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…