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Alfred Hitchcock’s America
April/May 2007 | Volume 58, Issue 2
If there is one theme in Hitchcock’s America, it is that paranoia is sometimes a reasonable response to events in a world of menace.
Educated by jesuits before taking some night classes at the University of London, Hitchcock made a number of superb black-and-white films in the Britain of the 1930s; The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are perhaps the most celebrated of these. Hitchcock and his wife visited America in 1937 and 1938; he loved England, but when David O. Selznick offered him a directorial contract, Hitch signed on. In the end, the reason he abandoned London for Hollywood is simple to state: The latter could far more easily accommodate his aspirations than could England’s more provincial film industry. And in truth, Hitchcock, who became a United States citizen, made his greatest movies in his prime American period, which began with Rebecca in 1940. Although he kept making movies, through Family Plot in 1976—and the least of these movies is worth watching more than once—the ones I find worthiest of attention in this limited context, by virtue of their aesthetic excellence on one side and their American character on the other, are Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964).
If there is an overriding theme in Hitchcock’s America, it is not that there are dangerous paranoids among us, though that is the case; it is that paranoia is sometimes a reasonable response to events in a world of menace and violence, with threats to safety and complacency close at hand, sometimes in the most intimate of places or from the most trusted of friends or relations. As the homicidal Bruno remarks to the traveler who shares his train compartment in Strangers on a Train , “Everybody has somebody that they want to put out of the way.” And it follows that everybody else is potentially a victim, an accomplice, an accessory after the fact, a witness, or a sleuth. Life is a cliffhanger. There comes a moment when the hero, or his adversary, or his lover, or a bystander may have to hang from a cliff, a rooftop, or the top of a lofty monument, and while there’s no guarantee of survival, the reassuring thing is that someone is on hand to try to save the endangered person. That’s part of the picture too.
Hitchcock’s America is vast and dwarfs the individual. Man is as alone as Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) on that wide-open cornfield in North by Northwest . If Man is lucky, Woman comes along, and they may learn to like each other against their own initial inclinations, as happens to Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and Patricia Martin (Priscilla Lane) when they are handcuffed together in Saboteur . (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, the leading man and lady in The 39 Steps, also spend an uncomfortable amount of time handcuffed together, which appears to be Hitch’s sardonic view of romance and marriage. In Saboteur the pair bicker, and someone overhearing them says, “My, they must be terribly in love.”) If our hero is extremely lucky, he looks like Cary Grant and the lady who comes along seems to be in league with the bad guys but turns out to be a friendly double agent with a feminine touch played by Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest). If, however, our hero is unlucky, the dame who comes along is a femme fatale in a plot more fantastic than even a veteran paranoid could devise. If the intricate psychological scheme at the heart of Vertigo isn’t enough to make Scottie (James Stewart) paranoid, there must be something truly wrong with him.