Alfred Hitchcock’s America

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A favorite Hitchcock plot motif is that of the wrong man, the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, usually murder, who must elude his pursuers and track down the true culprit. Saboteur is a straight-forward version of this design; Spellbound, a baroque one (in which the suspect on the run is an amnesiac whose dreams are choreographed by Salvador Dali); The Wrong Man, a grim one made in a semidocumentary style; Frenzy (1972), a British version; and North by Northwest, a comic apotheosis of the theme. Both Spellbound and North by Northwest are cases of mistaken identity and can be read as existential parables: The hero needs to discover who he is, or must adopt a made-up identity to become his true, adult self. The quest for the villain and the need to subdue him and foil his plot amounts to the hero’s rite of passage.

The tension between aesthetic and moral impulses adds an edge to Hitchcock’s movies. The better the villain, the better the movie, was a Hitchcock maxim, and often enough it is the villains who steal the show. Certainly this is true in Strangers on a Train, where Robert Walker, playing Bruno, gives a considerably more interesting, threatening, and complex performance than Farley Granger, who plays the tennis pro. Claude Rains in Notorious, James Mason in North by Northwest, Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt are, for all their villainy, attractive, charming, and urbane. The male lead in some Hitchcock films—Robert Cummings in Saboteur, Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train, Rod Taylor in The Birds—comes close to being a generic figure. None of the other male characters in Psycho, and there are quite a few, including John Gavin and Martin Balsam, can hold a candle in interest to the schizophrenic culprit.

The male lead in a Hitchcock movie has heroic qualities but is decidedly a regular guy with flaws or wounds, and even when he is played by an Englishman, he seems a type of the American. Roger Thornhill, the successful Madison Avenue advertising executive in North by Northwest, is a commitment-averse mama’s boy who drinks too much and elbows inconvenient people out of the way. As the film begins, he leaves his New York office building accompanied by his secretary, dictates an insincere apology to a miffed girlfriend, and, in the time-tested New York manner, swoops in and takes a taxi someone else has hailed. Cary Grant, who plays Thornhill, is the perfect Hitchcock actor. But Jimmy Stewart, the unpretentious average guy, is a close second. Either Hitchcock found something dark that was previously untapped in Stewart or he liked capitalizing on the discrepancy between the actor’s image and his character in the film at hand. As Jefferies, the invalid photographer in Rear Window, Stewart has less interest in his girlfriend than in spying on his neighbors. In Vertigo he plays the police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, who is hampered by a psychological weakness that the film’s criminal mastermind exploits to the hilt: Scottie has acrophobia and gets dizzy in high places, and this in San Francisco. When the film begins, a uniformed cop dangling from the edge of a rooftop clings for his life to Scottie’s hand. Scottie, beset with vertigo, lets go, and the cop tumbles to his death.

Scottie is not the only Hitchcock character to suffer from guilt. Gregory Peck in Spellbound arrives at the asylum as its new director, Dr. Anthony Edwardes, but is soon revealed to be an impostor, an amnesiac, and a suspect in the murder case of the actual Dr. Edwardes. (In a flashback resembling a psychoanalytic breakthrough, he recovers the repressed boyhood memory of sliding down a New York banister and accidentally pushing his younger brother to his death.) For much of the movie, Gregory Peck doesn’t even know who he is, proving thereby that in the asylum the doctors and the patients are hard to tell apart. The Peck character learns that his real initials are J.B., and when he checks into a hotel as John Brown, this represents considerable progress, for the entire film is metaphorically a case study in psychoanalysis in which the patient reveals his dreams, talks about his repressed memories, and discovers at long last that his name is John Ballantine and that though he was the immediate cause of his brother’s death, it is now past time to shed the burden of guilt.