Alfred Hitchcock’s America

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhen I think of Alfred Hitchcock’s America—the vision of America that you get from watching the films that he made during his prime Hollywood period—these are some of the images that come to mind:

Heavy rain, poor visibility. The exhausted driver pulls up to a motel with a vacancy on a forlorn highway (Psycho).

A low-flying crop-duster takes aim at the well-dressed man running in a wide-open Midwest cornfield devoid of people or places in which to hide (North by Northwest).

The avuncular small-town traffic cop in the street stops an agitated teenager (Teresa Wright) from crossing against the light and says, “Just a minute, Charlie. What do you think I’m out here for?” (Shadow of a Doubt).

Judy (Kim Novak) puts on the same necklace that the legendary Carlotta Valdes wears in the portrait in the museum to which Madeleine (also Kim Novak) had earlier paid rapt attention while Scottie (James Stewart) furtively watched (Vertigo).

At the tennis championship in Forest Hills all heads in the crowd move back and forth, back and forth, to follow the progress of the ball—all except for one man, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), who keeps his eyes squarely on one of the players, Guy Haines (Farley Granger, in Strangers on a Train).

The glamorous model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), looking like a million pre-inflation bucks, wheels in a catered meal to serve herself and her wheelchair-bound photographer boyfriend (Rear Window).

At the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, Scottie saves Madeleine from drowning in San Francisco Bay (Vertigo).

The merry-go-round at the Magic Isle amusement park spins out of control (Strangers on a Train).

All that keeps a man from falling to certain death from the top of the Statue of Liberty is his jacket sleeve clutched by another man, and the sleeve is ripping apart (Saboteur).

The menacing image of birds on telephone wires (The Birds).

A montage: the hand of Cary Grant lifting Eva Marie Saint to safety atop Mount Rushmore and then, in the wink of a camera eye, making the same gesture to lift her to the sleeper top of a train compartment, followed a frame later by a suggestive shot of the train entering a tunnel (North by Northwest).

The silhouette of an arm wielding a knife, a torn shower curtain, and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) slumping lifeless in the tub, the blood oozing out of her and flowing down the drain (Psycho).

I’ve stopped myself after a dozen such images or scenes, though I know I can easily double or triple the list. What do these cinematic moments, emblematic as they seem to be, suggest about Hitchcock’s America?

The first thing I need to declare is the filmmaker’s genius. In his lifetime considered the pre-eminent maker of thrillers, Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) acquired a knighthood and the sobriquet “master of suspense.” He has long since gained general, if not universal, recognition as one of the major filmmakers—and thus one of the major artists—of the twentieth century.

An Englishman by birth and upbringing, the son of an East End greengrocer, “Hitch” was brought up in a strict Catholic household. One day his father gave the boy a letter and had him deliver it by hand to the local police station, where the officer on duty, after perusing the contents, locked young Alfred in a cell for 10 minutes, then released him. This enhanced the boy’s appreciation of the police and helped plant in him the seeds of a somewhat cruel sense of humor that expressed itself in practical jokes. The heavyset Hitchcock signed his films by making cameo appearances in them, usually at the start of the picture. In North by Northwest (1959), Hitch is ready to mount a New York City bus when the doors slam in his face; in Lifeboat (1944), the director’s image turns up in a scrap of newspaper among the debris in the boat—in a before-and-after advertisement for a weight-reduction program.