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 …