Alfred Hitchcock’s America

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A favorite motif is that of the wrong man, an innocent accused of a crime, who must track down the true culprit.

Yet for all that, Hitchcock’s America is also the America of the grateful immigrant, émigré, or refugee: a haven of freedom, a light in the storm of World War II. There is something benevolent in American institutions symbolized by public monuments or by people in uniform. The cop in the street stops young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) from crossing against traffic in Shadow of a Doubt because this is Santa Rosa, California, small-town America, where the librarians help educate you and the police keep you out of mischief. (Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, wrote the screenplay.) And though Hitchcock has a sense of humor that has been characterized as sadistic, the counterweight to his dark view of humanity is also in his movies. It takes the form of an unrelenting insistence on justice, and sometimes poetic justice, and a reiteration of basic American values. Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt has a special bond with the uncle whose name she shares. She has always adored him. When she has reason to suspect him of being the Merry Widow Murderer, seducer and betrayer of wealthy old widows, it nearly breaks her heart. But not only does she prove her mettle as a sleuth, she opposes her uncle’s evil with a commensurate force of goodness, and that is why she prevails. On the basis of one purloined page clipped from a newspaper and one critical clue—the ring her uncle has given her bears the same initials as one of the murdered widows—she confronts him and gets him to confess. But he doesn’t have to tell her that he has strangled three women. She knows. What persuades her is not so much the evidence as the contemptuous way the killer talks about the “ordinary” people in the “ordinary little town” of Santa Rosa. When Uncle Charlie says, “The world’s a foul sty… . If you rip the fronts off houses, you’d find swine,” it’s as good as an admission of guilt.

Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt embodies America in the same way that brash Barry Kane does in Saboteur . They radiate the optimism and innocence of an ordinary person to whom nothing truly bad has yet happened. Then one day it does, and it troubles her, and she is no longer innocent in the sense of being unaware, but she is able to resist her cynical uncle mentally and physically, and it is he who falls out of the train to his death when they struggle. The benevolence and kindheartedness of small-town America may be most apparent in Shadow of a Doubt. But you can sense the director’s affection for American ideals in Strangers on a Train when the U.S. senator played by the Hitchcock stalwart Leo G. Carroll says, “Let me remind you that even the most unworthy of us has the right to life and the pursuit of happiness.” You hear the patriotic strain loudly in Saboteur when a blind man, our heroine’s uncle, fearlessly welcomes the fugitive Barry Kane to his rustic cabin in a rainstorm though he can tell the man is in handcuffs. “It’s my duty as an American citizen to believe a man innocent until he’s been proved guilty,” Uncle Philip tells his skeptical niece Patricia.

American monuments turn up in Hitchcock’s movies too often to lack significance. Take the United Nations, site of a key scene in North by Northwest . The knife that kills the diplomat in the movie is intended for someone else, which in the abstract sounds like a cutting comment on the U.N. But while Hitchcock’s intentions may never lack irony, they do not consist solely of irony, and to an important degree the monuments in his films—Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest and the Lincoln Memorial in Strangers on a Train—are invoked for the ideals they stand for.

The Statue of Liberty at the conclusion of Saboteur takes its place as the nation’s favorite monument, evoking our preferred idea of ourselves. On the observation deck, waiting for Barry Kane and the police to arrive, the heroine finds herself alone with the traitorous Frank Fry. She flirts with him to detain him, and when he grows suspicious, she stands her ground and defiantly recites the great peroration from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” The final confrontation takes place on the outside of the statue, between the thumb and forefinger of the hand holding the torch. The placement of Lady Liberty here is a ringing an endorsement of American values.