What can Hitchcock tell us about America?by Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / May 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
There is an excessive amount of literature on Alfred Hitchcock. A keyword search in the New York Public Library catalogue yields 433 results for his name. By comparison “Jean Renoir” gives you 192 books, “Stanley Kubrick” 146 and “Yasujiro Ozu” a paltry 47. Some of this might be due to Hitchcock’s extensive output—he directed well over 50 films—but so did Ozu, and Renoir made it to 40.
Sociologists, and whoever else belongs to the saturated category of “theory,” are responsible for a sizable portion of Hitchcock lore. There are books about Hitchcock and homophobia, about Hitchcock and the construction of gender in the Cold War; Hitchcock and the murderous gaze, male gaze, male desire, queer desire, feminist theory, intertextuality, Freud and Lacan.
And now there is a new book about Hitchcock and America, Alfred Hitchcock’s America (Polity Press), by Murray Pomerance, a professor in the sociology department of Ryerson University. Given the vast subject and the crowded field, Alfred Hitchcock’s America is a daring venture, and Pomerance outlines his task in the introduction:
“my intention with this small book is to raise new questions and considerations, challenge viewers to look at Hitchcock’s wonderful films yet again, and see in his work an illumination of American form and life that perhaps has not been shown before in this way.”
One might expect Pomerance’s book to be mired with lengthy footnotes and appendices on patterns of consumption and other sociological measures. But he pays little attention to this sort of hard-nosed empiricism. Instead Pomerance relies on commonplace perceptions of America, telling us how Hitchcock’s movies relate to them. This is not terribly insightful. Between the 1940s and 60s, Pomerance tells us, America was a place of strict Victorian values that were gradually relaxing. A place where “transportation was universally vehicular.” Gay men were seen as violent, “effete” deviants and women were secretive and domestic. These vague impressions could be drawn from any films made in America at the time.
Pomerance also avoids a thesis-forming, conclusion-arriving approach. Instead he tries to bolster his dubious generalisations with quotes from prominent theorists: “Ours is a world filled with explosive violence and tension,” he writes, “rampant secrecy… and the widespread diminishment of human experience. ‘Already today,’ writes Slavoj Žižek about the twenty-first century as we know it, ‘there are more connections between computers themselves than between computers and their human users.’”
Pomerance does have some novel and unique observations. In a few pages on the Tunnel of Love fairground ride sequence in Strangers on a Train, he notes, “This tunnel, perhaps something of a fallopian tube, is ultimately a site of birth after all.” When discussing the close up of Emma Newton in Shadow of a Doubt, Pomerance asserts that “Hitchcock reveals the American face as a kind of moral space itself, indeed a space troubled by deep fractures (like the state of California).”
Pomerance’s book does, however, raise the question of why Hitchcock has become such rich territory for theory-inflected cultural criticism. At first glance, he is not an obvious candidate for this treatment. Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein had definite goals for their cameras. We can dissect each frame, each cut, each special effect, and relate these to their ideas about nationalism and communism. We can get a lot out of thinking about God and faith in Bresson and Bergman because they wanted to enrich our understanding of those subjects.
By contrast Hitchcock had few intellectual ambitions. He rarely read literature or serious journalism, though he did admit to a fondness for biographies and the Times. His films deal with contemporary moral or social issues obliquely, and often simply move the audience from one sensation to the next. Wars are reduced to abstractions that get good people, like Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest or Ben McKenna in The Man Who Knew Too Much, into bad situations.
Hitchcock accepted some of the criticisms of his films: the subject matter is either unpleasant or frivolous, the plots absurd, the characters shallow, the dialogue and acting underexploited. But none of this particularly concerned him. His interest was in using film to manipulate people in ways that other art forms—no matter how deep the themes or subtle the execution—simply can’t.
Hitchcock was, first and foremost, interested in cinema as a purely visual art. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, he constantly returns to this theme: “You might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture…I took a pure narrative and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms,” “[Rear Window] was the possibility of doing a purely cinematic film.” Perhaps most revealingly, while discussing Psycho, he admits:
“I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream.”
Hitchcock’s films are masterclasses in manipulation: not only in getting people to scream, but getting them to hold their breath, or let out a tension-diffusing laugh. He turned window-side voyeurism into a murder mystery without once leaving the room. He shot a gruesome motel murder without showing the villain (and used 70 cameras for 45 seconds of footage). Every director after Hitchcock aiming to thrill, scare or awe us, from Roman Polanski’s brooding meditations on isolation and paranoia to Michael Bay’s insipid blockbusters, is attempting to do what he made seem effortless.
Hitchcock’s visual prowess also explains why he is such a popular subject for writers, and why his place in the canon continues to rise. The meticulousness of photographic composure, cunning use of light and depth of field, and artful editing to lend a scene tension: these are part of what is unique to film as an artform. Hitchcock deftly wielded them, and his work provides critics with formal reasons for why some films are better than others.
But if that’s the reason why so many writers are attracted to Hitchcock, there remains the question raised by Pomerance’s book: does Hitchcock’s work tell us anything about America, or vice versa? Truffaut aptly said that Hitchcock’s films contain three elements: fear, sex and death. These themes are universal—they have about as much to do with America as they do with England or France. Not that America doesn’t play a crucial role in many of his best films (it does), but this role is subservient to the final aim: getting people to scream or sweat. Hitchcock uses familiar American settings—roadside motels, the quiet suburban town, San Francisco’s rolling hills, New York’s teeming courtyards—to imbue his films with a sense of immediacy and palpability.
North by Northwest, in many ways the most purely Hitchcockian film, demonstrates how little Hitchcock incorporated concerns for symbolism or metaphorical resonance into his craftsmanship. According to Pomerance the film “is an essay on class formation and distinction, exclusivity, and social alienation,” but it is essentially a bit of cinematic light verse. It originated with Hitchcock and the screenwriter Ernest Lehman thinking about a spectacular climax: a chase across Mount Rushmore. From that image, they concocted more and more situations whose value lay in their visual appeal: a murder in the UN, an airplane flying into a gasoline truck, a villain hiding in a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
Pomerance and other theorists might be tempted to read many things into the famous crop-duster sequence: is it a commentary about the violence hidden in rural America? A statement about visibility and shame? Criticism of the oil industry? But all of this would be misplaced and unrewarding.
Hitchcock admitted that the scene was an exercise in doing the opposite of what was expected. There was a scene where someone was going to discreetly attempt to kill Cary Grant. The obvious route, the one that would bore us, and bore Hitchcock even more, would be to have it take place in some dark alleyway, at night, in the city, with the villain hiding somewhere in the shadows. So Hitchcock decided to try the opposite: an attempted murder in stark daylight, in the middle of nowhere, with the assailant in full view the whole time. No social form, no commentary, no fallopian tubes; just pure, undiluted spectacle.
In the end, criticism and analysis of Hitchcock is possible, and potentially enlightening. But looking for Lacan in the face of Grace Kelly is about as rewarding as looking for Foucault in Abraham Lincoln’s eyebrows; occasionally, and often when drinks are involved, it can be fun, but not when it lasts a hundred pages. Ink is better spent trying to look for a worldview behind all the formal genius.
Hitchcock was more than a mere illusionist and master of his craft; the stories that he was drawn to and his mordant sense of humour paint a gleefully pessimistic picture of modern life. In Hitchcock’s world, suburbia is quaint and charming but woefully ignorant of evil (even when it is on the doorstep) and happy rich couples can benefit from a murder in cold blood. Love is deceptive, marriage a prison, justice perverse. And it is all such a thrill.