Discussing Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), Peter Ackroyd likens its director “to another great London visionary, Charles Dickens.” In a few deft lines, beginning, “Although the outward circumstances of their lives differed very greatly, they shared a similar imagination,” Ackroyd portrays two dedicated storytellers “who posed as practical men of the world.” Both were essentially melodramatists as well as visionaries. “I am not a realist at all. I am drawn to the fantastic. I see things ‘larger than life’.” “That,” says Ackroyd, “is as close as Hitchcock ever came to delivering an artistic credo.” (p. 71)
Well, perhaps not quite. Hitchcock discusses his artistic intentions – admittedly en passant – in several of the interviews and writings selected by Sidney Gottlieb for Volume 2 of Hitchcock on Hitchcock. (And then there was the exhilarating interview, “Core of the Movie – The Chase”, in Volume 1.) But Ackroyd, in his splendid short survey of Hitchcock’s life and films, rightly calls the director a showman-poet, dedicated to assimilating and extending “all the virtues of the cinematic art.” (p. 73) As a maker of thrillers, the director had specific affinities with storyteller Wilkie Collins, “a great influence upon Hitchcock,” and with Edgar Allan Poe, whose “unhappy life made a deep impression upon the young Hitchcock.” (p. 13) Ackroyd of course can write with authority on all these matters, being himself a prolific novelist, historian, biographer (including a standard Dickens), and author of several “brief lives” (including of Poe and Collins) and even the remarkable Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. A different type of authority is exercised by Gottlieb, who is Professor of Communications and Media Studies at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and editor of both the Hitchcock Annual (with Richard Allen) and the George Herbert Journal. Gottlieb’s knowledge of Hitchcock’s oeuvre is formidable, and maintained with a scrupulous attention to nuance in both filmic and written texts.
There is much to enjoy in these two books. Ackroyd starts by describing the neighbourhoods where Hitchcock grew up – first Leytonstone (“a soft forgetful suburb”), then Limehouse by the river in the East End (making young Alfred a bona fides cockney) – and after a chapter on Hitchcock’s boyhood and youth moves with ease between the life and the films. We infer that Hitchcock’s psyche was always very integrated. “The fears and obsessions of his childhood remained with him until the end of his life.” (p. 5) In turn, the films – and the distinctive Hitchcock wit and iconoclasm – were a means of assuaging his trepidation, whether at simply crossing the studio canteen (in case someone approached him) or of owning to his own sexual nature (so that, when wife Alma became pregnant, he told the press, “I did it with a fountain pen”). Ackroyd notes Hitchcock family jokes (such as their private name for their local church in California, “Our Lady of the Cadillacs”, because of the number of rich parishioners), and sometimes employs witticisms of his own, like his put-down of John Steinbeck’s “novelette” for Lifeboat (1944), “more like an omelette”. (p. 109) Ackroyd’s evocation of Vertigo (1958) is masterly, beginning: “As the leading man tries desperately to find, and then to alter, his idealized woman, the cameras come closer […] The history of San Francisco drifts slowly past them like woodsmoke.” (p. 185)
Gottlieb is more of a taxonomist than Ackroyd. He divides his selections into five convenient categories, with headings like “Stories and Suspense” and “Hitchcock at Work”, each category being introduced with an analytical preface by Gottlieb. These “Introductions” themselves give pleasure, as when Gottlieb extrapolates from the title of one of Hitchcock’s youthful stories, “The Woman’s Part”, to suggest a foreshadowing of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo, where “the woman’s part” is “played by both a man and a woman.” (p. 10) (Compare Ackroyd’s suggestion that an interesting parlour game would be “to name any of Hitchcock’s principal characters […] not intimated to be bisexual.” [p. 38]) Gottlieb writes with precision and is prepared to enter into detail, sometimes elaborately. A simple point about Hitchcock’s “ingenuity” leads to Gottlieb’s description of the “daunting” challenge directors face: “how to create a high level of suspense, pictorial effect, atmosphere, and accuracy – and stay on budget.” (p. 158) In turn, Gottlieb observes that this means Hitchcock “must be part Murnau, part Kuleshov, and part Selznick.” Each aspect is then taken up separately by Gottlieb. For example: “Like Murnau, Hitchcock is very attuned to frame composition in tracking his characters’ movements through interior and exterior settings” (though sometimes this involves “suggestion rather than detail […] a doorway instead of an entire building, for example” [p. 158]). And so on. It’s a tribute to Gottlieb’s writing that such extended investigations don’t become wearisome – certainly not academese! Of course, further highlights are some of the selections themselves. Another of Hitchcock’s early stories (actually it is more of a one-page scenario for a film never made) is the hitherto unpublished “Good-night, Nurse!” (c. 1922-23), which may remind some readers of the sardonic “The Way of the World” that was going to be performed by the asylum inmates in Spellbound (1945). A 1928 article, “An Autocrat of the Film Studio”, is one of several that show why Hitchcock was already being called “the young man with the master mind”. (His all-round equivalent today may be young French-Canadian Wunderkind director Xavier Dolan, reported as saying, “I involve myself in everything, in every department.”) And a genuine delight is Hitchcock’s justification, during a 1956 Cahiers du Cinéma interview, of his latest film, the pastorale The Trouble With Harry (1955): “To my way of thinking, the characters […] have reactions which are absolutely normal and logical. It’s their peculiar behavior, free from affectation, from dissimulation, from worldly concerns, from conformity, that makes us believe they cannot be real.” (p. 82) There speaks, surely, the “true” Hitchcock, uttering a vision of freedom that underlies all his films.
It also underlies “pure cinema”, as he called it. Full marks to both Ackroyd and Gottlieb for seeing past Hitchcock’s simplistic definition of “pure cinema” as a form of montage: “complementary pieces of film put together, like notes of music make a melody”. That’s part of it, yes, but the musical analogy is significant. Deep down, the Jesuit-educated Hitchcock, with his fears and obsessions, knew that it’s in the nature of humans to be conflicted, both inwardly and outwardly, so he sought in making his films to overcome such a condition, to bring harmony and integration. (Yes, even, or especially, while building unbearable suspense.) I think he sensed our primal unity and how “pure cinema” might be its expression. Ackroyd notes how close-ups of Ingrid Bergman’s face in Notorious (1946) are themselves “a form of pure cinema, intimate and pre-verbal.” (p. 121) Gottlieb, for his part, offers several sophisticated insights about what “pure cinema” implies, and these run like a thread through the volume. Early on, he tells us that “pure cinema is a carefully coordinated synthesis of integrated parts” (p. 65), but he has already raised the spectre of possible limitations imposed on art during an age of anxiety. Later, he refers to “the challenges of making pure cinema in an impure world.” (p. 155) Finally, apropos remarks by the director in a late (1978) interview, Gottlieb grimly paraphrases (and goes beyond) Hitchcock’s observations: “An environment of information overload, graphic violence, ‘carnage without a message,’ and the spectacle of anonymous victims is not conducive to thoughtfulness, empathy, subtlety, and imagination. In such a setting, pure cinema becomes irrelevant, perhaps impossible.” (p. 220)
To that last remark, I want to respond: but why? Might not pure cinema – with all the resonances the term carries – remain at least as pertinent, and welcome, today as it ever did? Presumably Gottlieb is thinking of commercial considerations that might nowadays rule out the making of a whimsical masterpiece like The Trouble With Harry. But that was always the case: Hitchcock told an interviewer that although Harry was a favourite of his, it was “an arty picture” that proved “a disastrous flop”. (p. 232) (On the other hand, perhaps vindicating Gottlieb, I have a filmmaker friend who regularly complains of the vexing news carried by the media – and who cannot stand Harry, although other Hitchcocks meet his full approval!) But what of Vertigo or Rear Window, both examples of pure cinema at its finest? Couldn’t they be made today, in the hands of some master filmmaker? There seems a confusion here, which may bring us back to the two books under review.
Gottlieb certainly notes – quite splendidly – that Hitchcock could be two people. At the outset, he asserts: “Hitchcock’s writings and interviews, like his films, are often characterized by clear statements, bright surfaces, simplicity […] but also indirection and misdirection, subtlety, nuance” (p. 5) There follows the analysis of “The Woman’s Part”, already cited. I would extend that analysis to another of the early stories, “Fedora”, just a page in length (in Gottlieb, pp. 26-27), which begins: “A play of a year or two back [showed] a little man seeking the goal of worldly greatness.” After describing the man, the narrative switches to the woman Fedora and speculates about her identity and her future. And it ends: “Sometimes, I imagine, she will write brilliant novels, profound essays and learned works. But it is all mere conjecture on my part. Whatever may be […] Time will tell.” Hitchcock composed that when he was 22 and still employed at the Henley Telegraph Company. It is a story about ambition, which Gottlieb first approaches literally, wondering whether the woman is real or not. Of course, he also notices that the story is about the young Hitchcock. What goes unremarked, though, is the brilliant way in which the sudden switch in narrative direction – to the woman – removes the spotlight from the storyteller. In a favourite phrase of the later Hitchcock, it “takes the curse off” the self-conscious situation in which the storyteller had placed himself. And Hitchcock further sweetens the narrative in a couple of ways. The end is tempered by its “Que Sera, Sera” reflection, which anticipates a lovely moment in the 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. Also, the reader is invited to identify with the general situation because, it is remarked, “every person has a plot […] and every plot is the same.” (p. 26) In a 1956 interview, Hitchcock would say that suspense itself trades “on the basic feeling that all of us have within us.” (p. 224) Finally, how about that concluding “Time will tell”? It invites a God’s-eye perspective that Hitchcock would grow increasingly fond of, not least when he conceived a famous shot used in The Birds (1963).
Already, then, Hitchcock was disposed to a philosophical outlook, which I take up below. I should note a certain divide between these two books, one perhaps inevitable, given the different tasks facing their respective authors. Gottlieb, centred on his texts, strives to give maximum “dignity of significance” to Hitchcock’s words and films, and to “grade” (like a professor!) every Hitchcock attribute, mostly favourably. (But if Hitchcock becomes obsessive, Gottlieb can turn moralistic, using words like “disturbing” or “painful” or, on one occasion, “creepy”.) Occasionally he seems to overreach, as when he seizes on Hitchcock’s phrase “an uncaught criminal” (for the kidnapper Adamson in Family Plot ) as if it carried metaphysical weight. This sounds impressive until you visit Hitchcock’s remark and find no evidence for Gottlieb’s interpretation – unless it is the coining of the phrase itself. Also, Gottlieb surely exaggerates when he claims the phrase applies “to almost everyone in” Hitchcock, which would reveal “something important about his conception and portrayal of human nature.” (p. 18) And yet, what is interesting is that “uncaught criminal” implies its opposite, “the wrong man” (the caught, or hunted, non-criminal), who undoubtedly mattered to Hitchcock. In his 1978 interview, he offered this explanation: we have all been blamed, if only in childhood, “for something we were innocent of” (perhaps a broken vase or window). “The universality of the experience makes a successful movie theme. The ‘wrong man’ in the movies just has it worse off.” (p. 260) So maybe Original Sin (his Jesuit legacy) does spread its stain over many Hitchcock characters – one way or the other.
Gottlieb’s proneness to being judgemental also shows itself early on, with (again) his grading of the various Hitchcock short stories. Of one, “And There Was No Rainbow”, he declares it a “comedic dud” of which “little good can be said.” (p. 10) This reviewer, after detecting some initial parody of John Buchan’s archetypal bored clubman, otherwise appreciated the piece for precisely its knockabout construction and dialogue: no great “dignity of significance”, true! I still preferred it to “What’s Who” that follows, with its spiralling confusion of actors’ identities (and the reader!), which Gottlieb extols, somewhat verbosely.
If anything, Ackroyd is the opposite, never coming down heavily and employing just the right amount of detail to keep his chronological narrative moving smoothly. Along the way, his subtle impressions of each film are sometimes surprising, yet always fair. (Sabotage “disembowelled” its Joseph Conrad original, but added enough “fancy stuff” – Hitchcock’s phrase – “to fill an experimental art cinema.” [p. 71]) Although relying on secondary sources, Ackroyd easily brings his wealth of cultural knowledge to bear, as when he observes that Hitchcock’s blend of subdued realism and heightened theatricality is “a cockney vision, adumbrated by Dickens and Chaplin,” yet one that “can also be construed as a Catholic vision […] designed to have power that is emotional and unconscious, rather than rational and intellectual.” (p. 63) He extrapolates: “Hidden powers govern the universe. Individuals are at the mercy of impersonal forces. That is all you know, or need to know.” (p. 63) Love that Keatsian echo! Shortly it may bring us back to “pure cinema” (and its analogues).
Nor does Ackroyd hunt for hyper-significance. As a biographer, he “understands the complexities of the situation” (another phrase of Hitchcock’s, praising his admiring French critics) but is content to say of Psycho (1960): “It has no hidden meaning at all, apart from a generalised sense of the horror of life.” (p. 202) However, this needs to be complemented, first, by Ackroyd’s own observation that Hitchcock’s “art of the surface” in truth “covers the whole of life,” (p. 221) and, second, by Hitchcock’s frank comments to Chabrol and Truffaut in the context of I Confess (1953), included in Gottlieb: “I am not deeply interested in the moral or the message of the film. […] But still, if I were a painter, I’d say, ‘I can only paint with a message.’ It’s just that this message is too profound for a painting.” (p. 192-93) Such frankness may invite us to look further at Hitchcock’s remarks on the ‘wrong man” theme. I’ll put it this way. That Hitchcock deals in emotions rather than logic needn’t hide in retrospect how each film is constantly drawing for effect on analogies – and finally one big analogy? – that we may only dimly sense while viewing. For example, the title of Vertigo accrues many (subliminal) meanings as it goes along. Not incidentally, then, both Ackroyd and Gottlieb, in their different ways, point us towards the larger truth about Hitchcock.
Each Hitchcock film, such as Vertigo, has its distinctive style. Gottlieb quotes him: “I use a different technique for each story.” (p. 160) Both The Wrong Man (1957) and North by Northwest (1959) have the same “mistaken identity” theme, but they look and feel quite different. In effect, the style makes each film a Symbolist microcosm, one of whose invitations to its audience is to “enter in” sympathetically, and I mean that in a literal sense. Ackroyd’s biographical approach is especially helpful here, starting with his Poe comparisons. “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” Poe had written, and Ackroyd applies the passage to Judy/Madeleine in Vertigo – then notes how the film ends with the nun’s universal valediction: “I heard voices. God have mercy.” Also, Ackroyd records more than one instance of weeping in the Hitchcock household. That tells you something. A particularly soulful (and lachrymose) film, Under Capricorn (1949), received poor reviews; the effect on Alma, who had helped write the script, was to make her weep uncontrollably (p. 134). Once, in the 1960s, the whole Hitchcock family watched the animal film, James Hill’s Born Free, and in the kitchen afterwards cried “our eyes out” (Pat Hitchcock). Now, if Gottlieb hardly takes the measure of the compassion – and sadness at human indignity – that is detectable in Hitchcock’s films, perhaps that’s because the interviews and writings don’t give him the opportunity. Hitchcock could be reticent about his feelings that way. In 1962, attempting to explain his deep regret at not filming a favourite project, an adaptation of Ernest Raymond’s affecting manhunt novel, We, The Accused (1935) – loosely based on the Crippen case – he merely told the interviewer that projects about middle-aged or elderly people are “death in our business […] A man in my position shouldn’t be afraid of this, but I am.” (in Gottlieb, p. 232)
Both writers, though, successfully convey what I’ll call Hitchcock’s fondness (in and out of the films) for inducing “cognitive dissonance”. In North by Northwest he had wanted Thornhill on Mount Rushmore to have a sneezing fit in Lincoln’s nostril. Several of the films’ données or situations are outlandish, verging on absurd (Rope  and the dream-like Vertigo, for two). Gottlieb loves the phrase, a “mad tension” (p. 162), with which the director described how he liked to overlay suspense and mystery. And definitely worth mentioning is Hitchcock’s seeming fascination, in story-selection and plotting, with ladies who have a past or whose sexuality is redeemed or ennobled, like the whoring Alicia in Notorious (1946) and her prototypes in Buchan’s Mr Standfast (1919) and John Taintor Foote’s story “The Song of the Dragon” from 1921. To an extent, these ladies give the lie to Ackroyd’s claim that Hitchcock “was not interested in the moral complications of characters.” (p. 41) On the other hand, Ackroyd fittingly invokes, apropos many Hitchcock films, Poe’s “the imp of the perverse”, which is surely a very real entity. That’s my point here. Although inducing “cognitive dissonance” in audiences was no doubt a product of Hitchcock’s need to outflank us, and impose himself, he always felt that life itself was perverse, governed by those “impersonal forces” Ackroyd mentions.
Summing up the foregoing, I hold to what I have said, or have been implying, that Hitchcock built for himself a philosophy of life that was rather less Catholic than it was that of a pragmatic freethinker, with “pure cinema” its instinctive expression. Befitting a filmmaker, it was based on the principle of “looking to see” – both within and without. His father had called him “my little lamb without a spot,” but soon enough the young cockney knew himself a sinner, thanks perhaps to the Jesuit fathers, although a sense of our primal unity was also inculcated in the boy (or simply “remembered”). 1 As already noted, the trainee engineer at Henley’s wrote: “every person has a plot […] and every plot is the same.” (in Gottlieb, p. 26) Hitchcock’s films since The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Manxman (1929) are full of “lost paradise” imagery (whose apotheosis is The Trouble With Harry), the implication being that the director may not only remind us of what we ourselves have “forgotten” but may treat us to an analogue of “paradise”, i.e., his film, whose essence is “pure cinema”. It must entertain, obviously, and hence Hitchcock’s resort to things like suspense and humour and even “cognitive dissonance” – but these may themselves function as analogues in Hitchcock’s metaphysic. For example, suspense can remind us, subliminally, of our situation, like Scottie’s in Vertigo, “suspended” between reality and appearance, life and death. Or between the One and the Many. Hitchcock’s favourite composer was Wagner, whose Tristan and Isolde employed the device of “the suspension” to express just such ideas – suitably noted by the philosopher Schopenhauer who had provided them to the composer in the first place.
“The effect of the suspension,” wrote Schopenhauer, in Volume 2 of The World as Will and Representation, “is [of] a dissonance delaying the final consonance that is with certainty awaited […] clearly an analogue of the satisfaction of the will which is enhanced through delay.” 2 That’s one of seemingly endless (even eerie!) correspondences between Schopenhauer’s ideas and Hitchcock’s, a century later. 3 Suspense, said Hitchcock, trades “on the basic feeling that we all have within us” (compare Schopenhauer’s all-pervasive “Will”). And added: “We always enjoy suspense because we are able to suffer temporarily some apprehensions and excitements with the full knowledge that in one hour’s time we are going to emerge into a normal world.” (in Gottlieb, p. 212) Again, Hitchcock famously said, “everything’s perverted in a different way,” a humane sentiment echoing Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the Will and informing such diverse masterpieces as The Trouble With Harry and Psycho. In Schopenhauer’s case it prompted his theory of laughter, whereby some perceived disparity between conception (the ideal) and actuality (flawed) can seem comic, analogous to “the way of the world” if only we knew it. When Hitchcock described Psycho as a “joke,” he didn’t necessarily just mean that he was kidding his audience along. He may well have had a cosmic jest in mind as well. Such a view is commensurate with Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as a life/death “force” that is blind and irrational. Ackroyd’s/Hitchcock’s “individuals […] at the mercy of impersonal forces” certainly come to mind here, as does The Birds.
And a couple of final observations. First, if “pure cinema” is a reminder of our primal unity it is also an appeal to our (ideal) common humanity. The through-line from Erica in Young and Innocent (1937) chastising a detective, “Can’t you be human for once?”, to the characters in The Trouble With Harry (“free from affectation, from dissimulation, from worldly concerns, from conformity”), to Tippi Hedren’s character in Marnie reproaching selfish, privileged Lil, “Are you still in the mood for killing?”, is continuous and, I believe, heartfelt on Hitchcock’s part. Schopenhauer, who merged Christian ideas and Eastern thinking, and who affirmed Original Sin as an allegory (analogue) of our universal condition, recommended an ethics of compassion as the surest panacea (with art or philosophy as back-ups for those capable). Once again Hitchcock seems to have reached similar conclusions – no doubt empirically, by “looking to see” – with the important consideration that he would be the benign artist wielding “pure cinema” on our behalf, to our delight. The wink at the end of Family Plot says it well. Still, both Gottlieb and Ackroyd note that Hitchcock never forgot, “It’s only a movie!” How philosophical of him!
Peter Ackroyd, Alfred Hitchcock (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015).
Sidney Gottlieb (ed.), Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, Volume 2 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).
- Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (New York: Regan Books, 2003) notes that Hitchcock came of an extended family, “full of fun … a large loving family, with whom he remained close throughout his life” (pp. 6-7) ↩
- Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, translated from the German by E.F.J. Payne, Volume 2 (Dover edition, 1966), pp. 455-56. ↩
- One may encounter resistance (or stronger) when citing Schopenhauer apropos Hitchcock! Presumably that’s because of the philosopher’s reputation as a misanthrope and pessimist. I need to emphasise that I’m referring not to the (supposed) personality of the man but to his empirical philosophy and set of ideas. It is as if Hitchcock conjectures: “What if the world were like this?” And had himself arrived at several Schopenhauer-ish positions, including aesthetic and ethical ones. In short, I consider Schopenhauer (read sympathetically) the philosopher who best illuminates Hitchcock’s films. Not Plato, not Hume (suggested by John Orr in his interesting 2006 book Hitchcock and Twentieth-Century Cinema), not Nietzsche (though Hitchcock knew some Nietzsche), not even Freud (ditto) or Lacan, but Schopenhauer. Of course, Catholicism always remained a part of Hitchcock’s make-up. So it’s a pity that neither Ackroyd nor Gottlieb touch on G.K. Chesterton’s tempering influence. I have raised it elsewhere, especially Chesterton’s avowed “anti-pessimism”. ↩