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The Trouble With Hitchcock

Marnie

Marnie



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.

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt

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.”

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt

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.

Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train

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.

Rear Window

Rear Window

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.

Vertigo

Vertigo

In Vertigo (1958) “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” obsessive desire 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” desire – “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.

Psycho

Psycho

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.

The Birds

The Birds

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.”

Marnie

Marnie

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.

Frenzy

Frenzy

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.

Frenzy

Frenzy

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

Family Plot

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.

20 Comments for “The Trouble With Hitchcock”

  1. Dennis Coleman

    Very perceptive analysis of Hitchcock. There’s definitely a disturbing undercurrent to many of his films that needs to be examined.

  2. Christopher Sharrett

    Wheeler,
    I have long felt that Hitchcock has a conservatism that shows in his refusal, at any point, to suggest a way forward (but then we ask if the artist is so obligated–Bunuel, Pasolini of Salo, Thomas Hardy?).. The rape in Marnie, the “hero” preserved as such, has always struck me as unconscionable and a mark of Hitchcock’s basic perversity–perverse in his view of society as well as the female specifically.

    But I would not say that Hitchcock is the flippant nihilist you seem to suggest here–that designation is preserved for the Lynches, Tarantinos, and Wes Andersons. To my mind you become Gradgrind too often here, with your focus on “facts” not really supportive of argumentation. I am disappointed with your comments on Vertigo–we need to pay attention to Lawrence and look at the tale, not autobiographical things that have little relevance to the work’s value. You might say that Vertigo is wholly negative, as Leavis said of the whole of Thomas Hardy, but this film, like Jude the Obscure or Salo, can be read easily as “negative affirmations”, views of the impossibility of humanity thriving under present circumstances. In Vertigo, we have the most perverse hero of the postwar cinema who remains his despairing self at the film’s end. He is utterly lacking in self-reflection (perhaps Hitchcock knew he was the same–he certainly sees the problem as endemic to male society–Elster can con Scottie so easily because the two men have identical worldviews, with their love of the past and “all that power” tied to it).

    I think you offer a prod here to the Hitchcock industry to rethink its assumptions, but I don’t agree with your general assessment. Certainly Family Plot and a lot more can be dismissed as rubbish. The only moment I like in the unwatchable Torn Curtain is the brain-battle between the “Old World intellectual” and the academic poseur from the US (Paul Newman) a better comment than perhaps Hitchcock knew on American academe.

    You no doubt know Robin Wood’s comparison of Shadow of a Doubt to Blue Velvet, to mind mind a very fine defining of a striving, thoughtful, good-humored (if a bit indulgent) sensibility (actually two, since here we have Thornton Wilder redoing Our Town) vs. an adolescent nihilist, whose nihilism is defined by the profound depth of its reaction.

  3. I would agree with most of what is written here. I have never been the biggest fan of Hitchcock frankly I had always thought that was because I was a woman. All the people I know who like these films are men. Where I would disagree with you is where you say, “the women exist merely to be objectified”. I would go one step further…Hitchcock doesn’t just objectify them, he punishes them, he doesn’t just punish them he tortures them. It would be the understatement of the century to say that he has “mummy issues” and the word misogynistic doesn’t even come close. So there’s my first problem with his films. My second is the men, mostly meant to be some form of himself, they are apparently the innocents, played and lied to by women – it’s the cinematic equivalent of the playground utterence, “she made me do it!”

  4. I actually like his films and I’m a woman but I do agree basically with what you’ve said. He tells a great story though and sometimes that’s all you looking for and it doesn’t pay to put too much thought into it. He probably wasn’t a very nice chap and he probably wasn’t very nice to a lot of people he worked with or any of the women in his life but you know, I can switch that off and take a film for a film.
    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/oct/21/alfred-hitchcock-women-psycho-the-birds-bidisha
    This link however may be of interest.

  5. The stories you hear about what he did to his actors to get certain reactions….like in The Birds when he didn’t tell Tippi Hedren that they were real birds. This is one bold man but that’s taking it a little far surely. This is really interesting about her but I’ve not seen the Sienna Miller film though. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/9753977/Tippi-Hedren-interview-Hitchcock-put-me-in-a-mental-prison.html

  6. Hitchcock will everlastingly be known as “The master of suspense” and his work served as a starting spot for creative minds like Tarantino.

    His movies aren’t everyone’s choice but I don’t see him as a nihilist by any means; I merely see them as great cinematic jewels which brought to life Hitchcock’s talent in depicting the low points of life and the condition of human beings.

    Frenzy depicts perhaps one of the most horrible rape scenes ever pictured on screen and he makes the viewer feel like he’s taking part in the act. The plot is magnificently worked and the movie is flavored with humor, crimes, rapes, shocking scenes and routine dialogs that you don’t know how you will feel in the next scene.

    That being said, no matter how much I loved his work and how many times I can see Psycho, Vertigo or Strangers on a Train, The Birds is without a doubt his most futile movie from my point of view, primarily because it had no plot or character development. In essence, you have some birds that decide to attack a small town and kill everyone that’s in their path. Perhaps Hitchcock believed he will make the movie more haunting if the “bad guys” were birds –creatures that don’t harm anyone – instead of the usual culprits.

  7. John Wellington

    Hitchcock is an undeniable master of cinematography but also a sinister, sorrowful little man who enjoyed making viewers witness his creations. The paramount focus is the despair he assumed we live in, the emptiness of our routine-filled days.

    When asked about his movies, Hitchcock said “I’m frightened of my own movies. I never go to see them. I don’t know how people can bear to watch my movies.” – this is exactly how I feel about most of his movies. It seems as though he spent an enormous amount of time bringing to life the most devilish plots he could concoct because everyone expected him to be outrageous and to disturbing.

    Nevertheless, how could you blame him for focusing on the bad side of human life when this is the side that attracts viewers, stirs the movie world and makes people eager to witness it because in most cases it features something more gruesome than their dull, boring lives?

    If his movies were created today would they be less appealing to the big public and considered more of a niche feature than works of grandeur? Regardless of the answer, Hitchcock knew the secret to a triumphant movie: “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”

  8. I won’t start writing a manifest on the epitome of Alfred Hitchcock and why I perceive him as a genius in his craft but I will do my best to pinpoint two of the characters that seem to be deeply planted in his movies.

    Indeed, “murder is fun”. Hitchcock marvellously painted a grim world, where people have no morals, no regards to others, and no measures by which they live their life.

    A recurring character in Hitchcock’s movies is the evil mother that shields her progeny from his actions and enables him to satisfy his inner most desires. The mother concern is the root of many sociopath derails; even Hamlet had a deviant mania for his mother. How would an uptight mother that raises her kid with an iron fist or one that abuses him physically influence the mind of a small child so that as a grownup he finds pleasure in hearing his victims beg for her life?

    Uncle Charlie is illustrated as a very likeable, pleasant, warm and handsome man, the type that could NEVER be a sociopath; this is perhaps Hitchcock’s biggest gift, transforming the everyday man into a vicious beast that feasts upon others’ weaknesses. He’s a serial killer that enjoys the contact he has with his victims before chocking them to death. But he’s not one of those serial killers that surrender, he decides that the blame should be placed on someone else and does so without the slightest sign of regret. The end is perhaps as harrowing as the whole movie – even if Uncle Charlie is dead – the viewer is left with the reminiscence of those horrible crimes he committed and the endless times he terrified with his behavior.

  9. Very insightful article on the famous Alfred Hitchcock. Through the years I have seen nothing but praise for this man. People call him a legend, one of the greats. They make documentaries about him, along with giving him tributes every time you turn around. I have always asked myself, “why?”. What is so great about this man? Your article is spot on. Alfred Hitchcock was a very dark man, who only was capable of seeing evil. Why are people so attracted to horrifying evil? That is a question that I ask myself every day, and I’m sure it will remain unanswered for a long time to come.
    The way he portrayed women in most of his movies is disgraceful and distasteful. We live in a world where women are still fighting for their rights. If that’s the case, why do we support such movies that completely downplay women? His movies portray them as weak individuals, who not only can’t defend themselves, but outright won’t defend themselves. Horrible things happen to them all. It’s always the man who is the savior, but in reality, none of his movies truly have a savior in them.
    I believe this man had very serious psychological issues that were never addressed. He took his distorted view of the world, and created movies with it. That was the way he got his frustration and anger with society out. It seems like the more horrifying the movie, the more viewers it brought in. Does that mean that society as a whole has an evil distortion of the world, or does it simply mean that we are all trying to escape from reality in the worst way possible?
    It is a fact that this man was a man with talent. Basically anything he has touched has become a hit. There is no denying his creativity and imagination; he was good at what he did. But does that mean he deserves as much recognition as he gets? I think not. His movies should not be promoted. They should be put far, far away from our society today. We already have too much evil in this world to battle with, It’s unnecessary to keep indulging into more. It’s wonderful to read an article that focuses on the “other side” of Alfred Hitchcock, instead of hearing about how great he is.

  10. There is definitely a case to be made here. Hitchcock is considered prolific mostly because his body of work was so – he made such a large amount of films that it was hard for his work to go unnoticed.

    Your points about him objectifying women are fairly spot on. It was widely known that as a woman, to work for Hitchcock often meant a very trying time. He was as ruthless to his actors as many of his characters were to their victims. At times, he was known to torment new starlets so thoroughly that they would be reduced to tears.

    It’s obvious merely from the works he produced that Hitchcock was disturbed at least in some way. Only a person with some manner of darkness in him could dream up the things Hitchcock did. That he chose film as the medium to express that darkness is preferable to how some have chosen to do it, but it nevertheless is an indication that Hitchcock had some things going on inside of him.

    It’s likely that Hitchcock suffered from some manner of psychopathy; many of the most successful people in the world do, and Hollywood is notorious for being an extremely cutthroat industry. To rise to the top of that industry is a rare thing indeed, and if the movies he made are any indication of his state of mind, that paired with his stark success should be enough to set off alarm bells.

    The annals of time have placed Hitchcock in a deep-set position as one of the most famous and talented filmmakers of all time, so it’s rare that anyone takes the time to question his work. This is unfortunate, because an objective look at any of history’s greats is necessary if we are to know them for the people they were, and not the legends we’ve made them out to be.

  11. This is a fascinating article, and I agree with a lot of the writer’s theories. Hitchcock is a master of the art of suspense. His films conjure bleak and unsettling emotions, leaving viewers with a sense of foreboding, but theirin lies the genius of the man since that is exactly what he intended.

    My first experience with a Hitchcock film was as a child. While ordinarily banned from “scary shows”, and rightly so since I was prone to nightmares, my father fell asleep in front of the T.V. just as a screening of The Birds commenced. Unchaperoned, I promptly gathered fodder for year’s worth of bad dreams, and wished I’d never heard of Alfred Hitchcock. After viewing the Birds again as an adult, I came away with a different impression.

    While still frightening, this time it was deliciously so, and I marveled at Hitchcock’s ability to turn a nonthreatening presence like a flock of birds, into a force of such menace. I suspect there are many like myself, who after seeing this movie will forever hesitate to step outside when a large flock of birds is present.
    Another Hitchcock creation that stands out in my mind is a short film from his 50’s T.V. series. Entitled, Revenge, the plot of this particular episode focuses on a woman whose tentative hold on reality spirals downward after she is assaulted by a stranger. Enraged, the woman’s husband drives her around in search of the attacker, and surprisingly they find him. The conclusion is disturbing and has stayed with me for many years.

    There is indeed an aura of despair and madness about Hitchcock’s stories with some of his most memorable characters teetering on the brink of insanity. And, as noted by the author of this article Hitchcock seems almost unaware of what he is doing. It makes one wonder about Hitchcock’s own mental state, Could he really be so closely acquainted with these emotions, without having actually experienced them himself?

  12. Is it Hitchcock or Hollywood?
    Hitchcock in many ways was a reflection of Hollywood past and present. While few would argue his ability to create suspense, his innovative use of camera placement and angles or his ability to tell a story without showing it, I would suggest that much of what the author of this well done article has attributed to Hitchcock can, in fact be attributed to the movie industry as a whole.
    Women as paper doll, sex items? This is hardly a characteristic wholly attributable to Hitchcock. Hollywood made its living by creating empty headed, double breasted sex symbols–certainly a sad state of affairs and totally despicable, but true all the same. Hitchcock certainly did his part—on that score there is no plausible denial. But to his credit, he, as opposed to many directors and writers, at least provided a few admirable examples of strong-willed and independent women. Some directors even in our current “modern” and “liberated” age of movie making never really do. Others take an equally offensive (pandering) tact by over playing the strong-willed and independent woman to a farcical extreme.
    Paper thin characters whose primary purpose in the film is to die or act as schematic backdrops—there are plenty of those around. Go to a theater, watch a movie this evening and count them.
    Sociopaths with sociopathic views of human beings…check.
    I am not a Hitchcock defender; the more one learns about him the more questions come to mind. He did some brilliant work and he did some less than brilliant work.
    As far as the inner workings of his mind and just how many of those inner workings found their way into his films can best be discovered by looking at his choice of projects. Did those choices reflect his psyche or did he simply come to understand his own strengths as a director and choose scripts that played to his strengths? Like many of the most impactful scenes of his movies, perhaps the answer to that question rests not with what we see on the scene, but with what we don’t see.

  13. To “strip away” Hitchcock’s “technical virtuosity,” as Wheeler Winston Dixon so nicely puts it, reveals a world-view that strikingly exposes the flimsy constructs of harmless “games.” I’m intrigued by the idea, posited in the article, that Hitchcock’s films engage in a de-centering of the darker side of humanity. If one engages with the films at the level of a game, then bodies are merely matter to be arranged for pleasure or, worse, as props. This is in conflict with many discourses currently exploring how bodies and the nature of things interact at different levels, which is to say with, and as, material objects. This article problematizes, in a great way, how Hitchcock’s films might enter into new conversations beyond the already well-documented cinematic maneuvers. So, too, does it provide interesting ways to re-think the ideologies of his works.

  14. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    This is not on topic, but since I don’t belong to Facebook, and can’t comment there, I wanted very sincerely to mourn the death of Rik Mayall, one of the most brilliant comedians of the 20th and 21st centuries. His greatest work was with Adrian Edmondson, and I am thankful that they had the chance to collaborate on the remarkable Guesthouse Paradiso, one of the funniest and most bizarre films of the late 1990s — OK, this is in my Hitchcock thread, but let’s ignore that for a second to appreciate the multitalented Rik Mayall, in everything from The Young Ones to Kevin Turvey Investigates to Bottom and all the stops inbetween — this is terrible news.

  15. Observing the plausible issues and flaws of cinematically brilliant and commercially successful films and filmmakers is vital in order to understand the plausible issues and flaws of a society; this is especially true when the films have such an enormous audience. Since the film medium holds such a large influence in society, addressing some of the problematic characteristics and ideas of films that dominate the medium helps identify the parallel issues that often embed themselves in other films and, arguably, real life. Hitchcock, is an important figure to observe, not only because of the mass quantity of films he made, but the large amount of filmmakers he has influenced. To deny the directorial genius that Hitchcock is would be highly problematic, but to deny the dehumanizing and violent conditions under which Hitchcock often places women would be equally irresponsible and ignorant.

    As Wheeler Dixon observes, for Hitchcock, “people are there to be moved around like chess pieces, discarded when no longer useful.” While this is an issue for many of his characters, it is especially an issue for the women who are only “useful” when they are being looked at. It is problematic in any genre when the female presence only exists in a film to be objectified, but it is even more of an issue when it exists to be objectified followed by being ripped to shreds, whether it be through murder or rape.

    The point of view shots that the above article mentions are imperative to note. Rather than watching the violent scenes from a bystander’s perspective, audience members actually see the death of a women through the eyes of the protagonist and through the director. It is through these views where the ideas and morals of the film are seen. If this is to be true, then the audience must either sink into that perspective or be certain to separate themselves from it. As much as I am intrigued by a good Hitchcock film, I find it vital to separate myself from that perspective or else become desensitized and unsympathetic to the reverence of meaningless and unjustified violence against women.

    In a culture where violence against women is paraded in film, television, music and advertising, where one in five women will experience rape, where one in for women will experience domestic violence, and where young men go on murderous rampages against women who will not have sex with them, I think that Wheeler Dixon’s observation of Hitchcock’s films are quite necessary. Obviously Hitchcock’s films or Hitchcock inspired films are not some sort of trigger that leads to a culture that is hostile towards women; that would be an erroneous claim. However, what is clear is that Hitchcock creates films where this violence against conventionally beautiful women in depthless roles is all but celebrated, and as Dixon brilliantly notes, “Evil can be charming and attractive, but that’s often how it obtains its objective.” Arguing that “murder is fun,” and that it was all a game is not something, like Dixon, I am willing to accept.

  16. Fascinating look at the complicated director her. Too often people just throw out the name and everyone assumes one or two things about the movies, and not about the overall message. Your work here has definitely lend credence to the layers of Hitchcock’s on perceptions and thoughts on all sorts of topics. The breakdown of his own darkest regions and juxtaposing them with the movies as they move through various themes definitely is fascinating. Recently, this sort of thought process was given to “The Shining” which is worth noting, albeit a different director and different take on things.

    As for Hitchcock, you’re right. You’ve proven quite the changes through his obsessions, and it shows that there are some incredible cinematic touch points here. It’s easy to just remember “Psycho”, but his other work tells just as dubious tales with central figures going “insane” for lack of a better term. You mentioned it right off the bat, with “Uncle Charlie”. The idea that Hitchcock only sees two types of people is perhaps the biggest quote that can be taken away here. The rest of the films contrast the same notion, and if you put the lens to the quote, the perception is definitely there. A two sided view of humanity.

  17. You make some incredible points here, and it starts with the perception of duality that Hitchcock has. Through the film examples you talk about, things are definitely defined well. But it’s not until your closing commentaries that things really start to set off the light bulb for me. A lot of attention is given to the fact that he is showcasing emotional connections with the human condition, but he seems to be missing the point. In fact, I missed the point until you elaborated further on “Psycho” and “Frenzy”. Those two stand out to me, and yes, you’re definitely on point.

    Hitchcock, the misogynist, I never really thought of it in those terms. But you’re right. Women are treated awful, sexualized and missing any real depth. Disposable even, and that speaks volumes to the fact that society may have missed something big. One must wonder, however, about the genre of horror and suspense as a whole.

    Hitchcock’s work is definitely tough to narrow down into a relatable category, however, as you say. I’m not sure if I agree with the notion that we (the audience) should feel sorry for them at some level, as they are truly not meant as such. Flawed? Maybe. But so goes the horror and suspense genre, right? Perhaps not, as you may be drawing on what makes good story telling at the core. It’s that type of question that makes your commentary even more complicated, in a good way.

    Was Hitchcock growing bored? I’m convinced now, it sure makes sense, and “Family Plot” definitely points to that. You’re right. Careless, is a good way of putting the filming and categorizing the movie. You hit the nail on the head there.

  18. Annie Marie Peters

    Fresh exploration of Hitchcock film! These days, it’s hard to find an angle that hasn’t been long exhausted, but I really like your thesis of him as the ultimate anti-humanist. He understood one side of the coin intently, but left the other mostly untouched.

  19. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Hi – I’ve been on vacation, but I want to thank everyone who commented here, most of whom agreed with my general assessment of Hitchcock’s work; I was particular taken with the comments of Bret Shepard and Aliza Brugger – many thanks.

    I’ve thought a lot about this, and I remain absolutely convinced that while he was a master technician, and a brilliant stylist, at the heart of his work lies an unbreakable fascination with evil – viewed from within. For me, a comparison of the potentially hopeful conclusion of Shadow of a Doubt, viewed against the embrace of death and madness in Psycho – perhaps Hitchcock’s most perfect film – reveals the absolute heartlessness of the director – and for someone to whom humanism is a prime consideration, he’s not someone I can discuss without acknowledging this.

    So this leads me to my next act of critical apostasy – always a good place to start – to nominate for further study the work of the British director Terence Fisher, who also was a meticulous craftsperson, started out as an editor, and like Hitchcock, understood the mechanics of evil, but always embraced the light. In Fisher’s films, people are gulled into the dark side either through ignorance or arrogance; and they pay dearly because of it. But in the end, though hard won, it’s the values of innocence and charity than ultimately shine through – evil can be seductive, but those who submit to it do so at their peril.

    Most people know Fisher only through his Hammer gothics, but in such earlier films as Stolen Face and Four Sided Triangle, he deals with a complex series of moral issues in a direct and intelligent fashion, and if Fisher hasn’t the critical reputation that Hitchcock has, perhaps it’s because he was much more self-effacing in his work, and in public persona, and also because he has been the victim of much “fan based” journalism that admires his work without real analysis.

    So . . .

  20. Hitchcock was a great director. His films were are all very unique. I watch some of those old movies even up until this very day.

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