Alfred Hitchcock

b. August 13, 1899, London, England
d. April 29, 1980, Los Angeles, USA

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Alfred Hitchcock – Master of Paradox

Note from the author

At one moment below I make passing reference to how, in Hitchcock’s radio version of The Lodger in 1940, Herbert Marshall played both the likely killer and the story’s objective narrator. I call this “a dualism which is itself suggestive”. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it’s possible I was unconsciously remembering the passage in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music that evokes the rare artist who in the act of creation resembles “the creature that can turn its eyes around and look at itself; now he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor and audience”.

Reader, if you’re like me and can readily imagine Hitchcock being intrigued by an idea like that one of Nietzsche’s – to the point of wanting to make Rear Window to test its possibilities! – then you may find yourself on the wavelength of what follows. It’s an argued piece, with plentiful footnotes despite my original intentions. But I suggest that you skip the footnotes on a first reading. They are often discursive and will be more rewarding, I feel, if visited only after you have taken in the argument as a whole.

That argument concerns the nature of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema”, and the Nietzsche passage just quoted is not irrelevant to it. However, I rather soft-pedal Nietzsche below because I’m more concerned with two other formative authors whose works we know Hitchcock read: Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and G.K. Chesterton (one of whose collections of short stories was called The Man Who Knew Too Much). I see Wilde as a “pessimist” and Chesterton as an “anti-pessimist” – self-avowed as such, in fact. I also happily follow Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval’s sumptuous catalogue called Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences (2000) in claiming Hitchcock as a Symbolist, which in turn allows me to bring in the Symbolists’ favourite philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and his notion of cosmic Will.

Finally I focus on one of Hitchcock’s personal favourites among his films, The Trouble With Harry.


* * *

Everything’s perverted in a different way.

– Alfred Hitchcock (1)

Throughout his work Hitchcock reveals a fascinated and fascinating tension, an oscillation, between attraction to the feminine… and a corresponding need to erect, sometimes brutally, a barrier to the femininity which is perceived as all-absorbing.

– Tania Modleski (2)

“He who knows the male, yet cleaves to what is female
Becomes like a ravine, receiving all things under heaven”
And being such a ravine
He knows all the time a power that he never calls upon in vain.
This is returning to the state of infancy.

– The Tao Te Ching


Alfred Hitchcock, destined to make sublime film thrillers, was born in London at the end of the Victorian era. He was the youngest child of an East End family whose father ran a poulterer’s and greengrocer’s business and whose mother came of Irish stock. The family was Catholic. Hitchcock loved his mother dearly and took after her in her quiet constancy (3). He grew up an independent youth given to attending films and plays on his own. He also read widely, including works by Dickens, Poe, Flaubert, Wilde, Chesterton, and Buchan. With training in electrical engineering and draughtsmanship acquired at night school while working for a cable company, at age 20 he joined the London studios of Famous Players-Lasky, already affiliated with Paramount Pictures. In these early years he worked under two top directors. The first was an American, George Fitzmaurice, noted for the holistic way he conceived a picture, including its sets and costumes. The other director was Graham Cutts. Cutts’ vitality was reflected in both the subject-matter of his films – often emphasising theatrical spectacle – and their mise en scène invoking a sadomasochism of “the look” (4). Cutts’ influence is obvious in the opening scenes of Hitchcock’s first feature, The Pleasure Garden (1925), set in and around a London music hall. But in fact the film was shot in Germany. For a year both men were employed there as part of a deal by producer Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures. Hitchcock seized the chance to observe F.W. Murnau on the set of The Last Laugh (1924). Afterwards, he would describe Murnau’s film as an almost perfect example of “pure cinema” – visual storytelling employing a minimum of title-cards.

No less crucial to Hitchcock’s later development was his marriage in 1926 to his assistant Alma Reville. By all accounts, including that of the Hitchcocks’ only child, Patricia (born 1928), the couple always remained devoted to each other. Alma made an ideal working collaborator. An experienced film editor and scripter, for 50 years she served as unofficial consultant on her husband’s pictures, and could be his severest critic. The marriage, though affectionate, was hardly a grand passion. By Hitchcock’s admission, he led a celibate lifestyle full of sublimations, foremost among which was his work but which included travel, gourmandising at exclusive restaurants, attending both wrestling matches and symphony concerts at the Albert Hall, and collecting first editions and original works of art. A persistent theme of his films is the battle of the sexes. It’s tempting to speculate how much he drew on his own marriage. One hears that the diminutive Alma more than stood up to the often grossly overweight Alfred – being described as “peppery” and given to “bossing” her husband.

Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) was promoted as Britain’s first full-length talkie (though that claim is still disputed). Then, in the mid-1930s, the director gained an international reputation with a series of brisk and audacious “chase” thrillers for Gaumont-British, including The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). In turn, Rebecca (1940) launched his American career. That film began Hitchcock’s systematic emphasis on “the subjective” (much of the film is ostensibly told from the point of view of one character) and thus, I would argue, immeasurably deepened his capacity to bring audiences out of the cold, to engage us at a fundamental level. Such Hitchcock masterpieces as Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho all owe a debt to Rebecca.

Now, a key to Hitchcock’s work is suitably psychological – “I like stories with lots of psychology”, he once confirmed – and is the key to be pursued here. To gay actor/screenwriter Rodney Ackland (Number Seventeen) he confided: “You know, if I hadn’t met Alma at the right time, I could have become a poof.” (5) There’s no reason to doubt it. The facts bear him out. In particular, biographer Donald Spoto reports that the youthful Hitchcock read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) “several times”; Wilde’s “decadent” novel may be the single most important literary influence on the director’s work. It was, after all, written by an Irishman, who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, and it reads like an iconoclastic thriller. Hitchcock’s astute “everything’s perverted in a different way” probably derives from it. (Another of his favourite sayings, “Each man kills the thing he loves”, is classic Wilde.) To understand the importance of Dorian Gray to such pivotal films as The Lodger, Murder!, Rope, Vertigo, and Psycho, we must traverse some surprising territory, but it may bring us to the heart of “the Hitchcock paradox”.

What Wilde’s Dorian Gray gave Hitchcock; Vertigo

Hitchcock’s films, supposedly expressive of “pure cinema”, if not “art for art’s sake”, in fact have their basis in a sadomasochism that is universal in human affairs. Think of it, indeed, as a cosmic principle. That’s the vision I believe Hitchcock took from Wilde’s Dorian Gray, though it had received many prior formulations by artists and thinkers, both Western and Eastern (6). In Chapter Two, Wilde writes revealingly: “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.” (7) Essentially, of course, Dorian Gray is the Faust story combined with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) (8); while the “book bound in yellow paper” (Chapter Ten) with which the dandyish Lord Henry Wotton tempts – and seeks to control – young Dorian is J.K. Huysmans’ misanthropic A Rebours/Against the Grain (1884). The literary critic in Wilde is at his most brilliant in such a passage as this:

It [A Rebours] was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed… The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style… that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. … The mere cadence of the sentences… produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.

Very palpably, there’s a foretaste here of Vertigo (1958). Especially striking is the quest for something that can halt time itself and sum up all human experience. In seeming to offer this to Dorian, Lord Henry is “playing on the lad’s unconscious egotism” (Chapter Eight). Earlier, he had exhorted him: “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.” (Chapter Two) In Vertigo, the Mephistophelean Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) tempts Scottie (James Stewart) with “colour, excitement, power, freedom” and sends the ancestor-obsessed Madeleine (Kim Novak) to seduce him. The trap begins to take effect in the scenes where she leads Scottie around San Francisco. I once wrote of Vertigo:

With its missions, forts, shops and art galleries, [San Francisco] represents perennial human concerns – in the film it’s a city seen sub specie aeternitatis. (9)


Madeleine, I summed up, is an archetype, an eternal-feminine figure; thus, to Scottie, she’s the equivalent of what A Rebours is to Dorian Gray. Vertigo itself is definitely in the French (and Belgian) Symbolist tradition, (10) something Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the writers of the original novel, D’Entre les Morts (1954), would have appreciated (11). But it was Hitchcock who moved the setting from wartime Paris to San Francisco. Was Dorian Gray his inspiration? Late in Wilde’s novel, Lord Henry comments wittily on the mysterious disappearance of artist Basil Hallward (murdered by Dorian) by saying that he may turn up in America. “It is an odd thing,” he explains, “but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.” (Chapter Nineteen) (12)

By his own admission, Dorian’s murderous course begins when he cruelly rejects the actress even more cruelly named by Wilde, Sibyl Vane (13). Moreover, it’s precisely when he loses interest in Sibyl – who had once seemed unlike “ordinary women… limited to their century” (Chapter Four) – and news comes that she has killed herself, that Dorian starts to read A Rebours. For years thereafter, he “could not free himself from the influence of this book” (Chapter Eleven). In her rejection, Sibyl is a forerunner of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) in Vertigo, whom Scottie treats almost cruelly after he meets Madeleine. In turn, Sibyl and thus Midge correspond to the abused Margaret/Gretchen in both Goethe’s Faust and Murnau’s 1926 film version of the Faust story (14).

Further, it’s clear that Hitchcock knew Albert Lewin’s 1945 film of Wilde’s novel. Hitchcock was always a movie buff, with a sound grasp of movie history. Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray stars Hurd Hatfield as Dorian and George Sanders (from Rebecca) as Lord Henry. Faced with how to give Dorian a female love-interest after Sibyl’s demise, the filmmakers created a new character, Gladys Hallward. One day Gladys finds in Dorian’s house a sketch by her father of Sibyl, and asks who the woman is. Dorian responds that she was the woman he had once loved. Jealous, Gladys takes the sketch to her father in his studio, demanding that he paint her as Sibyl so that she may present the portrait to Dorian. The portrait is duly completed. But Gladys already suspects that her ruse to win Dorian’s heart will not succeed.

Beyond doubt, this striking scene inspired one in Vertigo: Midge’s failed attempt to win back Scottie’s interest by painting herself as Madeleine. In fact there are several borrowings by Hitchcock from Lewin’s film, and I’ll cite others later, apropos Psycho. But I must establish some broader connections of Wilde’s story – and Huysmans’ A Rebours – to Hitchcock himself. He seems to have taken to heart, and lived out, things he found in those two books. In other words, he took to espousing Wilde’s “Aestheticism”, the cult of making life an art: a favourite phrase of Wilde’s was “intensification of personality” (15). Understandably, Thomas Elsaesser has emphasised the dandy in Hitchcock (16). Now, an aspect of Hitchcock’s ongoing self-creation was his love of pranks and practical jokes. On one occasion he held a dinner party at which, without explanation, everything served at table was blue – blue soup, blue venison, even blue ice cream. Almost certainly, his inspiration was A Rebours. Huysmans’ narrator, Duc Jean des Esseintes, recalls how he invited friends to a dinner of all-black food served on black plates by naked negresses. I can just see Hitchcock relishing that passage which pays mock obeisance, like the funerary dinner itself, to Des Esseintes’ medical condition at the time, one of impotence! (17) Dark jokes about impotence are a feature of Hitchcock’s films, especially, for some reason, the ones with James Stewart.

Camille Paglia’s brilliant book Sexual Personae (1990) characterises Des Esseintes as epicene, the “product of an incest-degenerated aristocratic line, like Poe’s Usher” (18). That’s a possible link to the neurasthenic and toffish character – another dark joke – played by Ivor Novello in The Lodger, to which I’m coming. Of Des Esseintes’ impotence, Paglia notes dryly: “Decadent eroticism is perceptual or cerebral”. She summarises the novel thus:

A Rebours is… consistent with the Romantic withdrawal from action. It is spiritual autobiography, recording a journey not through space but through modes of perception and experience. The chapters, containing few events, are meditations on things: books, flowers, antiques. Persons are also things. Des Esseintes performs a botched Sadean experiment on a boy by trying to turn him into a criminal.

All very reminiscent of Lord Henry Wotton. Two other matters that Wilde certainly picked up on are these: Des Esseintes’ theory of Pessimism, which was derived from the Symbolists’ favourite philosopher, Schopenhauer; (19) and Des Esseintes’ immersion, despite himself, in Catholic lore, the result of his schooling by Jesuits and his love of certain Latin writers (20).

As for the sadomasochism that I’m suggesting Hitchcock found in these authors, Wilde’s novel is replete with it – not only in the Lord Henry–Dorian relationship but, for example, in the description of Dorian’s “almost cruel joy” on reading the latter part of A Rebours where Des Esseintes experiences “the sorrow and despair of one who had himself lost what in others, and in the world, he had most dearly valued” (Chapter Eleven) (21). Such Schadenfreude on Dorian’s part ironically anticipates his own fall; it also helps anchor the novel in our fundamental experience. In fact, a US psychiatrist, John Munder Ross, has written in his book The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life (1997) of how we all share such tendencies, and of how they are even built into the social fabric. Dr Ross traces their basis to the child’s pre-Oedipal period and then forward into the development years and beyond. I need to quote a couple of Dr Ross’s most salient points.

First, the aims of sadomasochism are paradoxical. On the one hand, “sadomasochists try to plunge back into [our] boundless beginning”, (22) attempting to “diffuse the lines between self and other”. On the other hand, sadomasochists “are like babies who pound and push at their mothers in order to define their bodies and themselves”. How this paradox shows itself in Hitchcock’s films is something we’ll see shortly.

Second, Dr Ross puts particular emphasis on the Oedipal crisis itself. Psychologically speaking, gender differentiation in children of both sexes only really starts to occur at this time. Younger children

are bisexual or, to put it better, ambisexual in their desires and their identifications. In fact, children between three and four years, who are reluctant to give up anything, want to be both sexes. (23)

Dr Ross speaks of our “lost androgyny” and attributes to it the never-ending battle of the sexes (24).

Let me make just a couple of remarks about a key Hitchcock film, the Freudian melodrama Spellbound (1945). This does, indeed, hark back to its amnesiac hero’s Oedipal phase and his guilts originating there. First, Ben Hecht’s screenplay makes a significant alteration from the novel by having a major climax occur not in the “Gorge du Diable” but in “Gabriel Valley”, named after the archangel who traditionally helps guard Paradise (25). It’s in this snow-covered valley that the hero John Ballyntine (Gregory Peck) achieves a crucial, but not absolute, breakthrough by remembering an “accident” from his childhood (26). Second, after some nifty, and brave, detective work by John’s psychiatrist, the suitably-named Constance (Ingrid Bergman), the film ends on a conventional optimistic note when the pair get married. Presiding over much of the film has been Constance’s mentor, the fatherly and, yes, androgynous Dr Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov) (27). Beaming, he charges John leaving on his honeymoon: “Remember, any husband of Constance is a husband of mine, so to speak.”

Wildean content in Rope

The optimistic note at the end of Spellbound is not something Hitchcock evidently got from either Wilde or Huysmans. A typical passage in Dorian Gray is this from Chapter Six:

Lord Henry laughed. “The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid for ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror. We think that we are generous because we credit our neighbour with the possession of those virtues that are likely to be a benefit to us. We praise the banker that we may overdraw our account, and we find good qualities in the highwayman in the hope that he may spare our pockets. … I have the greatest contempt for optimism.”

Without referring to Wilde, John Munder Ross makes an identical point about fear to explain why people turn a blind eye to “the selfishness, malevolence and, ultimately, the immorality of the caretakers and institutions in which they believe… sadomasochism allows individuals and the social unit of which they are a part to keep the faith and, when it is threatened, to keep silent” (28). In that fact assuredly lies the source of much Hitchcockian humour and, later on, compassion. As for pessimism, which may only be a certain kind of honesty, it gives many a Hitchcock film, such as Vertigo, its deep point, though invariably the effect is offset by the “vitality” of the filmmaking: to a large extent what I’ve called the “optimistic” ending of Spellbound is a special case, an instance of where Hitchcock’s “subjective” filmmaking reflected the official outlook of psychoanalysis itself (29). Donald Spoto doesn’t doubt that pessimism was Hitchcock’s own position:

He considered all life unmanageable, and his obsessive neatness (like his careful preparation of a film) was a way of taking a stand against the chaos he believed was always at the ready, to be fended off with whatever wit and structure one could muster. Social life he thought to be a giant hypocrisy. (30)

Again that suggests a pat combination of Huysmans (the careful defences against chaos) and Wilde (the wit, especially). Nonetheless, Hitchcock’s attitude towards Wilde may finally have been as ambivalent as his attitude towards another coiner of aphorisms, and potential liberator, Friedrich Nietzsche (31). Several commentators, such as Thomas Mann, have likened Wilde and Nietzsche. These two meet in Rope (1948).


Hitchcock’s Rope was scripted by gay playwright Arthur Laurents from a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton. In his memoir Original Story By (2000) Laurents discusses how the screenplay was to go. “The three main characters in Rope are homosexual. Brandon and Phillip are lovers who carry the Nietzschean philosophy learned from their former prep school teacher, Rupert, to its outer limit: a murder committed to prove superiority. Rupert is a good friend and probably an ex-lover of Brandon’s; his is the most interesting role.” (32) In fact, Rupert seems based on Wilde, and it’s clear he has played (if inadvertently) Des Esseintes and Lord Henry Wotton to these two impressionable youths. Made three years after Lewin’s film, Rope is essentially Hitchcock’s Dorian Gray. The screenplay calls Rupert “distinguished in appearance, manner and thought”, and stresses his dandyish aspect: “He is completely self-possessed and elegantly detached. His manners are beautiful, his speech is eloquent and his tongue can be sharp.” Of course, as a Wildean figure, he also has a sinister aspect: “[Y]ou cannot really be sure whether he means the extreme ideas he propounds or whether he is joking. Just as you cannot be sure whether Rupert is essentially good or essentially evil.” (33)

Laurents probably had in mind Wilde at the height of his fame and immediately prior to his downfall. In 1894 Wilde wrote for an Oxford undergraduate magazine an egregious piece which he called “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”. Here are two of its maxims: “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others”; (34) “Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance”. In basing Rupert on Wilde at his most irresponsible – yet most seductive – Laurents and Hitchcock were creating another virtual Mephistopheles. Though the casting of James Stewart as Rupert put an end to any development of the screenplay’s gay subtext, the actual strategy of the film is exemplary. As usual, the look and feel are “subjective”, meaning that Hitchcock creates a “world” to reflect the principal characters and their essential egoism. The celebrated “ten-minute take” gives the impression of one continuous shot and becomes a metaphor for Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip’s (Farley Granger) entrapment and lack of perspective. But the film gets underway almost bracingly – that is, straight after we’ve seen a youth strangled to death in an elegant Manhattan apartment – with the opening of plush curtains to admit afternoon sunlight, and Brandon announcing: “An immaculate murder. We’ve killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. And we’re alive. Truly and wonderfully alive!” Phillip, ever the masochist, begins to protest but then backs down: “I’m only kidding, Brandon. I obviously can’t take it as well as you…” The audience thus finds itself in a classic folie à deux situation, and Brandon’s “charming” sadism provides much of the ensuing dialogue’s black humour. Meanwhile, the film’s in-your-face surrealism, as we watch guests being served food from a chest containing the body of the dead youth, recalls Dorian Gray‘s flaunting of homosexuality though the word is never spoken there (35). (The grim meal can also recall the funerary dinner from A Rebours.) At the end of the film Rupert goes scot-free just as Lord Henry does at the end of Wilde’s novel.

Nonetheless, it’s crucial that the central, surreal image of Rope is effectively one of cannibalism (36). Here, then, is an analogy. Salvador Dali’s Autumn Cannibalism (1936), painted at the start of the Spanish Civil War, is said to represent “a nation violently divided against itself” (37). But Hitchcock’s film alludes, rather, to the Second World War: the dialogue mentions how Rupert’s limp is the consequence of a war wound. And evidently that reminded Hitchcock of both Ernest Hemingway (38) and of the recent black comedy directed by his friend Charles Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a film implying that short of total pacificism, and maybe even then, we are all murderers.

In other words, war veteran Rupert may be quite literally as much an impotent victim as a guilty corrupter of youth; and society itself, which the end of the film appears to valorise, may make us all killers. This is only a logical extension of Wilde’s, and John Munder Ross’s (and Chaplin’s), point about moral hypocrisy. Alternatively, we can read Rupert as a victim of the subjectivity that binds us all. Near the end of the film he says that a man should stand by his words but that Brandon and Phillip, by their actions, have given his words a meaning he never dreamed of. Clearly, there are several paradoxes involved here, and they raise the question of what attitude one finally takes to society. But Hitchcock’s work, like Wilde’s, is built on paradox.

When Hitchcock outflanks us; Murder!

An element of paradox, inherent in sadomasochism itself, contributed to what I’ll call Hitchcock’s “outflanking” technique which, in turn, became basic to the creation and maintenance of cinematic suspense, his trademark from about the early 1930s. On principle, Hitchcock’s audience mustn’t be allowed to feel “superior” to the film they are watching. They must be “outflanked”! A remark by the homosexual Bruno in Strangers on a Train (1951), “What’s a life or two, Guy?”, throws an audience off-balance in a manner reminiscent of Wilde or Nietzsche (39). Likewise, in The Birds (1963) a mannish ornithologist, Mrs Bundy, quite literally (and properly) puts us in our place by noting that “birds have been on this planet since archaeopteryx” (40). For Mrs Bundy’s character, Hitchcock may have had in mind his lesbian friend “Clemence Dane” (real name Winifred Ashton) who co-authored the 1929 novel on which Murder! (1930) was based, and who was memorably incarnated by Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945) (41). Murder! has its own links to Dorian Gray. However, there are some displacements. In what is probably the most sadistic scene Hitchcock ever filmed, the patrician actor-manager Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) sets his “Mousetrap” à la Hamlet for the transvestite actor Handell Fane (Esmé Percy). The normally mild-mannered Fane had earlier killed a woman who was threatening to “out” him. Now Sir John tricks him into re-enacting the crime. Such is the scene’s power that Hitchcock would include variants of it in The Paradine Case (1947) and Psycho (1960), and again the person being set up would be either gay (the manservant Latour in The Paradine Case) or another apparent transvestite (Norman Bates in Psycho) (42). The Paradine Case has a Wildean connection of its own. It’s based on a novel by Robert Hichens, a former associate of Wilde. A theme of the novel is universal sadomasochism. Cruelty, we’re told, may be found in “[t]he best of us” (43).


Murder! underlines the remoteness from “life” of Fane – whose name aptly echoes “Sibyl Vane” – by having him work in a tawdry provincial touring company. It’s the equivalent of Psycho‘s Bates Motel. Another anticipation of Psycho is how everyone has something in his/her makeup that suggests the divided self. The various members of the touring company nearly all have characteristics of both sexes. There’s Tom Druitt, for example, a married man but with a squeaky voice like a woman’s. And Doucie Markham (Phyllis Konstam), whom we first see in jodhpurs, is described by husband Ted (Edward Chapman), the company’s manager, as a versatile performer. Recently she was “pure Tallulah” – meaning Tallulah Bankhead, the bisexual actress. (In the courtroom scenes later, we see both mannish women and effeminate men.) However, bullied by Sir John, Fane finally decides to end it all in spectacular fashion. Psychologically and actually going back to his former job of trapeze artist in a circus, (44) he hangs himself before a horrified audience in the big top. (Such “regression” and self-immolation again anticipate Psycho.) Ironically, the film ends to the sound of ringing applause as Sir John appears alongside his new bride in his latest West End triumph (45).

“All the world’s a stage”: that will be the ironic levelling motif in countless Hitchcock films after Murder! (46) Sir John is himself bullied by his fellow jurors at the trial of the woman wrongly accused of the murder committed by Fane. Stressing the theatricality, Hitchcock makes the jurors resemble a chorus who chant in unison, “What do you think of that, Sir John?” After he succumbs to their pressure, and a “Guilty” verdict is returned, Sir John leaves the courtroom, disconsolate. Fortunately for justice – often a chancy matter, the film implies – he is a man of some leisure. One morning, shaving to the strains of Tristan and Isolde on the radio, he realises not only that he is in love with the condemned woman but that there is a major flaw in the case against her. Now the plot becomes more recognisably “Hitchcockian”, being driven by love. Of course, love may itself be both “blind” and “cruel”, either towards one’s partner or towards those who would deny us “life”…(47)

So again we find ourselves outflanked. Variants on this particular paradigm occur in one of Hitchcock’s best films, Rear Window (1954), and in one of his least successful, Jamaica Inn (1939). Both, though, are instructive. Rear Window employs as setting a Greenwich Village courtyard seen from a single fixed position, as in a theatre. Here is played out a victim and victimiser story in which a man of (enforced) leisure, the photographer Jeff (James Stewart), accidentally stumbles on the guilty secret of another man (Raymond Burr) with whom he has more in common than he perhaps cares to admit, and whom he relentlessly pursues for initially no better reason than to ward off boredom. Like sadomasochism, boredom is a key to Hitchcock’s work, as it is to John Buchan’s (48). The philosopher Schopenhauer considered boredom an intrinsic part of life but – another seeming paradox – one that we will do practically anything to try and evade. Hence, perhaps, the irony of Jeff’s musing in Rear Window: “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens?” At the end of the film, he simply can’t answer his victim’s question, “What do you want of me?” That answer would be fundamental(49)

Moreover, almost as if he were Jeff, Hitchcock told François Truffaut in their famous interview that no “considerations of morality” could have stopped him making Rear Window, such was his “love of film”. (If anything, Wilde had gone further in the Preface to Dorian Gray: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”) To which Truffaut responded with exactitude: “The morality in [Rear Window] is simply its lucidity.”

Jamaica Inn hasn’t Rear Window‘s quality, though on paper it appears full of interest (50). The “theatricality” this time is the costume drama itself, adapted from the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Again the nominal villain leaps to his death, crying out: “You want a spectacle? You shall have it. … Tell your children how the Great Age ended. Make way for Pengallan!” Sir Humphrey Pengallan, mastermind to a gang of Cornish wreckers and cutthroats, has no children of his own. Patriarchy, always a du Maurier target, is lampooned in him (as, of course, it was earlier in Handell Fane). Played by the gay Charles Laughton, and given to quoting Byron, he is another dandy-figure. Hitchcock goes out of his way to emphasise the boredom of Squire Pengallan’s existence, plus his distance from London and from redeeming “life”. Finally the Squire goes mad. The script establishes a history of insanity in the Pengallan family; but equally it shows lonely Cornwall’s effect on all who have thrown in their lot with the Squire. The heroine’s Aunt Patience, whose husband is one of the wreckers, is a timid woman who observes, “People can’t help being what they are”, and who claims vaguely that she never knew where the wrecks took place. A similar “disclaimer” informs the film’s epigraph, purportedly “an old Cornish prayer”. Its hypocritical lines run: “Oh Lord, we pray thee not that wrecks should happen, but that if they do happen, Thou wilt guide them to the coast of Cornwall for the benefit of the poor inhabitants.” (51)

However, before the end, Patience will have shown renewed bravery and resolution, (52) and the heroine, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), will have truly observed of Pengallan in his madness, “He can’t help himself.” Such outflanking, we’ll see, is of the same order as Hitchcock employs at the end of Psycho.

Jamaica Inn is another Hitchcock film that seems indebted to A Rebours. The foppish Squire’s attempted “splendid isolation” and his patent disdain for egalitarianism recall Duc Jean des Esseintes’ (53). So does his own sense of having “lost what in others, and in the world, he had most dearly valued”. However, insofar as Hitchcock remained engaged by Jamaica Inn after realising that compromises would be needed to secure the film distribution in America, it was because of what he called “the Jekyll–Hyde mentality of the Squire”. For example, Pengallan’s attempt to distance himself morally from the wrecking is emphasised: he shares with Patience a proneness to self-deception. Likewise, Pengallan’s sadism, mirroring Patience’s masochism, is pronounced, and again he rationalises it. He gloats over Mary’s beauty as if she were one of his china figurines or one of his blood mares. Fleeing from officialdom at the end, he takes a bound and gagged Mary with him in the coach as a hostage, and is clearly aroused by her helplessness. But the fact is, he is representative of something that is in all of us.

Mystery and mysticism in Psycho

The Lodger

Dorian Gray has two obvious links to what Hitchcock considered “the first true Hitchcock film”, The Lodger (1926). A brother’s vengeful pursuit into East London of the man responsible for his innocent sister’s death provides Wilde with his subplot involving the brother of Sibyl Vane. In turn, Dorian’s abandoning himself to vice and even murder in the novel’s second half recalls, first, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and, second, Robert Louis Stevenson’s own principal inspiration for his story, the recent Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel. The novel The Lodger finds similar inspiration. A key passage speculates how the serial killer known as The Avenger “comprises in his own person the peculiarities of Jekyll and Hyde” (54). In the film a remarkable flashback evidently based on this passage purports to clear the Lodger (the gay Ivor Novello) of killing his virginal sister (55) at her coming-out ball but actually shows that he was best situated to kill her. In other words, this likely “lying flashback” precedes the one in Stage Fright by a quarter of a century. If it has gone relatively unnoticed, that’s because Hitchcock, instructed by his producers that Novello mustn’t be a murderer, obligingly added a giant ambiguity, or red herring, late in the film. And it seems that few audiences and critics could credit the 1920s Hitchcock with the aplomb, à la Wilde, to create a likeable if neurotic young man who is actually a mad killer! Distracted by a claim of the film’s police to have caught the real killer – rather than an imitator, of which Jack the Ripper had several – they have ended up dutifully assuming the Lodger’s innocence.

Well, Hitchcock effectively re-made The Lodger for American audiences as Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Again the police were shown to be confused, concluding that a suspect who was killed when he ran from them into an aeroplane propellor must have been the Merry Widow Murderer. But audiences this time weren’t left in doubt: the killer was actually the dandyish character called Uncle Charlie, smoothly played by Joseph Cotten!

Mind you, there was also a radio version of The Lodger which Hitchcock directed in 1940, and which kept the note of uncertainty from the original film. Starring Herbert Marshall as both the lodger, Mr Sleuth, and the story’s objective narrator (a dualism which is itself suggestive), this version ends with Mr Sleuth’s disappearance, as in Mrs Belloc Lowndes’ novel. Everything points to the character’s guilt. However, the script makes the cast finally round on Hitchcock and complain that the ending is too up-in-the-air. “You have to tell the audience Mr Sleuth was guilty,” they insist. “Ah,” replies Hitchcock, “but was he?”

Of course the film that best epitomises how Hitchcock could mis-direct audiences and play games with them is the consummate Psycho. Even more than Rope, it shows the influence of Dorian Gray – both book and film – not least in its depiction of a savage knife-murder. Further, the line of influence from Dorian himself via the Novello character in The Lodger to Psycho‘s Norman Bates (the gay Anthony Perkins) is plain. We should consider what this involves. The film owes its basic story and several crucial details (such as Norman’s remark, “We all go a little mad sometimes”) to a 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, itself loosely based on the Ed Gein case in outback Wisconsin. But Hitchcock was always adept at spotting archetypal stories that verged on the surreal. In Norman’s madness he would have sensed the character’s affinity with both the crazed Pengallan and Fane and with Dorian Gray whose defeat and baffling death ends Wilde’s novel. Here I want to return to John Munder Ross. He writes of certain sadomasochists who “find pleasure and profit in self-abnegation… who are [typically] closet thrill seekers who try to soar above life”. Frequently in such cases the sadomasochist will deny being defeated and will continue to defy his adversaries. The example Dr Ross gives is that of brutal boxer Jake LaMotta as we see him in Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). Hanging on the ropes after losing to Sugar Ray Robinson, the ex-champ cries out: “Ray, ya didn’t knock me down. Ya didn’t knock me down, Ray. Fuck you.” (56)


Obviously, Norman the “transvestite” serial-murderer represents an even more extreme case than Jake LaMotta’s. But the principle is the same: Norman’s apparent transvestism is motivated by denial, something the film’s psychiatrist establishes; and the serial murders, not all of them shown onscreen, contain an element of mad defiance. Moreover, it’s a universal principle, as Dr Ross helps us to see. That’s why I think most, if not all, of us attune to the paradigm I’m describing here for certain Hitchcock films; in fact, Hitchcock virtually insists on it. When Lila (Vera Miles) explores Norman Bates’ attic bedroom, she comes upon a 78 rpm record of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony still on the turntable of a wind-up gramophone that Norman probably listened to as a boy. More than just a touch of pathos concerning possible heroic aspirations Norman once had (cf Pengallan and his Great Age), the moment represents another case of Hitchcock outflanking us. If Norman is defeated, then so, in a sense, are we. None of us is a Beethoven. Parallel moments involving classical composers – Mozart, Wagner – occur in The Wrong Man (1957) and The Birds. Of course, if we’re wise, we’ll heed these presumably optimistic reminders of our shared heritage of great art and music, indeed of our life-membership in the human race. It’s not the sort of thing that Norman Bates or Pengallan may finally be capable of heeding but it’s the grace-note that informs even the darkest of Hitchcock’s films. I’ll return to this shortly, when discussing Hitchcock and Chesterton (57).

The idea for the Psycho attic comes from the film of Dorian Gray. Hitchcock’s borrowings from that film are several, and ingenious. He would have remembered the attic, firstly, as the place where Dorian hides the portrait that progressively records every new trace of his corruption while he himself stays youthful, much as Norman Bates retains his boyish looks. Secondly, he would have remembered the attic – and used the idea in Psycho – as being the storeroom of Dorian’s childhood toys, symbolising his lost innocence. Thirdly, he would have remembered the attic as the scene of a murder. And again he borrowed the particular effect from Lewin’s film – a swinging light casting uncanny swaying shadows – though this time he re-located it to the climax of his own film in which Norman Bates in a fruit cellar is exposed as a murderer and apparently a transvestite.

Also, Lewin’s film follows Wilde’s novel in returning to the attic for its finale. A crazed Dorian attacks the portrait as he had once attacked its painter, Basil Hallward. But now it is Dorian who falls dead. The novel records: “There was a cry heard, and a crash.” Lewin employs the same swaying shadows as before and suddenly we see Dorian’s face became as withered and loathsome as the mummified face of Mrs Bates in Psycho. When the servants break in, they survey the scene, aghast. Finally, the camera tracks towards the portrait: it has reverted to how it was when Basil painted it, showing a young man of astonishing grace and beauty.

Wilde’s mysticism, then, represents his own way of outflanking us. One commentator notes: “The ending, with its brutal swiftness and economy, leaves Dorian’s moral status totally ambiguous.” (58) I’m reminded of Psycho‘s use, à la Spellbound, of quasi-religious imagery and the colour white to accompany both the death of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and the scene of a monk-like Norman in his bare cell at the end of the film. (The tone is more muted finally, but the harking back to Marion’s demise is unmistakeable.) When Marion dies, her moral status is indeed “totally ambiguous”. By what right does this secretary from Phoenix, Arizona, whom Hitchcock characterised as “a perfectly ordinary bourgeoise”, and whom we know to be a thief, appear so radiant and “angelic” as she takes her final shower?! Besides, her narrative status in the film is no greater – if no less – than Sibyl Vane’s in Dorian Gray!

As for the scene of Norman in his cell, the essence of it comes from Bloch’s novel, putting us inside the head of a madman (and highlighting the sadomasochism in us all):

She [“Mrs Bates”] sat there for quite a long time, and then a fly came buzzing through the bars.
It lighted on her hand.
If she wanted to, she could reach out and swat the fly.
But she didn’t swat it.
She didn’t swat it, and she hoped they were watching, because that proved what sort of person she really was.
Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…

It’s a brilliant ending, quite as swift and economical as Dorian Gray‘s, and just as baffling. That is, Norman’s own moral status remains in question. Certainly he is dissembling – pretending to be his dead mother – but that “pretence” is perfectly genuine! At least, it’s as genuine as Jake LaMotta’s cry, “Ya didn’t knock me down, Ray. Fuck you.”

In fact, I doubt that the great Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, celebrated for his understanding of the relation between “theatricality” and madness, could have written an ending of more psychological acuity than Psycho‘s. I once noted the likely influence of Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think So) on the ending of the sound version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (59). And a remark by Hitchcock in an interview apropos Psycho strikes exactly the Pirandellian note: “Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.” (60) But there’s a further way of looking at Psycho‘s ending which acknowledges its “religious” trappings. In his continuing, if essentially passive, presence at the end, Norman is a paradox. On the one hand, he behaves like a good Buddhist in refusing to kill a fly! (61) On the other hand, the moment’s sardonic note is unmistakeable, recalling the equally ambivalent ending of Vertigo, with its black-garbed mother superior. (She’s literally the Great Mother.) She may be read as either the embodiment of Scottie’s deferred religious and transcendental aspirations or as a forbidding anti-life figure, sent to punish him (and Judy/Madeleine) for worldly sins. Likewise, Norman finally has either become “motherly” and “angelic”, or he is your archetypal “bad boy” (who is plainly now also mad) (62).


So what exactly is Norman’s status? I’m reminded, as I say, of the mysterious portrait at the end of Dorian Gray. Both it and the last image we have of Norman return us to an ambiguous “innocence”. Ultimately, both images may speak of something best known to artists or mystics. Whatever the exact mystery underlying Dorian Gray, Wilde prepares his readers to perceive it by having Lord Henry speculate repeatedly on matters of soul. For example: “The separation of spirit from matter was a mystery, and the union of spirit with matter was a mystery also.” (Chapter Four) In Norman’s case, we see that in his apparent self-denial he “regresses” to a state of androgyny. But further, and finally, I would invoke what Keats called “the poetic character”: “it is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing…” (63)

Wilde said that Keats was one of the few writers he had “gone more than half-way to meet”. Now, Hitchcock had wanted to show an almost Keatsian loss of identity at the end of Suspicion (1941). In what is probably the most masochistic scene Hitchcock ever sought to film, he had wanted Lina (Joan Fontaine) to willingly drink the poisoned glass of milk brought to her bedside by her ne’er-do-well husband Johnnie (Cary Grant), though admittedly not before she had written a letter that would incriminate him. The scene would have owed much to Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale with its famous lines, “I have been half in love with easeful Death” and “To cease upon the midnight with no pain”. (Prior to this, the film has indeed established Lina’s concern that her expected death by poison be painless.) That indebtedness would have provided the passive aspect of the scene. A pragmatic, aggressive note would have been the business of the letter. “Masochism” would have been balanced by “sadism”, and audiences would have felt the more satisfied.

I should say more about Ode to a Nightingale. Keats’ poem was a favourite with John Buchan, who makes Richard Hannay’s girlfriend cite it at a Notorious-like moment in Mr Standfast (1919). The poem might have provided the title of what became Vertigo had Maxwell Anderson’s draft screenplay called “Darkling I Listen” met with Hitchcock’s approval. (It didn’t.) The idea of being “half in love with easeful Death” clearly intrigued Hitchcock – hints of it are felt at moments in Rebecca, Suspicion, The Trouble With Harry, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. And a personal anecdote may show that a concern with Keats’ poem, and especially its line “To cease upon the midnight with no pain”, was in the air in the Hitchcock camp as late as 1959 – that is, just when Psycho was being prepared. Author and television writer, the late Talmage Powell, once told me that the title of the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called “No Pain” (airdate: 25 October, 1959), adapted from a short story by him, was not his. The original story had a quite different title. Talmage had no idea where the new title came from until I told him of the Keats connection! Psycho, of course, alludes to “painless” death in its hardware store scene. A sententious customer buying a can of pesticide gives as her opinion, “Insect or man, death should always be painless.” (64)

In sum, Psycho makes its own appeal to both “sadists” and “masochists”. Appropriately, it was the nature of “the poetic character” to be protean. And recall Hitchcock’s “Everything’s perverted in a different way.” That remark, I suggest, shows a profound, Schopenhauerian grasp of how things are: Schopenhauer was a major influence on the Symbolists and thus on Oscar Wilde. The implications for how Wilde and Hitchcock saw their art are what I need to consider next.

What “pure cinema” is almost bound to express

Another of Wilde’s aphorisms in the Preface to Dorian Gray reads: “From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.” The first sentence echoes essayist Walter Pater who, like Huysmans and Wilde, promoted “art for art’s sake”. Famously, Pater’s The Renaissance (1873) contains a passage that begins, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”. One can see in it the underpinning for Hitchcock’s notion of “pure cinema”. And the second sentence, referring to the craft of the actor, can remind us of the ubiquitous references to the theatre in Hitchcock. A playgoer all of his life, and with many theatrical friends, Hitchcock was not one to undervalue actors and their function. Nonetheless, like the rest of us, actors must be put in their place! “All the world’s a stage” applies to everybody, not just actors – and, besides, “pure cinema” trumps even the actors’ expressiveness. “Actors are [merely] cattle”, Hitchcock often said. I see an analogy here with Schopenhauer’s distinction between the fundamental Will of the world (the world’s single underlying reality, roughly the life-force) and mere Representation (appearance, in all its multitudinous, and therefore secondary, aspects). But let’s concentrate for now on Hitchcock and actors, of whom the director himself was necessarily one. The poet should be a “chameleon”, Keats had felt.

Hitchcock’s art, like Wilde’s, might sometimes be cruel but it was nearly always “lucid”. Certainly Hitchcock could be introspective. For example, he evidently put part of himself into the epicene Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) in Notorious (1946) (65). Alex, although a Nazi, and the film’s nominal villain, is highly empathic, to the point of seeming at times bisexual. When he first takes Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) to lunch in Rio de Janeiro, he remarks on the presence of US security boss Prescott (Louis Calhern) at a nearby table: “Rather handsome, isn’t he?” Of course, the charming Alex is here imagining Alicia’s feelings, exactly as a good director must do when he enters into his various characters’ states of mind. Hitchcock, indeed, always told his actors that they needed to be part masculine and part feminine in order to get inside a character (66). Obviously this reflects on the tendency of the films themselves to be “androgynous”.

The director is often said to have seen his “real”, inner self as Cary Grant, his handsome, bisexual star! (67) Had he once identified in similar fashion with Dorian Gray whose androgyny Camille Paglia notes? (68) For that matter, had Wilde himself identified with Dorian? (69) After all, according to John Munder Ross, we all start out androgynous, though later we may struggle “manfully” not to revert to that condition! It’s crucial to Rebecca that such a person is the rigidly patriarchal Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), whose beautiful late wife’s polymorphous and bisexual nature he had found not just shocking but threatening. By contrast, Dorian Gray makes no apology for its eponymous character’s beauty, even allowing him his cruelty to Sibyl Vane. Hence Paglia speaks of “the Nietzschean privilege conveyed by beauty” (70). She notes that Dorian could draw heterosexuals into bisexual responses, and cites an incident where Dorian, depressed, wanders into Covent Garden:

A white-smocked carter offered him some cherries. He thanked him, and wondered why he refused to accept any money for them, and began to eat them listlessly. (Chapter Seven)

The carter’s “mute pagan offering to Dorian’s remarkable beauty” (as Paglia calls it) (71) has implications for Hitchcock’s mode of filmmaking.

At an obvious level, because male pulchritude in stars went down well with audiences, Hitchcock took full advantage of it. Ivor Novello, Carl Brisson, James Stewart, and Cary Grant all appear in Hitchcock films stripped to the waist. Further, for storytelling purposes, Hitchcock might manipulate audiences at a subconscious level in matters of sexuality. When, early in Under Capricorn (1949), ex-groom Flusky (Joseph Cotten) literally “propositions” personable young aristocrat Adare (Michael Wilding), the possibility of a homosexual liaison is not immediately discounted. The possibility lends piquancy to what proves to be a dubious land deal that Flusky wants to transact. Nor does Hitchcock seem to have worried that audiences for Rope might have realised that it was a film about gays! My guess is that he reckoned on the “pagan” in each viewer to accept the drama as intrinsically interesting, given the quality of his stars. (Nonetheless, the film did meet resistance in some communities, and was banned outright in France and Italy.)

To Catch a Thief

As for female stars, and fetishes involving them – bejewelled Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) in To Catch a Thief (1955) is both “collector” and “collected”; Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) in Marnie (1964) is “queer for liars” – Hitchcock’s films are a banquet. He often spoke of allowing audiences to “hunt with the hounds and run with the hare”, meaning, for one thing, that he reckoned on our sadomasochistic natures; but also, he liked to include both glamour, and plenty of it, and a healthy serve of kink on the side. I’ve already quoted Wilde explaining the nature of his art and lifestyle as “intensification of personality”; Hitchcock took that Pateresque idea to heart and, moreover, strove to make films where “life” itself is intensified (72). His description of them as “life with the dull bits left out” gives the general idea – no boredom, notice. Like Wilde, Hitchcock inserted his personality into all of his work, making his droll humour a feature. Most people, I suspect, warm to him because of that humour, even though, figuratively speaking, it might seem to “feminise” the films… (73)

Nonetheless, besides the humour, Hitchcock’s film persona drew on his use of often cruel touches of realism or sometimes poetic realism. He could be particularly hard on extras – no glamour for them! And he could be hard on us. In Foreign Correspondent (1940) he shows us the bloodied face of a man shot at point-blank range by an assassin (74). In The Birds the death of Dan Fawcett is staged as a surreal tableau of the farmer’s bloodied eye-sockets and a seagull impaled within a window pane as if still in “free flight”. A further telling touch, only “moralistic” up to a point, is the overturned glass case of stuffed birds nearby. Had those birds once belonged to Norman Bates whose “cruel” hobby was taxidermy? (75)

Actually, it isn’t hard to see that scene, too, as Wildean, resembling in its stillness and opposed elements the tableau of Dorian’s horrific death at the end of the novel. Wilde’s own art regularly alternated humour and cruelty, imparting what is essentially a “life rhythm” (more accurately, a “life/death rhythm”) to his novel’s very form. It’s a rhythm consistent, I suggest, with Dorian’s despairing cry to Basil Hallward before he kills him: “Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him”. (Chapter Thirteen) So I come back to my rhetorical question of whether either Hitchcock or Wilde may have identified with the androgynous Dorian. I’ll give a qualified “yes”. Certainly both men must have speculated on the bigger picture of what forces acted upon Dorian to bring about his downfall. Nonetheless, both men’s androgyny may have opened them to that bigger picture. I’ve suggested how the arcane mystery of Dorian Gray and of a Hitchcock film like Psycho is one best known to artists or mystics. Hitchcock’s favourite painter, Paul Klee, indeed, spoke of “chosen” artists who “penetrate to… that secret place where primeval power nurtures all evolution” (76). Well, Hitchcock and Wilde were both evidently privileged to visit such a place many times. Consequently, they saw the bigger picture better than most of us. And it’s only another paradox that “art for art’s sake” or “pure cinema” may express that bigger picture so well.

What G.K. Chesterton gave Hitchcock


I’ll specify in a moment what “secret place” I believe Hitchcock’s films speak from, and what “bigger picture” they open us to. The legacy of Symbolist/Decadent literature and art was a powerful one and can’t be denied in Hitchcock’s work. However, a writer who initially fell under the spell of the Decadents, but who soon took a stand against “pessimist” writers in general, including Wilde and Joseph Conrad, was G.K. Chesterton – and Chesterton exerted on Hitchcock practically as big an influence as anyone (77). It’s true that Hitchcock chose to film Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), about a circle of anarchists in London, giving it the title Sabotage (1936) and keeping some, at least, of Conrad’s gloomy sense that “things did not stand much looking into” (as the character Winnie Verloc says). The film’s ending, somewhat reminiscent of The Lodger‘s, is nicely ironic that way (78). Nonetheless Hitchcock also chose to make the ending more upbeat than in the novel, where Mrs Verloc drowns herself, and that choice Chesterton would doubtless have approved (79). We must look, then, at just what Hitchcock’s films took from Chesterton, another flamboyant, self-creating artist if ever there was one.

I might almost give what follows the sub-heading “Beyond Wilde”. Of course, sadomasochism, which we’ve been considering here, is a huge topic. Even confining ourselves strictly to Hitchcock, many paradoxes arise. Here’s another. The director once told his composer Bernard Herrmann that he’d like to have been a hanging judge. On the other hand, when we look at The Trouble With Harry below, I’ll be referring to Hitchcock’s undoubted compassion (80). A similar contradiction is one we must all recognise in ourselves. John Munder Ross feels that normal sadomasochism “represents the achievement of moral self-restraint and civilized humanity” (81). And another composer, John Addison, in fact described Hitchcock as “the most civilised man I have ever met”. In looking at Chesterton’s influence on the director, we’ll definitely be noting several positive elements in the films. Now, Chesterton resembled Wilde in perhaps one important way: he too was a master of paradox. It was characteristic of him that although he remained a vigorous opponent of “pessimism” until his death in 1936 he eventually came to think that neither “optimism” nor “pessimism” accurately described his own position. His popular “Father Brown” stories had begun appearing in collected form in 1911, and he himself converted to Catholicism in 1922. It’s likely he created his bespectacled, unassuming priest-detective in reaction to the hubris and immorality he saw in Wilde. He had lampooned a Wilde-type figure as early as the story “The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation” in his first collection of short stories, the whimsical The Club of Queer Trades (1905). That collection concerns another amateur detective, the eccentric ex-judge Basil Grant, who explains on the book’s last page why he had quit the Bench in order to set up unofficial courts to settle purely moral matters:

Before very long these unofficial courts of honour (kept strictly secret) had spread over the whole of society. People were tried before me not for the poetical trifles for which nobody cares, such as committing a murder, or keeping a dog without a licence. My criminals were tried for the faults which really made social life impossible. They were tried before me for selfishness, or for impossible vanity, or for scandal-mongering, or for stinginess to guests or dependants.

It’s a vision worthy of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, and Chesterton contrives to associate it with “a confused sense of everything having been put right, the sense men will have when they come into the presence of God”. But essentially it pokes fun at moral deadness, people’s blind obedience to society’s statutes without an attendant sense of what goodness should actually and spontaneously consist. I detect here a foretaste of parts of Henri Bergson’s philosophy, not to mention of a Hitchcock film like North by Northwest (1959) in which the finally well-chastened hero Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is heard to say, “I never felt more alive”. That same film, of course, takes several swipes at mere traffic-cop morality…

The very spirit of North by Northwest, and of Hitchcock’s “picaresque” thrillers in general, seems evoked in the opening story of Chesterton’s collection, a story called “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown”. Only after a case of mistaken identity has been resolved, and the Major has endured a succession of escapades that seem positively absurd, does he learn of the existence of the Adventure and Romance Agency whose raison d’être is simply this: to involve, for a suitable fee, sedentary modern man in life-affirming adventures close to home. Surely Hitchcock was thinking of the same implicit malaise when he first stated his reason for making thrillers. In 1936 he spoke of how we are in danger of growing “sluggish and jellified”:

[O]ur civilization has so screened and sheltered us that it isn’t practicable to experience sufficient thrills at firsthand. So we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this. (82)

In essays and novels such as The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) – the latter aimed squarely at the gloom of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and again intimating how God may one day set all disorder to rights – Chesterton continued to assail the “pessimists”. But it’s his essay “On the Alleged Optimism of Dickens” (1906) (83) that perhaps best sets out his position, and which again may suggest Hitchcock. In a word, he praises Dickens for being “practical”, contrasting him with naturalist writers like Zola and George Gissing. Dickens invests even his most humble or degraded characters with a liveliness that interests us. I’ll quote a couple of Chesterton’s remarks on this. The first concerns “the central paradox of reform”:

We must insist with violence upon [the oppressed man’s] degradation; we must insist with the same violence upon his dignity. For if we relax by one inch the one assertion, men will say he does not need saving. And if we relax by one inch the other assertion, men will say he is not worth saving. The optimist will say that reform is needless. The pessimist will say that reform is hopeless. We must apply both simultaneously to the same oppressed man; we must say that he is a worm and a god…

Chesterton here speaks of the writer’s “transcendentalism” akin to “the religious view of life”. And again on purely “practical” grounds he contrasts Dickens favourably with Gissing:

Both agreed that the souls of the people were in a kind of prison. But Gissing said that the prison was full of dead souls. Dickens said that the prison was full of living souls. And the fiery cavalcade of rescuers felt that they had not come too late.

From Chesterton (and from Dickens), then, I think Hitchcock drew much of his own lively “transcendentalism”, this scarcely separable from his outflanking technique in, say, Psycho. Also, he was never a social reformer, but he did say of Rear Window: “It shows every kind of human behaviour. The picture would have been very dull if we hadn’t done that.” (My emphasis.) I’ve noted how both Wilde and Hitchcock alternated humour and cruelty, making for the sort of “life/death rhythm” that is achieved in Rear Window (and again in The Trouble With Harry). The sexy Miss Torso is counterpointed, cruelly, with the aging lady sculptor who wears a hearing-aid; Jeff’s girlfriend, high-fashion model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), wonders if she won’t end up left on the shelf and as suicidal as poor Miss Lonely Hearts. The minor characters are mostly only caricatures, like so many of Dickens’ and Chesterton’s characters; but of none of them (except the murdered Mrs Thorwald) do we feel that we have “come too late”. And Hitchcock had this further remark for Truffaut who had just said, only a trifle simplistically, that the texture of the films is made up of fear, sex, and death: “Well, isn’t the main thing that they be connected with life?”

“Not nothing”; The Trouble With Harry

The Trouble With Harry

Someone long ago asked, “Why is there not nothing?” (84) Well, neither “pure cinema” nor Hitchcock’s genial black comedy about a body that won’t stay buried, The Trouble With Harry (1955), is about nothing. Not at all! The director himself drew a practical musical analogy to describe “pure cinema”: it’s “pieces of film put together like notes of music make a melody”. He may have been thinking of Pater’s “condition of music” and perhaps of Flaubert’s “style blanc” (even, less directly, of Keats’ “poetic character”). But I suggest a further analogy can be drawn, namely, with Schopenhauer’s Will. Felt as a life/death “force”, the Will as characterised by Schopenhauer is a blind, amoral cosmic principle, Kant’s supposedly unknowable Ding-an-sich (85). Yet Schopenhauer said of music that it is unique among the arts in being a “copy of the [W]ill itself”. (86) And he proceeded to insist how a musical technique like Wagner’s suspension “is clearly an analogue of the satisfaction of the [individual] will which is enhanced through delay”. (87) That remark must give every Hitchcockian a frisson (88)!

Further, I’d contend that Hitchcock, in striving to think and make “pure cinema”, encountered not something inert, like Harry Worp’s dead body, but forces that are fundamental, and that he gave conscious expression to them. I speak of “forces” advisedly, bearing in mind Schopenhauer’s point that the single Will may be realised at different “levels of objectivity”. (89) The sex drive, with its many “perversions” (including sadomasochism), is especially representative of the Will in humans, as Schopenhauer himself insisted; and Hitchcock’s films naturally foreground it. But another objectification of Will is simply action, or movement, and about this Hitchcock made a revealing comment. To Jean Domarchi and Jean Douchet he described in 1959 his “moving-around principle”:

The idea of the cinematographic chase fascinated me twenty-five years ago. In those days, I understood that the chase film was ideal from a cinematic point of view, not only because it allowed a lot of action, but mostly because the idea of a chase makes possible lots of changes in background scenery. … [And] just as the film – be it in preparation, in the camera, or in the projection booth – has to move around, so in the same way I think the story has to move around also. (90)

“This,” Hitchcock added frankly, “may well be a foolish association of ideas.” No matter! It’s the way he saw things, the way he found the world, and then the way he realised that world on film. I’m reminded in precise ways of Terry Eagleton’s scoffing at Schopenhauer’s “speciously generalizing view” of Will (91). Three pages later Eagleton is expressing admiration that Schopenhauer’s “intense pessimism”, which is inextricably tied to his general position, gives him real insight into how “the fate of the great majority of men and women has been one of suffering and fruitless toil”. (I’ll show in a moment how this is apt to The Trouble With Harry.) Eagleton then adds: “Schopenhauer may not have all of the truth; but he has a larger share of it than the [other] romantic humanists he is out to discredit.” (92)

Lastly, I would contend that Hitchcock had put himself in touch with what Paul Klee calls those creative forces that may – seemingly – triumph even over gravity (as Scottie seeks to do in Vertigo and Poe’s Hans Pfaall attempts to do in “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”). Klee and Hitchcock thus come together in this idea of Klee’s:

If, finally, I may be allowed to pursue these forces, so hostile to earth, until they embrace the life force itself, I will emerge from the oppressively pathetic style to that Romanticism which is one with the universe. (93)

Again and again, Hitchcock’s films seek to present their levelling vision that “it’s all One”. Drawing on what the director had learned from his early mentors, George Fitzmaurice and Graham Cutts, the films are invariably “holistic”, if “subjective”, in conception, and typically “theatrical” in their content and implications. Granted, both the subjectivity and the theatricality imply other “scenes” again, a paradox that Pirandello likewise expressed. The One is elusive and, so to speak, remains offstage. (It’s definitely worth noting that Pirandello was a Schopenhauerian – like J.K. Huysmans, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Robert Hichens, and Charles Chaplin.) But it’s fair to say that the film that comes closest to realising Hitchcock’s corollary idea of “a clear horizon” – that is, his definition of happiness, resembling Chesterton’s – is The Trouble With Harry. It was one of his favourites. He called it affectionately “a nice little pastorale”, and it might almost be a throwback to a silent film like Cecil Hepworth’s bucolic The Pipes of Pan (1923). The titles-sequence, drawn by artist Saul Steinberg, utilises watercolours and line-drawings in the faux-naïf style of Klee. These are laid out as a panorama, a format that Klee himself often favoured. (Of course, the film’s use of VistaVision helped suggest the approach.) A tracking camera reveals in succession birds in trees, a tall white house, more birds in trees under a sunny sky, and finally a horizontal object, a body lying on the ground. This literally stops the camera in its tracks. The body represents Harry, and we may think of how death is traditionally “the great leveller”. This self-contained, “holistic” titles-sequence both summarises and points to the film that now begins.

But what does the film itself point to? Set in Vermont over two enchanted days and nights when the autumn leaves of the maples and the aspens are at their most glorious, Harry depicts a recurring motif of Hitchcock’s films – and a distinctive motif of the Symbolists – a glimpse of “the lost paradise”. (94) Further, in a monograph called Pastoral (1971), Peter Marinelli invokes what we may recognise from John Munder Ross as a familiar paradox: does humankind’s (or anyway the individual’s) first bliss consist in innocence or pleasure? (95) Traditional forms of pastoral, notes Marinelli, allow either. Well, Hitchcock seems to have covered himself by consistently giving his films trajectories in which “religious” and “libidinal” are bound up! So, in Harry, a church bell rings the passing hours while the four principal characters conduct their affairs – literal and otherwise, including side trips to bury and disinter Harry – with what Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) calls “hasty reverence”. It’s a vision of a still-flawed paradise, to be sure, and one on which winter will soon encroach. Again Spellbound‘s Gabriel Valley is a deep reference-point. But the vision highlights another levelling factor, and that’s everyone’s patent subjection to “the ongoing life-force”. (96) Further, the film invokes two different types of “innocence”. Marinelli’s monograph speaks of “pastoral’s double concern for the primitive beginnings of the entire race, and with the primitive beginnings in childhood of the individual”. (97) Harry offers this piece of dialogue between artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) and the Captain:

SAM: I’ll have you know that picture is symbolic of the beginning of the world.
CAPTAIN WILES: That’s where I first heard of the world – kindergarten.

Again Hitchcock is outflanking us! However, the film is lucid about how it’s the artist‘s essentially pastoral vision that may redeem, or anyway entertain and console, us (98).

In Rope, to which Harry is a riposte, a Hitler-like Brandon had proposed murder as the equivalent of art. In Psycho, except for some cheap prints of birds and of angels and the ironic figure of a black cupid, art is absent from the Bates house and motel. But Hitchcock was always in every sense an art-lover and an art connoisseur. Truly, it’s one more paradox of this man that, while making his emotion-charged films, he epitomised Schopenhauer’s conception of the artist as a disinterested genius, one with a protean imagination (99). I trust that I’ve begun to indicate how systematic the film’s design is. It’s easy to overlook the resulting richness (an instance of the art that conceals art). For example, Lesley Brill’s excellent book The Hitchcock Romance (1988) notes the several Christian allusions in Harry but not their complement, allusions to the occult and the pagan (100). Consider the Captain. He speaks of how going hunting with his trusty rifle (“Old Faithful”) and taking “a harmless pot-shot at a rabbit” satisfies his “primitive nature”. After he thinks he has shot and killed Harry, he professes that the omens were there from the start:

First thing I seen, when I rode out this morning, was a double-breasted robin drunk as a hoot-owl from eating fermented choke-cherries. Right away I knew somebody was in trouble.

Actually at least two other people also come to think they have killed Harry – which suggests Hitchcock having fun at the expense of inevitable human subjectivity. It’s a constant motif in Hitchcock: I’m reminded of the self-deceiving characters in Jamaica Inn and of its “old Cornish prayer”. Importantly for my argument, such a motif exactly reflects what Schopenhauer calls the principium individuationis, the principle of individuation. This principle states how subjectivity conceals from us the bigger picture and our essential unity. As scholar Michael Tanner puts the matter: “We are in fact all part of the Primal One, the Will itself, and the individuation that we manifest is something that both guards us from this truth, and gives rise to a great deal of further suffering.” (101)

The Trouble With Harry

Again, all of the characters in Harry are opportunists and adept at committing venial sins! Young Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers) is as amoral as any small boy. When we first see him, playing in the woods, he’s toting both a space-gun and a six-shooter. Later he’ll “swipe” lemonade from his mother, Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine), do a bit of sharp trading with Sam (and complain that Sam got the better of the deal), then con Miss Graveley (Mildred Natwick) into parting with not one but two blueberry muffins.

Thus far, then, I’ve been describing the film largely in terms of its “primitive” content – not least what Schopenhauer calls the “will to life” (102) – and touching on its Symbolist implications. Also, given that the same philosopher stresses how art is valuable “not only for the calming effect of escaping from one’s own will, but because it uniquely displays things as they eternally are” (à la Plato’s Ideas), (103) there’s further Schopenhauerian content, as well as a touch of Bergson, in the film’s wise references to art and time. In a delightful scene set in the “Wiggs Emporium” (the village store), Sam insists on cutting Miss Graveley’s hair so that she may look her best for her rendezvous with the Captain. Sam foresees that “the true Miss Graveley” will be “timeless with love and understanding”. He is never more the artist than when he speaks those words.

What goes unstated – but is implied – is the inverse of the film’s idyll: the “suffering and fruitless toil” that Schopenhauer saw as the lot of most humanity (104). The splendid 1949 novel by Jack Trevor Story does in fact have a passage incorporating that idea:

The dead face of the dead man had given [Sam] the inspiration he needed. The dead face of this man held the millions and millions of dead faces of all the centuries. In that dead face lay all dead humanity; all cold history; all the odd attitudes and mistakes. All the thousands of faces massed together. All the staring eyes of the people as they stood wondering, laughing, weeping, and dull with misunderstanding and ignorance. …

Sam’s portrait of Harry in the film has been likened by French critic Noël Simsolo to a Roualt Christ. It’s a crucial insight. Hitchcock in fact owned a Roualt oil painting, “Le Suaire”/“The Shroud”, and clearly to make Harry a Christ-figure is to invoke a “transfer of guilt” – in this case the guilt and the suffering of all humanity – exactly as the French critics had been saying was a key motif in other Hitchcock films. So, in thus adapting his source novel, Hitchcock was hardly guilty of dumbing down. Like the “practical” Dickens described by Chesterton, he was merely keeping his audience focused on life-matters and on the living souls worth saving of his main characters.

From his near-despair after believing that he shot Harry, the Captain soon recovers. When it seems that nobody is much concerned over Harry’s death – a situation itself Chestertonian and absurdist, with a hidden explanation – he manages to tell himself, “This could turn out to be the luckiest day of my life!” He is proved right. On this day, of all days, two couples meet and fall in love: the Captain and Miss Gravely, Sam and Jennifer. Although the Captain doesn’t appear to recall his remark afterwards, it leaves its trace on us, like the shot of the church that opens the film. We may come to reflect that, to quote a line from North by Northwest, “Luck had nothing to do with it!” There are pre-echoes, too, of The Wrong Man where Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) prays and it seems his prayer is answered, though nobody afterwards acknowledges this.

Altogether, Harry fulfils what Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades says: that “a man should feel… that he was still in the childhood of the world”. The ex-judge in that book would surely throw out a case brought against Harry‘s characters for they lack real pettiness. Recall his words: “People were tried before me not for the practical trifles for which nobody cares, such as committing a murder… My criminals were tried for the faults which really make social life impossible.” Well, Harry‘s main characters seem thoroughly decent and likeable people. One clue to the fact of their goodness is the sheer speed with which they draw together in mutual helpfulness. Another is their own expressed understanding of what, deep down, brings them together:

CAPTAIN WILES: Oh [Miss Graveley’s] a very nice lady, Sam, very nice.
SAM: We’re all nice. I don’t see how anyone could help but like us today.
CAPTAIN WILES: That’s just how
I feel today.

Their somewhat atypical, non-conformist behaviour is, precisely, Chestertonian, being contrasted both with the enforcer mentality of local Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) and with the buttoned-down minds of city people – “people with hats on”, as Sam dismisses them. In fact, we have reached the crux of the film. To a limited extent, as the above dialogue shows, the principium individuationis has on this day been dissolved. I’m especially including the film’s audience in my remark, and I’m talking about the film’s mood. In Schopenhauer’s On the Basis of Morality he writes of how the truly compassionate person makes “less of a distinction than do the rest [of us, most of the time,] between himself and others”:

The others are not non-I for him, but an “I once more”. His fundamental relationship to everyone is, therefore, friendly; he feels himself intimately akin to all beings, takes an immediate interest in their weal and woe, and confidently assumes the same sympathy in them. (105)

Schopenhauer says that the truly compassionate person, like audiences for the best works of art and music, may glimpse “Paradise”. Of course, he doesn’t exactly put it that way. Rather, he says that what Hinduism calls the veil of Mâyâ, illusion, has been torn (106).

Importantly, the phrase “I once more” implies a form of regression, and may evoke, I suggest, the time of our “lost androgyny” before sadomasochism set in, and the battle of the sexes with it! When Sam at the end of the film optimistically envisages a marriage that will bestow mutual freedom, Jennifer feels that he “must be practically unique, then”. Nonetheless, a note of compassion is sounded in several key Hitchcock films, including this one (Arnie’s instinctive “Poor rabbit!”…), (107) and shouldn’t be discounted.

On the other hand, Hitchcock always played it cool (108)! For all Harry‘s implicit concern over its characters’ souls, the film is not like Wilde’s Dorian Gray in speculating on soulful mysteries. Just the mysteries of “life” and “death” served for Hitchcock. He left his characters’ ultimate fates to God. The life/death rhythm of Harry, incorporating rapid fades to black at the end of sequences, anticipates Vertigo, whose camera is forever moving in and out of darkness. (The reference-point there, of course, is Madeleine’s recurring dream of walking down a darkening corridor.) That rhythm is an instance of how so often “pure cinema” may remind us of the working of Will itself. And, as I say, Will is certainly not nothing. But what of Hitchcock’s famous conception of “the MacGuffin”? I’ll end these notes by talking briefly about the relation of the MacGuffin to Hitchcock’s filmmaking generally.

The exemplary MacGuffin in The Trouble With Harry is Harry’s corpse. That’s to say, Harry provides the nominal focus of the film, and is the centre of everyone’s attention. A lot of fuss gets made over him, and an audience has little choice but to join in! But Hitchcock is playing with us, for in fact a MacGuffin is nothing – or nothing much. It is merely what the film revolves around, the almost arbitrary excuse for the film’s story. Hitchcock considered that his “best” MacGuffin was the “government secrets” of North by Northwest: how much more purely nominal could you get? He compared the MacGuffin to “an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”: this seems to have been his version of a story he’d once heard about an “imaginary” mongoose used to confound the “imaginary” snakes of a man who sees things (109). Now, if all this whimsicality has a moral, it may concern the folly of over-abstraction, and Hitchcock took it seriously. “Directors who lose control are concerned with the abstract”, he told Truffaut. Accordingly, a film like Harry is superbly concrete in every department, including, we may note, the mellifluous and variegated score by Bernard Herrmann, which the composer later re-worked as a suite called “Portrait of Hitch”. Harry himself is an object whose corporeity is tested for us early in the film by a passing tramp. Twice he kicks the body before, satisfied that it’s really dead, he removes its shoes for his own use. More opportunism, notice (110)! But here’s my point. How fitting it is that Harry should be an inert object. He is as near to nothing – and as far removed from Will, which transcends categories of both object and subject – as makes no difference. On the other hand, “pure cinema”, while it is much less tangible than all the objects and manifest forces that comprise the film, is the antithesis of the MacGuffin. It represents nothing less than the “ongoing life-force”. Or Will itself. And that is surely the film’s true subject.

Mind you, an audience perceives all of this subjectively! So here matters could become vertiginous! Fortunately the MacGuffin has an important function. It distracts us from what the film is really doing and keeps us focused on the concrete. It thus resembles the “meaning” of a poem, likened by T.S. Eliot to the bone thrown by the burglar to engage the watchdog of the mind while the poem goes about its real business. In Hitchcock’s case, his real business was to give us an experience which, like good music, penetrates to the very core of our being and thrills us both technically, by its suspense and structure, and by its felt connection to “life”. My favourite tribute to the director is John Houseman’s: “[H]is passion was for his work, which he approached with an intelligence and an almost scientific clarity to which I was unaccustomed in the theatre.” (111) This, from the man who helped Orson Welles found the Mercury Theatre!

Alfred Hitchcock


As Director

Number Thirteen (1921) unfinished
Always Tell Your Wife (1922) completed with Seymour Hicks when original director fell ill
The Pleasure Garden (1925) Gainsborough
The Mountain Eagle (1926) Gainsborough; US title Fear o’ God
The Lodger (1926) Gainsborough; US title A Story of the London Fog
Downhill (1927) Gainsborough; US title When Boys Leave Home
Easy Virtue (1927) Gainsborough
The Ring (1927) British International Pictures (B.I.P.)
The Farmer’s Wife (1928) B.I.P.
Champagne (1928) B.I.P.
The Manxman (1929) B.I.P.
Blackmail (1929) B.I.P.
Juno and the Paycock (1930) B.I.P.
Murder! (1930) B.I.P.
Mary (1930) German version of Murder!
The Skin Game
(1931) B.I.P.
Rich and Strange (1932) B.I.P.; US title East of Shanghai
Number Seventeen (1932) B.I.P.
Waltzes from Vienna (1932) Tom Arnold; US title Strauss’ Great Waltz
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) Gaumont British
The 39 Steps (1935) Gaumont British
Secret Agent (1936) Gaumont British
Sabotage (1936) Gaumont British; US title A Woman Alone
Young and Innocent (1937) Gainsborough/Gaumont British; US title The Girl Was Young
The Lady Vanishes (1938) Gainsborough
Jamaica Inn (1939) Mayflower
Rebecca (1940) Selznick
Foreign Correspondent (1940) Walter Wanger/United Artists
The House Across the Bay (1940) Walter Wanger/United Artists (uncredited scenes)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) R.K.O.
Suspicion (1941) R.K.O.
Saboteur (1942) Universal
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Universal
Lifeboat (1944) Twentieth Century Fox
Bon Voyage (1944) Phoenix/British Ministry of Information
Aventure Malgache (1944) Phoenix/British Ministry of Information
Watchtower Over Tomorrow (1945) League of Nations (uncredited scenes)
Spellbound (1945) Selznick
Notorious (1946) R.K.O.
The Paradine Case (1947) Selznick
Rope (1948) Transatlantic/Warner Brothers
Under Capricorn (1949) Transatlantic/Warner Brothers
Stage Fright (1950) A.B.P.C./Warner Brothers
Strangers on a Train (1951) Warner Brothers
I Confess (1953) Warner Brothers
Dial M for Murder (1954) Warner Brothers
Rear Window (1954) Paramount
To Catch a Thief (1955) Paramount
The Trouble with Harry (1955) Paramount
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Paramount
The Wrong Man (1957) Warner Brothers
Vertigo (1958) Paramount
North by Northwest (1959) MGM
Psycho (1960) Paramount
The Birds (1960) Universal
Marnie (1964) Universal
Torn Curtain (1966) Universal
Topaz (1969) Universal
Frenzy (1972) Universal
Family Plot (1976) Universal

Television films directed by Hitchcock

“Revenge” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 2 October 1955
“Breakdown” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 13 November 1955
“The Case of Mr. Pelham” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 4 December 1955
“Back for Christmas” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 4 March 1956
“Wet Saturday” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 30 September 1956
“Mr. Blanchard’s Secret” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 23 December 1956
“One More Mile to Go” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 7 April 1957
“Four O’Clock” Suspicion, NBC, 30 September 1957
“The Perfect Crime” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 20 October 1957
“Lamb to the Slaughter” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 13 April 1958
“Dip in the Pool” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 14 September 1958
“Poison” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, various dates in late 1958
“Banquo’s Chair” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 3 May 1959
“Arthur” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 27 September 1959
“The Crystal Trench” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 4 October 1959
“Incident at a Corner” Ford Star Time, NEC, 5 April 1960
“Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, NEC, 27 September 1960
“The Horseplayer” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, NBC, 14 March 1961
“Bang! You’re Dead!” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, NBC, 17 October 1961
“I Saw the Whole Thing” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CBS, 11 October 1962

Other credits

Call of Youth (Hugh Ford, 1921–22) Title Writer and Designer
The Great Day (Hugh Ford, 1921–22) Title Writer and Designer
The Princess of New York (Donald Crisp, 1921–22) Title Writer and Designer
Tell Your Children (Donald Crisp, 1921–22) Title Writer and Designer
Three Live Ghosts (George Fitzmaurice, 1921–22) Title Writer and Designer
Woman to Woman (Graham Cutts, 1922) Designer, Assistant Director, Script Collaborator
The White Shadow (Graham Cutts, 1923) Designer, Assistant Director, Script Collaborator
The Passionate Adventure (Graham Cutts, 1924) Designer, Assistant Director, Scriptwriter
The Blackguard (Graham Cutts, 1925) Designer, Assistant Director, Scriptwriter
The Prude’s Fall (Graham Cutts, 1925) Designer, Assistant Director, Scriptwriter; US title Dangerous Virtue
Elstree Calling
(1930) B.I.P.; worked on scenes and connecting episode
An Elastic Affair (1930) supervised student film made at Elstree
Lord Camber’s Ladies (Benn W. Levy, 1932) B.I.P.; Producer
Forever and a Day (1943) writer (uncredited); episode directed by René Clair after Hitchcock withdrew
F3080/Memory of the Camps (1945/1985) Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force; Advisor/Supervisor; footage of concentration camps, not released at time – originally known just by file number at Imperial War Museum (F3080), eventual title given to edited version released in 1985

Select Bibliography

Five essential books

François Truffaut, with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott, Hitchcock, rev. ed., Simon & Schuster, New York, 1984.

Donald Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius, Collins, London, 1983.

Sidney Gottlieb (ed.), Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, Faber & Faber, London, 1995.

Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work, Phaidon, London, 2000.

Michael Walker, Hitchcock’s Motifs, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2005.

Five reference books

Dan Auiler (ed.), Hitchcock’s Notebooks: An Authorized and Illustrated Look Inside the Creative Mind of Alfred Hitchcock, Avon Books, New York, 1999.

Jane E. Sloan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995.

Thomas Leitch, The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock, Facts on File, New York, 2002.

Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Wiley, Chichester, 2003.

Sidney Gottlieb (ed.), Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003.

Five aesthetic or critical studies

Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval (eds), Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Mazzotta, Montreal, 2000.

Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, Methuen, New York, 1988.

Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, rev. ed., Columbia University Press, New York, 2002.

Theodore Price, Hitchcock and Homosexuality: His 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper and the Superbitch Prostitute – A Psychoanalytic View, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ and London, 1992.

Maurice Yacowar, Hitchcock’s British Films, Archon, Connecticut, 1977.

Ten others

Richard Allen and Sam Ishii-Gonzáles (eds), Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, BFI, London, 1999.

Richard Allen and Sam Ishii-Gonzáles (eds), Hitchcock Past and Future, Routledge, London and New York, 2004.

Charles Barr, English Hitchcock, Cameron & Hollis, Moffat, 1999.

Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988.

Robert J. Corber, In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1993.

Steven DeRosa, Writing With Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes, Faber & Faber, New York, 2001.

Leonard J. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 1988.

Ken Mogg (and others), The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Titan Books, London, 1999. [Note: unfortunately there is an American edition which is severely cut, reduced, and even “bowdlerised”.]

Tony Lee Moral, Hitchcock and the Making of “Marnie”, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 2002.

James M. Vest, Hitchcock and France: The Forging of an Auteur, Praeger, Westport, 2003.


Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1959. [Still the best deep analysis of “Hitchcock” there is! (My friend Prof. Tony Williams finds Brown very astute on “Kubrick”, too!)]

Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.

The Hitchcock Annual, Department of Media Studies, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT 06825-1000, USA, published each (Northern) Spring.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Alfred Hitchcock and The Fighting Generation by Alain Kerzoncuf

Alfred Hitchcock’s Trailers by Alain Kerzoncuf and Nándor Bokor

Alfred Hitchcock’s Trailers: Part II by Alain Kerzoncuf and Nándor Bokor

The Alfred Hitchcock Story (by Ken Mogg) review by Bill Krohn

Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan: The Art of Creative Transformation by Tony Williams

Back to Freud! Superbitch! Alfred Hitchcock’s 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper and the Eternal Prostitute. A Psycho-analytic Interpretation by Theodore Price review by Ken Mogg

“Back for Christmas” (episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) by Ken Mogg

“Banquo’s Chair” (episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) by Ken Mogg

Between Heads: Thoughts on the Merry Widow Tune in Shadow of a Doubt by Patrick Crogan

Boy Meets Girl: Architectonics of a Hitchcockian Shot by Murray Pomerance

Cutting the Flow: Thinking Psycho by Bill Schaffer

The Day of the Claw: A Synoptic Account of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds by Ken Mogg

Drella and the MacGuffin by Michael Eaton

English Hitchcock (by Charles Barr) review by Tony Williams

Hitchcock’s Aventure Malgache (or the True Story of DZ 91) by Alain Kerzoncuf

Hitchcock’s Cryptonymies, Volume 1: Secret Agents by Tom Cohen reviewed by Polona Petek

Hitchcock and Hume Revisited: Fear, Confusion and Stage Fright by John Orr

Hitchcock, Machines and Us by Tag Gallagher

I Confess by Ken Mogg

I Confess – Historical Note by Bill Krohn

Inside Notorious by Adrian Martin

A Long Hard Look at Psycho (by Raymond Durgnat) review by Ken Mogg

A Long Hard Look at Psycho (by Raymond Durgnat) review by Charles Barr

Modernity – A Film By Alfred Hitchcock by Peter J. Hutchings

Oedipus at Los Angeles: Hitch and the Tragic by David Kelly

The Parted Eye: Spellbound and Psychoanalysis by David Boyd

“The ragged end of nowhere”: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) by Lauren Carroll Harris

Recuperation and Rear Window by Murray Pomerance

The Remake of Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998): Creativity or Cinematic Blasphemy by Constantine Santas

Renegotiating Romanticism and the All-American Boy Child: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry by Adrian Schober

Shock, Horror, Spirit: Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): Part One by Ken Mogg

Shock, Horror, Spirit: Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): Part Two by Ken Mogg

A Tale of Two Psychos (Prelude to a Future Reassessment) by Steven Jay Schneider

Trafic Issue No. 41: Hitchcock/Lang (Printemps 2002) review by David Ehrenstein

Two Books on Alfred Hitchcock: Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd and Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, Volume 2 by Sidney Gottlieb (ed.) review by Ken Mogg

Two More Books on Hitchcock: Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr, and Must We Kill the Thing We Love? Emersonian Perfectionism and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock by William Rothman review by Ken Mogg

Vectoral Cinema by McKenzie Wark

The Vertigo of Time by John Conomos

Web Resources

The World of Alfred Hitchcock
A site dedicated to Hitchcock. Includes up to date news and a forum.

The Definitive Alfred Hitchcock Resource
Includes links to Hitchcock scripts downloadable from the Web and a vast links page.

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to online articles on Hitchcock can be found here.


  1. AH interviewed by Ian Cameron and V.F. Perkins, Movie, #6, January 1963, pp. 4–6. Reprinted in Sidney Gottlieb (ed.), Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, pp. 44–54. The remark quoted is on p. 51. It suggests AH’s belief in an ultimate Oneness (something I’ll take up in the text). Cf it with what Guy tells Bruno in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950): “That everything has its opposite close beside it.” (Chapter 33)
  2. Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, Methuen, New York, 1988, p. 42.
  3. For example, British journalist Dennis Barker interviewed AH on the set of Frenzy in 1971. Impressively, the director was surrounded by “a large area of calm”. Asked about this, he attributed it to “heredity… he was lucky enough to have had a very placid mother.” Theorists of early childhood, like D.W. Winnicott and W.R.D. Fairbairn, would endorse such a remark! “Good mothering” and a wise coping in later life are linked, they report. Arguably, the benign mood of The Trouble With Harry reflects such an upbringing on AH’s part. Note, too, the name “Constance” of the Ingrid Bergman character in Spellbound. (For more on this, see the text.)
  4. Cf Christine Gledhill, Reframing British Cinema 1918–1928, BFI, London, 2003, p. 116.
  5. Quoted by AH biographer John Russell Taylor in the E! Channel documentary True Hollywood Stories: Alfred Hitchcock (1999).
  6. I might invoke the interactive trinity of Hindu deities, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – creator, preserver, and destroyer respectively. But, sociologically, I think of the master-slave relationship governing society as analysed first by Hegel and subsequently by such writers as Weber and Adorno. Cf John Munder Ross, The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1997, p. 156.
  7. A similar point, about the nature of loving, is made by Ross, p. 144: “’Tragic bliss’ and ‘sweet sorrow’ are the lover’s lot. There can be no pleasure without pain, though later on rational adults try to forget this fact of life.”
  8. Donald Spoto notes that Stevenson’s was another work that AH “had read several times before beginning his film career”: Donald Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Collins, London, 1983, p. 264.
  9. Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Titan Books, London, 1999, p. 148.
  10. See Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval, Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 2000, passim. More particularly, see in that book Cogeval’s essay, “What Brings You to the Museum, Mr Hitchcock?”, pp. 21–38. Specifically, Cogeval notes on p. 32 (he is drawing on research by Elizabeth Bronfen, I think) the striking resemblances between Vertigo and the Belgian Symbolist novella by Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte.
  11. Another Belgian novel that certainly influenced D’Entre les Morts was Georges Simenon’s Lettre à Mon Juge (1947). Narcejac refers to it several times in his 1950 book on Simenon.
  12. As a recent Eng Lit graduate, I once wrote to AH suggesting how apt this Wilde passage is to Vertigo. Mr Hitchcock graciously sent me back a copy of the Truffaut interview book.
  13. Both “Sibyl” (suggesting “witch”) and “Vane” (suggesting both “vacillating” and “vain”) recall conventional 19th century epithets for women. I’m reminded of the notorious misogyny of the philosopher Schopenhauer (major influence on the Symbolists, including J.K. Huysmans). For example, this passage: “The vanity of women… is bad because it is centred entirely on material things…” (Quoted in Christopher Janaway, Schopenhauer, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, p. 53.) Such misogyny may appear in AH’s films, as when Strutt in Marnie calls Marnie “that little witch”, but typically there is a satirical point being made at the expense of the misogynist.
  14. I know that Midge was invented by Vertigo screenwriter Samuel Taylor, but I’m talking of archetypal matters here. The Faust myth can also be detected in Strangers on a Train, something Guy Cogeval points out. See Païni and Cogeval, p. 37.
  15. Camille Paglia discusses this idea, which comes from Walter Pater, in her essay on Dorian Gray in Sexual Personae, Penguin Books, London, 1991, pp. 520–21.
  16. Thomas Elsaesser, “The Dandy in Hitchcock” in Richard Allen and Sam Ishii-Gonzalès (eds), Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays, BFI, London, 1999, pp. 3–14.
  17. I thank Bill Krohn who suggested to me A Rebours as the inspiration for AH’s blue-food dinner.
  18. Paglia, p. 431.
  19. See Shehira Doss-Davezac, “Schopenhauer according to the Symbolists” in Dale Jacquette (ed.), Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 249–76. That essay begins: “Almost all the painters, writers and critics of the late nineteenth century in France frequently mentioned the influence of Schopenhauer on their ideas. Every literary critic and art historian writing on that period today associates the Symbolists with Schopenhauer.”
  20. AH attended a Jesuit-run school for several years. Wilde’s character Dorian Gray was himself greatly attracted, we’re told, to “the Roman [Catholic] ritual”, particularly the Mass. It “stirred him… [with] the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize” (Chapter Eleven). Cf my comments later concerning the painting of Harry Worp in The Trouble With Harry.
  21. Cf Paglia, p. 431: “The novel ends with the ailing aesthete forced to return to society and nature. So the Decadent enterprise fails.”
  22. Ross, p. 142. The phrase “plunge back into [our] boundless beginning” is significant for what Ballyntine in Spellbound comes close to doing at Gabriel Valley. The downhill ski journey there is one more of AH’s “regressions” like, say, Handel Fane’s plunge to his death in Murder!. I discuss these matters in the text.
  23. Ross, p. 167.
  24. Cf Ross, pp. 168–69.
  25. In Paradise Lost Milton makes Gabriel “Chief of the angelic guards” placed over Paradise. I take the allusion to Gabriel in Spellbound to have come from AH himself, as Gabriel had also been invoked in AH’s previous film, the wartime short, Aventure Malgache, made in England for the MOI.
  26. As in Freudian dream-analysis, so in AH’s films, there are actually few “accidents”! The one in Spellbound seems in fact motivated by (or anyway to trigger unconscious thoughts of) a case of sibling rivalry, which, during the Oedipal crisis, can be very fierce. Motivated “accidents” also occur in Rebecca and Marnie
  27. Brulov, a widower, is associated with both male and female symbols (a paper-knife, a glass of milk). Androgyny, I recall Camille Paglia pointing out, is a characteristic of certain professions, including that of talk-show host. I think AH had an androgynous personality, actually.
  28. Ross, pp. 158–59.
  29. Of course, Dr Brulov has been heard more than once warning John and Constance that the marriage bed isn’t necessarily all roses!
  30. Spoto, p. 264.
  31. On AH’s attitude towards the Nietzschean Superman – resembling Buchan’s and, I think, G.K. Chesterton’s – see Mogg, pp. 49, 70, 88–89, and also my review that’s on the Screening the Past website of Mark Glancy’s monograph The 39 Steps (2003). Philosophically, I consider AH’s position not so much Nietzschean as akin to that of Nietzsche’s predecessor, Schopenhauer. Whether that makes AH less of a philosopher is not my point: I describe AH as I find him!
  32. Arthur Laurents, Original Story By, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000, pp. 130–31.
  33. Rupert’s ambiguous character provides a typical instance of what I call in the text AH’s “outflanking” technique. Cf next note.
  34. Camille Paglia, p. 523, glosses this as follows: “[Wilde] means that the good are ruled by abstract systems, ethical and social, while the not-good are ruled by personality alone, their ‘intensification of personality’… generating a seductive glamour.” It’s this paradox that AH’s films, and their charming villains, often tease us with. Hero Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest spends the film breaking free of “abstract systems” and becoming more life-intense (being finally heard to say, “I never felt more alive!”) so that he can match it with the art-loving, bisexual, essentially Nietzschean villain Vandamm (in his mountain-top eyrie). Brandon in Rope may be considered a predecessor of Vandamm. Rupert in that film teeters on being such a person. Now, I mention in the text AH’s “outflanking” technique. I find significant the fact that Schopenhauer saw the cosmic Will as itself often “villainous” and characterised it as a blind, amoral, life/death “force”, both creative and destructive, that we all partake of (something which the meal in Rope may symbolise – see the main text). Cf next note.
  35. It is never spoken in Rope either, of course. But nor is it an issue there. What is being flaunted in Rope is an insidious atmosphere of evil. Whereas The Trouble With Harry, which I discuss later, is the very opposite. Nonetheless both films deal with “subjective” worlds while showing the pervasive working of Will (which, I’ll argue in the text, has its analogue in “pure cinema”). This situation represents the point of the present article.
  36. Cf Pierre Gras, “Hitchcock: Eating and Destruction”, in Païni and Cogeval, p. 132. There, Gras writes: “Clearly, the two murderers are trying to have the body symbolically eaten: the victim is both absent (the guests exclaim over the victim’s disappearance) and present through the act of symbolic cannibalism.”
  37. Simon Wilson, Surrealist Painting, Phaidon Press, London, 1975, p. 13.
  38. AH had sought Hemingway to write the screenplay of Lifeboat (1944). It’s likely that the director had already become intrigued by details of Hemingway’s life, including his possible repressed homosexuality and his treatment in his fiction of themes of impotence, androgyny, etc. Hemingway’s mother reportedly dressed him in girl’s clothing for several years longer than was the norm, a juicy detail which finds its way into Saboteur (1942) where it is assigned to one of the fifth-columnists who is also the butt of veiled references to gayness. Hemingway himself, if he wasn’t already impotent, became so in 1944 after a car accident in Europe where he had gone to cover the War. (Another Hemingway-related matter: in The Trouble With Harry, the Edmund Gwenn character conceals a hunting-rifle from the prying eyes of the local Deputy Sheriff by walking with it pressed against his leg. I think I once read in an article on Hemingway that this ruse was used by partisans in the Spanish Civil War.)
  39. Or of Huysmans’ Des Esseintes. There’s a powerful passage, obviously inspired by Schopenhauer, in Chapter Thirteen of that novel, speculating on why society tries so hard to keep human life in this harsh world, “and all this merely to put [the young person] in a condition to [fight wars and] slaughter his fellows without risking the scaffold, as common murderers do…” Shades again of (the Schopenhauerian) Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux.
  40. Humankind’s inhumane treatment of “our feathered friends” provides the theme of the trailer for The Birds. Our blindness or indifference to what we are doing is also implied in Psycho in the hardware store scene where the lady customer buys a can of insecticide without finally, despite all her talk, knowing whether it kills painlessly or not. Sam and Lila give her a bemused look as she exits. Of course, when I speak here of AH’s “outflanking” technique, I’m referring to something that has many, many variants in the films. Sometimes, the technique amounts to just anticipating an audience’s questions. In The Birds, Mrs Bundy asks Melanie, “What do you think the birds were trying to do, Miss Daniels?” Melanie answers: “To kill them [the schoolchildren].” Now the matter is out in the open.
  41. I notice, though, that Nina Auerbach in her Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2000, p. 149, suggests that Mrs Bundy may represent Du Maurier herself, the bisexual author of the original short story.
  42. I’m thinking of the inn scene in The Paradine Case, in which Keane tries to intimidate Latour, and of the scene in Norman Bates’ office in Psycho where Sam attempts to bully Norman. A comparable scene in Stage Fright, involving a bloodstained doll, is directed at Charlotte Inwood played by the bisexual Marlene Dietrich representing “Germany” and “guilt” (though Dietrich herself had roundly denounced Hitler, of course).
  43. Robert Hichens, The Paradine Case (1933), Chapter XXIII.
  44. Broadly, this scene invokes E.A. Dupont’s Variete/Vaudeville (1925) which had clearly influenced AH’s The Ring (1927). But it may also allude to A Rebours and the time when Des Esseintes had courted the circus acrobat named Miss Urania, a transsexual (Chapter Nine). In turn, we know that AH was remembering the real-life trapeze artist Vander Barbette, apparently a transvestite, who had appeared briefly in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930).
  45. There is no big top scene in the novel. Instead, Fane flees for his life into the East End – another echo of Dorian Gray and his sordid haunts – and is last seen swimming towards a Spanish-bound freighter in the Thames.
  46. Needlessly, Dominique Païni appears to see only negativity in this particular Hitchcockian motif. In his piece called “All the World’s a Stage…” in Païni and Cogeval, pp. 245–46, he writes: “The strong current of violence running through his stories and their dénouements in places of entertainment reveal, far more than Hitchcock’s legendary black humour, a sense of disenchantment and a worldview tarnished by derision.” (I might ask: why “tarnished”? I find such a “levelling” notion, especially as applied by a philosopher like Schopenhauer, in ways similar, I think, to AH’s, to be both honest and compassionate.)
  47. As so often in Hitchcock, Sir John’s motives are all along mixed (though clearly his mental state advances beyond an initial near-sedentary narcissism: cf Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest). Pointedly, the girl he ends up marrying, Diana Baring, had shown an interest in Fane, to the stage where Fane had contemplated proposing to her. As for everyone wanting “more life” (as suburbanite Fred Hill demands in Rich and Strange [1932], the isolated crofter’s wife pines for in The 39 Steps, and Scottie aggressively seeks in Vertigo), the “Nietzschean” side of AH goes along with it, but the “Schopenhauerian” side of him critiques it.
  48. That is to say, like Erskine Childers’ classic spy adventure The Riddle of the Sands (1903), many of Buchan’s adventure stories, including The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), begin with a man bored in London. (Didn’t Dr Johnson proclaim, “A man who is tired of London is tired of life”?)
  49. The end of Rear Window reminds me in fact of the end of A Rebours, which is about another life-threatening attempt to keep the world at a distance, to know it only symbolically (or through a lens darkly, in the case of photographer Jeff). On his doctor’s orders, a chastened Des Esseintes finally returns to society, and the novel concludes: “He realized at last that the arguments of pessimism were powerless to comfort him; that the impossible belief in a future life could be the only calmant.” (My italics.) As the present essay seeks to show, referencing AH’s admiration of the anti-pessimistic Chesterton, this is a very Hitchcockian position to arrive at. After all, marriage at the end of a Hitchcock film can represent, for both characters and audience, more than one kind of “belief in a future life”. (Marriage doesn’t appear to be an option for Des Esseintes, though.) Significantly, Spoto has spoken of AH’s “open-ended pessimism” (quoted in Neil P. Hurley, Soul In Suspense, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ & London, 1993, pp. xiii–xiv).
  50. Its first draft was written by “Clemence Dane”, co-author of the novel Enter Sir John (1929) on which, as I’ve noted, Murder! was based.
  51. No sense of an impersonal God here. Without saying that AH wasn’t himself a Believer, I note that the “subjectivity” seen here is frequently critiqued in AH films. (Cf Rope, where Brandon usurps to himself the God-like power of the Superman ideal.)
  52. Played by Marie Ney, she may be seen to anticipate the character of Lila Crane in the later part of Psycho. Lila is someone else who must painfully learn patience, though she has earlier pointedly said: “Patience doesn’t run in my family.” (A motif of waiting, with multi-levelled implications, is pronounced in both Psycho and several other key Hitchcock films.)
  53. Huysmans and Wilde certainly underpinned AH’s attitude to what he privately called “the moron millions”. But in fact such an attitude was almost de rigueur amongst British intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, especially after T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land came out in 1922 depicting its crowds of office workers swarming across London Bridge with the dead of Dante’s Inferno. “The implication”, writes John Carey, “seems to be that London’s crowds are not really alive…” (John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, Faber, London, 1992, p. 10.) The starts of Rich and Strange and North by Northwest both seem indebted to Eliot, I have argued: see, for example, Mogg, 1999, p. 154.
  54. Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger, 1913, Chapter XI.
  55. That blonde sister, and her Mary Pickford look-alikes in the same film, whom The Avenger preys on, provide the archetype for all AH’s blonde heroines to come.
  56. Ross, p. 155.
  57. See the discussion of The Trouble With Harry later in the text. Significantly, Brandon in Rope has failed artistic aspirations, as do the Bruno character in Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train and the Scottie character in Boileau and Narcejac’s D’Entre les Morts. (Related shadings are given Bruno and Scottie in the films.)
  58. Jack Sullivan, entry on “Wilde, Oscar (1854–1900)” in Jack Sullivan (ed.), The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, Viking, New York, 1986, pp. 464–65. The entry also notes: “Reversing the ancient doctrine of mimesis, [Wilde] argued that life – which he considered essentially a bore – should imitate art instead of the opposite.”
  59. Mogg, 1999, p. 26. Pirandello’s play, which in several respects reminds me of Psycho itself, had its first London performance in 1925, when it starred Claude Rains.
  60. AH in interview with Huw Wheldon, The Listener, August 6, 1964, pp. 189–90. Reprinted in Gottlieb, pp. 67–72. The remark I’ve quoted is on p. 70. Cf Ross, p. 106: “Most people cannot readily look at and think about themselves. Often they do not like what they see. … So… [like] the patricidal and incestuous King Oedipus, they blind themselves.”
  61. In the film, the line I’m referring to picks up on the scene with the insecticide customer in the hardware store, of course. (The novel has no matching dialogue in its hardware store scene.) But, further, I’m saying that’s not the end of the matter…
  62. I briefly comment in a separate note on the irony of the black cupid (winged, of course, like Norman’s stuffed birds), in the vestibule of the Bates house. Now, let me be clear. Marion‘s knifing to death in the shower, beneath a halo-like shower nozzle, recalls the framed picture of ascending angels on Norman’s wall, a picture literally overshadowed by a bird with a knife-like beak. (The “angels” motif in Psycho is in fact extensive, but I shan’t elaborate it here.) At this point Norman/“Mrs Bates” is the bird of prey, clearly – and, yes, I dare say AH may be punning on the words “prey”/“pray”! But later, in his cell, draped in a blanket, Norman is at once a mother-figure (the script likens the blanket to a cashmere shawl), a Buddhist monk, one of his own stuffed birds (“they’re kind of passive to begin with”, he had remarked), and even the dead Marion (the blanket can invoke the shower curtain that served as Marion’s shroud). The dull white walls of the cell echo, after a fashion, the gleaming white walls of the bathroom where Marion died, and remind us of her death even while implying “all passion spent” (as the not-irrelevant last line of Milton’s Samson Agonistes has it). Thus Norman’s feminisation is now complete.
  63. Cf Keats’ related concept of “negative capability” (total empathy). And here’s a remark by Douglas Bush included in the entry on negative capability in the Oxford Companion to English Literature: “As artist [Keats] fluctuates – and is aware of his fluctuation – between belief in the poetic efficacy of a wise passiveness, and belief in the active pursuit of rational knowledge and philosophy.” Keats’ ambivalence, which must be shared by many artists and other sensitive people at various times, certainly anticipated an ambivalence of Nietzsche towards the “feminising” tendency of Wagnerian opera. In succumbing to the all-mastering music, say Nietzsche, “one walks into the sea, gradually losing one’s secure footing, and finally surrenders oneself to the elements without reservation.” (Quoted in Modleski, p. 35.) Needless to point out, a similar process may threaten Hitchcock’s audiences!
  64. Something else about this scene commenting on society’s unthinking sadomasochism is how it repeats the mordant irony of Murder! where a meek little man on the murder jury gives his verdict: “Oh, guilty, I suppose.” (As noted already, the customer in the hardware store never does ascertain whether the insecticide kills painlessly – but she buys it anyway. For further analysis, see Mogg, 1999, p. 159. Functionally, I would liken this scene, which follows Marion Crane’s murder, to the porter’s scene in Macbeth.)
  65. AH’s first choice of actor to play Alex had been Clifton Webb.
  66. Spoto, p. 86. Tania Modleski makes a similar point to mine when, apropos Sir John in Murder!, she says: “he must identify with the film’s heroine, Diana, must put himself in her position (like the actor he is) in order to think through her crime”. Modleski has just noted how the lordly Sir John, during his visit to the crime scene, has mimicked the voice of Mrs Mitcham’s maid in order to disabuse Mrs Mitcham of her belief that “you can’t mistake a woman’s voice”. (Acting, Hitchcock may be implying, can make us whole again.) See Modleski, pp. 38–39.
  67. However, this has been emphatically denied recently by John Russell Taylor! See Taylor’s article, “The Truth about Hitch and Those Cool Blondes”, dated April 05, 2005, which appeared on the Times Online website. Taylor adds: “it [occurs] to me that it was actually his heroines that he identified with. Which makes him a masochist rather than the sadist of legend, doesn’t it?”
  68. Paglia, p. 512.
  69. Only up to a point, it seems. Wilde wrote in a letter (dated 12 February, 1894): “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.”
  70. Paglia, p. 515.
  71. Paglia, p. 522.
  72. In my review on this website of Grahame Smith’s book, Dickens and the Dream of Cinema (2003), I suggest that AH, like Dickens, strove to give audiences an effect of “all-at-onceness” (or to show such a condition not occurring in the case of someone like Manny in The Wrong Man).
  73. A huge topic. Let’s just say that the “preposterous” note that characterises much of Vertigo sets it apart from, say, Resnais’ relatively humourless L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961).
  74. AH had of course seen Battleship Potemkin (1925).
  75. Beauty and cruelty. There’s an interesting response to this scene of impaled bird and overturned glass case, invoking some of Joseph Cornell’s “window boxes”, in a book by Michael Gould, Surrealism and the Cinema, A.S. Barnes/Tantivy, London, 1976, pp. 112–14 (includes illustrations). I used to find such associations to the director’s work flimsy. But clearly Hitchcock composed frames and constructed scenes by taking inspiration from diverse sources very much as Gould and others imply (and show). As for Norman’s “cruel” hobby of taxidermy (only birds, though, because “they’re kind of passive to begin with”), it’s likely that he was responding sadomasochistically to his own subjection to “the cruel eyes” of which he speaks at one point.
  76. Paul Klee, Paul Klee on Modern Art, Faber, London, 1966, p. 49.
  77. See, especially, Spoto, pp. 40–42.
  78. Again the fallible police decide the outcome.
  79. A Hitchcock character had apparently drowned herself at the end of The Skin Game (1931). There, it was an event necessary to bring the other characters to their senses.
  80. Cf Guy Cogeval, “What Brings You to the Museum, Mr Hitchcock?”, in Païni and Cogeval, p. 26: “In the Hitchcockian view… compassion conquers all.” Cogeval here emphasises AH’s indebtedness to both his Catholic upbringing and Murnau. (But an influence of the ethical system of the philosopher Schopenhauer, via the visual and literary Symbolists, shouldn’t be overlooked.)
  81. Ross, p. 159.
  82. AH, “Why ‘Thrillers’ Thrive”, Picturegoer, January 18, 1936, p. 15. Reprinted in Sidney Gottlieb (ed.), Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Faber, London, 1995, pp. 109–12. The passage I’ve quoted is on p. 109.
  83. The essay forms Chapter XI of Chesterton’s Charles Dickens (1906).
  84. I believe it was Parmenides.
  85. Reviewing Simon Blackburn’s recent book, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, author John Banville wrote: “It is the elusiveness of the ‘thing itself’, the Kantian Ding an sich, which continues to give philosophers a headache.” (Banville’s review, dated Saturday May 21, 2005, appeared on the website of The Guardian, London.) I know that Slavoj Zizek, writing on Hitchcock, takes a Lacanian position that the “thing itself” simply doesn’t exist – but I doubt that this was the Catholic AH’s position. In any case, Schopenhauer ventured a partial exception to the unknowability of the Ding-an-sich/Will by claiming that we experience it bodily, within ourselves. This gives a special point, I suggest, to the central scene of Gromek’s death in Torn Curtain (1966), a film which is otherwise about the reverse side of the coin to Will, namely Representation. (AH said that he conceived the scene to show “how hard it is to kill a man”.) But if I had to choose one scene from all of AH’s films to epitomise how, again and again, they suggest the working of Will, it would be the Albert Hall scene, with its attempted assassination and expressive “Storm Cloud Cantata”, from the second The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). The very words of the cantata (about restless Nature), plus the way the scene functions in context “pantheistically”, that is, within a film showing diverse faiths and life-styles, virtually sums up both “pure cinema” and the fundamental life/death issue involving us when we watch a Hitchcock melodrama.
  86. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, quoted in Janaway, p. 70.
  87. Schopenhauer, Vol. 2, quoted in Janaway, p. 71. Wagner was probably AH’s favourite composer (and Paul Klee definitely his favourite painter).
  88. Tania Modleski cites the psychiatrist Theodor Reik to associate suspense with masochism. (Modleski, p. 83.) Cf Keats’ ambivalence towards negative capability, a form of suspended judgement.
  89. Cf Janaway, p.32: “We have to think of the single [W]ill and its objectification in a multitude of phenomena as two sides of a coin, two aspects of the same world.” Another paradox, note, and, like Eros-versus-Thanatos and active-versus-passive, one that is eminently Hitchcockian: reality-versus-appearance.
  90. Jean Domarchi and Jean Douchet, “An Interview with Alfred Hitchcock”, Cahiers du Cinéma, December 1959, pp. 17–28. Reprinted in translation in James Naremore (ed.), North by Northwest (screenplay), Rutgers, New Jersey, 1993, pp. 177–85. The passage quoted is on p. 179.
  91. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990, p. 154. Eagleton means that in calling everything manifest Will (thereby allowing an equation of Will with Kant’s unique Ding-an-sich), Schopenhauer goes too far. Eagleton, p. 169, sees only anthropomorphism whenever Schopenhauer finds “analogies of human appetite in the falling of a stone or the blowing of a rose”. Nonetheless, I suggest that Schopenhauer, in constantly preferring percepts to concepts, and in boldly making “specious” analogies that yet fit the logic of his claimed Kantian position (which is by definition mysterious: the Ding-an-sich is unknowable), is the pure-filmmaker’s philosopher par excellence. In AH’s case, his own admitted “foolish association of ideas” (and Schopenhauerian sense of a dynamic Oneness) served as the very basis of his filmmaking aesthetic!
  92. Christopher Janaway ends his monograph on Schopenhauer with a similar comment to Eagleton’s: “Though Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is not credible as a system, his doctrines concerning subjectivity, action, striving, suffering, individuality, renunciation, and aesthetic elevation – the troubling or consoling thoughts that have excited so many influential thinkers – are surely as alive and challenging as ever.” (Janaway, p. 107.) Mutatis mutandis, I would make a like claim about Hitchcock‘s metaphysical “system”! (By the way, doesn’t Bertrand Russell say, somewhere in his History of Western Philosophy, that there has never been a totally watertight – my word – philosophical position?!)
  93. Klee, p. 43.
  94. I gather that Guy Cogeval mounted a massive exhibition called “Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1995. Seeing beyond the Symbolists, though, Orson Welles once observed (I think to Kenneth Tynan) that the search for the Lost Paradise provides the principal theme of Western art generally.
  95. Cf Peter V. Marinelli, Pastoral, Methuen, London, 1971, p. 21.
  96. The phrase is Ed Sikov’s in his fine essay on The Trouble With Harry, “Unrest in Peace: Hitchcock’s Fifties Humor”, included in Sikov’s Laughing Hysterically, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, pp. 150–73. The phrase is on p. 167.
  97. Marinelli, p. 20.
  98. The superb titles-sequence of Torn Curtain provides AH’s own version of the creation-of-the-world myth: the world emerging with a spurt of flame out of swirling mist. That film, like the latter part of its titles-sequence, is about human suffering and a lost Oneness…
  99. Janaway, pp. 63–64, quotes some key passages concerning Schopenhauer’s views on genius and art. The genius has “the most complete objectivity”, employing “a pure intellect that as such belongs to the whole of mankind”; but “imagination is needed, in order to complete, arrange, amplify… all the significant pictures of life”.
  100. I’m reminded that Sally Shafto calls AH “a lapsed Catholic who has adjusted to our secular times”. (See Sally Shafto, “Hitchcock’s Objects, or the World Made Solid”, in Païni and Cogeval, p. 142.) That’s another reason, then, why I find Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, and not just Christian doctrine, so illuminating of how Hitchcock’s films actually work. Which isn’t to say that the films don’t have religious, and sometimes specifically Christian, content.
  101. Michael Tanner, Schopenhauer, Phoenix/Orion Publishing Group, 1998, p. 15.
  102. Janaway, p. 33: “Schopenhauer’s more restricted notion of the will to life, which characterizes observable aspects of human and animal behaviour, is an interesting and powerful idea… [enabling] him… to present large tracts of our lives in a new light.” This is certainly how Terry Eagleton feels, too. Janaway adds (p. 34) that it is this other notion of Schopenhauer’s, and its applications, “rather than the bald metaphysical statement that the [T]hing in itself is [W]ill, that have had the most influence on philosophers, psychologists, and artists of later generations”. (Nonetheless, in films like The Wrong Man and Vertigo I see the broad Schopenhauerian metaphysic called into play, linked to AH’s Catholic sensibility.)
  103. Janaway, p. 60.
  104. In this respect, let me single out the inspired casting of Mildred Dunnock as the toiling, widowed storekeeper Mrs Wiggs. Dunnock had achieved renown on Broadway as the long-suffering wife of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, a role she repeated to great effect in Laslo Benedek’s 1951 film opposite Frederic March.
  105. Janaway, p. 83. I want, at this late stage, to introduce for comparison one more “mystical” conception, of Jacob Boehme (incidentally, an influence on Schopenhauer), as reported by Norman O. Brown: “Boehme, the most psychoanalytical of theologians, develops the doctrine that the primal sin is selfishness, or a vain project of the part to become independent of the totality conceived as a mother-principle…” Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Sphere Books, London, 1968, p. 119.
  106. It isn’t likely that the title of Torn Curtain “refers to just political matters”: Mogg, p. 165. Cf my note above on how that film is explicitly about a lost Oneness. (For a somewhat different reading of the significance of the film’s title, alluding to Matthew 27:51, see Christopher Morris, The Hanging Figure, Praeger, Westport, 2002, pp. 241–44.)
  107. The note of compassion for all living creatures (orphaned baby hedgehogs, for example) is stronger in the novel. Nonetheless, Arnie’s “Poor rabbit!” will be echoed later in such films as Vertigo (“Poor thing!” says Midge after hearing the sad story of Carlotta Valdes) and The Birds (where Mrs Brenner softens towards Melanie to finally say “Poor thing!” about Melanie’s plight after she is attacked by birds in the attic).
  108. AH cut from Psycho a high-shot of Marion’s naked body that screenwriter Joseph Stefano considered infinitely sad. He pleaded with Hitchcock for the shot’s reinstatement. But Hitchcock wasn’t having any overt sentimentality in his film…
  109. The mongoose story, set like the MacGuffin story in a railway carriage, was reportedly already a chestnut in 1913. I thank J. Lary Kuhns for telling me of it. AH surely had it in mind when he directed the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called “Poison” in 1958!
  110. Harry’s indignities may be said to represent what Shakespeare called the “thousand natural shocks which flesh is heir to” – a phrase quoted by John Munder Ross to introduce his topic of sadomasochism, adding, though, that many people unfortunately compound such shocks with (in Freud’s words) “neurotic suffering”. See Ross, p. 14.
  111. John Houseman, Unfinished Business, Columbus Books, London, 1988, p. 235.

About The Author

Ken Mogg, muffin@labyrinth.net.au, is author of The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999; 2008) and has published widely on Hitchcock matters. He is currently preparing a study of children/childhood in Hitchcock’s features and television shows, with emphasis on the motif of “growing up” (or not).

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