'This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.'
-Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
It is characteristic of Hitchcock to show us both sides of the coin. His work moves between two poles which, like extremes, can meet. We have called this movement 'exchange' …
- Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock
'Fear, the incongruous, and the fascinations of luxury are emotional factors to which we never appeal in vain'.
- Surrealist remark, quoted by Raymond Durgnat in
Films and Feelings
|Hitchcock's cameo, Blackmail|
MANY THINGS CONSTITUTE AN Alfred Hitchcock movie, not counting his ritual appearance in most of them. That's regardless, too, of each film's effect on its audience which in the cinema is typically one of audible enjoyment. Hitchcock himself was very conscious of that effect, which he claimed to be able to 'hear' even during the scripting. Furthermore, part of his genius - noted by astonished collaborators - was his ability to carry an entire film in his head, so that by the time a full treatment was prepared he might effortlessly dictate the film shot-by-shot, ready for dialogue to be added and a suitable score laid out. Almost invariably, very little modification of either of those things would be needed, such was Hitchcock's ability to communicate to his collaborators exactly what he had in mind. For example, the John Williams score added to Family Plot late in the piece, contributes immeasurably to that delightful film, yet the overall impression is of an organic whole.
Equally, each film has its distinctive style, and no two successive Hitchcock films were alike. ('Keep 'em guessing!' you can almost hear Hitchcock telling himself, knowing that his audience would be pleased to be thus outfoxed.) Some examples: the 'neurotic' abruptnesses of Marnie; the 'open-for-business' purposefulness of Frenzy; the tongue-in-cheek extravagances of Spellbound; the 'theatrics' of Stage Fright (a scene in Charlotte's house is photographed as if from the wings of a theatre, for instance). I love Spellbound, and consider it underrated, especially by those whom a polite Robin Wood called 'the sophisticates'! Like most of Hitchcock's films, its opening few minutes are exemplary for the compactness of the information there, which the film will draw on later. We learn of Constance's fondness for winter sports, well before the scene in Gabriel Valley where we don't question her being able to ski; and in Mr Garmes we're given a potted illustration of a guilt-complex, something that will prove to afflict the main character, John Ballyntine. Also, again typical of Hitchcock, I think Spellbound's pseudo-overwrought mood specifically taps the zeitgeist of the time, namely, the immediate post-War euphoria of its viewers. By then, too, most of them were familiar with what was loosely called 'shell shock', the PTSD of its time. It's instructive to imagine the vast audience inside the Radio City Music Hall enjoying each turn and revelation of the elaborate plot. (Such an audience had already featured onscreen in Hitchcock's Saboteur.)
|Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Spellbound|
Audiences in Hitchcock's day were drawn from what Cary Grant once characterised as 'an inhibited, critical and frightened society'; there's probably little reason to think that we have changed much, albeit we consider ourselves more sexually sophisticated. Accordingly, Hitchcock's so-called escapist films both play to, and mock, such traits. In North by Northwest, the early scenes showing streets and commuters in New York are filmed drably (something misunderstood by later 'restorers' who have 'over-compensated' for what they consider a fading of the image). From the implied widespread repressionthe story soon moves to more 'adventurous' fields - including, literally, the prairie crossroads, on which the film pivots. The character of Grant's Roger Thornhill is understandably crucial: initially seeming to be unadventurous, except doubtless in matters like preparing advertising copy, he finds himself kidnapped and at the centre of an 'absurd' situation or 'joke' (one of his armed kidnappers drily remarks, 'We will laugh in the car!'). But Roger proves to have an admirable reality-sense, showing his calibre by soon grasping his plight and demonstrating his own dry wit. In the car, he makes an unsuccessful attempt to escape by diving for the door handle. 'Locked?', we hear him ask ruefully. The mocking quality of Ernest Lehman's remarkable screenplay is further demonstrated in the succession of perilous situations he manufactures for Thornhill. Outlandish and, again, 'absurd' (the Theatre of the Absurd was well underway at the time, with a play like Beckett's 1953 Waiting for Godot featuring a crossroads of its own), these situations show us a fearless Thornhill, worthy after all of being our hero. Nothing fazes him, whether that involves being shot at from an improbably low-flying bi-plane or clinging for his life (and that of Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint) from a rocky cliff.
|"...an improbably low-flying bi-plane..."|
Cary Grant, North by Northwest
One of Hitchcock's favourite authors, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), would have understood later notions of 'absurdity'. He himself had written of such matters, notably in "Cockneys and Their Jokes" (remember that Hitchcock was a Cockney). Teasingly, he wrote:
All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.
Hitchcock said that his humour was one of understatement, which often conceals the 'primary paradox' in his own work; it might be called 'appearance versus reality' or 'what we like to think of ourselves versus what we really are'. He learnt understatement in his young days, no doubt from his Cockney peers and probably from his father, but also from the music halls that he loved and valued for their lack of pretentiousness. In his films' 'hefty plots', which allowed plenty of room for bravura sequences and, at times, a touch of the metaphysical, Hitchcock nonetheless never seems to be simply saying, 'Look how clever I am!' Rather, everything in a Hitchcock film seems to have its place, to be required by the story or the genre itself. To Truffaut he disclosed that he had discarded a scene in a car factory (North by Northwest) despite the fact that he both liked it and that it was entertaining. Unfortunately, it simply didn't fit!
I frequently notice in later Hitchcock (at least) a quality of 'Pirandellism'. Playwright and novelist Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) specialised in showing the fluidity of identity, of how 'I am whoever you think I am!' - hence the beguiling title of his most famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author. Pirandello authority Eric Bentley once illustrated a related aspect of the playwright by citing the case of a forgotten work by a predecessor, The Bells (1877), by Leopold Lewis. Bentley wrote: 'There is a primitive Pirandellism in the fact that the relationship with the audience becomes part of the play itself by an analogy with the action presented on stage.'1 Hitchcock was familiar with Pirandello's work, which had arrived in London theatres by the 'twenties. By setting his Sabotage (1936) around a cinema - not the seedy shop of Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel - he was already 'layering' his film in Pirandellian ways. Think of the scene set behind a cinema screen while a film is being shown on it: we can't help but realise that the cinema's audience is unaware of the drama going on backstage, so to speak. Thus Hitchcock sets us a nice puzzle, namely, what exactly are we to make of all this? Maybe we need to open our eyes more fully after we leave the cinema? In other words, while watching the film we sense just how narrowed-down and blinkered we normally are! This is in keeping with the well-travelled Conrad's own thinking. As long ago as 1897 he had written in almost cinematic terms: 'My task … is, before all, to make you see.' He had long been appalled by how provincial most people stayed all their lives, while the spur to write his just-mentioned 1907 The Secret Agent was an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory which killed the would-be bomber. That event, wrote Conrad later, was 'a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.' Shades of Hitchcock's phrase to himself, 'the moron millions'! (And, yes, no doubt there are present-day examples of the same thing.) The ultimate instance of his Pirandellism, though, is certainly Rear Window. There, Jeff is like the cinema spectator, confined for a time to his seat and compelled to watch the 'screens' (windows) over the way. You feel that there's a little bit of Jeff in each of the characters he watches.
Still, whatever is 'archetypal' in Rear Window and many another Hitchcock film is not confined to parallels with the cinema viewer.2 A good story is a good story! Or, if not that, it may only be a potentially good story. Hitchcock usually relied on his team of readers to point him to such material, and would sometimes take just one leading idea from a published work, then throw away the rest in order to 'make cinema'. Clearly he saw the potential in Woolrich's story for both suspense and for viewer identification. I once interviewed the screenwriter of Rear Window, the gifted John Michael Hayes. He saw his principal function vis-à-vis Hitchcock as one of bringing 'warmth' to the work of an essentially 'cold' director. I gather he was referring principally to a succession of Hitchcock films he had seen on their release, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s.3 He further told me that the overcoming of an audience's 'resistance' at the start of a suspense film (cf. Cary Grant's point about a 'critical' society?!) has to be accomplished quite quickly - otherwise you may lose them. Thus, in Rear Window, Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff's masseuse, has an important early line. When she first enters his apartment, and catches him spying on his neighbours, she is caustic: 'The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse!' It was guaranteed to bring a laugh, Hayes said, but after that the whole audience is suitably attentive.
|James Stewart, Rear Window|
I don't question this. It accords with something Eric Bentley wrote about suspense in storytelling generally. Invoking The Arabian Nights and Scheherazade, whom the king has threatened with beheading, Bentley reminds us that she ends each night's story on a suspenseful note, thus prompting the king to refrain from carrying out his threat for another night. 'This king', writes Bentley, 'resembles the "resistance" of every reader; and Scheherazade, every storyteller and dramatist.'4 Here, another word for 'resistance' might be 'ego' - the entitlement each viewer feels, in Hitchcock's case, to challenge the director to do his stuff, to scare us. Accordingly, Hitchcock profited from his reputation (which he had cultivated since the 'forties, if not earlier), of being 'The Master of Suspense'. Audiences knew that an exciting story was practically guaranteed, and what their own assigned role was in Hitchcock's 'game'. F.L. Lucas in his book Style (1955) defines literary style as simply 'how one personality moves others'; Hitchcock knew exactly how to play up to his public persona and his reputation in order to quickly bring the audience on-side. And, after all, suspense in a movie should be enjoyable because, as Hitchcock pointed out, the audience knows, or think they know, that ultimately all will be well. (A film like The Birds may critique that notion!)
More broadly, Hitchcockian suspense is of various kinds. For example, there is suspense ofcharacter. We sense that the 'touchy' protagonist of Marnie is brittle beyond her cultivated, carefully-groomed 'front'. There is suspense of mood: the sinister green that opens North by Northwest sets such a mood - aided immeasurably by Bernard Herrmann's musical 'growl' and a stylised MGM lion.5 (This may have been the only MGM film in decades that was allowed to depart from the customary logo!) There is suspense of situation, as in the crossroads sequence of the same film: a tour-de-force in which a barren landscape suddenly becomes threatening, and every element plays a part before the end. (Hitchcock noted the rickety-looking, but armed, crop-dusting plane that, before crashing, uses its spray to drive Thornhill from the crops where he has taken refuge - things we initially hardly noticed or paid attention to!) The very name 'Hitchcock' became synonymous with suspense, and his cameo-appearance in each film served as a reminder that he was its principal 'author'.
|Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest|
All of his technical skills and inventiveness served to streamline the effects he sought. When Thornhill is kidnapped from the Oak Bar, clever editing and changes of angle minimise lacunae, so that Roger is inside the kidnappers' car almost before we realise it! The whole thing is deftly set up by Hitchcock and screenwriter Lehman from the moment that Roger snaps his fingers at the bellboy just as the latter is paging 'George Kaplan', the name of a non-existent American agent invented by the CIA (or whoever) as a foil. I have commented elsewhere on Hitchcock's trademark audacity, and the plot of North by Northwest is a good instance of it. The same Hitchcock film - though it's not the only one - verges on the Surreal, demonstrating how 'Fear, the incongruous, and the fascinations of luxury' may indeed be potent emotional factors that affect audiences. The kidnappers operate from the Townsend manor, and improbably have never been questioned about it. There's a similar conceit in one of the Bulldog Drummond novels by 'Sapper', H.C. McNeile, a contemporary of John Buchan, author of the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hitchcock's English boyhood probably instilled in him personality-traits than we can't readily account for, as their basis is practically forgotten these days! Still, 'Cockney cheekiness' covers some of it!
As for Hitchcockian 'identification', it was something the director drew on as a matter of course. Apropos what he called the 'cross-section of society' installed in the apartments opposite Jeff's in Rear Window, Hitchcock went so far as to say that the film 'wouldn't have worked without' it. It was part of the agreeable and 'sociable' atmosphere established at the outset, when we watch the obviously good-natured, but bored, Jeff gaze around his rear courtyard. (For example, we smile at his healthily-dirty mind: what else are 'blonde bombshells' for, if not to be seen?!) Invariably Hitchcock wanted to put the audience inside his story. He explained that it was like watching a passing train. From afar, we see just a train going by; but watched from up close, 'it takes your breath away!' Hitchcock did adroitly use close-ups to bring points to our attention: the flicker on a character's face, for example, at some nuance or revelation or matter of interest. As with suspense, identification might be of several types.
Obviously, personable actors like Grace Kelly, James Stewart and Cary Grant served Hitchcock's purpose, as audiences admired them: publicity for movies in Hitchcock's day emphasised a film's stars as a matter of course. (As against this, certain types of people - the cynic, the stoic, the know-it-all, say - seldom made it into a Hitchcock film.) Grant was well aware of the phenomenon. He once noted that 'Everyone wants to be Cary Grant - even I want to be Cary Grant!' Identification might also stem from situation: hence most Hitchcock films start in a commonplace setting (Vertigo is one notable exception), though they might move well beyond it later. Or the situation might pose some challenge - as when barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) in The Paradine Case must defend the attractive but unworthy Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli) on a charge of murdering her husband. Also, identification might be against rather than with. The villains who kidnap Thornhill in North by Northwest represent 'brains, brawn, and brutality': their leader is the intellectual Vandamm (James Mason) who himself is lent a sinister note by his relationship with the sly-looking Leonard (Martin Landau); his two kidnapper-henchmen are Valerian (Adam Williams) and the sneering Licht (Robert Ellenstein) who may easily be seen to represent brawn and brutality respectively. The Cold War is mentioned, allowing us to place them as 'foreign' and 'other' - probably Russian.
|Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau|
North by Northwest
Often, a Hitchcock film is underlain with a particular atmosphere or a broadly riveting situation, such as the heat wave in Rear Window, the scenic-tour aspect of To Catch a Thief, the Cold War in North by Northwest. In turn, these things may have other functions: explaining the open windows of Rear Window, for instance, or showing off the VistaVision process, or providing character-motivation. And they can be integrated with the texture of each film. Rear Window is a perfect film in so many integral ways: think of the humour of the scene with the elderly couple sleeping on their balcony - in opposite directions! - who have to scramble inside when a sudden shower breaks in the early hours of the morning. That shower is a lovely touch, because nocturnal summer showers do happen! For a comparable moment, recall the stillness after the rain in Psycho. Suddenly, in the silence, the voice of 'Mrs Bates' comes floating through the air, as if magnified: 'No, I tell you no! I won't have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper …' For the film's audience, it constitutes a perfect introduction to a weird mother-son relationship and, in particular, Norman Bates's subjugation by it.
|Anthony Perkins, Psycho|
As noted, Hitchcock's humour might involve understatement. (I like Thornhill's line to Eve at the climax of North by Northwest: 'This won't do. We're on top of the monument!') But it had other modes. Hitchcock liked to make fun of narrow, obsessed persons, such as Cousin Bob in Marnie whom we see in a single brief scene at the front doorstep of 'Whykwyn'. (Mark Rutland humours him by calling him 'our banking cousin'.) Turning to Lil Mainwaring, he starts complaining about the cost of Marnie's wedding ring. As he compulsively reckons the amount, he tilts his head - and the glint in his glasses says everything needful! At other times, Hitchcock might mock 'Englishness', notably in the characters of the cricket-mad Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes. Their foil, however, is the sweet English lady of the title. In the train's dining car she turns to them and politely requests the sugar. They glance at each other and give her a murderous look - then start shovelling sugar cubes back in a bowl from which they had extracted them in order to study the placement of fielders on a cricket field!
|Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), Charters (Basil Radford|
The Lady Vanishes
However, I'm not doing Hitchcock's humour anything like justice by just citing particular instances of it. I prefer to think of his use of humour as comparable to that of his fellow Englishmen Dickens and Shakespeare, especially if we hypothesise those two writers suddenly being asked to produce film scripts! I mean, North by Northwest is replete with humour, but it's not literary. On the other hand, Walter Murdoch, an English professor (in Australia), once likened Shakespeare to 'a universal counsel for the defence'. Compare that to Rohmer and Chabrol's view of Hitchcock: 'It is characteristic of Hitchcock to show us both sides of the coin … the interchangeable guilt of all mankind'. (Italics in the original.) As I see it, when Hitchcock uses humour - and he described Psycho as filmed with quite a sense of humour on his part - it is to enforce how we see. Hitchcock never preached but, like Joseph Conrad, he never made cheap jokes either.6 His highly intelligent films are there to both entertain and to share with us Hitchcock's own generous understanding of things.7
1. Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama(Methuen, 1965), p. 177
2. Quite possibly, Cornell Woolrich, the writer of the original short story, "It Had to be Murder", first published in 1942, took his inspiration from a much earlier story, "Through a Window", written in 1894 by another of Hitchcock's favourite authors, H.G. Wells. Incidentally, Rear Window(1954) followed hard on Dial M for Murder, made in 3D, and seems at times to further experiment with 'depth', notably in having a scene take place over the road from the block of flats, and which we watch per a side alleyway.
3. The slightly earlier Shadow of a Doubt(1943) was a special case. In the Army, Hayes found himself acting as a film projectionist for his comrades, and one of the films he admired and showed repeatedly was Shadow of a Doubt, over and over again - if mainly of necessity because the supply of films to the troops was understandably limited. That experience gave him a knowledge of Hitchcock's film which he inadvertently displayed when he later went to be interviewed by the director for a job. According to Hayes, it's probably what most impressed Hitchcock in his favour!
4. Bentley, p. 13
5. Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was the most brilliant and 'multi-dimensional' of film composers - he could add a whole new dimension to a movie, and often did.
6. Of course, in Hitchcock's youth, he enjoyed practicaljoking! It was almost an English pastime back then. (Mostly) good harmless fun!
7. I thank Peter Tammer for editorial advice on a late draft of this essay.
Editor’s Note: This is the third essay on Alfred Hitchcock by scholar Ken Mogg published on Film Alert 101. The two previous essays are Thoughts on Hitchcock's VERTIGO and Hitchcock's VERTIGO: Its cinema sources and may be found if you click on the essay titles.