Alfred Hitchcock’s America

In many of his films the element of threat is what endures beyond the solution of the puzzle at hand.

Some of the wounded men in Hitchcock’s movies have their chance at regeneration and redemption. Gregory Peck gets well through the love and ministrations of the sympathetic psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), Hollywood’s greatest homage to Freudian psychology. Cary Grant in North by Northwest shows himself so adept at eluding pursuers and escaping from hot spots—by, for example, hilarious antics improvised at an elegant auction house—that by the end of the movie he has proved himself worthy of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). As in Saboteur and other Hitchcock movies, a change of name spells a change in fortune in North by Northwest. Cary Grant thinks he is the adman Roger Thornhill until he is abducted and people start calling him George Kaplan. There is even a room in the Plaza Hotel in Kaplan’s name, with suits of clothes in the closet. From the moment he answers to the name Kaplan for the first time, thereby embodying the purely notional spy that the CIA has concocted to lead the bad guys astray, the hero begins his journey through terror toward redemption. In this case, redemption is epitomized by his union with Eve Kendall in that railway compartment as the train enters the tunnel and “The End” appears on the screen.

In some ways a Hitchcock film functions as a morality play. In The Lady Vanishes (1938) the cast of characters stranded on a stalled train acts out the appeasement-versus-confrontation debate in Britain in the face of German aggression in the late 1930s. The underrated Saboteur is a series of episodic lessons in democracy. When Barry and Patricia throw themselves upon the mercy of circus performers, the troupe—in a flamboyant scene written by Dorothy Parker—debates whether to offer refuge to the fleeing pair. And then they vote. The quarreling Siamese twins cancel each other out. The fat lady declares herself neutral. The leader of the troupe votes for the couple; the malignant midget, against. And so Esmerelda, the bearded lady with her beard in curlers, casts the decisive vote, and it is in favor of the fugitives. Lifeboat (1944), about the survivors of a shipwreck adrift in a small lifeboat, is allegorically not only a parable of survival but a contest between American democracy and German totalitarian efficiency. The Birds sounds a prophetic call for an ecology movement that has not yet got off the ground in 1963. The Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell has argued that North by Northwest, whose title echoes one of Hamlet’s famous declarations (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a hand-saw”), is in fact a symbolic reworking of Hamlet, and you don’t have to agree with this unusual thesis to find the argument fascinating. Rear Window is allegorically about moviemaking and voyeurism. Vertigo and Psycho are allegories of the interior life of the wounded.

Two major Hitchcock movies end without the usual resolution that we expect in a murder mystery—Vertigo and The Birds. In other of his films as well, the element of threat is what endures beyond the solution of the puzzle at hand and the restoration of order. In a Hitchcock movie an object can vibrate with meaning and serve as a metonymy of danger: Guy’s cigarette lighter with crossed tennis rackets on it, which Bruno wants to plant at the scene of the amusement-park murder in Strangers on a Train; the victim’s smashed eyeglasses in the same picture (does any other image convey vulnerability so well?); the crack of light beneath the asylum director’s door in Spellbound; the key to the wine cellar in Notorious (1946); the glass of milk Cary Grant brings to Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941); the necklace Kim Novak puts on in Vertigo. Hitchcock’s poetry of objects, as I think of it, could stand as a lesson for modern poets weaned on Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.