This paper was presented at the Alfred Hitchcock conference For the Love of Fear convened by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, held from 31 March to 2 April 2000, and contains some references to film clips screened as part of the presentation.
* * *
The tragedy is that the public accepts modernity without being awed by it. (1)
This sentence is a more direct statement of Walter Benjamin’s more arcane sense of modernity’s lack of self-comprehension, or Henri Bergson’s call for a philosophy capable of producing concepts adequate to modernity. Hitchcock’s cinema comes into focus as a sustained attempt to awe an audience through a presentation of modernity, and to administer the therapeutic shocks and nervous excitations appropriate to the banality and enervation of contemporary existence.
The context of the statement is Hitchcock’s discussion of a project for a film about twenty-four hours in the life of a city, which concludes the interview with François Truffaut. Commenting on the difficulty of finding a theme, a line of interest for this idea, Hitchcock remarked:
Strangely enough, when you do a big, modern story, the public doesn’t appreciate its size. But if you should take that same story in the Roman period, it is acknowledged as an enormously important picture. The tragedy is that the public accepts modernity without being awed by it. And yet they’re impressed by the Roman temples because they know they had to be built on the sets. What is Cleopatra, after all, but a little story like Roman Holiday which is about a modern princess in everyday clothes? (2)
We’re familiar enough with Hitchcock the master of suspense, Hitchcock the voyeur, Hitchcock the mother-fixated misogynist, but here we see Hitchcock the director of modern life, appearing in a characteristic cameo alongside Henri Bergson and Walter Benjamin.
Hitchcock began his screen career as a writer of inter-titles, progressing through art direction to direction. The inter-titles in his films are notable for their compression and wit, yet he had been inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) with the idea of a silent cinema without inter-titles, one which would make meaning through purely visual means. (3) This ambition works alongside his attention to the technologies and visual impact of modernity, and his exploitation of the characteristically modern effect of shock.
Hitchcock’s interest in visual narrative is well-documented and widely-known. Even when sound took the place of inter-titles, he aimed to make films that would be intelligible in silence, that would work visually and across all verbal languages. As he put it in 1936:
A film has got to be ocularly interesting and above all it is the picture which is the thing. I try to tell my story so much so in pictures that if by any chance the sound apparatus broke down in the cinema, the audience would not fret and get restless because the pictorial action would still hold them! Sound is all right in its place, but it is a silent picture training which counts today. (4)
This from the director who so eagerly pursued the new sound technology in Blackmail (1929) (a film which wasn’t supposed to have a full sound-track), who’d already made sound effects a striking and integral part of his style (for instance in the famous train whistle scream in The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) in which the cleaning lady’s scream at the discovery of a dead body is conveyed through the sound of a train whistle shown in the next shot), and who’d go on to direct Psycho (1960). The point is that Hitchcock’s understanding of modernity is that it is primarily experienced through vision – a vision that doesn’t leave our other senses untouched – and that cinema is the art of telling stories through moving pictures.
The shapes of a style: Hitch in the arcades
I’ve mentioned Hitchcock’s admiration of Murnau’s silent technique, and I want to go back to the source of that story in the Truffaut interview. They’ve been discussing Hitchcock’s very early filmmaking career, as title-writer and art director.
T. I suppose that one’s talent was measured by the ability to make a picture requiring the fewest titles?
T. Still, weren’t many of the scripts adapted from stage plays?
H. I made a silent film, The Farmer’s Wife, a play that was all dialogue, but we tried to avoid using titles and, wherever possible, to use the pictorial expression instead. I suppose the only film made without any titles at all was The Last [Man], with Emil Jannings.
T. A great picture, one of Murnau’s best.
H. They were making it while I worked at UFA. In that film Murnau even tried to establish a universal language by using a kind of Esperanto. All the street signs, the posters, the shop signs, were in this synthetic language. (5)
The reference to “the street signs, the posters, the shop signs” is significant, because Hitchcock’s use of these forms of modern display culture aims to replace and naturalize verbal signs in his découpage from The Lodger (1926) onwards (think of the newspaper headlines in North by Northwest ). In the visual textures of the modern city, the intertitle-writer-come-art-director finds the forms of verbal sign appropriate to a visual art form. Hitchcock’s concept of cinema admits words on the basis of their visuality, hence the emphasis on newspapers, teletypes, electronic news boards, billboards, etc., but also shorthand notes, typewriting, letters, labels, numbers, hotel registers, magazine covers, legal papers, fight posters, handwritten notes and lists, diaries. This is particularly the case for his silent films, but these elements persist throughout his career. And this emphasis is inseparable from his interest in modern technology, which reaches its highest expression in cinema. Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller’s The Phoenix Tapes #1-6 (1999) are largely an explication of this dimension of Hitchcock’s practice.
The cinematic attention to the city’s inscribed surfaces is one of the important elements in the design, art direction and overall direction of Hitchcock’s films. It’s an attention which is required by silent film, but doesn’t disappear from his sound films. It’s also one of the obvious connections to modernist art practices such as cubist or surrealist collage. However, the most thoroughgoing modernist design element in Hitchcock’s films arises out of geometry, as François Regnault has argued, identifying “a global movement for each one, or a ‘principal geometric or dynamic form’, which can appear in the pure state in the credits ….” (6) The spirals of Vertigo (1958), the cartesian grid of North by Northwest, Psycho‘s (1960) jagged lines: these are familiar structures and motifs. But they were developed in the silent films through a series of formal experiments that involved everything from script to mise en scène and découpage.
I want to turn briefly to two examples: The Lodger, his 1926 career-making hit, and The Ring, a 1927 remake of E.A. Dupont’s Variety (1925). (7) In cinematic terms, they are probably the most interesting of the silent films, and have the added advantages of offering examples of both the archetypal Hitchcock suspense film and a yet-suspenseful film outside the suspense genre.
William Rothman’s detailed analysis of The Lodger identifies many of the thematic and cinematic elements of Hitchcock’s later work, yet he neglects to mention the film’s striking triangular geometry. (8) When Michael Balcon rescued The Lodger from the studio’s shelves (it had been considered unreleasable), one of the things he did was to get Ivor Montagu to re-edit the film and rewrite some of the intertitles, and to bring in McKnight Kauffer, a leading modernist designer and art director, to rework the titles. The Lodger tells the story of a romantic triangle involving a policeman, a young model, and a mysterious lodger set against the background of a series of Jack the Ripper-style murders perpetrated by The Avenger, a killer who murders blondes every Tuesday. The lodger takes rooms with Daisy’s family, and she falls in love with him despite the suspicion that he is the murderer.
McKnight Kauffer’s triangle designs – starting with the main title and continuing as a decorative motif in the intertitles – capture the central plot dynamic, in which the romantic triangle is only the most obvious one of a series of intersecting triangular relationships, and the style of composition and découpage running throughout the film. Everything is triangulated, and every two shot suggests that a three shot will complete it, either within that shot or in the next. Here we see the opening titles, the murder and discovery of another victim of The Avenger, followed by some freeze frames which show some aspects of the triangle motif running through the film, from The Avenger’s calling card, to the intertitles – where the triangle is actually composed of three concentric triangles – to the map tracing the murders. At the end of the film, the triangles have been resolved: The Avenger has been caught, the lodger exonerated, and the policemen bows out allowing the lodger and Daisy to form a couple, kissing against the backdrop of the repeated sign “To-Night Golden Curls.”
The Ring is set in the world of boxing and, like Variety, opens in the world of a sideshow carnival. It involves three interlocked geometric motifs – circle, square and triangle – and is a much more ambitious experiment in visual and narrative form than The Lodger. The triangle is the eternal one – here Jack, the sideshow boxer taken up as sparring partner for the champion, Corby, and Nelly, Jack’s wife and Corby’s mistress – but it is complicated by a squaring appropriate to a boxing film such that the threesome is embedded in a foursome whose allegiances shift as much as do those between husband, wife and other man. The titular ‘ring’ is both the boxing ring (the ‘squared circle’) and a snake-bracelet given by Corby to Nelly. In keeping with this complexity, the two shot and four shot vie with the three shot, and the film ends on a single shot of Corby, signalling the successful formation of the couple. Once again this geometry pervades both composition and découpage.
We’ll look at the opening, which is an evocative montage of fairground scenes, run through with the grotesque and surrealist motif of laughing mouths.
The last clip is from The Ring‘s climactic fight, in which Jack is fighting Corby for the heavyweight title and for his wife Nelly. She is seated at ringside in Corby’s corner, and we’ll see the knockout – which shows that Hitchcock had been paying very close attention to surrealist films such as Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921), Rhythmus 23 (1923), Rhythmus 25 (1925), René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), and Buñuel’s early films (9) – which features modernist effects followed by real-time realism: the round break (during which Nelly moves around to Jack’s corner) is exactly one minute long.
This geometry involves and addresses the audience, plays its part in the generation of suspense, works as a narrative element on its own, and is one of the most obvious aspects of Hitchcock’s cinematic modernism. Through it, in a more sophisticated manner than Griffith’s binary montage – Eisenstein’s “side of streaky, well-cured bacon” (10) – Hitchcock creates something more like an omelette, or even a soufflé: the skill is in the combination of elements and the sense of anticipation (will it turn out all right or flop?). It is one of the first ways in which we can see Hitchcock’s cinema thinking through images.
The spectator and modern life
Hitchcock’s thinking through images exemplifies a Benjaminian perception (which treats everything, even words, as if they were images) and a Bergsonian idea that the world and its bodies are nothing but images. This provides a context for the consideration of spectatorship in Hitchcock which displaces the centrality of the usual theorizations of the gaze. As Gilles Deleuze describes it, the introduction of the viewing relation into cinema was the beginning of cinematic modernism:
in the history of cinema Hitchcock appears as one who no longer conceives of the constitution of a film as a function of two terms – the director and the film to be made – but as a function of three: the director, the film and the public which must come into the film, or whose reactions must form an integrating part of the film (this is the explicit sense of suspense, since the spectator is the first to ‘know’ the relations).(11)
Hitchcock’s address of the spectator – more precisely, that collective spectator, “the public” – implants a self-consciousness within his films, and motivates their style. Everything appears as it does because the films admit their audience: “admit” in the sense of acknowledging their presence and in the more crucial sense of letting them into the place where the film’s meaning and effects are negotiated and produced. For all the ‘realism’ of Hitchcock’s films, especially the early films, their admission of their audience marks them off as self-conscious works of art (and this is one of the great Hitchcockian tricks, and also accounts for his frequent disregard for realism in his films’ obvious artificiality).
This ternary structure – director, film, public – echoes the ternary structure of perception, action, affection as conceived by Bergson, and developed by Deleuze, and can be seen within the structure of the films themselves. (12) For example, if Hitchcock is the master of suggestive cinema, of leading the public to think they’ve seen something they haven’t, it’s because his films involve the presentation of perceptions and their consequent actions while the affections – the gap between perception and action – are the audience’s part of the process. In discussing the idea of Rear Window (1954), Hitchcock articulates a conception of cinema which is purely Bergsonian:
T. I imagine that the story appealed to you primarily because it represented a technical challenge: a whole film from the viewpoint of one man, and embodied in a single, large set.
H. Absolutely. It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilised man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.
Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know. In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov.(13)
The reference is, of course, to Kuleshov’s famous experiment involving the juxtaposition of images of the immobile face of the actor Moszhukin with a variety of objects, in which audiences were found to imagine a change of expression on the actor’s face. In this experiment, as in Rear Window, the audience produce the affect which does not appear on the screen.
Pascal Bonitzer mentions this experiment in his essay “Hitchcock’s suspense,” as a moment in his genealogy of a newly expressive form of cinema, a pure cinema of the gaze, which involves an immobile body as well as an immobile face. (14) As Benjamin or Siegfried Kracauer might have recognized, these are the immobile bodies and expressionless faces of the urban masses, jammed together on buses and trains, seated in offices or cinemas. Thinking of Hitchcock, I’d like to take Bonitzer’s idea further, to argue that there are two immobile bodies, one on the screen and the other in the cinema. If Hitchcock finds the situation of Rear Window to be “the purest expression of a cinematic idea” it is because that film distributes the perception-action circuit across its length while embodying affect in its audience and in the characters who watch Jeff watching (Lisa and Stella [Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter]). Further, the gaze introduces a stimulus to these immobilized bodies: it is not simply an abstracted vision, but one enmeshed in somatic responses.
Shock and suspense
Walter Benjamin’s understanding of modern experience is neurological. It centers on shock. … Benjamin relies on a specific Freudian insight, the idea that consciousness is a shield protecting the organism against stimuli – “excessive energies” – from without, by preventing their retention, their impress as memory. (15)
Suspense is the principle by which Hitchcock embodies vision, engaging his audience in a synaesthetic cinematic experience. It isn’t surprising that an Englishman should have had so acute a sense of the restrictions of modern life, and that he should have set himself up as its physician:
I am out to give the public good, healthy mental shake-ups. Civilization has become so screening and sheltering that we cannot experience sufficient thrills at first hand. Therefore, to prevent our becoming sluggish and jellified, we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this. (16)
The immobile body, which both produces and experiences the gaze, requires stimulation, a substitute for the kinesis which cinema paradoxically denies it, and we can see a body at once sluggish and jellified made brisk and mobile by cinema in Hitchcock’s own person. Through cinematic vision – allied to the production of suspense – Hitchcock forms a circuit which re-embodies vision, putting it into relation with the somatic. In this, he overcomes the eye/body/mind splits so characteristic of modernism and modernity, especially in the visual arts.
While shock does have its place in Hitchcock’s cinema, the primary mode of nervous excitation is suspense, extended foreplay rather than the quick climax, as he explained to Truffaut:
There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.
The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story. (17)
As Hitchcock describes it, the public’s participation in the scene of suspense involves its awareness of an estrangement between a trivial conversation and an impending explosion, between things as they seem and things as they are, the archetypal Hitchcockian theme. Shock might have been the tactic of the Dadaists, but we could now consider that surrealism’s “salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings” involved a form of suspense which promotes a more attentive perception (in contrast to shock which has an anaesthetic effect). (18)
Since I’m using a concept of modernity which draws upon Benjamin and Kracauer, I should clarify the use of the term ‘shock’ in relation to Hitchcock. As Richard Allen puts it:
The concept of distraction as shock has an aspect which expresses the very entrance into modernity and not merely the experience of a subjectivity which has already learned to live with the exigencies of modern life. Film might be said to mime this experience in that it too can provoke, quite commonly, a visceral sense of shock, a phenomenon which is intimately tied to its technological foundations. But Benjamin would like to link this visceral sense of shock to a cognitive dimension whereby distraction jolts the spectator out of an unreflective mode of apprehension. (19)
And this is what happens in Hitchcock’s cinema through suspense: an audience is distracted from its usually distracted, anaesthetized mode of existence, and this produces thought because an audience is required to think about the relations visualized through Hitchcock’s cinema (as Deleuze argued), because an audience is admitted to the place occupied by the brain in Bergson’s circuit of perception- action, the place of affect. The more continuous excitation involved in suspense is more conducive to the promotion of thought than the more transient effects of shock. Now Hitchcock’s cinema begins to resemble Brecht’s epic theatre, with its alienation-effect, since it also changes the relationship between how a performance is watched, inaugurating new dimensions of spectatorship. For Brecht, it was crucial that his audience were acutely aware that the performance was being watched, rather than suspending their feeling of disbelief for the duration of the performance. As he put it: “Epic Theatre turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity for action, forces him to take decisions….” (20)
Hitchcock’s ambitions don’t come with Brecht’s political baggage, but they share Brecht’s modernity. Brecht’s theatre had to overcome the oppressive, obfuscating aesthetic unity of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, and of the whole code of politely attentive inertia it brought with it. For Hitchcock, the problem was different: he had to work within a medium which was the product of the same forces which drove its audiences to an unfeeling distraction, putting them outside a circuit of perception-affection-action. Through his address of their eyes, his hollowing out of a space for their thoughts in his films, Hitchcock became notorious for giving his audience a thinking place in a world of unreliable images.
- François Truffaut, Hitchcock, London, Paladin – Granada Publishing, 1978, p. 402.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock, p. 402.
- See John Russell Taylor, programme note in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 1999 Catalogo/18th Pordenone Silent Film Festival Catalogue, Pordenone, 1999, p. 60:
Murnau … was working there [at the UFA Neubabelsberg Studios], on Der Letzte Mann, and impressed Hitchcock initially more by his technical ingenuity than his sheer art. But when he saw the finished film, what excited him was Murnau’s skill in telling the story with an absolute minimum of inter-titles. That was just the way he himself thought cinema ought to go…
- Alfred Hitchcock, “Close Your Eyes and Visualize!”  in Sidney Gottlieb (ed.) Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, p. 247.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock, p. 35.
- François Regnault, “Système formel d’Hitchcock,” in Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, p. 27, as cited by Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 21.
- The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, Gainsborough, GB, 1926); Variety (dir. E.A. Dupont, UFA, Germany, 1925); The Ring (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, British-International Pictures, GB, 1927).
- See William Rothman, Hitchcock – The Murderous Gaze, Cambridge & London, Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 5-55.
- See Hitchcock, “Why I Am Afraid of the Dark” , in Gottlieb (ed.) Hitchcock on Hitchcock, p. 144.
- See Sergei Eisenstein, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today”, in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, trans. Jay Leyda, New York, Meridian Boos, 1957, p. 234.
- Deleuze, Cinema 1, p. 202.
- The audience is a Bergsonian brain, as Deleuze explains it, Cinema 1, pp. 62-3:
the brain is nothing but … an interval, a gap between an action and a reaction. The brain is certainly not a centre of images from which one could begin, but itself constitutes one special image among the others. It constitutes a centre of indetermination in the acentred universe of images.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock, p. 265.
- See Pascal Bonitzer, “Hitchcockian suspense,” in Slavoj Zizek (ed.) Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), London & New York, Verso, 1992, pp. 16-18.
- Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” October 62 (Fall 1992), p. 16.
- Hitchcock, “Close Your Eyes and Visualize!” p. 249.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock, pp. 79-80.
- The phrase is taken from Walter Benjamin, “A Small History of Photography” , in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott & Kingsley Shorter, London, New Left Books, 1979, p. 251.
- Richard W. Allen, “The Aesthetic Experience of Modernity: Benjamin, Adorno, and Contemporary Film Theory,” New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987), p. 235.
- Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett, New York, Hill & Wang, 1964, p. 37.