The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock
The Films of Alfred Hitchcock
Truffaut: I’ve heard that your father was very strict.
Hitchcock: Let’s just say he was a rather nervous man.
When he was very small, Alfred Hitchcock was sent down to the local police station with a note from his father. The superintendent read the note and locked young Alfred in a cell for five or ten minutes, saying, “That is what we do to naughty boys.” The incident was probably not as dire as it sounds, and Hitchcock himself is offhand enough about it. Still, the collusion of paternal and civil authorities must have been unsettling, and the flavor of the story persists into many of Hitchcock’s films, where more or less well-meaning representatives of order regularly commit, or are on the edge of committing, horrible injustices in the name of reason and probability.
In 1957 Hitchcock made a movie called The Wrong Man, but the title would have served equally well for The Lodger (1926), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), I Confess (1952), North by Northwest (1959), or Frenzy (1972). In each case plausible, almost irresistible evidence points to the wrong man, who is found with a corpse in his arms or in his bed, or who is seen leaving the scene of the crime within minutes of its occurring, or who has good reason to wish the dead person out of the way. In Frenzy (which I have just seen again thanks to the courtesy of Paul Spehr and Liz Humphrys of the Library of Congress) the wrong man has a murdered woman’s clothes in his traveling bag. Any jury would convict on such evidence, and a jury does. They can’t know, as we do, that the man has been framed.
A character in The Trouble with Harry mumbles about “the police and their suspicious ways—you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent”; and later says, “Modern policemen are all psychological. They just wear you down and wear you down, until you’re almost grateful to get into their gas chamber.” The gas chamber is quite astonishing, and seems to have crept out of Hitchcock’s nightmares into John Michael Hayes’s stylish script. In another mood, Hitchcock has said that his fears are little children, policemen, and high places, in that order.
Stories about the wrong man can suggest all kinds of things, of course: random happening, a world in which anyone is likely to be killed by mistake, as in Welles’s Journey into Fear; loneliness, and the difficulty of making people understand or believe you, as in the television series “The Fugitive.” But in Hitchcock they suggest primarily the impossibility of proving your innocence or, more strongly, the likelihood that the innocent will have left more clues than the guilty.
What this suggests, in turn, is an interest in chains of inference, a sustained worry not so much about whodunit as about the ways in which we decide whodunit: emphatic personal identification of someone who scarcely resembles the criminal at all in The Wrong Man; seemingly irrefutable evidence in The Thirty-Nine Steps, North by Northwest, and Frenzy; a good motive and a lot of fishy behavior in I Confess; large guesses about character in Frenzy and Suspicion, assumptions of a continuity between murder and fraud and rage. The premise of Strangers on a Train is an exchange of crimes, in which two men would each do the other’s murder and thereby seem to have no motive, and leave no trace. In The Trouble with Harry even ordinary inferences about causality are jokingly sent up. Two women have hit a man on the head, and an old poacher has taken a shot in his direction, thinking he was a rabbit. The man is now dead and, intermittently, buried. But in spite of all the scampering guilt which keeps the film busy, no one killed him. He died of a heart attack.
Clues, which in most detective fiction are an agency of virtue, the trail that bad men mercifully leave behind, are in Hitchcock the sign of a rationalist prejudice, teeth of a trap that is always closing around his heroes. It is true that his bad guys leave clues, just like anyone else’s, but at that moment, curiously, we cease to feel they are bad guys, and they join Hitchcock’s company of sufferers, people entangled in the traces their life has left. A red robe peeps from a car in Family Plot, telltale witness to the presence of a kidnapped bishop; the killer in Frenzy has left his monogrammed tiepin with a corpse, and grapples with rigor mortis and a sack of spilling potatoes to try to get it back. There is a thrill in the appearance of these careless, clumsy clues, but no joy, none of the satisfaction that Maigret or Poirot would have and pass on to us. Conversely, when there are clues that might help the innocent in Hitchcock, they disappear with eerie speed, like the name written on the window of a train in The Lady Vanishes, read by Margaret Lockwood and by us, but vanished like the lady herself by the time the train comes out of a tunnel.
What dominates Hitchcock’s films, as I have said elsewhere, is a sense of appearances ganging up on the people we like, unforgettably rendered in The Thirty-Nine Steps when Robert Donat turns to the man he thinks is his savior and explains that the master spy, the figure behind it all, has a finger missing from one hand. The man holds up a hand, missing one finger.
But this anxiety about appearances, once noticed, remains to be explored, and the feeling one gets from many Hitchcock films is that of the good child (in him and in the rest of us) flirting with the idea of falling in with the rough and naughty kids. It’s not that he wants to do what the naughty kids do, and there is more fear than envy in his entertaining these upsetting thoughts. But he does admire the unapologetic poise of the delinquents (and a good deal of this feeling gets into Hitchcock’s wonderfully suave bad guys, from Claude Rains in Notorious to William Devane in Family Plot, via Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train and James Mason in North by North-west—the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture, as Hitchcock told Truffaut, slightly too glibly); and he admires it because that is what he would not be able to manage if he got into trouble.
Hitchcock’s films are full of people who stumble suddenly into distress, who find themselves not only wrongly accused but mixing with all the wrong people, and this is, finally, the sense I have of the story of the young Hitchcock locked up at the police station. What the experience creates is not guilt but a sort of ethical fastidiousness. You’re not worried about being a criminal, you’re worried about being mistaken for one. You could fall into the world of crime rather in the way that Dickens fell into a lower social class through his spell at the blacking factory, and the authorities would have to believe the evidence against you. What are you doing in the cell, if you’re not guilty? What happens in the films is that this fear is given a run and then relieved. The plot saves us where the authorities won’t, and in Frenzy, for example, the plot can only save us, can only reverse the life sentence inflicted on an innocent man, by an implausible change of heart in a policeman, who having solved his case to his own satisfaction decides to open it again because Hitchcock can’t leave his hero in jail forever.
This is a rather thin fear, the voice of Joseph K’s overprotesting consciousness rather than his darker panic, and it is true, as Raymond Durgnat says, that Hitchcock often gives us ideas of nightmare rather than the real thing. It is also true that even apart from all his cagey commercialism Hitchcock can romp shamelessly through the parts of a film that don’t interest him, merely doing enough to hold the action together and provide a minimal visual continuity. There are sequences in Frenzy, as in Psycho, as in Vertigo, which are so perfunctory as to be insulting; and yet there are also sequences in those three films which are as delicate and assured as anything in the movies. I’m thinking particularly of the slow tracking shot down the stairs and away from an apartment where a woman is going to be killed in Frenzy. It is both an eloquent homage to the woman, whom we shan’t see alive again, and who has earned our sympathy by believing, against all the odds, that the innocent man is innocent, and a sinister suggestion of how fine and private murder is, since the camera pulls away down the corridor and into the street, which is so busy and noisy that even the loudest screams for help are not going to be heard. And the memorable orchestration of even a thin fear is a considerable achievement.
Hitchcock, like Borges, is a minor artist who can be thought of as major because he has changed the way we see the world, because he has found faces for elusive frights and uncertainties, borrowed spies, madmen, and crooks for a persuasive picture of the fragility of order. I should add that even without Hitchcock’s touch, many popular stories of spies, madmen, and crooks speak fairly knowingly to our secret and not so secret worries. The trick, as Durgnat says, is to get at Hitchcock’s success without condescending to run-of-the-mill thrillers, and without blowing up those same thrillers, along with Hitchcock’s movies, into brooding allegories of salvation and damnation.
Durgnat does a fair amount of blowing up himself, in spite of his disclaimers, and The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock is rambling and repetitious, far too long and crowded with overinterpretation. Durgnat’s besetting taste is for the quick sketch of the large cultural background (“The celebrated British respect for law and order links with a Hobbesian fear of disorder, as it links with a Durkheimian fear of anomie, and profoundly mitigates the effect, on lower-class levels, of enlightenment rationalism and Lockeian individualism”) and he has a habit of throwing more clauses into the air than he can catch (“and it’s no more, and as much, her fault than, and as, it’s his”). But he doesn’t blow up Hitchcock’s reputation, and there is a lot of good sense in among the cultural and stylistic clutter. Only a generous writer would decide that The Lady Vanishes was overrated but still devote several very sensitive pages to it, and Durgnat maintains, as few critics do, a perfect sense of how plot and photography interact on the screen.
He suggests, rightly, I think, that Hitchcock uses visual tricks and touches when the action is slack, and tends to sobriety otherwise, but often saves a particularly spectacular visual moment for the dramatic climax, so that story and style come together with a bang. There is a good example of this in Family Plot, which is fairly quiet visually until its two separate stories really begin to converge. At this point we are shown a cemetery from a high angle, its paths in the grass looking like the corridors of a maze, and two people walk along them at the top and the bottom of the screen respectively, one pursuing, the other avoiding pursuit, until the paths meet and the pursued woman reluctantly gives up the information which converts the movie’s double narrative into a single one.
The Films of Alfred Hitchcock is a glossy chronological run-down of the complete works, a fanbook for fans with coffee tables. Its critical view-point is generally that of the box office, and it is full of rather ghastly prudential wisdom (“The film business is compromise”). But it is a useful and attractive book, and somewhere between it and one’s memories a genuine picture of Hitchcock’s career begins to emerge, and a sense of which films really matter. These seem to me to be The Lodger (1926), Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), Frenzy (1972).
The interesting thing about this perspective is that it reminds us how good the good films are, and also how many bad or merely competent films Hitchcock has made. I’ve listed twelve out of the total of fifty-seven. Hitchcock himself has spoken of patches when his batteries needed charging, and the dates above suggest a sort of periodic movement, a need to work one’s way through a few mediocre films in order to arrive at a good one. What the perspective can’t do is account for the charm of To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry, which seem perfect without being important. And I remain puzzled by my feeling that Family Plot, which clearly belongs with those last two films in tone, is a better movie than Frenzy, indeed is the best movie Hitchcock has made since North by Northwest.
Partly it’s a result of the elegant script by Ernest Lehman, who wrote North by Northwest, and who, in Victor Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern, had an even more elegant novel to work with. Partly there’s the mellow flavor of the master alluding to his own earlier films, notably and not surprisingly North by Northwest, with its drunken drive in a car out of control, and its incineration of a would-be murderer in an accident. But mainly it seems to be a matter of Hitchcock’s getting his humor and his fears into a remarkable partnership. “One might argue,” Durgnat says, “that all but a handful of Hitchcock’s very best films are really comedies of a new kind.” I would want to argue that that is just what Hitchcock’s very best films are, and the exceptions, like Psycho and Vertigo, are comedies where only Hitchcock is laughing. (“It was made with quite a sense of fun on my part,” he said of Psycho.)
It’s not simply that the car out of control in Family Plot is shot in bad back projection alternating with a view of the road ahead which has plainly been obtained by accelerating the film. The whole scene is played for laughs, with our attention held by the way Barbara Harris is flinging her arms and legs around Bruce Dern, who is driving. The car ends up sideways, off the road, and we see Barbara Harris stiffly emerging from the top. Cut to a close-up of her espadrille supported by Bruce Dern’s contorted face. Dern then struggles out, upside down, through the door which is close to the ground, and in case we’re not laughing yet, his arm is now seen to be entangled in Barbara Harris’s handbag. And yet of course, they have been in a car careering down a mountain. The scene is not played for thrills, but the thrills are still lurking, not entirely displaced by the gags.
The same sort of double take crops up in the structure of the film. Barbara Harris is a medium who ekes out her otherworldly talents by the sleuthing she has Bruce Dern do for her. They are on the track of a man who is to inherit a fortune, and when they find him, they will collect a comfortable ten thousand dollars. Unfortunately, the man they are after is engaged in a series of kidnappings, and thinks Harris and Dern are on his trail for that. This sort of irony finds its perfect expression in a scene where Dern, arriving at a cathedral to talk to a bishop who is supposed to know the whereabouts of the man he wants, witnesses the kidnapping of the bishop by the very same man. In the car, speeding away with their prey, the kidnappers (William Devane and Karen Black) wonder how Dern happened to get there just when they were going into action, and begin to think there may be something in Harris’s psychic powers. After all, what else can they think? That they are in a movie governed by outrageous coincidence?
In place of the wrong men, the innocents who crop up so often in Hitchcock movies here are minor frauds, the faint deceivers linked to serious, genuinely murderous crooks in a chain of cupidity. But the coincidences do take us back to the wrong men, because coincidence in Hitchcock, here and elsewhere, is not the benign, secular deity of so many stories, but the meaningless instrument of extraordinary peril, the magical cause of your whole life’s going wrong.
It is because Harris shows up at Devane’s house and sees the kidnapped bishop that he has to try to kill her—she could have arrived at any other time, and seen nothing. It is because he was going to see his wife when she was strangled that Jon Finch, in Frenzy, becomes the chief suspect for the crime. Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps and Cary Grant in North by Northwest fall into their troubles in just the same way. In Family Plot Barbara Harris’s splendid performance as the medium shifting from high ethereal moans to the gruff grunts of Henry, her contact in the spirit world, manages to suggest the uncanny without in any way suggesting the supernatural, and that of course is how the coincidences work too. Hitchcock’s world is governed by “ironically inappropriate injustice,” as Durgnat says. Unless we wish to call it appropriate injustice, an injustice which is perfectly, horribly just in its way, since it gives us so exactly what we are afraid of.