Alfred Hitchcock’s America


In the mythic landscape that is Hitchcock’s America the murderous or perilous coexists with the homely and domestic. People aren’t who they claim to be. A son can impersonate his dead mother (Psycho). A salesgirl in a San Francisco department store can impersonate an industrialist’s wife (Vertigo). Murder is the result, premeditated in one case, spontaneous and unplanned in the other. But if murderers and their accomplices reinvent themselves, the hero, too, must be nimble enough to employ a fictive identity. In Saboteur Barry Kane’s very name suggests that he starts with a strike against him. When his friend Ken Mason perishes in the fire at the airplane factory where they work, and the fire is determined to be the result of industrial sabotage, Kane is the chief suspect because he was seen handing Mason a fire extinguisher that the saboteur had filled with gasoline. (Unfortunately, no one saw the villain, Frank Fry, hand the extinguisher to Kane.) Though he is innocent, goodhearted, and good-natured, there is a sense in which Kane has repeated Cain’s crime in Genesis: He has not been his brother’s keeper. And he must suffer the fate of Cain, who was sentenced to wander the earth. Barry Kane must cross America in his quest to absolve himself by fingering the real saboteur. The episodic film begins in Los Angeles and ends in New York Harbor. When on the run Barry claims that his name is Barry Mason, conflating his own first name with the last name of his slain buddy, we know he’s on the right path, for the progress of a Hitchcock hero is often a parable of identity, and names are sometimes changed along the way.

There’s a wonderful variety of bad guys in Hitchcock’s America. There are psychotics and con men out there, also kleptomaniacs and traitors and thieves and sometimes just an ordinary husband who has had enough of his wife’s nagging and turns murderous. From the back of his apartment, L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart), the laid-up photographer in Rear Window, monitors the lives of the people in the apartments around their common courtyard in Greenwich Village during a hot summer. He has given nicknames to some of the neighbors, and in each case we can extrapolate an entire movie from the little we learn, as if each window in the movie represented a cinematic possibility, and the voyeur in the wheelchair with the camera is a stand-in for the film director himself. There are the newlyweds, who live mostly behind shut curtains. There is the songwriter, who plays “Mona Lisa” as if in unconscious homage to Lisa Fremont, the Grace Kelly character in the movie. Rebuffed at romance, Miss Lonelyheart is in despair and on the verge of suicide, but then she begins a hopeful new friendship with the songwriter. Miss Torso, the sexy dancer with the acrobatic body, fends off handsome suitor after suitor, reserving her warm embrace for the least prepossessing fellow, who turns up at the end, a short man with a receding hairline in a U.S. Army uniform. It is a little community in a back lot, but behind one window lives one whose existence threatens all, for Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife and chopped her into pieces that fit in valises. There’s a wail in the middle of the movie when one of the neighbors discovers that her pet dog has been strangled. Behind that wail is an accusation—one of you did this—that is also a challenge to the community. So it turns out to be fortunate, after all, that the film director is a snoop. Jefferies proves that “we’ve become a race of peeping Toms,” but his paranoia is justified; his peeping leads to the apprehension of the guilty one, who must be expelled for the community to continue. This is a miniature of the logic of the generic detective story, with the twist that the rear window of the title is unmistakably a movie screen in metaphor, and we the spectators are implicated in Jefferies’s voyeurism.

When a criminal design is put into effect, it takes on a velocity of its own, like the out-of-control merry-go-round in the amusement park where the villain meets his end in Strangers on a Train. It was in the park’s tunnel of love that the out-of-control Bruno Anthony earlier approaches Miriam, Guy Haines’s unfaithful wife, and strangles her to death. An amusement park is a made-to-order Hitchcock setting, a place dedicated to wholesome fun, with songs like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” playing in the background when the violence occurs. In Hitchcock’s America, men and women are surprisingly vulnerable—to lunatics of various stripes, criminals ingenious and banal, and even flocks of birds.