Hitchcock, of course, is a household name. His first film was made in 1921, his first sound film (Blackmail) in 1929, his first American film (Rebecca) in 1940. He has come to dominate completely the suspense thriller genre; his silhouette on publicity posters is enough to chill spines in anticipation. But he is not only a household name; his films are also, arguably, the pinnacle of film art. At least three serious and extremely interesting book-length exegeses have been devoted to Hitchcock’s work: Rohmer and Chabrol’s classic Hitchcock (Paris, 1957), Jean Douchet’s Hitchcock (Paris, 1965) and Robin Wood’s recent Hitchcock’s Films (London, 1965). All these books contain exhaustive accounts and theories of Hitchcock’s principal themes: Wood’s book, though not the most brilliant, is perhaps the best. The critic, therefore, who now chooses to write about Hitchcock is not, as is usually the case with auteur criticism, starting ex nihilo; there is already an established area of critical agreement and a number of embryonic critical debates are under way. On the other hand, there is still an important task of popularization of this critical debate to be accomplished. Perhaps the next step should be, as far as space allows, to sketch out the main themes which have been discerned in Hitchcock’s films—particularly his recent films—and then, in conclusion, to make some general and synthesizing remarks about their implications, connections and importance.

First, there is the theme of guilt: of common guilt and exchanged guilt. A recurrent pattern in Hitchcock’s films is that of the man wrongly accused of some crime he has not committed; the plainest example is in The Wrong Man. This theme is typically developed by revealing how the wrongly accused man could very well have been guilty; he is compromised in all kinds of ways. And by identification with the hero, the audience is compromised as well; this is the theme of common guilt. A frequent dimension of this theme is the transition from play to reality; both in Rope and Strangers on a Train ordinary people at a party play with the idea of murder, revelling in the idea; in each case they are talking to a real murderer: words have become unpleasantly and ambivalently involved with deeds. Strangers on a Train takes the theme further with the notion of exchanged guilt: Guy and Bruno both have strong motives for committing murder, as they mutually—though tacitly—admit; when Bruno actually commits one murder, Guy is inevitably implicated in his guilt. Hitchcock’s world is never one of a simple division between good and evil, purity and corruption; his heroes are always involved in the actions of the villains; they are separated from them only by a social and moral convention. During the film, they become guilty and this guilt can never entirely leave them. In I Confess, for instance, the priest hero is found legally guilty of murder—there was a clear motive—but the true murderer is later revealed and the priest freed; but, though the juridical guilt is thus annulled, the moral guilt remains.

Secondly, there is the theme of chaos narrowly underlying order. Hitchcock’s films begin, typically, with some banal events from ordinary, normal life. The characters are firmly set in their habitual setting, a setting more or less the same as that in which the audience must pass their lives. Then by a trick of fate, a chance meeting or an arbitrary choice, they are plunged into an anti-world of chaos and disorder, a monstrous world in which normal categories shift abruptly and disconcertingly, in which the hero is cut off from all sustaining social relations and flung, unprepared and solitary, into a world of constant physical and psychological trauma. In contingent detail this anti-world is the same as the normal world, but its essence runs completely counter. It is a world of excitement as against banality, but it is also a world of evil, of unreason. Thus in The Birds the quite ordinary small-town world of Bodega Bay is abruptly shattered by the meaningless attacks of the birds. Everything is turned upside down: instead of civilized man caging wild birds, wild birds encage civilized man, in telephone kiosks and in boarded-up houses. This is not just an image of doomsday or vengeance; it is also an image of the precariousness of the civilized, rational order. Even a film like North by North-West, usually considered nothing more than a divertissement, exhibits the same theme: Thornhill is kidnapped in a hotel lobby and is suddenly flung into a world of international political intrigue and calculated murder. The utterly public and commonplace Mount Rushmore monument is turned into the scene of an intense, private drama, quite surreal and incomprehensible to an outsider, a normal onlooker. (Hitchcock frequently uses these public monuments for startling episodes in the intrigues of the chaos-world: the Albert Hall, the United Nations, etc; their use universalizes the chaos).

Thirdly, there is the theme of temptation, obsession, fascination and vertigo. Once the heroes have left the world of order and reality for the world of chaos and illusion, they are incapable of drawing back. They are enthralled, terrorized but excited; chaos and panic seem to meet some unexpressed inner need; there is a kind of obsessive release. In North by North-West Thornhill insists on re-entering the chaos-world when, after his trial for drunkenness, he has a chance to fall back into normal life; it is as if he must find out the meaning of the absurd events which overtook him and somehow capture them for the world of reason. In fact, he enters more and more into the world of unreason, unintelligibility and the absurd. In Rear Window Jefferies obsessively involves himself in the unreason he observes in the block opposite until it bursts into his own private room. And in Vertigo when Scottie is cheated of his dream he tries to rebuild it out of reality, almost demanding the disaster which eventually occurs. The film, as Rohmer has pointed out, is full of spiral images, images of instability and mesmerization, images of spinning down into darkness. (These spiral images in Hitchcock’s films are usually associated with the eye, spiralling out of the light into the dark pupil and again—with a special meaning in the context of the cinema—being mesmerized by the world of appearances.)

Fourthly, there is the theme of uncertain, shifting identity and the search for secure identity. In the great majority of Hitchcock’s films, there are repeated and complicated cases of mistaken or altering identity. Clearly, this links up with both the exchange of guilt theme and the chaos-world theme. One implication is that identity is a purely formal social attribute, rapidly destroyed by kaleidoscopic changes in social co-ordinates; only rarely can it be said to represent a relatively autonomous core of being. And, not only is it a formal attribute, but it is easily confused and merged with the identity of others. Mere accidents of physiognomy, clothes, documents, etc, not only confer the formal identity of somebody else, but even their moral being, their history and their guilt. And, in the same way that identities merge, they also split up and disintegrate into separate, parallel identities: in Marnie for instance, the heroine changes her identity by changing her clothes and dyeing her hair. The same thing happens with the transformation of Madeleine into Judy in Vertigo.