Alfred Hitchcock’s America

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Yet for all that, Hitchcock’s America is also a refuge: a haven of freedom, a light in the storm of World War II.

When I see a Hitchcock movie, as when I read a novel by Graham Greene, I feel that I have entered a universe in which evil exists. Murders happen for the usual reasons (greed, ambition, jealousy, the desire to be rid of a cumbersome parent or spouse) and sometimes for psychologically complex motives. But there is an undercurrent of sin and damnation in even a good-natured nightmare with a happy ending like North by North west . Just prior to the cornfield scene, Roger Thornhill in his tie and business suit looks completely out of place as he stands in the road with a gentleman who is waiting for a bus. Out of the sky comes the crop-duster. “That’s funny,” the other man says before boarding the bus. “That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” And as the bus departs, leaving Thornhill alone and unprotected in his natty city clothes, it becomes clear that the plane (whose pilot we never see) means to kill him. Evil in Hitchcock’s America is this inhuman and malevolent flying creature bearing down on a man who is desperately out of his element. Evil stands out in a crowd, the way Bruno’s head remains fixed on Guy while everyone else’s head turns to follow the tennis ball in Strangers on a Train. Evil is a disturbance of nature, but it can have the force of a natural phenomenon, as when flocks of birds thought friendly and harmless prove to be neither in The Birds. But evil is also the shadow that enters the room stealthily, taking its place noiselessly among us and turning out to be the thing that doesn’t belong in the picture. In Shadow of a Doubt Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), with his contempt for “all-American suckers,” is like a Satan who has sneaked into Eden, in this case the movie’s “ordinary little town” with “average” people in Sonoma County, California, which is a version of a pastoral and which he corrupts by his very presence, though it takes the sleuthing of his niece, young Charlie (Teresa Wright), to see through his amiable and charming facade.

The natural progress of paranoia is illustrated in Psycho in the fate of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the bank teller who steals $40,000, has sex outside wedlock with her boyfriend in a hotel room, and emits the scent of guilt as she flees the city in a newly purchased used car. She has begun to act like a guilty person: fearful, jittery. When she pulls to the side of the road, exhausted, and is approached by a highway patrol officer, she is a bundle of nerves. The officer asks, “Is anything wrong?” “Of course not,” Marion says. “Am I acting as if there’s something wrong?” “Frankly, yes,” says the cop. He means to be kind in his gruff manner when he warns her against sleeping in her vehicle on the side of the road. “There are plenty of motels in this area. You should’ve … I mean, just to be safe,” he says. The terrible irony of this statement becomes apparent only on a second viewing of the movie, for Marion would have been much safer in her car than in the motel where she does stop. The guilt and paranoia have run their therapeutic course when in the rain and gloom of night she sees the vacancy sign at the Bates Motel. What happens next is that her drama is swallowed by someone else’s larger and more lethal nightmare. It is not her dream that matters but the more lunatic dream of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). In her movie, the events are comprehensible even when things go astray: A woman gives in to temptation, takes something that isn’t hers, runs away, begins to think better of it, and might even, with the benefit of a good night’s sleep, decide to make a clean breast of things. In his movie, none of this matters; all that matters is that she is beautiful as sin. To the two sides of Norman Bates’s schizophrenic personality, Marion Crane is either (1) a sexy, blonde female and therefore a natural object of desire or (2) a sexy, blonde female and therefore wicked as Jezebel. And so Marion is dispatched in the shower scene, stabbed by Norman’s “mother,” before the movie is half over. The greatest danger is the nearest, and one reason the shower scene in Psycho is the scariest and most threatening in all of Hitchcock is that it violates the defenseless heroine in the most private and intimate of places.