(Sir) Alfred Hitchcock

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Robin Wood

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To trace the creative drives behind Hitchcock's films to sources in psychopathology (possible, after all, to some degree with any artist) does not necessarily invalidate the emphasis placed in my book on their therapeutic impulses: indeed, it could logically be felt to strengthen this emphasis by giving the therapeutic impulses a particular focus or motivation. I still feel that the Hitchcock films I most admire are centred on a movement towards health via therapy and catharsis. I have, however, become much more keenly aware of a need to insist on sharp discriminations—a need to stress the limitations of Hitchcock's art and to distinguish the work (a small proportion of the total oeuvre) that succeeds in transcending them.

The limitations are of two kinds, though perhaps not entirely unconnected. There is, first, the somewhat equivocal relationship between Hitchcock the artist and Hitchcock the showman-entertainer. Obviously, the two can never be cleanly separated, nor would it be desirable that they could be, as their inter-relationship is in many ways crucial to the robustness of Hitchcock's work. One can, nevertheless, set up fairly obvious polar opposites: the intensely involved personal art of Vertigo, say, as against the businessman who lends his name to anthologies of largely trivial horror stories or the comic fat man who introduces the Hitchcock half-hour on television. Between the two, however, lie areas where the relationship becomes problematic. What concerns me here is the way in which some of Hitchcock's finest work is flawed by compromises that, in an artist free of "commercial" constraints, would appear neurotic, the result of a reluctance to allow certain disturbing implications to be fully explored, but which Hitchcock encourages us (sometimes, in interviews, explicitly) to regard as the result of external pressures, fears of alienating his audiences (the two motivations are not, of course, incompatible). (p. 20)

The second limitation is more damaging: I would define it as the relative weakness in Hitchcock's art of the normative impulse. That great art strives—however implicitly—towards the realisation of norms seems to me axiomatic, though the principle I am stating is frequently misunderstood or misrepresented. It is not a matter of whether a work is "optimistic" or "pessimistic", and certainly not a denial of the validity of a tragic vision of life. It is a matter of the nature of the creative impulse, which, to flourish, must be rooted in a sense of at least a potential normality to be striven for, values by which to live. "Normality" here must not be understood in terms of the re-affirmation of established values, least of all the norms of bourgeois society….

It is not really paradoxical that Hitchcock's art is usually at its most creative when his material permits or encourages the most complete immersion in the abnormal. If creativity is, almost by definition, a striving towards norms, this implies a process, a moving through. The problem with Hitchcock is that the movement seems almost always blocked. His work typically equates "normality" with a bourgeois life in whose values the creative side of him totally disbelieves but to which it can provide no alternative. (p. 21)

Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?

It is a pity the question has to be raised: if the cinema were truly regarded as an autonomous art, not as a mere adjunct of the novel or the drama—if we were able to see films instead of mentally reducing them to literature—it would be unnecessary. (p. 29)

[What] can one adduce, positively, once all the false preconceptions have been cleared away, to encourage the doubters to believe that Hitchcock deserves serious...

(This entire section contains 2578 words.)

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consideration as an artist?…

First, then, one might point to the unity of Hitchcock's work, and the nature of that unity. I mean of course something much deeper than the fact that he frequently reverts to mystery-thrillers for his material; I also mean something broader and more complex than the fact that certain themes—such as the celebrated "exchange of guilt"—turn up again and again, although that is a part of it. Not only in theme—in style, method, moral attitude, assumptions about the nature of life—Hitchcock's mature films reveal, on inspection, a consistent development, deepening and clarification….

The thematic material of Hitchcock's films is much richer than is commonly recognised. True, he never invents his own plots, but adapts the work of others…. (p. 36)

The mystery-thriller element is, in fact, never central in Hitchcock's best films; which is not to deny its importance. We could put it this way: "suspense" belongs more to the method of the films than to their themes (insofar as any distinction is possible, such distinctions applied to organic works being necessarily artificial). Look carefully at almost any recent Hitchcock film and you will see that its core, the axis around which it is constructed, is invariably a man-woman relationship: it is never a matter of some arbitrary "love interest," but of essential subject-matter….

It is true that one can find a profound theme underlying almost anything if one is predisposed to search it out sufficiently diligently; what distinguishes a work of art is that this theme should be seen, on reflection, to inform the whole—not only the "content" (if there is such a thing as distinct from treatment; for what is the content of a film but sounds and images, and where else can we look for its style?), but the method. (p. 37)

More practically, perhaps, in answer to my opening question, one can point to the disturbing quality of so many Hitchcock films. It is one of the functions of art to disturb: to penetrate and undermine our complacencies and set notions, and bring about a consequent readjustment in our attitude to life. Many refer to this quality in Hitchcock but few try to account for it: how often has one heard that a certain film is "very clever" but "leaves a nasty taste in the mouth" (Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window …). This "nasty taste" phenomenon has, I believe, two main causes. One is Hitchcock's complex and disconcerting moral sense, in which good and evil are seen to be so interwoven as to be virtually inseparable, and which insists on the existence of evil impulses in all of us. The other is his ability to make us aware, perhaps not quite at a conscious level (it depends on the spectator), of the impurity of our own desires. The two usually operate, of course, in conjunction.

This disturbing quality is frequently associated with the Hitchcockian "suspense," and it is this which I would like to consider next. It is very rarely a simple thing, very rarely "mere" suspense; but it is not easy to define, since it has many functions and takes many forms. (p. 38)

The theme [of] the necessity for trust above all, whatever the risks is the theme of one of Hitchcock's early, and not entirely satisfactory, Hollywood films, Suspicion. I pass to this now because it offers a convenient focal point for disentangling two threads which run through Hitchcock's later work and, while they do not in themselves explain his films, offer a means of access to them. (pp. 40-1)

First, what I call the therapeutic theme, whereby a character is cured of some weakness or obsession by indulging it and living through the consequences. Joan Fontaine falls in love with and marries Cary Grant. He is soon revealed as a liar and she comes to suspect that he is a murderer—eventually, that he is trying to murder her. The suspicions poison their marriage, making any open communication between them impossible. Only when they are eventually forced into the open is the fallacy exposed and, in the film's very last shot, a new start made. (p. 41)

The second thread is the extension of this "therapy" to the spectator, by means of encouraging the audience to identify. The outlook of the Joan Fontaine character is a very common one, certainly not restricted to colonels' daughters. From the time of her marriage onwards, we are restricted to the one consciousness: we know only what she knows, see only what she sees: we share her suspicions and learn from experience with her. With her, we find the Cary Grant character attractive: he is so romantic and dashing, so careless of mundane cares and restraints. But with her, we are gradually dismayed by his excesses: the reckless abandon with other people's money—and other people's feelings—comes to appear very unpleasant. So we become ashamed of having found him so attractive: if he were a complete blackguard, now, we would be exonerated, merely the victims of deceit, and we would be revenged on him when his downfall came. As Joan Fontaine's fingers arrange those letters into the word "murder", the camera places us in her position: they are our hands. The film endorses the man's attitude to life no more than the woman's: if the limitations of her inhibited, sheltered respectability are chastised, so is their inevitable complement—the attraction towards total irresponsibility. And always it is our own impulses that are involved, not only the characters'. (pp. 41-2)

Vertigo seems to me Hitchcock's masterpiece to date, and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us. (p. 77)

The objection has frequently been made that the plot hinges on a wild improbability: not so much that a man who has seen the woman he loves fall from a height should not stay to make sure she is dead, as that the murderer should count on his not doing so. But if one is going to approach the film in this way, a moment's thought will make it clear that the whole plot is quite fantastic—no one would ever set about murdering his wife in that way…. As in Shakespeare's plays, in fact, the organisation of Vertigo is thematic; plot, characterisation, psychology, all are strictly subordinated to thematic development. (pp. 77-8)

In one way Hitchcock is throughout the first half of Vertigo using his audience's escapist expectations, the fact that they go the cinema in order to see a "hero," with whom they can identify, involved in romantic wish-fulfillments: hence at this climactic moment dream and romantic cliché merge. But, at a deeper level, the sea as the culmination of this part of the film has another significance: if the sequoia trees are "the oldest living thing," the sea is older still, beating eternally against the rocks, eroding, wearing down; and it is against such sea-associations that the two embrace on the cliff-edge, a tiny, precarious moment placed against eternity. But this is perhaps merely to suggest why the cliché itself still has emotional validity. (p. 84)

Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock's films the one nearest to perfection. Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form: it is a perfect organism, each character, each sequence, each image, illuminating every other. Form and technique here becomes the perfect expression of concerns both deep and universal. Hitchcock uses audience-involvement as an essential aspect of the film's significance. Together with its deeply disturbing attitude to life goes a strong feeling for the value of human relationships. To object that the characters' motives are not explained in terms of individual psychology is like demanding a psychological explanation of the sources of evil in Macbeth: Hitchcock is concerned with impulses that lie deeper than individual psychology, that are inherent in the human condition…. In complexity and subtlety, in emotional depth, in its power to disturb, in the centrality of its concerns, Vertigo can as well as any film be taken to represent the cinema's claims to be treated with the respect accorded to the longer-established art forms. (p. 95)

Psycho begins with the normal and draws us steadily deeper and deeper into the abnormal; it opens by making us aware of time, and ends (except for the releasing final image) with a situation in which time (i.e. development) has ceased to exist. (p. 106)

With [Marion], we lose all power of rational control, and discover how easily a "normal" person can lapse into a condition usually associated with neurosis. Like her we resent, with fear and impatience, everything (the policeman, the car salesman) that impedes or interferes with her obsessive flight, despite the fact that only interference can help her…. (pp. 108-09)

The confrontation of Marion and Norman Bates … is in some ways the core of the film: the parallel made between them provides the continuity that underlies the brutal disruption when Marion is murdered. It is part of the essence of the film to make us feel the continuity between the normal and the abnormal: between the compulsive behaviour of Marion and the psychotic behaviour of Normal Bates…. Norman tells her, "We're all in our private trap. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch": he is defining the psychotic state, the condition of permanent anguish whence development becomes impossible, a psychological hell….

It is not merely its incomparable physical impact that makes the showerbath murder probably the most horrific incident in any fiction film. The meaninglessness of it (from Marion's point of view) completely undermines our recently restored sense of security. The murder is as irrational and as useless as the theft of the money. It also constitutes an alienation effect so shattering that (at a first viewing of the film) we scarcely recover from it. Never—not even in Vertigo—has identification been broken off so brutally. At the time, so engrossed are we in Marion, so secure in her potential salvation, that we can scarcely believe it is happening; when it is over, and she is dead, we are left shocked, with nothing to cling to, the apparent centre of the film entirely dissolved. (p. 109)

Psycho is Hitchcock's ultimate achievement to date in the technique of audience-participation. In a sense, the spectator becomes the chief protagonist, uniting in himself all the characters…. Each stage in the descent adds to the tension within us: we want to know, and we dread knowing, we want the investigators to find the truth and put an end to the horrors, yet we have involved ourselves in those horrors through our identification with Norman. (p. 110)

Lila's exploration of the house is an exploration of Norman's psychotic personality. The whole sequence, with its discoveries in bedroom, attic and cellar, has clear Freudian overtones. The Victorian décor, crammed with invention, intensifies the atmosphere of sexual repression. (p. 110)

Our discovery of the truth, of course, partly changes our attitude to what has gone before. It adds, for example, many complexities to our understanding of the shower murder, which we see now as primarily a sexual act, a violent substitute for the rape that Norman dare not carry out, and secondarily as the trapped being's desire to destroy a woman who has achieved the freedom he will never achieve…. (pp. 111-12)

No film conveys—to those not afraid to expose themselves fully to it—a greater sense of desolation, yet it does so from an exceptionally mature and secure emotional viewpoint. And an essential part of this viewpoint is the detached sardonic humour. It enables the film to contemplate the ultimate horrors without hysteria, with a poised, almost serene detachment. (p. 114)

Robin Wood, in his Hitchcock's Films (copyright © 1966, 1969, 1977 by Robin Wood), A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1977, 174 p.

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