of the book, however, he rejects both of these designations in favor of "a profound meditation on human relationships and on die myopic emotional vision that informs most of them" (The Art, 2nd ed. 330).
  3. Hitchcock follows this with such uncharacteristic and heavy-handed symbolism - "The girl represents complacency" - that one has to wonder how serious he ever was in his comments on The Birds. And, in fact, Hunter, to whom the director wrote "I believe that people are too complacent [...] The birds symbolized the more serious aspects of life," dismisses his talk about complacency as "utter rot, a supreme showman's con" (24).
  4. Recent incidents of bird behaviors in California that might be called attacks and were known to Hitchcock are described in Condon (250-51). At die end of her story, du Maurier provides an explanation of sorts about such attacks: the main character wonders "how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind [...]" (66). A related thought occurs in an odd one-man trailer - shown on The Birds DVD - in which Hitchcock makes ironic and joking references, complete with bird-related props, to human mistreatment of birds.
  5. Robert E. Kapsis provides other responses, unenlightening and even glib, by Hitchcock or from his office to moviegoers' letters asking about the film's meaning (66-68).
  6. All that remains of the scene are the script and a few production stills. They can be seen among die "bonus materials" on the film's DVD.
  7. The ornithologist introduces her analysis by saying, "Let's be logical about this" - a significandy useless approach, as the rest of the film demonstrates.
  8. Demonization makes itself felt in another form: when Mitch's young sister wants to take with her, as they prepare to flee the attacked house, a pair of caged lovebirds, her mother demurs with a sharp, "They're birds, aren't they?"

Works Cited