Alfred Hitchcockb. August 13, 1899, London, England
d. April 29, 1980, Los Angeles, USA
by Ken Mogg
Ken Mogg, in Melbourne, Australia, writes and lectures on Alfred Hitchcock and related topics and runs the MacGuffin website.
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Alfred Hitchcock Master of Paradox
Note from the author
At one moment below I make passing reference to how, in Hitchcock's radio version of The Lodger in 1940, Herbert Marshall played both the likely killer and the story's objective narrator. I call this a dualism which is itself suggestive. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but it's possible I was unconsciously remembering the passage in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music that evokes the rare artist who in the act of creation resembles the creature that can turn its eyes around and look at itself; now he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor and audience.
Reader, if you're like me and can readily imagine Hitchcock being intrigued by an idea like that one of Nietzsche's to the point of wanting to make Rear Window to test its possibilities! then you may find yourself on the wavelength of what follows. It's an argued piece, with plentiful footnotes despite my original intentions. But I suggest that you skip the footnotes on a first reading. They are often discursive and will be more rewarding, I feel, if visited only after you have taken in the argument as a whole.
That argument concerns the nature of what Hitchcock called pure cinema, and the Nietzsche passage just quoted is not irrelevant to it. However, I rather soft-pedal Nietzsche below because I'm more concerned with two other formative authors whose works we know Hitchcock read: Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and G.K. Chesterton (one of whose collections of short stories was called The Man Who Knew Too Much). I see Wilde as a pessimist and Chesterton as an anti-pessimist self-avowed as such, in fact. I also happily follow Dominique Païni and Guy Cogeval's sumptuous catalogue called Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences (2000) in claiming Hitchcock as a Symbolist, which in turn allows me to bring in the Symbolists' favourite philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and his notion of cosmic Will.
Finally I focus on one of Hitchcock's personal favourites among his films, The Trouble With Harry.
Everything's perverted in a different way.
Alfred Hitchcock, destined to make sublime film thrillers, was born in London at the end of the Victorian era. He was the youngest child of an East End family whose father ran a poulterer's and greengrocer's business and whose mother came of Irish stock. The family was Catholic. Hitchcock loved his mother dearly and took after her in her quiet constancy (3). He grew up an independent youth given to attending films and plays on his own. He also read widely, including works by Dickens, Poe, Flaubert, Wilde, Chesterton, and Buchan. With training in electrical engineering and draughtsmanship acquired at night school while working for a cable company, at age 20 he joined the London studios of Famous Players-Lasky, already affiliated with Paramount Pictures. In these early years he worked under two top directors. The first was an American, George Fitzmaurice, noted for the holistic way he conceived a picture, including its sets and costumes. The other director was Graham Cutts. Cutts' vitality was reflected in both the subject-matter of his films often emphasising theatrical spectacle and their mise en scène invoking a sadomasochism of the look (4). Cutts' influence is obvious in the opening scenes of Hitchcock's first feature, The Pleasure Garden (1925), set in and around a London music hall. But in fact the film was shot in Germany. For a year both men were employed there as part of a deal by producer Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures. Hitchcock seized the chance to observe F.W. Murnau on the set of The Last Laugh (1924). Afterwards, he would describe Murnau's film as an almost perfect example of pure cinema visual storytelling employing a minimum of title-cards.
No less crucial to Hitchcock's later development was his marriage in 1926 to his assistant Alma Reville. By all accounts, including that of the Hitchcocks' only child, Patricia (born 1928), the couple always remained devoted to each other. Alma made an ideal working collaborator. An experienced film editor and scripter, for 50 years she served as unofficial consultant on her husband's pictures, and could be his severest critic. The marriage, though affectionate, was hardly a grand passion. By Hitchcock's admission, he led a celibate lifestyle full of sublimations, foremost among which was his work but which included travel, gourmandising at exclusive restaurants, attending both wrestling matches and symphony concerts at the Albert Hall, and collecting first editions and original works of art. A persistent theme of his films is the battle of the sexes. It's tempting to speculate how much he drew on his own marriage. One hears that the diminutive Alma more than stood up to the often grossly overweight Alfred being described as peppery and given to bossing her husband.
Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) was promoted as Britain's first full-length talkie (though that claim is still disputed). Then, in the mid-1930s, the director gained an international reputation with a series of brisk and audacious chase thrillers for Gaumont-British, including The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). In turn, Rebecca (1940) launched his American career. That film began Hitchcock's systematic emphasis on the subjective (much of the film is ostensibly told from the point of view of one character) and thus, I would argue, immeasurably deepened his capacity to bring audiences out of the cold, to engage us at a fundamental level. Such Hitchcock masterpieces as Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho all owe a debt to Rebecca.
Now, a key to Hitchcock's work is suitably psychological I like stories with lots of psychology, he once confirmed and is the key to be pursued here. To gay actor/screenwriter Rodney Ackland (Number Seventeen) he confided: You know, if I hadn't met Alma at the right time, I could have become a poof. (5) There's no reason to doubt it. The facts bear him out. In particular, biographer Donald Spoto reports that the youthful Hitchcock read Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) several times; Wilde's decadent novel may be the single most important literary influence on the director's work. It was, after all, written by an Irishman, who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, and it reads like an iconoclastic thriller. Hitchcock's astute everything's perverted in a different way probably derives from it. (Another of his favourite sayings, Each man kills the thing he loves, is classic Wilde.) To understand the importance of Dorian Gray to such pivotal films as The Lodger, Murder!, Rope, Vertigo, and Psycho, we must traverse some surprising territory, but it may bring us to the heart of the Hitchcock paradox.
What Wilde's Dorian Gray gave Hitchcock; Vertigo
Hitchcock's films, supposedly expressive of pure cinema, if not art for art's sake, in fact have their basis in a sadomasochism that is universal in human affairs. Think of it, indeed, as a cosmic principle. That's the vision I believe Hitchcock took from Wilde's Dorian Gray, though it had received many prior formulations by artists and thinkers, both Western and Eastern (6). In Chapter Two, Wilde writes revealingly: Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic. (7) Essentially, of course, Dorian Gray is the Faust story combined with Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) (8); while the book bound in yellow paper (Chapter Ten) with which the dandyish Lord Henry Wotton tempts and seeks to control young Dorian is J.K. Huysmans' misanthropic A Rebours/Against the Grain (1884). The literary critic in Wilde is at his most brilliant in such a passage as this:
It [A Rebours] was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. The mere cadence of the sentences produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.
Very palpably, there's a foretaste here of Vertigo (1958). Especially striking is the quest for something that can halt time itself and sum up all human experience. In seeming to offer this to Dorian, Lord Henry is playing on the lad's unconscious egotism (Chapter Eight). Earlier, he had exhorted him: Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. (Chapter Two) In Vertigo, the Mephistophelean Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) tempts Scottie (James Stewart) with colour, excitement, power, freedom and sends the ancestor-obsessed Madeleine (Kim Novak) to seduce him. The trap begins to take effect in the scenes where she leads Scottie around San Francisco. I once wrote of Vertigo:
With its missions, forts, shops and art galleries, [San Francisco] represents perennial human concerns in the film it's a city seen sub specie aeternitatis. (9)
By his own admission, Dorian's murderous course begins when he cruelly rejects the actress even more cruelly named by Wilde, Sibyl Vane (13). Moreover, it's precisely when he loses interest in Sibyl who had once seemed unlike ordinary women limited to their century (Chapter Four) and news comes that she has killed herself, that Dorian starts to read A Rebours. For years thereafter, he could not free himself from the influence of this book (Chapter Eleven). In her rejection, Sibyl is a forerunner of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) in Vertigo, whom Scottie treats almost cruelly after he meets Madeleine. In turn, Sibyl and thus Midge correspond to the abused Margaret/Gretchen in both Goethe's Faust and Murnau's 1926 film version of the Faust story (14).
Further, it's clear that Hitchcock knew Albert Lewin's 1945 film of Wilde's novel. Hitchcock was always a movie buff, with a sound grasp of movie history. Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray stars Hurd Hatfield as Dorian and George Sanders (from Rebecca) as Lord Henry. Faced with how to give Dorian a female love-interest after Sibyl's demise, the filmmakers created a new character, Gladys Hallward. One day Gladys finds in Dorian's house a sketch by her father of Sibyl, and asks who the woman is. Dorian responds that she was the woman he had once loved. Jealous, Gladys takes the sketch to her father in his studio, demanding that he paint her as Sibyl so that she may present the portrait to Dorian. The portrait is duly completed. But Gladys already suspects that her ruse to win Dorian's heart will not succeed.
Beyond doubt, this striking scene inspired one in Vertigo: Midge's failed attempt to win back Scottie's interest by painting herself as Madeleine. In fact there are several borrowings by Hitchcock from Lewin's film, and I'll cite others later, apropos Psycho. But I must establish some broader connections of Wilde's story and Huysmans' A Rebours to Hitchcock himself. He seems to have taken to heart, and lived out, things he found in those two books. In other words, he took to espousing Wilde's Aestheticism, the cult of making life an art: a favourite phrase of Wilde's was intensification of personality (15). Understandably, Thomas Elsaesser has emphasised the dandy in Hitchcock (16). Now, an aspect of Hitchcock's ongoing self-creation was his love of pranks and practical jokes. On one occasion he held a dinner party at which, without explanation, everything served at table was blue blue soup, blue venison, even blue ice cream. Almost certainly, his inspiration was A Rebours. Huysmans' narrator, Duc Jean des Esseintes, recalls how he invited friends to a dinner of all-black food served on black plates by naked negresses. I can just see Hitchcock relishing that passage which pays mock obeisance, like the funerary dinner itself, to Des Esseintes' medical condition at the time, one of impotence! (17) Dark jokes about impotence are a feature of Hitchcock's films, especially, for some reason, the ones with James Stewart.
Camille Paglia's brilliant book Sexual Personae (1990) characterises Des Esseintes as epicene, the product of an incest-degenerated aristocratic line, like Poe's Usher (18). That's a possible link to the neurasthenic and toffish character another dark joke played by Ivor Novello in The Lodger, to which I'm coming. Of Des Esseintes' impotence, Paglia notes dryly: Decadent eroticism is perceptual or cerebral. She summarises the novel thus:
A Rebours is consistent with the Romantic withdrawal from action. It is spiritual autobiography, recording a journey not through space but through modes of perception and experience. The chapters, containing few events, are meditations on things: books, flowers, antiques. Persons are also things. Des Esseintes performs a botched Sadean experiment on a boy by trying to turn him into a criminal.
All very reminiscent of Lord Henry Wotton. Two other matters that Wilde certainly picked up on are these: Des Esseintes' theory of Pessimism, which was derived from the Symbolists' favourite philosopher, Schopenhauer; (19) and Des Esseintes' immersion, despite himself, in Catholic lore, the result of his schooling by Jesuits and his love of certain Latin writers (20).
As for the sadomasochism that I'm suggesting Hitchcock found in these authors, Wilde's novel is replete with it not only in the Lord HenryDorian relationship but, for example, in the description of Dorian's almost cruel joy on reading the latter part of A Rebours where Des Esseintes experiences the sorrow and despair of one who had himself lost what in others, and in the world, he had most dearly valued (Chapter Eleven) (21). Such Schadenfreude on Dorian's part ironically anticipates his own fall; it also helps anchor the novel in our fundamental experience. In fact, a US psychiatrist, John Munder Ross, has written in his book The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life (1997) of how we all share such tendencies, and of how they are even built into the social fabric. Dr Ross traces their basis to the child's pre-Oedipal period and then forward into the development years and beyond. I need to quote a couple of Dr Ross's most salient points.
First, the aims of sadomasochism are paradoxical. On the one hand, sadomasochists try to plunge back into [our] boundless beginning, (22) attempting to diffuse the lines between self and other. On the other hand, sadomasochists are like babies who pound and push at their mothers in order to define their bodies and themselves. How this paradox shows itself in Hitchcock's films is something we'll see shortly.
Second, Dr Ross puts particular emphasis on the Oedipal crisis itself. Psychologically speaking, gender differentiation in children of both sexes only really starts to occur at this time. Younger children
are bisexual or, to put it better, ambisexual in their desires and their identifications. In fact, children between three and four years, who are reluctant to give up anything, want to be both sexes. (23)
Dr Ross speaks of our lost androgyny and attributes to it the never-ending battle of the sexes (24).
Let me make just a couple of remarks about a key Hitchcock film, the Freudian melodrama Spellbound (1945). This does, indeed, hark back to its amnesiac hero's Oedipal phase and his guilts originating there. First, Ben Hecht's screenplay makes a significant alteration from the novel by having a major climax occur not in the Gorge du Diable but in Gabriel Valley, named after the archangel who traditionally helps guard Paradise (25). It's in this snow-covered valley that the hero John Ballyntine (Gregory Peck) achieves a crucial, but not absolute, breakthrough by remembering an accident from his childhood (26). Second, after some nifty, and brave, detective work by John's psychiatrist, the suitably-named Constance (Ingrid Bergman), the film ends on a conventional optimistic note when the pair get married. Presiding over much of the film has been Constance's mentor, the fatherly and, yes, androgynous Dr Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov) (27). Beaming, he charges John leaving on his honeymoon: Remember, any husband of Constance is a husband of mine, so to speak.
Wildean content in Rope
The optimistic note at the end of Spellbound is not something Hitchcock evidently got from either Wilde or Huysmans. A typical passage in Dorian Gray is this from Chapter Six:
Lord Henry laughed. The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid for ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror. We think that we are generous because we credit our neighbour with the possession of those virtues that are likely to be a benefit to us. We praise the banker that we may overdraw our account, and we find good qualities in the highwayman in the hope that he may spare our pockets. I have the greatest contempt for optimism.
Without referring to Wilde, John Munder Ross makes an identical point about fear to explain why people turn a blind eye to the selfishness, malevolence and, ultimately, the immorality of the caretakers and institutions in which they believe sadomasochism allows individuals and the social unit of which they are a part to keep the faith and, when it is threatened, to keep silent (28). In that fact assuredly lies the source of much Hitchcockian humour and, later on, compassion. As for pessimism, which may only be a certain kind of honesty, it gives many a Hitchcock film, such as Vertigo, its deep point, though invariably the effect is offset by the vitality of the filmmaking: to a large extent what I've called the optimistic ending of Spellbound is a special case, an instance of where Hitchcock's subjective filmmaking reflected the official outlook of psychoanalysis itself (29). Donald Spoto doesn't doubt that pessimism was Hitchcock's own position:
He considered all life unmanageable, and his obsessive neatness (like his careful preparation of a film) was a way of taking a stand against the chaos he believed was always at the ready, to be fended off with whatever wit and structure one could muster. Social life he thought to be a giant hypocrisy. (30)
Again that suggests a pat combination of Huysmans (the careful defences against chaos) and Wilde (the wit, especially). Nonetheless, Hitchcock's attitude towards Wilde may finally have been as ambivalent as his attitude towards another coiner of aphorisms, and potential liberator, Friedrich Nietzsche (31). Several commentators, such as Thomas Mann, have likened Wilde and Nietzsche. These two meet in Rope (1948).
Laurents probably had in mind Wilde at the height of his fame and immediately prior to his downfall. In 1894 Wilde wrote for an Oxford undergraduate magazine an egregious piece which he called Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young. Here are two of its maxims: Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others; (34) Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance. In basing Rupert on Wilde at his most irresponsible yet most seductive Laurents and Hitchcock were creating another virtual Mephistopheles. Though the casting of James Stewart as Rupert put an end to any development of the screenplay's gay subtext, the actual strategy of the film is exemplary. As usual, the look and feel are subjective, meaning that Hitchcock creates a world to reflect the principal characters and their essential egoism. The celebrated ten-minute take gives the impression of one continuous shot and becomes a metaphor for Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip's (Farley Granger) entrapment and lack of perspective. But the film gets underway almost bracingly that is, straight after we've seen a youth strangled to death in an elegant Manhattan apartment with the opening of plush curtains to admit afternoon sunlight, and Brandon announcing: An immaculate murder. We've killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. And we're alive. Truly and wonderfully alive! Phillip, ever the masochist, begins to protest but then backs down: I'm only kidding, Brandon. I obviously can't take it as well as you The audience thus finds itself in a classic folie à deux situation, and Brandon's charming sadism provides much of the ensuing dialogue's black humour. Meanwhile, the film's in-your-face surrealism, as we watch guests being served food from a chest containing the body of the dead youth, recalls Dorian Gray's flaunting of homosexuality though the word is never spoken there (35). (The grim meal can also recall the funerary dinner from A Rebours.) At the end of the film Rupert goes scot-free just as Lord Henry does at the end of Wilde's novel.
Nonetheless, it's crucial that the central, surreal image of Rope is effectively one of cannibalism (36). Here, then, is an analogy. Salvador Dali's Autumn Cannibalism (1936), painted at the start of the Spanish Civil War, is said to represent a nation violently divided against itself (37). But Hitchcock's film alludes, rather, to the Second World War: the dialogue mentions how Rupert's limp is the consequence of a war wound. And evidently that reminded Hitchcock of both Ernest Hemingway (38) and of the recent black comedy directed by his friend Charles Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a film implying that short of total pacificism, and maybe even then, we are all murderers.
In other words, war veteran Rupert may be quite literally as much an impotent victim as a guilty corrupter of youth; and society itself, which the end of the film appears to valorise, may make us all killers. This is only a logical extension of Wilde's, and John Munder Ross's (and Chaplin's), point about moral hypocrisy. Alternatively, we can read Rupert as a victim of the subjectivity that binds us all. Near the end of the film he says that a man should stand by his words but that Brandon and Phillip, by their actions, have given his words a meaning he never dreamed of. Clearly, there are several paradoxes involved here, and they raise the question of what attitude one finally takes to society. But Hitchcock's work, like Wilde's, is built on paradox.
When Hitchcock outflanks us; Murder!
An element of paradox, inherent in sadomasochism itself, contributed to what I'll call Hitchcock's outflanking technique which, in turn, became basic to the creation and maintenance of cinematic suspense, his trademark from about the early 1930s. On principle, Hitchcock's audience mustn't be allowed to feel superior to the film they are watching. They must be outflanked! A remark by the homosexual Bruno in Strangers on a Train (1951), What's a life or two, Guy?, throws an audience off-balance in a manner reminiscent of Wilde or Nietzsche (39). Likewise, in The Birds (1963) a mannish ornithologist, Mrs Bundy, quite literally (and properly) puts us in our place by noting that birds have been on this planet since archaeopteryx (40). For Mrs Bundy's character, Hitchcock may have had in mind his lesbian friend Clemence Dane (real name Winifred Ashton) who co-authored the 1929 novel on which Murder! (1930) was based, and who was memorably incarnated by Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945) (41). Murder! has its own links to Dorian Gray. However, there are some displacements. In what is probably the most sadistic scene Hitchcock ever filmed, the patrician actor-manager Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) sets his Mousetrap à la Hamlet for the transvestite actor Handell Fane (Esmé Percy). The normally mild-mannered Fane had earlier killed a woman who was threatening to out him. Now Sir John tricks him into re-enacting the crime. Such is the scene's power that Hitchcock would include variants of it in The Paradine Case (1947) and Psycho (1960), and again the person being set up would be either gay (the manservant Latour in The Paradine Case) or another apparent transvestite (Norman Bates in Psycho) (42). The Paradine Case has a Wildean connection of its own. It's based on a novel by Robert Hichens, a former associate of Wilde. A theme of the novel is universal sadomasochism. Cruelty, we're told, may be found in [t]he best of us (43).
All the world's a stage: that will be the ironic levelling motif in countless Hitchcock films after Murder! (46) Sir John is himself bullied by his fellow jurors at the trial of the woman wrongly accused of the murder committed by Fane. Stressing the theatricality, Hitchcock makes the jurors resemble a chorus who chant in unison, What do you think of that, Sir John? After he succumbs to their pressure, and a Guilty verdict is returned, Sir John leaves the courtroom, disconsolate. Fortunately for justice often a chancy matter, the film implies he is a man of some leisure. One morning, shaving to the strains of Tristan and Isolde on the radio, he realises not only that he is in love with the condemned woman but that there is a major flaw in the case against her. Now the plot becomes more recognisably Hitchcockian, being driven by love. Of course, love may itself be both blind and cruel, either towards one's partner or towards those who would deny us life (47)
So again we find ourselves outflanked. Variants on this particular paradigm occur in one of Hitchcock's best films, Rear Window (1954), and in one of his least successful, Jamaica Inn (1939). Both, though, are instructive. Rear Window employs as setting a Greenwich Village courtyard seen from a single fixed position, as in a theatre. Here is played out a victim and victimiser story in which a man of (enforced) leisure, the photographer Jeff (James Stewart), accidentally stumbles on the guilty secret of another man (Raymond Burr) with whom he has more in common than he perhaps cares to admit, and whom he relentlessly pursues for initially no better reason than to ward off boredom. Like sadomasochism, boredom is a key to Hitchcock's work, as it is to John Buchan's (48). The philosopher Schopenhauer considered boredom an intrinsic part of life but another seeming paradox one that we will do practically anything to try and evade. Hence, perhaps, the irony of Jeff's musing in Rear Window: I wonder if it's ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens? At the end of the film, he simply can't answer his victim's question, What do you want of me? That answer would be fundamental (49)
Moreover, almost as if he were Jeff, Hitchcock told François Truffaut in their famous interview that no considerations of morality could have stopped him making Rear Window, such was his love of film. (If anything, Wilde had gone further in the Preface to Dorian Gray: There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.) To which Truffaut responded with exactitude: The morality in [Rear Window] is simply its lucidity.
Jamaica Inn hasn't Rear Window's quality, though on paper it appears full of interest (50). The theatricality this time is the costume drama itself, adapted from the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Again the nominal villain leaps to his death, crying out: You want a spectacle? You shall have it. Tell your children how the Great Age ended. Make way for Pengallan! Sir Humphrey Pengallan, mastermind to a gang of Cornish wreckers and cutthroats, has no children of his own. Patriarchy, always a du Maurier target, is lampooned in him (as, of course, it was earlier in Handell Fane). Played by the gay Charles Laughton, and given to quoting Byron, he is another dandy-figure. Hitchcock goes out of his way to emphasise the boredom of Squire Pengallan's existence, plus his distance from London and from redeeming life. Finally the Squire goes mad. The script establishes a history of insanity in the Pengallan family; but equally it shows lonely Cornwall's effect on all who have thrown in their lot with the Squire. The heroine's Aunt Patience, whose husband is one of the wreckers, is a timid woman who observes, People can't help being what they are, and who claims vaguely that she never knew where the wrecks took place. A similar disclaimer informs the film's epigraph, purportedly an old Cornish prayer. Its hypocritical lines run: Oh Lord, we pray thee not that wrecks should happen, but that if they do happen, Thou wilt guide them to the coast of Cornwall for the benefit of the poor inhabitants. (51)
However, before the end, Patience will have shown renewed bravery and resolution, (52) and the heroine, Mary (Maureen O'Hara), will have truly observed of Pengallan in his madness, He can't help himself. Such outflanking, we'll see, is of the same order as Hitchcock employs at the end of Psycho.
Jamaica Inn is another Hitchcock film that seems indebted to A Rebours. The foppish Squire's attempted splendid isolation and his patent disdain for egalitarianism recall Duc Jean des Esseintes' (53). So does his own sense of having lost what in others, and in the world, he had most dearly valued. However, insofar as Hitchcock remained engaged by Jamaica Inn after realising that compromises would be needed to secure the film distribution in America, it was because of what he called the JekyllHyde mentality of the Squire. For example, Pengallan's attempt to distance himself morally from the wrecking is emphasised: he shares with Patience a proneness to self-deception. Likewise, Pengallan's sadism, mirroring Patience's masochism, is pronounced, and again he rationalises it. He gloats over Mary's beauty as if she were one of his china figurines or one of his blood mares. Fleeing from officialdom at the end, he takes a bound and gagged Mary with him in the coach as a hostage, and is clearly aroused by her helplessness. But the fact is, he is representative of something that is in all of us.
Mystery and mysticism in Psycho
Well, Hitchcock effectively re-made The Lodger for American audiences as Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Again the police were shown to be confused, concluding that a suspect who was killed when he ran from them into an aeroplane propellor must have been the Merry Widow Murderer. But audiences this time weren't left in doubt: the killer was actually the dandyish character called Uncle Charlie, smoothly played by Joseph Cotten!
Mind you, there was also a radio version of The Lodger which Hitchcock directed in 1940, and which kept the note of uncertainty from the original film. Starring Herbert Marshall as both the lodger, Mr Sleuth, and the story's objective narrator (a dualism which is itself suggestive), this version ends with Mr Sleuth's disappearance, as in Mrs Belloc Lowndes' novel. Everything points to the character's guilt. However, the script makes the cast finally round on Hitchcock and complain that the ending is too up-in-the-air. You have to tell the audience Mr Sleuth was guilty, they insist. Ah, replies Hitchcock, but was he?
Of course the film that best epitomises how Hitchcock could mis-direct audiences and play games with them is the consummate Psycho. Even more than Rope, it shows the influence of Dorian Gray both book and film not least in its depiction of a savage knife-murder. Further, the line of influence from Dorian himself via the Novello character in The Lodger to Psycho's Norman Bates (the gay Anthony Perkins) is plain. We should consider what this involves. The film owes its basic story and several crucial details (such as Norman's remark, We all go a little mad sometimes) to a 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, itself loosely based on the Ed Gein case in outback Wisconsin. But Hitchcock was always adept at spotting archetypal stories that verged on the surreal. In Norman's madness he would have sensed the character's affinity with both the crazed Pengallan and Fane and with Dorian Gray whose defeat and baffling death ends Wilde's novel. Here I want to return to John Munder Ross. He writes of certain sadomasochists who find pleasure and profit in self-abnegation who are [typically] closet thrill seekers who try to soar above life. Frequently in such cases the sadomasochist will deny being defeated and will continue to defy his adversaries. The example Dr Ross gives is that of brutal boxer Jake LaMotta as we see him in Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980). Hanging on the ropes after losing to Sugar Ray Robinson, the ex-champ cries out: Ray, ya didn't knock me down. Ya didn't knock me down, Ray. Fuck you. (56)
The idea for the Psycho attic comes from the film of Dorian Gray. Hitchcock's borrowings from that film are several, and ingenious. He would have remembered the attic, firstly, as the place where Dorian hides the portrait that progressively records every new trace of his corruption while he himself stays youthful, much as Norman Bates retains his boyish looks. Secondly, he would have remembered the attic and used the idea in Psycho as being the storeroom of Dorian's childhood toys, symbolising his lost innocence. Thirdly, he would have remembered the attic as the scene of a murder. And again he borrowed the particular effect from Lewin's film a swinging light casting uncanny swaying shadows though this time he re-located it to the climax of his own film in which Norman Bates in a fruit cellar is exposed as a murderer and apparently a transvestite.
Also, Lewin's film follows Wilde's novel in returning to the attic for its finale. A crazed Dorian attacks the portrait as he had once attacked its painter, Basil Hallward. But now it is Dorian who falls dead. The novel records: There was a cry heard, and a crash. Lewin employs the same swaying shadows as before and suddenly we see Dorian's face became as withered and loathsome as the mummified face of Mrs Bates in Psycho. When the servants break in, they survey the scene, aghast. Finally, the camera tracks towards the portrait: it has reverted to how it was when Basil painted it, showing a young man of astonishing grace and beauty.
Wilde's mysticism, then, represents his own way of outflanking us. One commentator notes: The ending, with its brutal swiftness and economy, leaves Dorian's moral status totally ambiguous. (58) I'm reminded of Psycho's use, à la Spellbound, of quasi-religious imagery and the colour white to accompany both the death of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and the scene of a monk-like Norman in his bare cell at the end of the film. (The tone is more muted finally, but the harking back to Marion's demise is unmistakeable.) When Marion dies, her moral status is indeed totally ambiguous. By what right does this secretary from Phoenix, Arizona, whom Hitchcock characterised as a perfectly ordinary bourgeoise, and whom we know to be a thief, appear so radiant and angelic as she takes her final shower?! Besides, her narrative status in the film is no greater if no less than Sibyl Vane's in Dorian Gray!
As for the scene of Norman in his cell, the essence of it comes from Bloch's novel, putting us inside the head of a madman (and highlighting the sadomasochism in us all):
She [Mrs Bates] sat there for quite a long time, and then a fly came buzzing through the bars.
It's a brilliant ending, quite as swift and economical as Dorian Gray's, and just as baffling. That is, Norman's own moral status remains in question. Certainly he is dissembling pretending to be his dead mother but that pretence is perfectly genuine! At least, it's as genuine as Jake LaMotta's cry, Ya didn't knock me down, Ray. Fuck you.
In fact, I doubt that the great Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, celebrated for his understanding of the relation between theatricality and madness, could have written an ending of more psychological acuity than Psycho's. I once noted the likely influence of Pirandello's Right You Are (If You Think So) on the ending of the sound version of Hitchcock's Blackmail (59). And a remark by Hitchcock in an interview apropos Psycho strikes exactly the Pirandellian note: Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time. (60) But there's a further way of looking at Psycho's ending which acknowledges its religious trappings. In his continuing, if essentially passive, presence at the end, Norman is a paradox. On the one hand, he behaves like a good Buddhist in refusing to kill a fly! (61) On the other hand, the moment's sardonic note is unmistakeable, recalling the equally ambivalent ending of Vertigo, with its black-garbed mother superior. (She's literally the Great Mother.) She may be read as either the embodiment of Scottie's deferred religious and transcendental aspirations or as a forbidding anti-life figure, sent to punish him (and Judy/Madeleine) for worldly sins. Likewise, Norman finally has either become motherly and angelic, or he is your archetypal bad boy (who is plainly now also mad) (62).
Wilde said that Keats was one of the few writers he had gone more than half-way to meet. Now, Hitchcock had wanted to show an almost Keatsian loss of identity at the end of Suspicion (1941). In what is probably the most masochistic scene Hitchcock ever sought to film, he had wanted Lina (Joan Fontaine) to willingly drink the poisoned glass of milk brought to her bedside by her ne'er-do-well husband Johnnie (Cary Grant), though admittedly not before she had written a letter that would incriminate him. The scene would have owed much to Keats' Ode to a Nightingale with its famous lines, I have been half in love with easeful Death and To cease upon the midnight with no pain. (Prior to this, the film has indeed established Lina's concern that her expected death by poison be painless.) That indebtedness would have provided the passive aspect of the scene. A pragmatic, aggressive note would have been the business of the letter. Masochism would have been balanced by sadism, and audiences would have felt the more satisfied.
I should say more about Ode to a Nightingale. Keats' poem was a favourite with John Buchan, who makes Richard Hannay's girlfriend cite it at a Notorious-like moment in Mr Standfast (1919). The poem might have provided the title of what became Vertigo had Maxwell Anderson's draft screenplay called Darkling I Listen met with Hitchcock's approval. (It didn't.) The idea of being half in love with easeful Death clearly intrigued Hitchcock hints of it are felt at moments in Rebecca, Suspicion, The Trouble With Harry, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. And a personal anecdote may show that a concern with Keats' poem, and especially its line To cease upon the midnight with no pain, was in the air in the Hitchcock camp as late as 1959 that is, just when Psycho was being prepared. Author and television writer, the late Talmage Powell, once told me that the title of the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called No Pain (airdate: 25 October, 1959), adapted from a short story by him, was not his. The original story had a quite different title. Talmage had no idea where the new title came from until I told him of the Keats connection! Psycho, of course, alludes to painless death in its hardware store scene. A sententious customer buying a can of pesticide gives as her opinion, Insect or man, death should always be painless. (64)
In sum, Psycho makes its own appeal to both sadists and masochists. Appropriately, it was the nature of the poetic character to be protean. And recall Hitchcock's Everything's perverted in a different way. That remark, I suggest, shows a profound, Schopenhauerian grasp of how things are: Schopenhauer was a major influence on the Symbolists and thus on Oscar Wilde. The implications for how Wilde and Hitchcock saw their art are what I need to consider next.
What pure cinema is almost bound to express
Another of Wilde's aphorisms in the Preface to Dorian Gray reads: From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. The first sentence echoes essayist Walter Pater who, like Huysmans and Wilde, promoted art for art's sake. Famously, Pater's The Renaissance (1873) contains a passage that begins, All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. One can see in it the underpinning for Hitchcock's notion of pure cinema. And the second sentence, referring to the craft of the actor, can remind us of the ubiquitous references to the theatre in Hitchcock. A playgoer all of his life, and with many theatrical friends, Hitchcock was not one to undervalue actors and their function. Nonetheless, like the rest of us, actors must be put in their place! All the world's a stage applies to everybody, not just actors and, besides, pure cinema trumps even the actors' expressiveness. Actors are [merely] cattle, Hitchcock often said. I see an analogy here with Schopenhauer's distinction between the fundamental Will of the world (the world's single underlying reality, roughly the life-force) and mere Representation (appearance, in all its multitudinous, and therefore secondary, aspects). But let's concentrate for now on Hitchcock and actors, of whom the director himself was necessarily one. The poet should be a chameleon, Keats had felt.
Hitchcock's art, like Wilde's, might sometimes be cruel but it was nearly always lucid. Certainly Hitchcock could be introspective. For example, he evidently put part of himself into the epicene Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) in Notorious (1946) (65). Alex, although a Nazi, and the film's nominal villain, is highly empathic, to the point of seeming at times bisexual. When he first takes Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) to lunch in Rio de Janeiro, he remarks on the presence of US security boss Prescott (Louis Calhern) at a nearby table: Rather handsome, isn't he? Of course, the charming Alex is here imagining Alicia's feelings, exactly as a good director must do when he enters into his various characters' states of mind. Hitchcock, indeed, always told his actors that they needed to be part masculine and part feminine in order to get inside a character (66). Obviously this reflects on the tendency of the films themselves to be androgynous.
The director is often said to have seen his real, inner self as Cary Grant, his handsome, bisexual star! (67) Had he once identified in similar fashion with Dorian Gray whose androgyny Camille Paglia notes? (68) For that matter, had Wilde himself identified with Dorian? (69) After all, according to John Munder Ross, we all start out androgynous, though later we may struggle manfully not to revert to that condition! It's crucial to Rebecca that such a person is the rigidly patriarchal Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), whose beautiful late wife's polymorphous and bisexual nature he had found not just shocking but threatening. By contrast, Dorian Gray makes no apology for its eponymous character's beauty, even allowing him his cruelty to Sibyl Vane. Hence Paglia speaks of the Nietzschean privilege conveyed by beauty (70). She notes that Dorian could draw heterosexuals into bisexual responses, and cites an incident where Dorian, depressed, wanders into Covent Garden:
A white-smocked carter offered him some cherries. He thanked him, and wondered why he refused to accept any money for them, and began to eat them listlessly. (Chapter Seven)
The carter's mute pagan offering to Dorian's remarkable beauty (as Paglia calls it) (71) has implications for Hitchcock's mode of filmmaking.
At an obvious level, because male pulchritude in stars went down well with audiences, Hitchcock took full advantage of it. Ivor Novello, Carl Brisson, James Stewart, and Cary Grant all appear in Hitchcock films stripped to the waist. Further, for storytelling purposes, Hitchcock might manipulate audiences at a subconscious level in matters of sexuality. When, early in Under Capricorn (1949), ex-groom Flusky (Joseph Cotten) literally propositions personable young aristocrat Adare (Michael Wilding), the possibility of a homosexual liaison is not immediately discounted. The possibility lends piquancy to what proves to be a dubious land deal that Flusky wants to transact. Nor does Hitchcock seem to have worried that audiences for Rope might have realised that it was a film about gays! My guess is that he reckoned on the pagan in each viewer to accept the drama as intrinsically interesting, given the quality of his stars. (Nonetheless, the film did meet resistance in some communities, and was banned outright in France and Italy.)
Nonetheless, besides the humour, Hitchcock's film persona drew on his use of often cruel touches of realism or sometimes poetic realism. He could be particularly hard on extras no glamour for them! And he could be hard on us. In Foreign Correspondent (1940) he shows us the bloodied face of a man shot at point-blank range by an assassin (74). In The Birds the death of Dan Fawcett is staged as a surreal tableau of the farmer's bloodied eye-sockets and a seagull impaled within a window pane as if still in free flight. A further telling touch, only moralistic up to a point, is the overturned glass case of stuffed birds nearby. Had those birds once belonged to Norman Bates whose cruel hobby was taxidermy? (75)
Actually, it isn't hard to see that scene, too, as Wildean, resembling in its stillness and opposed elements the tableau of Dorian's horrific death at the end of the novel. Wilde's own art regularly alternated humour and cruelty, imparting what is essentially a life rhythm (more accurately, a life/death rhythm) to his novel's very form. It's a rhythm consistent, I suggest, with Dorian's despairing cry to Basil Hallward before he kills him: Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him. (Chapter Thirteen) So I come back to my rhetorical question of whether either Hitchcock or Wilde may have identified with the androgynous Dorian. I'll give a qualified yes. Certainly both men must have speculated on the bigger picture of what forces acted upon Dorian to bring about his downfall. Nonetheless, both men's androgyny may have opened them to that bigger picture. I've suggested how the arcane mystery of Dorian Gray and of a Hitchcock film like Psycho is one best known to artists or mystics. Hitchcock's favourite painter, Paul Klee, indeed, spoke of chosen artists who penetrate to that secret place where primeval power nurtures all evolution (76). Well, Hitchcock and Wilde were both evidently privileged to visit such a place many times. Consequently, they saw the bigger picture better than most of us. And it's only another paradox that art for art's sake or pure cinema may express that bigger picture so well.
What G.K. Chesterton gave Hitchcock
I might almost give what follows the sub-heading Beyond Wilde. Of course, sadomasochism, which we've been considering here, is a huge topic. Even confining ourselves strictly to Hitchcock, many paradoxes arise. Here's another. The director once told his composer Bernard Herrmann that he'd like to have been a hanging judge. On the other hand, when we look at The Trouble With Harry below, I'll be referring to Hitchcock's undoubted compassion (80). A similar contradiction is one we must all recognise in ourselves. John Munder Ross feels that normal sadomasochism represents the achievement of moral self-restraint and civilized humanity (81). And another composer, John Addison, in fact described Hitchcock as the most civilised man I have ever met. In looking at Chesterton's influence on the director, we'll definitely be noting several positive elements in the films. Now, Chesterton resembled Wilde in perhaps one important way: he too was a master of paradox. It was characteristic of him that although he remained a vigorous opponent of pessimism until his death in 1936 he eventually came to think that neither optimism nor pessimism accurately described his own position. His popular Father Brown stories had begun appearing in collected form in 1911, and he himself converted to Catholicism in 1922. It's likely he created his bespectacled, unassuming priest-detective in reaction to the hubris and immorality he saw in Wilde. He had lampooned a Wilde-type figure as early as the story The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation in his first collection of short stories, the whimsical The Club of Queer Trades (1905). That collection concerns another amateur detective, the eccentric ex-judge Basil Grant, who explains on the book's last page why he had quit the Bench in order to set up unofficial courts to settle purely moral matters:
Before very long these unofficial courts of honour (kept strictly secret) had spread over the whole of society. People were tried before me not for the poetical trifles for which nobody cares, such as committing a murder, or keeping a dog without a licence. My criminals were tried for the faults which really made social life impossible. They were tried before me for selfishness, or for impossible vanity, or for scandal-mongering, or for stinginess to guests or dependants.
It's a vision worthy of Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, and Chesterton contrives to associate it with a confused sense of everything having been put right, the sense men will have when they come into the presence of God. But essentially it pokes fun at moral deadness, people's blind obedience to society's statutes without an attendant sense of what goodness should actually and spontaneously consist. I detect here a foretaste of parts of Henri Bergson's philosophy, not to mention of a Hitchcock film like North by Northwest (1959) in which the finally well-chastened hero Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is heard to say, I never felt more alive. That same film, of course, takes several swipes at mere traffic-cop morality
The very spirit of North by Northwest, and of Hitchcock's picaresque thrillers in general, seems evoked in the opening story of Chesterton's collection, a story called The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown. Only after a case of mistaken identity has been resolved, and the Major has endured a succession of escapades that seem positively absurd, does he learn of the existence of the Adventure and Romance Agency whose raison d'être is simply this: to involve, for a suitable fee, sedentary modern man in life-affirming adventures close to home. Surely Hitchcock was thinking of the same implicit malaise when he first stated his reason for making thrillers. In 1936 he spoke of how we are in danger of growing sluggish and jellified:
[O]ur civilization has so screened and sheltered us that it isn't practicable to experience sufficient thrills at firsthand. So we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this. (82)
In essays and novels such as The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) the latter aimed squarely at the gloom of Conrad's The Secret Agent, and again intimating how God may one day set all disorder to rights Chesterton continued to assail the pessimists. But it's his essay On the Alleged Optimism of Dickens (1906) (83) that perhaps best sets out his position, and which again may suggest Hitchcock. In a word, he praises Dickens for being practical, contrasting him with naturalist writers like Zola and George Gissing. Dickens invests even his most humble or degraded characters with a liveliness that interests us. I'll quote a couple of Chesterton's remarks on this. The first concerns the central paradox of reform:
We must insist with violence upon [the oppressed man's] degradation; we must insist with the same violence upon his dignity. For if we relax by one inch the one assertion, men will say he does not need saving. And if we relax by one inch the other assertion, men will say he is not worth saving. The optimist will say that reform is needless. The pessimist will say that reform is hopeless. We must apply both simultaneously to the same oppressed man; we must say that he is a worm and a god
Chesterton here speaks of the writer's transcendentalism akin to the religious view of life. And again on purely practical grounds he contrasts Dickens favourably with Gissing:
Both agreed that the souls of the people were in a kind of prison. But Gissing said that the prison was full of dead souls. Dickens said that the prison was full of living souls. And the fiery cavalcade of rescuers felt that they had not come too late.
From Chesterton (and from Dickens), then, I think Hitchcock drew much of his own lively transcendentalism, this scarcely separable from his outflanking technique in, say, Psycho. Also, he was never a social reformer, but he did say of Rear Window: It shows every kind of human behaviour. The picture would have been very dull if we hadn't done that. (My emphasis.) I've noted how both Wilde and Hitchcock alternated humour and cruelty, making for the sort of life/death rhythm that is achieved in Rear Window (and again in The Trouble With Harry). The sexy Miss Torso is counterpointed, cruelly, with the aging lady sculptor who wears a hearing-aid; Jeff's girlfriend, high-fashion model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), wonders if she won't end up left on the shelf and as suicidal as poor Miss Lonely Hearts. The minor characters are mostly only caricatures, like so many of Dickens' and Chesterton's characters; but of none of them (except the murdered Mrs Thorwald) do we feel that we have come too late. And Hitchcock had this further remark for Truffaut who had just said, only a trifle simplistically, that the texture of the films is made up of fear, sex, and death: Well, isn't the main thing that they be connected with life?
Not nothing; The Trouble With Harry
Further, I'd contend that Hitchcock, in striving to think and make pure cinema, encountered not something inert, like Harry Worp's dead body, but forces that are fundamental, and that he gave conscious expression to them. I speak of forces advisedly, bearing in mind Schopenhauer's point that the single Will may be realised at different levels of objectivity. (89) The sex drive, with its many perversions (including sadomasochism), is especially representative of the Will in humans, as Schopenhauer himself insisted; and Hitchcock's films naturally foreground it. But another objectification of Will is simply action, or movement, and about this Hitchcock made a revealing comment. To Jean Domarchi and Jean Douchet he described in 1959 his moving-around principle:
The idea of the cinematographic chase fascinated me twenty-five years ago. In those days, I understood that the chase film was ideal from a cinematic point of view, not only because it allowed a lot of action, but mostly because the idea of a chase makes possible lots of changes in background scenery. [And] just as the film be it in preparation, in the camera, or in the projection booth has to move around, so in the same way I think the story has to move around also. (90)
This, Hitchcock added frankly, may well be a foolish association of ideas. No matter! It's the way he saw things, the way he found the world, and then the way he realised that world on film. I'm reminded in precise ways of Terry Eagleton's scoffing at Schopenhauer's speciously generalizing view of Will (91). Three pages later Eagleton is expressing admiration that Schopenhauer's intense pessimism, which is inextricably tied to his general position, gives him real insight into how the fate of the great majority of men and women has been one of suffering and fruitless toil. (I'll show in a moment how this is apt to The Trouble With Harry.) Eagleton then adds: Schopenhauer may not have all of the truth; but he has a larger share of it than the [other] romantic humanists he is out to discredit. (92)
Lastly, I would contend that Hitchcock had put himself in touch with what Paul Klee calls those creative forces that may seemingly triumph even over gravity (as Scottie seeks to do in Vertigo and Poe's Hans Pfaall attempts to do in The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall). Klee and Hitchcock thus come together in this idea of Klee's:
If, finally, I may be allowed to pursue these forces, so hostile to earth, until they embrace the life force itself, I will emerge from the oppressively pathetic style to that Romanticism which is one with the universe. (93)
Again and again, Hitchcock's films seek to present their levelling vision that it's all One. Drawing on what the director had learned from his early mentors, George Fitzmaurice and Graham Cutts, the films are invariably holistic, if subjective, in conception, and typically theatrical in their content and implications. Granted, both the subjectivity and the theatricality imply other scenes again, a paradox that Pirandello likewise expressed. The One is elusive and, so to speak, remains offstage. (It's definitely worth noting that Pirandello was a Schopenhauerian like J.K. Huysmans, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Robert Hichens, and Charles Chaplin.) But it's fair to say that the film that comes closest to realising Hitchcock's corollary idea of a clear horizon that is, his definition of happiness, resembling Chesterton's is The Trouble With Harry. It was one of his favourites. He called it affectionately a nice little pastorale, and it might almost be a throwback to a silent film like Cecil Hepworth's bucolic The Pipes of Pan (1923). The titles-sequence, drawn by artist Saul Steinberg, utilises watercolours and line-drawings in the faux-naïf style of Klee. These are laid out as a panorama, a format that Klee himself often favoured. (Of course, the film's use of VistaVision helped suggest the approach.) A tracking camera reveals in succession birds in trees, a tall white house, more birds in trees under a sunny sky, and finally a horizontal object, a body lying on the ground. This literally stops the camera in its tracks. The body represents Harry, and we may think of how death is traditionally the great leveller. This self-contained, holistic titles-sequence both summarises and points to the film that now begins.
But what does the film itself point to? Set in Vermont over two enchanted days and nights when the autumn leaves of the maples and the aspens are at their most glorious, Harry depicts a recurring motif of Hitchcock's films and a distinctive motif of the Symbolists a glimpse of the lost paradise. (94) Further, in a monograph called Pastoral (1971), Peter Marinelli invokes what we may recognise from John Munder Ross as a familiar paradox: does humankind's (or anyway the individual's) first bliss consist in innocence or pleasure? (95) Traditional forms of pastoral, notes Marinelli, allow either. Well, Hitchcock seems to have covered himself by consistently giving his films trajectories in which religious and libidinal are bound up! So, in Harry, a church bell rings the passing hours while the four principal characters conduct their affairs literal and otherwise, including side trips to bury and disinter Harry with what Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) calls hasty reverence. It's a vision of a still-flawed paradise, to be sure, and one on which winter will soon encroach. Again Spellbound's Gabriel Valley is a deep reference-point. But the vision highlights another levelling factor, and that's everyone's patent subjection to the ongoing life-force. (96) Further, the film invokes two different types of innocence. Marinelli's monograph speaks of pastoral's double concern for the primitive beginnings of the entire race, and with the primitive beginnings in childhood of the individual. (97) Harry offers this piece of dialogue between artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) and the Captain:
SAM: I'll have you know that picture is symbolic of the beginning of the world.
Again Hitchcock is outflanking us! However, the film is lucid about how it's the artist's essentially pastoral vision that may redeem, or anyway entertain and console, us (98).
In Rope, to which Harry is a riposte, a Hitler-like Brandon had proposed murder as the equivalent of art. In Psycho, except for some cheap prints of birds and of angels and the ironic figure of a black cupid, art is absent from the Bates house and motel. But Hitchcock was always in every sense an art-lover and an art connoisseur. Truly, it's one more paradox of this man that, while making his emotion-charged films, he epitomised Schopenhauer's conception of the artist as a disinterested genius, one with a protean imagination (99). I trust that I've begun to indicate how systematic the film's design is. It's easy to overlook the resulting richness (an instance of the art that conceals art). For example, Lesley Brill's excellent book The Hitchcock Romance (1988) notes the several Christian allusions in Harry but not their complement, allusions to the occult and the pagan (100). Consider the Captain. He speaks of how going hunting with his trusty rifle (Old Faithful) and taking a harmless pot-shot at a rabbit satisfies his primitive nature. After he thinks he has shot and killed Harry, he professes that the omens were there from the start:
First thing I seen, when I rode out this morning, was a double-breasted robin drunk as a hoot-owl from eating fermented choke-cherries. Right away I knew somebody was in trouble.
Actually at least two other people also come to think they have killed Harry which suggests Hitchcock having fun at the expense of inevitable human subjectivity. It's a constant motif in Hitchcock: I'm reminded of the self-deceiving characters in Jamaica Inn and of its old Cornish prayer. Importantly for my argument, such a motif exactly reflects what Schopenhauer calls the principium individuationis, the principle of individuation. This principle states how subjectivity conceals from us the bigger picture and our essential unity. As scholar Michael Tanner puts the matter: We are in fact all part of the Primal One, the Will itself, and the individuation that we manifest is something that both guards us from this truth, and gives rise to a great deal of further suffering. (101)
Thus far, then, I've been describing the film largely in terms of its primitive content not least what Schopenhauer calls the will to life (102) and touching on its Symbolist implications. Also, given that the same philosopher stresses how art is valuable not only for the calming effect of escaping from one's own will, but because it uniquely displays things as they eternally are (à la Plato's Ideas), (103) there's further Schopenhauerian content, as well as a touch of Bergson, in the film's wise references to art and time. In a delightful scene set in the Wiggs Emporium (the village store), Sam insists on cutting Miss Graveley's hair so that she may look her best for her rendezvous with the Captain. Sam foresees that the true Miss Graveley will be timeless with love and understanding. He is never more the artist than when he speaks those words.
What goes unstated but is implied is the inverse of the film's idyll: the suffering and fruitless toil that Schopenhauer saw as the lot of most humanity (104). The splendid 1949 novel by Jack Trevor Story does in fact have a passage incorporating that idea:
The dead face of the dead man had given [Sam] the inspiration he needed. The dead face of this man held the millions and millions of dead faces of all the centuries. In that dead face lay all dead humanity; all cold history; all the odd attitudes and mistakes. All the thousands of faces massed together. All the staring eyes of the people as they stood wondering, laughing, weeping, and dull with misunderstanding and ignorance.
Sam's portrait of Harry in the film has been likened by French critic Noël Simsolo to a Roualt Christ. It's a crucial insight. Hitchcock in fact owned a Roualt oil painting, Le Suaire/The Shroud, and clearly to make Harry a Christ-figure is to invoke a transfer of guilt in this case the guilt and the suffering of all humanity exactly as the French critics had been saying was a key motif in other Hitchcock films. So, in thus adapting his source novel, Hitchcock was hardly guilty of dumbing down. Like the practical Dickens described by Chesterton, he was merely keeping his audience focused on life-matters and on the living souls worth saving of his main characters.
From his near-despair after believing that he shot Harry, the Captain soon recovers. When it seems that nobody is much concerned over Harry's death a situation itself Chestertonian and absurdist, with a hidden explanation he manages to tell himself, This could turn out to be the luckiest day of my life! He is proved right. On this day, of all days, two couples meet and fall in love: the Captain and Miss Gravely, Sam and Jennifer. Although the Captain doesn't appear to recall his remark afterwards, it leaves its trace on us, like the shot of the church that opens the film. We may come to reflect that, to quote a line from North by Northwest, Luck had nothing to do with it! There are pre-echoes, too, of The Wrong Man where Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) prays and it seems his prayer is answered, though nobody afterwards acknowledges this.
Altogether, Harry fulfils what Chesterton's The Club of Queer Trades says: that a man should feel that he was still in the childhood of the world. The ex-judge in that book would surely throw out a case brought against Harry's characters for they lack real pettiness. Recall his words: People were tried before me not for the practical trifles for which nobody cares, such as committing a murder My criminals were tried for the faults which really make social life impossible. Well, Harry's main characters seem thoroughly decent and likeable people. One clue to the fact of their goodness is the sheer speed with which they draw together in mutual helpfulness. Another is their own expressed understanding of what, deep down, brings them together:
CAPTAIN WILES: Oh [Miss Graveley's] a very nice lady, Sam, very nice.
Their somewhat atypical, non-conformist behaviour is, precisely, Chestertonian, being contrasted both with the enforcer mentality of local Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) and with the buttoned-down minds of city people people with hats on, as Sam dismisses them. In fact, we have reached the crux of the film. To a limited extent, as the above dialogue shows, the principium individuationis has on this day been dissolved. I'm especially including the film's audience in my remark, and I'm talking about the film's mood. In Schopenhauer's On the Basis of Morality he writes of how the truly compassionate person makes less of a distinction than do the rest [of us, most of the time,] between himself and others:
The others are not non-I for him, but an I once more. His fundamental relationship to everyone is, therefore, friendly; he feels himself intimately akin to all beings, takes an immediate interest in their weal and woe, and confidently assumes the same sympathy in them. (105)
Schopenhauer says that the truly compassionate person, like audiences for the best works of art and music, may glimpse Paradise. Of course, he doesn't exactly put it that way. Rather, he says that what Hinduism calls the veil of Mâyâ, illusion, has been torn (106).
Importantly, the phrase I once more implies a form of regression, and may evoke, I suggest, the time of our lost androgyny before sadomasochism set in, and the battle of the sexes with it! When Sam at the end of the film optimistically envisages a marriage that will bestow mutual freedom, Jennifer feels that he must be practically unique, then. Nonetheless, a note of compassion is sounded in several key Hitchcock films, including this one (Arnie's instinctive Poor rabbit! ), (107) and shouldn't be discounted.
On the other hand, Hitchcock always played it cool (108)! For all Harry's implicit concern over its characters' souls, the film is not like Wilde's Dorian Gray in speculating on soulful mysteries. Just the mysteries of life and death served for Hitchcock. He left his characters' ultimate fates to God. The life/death rhythm of Harry, incorporating rapid fades to black at the end of sequences, anticipates Vertigo, whose camera is forever moving in and out of darkness. (The reference-point there, of course, is Madeleine's recurring dream of walking down a darkening corridor.) That rhythm is an instance of how so often pure cinema may remind us of the working of Will itself. And, as I say, Will is certainly not nothing. But what of Hitchcock's famous conception of the MacGuffin? I'll end these notes by talking briefly about the relation of the MacGuffin to Hitchcock's filmmaking generally.
The exemplary MacGuffin in The Trouble With Harry is Harry's corpse. That's to say, Harry provides the nominal focus of the film, and is the centre of everyone's attention. A lot of fuss gets made over him, and an audience has little choice but to join in! But Hitchcock is playing with us, for in fact a MacGuffin is nothing or nothing much. It is merely what the film revolves around, the almost arbitrary excuse for the film's story. Hitchcock considered that his best MacGuffin was the government secrets of North by Northwest: how much more purely nominal could you get? He compared the MacGuffin to an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands: this seems to have been his version of a story he'd once heard about an imaginary mongoose used to confound the imaginary snakes of a man who sees things (109). Now, if all this whimsicality has a moral, it may concern the folly of over-abstraction, and Hitchcock took it seriously. Directors who lose control are concerned with the abstract, he told Truffaut. Accordingly, a film like Harry is superbly concrete in every department, including, we may note, the mellifluous and variegated score by Bernard Herrmann, which the composer later re-worked as a suite called Portrait of Hitch. Harry himself is an object whose corporeity is tested for us early in the film by a passing tramp. Twice he kicks the body before, satisfied that it's really dead, he removes its shoes for his own use. More opportunism, notice (110)! But here's my point. How fitting it is that Harry should be an inert object. He is as near to nothing and as far removed from Will, which transcends categories of both object and subject as makes no difference. On the other hand, pure cinema, while it is much less tangible than all the objects and manifest forces that comprise the film, is the antithesis of the MacGuffin. It represents nothing less than the ongoing life-force. Or Will itself. And that is surely the film's true subject.
Mind you, an audience perceives all of this subjectively! So here matters could become vertiginous! Fortunately the MacGuffin has an important function. It distracts us from what the film is really doing and keeps us focused on the concrete. It thus resembles the meaning of a poem, likened by T.S. Eliot to the bone thrown by the burglar to engage the watchdog of the mind while the poem goes about its real business. In Hitchcock's case, his real business was to give us an experience which, like good music, penetrates to the very core of our being and thrills us both technically, by its suspense and structure, and by its felt connection to life. My favourite tribute to the director is John Houseman's: [H]is passion was for his work, which he approached with an intelligence and an almost scientific clarity to which I was unaccustomed in the theatre. (111) This, from the man who helped Orson Welles found the Mercury Theatre!
© Ken Mogg, May 2005
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