The Puppeteer of Suspense

by David Charpentier

16 June 2010


The Martyrs and the Manifestation of One Man's Obsessions

The Martyrs

Though at times he liked to celebrate the iniquities of villainy, Hitchcock’s greatest sympathies lie with the hero who must sacrifice his own happiness in order to do what the world considers right. These tragic heroes bear a burden that we, through Hitchcock, empathize with. The storyline of Notorious creates a great understanding of the emotion that comes with sacrifice. Star-crossed lovers Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kiss. A continuous kiss was not allowed by the old-Hollywood production code, causing a series of shorter kisses that suggests that these two cannot keep their hands off each other. They are forced to stay separated, not only for the code, but also to unravel a Nazi plot. Their lust for each other is evident but they must stay apart. This display of barely restrained passion only elevates the tragedy that will unfold around them. We are let into the intimacies of their relationship, intimacies we are not normally privy to in others lives.

As the film progresses, our emotions develop into a sense of betrayal and loneliness as Bergman must spend more time with and eventually marry Claude Raines’ villainous Nazi. How can she have sex with him?  How can we allow it?  It seems as if there is nothing we can do. In the penultimate shot of this transgression, Grant sits isolated on a lonely bench where he had previously shared an intimate moment with Bergman. We too feel a sense of loneliness, especially if we have ever been distanced from the one we love. For Hitchcock and for us it is not important whether the USA is able to thwart the Nazis, but rather that these two are ultimately able to be happy together. Hitchcock wants to show us the human element of such operations carried out by faceless governments; there are real people out there, people like us, with real emotions, who just want to be happy but are caught up in situations beyond their control, forced into service instead of being with the ones they love.



In the case of Notorious Hitchcock tells us that sometimes the love of two individuals can be more important than measures of justice. In I, Confess he reveals that living in a just world is not always possible if one cannot live with his self. Montgomery Clift plays Father Michael Logan, a man who upholds his moral character and religious vows in the face of being charged with murder. The audience and Father Logan know the identity of the murderer, but, unable to break the confidentiality of the confessional, he is forced to live with this burdensome knowledge even as he is accused of purporting the crime himself. He dares not relate his alibi, as during the time of the murder he was in the company of a married woman that he once had an intimate relationship with. It does not matter that the relationship occurred before she was married and he a priest; the hint of a scandal is enough to do damage. Pacing back and forth across the screen he is torn, the secrets tearing at his conscience. Close-ups illuminate the strain on his body, the skeletons that can barely be contained.

Despite a ruined reputation and the possibility of death, Father Logan stays steadfast to his moral code. He is admirable in his conviction; he stands up tall, the camera capturing his strength. Hitchcock views him as a martyr, a man forced to go to jail, to have his reputation ruined for the burden he carries. One shot frames Father Logan, walking stooped up a hill, carrying a metaphysical cross on his shoulder in the very likeness of Christ. The other characters are murderers, extortionists, adulterers, bumbling fools or lovesick ninnies. Hitchcock shows us the measure of a man who carries a burden, a man we can empathize with and admire for his solid beliefs and commitment to the well being of others (even if we disagree with the institution he represents). We look into his life and understand the tragic nature of men of his class.



The Manifestation of One Man’s Obsessions

Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Vertigo is perhaps the master’s most overtly stylistic attempt to understand man’s obsessions. It also coincidently deals with one of the director’s biggest fetishes. The blonde starlet is a familiar occurrence on Hitchcock’s resume. The Hitchcock blondes appear as objects of desire, torment, frustration and abuse. Kim Novak’s role in Vertigo embodies all these elements. Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson becomes enamored then obsessed with a woman named Madeleine Ester. At first he watches her from a distance, a private investigator doing his job. He falls in love with her image, despite the fact that he doesn’t even know her. We begin to believe he would follow her even if he were not hired too. With the way Hitchcock frames the beauty, the light glinting off her necklace, we too become captivated, lusting over her as well. Hitchcock predominantly used blondes as female leads, and rumors about his advances on them may not be unfounded if one takes some of these scenes as evidence.

When Scottie rescues Madeline after she attempts to kill herself, the seeds of intimacy are planted and grow. His attempts to help Madeleine fail, however, and ultimately lead him to witness her suicide from a bell tower. Upon her death Scottie sinks into a depression that once again morphs into obsession as he encounters a woman named Judy who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine. In fact this woman was merely playing the part of Madeleine, so that the real Madeleine’s husband could lure Scottie to the bell tower as a witness for his wife’s murderous fall. A psychedelic sequence demonstrates his mental breakdown, as well as perhaps mirroring some of the confusion felt by the audience with regards to this revelation. Heads zoom in and out over a flurry of red and green, the colors of envy, of desire, the images of obsession consuming, dominating the screen. He forces Judy, herself feeling guilty of the anguish she has caused him, to dye her hair blonde, dress and act like the love he thought he had lost.

Through a series of carefully structured shots, Hitchcock relates to us his obsession for the blonde beauty. As Stewart is infatuated and haunted by her so is the camera. The camera has helped us understand this character’s afflictions, his fear of heights represented with the dolly-zoom shot, his mental breakdown via the spinning heads sequence. It has shown us beyond the limits of his obsession as the image of this blonde starlet is loved and abused. The love of his life is ultimately just an illusion, a pervasive image he has conflicting feelings about. For Hitchcock, construction of the film is a way of working out his issues, of coming to grips with his dark fascinations. This blonde Hollywood goddess, she is immortalized by the camera, revered for her fatalistic beauty on so many silver screens; he wants adore her, possess her, and yet in the end he destroys her. As some point, one must let go of fantasy and accept reality. A mosaic of affection, a burgeoning psychosis interpreted by the camera and examined on film.

Puppeteer of Suspense

The Master of Suspense was a world-class manipulator, teasing and toying with his audience to elicit responses of fear, delight, dread and loneliness. As the director he seeks to control us, to pull our strings. He took the base behavior of watching, of voyeurism, and exploited the mechanics of cinema to suck the audience into a fictional world. We worry about a young girl searching for a secret in a small town, begin to side with murderers and thieves, and feel the loss of love due to duty. The director’s vision commands our attention, his hands crafting our experience, changing our emotions to fit his whims and fancies. Eventually we may come to an understanding with how this behavior has affected our everyday lives, how we been hypnotized by imagery, our preconceptions influenced to align with those of the master manipulator.

Hitchcock loved to play with his public’s expectations, but in doing so he was also letting us into the machinations of his own mind. Through his body of work we are not only looking into the lives of others, but the director’s mind as well. What does the prevalence of blond women and the misfortunes they encounter tell us about this man?  The reverence for small town America yet the constant danger that seemed to lurk behind every storefront window or beneath an innocuous gentleman’s handshake? The sacrifices individuals must endure in order for society to maintain order? The way in which the upper-class plays games of human chess? All are valid questions; some having unsettling answers. Viewers lapped it up then, and continue to do so today. Is it because we look at others lives and see our own understandings and desires twisted back upon us? What makes one want to participate in voyeurism anyway? Is it not, in fact, to fulfill a fantasy?

Dave Charpentier has a Master’s degree in Architecture and one day hopes to actually become a working architect. Until then he’s running through his Netflix list and exploring the versatility of the written word. He currently lives in Boston with his beautiful wife and two cats.

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