Hitchcock and the American Way
Timothy J. Kukulka
University at Buffalo
Hitchcock and the American Way
Alfred Hitchcock developed a unique perspective on a changing American culture using a medium that itself was changing into both an art form and a commercial industry. Hitchcock seized both the opportunity to grow with the evolving medium of film and the chance to experience a growing and changing American nation by using an the perspective of a freshly transplanted foreigner still disconnected enough from the American society. Hitchcock not only had previous industry experience to compare and contrast to the American industry but also a new nation for him to use as his drawing board which would provide for him a vast array of subjects to create films that would soon change America in the ways they began to view suspense films.
Hitchcock had a strict Catholic upbringing as the youngest child of middleclass merchant parents in Great Britain. He began his film career in the silent era as a title designer for the British counterpart of the Hollywood company, Famous Players-Lasky after quitting his steady job at The Henley Telegraph Company (Taylor 38). He soon got his taste of directing and would find his way to America upon the success of a string of British films. His immersion into American culture was very gradual, similar to his approach with many things, often testing the waters with caution until he was confident to proceed. In this essay I will explore how Hitchcock integrated the American way of life into his films. I will argue that Hitchcock’s own unique experiences from his integration into the American society directly reflect in a progressive style, beginning with his first American films, in his films to reinforce the American way of life. By portraying his unique perspective on American society onto the screen for viewers to take in, he reestablishes this way of life for the audience to simulate. He does so in a surprisingly accurate means often sacrificing plausibility for the sake of an image, which in many cases was that of the American society. His convergence with the American way of life would come to reflect strikingly on the screen in a visible progress starting with his first American film, Rebecca made under the watchful eye of producer David O. Selznick.
Rebecca, being Hitchcock’s first American film, ironically takes place in South France and Great Britain. Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is rescued from her American employer, for whom she is a paid companion, and moves to Great Britain. The film has a sense of longing for Hitchcock’s native homeland while at the same time the alienation an immigrant might carry as Hitchcock and many did while immigrating to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. In the coming years Hitchcock would slowly become acclimated to America but while keeping the theme of alienation alive on screen.
Shadow of a Doubt would be Hitchcock’s first truly American film shot on location in America, about the American way of life but with the unique composition of an outsider. The small town American myth is thoroughly explored while at the same time the social environments of the city and town and the geographical spaces of the East and the West are illustrated to the audience as roots of good and evil. Hitchcock was fascinated at the omnipresence of evil and the fact that there was no refuge from it (Taylor 186).
Hitchcock uses vivid imagery to show the sharp divide between urban centers and the traditional American small town. An excellent example is the order of the streets in Santa Rosa controlled by a traffic policeman; another is the fact that the children can be seen reading, whereas in Philadelphia the children can be seen running in the streets, thus directly contradicting the small town order. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) becomes alienated and paranoid within the small town of Santa Rosa but is eventually saved by the community’s unique ability to navigate through the evil that seeps in from the big urban metropolis of Philadelphia. Hitchcock creates a strong foundation for the very basis of the small town myth by establishing specific order around the Santa Rosa scenes. This is reflected both in the community as well as in the composition of the film, ultimately culminating in the elimination and departure of evil.
The film was made during a time in America where hope and the American way of life were badly damaged due to two World Wars and the Great Depression. This film established and illuminated the American way of life breathing hope into many evil ridden communities so that the American way could again become the dream and inspiration to those around the world. It is the Santa Rosans innocence that actually saves them from the evil Uncle Charlie, this is evident as they honor and celebrate him even though he is a serial killer. On the other side of the coin, it is the same innocence that this evil person is let into their community and sheds let on the vulnerability of such a society. It was in connection with Shadow of a Doubt, incidentally, that the Hitchcocks finally moved into their second American home (summer/weekend home) located between Santa Cruz and San Francisco which they had purchased before filming after falling in love with the peaceful, hilly area and small town friendliness of Northern California where the town of Santa Rosa lays (Taylor 187). Hitchcock was becoming conscious to the inner workings of the American nation.
These are the same inner workings that the American society was beginning to explore as a result of a devastating war with the use of psychoanalysis which Hitchcock thoroughly examines in Spellbound. This may have happened because Americans wanted to see what was wrong within themselves to have produced such a broken and paralyzed place that lacked so much hope. This gave way to the trend of psychoanalysis, which promised to provide the key to unlock the problems and trauma that lay in the history of the American people. Hitchcock used psychoanalysis as a catalyst to explore the uniquely changing roles of the male and female in postwar American society and to show the potential it had to unlock the state of paralysis that the nation seemed to be in. He explored the notion that the American home was a battlefield of the sexes and that the professional female was emerging and no longer a dormant figure in the American establishment. The American male psyche was paralyzed and locked up as a result of two world wars and the Great Depression. Hitchcock illustrates that the female figure held the keys to unlock and breathe life into the male psyche again.
The film follows the heroine, Dr. Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) as she pursues the evil that has consumed the soul of John Ballantine (Gregory Peck). Spellbound contains a very closed and private world, with a complex structure of parental-figures, identifications and guilt (Durgnat 193). The American Way of life was changing and the female power was sharing the screen and the American workplace. Dr. Petersen is representative of an up and coming powerful female figure in an institution historically dominated by males. Instead the male characters are positioned as patients of Dr. Petersen and a superior that Dr. Petersen would confront. Certainly Hitchcock was very much accustomed to working with women professionally even from the start of his career at Famous Players-Lasky in Great Britain with the women in the editorial department to his wife Alma working on a professional level with him on his films often providing the key to creating well balanced films (Taylor 39).
With the immergence of the female as a representative power in American society comes the notion of voyeurism and Hitchcock’s Rope begins to explore the American obsession with watching and looking. Hitchcock confronts the audience head on by giving them exactly what they want and in turn innocently incorporates them into an upper class murder. The audience is led into a penthouse apartment via the window as an onlooker upon the sound of a potential murder which happens as the audience is brought inside to the scene. Hitchcock made a conscious effort to make the film in America about an American crime (Taylor 207). As his perspective on American society matured he began to explore the superiority that the upper class society portrayed in the form of intellectuals and homosexuals especially as compared to the class system of Great Britain. He specifically exposes the crime as the first characteristic of this society presumably being viewed by the middle class. He immediately challenges the villainous stereotype so often attributed to the lower class and instead separates the two classes by explaining that murder is a privilege for some, in this case the upper class. Hitchcock focuses on the voyeuristic qualities that the American public carries for the wealthier classes and contradicts them by illustrating to the audience the permitted evils they impose on themselves as morally superior creatures. Hitchcock focuses on an upper class party which the public would love to be a part and can through the film, he then intertwines conversation on the morals of murder and explores the notion that murder can be logically validated to some upper class people thus putting the audience in an awkward position causing them to question their original desires.
Hitchcock explores the notion of art as a moral license and parades the idealization of aesthetic sensation and style through the use of elitist snobs (Durgnat 203). Hitchcock’s gradual adaptation to Hollywood’s standards and views on education this reflected in his films especially that of Rope. He pairs the American upper class with that of intellectuals and validates murder with ideas in turn valuing intellect over morals, something that his strong Catholic upbringing would certainly oppose but he comes full circle in the finale of the film making a clear statement that the balance of the individual and what he uses his intellect for is his own responsibility setting intellect apart from class, a clear democratic value of the American society. Hitchcock does so by clearing the professor and his intellect from the crime and charging the murders by exposing their crime.
As in Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window, Hitchcock explores the comedic American relationship with murder and the fantasy of it through voyeurism. He creates an environment in which the middle class American can vicariously carry out their fantasy while exposing the very issue to the viewer and making them conscious of their weaknesses, obsessions and composition. Hitchcock’s unique perspective as a foreigner of American people while integrating into the same society he was making films on enabled him to precisely portray American society in his films. Hitchcock’s careful integration into American society and overall reserve that he exerted on most matters contradicts that of the typical American he so meticulously picks apart for their own viewing pleasure. Americans typically dive into things without cautiously preceding which Hitchcock was known to do and because of this contradiction it created a different perspective for him on the society which often sped through things as Guy Haines (Farley Granger) does in Strangers on a Train.
In Strangers on a Train Hitchcock dives deep into the psychology of the homosexual male and his position in American society in Strangers on a Train. The Federal government of the United States of America felt that homosexuals posed a national threat to security and implicated them as professional individuals that could function undetected and under the radar as “normal” American citizens. This positioned homosexuals uniquely as subjects within Hitchcock’s changing view of America. Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train positions the spectator as “the heterosexual” of contemporary juridical discourse who is threatened by the homosexual menace (Cober 112).
The viewer is given the choice of a heterosexual character, Guy Haines and a homosexual character Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) to identify with. Hitchcock uses these two characters to position the audience in such a way that they are forced to make a choice between the two opposing views. By alienating the heterosexual male character in a way similar to the alienation of soldiers that had been overseas just years before fighting in the war, the heterosexual male is made conscious of the undetectable methods of seduction employed by such homosexuals. Hitchcock alienates the heterosexual viewer by putting the character who the viewer identifies with in a position with a homosexual male. Hitchcock explores this extreme in Strangers on a Train and utilizes the homosexual to facilitate a rite of passage for the heterosexual male who many American soldiers could certainly identify with. At the time this was an accurate view of American society and was very cutting edge.
Homosexuals were said to pose as great a threat to the government as members of the communist party (Corber, 104). Hitchcock positions the identifiable hero as a heterosexual male tempted by the immense seducing power of the homosexual. The viewer does not identify with the heterosexual in a homosexual way but rather is consciously aware of these tendencies and identifies with the heterosexual relationship that inevitably established because of the homosexual male and polygamous woman. The tremendous power struggle is exhibited in the film by the presence of the Federal government of the United States of America, specifically that of Washington D.C. and its great monuments. Hitchcock’s references to homosexuality were quite candid for American movies at the time especially in the American society that was just beginning to explore the whole notion of homosexuality (Phillips 111). Hitchcock’s stand on homosexuality was just one of the many issues he accurately illustrates in his films all the result of an American system of discipline and punishment which he explores in Rear Window.
Hitchcock specifically explores the inner workings of the highly efficient and precise system of discipline and punishment in the American society in his film Rear Window and in doing so reinforces the values of the system by exposing them to the audience and making them conscious of the system. The elaborate set of Rear Window is reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s model prison called the Panopticon (a central tower monitors surrounding inmates who cannot determine if they are being watched) with Jefferies (James Stewart) as a central patriarchal figure closely viewing the surrounding cells in the apartment buildings courtyard from his dark vantage point. The film establishes Jefferies as the patriarchal figure monitoring and implementing action based on the inhabitants’ actions. Rear Window touches on the concept of discipline and punishment as implemented in the very structure of the American justice system. Hitchcock portrays this system as self adjusting and perpetual and by focusing on this close relationship he exposes it to the viewer as a system of alarming accuracy. Rear Window shows Hitchcock moving, in the Hollywood vanguard, certainly, but with the Hollywood current, in the gradual rediscovery of American life as a matter, not merely of individualistic impulses, but as a socio-spiritual network, with built-in dissatisfactions (Durgnat 244).
Hitchcock questions the plausibility of the network by making the audience the ultimate voyeur and patriarchal figure but by producing a body of the murder victim in the end of the film he reinforces the judicial system and restores balance to a potentially unstable environment. This apparent surrender to the conventions of Hollywood film would seem at first to suggest the power and inescapability of the reductive systems that enclose American life and art (Brand 132). Hitchcock gives the audience a brief glimpse into the clockwork of the American urban society and offers insight into a larger system of which it is merely a component of, namely, the American way of life. For the time and Hitchcock’s experience in America his films accurately portray the stereotypes of American society. His fascination with murder reflected the public’s sometimes unconscious desire with violence and their growing obsession with viewing.
Hitchcock’s Vertigo exemplifies this American way of life and the dream it portrays. This illusion, as Hitchcock so beautifully portrays in many of his films, is most evident in Vertigo by an intricate means of weaving birth and death, the masculine and feminine figure with reality and dreams to create a balance between the past and future. The American way of life is much like this delicate balance with these same aspects which in turn create an organic society that functions perpetually and governs itself.
Hitchcock’s ultimate display of balanced illusion comes with the prized shot of Vertigo in the bell tower which combines the physical movement of the camera backwards with the physical movement of the inner workers of the lens forward. The shot allows the filmmaker to reach toward threatening spatial/visual terrain while simultaneously reeling away from it (Sterritt 83). The result is unlike anything previously experienced in film and is the marriage of two filmic tools into a balanced disillusion. This is how the American way of life functions, a mostly Christian society, that unlike any other nation is extremely efficient at creating a delicately balanced nation and way of life that prevails over all other models. Some might refer to it as an illusion while others might refer to it as their reality. At the start of this film Hitchcock probably saw the American society as an illusion and upon the success of the film and the others that would follow it is probably safe to say that it was his reality now.
America’s unique illusion of moving forward yet at the same time backward secures the system as not to tip the balance of progression. The American public is generally speeding into things while on the other hand Hitchcock would slowly ease his way into things. The American system is designed in such a way to ensure that the speed of both is governed. The result is the satisfaction of accomplishment but without the dominance of one thing or another which in the case of Vertigo is illustrated by Scottie attempting to dominate the feminine figure but coming up short through the intervention of Christianity leaving the dominant in a temporary state of paralysis thus implementing immediate justice, the product of a truly balanced society. Hitchcock punishes Judy Barton (Kim Novak) for what pain she has caused Scottie while he is left in the hands of the church. He implements justice as he does in Rear Window, Rope and will in North by Northwest. This justice accurately reflects the American judicial system in the evolving American society at the time.
Hitchcock’s mastery and artistry became refined to the point that his films don’t let the viewer touch down on anything for an extended amount of time instead creating a period of suspension in which he leads the viewer through the film offering reasons to both establish and blur reality as a dream. At this point in Hitchcock’s career he had been exposed to American society long enough to begin to blur his previous British upbringing with that of the true American he was inevitably becoming. He gained and offered insight while securing his life as an American by further enforcing the nation’s values of justice and equality for generations to come. Hitchcock does so by implementing justice and resolving conflicts that may complicate his films. This unique integration into the American way of life, a large melting pot, is what creates the balance and security between efficiency and uniqueness, reality and illusion, good and evil, feminine and masculine and birth and death in the masterpieces of Hitchcock.
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