Alfred Hitchcock’s America

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There is this in Hitchcock, and there is some of the most glorious music ever written for the movies, by Bernard Herrmann, Dimitri Tiomkin, and others. There is also glamour, as when Grace Kelly flirts with Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief or wheels in an elegant repast for James Stewart and her to consume in his bohemian pad in Rear Window. And there is the good old-fashioned Hollywood buss that ends the spectacle, as when Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck clinch at the gate in Grand Central at the end of Spellbound. But I would save the last word for Hitchcock’s humor and the marvelous way it coexists with the macabre. In Shadow of a Doubt there is a running conversation between young Charlie’s father, Joseph Newton (Henry Travers), and his neighbor and friend Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) in comic counterpoint to the plot of the Merry Widow Murderer. Both gentlemen are addicted to detective stories and make a competitive parlor game out of planning the perfect murder as a strictly theoretical pastime. When we first meet Joe, he is carrying a magazine entitled Unsolved Crimes. The best way to commit a murder, he has told Herb, is with a blunt instrument. In a later scene Herb jokes that he could have poisoned Joe’s coffee unseen. Both men are utterly oblivious of the drama unfolding in the very house in which they drink their coffee and discuss unsolved crimes. When Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge) describes her husband and Herb as “literary critics,” she is more accurate than she can know, for the pair have the same relation to the crimes in the movie—murder by strangulation rather than poison or a lead pipe—that literary critics have to literary art. This comic subplot, which might seem to underscore the theme of our general vulnerability, is a variant on the archetypal story of the scholar who, with his eyes fixed on the stars, falls into a ditch. Most of us are looking elsewhere and do not see the peril immediately before us. This may make us easy prey. But the comedy is benevolent, because the “ordinary people” in Shadow of a Doubt are decent, warmhearted, and generous, the backbone of Hitchcock’s America.

David Lehman’s books include The Perfect Murder, a study of detective novels and movies , and The Oxford Book of American Poetry , which he edited. He has written articles for American Heritage on subjects ranging from Abstract Expressionism to Frank Sinatra.