In the history of the cinema there have been only two directors whom popular audiences throughout the world recognise by sight. Great Britain has produced only two directors universally acknowledged as geniuses. They happen to be the same pair – Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. Both came from working-class London backgrounds which they were later to romanticise and lie, or at least deceive, about, and they were shaped by the ethos of the Edwardian world. Both were drawn to America, where they found their fortunes, yet each in his different way remained extremely English.
Strictly speaking, America is not the subject of any movie Chaplin made there, only the setting. His last Hollywood picture, Limelight, is set in Edwardian England, and when he quit the United States he was still a British citizen. His first film after returning to Europe was very specifically set in America – the vituperative, sentimental satire, A King in New York (1957). His voice never had the slightest hint of an American accent, though he’d long since shed any trace of Cockney before he made his first recorded speech. Hollywood supplied the conditions for the fulfilment of Chaplin’s art, but the English music hall was what shaped it. The two are inextricable and one cannot conceive what his career would have been like had he not gone to America.
Chaplin’s life was in and of show business. Hitchcock came from a family with no theatrical connections. Catholic, working-class and, as his most recent biographer, Donald Spoto, has revealed, more humble and ordinary than Hitch made out. His family were not old English Catholics fallen on hard times, but Irish Catholics of fairly recent immigration. His paternal grandmother was illiterate, his maternal grandfather a police sergeant. The Catholicism and the cop put him in a special, somewhat excluded, section of the metropolitan working-class. So he carried a double social strain as he made his way in the world.
As a child Hitchcock was a great theatregoer, quite a reader, and a movie fan. But he had no obvious creative gifts or burning desire to express himself that marked him out for an artistic career. A technical apprenticeship enabled him to escape the family’s modest greengrocery business, and he was 23 when in 1921 he offered his services as a part-time title designer to the London studio of Famous Players-Lasky. By the time of The Lodger (1926) he was established in our rickety native industry, and while in retrospect we can see a clear line in his work that marked him out as a director of thrillers, his oeuvre as it was building remained problematic. Only from The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 was he ‘The Master of Suspense’ (a term he probably coined himself), after which he produced only a single picture (the curious sport Mr and Mrs Smith, in 1941) that cannot be subsumed under the suspense-thriller genre.
In 1938 Hitchcock was the most admired director in Britain. Proud but insecure, he is said to have driven around Leicester Square again and again to see his name in the neon lights advertising The Lady Vanishes. Yet he’d never directed a big budget movie, he hadn’t worked with major stars, most of his pictures lasted under ninety minutes and none lasted over a hundred. From America offers beckoned, and in 1939 he eventually left under contract to David O. Selznick, who thought of him as a director of European subjects. His first Hollywood picture, Rebecca, was set in Europe with an almost entirely British cast, and it was three years before he made a thriller with an American setting. But from the start he was a success and he and his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, remained there for the rest of their lives.
While Chaplin was politically engaged and became an outspoken social critic, he remained aloof from the main currents of American life. The politically circumspect Hitchcock’s position is much more complicated, and his relationship to America as Englishman and exile is more central to an understanding of his work than has generally been appreciated. It is connected with his background, character, religion, sexuality and the way in which, consciously and unconsciously, he addressed himself to the world.
When interviewers asked him about why he went to the States, Hitchcock invariably spoke of larger budgets, the world audience commanded by Hollywood, the chance to work with major stars. He also said that he didn’t make a decision, or at least not initially, to settle there, and indeed for some years the Hitchcocks hung on to their London apartment. But he always spoke rather more frankly to continental interviewers about the shortcomings of British life and culture, and suggested to François Truffaut that America had been part of his thinking about the cinema from the very start:
It never occurred to me to go and offer my services to a British company, yet, as soon as I read that an American company was going to open a studio in London, I said to myself, ‘I want to do their titles’... You might say I had an American training. This doesn’t mean that I’m a devotee of everything American. But I did regard their movie-making as truly professional... Later on I often wondered about the fact that I made no attempt to visit America until 1937... I was completely familiar with the map of New York. I used to send away for train schedules – that was my hobby – and I knew many of the timetables by heart. Years before I came here, I could describe New York, tell you where the theatres and stores were located. When I had a conversation with Americans they would ask, ‘When were you over there last?’ and I’d answer, ‘I’ve never been there at all.’ Strange, isn’t it?
Truffaut missed, or only half got, the point: ‘You didn’t want to come here as a tourist, but as a film director – it was Hollywood or bust.’ I would argue that America was a place of reality and dream for Hitchcock. That it held imaginative and social opportunities which Britain could not offer him. To put it rather grandly, he saw in the freer, larger, more dangerous, more socially mobile American society the possibility of discovering the objective correlatives for his powerful feelings about violence and sexuality. Control over the cinema, and over the world, became his way of confronting the insecure core of his being.
Back in 1930, John Grierson, reviewing Murder, observed cuttingly:
Hitchcock is the best director, the slickest craftsman, the sharpest observer and finest master of detail in all England. There is no doubt about this... Yet for all these virtues Hitchcock is no more than the world’s best director of unimportant pictures. No one he has made has outlasted a couple of twelvemonths, or will – unless something radical happens to change his standard of satisfaction and give his talents something solid to be bright about.
This may have spurred Hitchcock’s attempt in Rich and Strange to anatomise a middle-class marriage under stress, an interesting and evidently very personal film that failed artistically, critically and commercially. Five years later, when established on the road of suspense movie-making, he essayed a picture of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, but in a modernised and emasculated version it became merely a superior thriller. This film, Sabotage, is however of great interest for several reasons and contains much that is emblematic.
The agent provocateur, Verloc, on whom the novel and film centre, has been turned from a back-street purveyor of dubious literature into the proprietor of a flea-pit cinema in a working-class area, behind the screen of which he lives and entertains his fellow conspirators. This throws an ironic light on Hitchcock’s idea of the movies. Verloc’s employer in the embassy of an unnamed European power orders him to stage an act of sabotage that will lead the British government to expel political refugees. The effect of Verloc’s temporary shutting down of Battersea Power Station is not the expected panic, but a good-humoured acceptance of a brief inconvenience – a display, that is, of British tolerance, phlegm, or complaisance. The furious foreigners tell Verloc that his income will be cut off unless he stages something more frightening. Their message concludes with the chilling words ‘London must not laugh’. Is one being fanciful in identifying Verloc, played by the ugly, pudgy Oscar Homolka, with Hitchcock? Verloc, the outsider tolerated by the upper classes, living within a cinema that people despise, wanting to frighten them but only inducing laughter, and spied upon by a suave middle-class Special Branch detective disguised (in imitation of Hitchcock’s father) as a Cockney greengrocer. I don’t think so.
Another thing about Sabotage is the response it produced from W.H. Auden. Among the brickbats and bouquets that Auden and Louis MacNeice threw at various friends and celebrities in their comic poem ‘Last Will and Testament’ in Letters from Iceland (1937) was a garland for Hitchcock:
We hope one honest conviction may at last be found
For Alexander Korda and the Balcon Boys,
And the Stavisky Scandal in picture and sound
We leave to Alfred Hitchcock with sincerest praise
The Stavisky Scandal was left for Resnais to pursue forty years later. But Hitchcock crossed the Atlantic in Auden’s wake to embark upon the second half of his career, and as with Auden’s pre- and post-1939 work, a similar controversy has raged ever since, with British critics generally preferring the 1930s English works of both. But there is a weight, a gravitas, about Hitchcock’s and Auden’s American output, and a religious aspect as well, that was new; and a sense too that in exile and loneliness they discovered their mature selves.
Some of the European exiles of that time returned little changed after the war – Brecht, for instance, and the major French trio of Clair, Duvivier and Renoir. Fritz Lang stayed, and so did most of the Germans, and their movies became, as they became, Americanised. British directors like Edmund Goulding, who went to the States in the 1920s, and the early Ealing hand Robert Stevenson, who left for Hollywood at much the same time as Hitchcock, showed little or no sign of their origins in either their style or choice of subjects. This was not the case with Hitchcock. Though he became the supreme Hollywood professional, he couldn’t escape, in some ways didn’t wish to escape, from his Englishness.
In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (the study Donald Spoto published in 1978 while Hitchcock was still alive, not the somewhat less adulatory biography he wrote in 1983), Hitchcock is compared in the chapter on Shadow of a Doubt with Dante, Dostoevsky and Henry James. Spoto then comments:
But the clearest parallel lies with that authentically American Puritan view of man and his world as flawed, weak and susceptible to corruption and madness. This view found in our earliest writers – Jonathan Edwards, Edward Taylor, Cotton Mather – reached its more dramatic development in the hands of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. It stands opposed to the heady idealism and to the cheery healthy-mindedness offered by the Transcendentalists and the Radical Liberals. To put the case briefly, Hitchcock seems to me the quintessentially American filmmaker, far more closely in touch with the country’s literary and philosophical roots than Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh or John Huston. Hitchcock rejects Emerson’s idealism and simplicity. His dark view of man more closely resembles the New England Puritan view – as well, I think, as Graham Greene’s view of an elemental struggle between Gnosticism and the Christian ethic.
The New England Puritans of the seventeenth century, with whose immediate descendants Spoto identifies Hitchcock, brought their theological and social baggage with them from the old country. To consider them, therefore, more authentically American than those rooted in later, native traditions is misleading. However, the relationship he notes does, if true, illuminate the way some earlier English immigrants, who also thought of themselves as outsiders, anticipated the complex demands Hitchcock made upon America.
In his personal life, especially from the 1950s onwards when he was established beyond any possibility of failure, Hitchcock developed an exaggerated Englishness some found tiresome. He became an English character, Dickensian, with a touch of Wodehouse. Much was made of The Times being delivered daily, of the gourmet dinner parties with oysters flown in from Colchester and no Americans invited because he considered they didn’t appreciate proper food. He didn’t, however, associate, from the beginning or later, with the English cricket club set, a snobbish, upper-class crowd. He employed them from time to time, but it wasn’t their approval he sought. He wanted to be admired by Americans and also by the folks back home.
As already noted, three of his first four Hollywood movies were set wholly or partly in Britain. For the later pictures, even where this was not the case, he chose almost invariably to transpose to America plays, novels and stories set in Britain or Europe. It is as if he had to imagine the work, to seize its essence, in a European context before he could realise it in an American one. Ironically, the weakest films dramatically are those he did not transpose (The Paradine Case and Dial M for Murder, set in London but filmed on Hollywood sound-stages), and those he returned to England to make (Under Capricorn, Stage Fright and Frenzy). His view of England remained arrested in the prewar world, as did more generally his ideas about politics and the espionage business.
But by working within his version of American society – partly mythologised, but powerfully, palpably caught on the screen – he was able to turn his stories into resonant fables. An instructive exception is The Trouble with Harry, a comedy transposed from the English countryside to Vermont and consciously thought of as an exercise in British black humour, with a closer resemblance to certain of his television films than to anything he had made before the war. It is an uneasy affair, appearing to take place, for all the insistence upon Fall in Vermont, in some limbo, and is the only movie in the American corpus after Mr and Mrs Smith that is principally comic in intention.
In Hitchcock’s British movies, figures of authority and menace are usually middle class or foreign – Godfrey Tearle, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre. Their minions are rarely fully characterised and usually quite anonymous. This continues to be the case throughout the American movies from Foreign Correspondent (where the first American suspense hero, Joel McCrea, confronts the British traitor Herbert Marshall) and Saboteur (the first Hollywood thriller with a US setting), up to his last picture, Family Plot (1976). In Saboteur, the head of the German espionage ring is played by Otto Kruger, an American-born but very Europeanised actor, the nephew of the South African President and a specialist in English roles. For Family Plot, Hitchcock brought over the British octogenarian character actress and one-time mistress of Rupert Brooke, Cathleen Nesbitt, to take the brief role of the imperious matriarch of a rich, patrician Californian family whose obsessions launch the film’s intrigue.
In between we have Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the American murder victim’s father in Rope, Tom Helmore (who had appeared in Secret Agent in 1935) as the scheming San Francisco shipping magnate in Vertigo, Anthony Quayle as the defence lawyer in The Wrong Man, Brian Aherne as the prosecuting counsel in I Confess, Claude Rains as the Nazi ringleader in Notorious, Sean Cannery as the Philadelphia publisher in Marnie, and another octogenarian actress, Ethel Griffies, as the voice of the apocalypse, the ornithologist in The Birds. Most importantly, there is Leo G. Carroll who, imperturbably British throughout, appears as the insane head of the mental institution in Spellbound, the senator in Strangers on a Train (here given the director’s daughter, Patricia, as his movie daughter), and the duplicitous chief of the CIA in North by Northwest. In this last movie, Carroll’s suave, superspy quarry is played by James Mason. In none of these films is there the slightest attempt to explain or justify a British person’s presence on the American scene.
There are two significant exceptions to this pattern of casting, and they are arguably Hitchcock’s most perfectly achieved movies. The first is Shadow of a Doubt. The only British actor here is the Dublin-born veteran of the London stage Henry Travers, probably best remembered as the rose-growing station master in Mrs Miniver. In Shadow of a Doubt he plays the gentle father of a Californian small-town family that is disrupted by the appearance of his handsome, homicidal brother-in-law, Charlie (Joseph Cotten). The director set out to create, for the first time, a plausible, authentically American community, and cannily engaged as co-author the playwright Thornton Wilder, creator of the archetypal All-American place called Our Town. Consciously or unconsciously, Hitchcock sought to place himself in it in a double way. As the father, the Henry Travers figure, he’s a quiet, law-abiding pater-familias, obsessed with the art and craft of murder. This is the chief topic of conversation between the father and his equally retiring chum, played by Hitchcock’s longtime friend and collaborator, Home Cronyn. The murderous Uncle Charlie, who is conjured up, willed into the plot by Travers’ frustrated, romantic, deeply bored daughter, also called Charlie (Teresa Wright), is the dangerous side of Hitchcock.
So we have an American community devised and endorsed by Thornton Wilder (a special credit thanks him for his contribution) that provides a forum for an encounter between Hitchcock’s tame social persona and his threatening, concealed identity, between one might say his comic, comfortable bourgeois superego and his uninhibited, romantic, murderous id, for the possession of... a daughter. Some strange, very complicated feelings lurk here, and they throw a revealing light on the picture that came three years later, Spellbound, the thriller which launched Hollywood’s postwar obsession with Freudian psychology through a movie ostensibly aimed at explaining and justifying the therapeutic value of psychoanalysis. Hitchcock never underwent analysis, but spent some years in the early 40s reading secondary, interpretative texts.
The other movie that falls outside the pattern I’ve been describing is Psycho, made seventeen years later and the occasion of some bitterness on Hitchcock’s part. ‘British humour,’ he told Truffaut, ‘is quite superficial and it’s also very limited. The British press raised violent objections to Psycho, there was hardly a critic who had any sense of humour about this picture.’ More than that, in fact. His old friend C.A. Lejeune, critic of the Observer, hated the picture. She saw in it the writing on the wall and put in her resignation after thirty years service. Whether she told Hitchcock this I don’t know. Probably not. But in one respect she was right. Psycho can be seen as a turning point in cinematic history. It cut off one generation from another, providing a shibboleth for admission into the new cinematic sensibility.
For the Spielberg generation of movie brats and their successors, the graduates of the film schools that sprang up in America during the 1960s, Psycho represented manipulative, autonomous cinema at its purest, the director as puppetmaster, playing with actors and audiences, a movie of pure, near-totalitarian will. Of course it’s much more than that, and this is what makes the picture not merely superior to its endless imitations, but a classic of satirical social commentary. Donald Spoto has pointed out that there is a specific visual link uniting Shadow of a Doubt and Psycho (the Master’s last black and white film). A scene between Joseph Cotten and his would-be victim Teresa Wright in the earlier film, staged at night in profile on a house porch, is exactly reproduced in Psycho, when Anthony Perkins stands beside, and sizes up, his victim, Janet Leigh. But Psycho is the dark mirror-image of Shadow of a Doubt. This is the later Hitchcock disillusioned with America and with money (money being from first to last the film’s motif for social contamination and moral corruption). Here we have another instance of America as moral geography for Hitchcock. Janet Leigh flees from a settled community to thrust herself upon a reluctant killer who has withdrawn from the mainstream of American life. In Shadow of a Doubt, the killer is drawn across the continent by the mystical power of his victim.
Another, some might think more important, aspect of the casting of the American movies is the assignment of roles over some twenty years to Cary Grant and James Stewart. Four parts apiece – Grant in Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest; Stewart in Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. The rationale of this casting, perceptively dealt with by Spoto in his biography, is now the subject of fairly general agreement, and it broadly reflects the roles played by the pair in their only co-starring picture, The Philadelphia Story, made in the same year as Rebecca.
Grant is the debonair international sophisticate Hitchcock would ideally like to have been. He is reprieved, dramatically and symbolically, from the gallows in Suspicion, and thereafter was frequently on Hitchcock’s mind as an actor he needed, but usually couldn’t get. From being the working-class Bristol lad Archie Leach, he had transformed huhself into the classless, happily déraciné international movie idol Cary Grant. He was the screen lover of Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, of Joan Fontaine and Eva Marie Saint, that Hitchcock could never be. But Hitch could stand by and direct him in this role.
James Stewart, on the other hand, the middle-class Ivy League graduate who’d become a middle-American Capra-esque hero, was the insecure, lovable man from Main Street that Hitchcock could think of as his Americanised self. Hitch’s awkward bulk became Stewart’s gangling, awkward height. In Rope he is (like Henry Travers in Shadow of a Doubt) a man obsessed with the mise en scène of murder, shocked to find his former pupils transforming his innocent, hypothetical disquisitions on Orwellian ‘Cosy English Murders’ into Nietzschean atrocities of a Leopold-Loeb kind. In Rear Window, Stewart is the photographer as voyeur, fearful of true intimacy with his blonde fiancée (Grace Kelly), projecting his lusts and murderous fantasies on to the neighbours in his New York courtyard. His impotence is symbolised by a broken leg resulting from his physical daring while taking pictures; he only emerges from his protective shell when his fiancée comes to share his voyeuristic obsession. In Vertigo, possibly the supreme masterpiece of the Hollywood oeuvre, Stewart is incapable of touching his living idol; he must wait until he feels responsible for her death, and then attempt to reshape another woman in her image.
The weakest picture of the Stewart quartet is the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. But it is far more interesting than the one feeble picture of the Grant four, To Catch a Thief (made immediately after Rear Window and allowing Grant to make love to Grace Kelly in the most sexually explicit scene in the oeuvre, a sequence that prevented a whole generation from ever again innocently participating in a firework display). It is customary nowadays to prefer the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much to the original 1934 British version. I cannot accept this. The earlier movie is crisp, unpretentious, consistently gripping. The later one is overblown, slack, gross. But if viewed as a key allegorical work in the context of Hitchcock’s career, then the remake is a major film.
In 1948 Hitchcock came back to England accompanied by the world’s most alluring femnle star, Ingrid Bergman, to take his native city by storm. Press photographers followed them around London. ‘A Cockney Shows His Star the Town’, was how Picture Post headed its five-page story. But the movie they made together, their third collaboration, Under Capricorn, was badly received. A deeply disturbed Hitchcock then rushed out the contrived, lighthearted English piece Stage Fright, which did better financially but didn’t much help his reputation except in the eyes of his London critics, who thought it a proper homecoming.
With these two films in the background, we can see his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (made on British and North African locations, but with the studio work done in Hollywood) as a commentary on his relations with his native country. In the British film, the parents of the kidnapped child return home from Switzerland to face their crisis. In the remake they are visitors to London, a middle-western doctor (James Stewart) and his wife (Doris Day), a big-band vocalist who has given up her career to be a subservient home-maker of the Eisenhower era. As a showbiz celebrity she is surrounded by boozy, uncomprehending British friends, one of them named as the Palladium impresario Val Parnell. This situation can be interpreted at one level as an allegory about Hitchcock and Bergman’s traumatic postwar visit to London, and at another as about Hitchcock the American and Hitchcock the Englishman returning to a city he’s lost touch with, where he’s treated as a celebrity, but not acknowledged as an artist. In this reading the contentious Hollywood oeuvre is represented by the kidnapped child, no longer a sweet English girl but a brash American boy designed to put up the backs of British audiences.
In both movies the international conspirators planning the assassination of a foreign ambassador at the Albert Hall use a chapel as their front, and indulge in bogus, comic rites. The co-scenarist of the original film was the right-wing Catholic satirist D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, and it is unlikely that in the 1930s or after Hitchcock would have treated the Catholic church in a similar way. For example, in his first characteristic Hollywood thriller, Foreign Correspondent (1940), the journalist hero Joel McCrea is lured to the top of Westminster Cathedral by an assassin, Edmund Gwenn. The clumsy, diminutive English killer attempts to push his rangy American victim over the bars but instead propels himself to a precipitous death. This is recorded in long-shot, filmed by a second unit in Britain with great care and at some expense during the London blitz. The location must have been important to Hitchcock for him to have gone to so much trouble. Evidently he thought the scene a combination of sacrilege and miracle – the hero delivered, the villain punished for his sins. Few Americans would have recognised the building or known of its significance for the director. Oddly enough, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in their pioneering 1957 study of Hitchcock, while placing great emphasis for the first time on Hitchcock the Catholic, merely refer to the scene as taking place on the top of a tower’.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is a series of interruptions and violations – a holiday ruined, meals and parties cut short, a supposedly important concert at the Albert Hall halted at its climax, a religious service curtailed... and so on. This is much more so in the case of the remake than the original, and it is this which makes it a peculiarly modernist work, that relates it to Waiting for Godot or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The heavyhanded, ponderous quality that I dislike in it is part of the agonised scrupulousness others admire. No one could think the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much a lightly considered undertaking.
The fact that Hitchcock should have chosen this particular film to remake is significant, because along with The Lady Vanishes (the least personal, most felicitous of his later British assignments), it was a major turning point, and a financial peak, in his prewar career. There is a famous comment by Hitchcock to Truffaut, comparing the 1934 and 1956 films: Let’s say the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.’ Hitchcock may have believed this, and thought it a sufficient reason to remake the picture. This wasn’t, however, what he told British interviewers in 1956. His explanation then was that the 1934 version hadn’t been shown in America, whereas in fact it had met with considerable success for a modestly budgeted British movie, something no London journalist bothered to check on.
Hitchcock’s first straight American thriller after the new Man Who Knew Too Much was North by Northwest, shot in 1958. It isn’t precisely a remake of anything he’d done before, but it does have a symmetrical place in his work, as well as being his last Cary Grant movie after his final two with James Stewart. His first thrilLer set in America, Saboteur (1942), centred on a journey from California to New York by a Los Angeles factory worker framed for a murder caused by an act of wartime sabotage and bent on clearing his name. His quest ends famously on the top of the Statue of Liberty. An identical transcontinental journey would have taken the expatriate Hitchcock, guilt-ridden by letters from home accusing him of dodging the wartime column (many written by his old producer Michael Balcon), back to the European battlefield. Lifeboat, the following year, took him out into the North Atlantic. In fact he did return, at great risk and at some financial loss and without the protection of his wife, Alma Reville, to make a couple of movies with a group of émigré French actors for exhibition in France after the Liberation. Hitchcock was unhappy about Saboteur, despite good reviews and satisfactory box-office returns, probably because of the tepid performances by Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, minor stars both, though as American and as 40s Hollywood as he could have asked for.
With North by Northwest, he re-capitulated the journey of Saboteur, going in the other direction. His hero is also wrongly accused of murder, but this time he’s a smooth, successful advertising agent played by Cary Grant. His name, ‘Roger Thornhill’, is so well known to movie fans that in the 1984 occult political thriller Dreamscape the centre of activity was called Thornhill College (with a crucial sub-section dubbed the Bates Building in memory of the motel Anthony Perkins managed in Psycho). The jobs were well chosen – the leather-jacketed war worker in the 1940s, the Madison Avenue executive for the second Eisenhower term. The Cold War was the context, and Mount Rushmore the ultimate destination where Hitchcock knew the climactic shoot-out should take place when he hired Ernest Lehman as screenwriter. As Lehman has told us, Hitch arranged a mini-retrospective to show the kind of synoptic entertainment he intended this to be. We now see that it brought a wonderful decade of film-making to a triumphant conclusion.
The most celebrated scene in North by Northwest is the pursuit of Cary Grant in the middle-western cornfield by a crop-dusting plane equipped with machine-guns. After the hapless Roger Thornhill has been encouraged to get off the Greyhound bus in the Indiana countryside, he is kept hanging around for an unconscionable time, then starts running for his life. Indiana is the crossroads of America, the state that has produced more national archetypes than any other in the union. This is the home of Wendell Wilkie, Cole Porter, James Dean, Jimmy Hoffa, Kenneth Rexroth, John Dillinger, Howard Hawks, Theodore Dreiser, Alfred Kinsey; the state that Robert and Helen Lynd chose for their classic sociological study Middletown (based on the city of Muncie); the flat terrain where the extra-terrestrials visited the yearning, unfulfilled electrician in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I seize on the isolation of the urban sophisticate Cary Grant in rural Indiana because there is endless emphasis upon Indianapolis, the state capital to which the film’s deserted road leads, as the hometown of the couple played by James Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Cary Grant, the Manhattan sophisticate at bay in the countryside – probably Hitchcock’s greatest sequence of terror in the open air, and one of the cinema’s most disturbing exploitations of agoraphobia – is thus taken to the terrain of Hitchcock’s American alter ego, James Stewart. Hitch’s classless, stateless ideal is at a loss in the world of his awkward, graceless, confidently rooted persona.
We might also note something more sombre. Hitchcock was notoriously obsessed by blondes, from Madeleine Carroll in his British pictures, through a succession of American actresses – Joan Fontaine, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Vera Miles, Tippi Hedren. The first blonde star of the first rank he encountered and worked with on American soil was Carole Lombard, and Mr and Mrs Smith was supposedly undertaken out of friendship for her and at her request. She was a peculiarly spirited person, and aware that Hitchcock’s most famous saying was that ‘Actors are cattle’, she set up three stalls on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith for the first day of shooting, each occupied by small cows bearing around their necks the names of the film’s stars, Robert Montgomery, Gene Raymond and herself. Less than a year after making Mr and Mrs Smith, Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash on her way back to Hollywood from Indianapolis during a War Bond selling tour. The setting of the cornfield scene in North by Northwest is some seventy or eighty miles from Fort Wayne, Lombard’s birthplace, and the sequence concludes with Grant driving away unscathed after an aircrash.
After The Birds in 1963, there was a steep decline in the quality of Hitchcock’s movies, and at the beginning of the 70s he returned to work in Britain for the last time with Frenzy. It was based on a low-life novel called Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, a title with elegiac qualities, I suggesting the music-hall of Hitchcock’s youth and the world that ended in the horrors of the Western Front. But he didn’t hire its author, Arthur La Bern, to write the script. Instead he engaged Anthony Shaffer, a student of detective fiction and a master of pastiche, and the film, although set in the Britain of the 70s, belongs to the inter-war years. A serious dislocation is announced at the start by casting Jon Finch, an actor still obviously in his twenties, as the brutal hero, a former Battle of Britain pilot.
The film’s killer, who frames Finch, is a smooth psychopath played by Barry Foster, who brutally murders women and rapes them while they are dying. His trade is that of greengrocer – the occupation of Hitchcock’s father comes up again – and his chosen weapon is the necktie, symbol of the public school world, the clubby exclusivity that denied Hitchcock his proper place in English life. Older viewers of Frenzy, like Hitchcock himself, would remember a those old advertisements offering a course in self-confidence and social advancement that carried the slogan ‘Are You Gagged by the Old School Tie?’ accompanied by s picture of a man with a striped tie around his mouth. Let that tie slip a little and an inhibiting cravat becomes a vengeful garotte.
The relationship between the sweaty, guiltily innocent Jon Finch and the self-possessed, innocently guilty Barry Foster in Frenzy closely parallels that between the edgy, guiltily innocent lower-middle-class tennis star (Farley Granger)* and the smooth, innocently guilty society playboy (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train. Foster and Walker both murder the estranged wives of the men for whom they have an implicit homosexual love, simultaneously freeing the husbands while making them objects of suspicion who can only free themselves by naming the killers. It is perhaps not by mere chance that when Finch books into a hotel while on the run with his mistress, he should use the pseudonym ‘Mr and Mrs Oscar Wilde’. Also that Hitchcock should have brought out of retirement to appear as the hotel’s landlady Elsie Randolph, who forty years before played a fashionable socialite on the cruise ship where the couple’s marriage breaks down in Rich and Strange.
Only one film followed Frenzy – Family Plot, a British novel transposed to California, with Hitchcock making his personal appearance as a silhouette behind the door of a coroner’s office. But whereas a cast of youngish British stage actors had responded uneasily to his direction in Frenzy, a youngish cast of American film actors served him outstandingly well in Fancily Plot.
We know that Hitchcock was unwell while directing this picture, and in the four years between then and his death he was, by all accounts, a depressed, heavy-drinking, leering, discontented man, taking care of a demanding wife (half-paralysed and deeply suspicious) upon whom he had depended for over fifty years. Despite the praise that had been heaped on him by the film industry, critics and the movie-going public, he was divided against himself, rancorous, frustrated. The end recalls that of Evelyn Waugh, another Catholic identifying himself with an earlier England who retreated into himself becoming an internal exile, rather than seeking a place abroad. Both put their tensions, contradictions and fears into their art, transmuting pain and trauma through the alchemy of anguished creativity. In day-to-day life maturity and serenity eluded them. They adopted masks to conceal this, and for most of the time this social act was surprisingly successful. We now know the price both had to pay.
*In Rope Granger played the agonised ballot the duo of clearly homosexual killers. In 1978 he took over the role of the gay murderer in the Broadway production of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, a comedy thriller much indebted to Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth that takes a less censorious view of homosexuality and homicide than Hitchcock’s contemporaries did.
Sight & Sound, v54 n2 Spring 1985, pages 116-122