Saturday, January 15, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock | Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, and North by Northwest

Shadow of a Doubt (2 images above)

Rear Window (2 images above)

North by Northwest (2 images above)


by Douglas Messerli

Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Anna Reville (writers), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Shadow of a Doubt / 1943

Over the past few years, I have come to realize that what interests me most about the films of Alfred Hitchcock is not simply that he is a brilliant director who produces some of the most dazzling images ever seen on film, but that he and his scriptwriters have a great interest in narrative structures — what we might describe in fiction or poetry as genre. This is nowhere more apparent than in his 1943 masterwork, Shadow of a Doubt.

Hitchcock couldn’t have chosen more brilliant writers for this project. In addition to his wife, Anna Reville, who worked closely with him on many of his films, the film was scripted by one of the major American playwrights of the day, Thornton Wilder, writing just a few years after his classic Our Town, and by a figure who knew small-town America perhaps better than anyone, Sally Benson, whose Kensington Stories were the basis of Meet Me in St. Louis (a film which appeared the following year, and which she must have been working on during the shooting of or soon after Shadow of a Doubt); Benson later wrote film scripts such as The Farmer Takes a Wife and Anna and the King of Siam. The abilities of these three to present a near-perfect portrait of small-town USA matched Hitchcock’s evident belief that evil, revenge, and murder coexisted always with innocence, love, and kindness.

The film demonstrates this theory in many ways, particularly in the comic episodes between Joseph Newton, father of the loving family at the center of the work, and his friend, Herbie Hawkins, who, at the very table where they will soon dine with a real murderer — Joseph’s brother-in-law Charlie — plot the imaginary murders of each other.

But the important focus of this film is on Joseph’s daughter, also named Charlie, a young woman, who, like most awakening teenagers, is absolutely boredby and frustrated with the family life into which she has been born. She is desperate for adventure and, in a highly intuitive act of frustration, visits the telegraph office to send her uncle Charlie, after whom she was named, a plea to come for a visit.

The audience already knows that this somewhat sinister figure is on his way at that very moment, and has just notified the family, through the same office, that he is soon to arrive. The coincidence is a haunting note in this otherwise normal-appearing world, for it becomes quickly clear that uncle and niece have more than their name in common, that indeed they are mysteriously intertwined with each other, the bond between them being much stronger than family blood and affection. We sense almost from the beginning that their relationship is a bit perverse, and Hitchcock and his writers take the story far deeper than any sexual attraction might allow, putting it on a level that is archetypal at the very least and almost mythic in its scope. As the young Charlie tells her uncle upon his arrival: “I know everything about you. You can’t hide anything from me.”

In short, we quickly sense in this film that these two, in their intricate interconnectedness, stand apart from the world they inhabit. They are a sort of Yin and Yang, female and male, young and old, innocent and evil, light and dark (although, in this, reversed from the Chinese model), truth teller and liar, believer and skeptic, one living in the present, the other in the past.

At the celebratory dinner for the uncle, young Charlie reveals that she cannot get a tune out of her head in connection with her uncle: The Merry Widow Waltz. As in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, shown in theaters the year before, the authors and director of Shadow of a Doubt take that theme as an emblem, almost, of their structure. The music and the accompanying waltz (montaged over the family center of the kitchen as young Charlie and her mother are about to serve dinner) becomes a sinister prefiguring of character action: the two Charlies, locked in another’s arms, are doomed to dance until one or the other is dead!

A gift of a ring from her uncle — again signifying the symbolic “marriage” between them—sends the intuitive young girl into a spin as she discovers a name engraved within and quickly connects it with the page her uncle has torn from the newspaper.

A quick trip to the library teaches this apt pupil information one hopes no child should ever have to learn: that the man to whom she is bonded, so to speak, is a murderer — The Merry Widow Murderer! (a name taken from the fact that he preys on elderly widowed women).

From that horrible moment of discovery to the end of the film, there is no turning back for this young, fresh, and believing girl, so touchingly portrayed by Teresa Wright: in her young dance of life and death she must endure and discover all the dark hate and evil of her uncle’s being, just as he will recover (or at least claim the recovery of) some of the values of youth he has lost.

Until this moment, Uncle Charlie has been exhausted, unable to sleep; now suddenly his niece falls into a deep sleep from which she awakens only the next evening. What she must now face is the plotting of a real murder — her own — just as her father and friend mockingly playact murder and detection. Detectives indeed have already shown up at the Newton house, again masquerading as people who, like the uncle, are searching for the average American family.

Once more, young Charlie sees through their deception, but as Uncle Charlie begins the attempts to murder her (a step of the back staircase of the house has been sawed through) and her uncle exposes her to his disgusting view of life, she is nearly desperate to keep the detectives near her.

The ring her uncle has given her is stolen; the symbolic “marriage,” in short, is annulled. But the very fact that she now has no real evidence of his guilt, and her realization that accusations against her uncle would destroy her sentimentally inclined mother and forever change family life only force her to continue the appalling waltz. She too must now plot, recognize lies and greed in those around her. Nearly killed in her uncle’s second attempt to murder her, she is forced to steal, recapturing the ring to assure the older Charlie’s departure from their lives.

As Uncle Charlie is seen retiring to the train for a voyage away from the family, some may feel relief, but the astute viewers perceive that the dance is not quite over. Forced to remain on the train after it has pulled away from the station, the young Charlie must accept her partner in one more galop as, arms around her in dance-like position, her uncle attempts to push her off the train. Youth has no choice but to struggle against age and destroy it. Her uncle leaning out from the car is decapitated. If not in actuality, at least within the myth of the film, she has now also committed murder. She has been forced, to ensure her survival, to experience all the evil that he so horribly insisted was the condition of life.

In the awful last scene of this painful film, the young Charlie stands outside the church wherein her family and the community piously mourn the loss of her uncle, revealing her new social and metaphysical position. She has had her adventure, but she can never truly return to the innocence, love, and protection of her childhood home again.

Los Angeles, April 17, 2005

by Douglas Messerli

John Michael Hayes (writer), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Rear Window / 1954

For most of years since I first saw Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant film, Rear Window, I had concluded — along with most of the commentators on that film — that the work was primarily about voyeurism, about a society of voyeurs, about a particular voyeur (L. B. Jefferies/James Stewart), and about the way voyeurism plays a role in the making and watching of films themselves.

There is a kind of perversity about the work, and the fact that, as some commentators had noted, the “murderer” suddenly turns the tables, crashing out of the frame to attack Jefferies for the invasion of his privacy, allows one easily to characterize Hitchcock’s film, like his later Vertigo, as a study in psychosis: that of character and audience alike.

Of course, everyone recognizes that there are important aspects to the film that take it in adventuresome and comic directions — such as the strangely distant relationship of Jefferies and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and Lisa and Stella’s (Thelma Ritter) involvement with Jefferies’ voyeurism. But the film long seemed to me a frightening statement on society’s passive psycho-sexual propensities.

Increasingly over the past few years, however, I have felt that I was missing something in perceiving the movie only in this way. The writing (by John Michael Hayes), for example, is quite remarkably clever. And, despite the darkness of its overall concerns, there is more comedy in this work than in almost any Hitchcock film other than The Trouble with Harry.

Recently, in revisiting the film, I observed that, despite Jefferies’ vocation as a photographer — an accident in connection with his photography is why he's stuck in the two-room apartment—he does not actually use his camera for the usual purposes. We do discover that he has taken
photographs (he has pictures of the garden and comments on having taken “leg art” of the young woman across the way), but as audience we see him use the camera only as a kind of telescope — and, later, as the murderer comes calling, as a flash device to temporarily ward off attack.

It is obvious, indeed, that Jefferies is nearly impotent with his leg in a cast: he cannot, metaphorically speaking, use his “tool,” the tool of his trade. Similarly, he cannot be sexually stimulated by one of the most beautiful and well-dressed women in the world — Lisa Fremont. As Stella observes, he can’t even get a temperature — he is symbolically and, apparently, literally frigid, despite the heat wave disturbing all the other tenants and his visitors.

Moreover, he himself is in camera, trapped in a room not unlike a judge’s chambers — where he is judged as a failure by both his nurse and would-be lover. Like the camera he uses he now exists in a kind of black box from which he cannot escape, and which, in turn, forces him to look outside of his own self and space.

It becomes quite apparent early in the film that L. B. Jefferies has no life other than that of a nomadic observer of things. Like many American boy-men (a phenomenon on which I have commented elsewhere) he finds any suggestion that he “settle down” to be an unpleasant alternative he has no intention of accepting. His and Lisa’s witty discussion of “here” and “there” is almost a treatise on the kind of meaningless life he has lived: she, the healthy sexual beauty, ready to offer up her body as a “free mount,” is all “here,” while Jefferies is only “there,” anywhere but where love and social engagement exist.

Through the accident of his being laid up, Jefferies is forced to view what is around him, and that consists of various sexual and societal possibilities. Rather than focusing, as do most critics, on the window of the “murderer”— which takes the movie in the direction of the murder mystery genre which, argues one critic, Hitchcock settled on after presenting the possibility of others—it might be useful if we were to consider first the various tableaux presented to his major character.

There is the single, hard-of-hearing sculptor, a creative spirit who lives rather nicely by herself. But Hitchcock and, by extension, Jefferies presents her as a busybody. In this rear window tableaux, her satisfaction is the exception.

The woman living above her, Miss Torso, a shapely young girl who parties each evening, is seen by Jefferies as offering up, almost like a prostitute, her sexuality. Lisa perceives her, rather, as “juggling wolves,” not at all interested in any of the men surrounding her each night. Ultimately, we discover that Lisa is right, for Miss Torso is delighted upon the return of her rather unattractive soldier boy.

Nearby lives “Miss Lonelyheart,” a middle-aged woman who, unlike the sculptor, is not at all happy being alone; she sets the table for two and play-acts a visiting guest. At one point, when she actually brings home a stranger, his sexual advances force her to demand he leave, and she is left unhappily alone again. Both Stella and Jefferies are terrified that she may attempt suicide.

A composer, whom both Stella and Lisa admire, is described by Jefferies as a man living alone who “probably had a very unhappy marriage”; later he describes him as “getting it” (the topic is inspiration, but the subtext is sex) mostly from his landlady.

Also across the way a couple, to escape the heat, sleep on their balcony in full view of all, which clearly suggests that they do not have much of a love life; their major activity centers around hoisting their dog up and down into house and yard by means of a small basket, and when the dog is killed by the murderer, their grief is broadcast to all the neighbors.

A young married couple who briefly appear at another window spend days in bed apparently enjoying the sexual bliss of new matrimony. Jefferies similarly scoffs at their behavior.

Indeed, Jefferies is almost prudishly critical of all these individuals and their relationships with others.

But it is the “murderer” Lars Thorwald and his wife who most clearly represent what the observant prisoner perceives as the standard condition of a relationship — a nagging and bed-bound wife driving her seemingly patient salesman husband to distraction — and ultimately, of course, to murder.

In short, because of his enforced entombment in his “plaster cocoon,” because of his temporary
“imprisonment,” (Stella claims in the very first scene to know that there is going to be “trouble” and that her patient will wind up in the New York state prison Dannemora), Jefferies, locked in a prison of his own making, is forced to encounter the “here,” the world of societal and sexual interrelationships. Despite the difficulty Lisa has in getting him to “mount,” and to climb the symbolic mountain of her love, the “adventurer” must give up all action before he can discover how to behave. If he has previously lived only as a voyeur, as someone who clicks and snaps images of reality, he is now forced to truly observe and encouraged to involve himself in the world.

Of course, there is also a price to be paid for that involvement. Since he cannot function and cannot enter the world, Lisa enters it for him, endangering her own life. Lisa’s illegal entry into the Thorwald’s apartment and her discovery of the wife’s wedding ring forces Jefferies to perceive his failures. As Lisa slips on the ring to prevent Lars Thorwald from discovering what she has found, she has, symbolically speaking, married him. And in that act, Jefferies is made to recognize another alternative to the possibilities of social involvement he has witnessed.

Observing Lisa and Jefferies’ rear window communication, however, Thorwald, like Thor, the ancient god of thunder (Jefferies first observes his neighbor behaving suspiciously during a thundering downpour), takes action, threatening the very body of the observer-witness, an act that ends in Jefferies’ defenestration, his literal fall—a fall not just out of his isolation and into the “here,” but a falling into love and sexual being.

The movie ends with Jefferies comfortably asleep (something he has been unable to do throughout much of the movie) aside Lisa who, reading an adventure-travel book, puts it aside to pick up a fashion magazine.

Given these perceptions about this movie, I see Rear Window now less as a study in cultural psychosis than as a comedy of social interrelationships, a comedic playing out of various sexual-social combinations that allow our “hero” to move from his child-like isolation to an adult social and sexual being. Most of the perversity associated with this film, accordingly, seems to have less to do with the major character’s careful observation of his neighbors—something he points out, that they also can do to him—than it does with a failure to recognize than the often frightening but essentially comic sexual and social encounters he watches are those of normal human beings—of us all.

Los Angeles, April 6, 2005

by Douglas Messerli

Ernest Lehman (writer), Alfred Hitchcock (director) North by Northwest / 1959

While watching North by Northwest again the other night for the 50th time (I do not exaggerate, and probably I have seen this film more times than that) I tried to puzzle out why, at the highly judgmental age of 12, the year I first saw this film, I did not like it. The year before I had seen Vertigo at the same movie house and was completely enraptured by it. Certainly the latter film had confused me, made me even question whether it was an appropriate movie for someone of my age, but I had loved every moment of it, and sat through it twice.

Vertigo is still my favorite Hitchcock film, but now, obviously, I find North by Northwest highly watchable and engaging. While viewing it this time, it suddenly became apparent that it was the form that had put me off as a child. At the time, I had long been reading novels, and begun my passionate commitment to the theater, reading plays by Beckett, Albee, Ionesco and Genet. Given my literary experience — and ignoring the issue of whether or not I was able to truly comprehend these works — I could understand the psychological structure of Vertigo. Despite its strange double-helix narrative and its languorous cinematic love-affair with the city of San Francisco, I knew it was centered on the hero, Scottie. And the multiple meanderings and confusions of the plot were those of his mind. I may not have understood his obsessions — particularly his voyeurism — but I got the idea right off.

North by Northwest, on the other hand, was neither romance nor psychologically grounded fiction. The bond between Roger O. Thornhill and Eve Kendall involves no mysterious workings of the mind. They are immediately attracted to each other physically and proceed to do something about it — even if later, to protect herself, Eve must throw him to the wolves, so to speak. And he, in a reciprocal gesture, returns to her, even though he knows by that time that she is somehow involved in his intended death. No, this is most definitely not a “psychological thriller!”

There is little about the mind in this film. Roger may not know why he is being mistaken for another man, but he knows who he is, and he is gradually told the true story behind it by the CIA (or whoever they may be). If information is withheld from the viewer it is not so that the character will gradually perceive and reveal it. We find out everything when he does; and we are simply told the information as if in a report. Eve, like her namesake, is purposely and necessarily duplicitous, engaged as she is with both the serpent and the thorn-laden hill (the route out, so to speak) she must climb in order to escape her life of sin.

Rather, the plot is driven by the mad linear movement of its characters on the run, from New York to Chicago and prairie environs, to Rapid City and on, finally, to the home of the symbol of
American values: Mount Rushmore.

The structure is really quite a simple one, akin to the picaresque. Indeed, as in the traditional form, we meet our hero upon his metaphorical birth, so to speak, as he exits the dark cavern of the skyscraper office where he works as an advertising executive.

It is hard to imagine the affable and handsome Roger as either an executive or a man who composes advertisements. Less important than his writing ads, he is a walking advertisement of American virility. “Do I look heavyish,” he asks the secretary, who treats him as if she were his nanny. “Remind me to think thin.”

Like a child, Roger is completely selfish: his first action in the movie is to take over a cab from another would-be customer. And his dedication, like all children, is to his beloved and bemused mother. Indeed, it is his interruption of a business meeting to cable his mother that leads to his being kidnapped. As in a Charles Dickens fantasy, Roger is whisked away from home and family into a world of corporate castles (which he appropriately seems to know little of) and confused identities.

After he receives the magic elixir (an overdose of bourbon) he escapes into the hands of the police, who like all authority in this kind of narrative, want only to lock him up and help to make things worse.

After one last meeting with the disbelieving mother, he has no choice but to hit the road. And so he does, as adventure follows upon adventure until together the two lovers climb their thorny hill, the faces of their ideal. Roger even “dies,” the way all picaros generally do. At least he should have died, were he in a more realist work. Hanging from the ledge of his monumental values, he is quite literally stomped out by the villain. But in such fantastic works, we all know, death is not a true option. As Northrup Frye has mentioned in his observations on the picaresque, although the picaro may die, he retains always the possibility of resurrection. Our villain is miraculously shot to death by the very authorities who have allowed Roger to fall into this position.

It is also necessary for the sinful Eve to fall to her death; and she too, having “slipped,” is left hanging in a position that seems quite impossible. We never see her actual salvation, only the simulated one, on the train, as the hero invites her into his bed.

To a self-satisfied twelve-year-old the simple actions of this child-like story seemed ridiculous. Where was the depth of feeling and emotion? The high drama? The complexity of thought? If Vertigo was a masterpiece of modernist values, North by Northwest was an apparent throwback to what seemed to me then as a simplistic form—to the more linear structures that one might find in the early 17th and 18th century works and in the absurd coincidences of Dickens. We now recognize this return to older and hybrid forms as part of our postmodernist sensibility. And Vertigo seems, in contrast, to be a far more “old fashioned” movie, a sort of angst-ridden portrayal of the existentialist man in the manner of writers like Sartre and Camus and artists such as Alberto Giacometti.

One also now comprehends the comic genius of North by Northwest and enjoys the movie for the pure adventure of traversing the American landscape. And in this sense, the movie is (along with Shadow of a Doubt and The Trouble with Harry) Hitchcock’s most American work. The next year the great director would return to more European forms in the Gothic horror tale told from the viewpoint of a the psychologically disturbed iconic figure of Norman Bates.

Los Angeles, October 15, 2003
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, iii, no. 1 (October 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

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