“Policemen Frighten Me”
In this lesson, we’ll explore the major themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s films and consider Hitchcock as both a personal and universal filmmaker.
Among the Hitchcock films that make use of the Wrong Man plot are The Lodger, The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Wrong Man, North by Northwest, and Frenzy (1972). The double chase was one of the most characteristic elements of his films.
The Wrong Man
In earlier lessons, we examined the methods Alfred Hitchcock used to bring his films to the screen. With this lesson, we will begin to consider what his films are about — their substance as well as their style. Hitchcock’s films are thematically rich, and like the works of any great artist, they manage to be personal even while they are universal. They tell us a great deal about Hitchcock himself on their way to telling us about the world we live in.
Fear of Authority
In Lesson 2, we discussed Hitchcock’s strict upbringing and Jesuit education. Both helped to create an apprehensive, guilt-ridden child who would grow up to become an apprehensive, guilt-ridden man.
Hitchcock explored the issues of authority, control, powerlessness, and guilt in many of his greatest films, often through a plot which critics have called “The Wrong Man.” This is also the title of Hitchcock’s 1956 film starring Henry Fonda, which was based on the true story of a musician falsely accused of a series of robberies.
The Wrong Man plot may be described simply: An ordinary man is suddenly — and wrongly — incriminated in a crime. If the police capture him, he will have no chance to prove his innocence, and all circumstantial evidence points to his guilt. Often, time is of the essence, because a matter of vital importance is at stake — a state secret, perhaps. The plot becomes a double chase, as the authorities relentlessly pursue the Wrong Man while he pursues the evildoers in search of his own redemption.
Donald Spoto analyzes the Wrong Man in Chapter 30 in the course text, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures.
Hitchcock employed the theme of the Wrong Man as early as the silent film The Lodger (1927). The Lodger, played by Ivor Novello, becomes a suspect in a series of murders of beautiful blonde women, and circumstances point to him as the culprit. Actually, however, he is the brother of the first victim, and he came on the scene seeking vengeance against the murderer. Released from the clutches of a mob, the Lodger is innocent of these crimes — but not of his desire to commit cold-blooded murder to avenge his sister.
Guilt and Innocence
The Wrong Man may be innocent of the crimes the authorities accuse him of, but typically he is guilty of something else. In Hitchcock’s best Wrong Man films, redemption signifies more than just the dropping of the charges against him: Through the experiences in the film, the character also has a chance to redeem himself of the failings of which he is truly guilty. Such is the case in North by Northwest (1959).
North by Northwest is often mistakenly regarded as simply a lightweight tale, but the Wrong Man story brings unexpected richness to this adventure film. Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill (the “O”, we are told, stands for nothing, symbolic of the emptiness at the heart of Thornhill himself) is manipulative, misogynistic, and completely out for himself. His two previous marriages have failed for obvious reasons, and his only substantial relationship is with his mother.
The lesson in the twists and turns of the double-chase plot is Thornhill’s need to learn to put other people first, to sacrifice himself for another. By believing in, rescuing, and loving Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), Thornhill not only proves his innocence; he also gains his redemption. He becomes a complete human being worthy of love and admiration.
Many of Hitchcock’s films have beautiful couples at their heart: Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound (1945), Grant and Bergman in Notorious, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954), Grant and Kelly in To Catch a Thief, and Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964), to name but a few. Which are your favorite Hitchcock couples and why? Which combination of leading man and women would you have liked to have seen Hitchcock team up and why?
Love and Duty
Another thematic staple of Hitchcock’s films is the conflict between love and duty, often expressed as the tension between two lovers, or would-be lovers, who find their relationship stymied by their patriotic or professional obligations. While Hitchcock certainly did not invent the situation — star-crossed lovers have been with us for a long time — films like Blackmail (1929), Notorious (1946), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest give us some of its most profound explorations packaged as works of popular art.
Blackmail provides a rare sympathetic view of the authorities, for the person trapped between love and duty is a police detective (John Longden) who suspects that his girlfriend Alice (Anny Ondra) is guilty of killing a man. Caught between his suspicions and his feelings for her, he eventually pursues the man blackmailing Alice so vigorously that the blackmailer is killed. He refuses to allow Alice to confess, taking on her guilt — but also assuming control over her because of his knowledge. (In the end, perhaps the detective is not so sympathetic after all.)
Hitchcock always said that he had wanted to end the movie with Alice taken to jail and charged for murder; love renounced for a “higher” duty has always played well to audiences. A more in-depth look at Blackmail can be found in Chapter 2 of Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
In Notorious, the choice between love and duty also ends happily. Set just after World War II, Notorious traces the love affair of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a Nazi collaborator, and intelligence operative T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant). They fall in love when Devlin recruits Alicia for a covert espionage assignment to infiltrate a Brazilian nest of expatriate Nazis by seducing an old acquaintance. Alicia wants to expiate her father’s guilt, and Devlin is afraid of giving his heart to a “fallen” woman, making the dynamics of love and duty particularly complex.
During the course of the story, the growth of Cary Grant’s Devlin as a person makes him worthy of the devoted love that Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia has granted him. In the end, he must renounce his duty to the government in order to save her life — but in doing so, he finds his fullest expression as a man. These two wounded souls will be happy together, even if the other characters in the film (such as Claude Rains’ Alexander, who also let his love for Alicia interfere with his duty) seem sure to come to a bad end.
Only in Hitchcock’s perversely tragic love story Vertigo does the collision of love and duty end in utter despair. Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson fails in his duty to protect the woman he grows to love, and as a result, he loses her not once, but twice. Although the ending shows Scottie cured of his vertigo, it leaves him with no possibility of happiness and hints instead that he may surrender to the madness that has plagued him during much of the film.
Audiences hoped for some ray of hope for Scottie, but Hitchcock gave them none. The profound but gloomy Vertigo was not a popular success, although it has grown in critic’s estimation year by year.
Down the Drain
When an interviewer asked Alfred Hitchcock what he used to simulate blood in the shower scene in Psycho, the director replied, “Chocolate sauce.” A thorough analysis of Psycho — the film that for the director is perhaps the most famous — can be found in Chapter 33 of the course text, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
Implicating the Audience
Another of Hitchcock’s greatest thematic interests is voyeurism. As someone who spent his life more as an observer than an active participant in events, Hitchcock knew a little something about the role of the watcher. He was particularly interested in the morality of watching and explored this topic in a number of films, notably in Rear Window, Psycho (1960), and Frenzy.
Watching the Watchers
Rear Window is a film about Peeping Toms. The film forces us to sit at a window, like wheelchair-bound photographer Jeff Jeffries (Stewart), and observe the events that take place across the courtyard as if on a movie screen (or on several movie screens, since we follow several stories across the way).
With Jeff and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), we seem to observe signs that Lars Thorvald (Raymond Burr), a burly traveling salesman, has murdered his wife in his apartment. Although the shades were pulled down during the apparent murder, Jeff comes to believe that the actions they witness, many of them in the dead of night, represent Thorvald dismembering his wife and hauling her body away for disposal.
Rear Window is a strangely reflective film. From her first appearance on screen, Thelma Ritter’s wry nurse Stella muses about Peeping Toms and the ethics of spying on your neighbors, and the characters pursue that line of thought throughout. “We’ve become a nation of voyeurs,” Stella laments, a powerful and ironic indictment of society in a film by that supreme observer, Alfred Hitchcock.
Ultimately, Jeff and Lisa solve the crime and the salesman is brought to justice, but a question posed by Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle resonates even after the film is over. “How would you like it if someone were watching you,” he asks Jeff and Lisa, and the issue is uncomfortable to consider after watching such an entertaining film. Just how uncomfortable we will discover in Psycho.
Psycho, as Donald Spoto points out through Chapter 33 in the course text, is a film full of looking, of seeing, of eyes. In Psycho, the brutal and justly famous “shower scene” — the stabbing murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) — follows a scene that does more than just show us the act of voyeurism, as Rear Window does. It implicates us in it as well.
After the strangely sympathetic Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Marion finish a late-night supper in his office, she returns to her room to take a shower. Norman steps up to the wall and removes a painting that reveals a hole through which he can see into Marion’s room. Hitchcock’s camera shows him looking through the hole, then it shows us what Norman sees.
With this subjective shot, Hitchcock places us in Norman’s shoes, and makes us — through our own curiosity and natural prurience — guilty of Norman’s sin. Hitchcock has maneuvered us so that Norman’s perversity becomes our own. We, too, are now Peeping Toms.
Hitchcock uses this discomforting technique once more in Frenzy, another of his most disturbing films. The killer in that film, a grocer named Rusk (Barry Foster) stuffs his latest victim, a barmaid named Babs (Anna Massey), into a potato sack aboard a truck, then later realizes that she holds in her hand incriminating evidence he must recover.
In one of the most horrifying scenes in any Hitchcock film, the audience is made to identify, and even sympathize with, the killer. In a claustrophobically framed shot, Rusk climbs aboard the truck and breaks Babs’ fingers to recover the tiepin she clasps. Hitchcock holds us close to the action and keeps us there relentlessly.
The situation in which Rusk finds himself — stuck with a corpse in the back of a produce truck dumping potatoes onto the highway — is truly horrible; we feel sorry for him, almost against our will. But it’s horrible, we ultimately remember, because he was horrible. If he had not killed Babs, he — and we — would not have to witness this at all.
Far more that most popular directors of his era, Alfred Hitchcock brought personal meaning to his work. In the next lesson, we’ll look closely at Vertigo, perhaps Hitchcock’s masterpiece, to better see Hitchcock’s philosophies as expressed through his films.
Assignment: Hitchcock’s Themes
Read Chapters 6, 26, and 30 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
How do Sabotage, Rear Window, and The Wrong Man reflect Hitchcock’s themes of love and duty, voyeurism, and the Wrong Man, respectively? Go to the Message Board and post and discuss your answers.