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North by Northwest

'Shadow of a Doubt' is possibly Hitchcock’s first truly American film

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Consider Shadow of a Doubt, possibly Hitchcock’s first truly American film. The Santa Rosa setting is imagined as small-town American quintessence: white picket fences border tree-lined streets, where everyone is a comic embodiment of bumbling friendliness and never does a dark cloud stain the clear blue northern California sky. Neighbors live in each other’s pockets; the Newtons are constantly visited by Herb, a geeky busy-body from next-door who routinely enters their household freely and without warning. Herb’s appearance is almost without exception accompanied by news of murder, delivered with salivating aplomb. He and Joseph Newton hold frequent council on the pros and cons of various different types of homicide. That this morbid fascination goes virtually unnoticed suggests that it is, essentially, normal within the film’s American milieu.

Thus far, nothing is out of the ordinary for Hitchcock. It seems that he has inaugurated the “wound culture” of his British film into his American films as well. Indeed, the fantasy of violence recurs throughout the American Hitchcock. The real violence that lurks beneath this simulated violence, however, teeters much more precariously on the edge of exposure than in the British Hitchcock. When a psychotic fit turns Bruno’s faked strangulation into the real thing in Strangers on a Train, formerly amused party guests become appalled and frightened. In Rope, Brandon insists on the privilege of murder, nominally hypothetically, as a real murder remains literally concealed in a chest just half a room away.

In Shadow of a Doubt, the murder is similarly right under their noses: the much beloved Uncle Charlie, who has assimilated with ease into the Santa Rosa community—his departure is preceded by the blessings of both the local Catholic priest and the president of the town’s social club—is actually the Merry Widow Killer, who exists to the townspeople merely as a headline and provokes, naturally, Herb’s macabre obsession. Charlie, Uncle Charlie’s namesake, gradually discovers the truth, the violence beneath the “laughter.” She chastises her father at the dinner table for “always talk[ing] about killing people!” He replies, “We’re [Herb and I] not talking about killing people, Herb’s talking about killing me and I’m talking about killing Herb.” Mrs. Newton adds, “It’s how your father relaxes.” Here, “relax” seems synonymous with “laugh,” going back to its status as the all-encompassing opposite of the “uneasiness” caused by acts of sabotage. Like Mrs. Verloc, Charlie can no longer share in this “laughter”: for her, the real violence has superseded its simulated form.

What resulted from Mrs. Verloc’s alienation was a reaffirmation of her foreignness, but Charlie’s is a little more complicated. She is never a foreigner to begin with; on the contrary, she never seems to appear outside without the company of one or two anonymous friends, and everyone from waitresses to traffic police know her by name. Furthermore, the violence she discovers is characterized not as foreign, as in Sabotage (Mr. Verloc and his co-conspirators are given indistinctly Eastern European accents), but quite the contrary: Uncle Charlie’s allusions to both marriage and being twins, as well as their names, suggests their doubleness. Uncle Charlie’s capacity for murder—visualized in his clenched fingers as impulsive, like the mimetic violence of trauma—is every bit hers as his. Then, Uncle Charlie asks his niece, “Do you know that if you rip the fronts off houses you’ll find swine?” That he asks this at the ‘Til Two, a seedy Santa Rosa bar that Charlie has “never been in,” seems to corroborate his contention: underneath every innocent small town façade lies the cyclical violence of a “wound culture.” This moral education, the exposure of the real violence between the simulation, deprives Charlie of “laughter,” which she notices during a love scene with Detective Jack Graham. “I was laughing,” she remarks with surprise. “It’s been so long since I laughed” (1:26:00).


Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt, therefore, dissolves the distinction between the enlightened protagonist and the bloodthirsty “wound culture” the persisted firmly through Sabotage, North by Northwest, meanwhile, breaks down the distinction between real and simulated violence. The elaborate espionage in which Roger Thornhill becomes unwittingly embroiled is constantly framed as a joke. When cronies of foreign agent Phillip Vandamm apprehend him, an incredulous Thornhill asks, “What is this, a joke or something?” “Yes, we’ll laugh in the car,” one replies.

When Thornhill escapes Vandamm’s clutches, nobody believes his story, including his own mother, who calls it “silly business” (27:40). Thornhill finds himself in an elevator with the two cronies from earlier, and signals to his mother that they tried to kill him. She then turns to them and asks, “You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?” Their answer, in medium close-up, is laughter. The passengers behind Thornhill also begin to laugh. A cut to Mrs. Thornhill shows her looking out of the frame towards the laughter, then looking towards her son and beginning to laugh herself. Like Mrs. Verloc, Mrs. Thornhill appears to be laughing in order to socialize herself. By contrast, Thornhill’s sarcastic remarks throughout hit dead air, eliciting neither laughter nor come-backs within the diegesis. His perception of simulation, the crux of his humor, always meets contradiction. The laughter in the elevator, on the other hand, stems from the shared contention that his fear is a “joke.” The “joke,” of course, is completely real – and completely simulated. Vandamm confuses him for George Kaplan, a completely imaginary agent created as a decoy by the US government, and identifies himself as UN assemblyman Lester Townshend. He even meets Thornhill in Townshend’s real home. Thornhill is photographed holding a knife that had just been thrown into the real Townshend’s back, and although he did not actually kill Townshend, he is forced to become a fugitive of the law anyway.


In the famous crop-duster sequence, a farmer at the bus stop where Thornhill came to meet Kaplan remarks, “That’s funny, that plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” And indeed, the crop-duster is actually trying to kill Thornhill. It fails and crashes into an oil truck, as several locals look on, seemingly hypnotized. The Professor, the mastermind behind George Kaplan, asks at one point after reading about Thornhill’s dilemma in the newspaper, “It’s all so horribly sad, why is it I feel like laughing?” Everything is a joke, and must remain a joke – Vandamm must remain on the trail of the imaginary agent Kaplan - for the Professor’s plans to work.

This works on multiple levels, of course, since North by Northwest is—at least for my money—a great comedy, and Cary Grant, as Thornhill, endures all manners of absurd shenanigans for our amusement. Note that the “joke” on Thornhill always has an audience—in the elevator and in the cornfield, for example—and once he becomes aware of the simulated nature of the espionage, he exploits violent spectacle to his advantage. As the exploded gas truck burns, Thornhill joins four onlookers in medium shot, but as they gravitate towards the explosion like moths to light, he moves in the opposite direction, and steals one of their trucks. Their directional opposition foregrounds Thornhill’s privileged awareness of the violence in the simulation—and the simulation in the violence. When he encounters Vandamm at an auction, Vandamm accuses him of “overplay[ing] your various roles,” prompting him to do exactly that, disrupting the auction and getting into a fight specifically so police will haul him away. The crowd laughs at his idiotic spectacle until the violence breaks out. Later, secret agent Eve Kendall shoots Thornhill in the middle of a Mt. Rushmore cafeteria. We are as shocked as the gathered onlookers; we only find out later that she shot him with a blank. Suddenly, our status as privileged spectators comes into question: we are as vulnerable to tenuous distinction between real and simulated violence as Thornhill’s diegetic audience.

The films that follow North by Northwest, then, revisit the problematic of the audience that laughs during the Disney cartoon in Sabotage by posing themselves as that cartoon, and us as its audience. As Marion has dinner with Norman in Psycho, he comments that she eats “like a bird,” and the stuffed falcon that looms over their meal foreshadows her death at his hands only ten minutes later. Up until this point, Marion is our primary entry point into the film’s diegesis, an aspect only exacerbated by the interior monologue we hear as she approaches the Bates motel. Our identification continues through the killing itself, as a shot-reverse-shot alternation between Marion’s close-up and the shower-head continues even after she dies. Hitchcock becomes Thornhill, and we become his audience, deliberately shocked into collective trauma. This twist has rightfully ascended as the pinnacle of manipulation in the cinema. Because we identify so distinctly with Marion, her death registers as ours, and appropriately, the camera floats spectrally afterward before finding a new vessel of identification.

The real and the simulated become one and the same, and Hitchcock dares us to laugh about that. The Birds dramatizes this by realizing the message to Mr. Verloc portending that “the Birds Will Sing at 1:45.” The bird, the object of violent erotics from Sabotage, has emerged fully from simulation and turned on The Birds’ Bodega Bay. The location is, however, largely incidental: the victims of avian onslaught are us, finally incurring the wrath of our own violent fascination. And that, it seems, is no laughing matter.

The Birds

The Birds

Benjamin is a fairweather cinephile and closet pop pushover from the affluent swamplands of Princeton, New Jersey. Nestled happily in the moist cocoon of post-graduate work at Northwestern University, he writes on music in his fleeting spare time and should probably be ignored at all costs.

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