Revisiting Hitchcock

By Matthew Cheney

Sometime last year, I decided to watch some Alfred Hitchcock movies I hadn't seen in a while, and also to fill in a few gaps in my viewing. I've been watching Hitchcock's films since I was a child and was introduced to him through the new version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that appeared on NBC in 1985. I had known his name previously through the Three Investigators series of children's mystery novels, which were originally billed as "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators" and came with an introduction supposedly written by the man himself (though as with the magazine and the various anthologies that licensed his name, Hitchcock himself had nothing to do with it). In the books, Hitchcock was just some guy I'd never heard of, and so it was the (colorized) introductions by Hitchcock at the start of each TV show that made me particularly aware of him. Soon I convinced my parents to let me rent some of his movies from the local video store (though not Psycho—that one, my mother said, was too scary).

Expectations shape our experiences, and my understanding of Hitchcock's films was, through much of my life, impeded by my desire for them to fit what I expected the template of a horror or suspense movie to be. Much as I enjoyed Hitchcock's work, I missed a lot of what made it unique, and didn't value many films that I have since come to cherish.

When I was young, I wanted bigger bangs and bigger surprises than most of Hitchcock's movies provided—I wanted them to be more like his TV show, the episodes of which usually relied upon a twist ending. Even in college, when I should have known better, I saw Vertigo on its re-release in theatres and thought it was terribly paced. Many of Hitchcock's most famous films, particularly from the 1950s, felt too slow to me, which is perhaps why I considered North by Northwest to be his real masterpiece—it's one of his plottiest, zippiest movies.

Over the years, I kept coming back to Hitchcock, watching one or two of his films each year, and as I began to shed the expectations I had of him from my childhood, I realized such films as Notorious and Rear Window were the equals of North by Northwest.

When I plunged myself into Hitchcock's whole oeuvre, though, even more wonders revealed themselves. I had spent much of my life watching the movies for their thrills and shocks, but though Hitchcock was, from early in his career, pigeonholed as a director of "thrillers," and though there are certainly thrills and shocks to be found on a first viewing of many of his films, the richness and power of his art derives from other elements.

This realization struck me most forcefully when I watched The Birds. I had avoided it for years, having heard somewhere that it was boring and silly. It was, instead, one of the most unsettling movies I'd ever seen—a movie that seemed, on my first viewing, to take a shallow and beautiful woman and slowly, sadistically destroy her. What makes it particularly unsettling is that the film achieves its effect in a complex way, and much of the complexity lies in the viewer's relationship to the story and characters, especially the character of Melanie Daniels, played by Tippi Hedren. There's not a lot of depth to the character: we learn only bits and pieces about her past and very little about her feelings and desires. Yet Hedren's performance is a rich one, for though it is as if she had inhabited a mannequin, her struggle to give the mannequin life matches Melanie's own struggle to overcome the mask she has created for herself and the emotional repression that makes her seem so shallow. There's very little that is likeable about her, nor much a viewer can really empathize with, so her fear and terror do not, at least for me, inspire fear and terror and identification, but instead provoke interest: an interest in the strange events, a curiosity about what will happen next, and, ultimately, a desire for things to get worse, because if they get worse they will then be even more interesting.

Hitchcock realized, too, that explanations don't matter. The story that was the original inspiration for the film, by Daphne du Maurier, provided no clear explanation for the bird attacks, and though Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter imagined various possibilities, Hitchcock didn't end up using any of them, instead preferring ambiguity. In his excellent book Hitchcock at Work, Bill Krohn notes that before he settled on The Birds, Hitchcock had optioned Fredric Brown's science fiction novel The Mind Thing, which tells the story of an alien that can possess the mind of any living creature; in the end, the protagonist "is besieged in an isolated cabin by a variety of animals that the alien is using as weapons, ranging from a bull to a dive-bombing chicken hawk." As Krohn notes, Hitchcock's interests were clearly with some sort of story that would portray human society fragmented and attacked by animals. With two particularly extraordinary exceptions,[1] the camera keeps us close to Melanie's point of view throughout the movie, and so we are both attacked and (in our capacity as people who want the movie to continue to be exciting) desiring attack. Krohn even goes so far as to posit that the narrative strongly suggests Melanie caused the attacks by her presence in Bodega Bay and her infiltration of the Brenner family. Though this idea is undercut by a few casual remarks about earlier attacks, it nonetheless is what the film makes us feel: that Melanie is the center of all this, the focus of the disaster. She does, after all, like to be the center of attention.

During later viewings, I found my empathy for Melanie Daniels growing, but I was also suspicious of it. Once I knew the effect the movie had on me, I wanted in some way to deny it, to fight against it. I didn't want to be complicit in the destruction, to yearn for the final attack, and so I imposed as much understanding as I could onto Melanie's character. Nothing alleviates the effect of the last scene of the film, however, with Melanie shattered and the birds having won. It's just about Hitchcock's bleakest ending, and he was a director who had little use for unqualifiedly happy conclusions—in his earlier film about punishing a female protagonist, Notorious, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is saved at the last moment, but the film ends with Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) walking back to what we presume will be his death. In The Birds, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) carries Melanie out to the car much as Devlin carries Alicia, but Mitch has no one to sacrifice; the birds have won in a way the Nazis in Notorious have not.

The play of gender in Hitchcock's films is one of the things that continues to fascinate me, and has fascinated plenty of film scholars. It wouldn't be hard to make a superficial case for Hitchcock's films as misogynist in their tendencies, and there are certainly misogynist characters in many of his movies, but the characters and their relationships are too complex and ambivalent for such an interpretation to be useful or convincing. The films frequently portray the gender assumptions of their time as entrapping or destructive. Hitchcock was a master of manipulating the audience's sympathies, and the manipulations often cause us to note some humanity in antagonists and some inhumanity in protagonists. Even in an early film such as Murder!, where the killer is a "half-caste" transvestite trapeze artist, divided in his race and gender (he performs as a woman, but murders for love of a woman), in the end, we are encouraged to feel nothing so much as a kind of tragic pity, perhaps even sympathy—much as we might feel for Boris Karloff's monster in Frankenstein. With time, Hitchcock's divided characters gained more nuance and complexity, as did the director's manipulations of the audience's identifications. Vertigo, the film I once thought so badly paced, is the apex of that movement. The great shock of the story, and one I was not enough aware of when I first viewed it, is the shock that comes when we realize the power and scope of Scottie's (James Stewart's) obsession—and how that obsession creates an insane and destructive possessiveness in him.

Vertigo's meaning changes on a second viewing. Once we know what is to become of the characters, it is impossible to return to an innocent gaze. In much of Hitchcock's work, the viewer-voyeur is not innocent. This isn't an indictment (à la some of the films of Michael Haneke) so much as a perspective on reality: innocence is no protection (hence all the stories of wrongly accused people), nor is it necessarily desirable—innocence often stems from or disguises ignorance: ignorance not only of what's really going on behind the scenes of the world, but, more importantly, what's going on within one's own mind, emotions, and perceptions. In Strangers on a Train, Guy (Farley Granger) does not recognize or admit many of his own inclinations, leading to tragedy and, in the final, comedic scene, to a closing off of his personality—he becomes a person who must flee strangers rather than talk with them. In Psycho, the film Hitchcock made just before The Birds, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) repents of her crimes too late and is murdered as she tries to wash her sins away; at the end of the movie, the knowledge given to us by a psychiatrist arrives too late to help any of the characters we've cared about in the story, and the final shot suggests that insanity and evil have so deeply infested Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) that both innocence and knowledge are irrelevant—Mother has won as conclusively as the birds.

I'm one of the people who believes that after The Birds, Hitchcock made his last masterpiece, Marnie. Not everyone agrees about its masterpiece status—there is an artificiality to the film's mise-en-scène that bothers some viewers, while others are put off by the melodrama and apparently simple psychologizing. I'm more persuaded by the arguments of the late Robin Wood, whose Hitchcock's Films Revisited is my favorite Hitchcock study. Marnie, it seems to me, is nearly the equal of Vertigo in its surreal weirdness, while it continues and develops many of the most disturbing elements of The Birds—Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is obviously a corrupt character (she's a thief and liar), and Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who tries to "cure" Marnie, is more like Devlin than Mitch. Where Melanie in The Birds was punished by an entire, inscrutable animal class, Marnie is punished by one man for reasons that are much clearer, and in many ways much more detestable: like Scottie in Vertigo, Mark wants to shape a woman into a form he can appreciate and control. The melodrama of Marnie's original sin explains, at least in narrative terms, her personality and behavior, but it certainly doesn't justify Mark's actions or prove that he and Marnie will live happily ever after. Mark and Marnie driving off at the end of the film echoes both the endings of Notorious and The Birds: Marnie has gone through the hell a man sent her into, she has come through scratched and bloody and hollowed out, and her future with Mark seems about as bright as that of Cathy Brennan's lovebirds—caged, safe from any wild or dangerous influences, domesticated and unable to fly beyond the gilded bars that enclose a tiny space in which to live.

Of course, there is much more I could say about Hitchcock here—he is one of the most frequently written-about directors in history for good reason. His technical and formal mastery is as astounding as the complexity and richness of his vision—he was a master of silent films as well as a master of cinematic sound; he excelled in both black and white and color; he created emotionally powerful scenes of intimacy and utterly entertaining action scenes.

And, as I continue to discover, his work repays one viewing after another, year after year, self after self.

[1] The famous shot of birds high above Bodega Bay and the final shot, a composite that required 32 separate exposures.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea, and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.