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
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
Fifthly, there is the theme of therapeutic experience, strongly insisted on by Robin Wood, but about which I myself am more dubious. Wood argues particularly from the case of Marnie, where he claims to see light at the end of the tunnel represented by Psycho and The Birds. It seems to me that it is too early to make such a judgment: it may well be that Marnie instead of representing a development in Hitchcock’s moral thought, a recognition that descent into the chaos-world is not irrevocable, that identity can be secured, that guilt can be purged, might turn out to be merely a more superficial film with a rather shallow confidence. Again, it seems to me rather doubtful to argue, as Wood does, that Jefferies goes through a therapeutic experience in Rear Window. Wood quotes Douchet’s view that the block opposite is like a cinema screen on to which Jefferies projects his own subconscious desires in a kind of dream form—particularly his desire to get rid of Lisa, his future wife—and that these desires erupt destructively into his own life, punishing him. And, in particular punishing him (and by implication the involved cinema audience) both for the sin of curiosity and for the urge to work out interior desires in externalized fantasy. Wood insists that a murder is actually detected and a marriage actually affirmed. But, on the other hand, he concedes that, in one sense, nothing has changed: Lisa, at the end, is looking at the same fashion photos, though this time inside a news magazine cover: her new understanding is hypocritical and illusory. And, though murderers are brought to justice in Hitchcock films, this does not simply mean a triumph of order and reason; more often than not, reason can only be re-asserted through the violent and inextricable entry of unreason into its world: a dialectical paradox vividly expressed in the startling, mad denouements of so many Hitchcock films: the nun in Vertigo, the Mount Rushmore climax of North by North-West.
Finally, there is the notorious mother theme, important in Strangers on a Train and reaching its final macabre conclusion in Psycho. Even in the family, what is presumed to be the most secure and loving of relationships is revealed, in the most grotesque and macabre way, to be potentially horrific and destructive. The world of chaos inhabits the family itself. It is worth noting that the theme of the mother has really come into its own in the American films: presumably, the legendary American mother made a strong impression on Hitchcock.