The Trouble With Hitchcock
By Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Mark Rutland: “What do you believe in?”
Marnie Edgar: “Nothing.”
(From Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie)
Alfred Hitchcock is routinely regarded as one of the most profound and technically adept directors in the history of cinema, but I would argue that only the latter half of that statement is accurate. Starting in his American period, if one picks Hitchcock up with Shadow of A Doubt (1943) and then continues up to his final film, Family Plot (1976), the cumulative effect is both traumatizing and disappointing. No doubt Hitchcock would find this amusing, as one who explored the darkest regions of the human psyche – particularly his own.
But Hitchcock only understood the dark side of existence. In the end, he emerges as the ultimate anti-humanist, in love with nihilism and the emptiness it represents. After one strips away the numerous displays of technical virtuosity that are his cinematic trademarks, one is left with a barren landscape of despair, madness, and obsession. And it’s clear, at least to me, that as Hitchcock grew older, his obsessions took hold of him to the point that he couldn’t control them – or perhaps, he simply didn’t want to anymore.
From Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt to Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) in Marnie (1964) to the appalling Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) in Frenzy (1972), whenever Hitchcock has, as his protagonist, not the “wrong man,” but rather a deeply “wrong” man, that person is the character he most identifies with. The most compelling sections of his films nearly always center on a disturbed, usually homicidal man who is driven by compulsions beyond his control to destroy those around him, as if they were phantoms to be dispatched on a whim.
Uncle Charlie kills rich, wealthy widows without compunction, simply because, in his view, they deserve to die, for as he tells the members of his extended family, “The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. Then they die and leave their money to their wives. Their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women” – women who thus “deserve” to die.
When Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), his niece, and one of the few resilient and resourceful characters in a Hitchcock film, responds reflexively “They’re human beings!” Uncle Charlie, turning directly to the camera in extreme close-up, counters “Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
As he later tells Young Charlie in a seedy downtown bar, clearly on the wrong side of the tracks, she doesn’t know the first thing about the way the world really works – “You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”
But it does matter – it matters a great deal. It’s the world we live in, and it’s not entirely a hell, although hellish things happen it in with depressing regularity. But for Hitchcock, the world is a hell, and for all his supposedly droll humor, as evidenced in his bookend appearances on his long running television show, and in numerous interviews with the press, Hitchcock sees only two kinds of people; sociopaths, and the people upon whom they prey.
In Shadow of a Doubt, everyone except Young Charlie is taken in by Uncle Charlie’s smooth likability, from Charlie’s father Joseph (Henry Travers), to her mother Emma (Patricia Collinge), to Rev. MacCurdy (Grandon Rhodes), and even Joseph’s employer, bank president Mr. Green (Edwin Stanley).
But as Young Charlie’s suspicions coalesce into certainty of her Uncle’s murderous activities, after conversations with the two detectives who are trailing him (Jack Graham, played by Macdonald Carey; and Fred Saunders, played by Wallace Ford), she’s the only one who stands up to Charlie’s threats, telling him “go away, I’m warning you. Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See, that’s the way I feel about you.”
Yet in the end, she, too, falls victim to Uncle Charlie’s blandishments, and foolishly agrees to see him off on the train that will ostensibly carry him out of town. Only a convenient bit of clumsiness on Uncle Charlie’s part saves Young Charlie, as her uncle falls from the moving train and is sliced to ribbons by a passing locomotive.
There are other independent women in Hitchcock’s films, of course; one thinks of Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) in Lifeboat (1944), who along with her fellow survivors of a U-boat attack manages to outwit the wily Willy (Walter Slezak), who’d like nothing better than to row them all back to captivity in a Nazi prison camp.
But Connie and Young Charlie are outliers in Hitchcock’s world; women who can take care of themselves, and won’t be fooled. Other female characters in Hitchcock’s films aren’t so lucky, or as independent.
Amateur undercover agent Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is almost literally thrown to the sharks by her handler Devlin (Cary Grant) in Notorious (1946), and when she tricks Nazi agent Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) into marriage, Devlin’s associates acclaim her conquest as “the cream of the jest,” without even the slightest regard for Alicia’s safety as a result of her actions.
Throughout the film, Devlin continually torments Alicia, and rescues her from certain death only at the last possible moment, after Sebastian discovers Alicia’s mission, and, with the aid of his mother – another of Hitchcock’s “monster moms” (played with cold precision by Leopoldine Konstantin) – attempts to confine her to the house, and gradually poison her.
In Strangers on a Train (1951), it’s clear that Hitchcock sides with Robert Walker’s sociopathic murderer Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) rather than the dull tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno’s “monster mom” (Marion Lorne) acts as both a shield and an enabler for Bruno, while his father (Jonathan Hale) is too preoccupied with business to care about Bruno, even though he knows that Bruno is dangerous, and mentally ill.
In the same vein, one can hardly feel any identification with Guy or his colorless love interest Barbara Morton (Ruth Roman), one of the many “normal” couples that Hitchcock is supremely uninterested in, or for Guy’s estranged wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers), who attempts to blackmail Guy for more money in return for a divorce. She’s a thoroughly unpleasant person, and when Bruno kills her at an amusement park, it seems, in Hitchcock’s world, that she’s gotten what’s coming to her, and no one mourns her death.
Similarly, in Rear Window (1954), laid-up freelance photographer Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart) has plenty of time to kill in his wheelchair, so he starts spying his Greenwich Village neighbors with the aid of Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), his totemic love interest, and the acerbic insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) assigned to take care of him.
While there are numerous distractions in the other apartments to engage Jeff’s interest, such as the consistently objectified “Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy), a dancer whose studio apartment is across the courtyard, and the nearly suicidal “Miss Lonelyhearts” (Judith Evelyn), whose pathetic attempts to reach out to potential mate almost result in sexual assault, Jeff’s telephoto lens equipped camera soon focuses on Lars and Emma Thorwald (Raymond Burr and Irene Winston), a decidedly unhappily married couple who also live directly opposite Jeffries’ apartment.
Lars Thorwald (Burr, made up to look exactly like David O. Selznick, whom Hitchcock despised as a result of a long term contract that Hitchcock signed with the producer, and then bitterly regretted) soon proves to be a murderer, who has killed his wife and hacked up her body in little pieces, though not even Jeff’s friend Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey) believes Jeff’s suspicions. In this film, Grace Kelly as Lisa is there simply to be looked at (“and you won’t be able to take your eyes off the glowing beauty of Grace Kelly!” the film’s trailer promised), while Jeff is left to fend off Thorwald’s final attack with only his camera’s flash attachment as a weapon.
In Vertigo (1958), the central plot peg is “Scottie” Ferguson’s (James Stewart again) obsessive desire for the supposed Madeleine Elster, in reality Judy Barton (Kim Novak) who is part of a plot by “Scottie’s” “friend” Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to murder his real wife and get away with it; the bulk of the film is taken up with “Scottie’s” compulsion to make over Judy to fit his own vision of Madeleine – whom Judy has been impersonating all along. The fetishization of Novak as a victim of “Scottie’s” passion – “it can’t matter to you” he tells Judy at one point – mirrors Hitchcock’s own desire to construct the perfect “ice blonde” of his dreams, as many have pointed out.
As the 1960s dawned, Hitchcock, was under contract to Paramount for the release of his theatrical films, but he was also contracted to Universal for his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which debuted in 1955 (the show expanded from half an hour to an hour in 1962, and ended its run in 1965).
Hitchcock usually confined his input on the series to helping to select the stories for dramatization, lending his name and image to the project, and also providing a series of darkly comic introductions and postscripts to each teleplay. Most of the episodes were directed by other directors, and shot in two to three days at most, with a Universal TV crew working at maximum efficiency in serviceable black and white.
Very occasionally, however, Hitchcock would direct an episode of the series, and when he did, the speed and professionalism of the Universal crews astounded him, compared to the relative lassitude of his feature crews at Paramount. Ordinarily bored by the filmmaking process – shooting seemed almost an afterthought to his exquisitely detailed storyboards – Hitchcock now found himself caught up in the excitement of actually shooting a movie.
Having known for some time that his 1950s big-budget suspense films were fast falling out of favor, Hitchcock cast around for some fresh material and found it in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho. Using an intermediary to keep the cost down, Hitchcock bought the rights to the novel and pitched the project to Paramount. But Paramount’s executives found the material too exotic, offbeat, and problematic, and refused to finance the film.
After much negotiation, Hitchcock struck a deal to shoot the film at Universal in black and white using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, funding the budget of $806,947 entirely with his own money, and also deferring his standard director’s fee of $250,000 in return for a 60 percent ownership of the film’s negative. But due to his contract, the film would still have to be released through Paramount.
Hitchcock shot the film on a very tight schedule, starting on November 11, 1959, and wrapping on February 1, 1960. When Psycho opened, it exceeded the box office of all Hitchcock’s previous features and – with its sinuous synthesis of sex, violence, and hitherto uncharted psychiatric territory, at least in a major Hollywood film – signaled the beginning of the end for the old Breen Code.
With its superficially charming anti-hero, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and the specter of violent death hanging over Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, brutally murdered in a tour-de-force shower sequence with only one actual point of contact between the blade of the murder knife and a Styrofoam torso – Hitchcock always denied such a shot existed, but it’s there – and the psychopathology of a dead, mummified monster mom “urging” Norman on to homicidal mania, the film’s view of inhumanity incarnate was a complete stunner for audiences coming out of the comatose 1950s.
Thus, Psycho was essentially an independent film, backed by its maker against the objections of a studio that had been making bland mass entertainment for so long that it couldn’t see that the audience no longer wanted, or needed, the old formulas.
Viewers wanted something fresh, and Psycho provided precisely that – the shock of the new. But with this film, Hitchcock was also declaring that from now on, he would do precisely as he pleased. Moving to Universal for the rest of his career, that’s precisely what he did – despite varying degrees of studio interference.
All of these films are elegantly crafted, and meticulously designed, but in all of them, the women exist merely to be objectified, with the few exceptions (and some others) noted above. By the time we get to The Birds (1963), with its seemingly endless diffusion filtered close-ups of Tippi Hedren for the first third of the film, in an obvious attempt to build her up as a star, Hitchcock’s obsessional fixation on the image of a blonde temptress who needs to be punished merely for her beauty has become permanently fixed.
Indeed, as Hedren has noted on numerous occasions, Hitchcock cast her for the part of spoiled socialite Melanie Daniels in The Birds, and simultaneously put her under long term contract, after seeing her in a television commercial – nothing more. The Birds, however, failed to find an audience, though in many ways it’s one of the director’s more experimental films, with an all-electronic soundtrack composed by Remi Gassmann and Oskar Sala, supervised by the omnipresent Bernard Herrmann.
But also in the film are two reliable Hitchcock standbys; school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who has been jilted by the film’s putative male protagonist Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and who is killed off roughly halfway through the film in a bird attack; and the neurotic and possessive mother figure of Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), who clearly has an unhealthily close relationship with her son, Mitch.
Yet Ub Iwerks’ spectacular special effects, coupled with the film’s unresolved ending, and Hitchcock’s customarily elegant editorial precision save the film from being a failure; it moves along at a rapid clip, and relies on violence and spectacle to succeed. The same cannot be said of Marnie, which is perhaps one of the most repellent and patronizing films in cinema history.
The idea that Marnie can be “raped” into some sort of semblance of mental health by her captor, publishing scion Mark Rutland, is more than offensive; with the exception of the harrowing and equally distasteful rape/murder scenes in Frenzy (1972), it’s one of most breathtakingly misogynist plotlines in Hollywood cinema history.
As Marnie tells Mark, “You don’t love me. I’m just something you’ve caught! You think I’m some sort of animal you’ve trapped!” and Mark agrees, replying “That’s right – you are. And I’ve caught something really wild this time, haven’t I? I’ve tracked you, and caught you, and by God I’m going to keep you.” And later, when Marnie’s continued resistance to his advances escalates, Mark resorts to outright threats of violence, telling her directly that “I’m fighting a powerful impulse to beat the hell out of you.”
And, in the end, after Marnie’s past is revealed in a penultimate flashback – her mother, Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham) brings home a sailor (Bruce Dern) for sex, and when the sailor attempts to molest young Marnie (Melody Thomas Scott), Bernice comes to Marnie’s defense, and suffers a lifetime, crippling injury as a result, all of which Marnie has repressed, though none too successfully – it seems that the very act of this “reveal” will be enough to cure her kleptomania, her fear of lightning, as well as the color red, and her supposed “frigidity” – but perhaps Marnie just doesn’t like being blackmailed into sex, which is precisely what Mark does.
The nakedness of Marnie is astonishing; it’s clear that Mark Rutland is simply a stand-in for Hitchcock, and the lines that Mark is made to utter in the film conform with Hitchcock’s own view of the world. And yet with Frenzy – Hitchcock’s first British film in 22 years – we step into even more problematic territory; the film’s central character, Robert Rusk, known as “the necktie murderer” for his serial rapes and strangulations of women, is presented essentially as a supposedly likable fellow. This is, in itself, astonishing.
Following the classic “wrong man” set-up he was so fond of, Hitchcock neatly frames the hot-tempered Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) for the murders, while Rusk, who poses as Richard’s friend, is the actual killer. When Rusk rapes and then strangles Blaney’s ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) in an absolutely repellent sequence, Blaney is arrested for her murder, as well as those of the other unfortunate women Rusk has killed.
We are spared nothing in this sequence, in which Brenda pleads for her life, and then, knowing violent death is inevitable, begins to pray for deliverance. As the life is choked out of her, while Robert fondles her breasts and murmurs “beautiful, beautiful” over and over again, Hitchcock implicitly asks us to identify with the killer, framing the sequence in a series of unflinching, opposing close-ups. Yet what is even more disturbing about the sequence is the obvious delight that Hitchcock takes in forcing us to witness this horrific scene.
In contrast, for another of the “necktie” murders in Frenzy, Hitchcock simply watches the killer and his latest victim ascend a flight of stairs to his flat, and then tracks back down the stairs to the street, as passersby walk in the street, unaware of the brutality so close at hand. This approach is much more effective, as Fritz Lang knew when he staged M (1931).
The central character of M, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) is a child murderer, but to depict the killings would be unthinkable, even if the censors would allow it. Instead, Lang and his then-wife and scenarist Thea von Harbou agreed that the killings should take place off-screen, with only talismans of the violence to mark their occurrence; in one sequence, a child’s balloon is momentarily caught in some power lines overhead, before drifting off into the sky, while the child’s mother pathetically calls for her daughter off-screen on the soundtrack. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, but it’s also completely effective.
In contrast, dragging us in for a brutal series of close-ups of Brenda being choked to death does nothing but repel us, although apologists for the sequence have argued that Hitchcock is simply indulging us as voyeurs, and this is what we came to see. As one bystander in a pub tells a companion during the film, “We haven’t had a good juicy series of sex murders since Christie. And they’re so good for the tourist trade. Foreigners somehow expect the squares of London to be fog-wreathed, full of hansom cabs and littered with ripped whores, don’t you think?” No, actually, I don’t.
Indeed, it seems that Hitchcock regards Frenzy as some sort of elaborate joke, similar to that which Hitchcock hammered home in his adroitly comedic trailer for Psycho – with its personally conducted tour of the Bates Motel and home. Now Hitchcock appears as a floating, and talking “corpse” in the Thames. “I daresay you are wondering why I am floating around London like this” Hitchcock begins in Frenzy’s trailer. “I’m on the famous Thames River, investigating a murder. Rivers can be very sinister places.”
We then are shown a series of location shots from the film, as in the trailer for Psycho, where “horrifying events” will occur, such as the hallway of the killer’s flat, as Hitchcock tells us that, “Of course, one can never be sure where danger lurks. They tell me a dreadful crime was committed right in this building” – as if the entire film had been staged by someone else.
There’s more misdirection – we see two young women walking in the street, as Hitchcock informs us that, “My investigation next led me to this innocent alley, of which there are hundreds in London. But I don’t think we should stay too long. Something unpleasant is about to happen,” and so on. It all seems moderately amusing in a dark sort of way – after all, this is a murder mystery – but then Hitchcock cuts to a scene in which the body of one of the killer’s victims falls off the back of a lorry, a necktie tightly knotted around her throat.
Hitchcock now appears on screen, and pointing to the corpse, indignantly complains, “Look, she’s wearing my tie!” and then walks into the shot, removes the tie from the corpse, and ties it neatly around his own neck. Directly addressing the audience, Hitchcock inquires, “How do you like my tie? How do you like it?” before cutting to the sequence in which Brenda realizes she is about to be murdered, and screams out for mercy, to no avail.
For better or worse, Hitchcock had been working up to Frenzy, his second to last film, for his entire career. The views of his characters, their obsessions, predicaments, and temperaments are really Hitchcock’s own, no matter who wrote the screenplay or the source material – these films, passed off to the public as genre entertainments, are deeply personal projects.
Family Plot (1976), Hitchcock’s last film, shot at Universal in an utterly indifferent style, is so slight as to be negligible. It seems that Hitchcock is saying “goodbye” to his audience; the camerawork is careless, the back projection and matte work are unfathomably bad, and the entire film seems flaccid and overlong; it’s really a TV movie in both plot and overall design, and is so shoddily constructed that one wonders why it was made, or released.
Yet perhaps the entire film exists solely for the final shot, in which Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), the fraudulent medium who is one of the film’s central characters, turns to the camera, and directly addressing the audience, winks. This seems to suggest that the whole thing has been a game from the start, and nothing should really be taken seriously.
That’s the trouble with Hitchcock. His supposed insight into the human condition is confined solely to the dark side, while genuine human emotion bores him. It’s something he simply doesn’t understand; people are there to be moved around like chess pieces, discarded when no longer useful. They don’t possess any real humanity. Not only was he a misogynist, he was a complete misanthrope; he didn’t like people – they were just associates or colleagues, and in the end, only his films were real to him.
In film after film, if there is a love interest, the women are merely objects to be looked at, and dispatched at will; the men are either boring and average, or else charming sociopaths – Norman Bates is an agreeable fellow, to be sure, on the surface – often saddled with horrendous mothers and stern, distant fathers, or victims of a childhood accident, as is the case with Uncle Charlie. Somehow, we’re supposed to feel sorry for them at some level, to believe that they act out of compulsion, that at the center, they’re like us.
Yet Hitchcock seems almost unconscious of what he’s doing from a psychological point of view, while remaining intensely interested in the technical execution of his films, and of the externals of his characters. They’re “instant read” icons, and nothing more. Only the truly unbalanced characters have any depth; the rest are all backs and fronts.
Inside most of Hitchcock’s supposedly “normal” characters, and even in his malefactors, there’s really no one home, except for the director himself, who remains remarkably oblivious to what he’s really saying about himself, or at the very least, engages in a spectacular display of willful obfuscation as to his true intent.
For Hitchcock, the whole affair – whatever the film – is some sort of ghastly joke, reinforced by the public’s perception of him as a macabre prankster in his weekly television program, where his sardonic “bookend” commentary on the remarkably bleak scenarios he presented indelibly fixed him in the public’s mind as a cheerfully mordant and slightly mischievous genre filmmaker.
But no – this is the world as Hitchcock knew it, as he presented it, and as he lived it; a world full of deceit, betrayal, violence, brutality and exploitation. When colleagues were no longer of use, he abandoned them. When actors or writers wouldn’t cooperate with him, he wrote them off. With Hitchcock, one can easily see the outlines of the outer reaches of hell in his work, and how it beckons to us, but Hitchcock pretends that’s there no real risk, no real jeopardy, and the whole thing is simply fun – “murder is fun” as he often said.
Perhaps he told this to himself so long that he ultimately believed it, but it’s manifestly untrue. Not to be too Manichean about it, but there is good in the world, and there is also evil. Evil can be charming and attractive, but that’s how it often attains its’ objective. Hitchcock understood the lure of evil, but after that, he drew a blank. The normal world is something Hitchcock never really understood, or if he did, he spent a great deal of time and energy trying to convince his audiences otherwise – that it was all a game. And I, for one, am not convinced.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes frequently for Film International.