The camera reveals. It manifests; it creates. Since its inception, the motion picture camera has been criticized and revered for its ability to capture instances of life. Whether the everyday activities of Britain’s populace, the purported truths of documentaries, or the skewed realities of feature films, the camera allows for the revelation of its subjects’ actions and ideologies. Films such as Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Psycho, and—to a greater extent—Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, directly identify the audience’s viewing behavior as voyeuristic. In these movies the obsessive gaze of the characters is attributable to that of the audience; the characters of L.B. Jeffries, Norman Bates, and Mark Lewis are just slightly twisted onscreen substitutes for the activity the audience has chosen to participate in. The camera and projector simply serve as tools by which we view the world.
While the viewer makes the conscious choice to participate in this type of activity, he or she is not in control of what is seen. The choice of images lies in the hand of the director. The director controls what the audience sees and, more importantly, how they see it. The director does not merely let a situation unfold; rather he manipulates the mechanics of the scenario in order to produce a desired affectual response in the audience. As Laura Mulvey noted in her essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” “[C]inematic codes [of time and space] create a gaze, a world and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.” Through the use of subjective POV shots, continuity editing, and synchronized sound and images, traditional narrative cinema seeks to eliminate the distance between audience and camera, so that the audience, the viewer, the voyeur, becomes fully absorbed in the events unfolding. Events that are the manifestations of one man’s desire: the director.
That brings us to Hollywood god, Alfred Hitchcock: master of suspense, direction and viewer manipulation. Wait a second. In hindsight, that last part doesn’t sound too pleasant; indeed it sounds a bit foul. I mean, let’s be honest, no one likes being toyed with but, in order to achieve the level of suspense he’s renowned for, that’s exactly what is necessary. He even goes so far as to show the audience that he is controlling them. The introduction to I, Confess takes the spectator on a brief journey through the charming streets of Montreal. Multiple one-way signs point us in the right direction. They even say “DIRECION” on them. Hitchcock himself makes a cameo during one of these shots. The camera and the director are leading us to a particular point where they will tell a tale. And rest assured, it is not just a tale of murder, guilt and star-crossed lovers, but Hitchcock’s version of a tale of murder, guilt and star-crossed lovers. He tells us he is in control; he is directing us, influencing how we think and react to the situation at hand.
As the editors of Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave so rightly noted, the director is in fact the auteur, the author, of the work we are viewing. How many different iterations of the exploits of King Arthur and his Knights have been written? I’ve read a couple myself, and each one, while keeping the basic plot elements of the legend, has been filtered through a different muse. The results are slightly dissimilar representations of the characters, their motives and the situations that transpire.
There is no doubt then that Hitchcock, as an auteur the French greatly admired for his ability to make his films his own, is showing us his version of the tale. It is his imagination, his fantasies, his politics and personality that we are exposed to. Hitchcock may have not written the scripts, the novels, or the plays his films were based on, but he was firmly in control. Watch any featurette on a Hitchcock DVD and you are likely to hear tales of how he meticulously storyboarded every single shot and how he demanded actors and actresses stick to the script. The tale unfolded to a particular perfection in his imagination. By putting it up on the screen he was not only letting others in on it, but also governing the way they viewed and interpreted it.
Hitchcock’s mannered, controlled transference of his fantasies onto film therefore not only reveals his character’s lives and emotions but also his own general feelings on a situation and how the audience should perceive said events. His politics, his perversions are evident by the way he frames situations and allows the characters to play out their part. The way in which he creates sympathies for particular characters, making the audience feel a connection to these flawed individuals, demonstrates not only the power he wields as a director, but also how he himself is charmed by certain environments, personalities and situations.
Shadow of a Doubt
The Girl and the Small Town
Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt, also happens to explore one of the director’s dearest subjects: the unsettling evil force that seeks to upset the tranquil life of small town America. Young Charlie Newton, played by Teresa Wright, embodies the inherent good of this urban archetype. Nicknamed for her favorite uncle, the audience is privy to her everyday activities, her genteel nature. We identify and take part in the action with Charlie as our surrogate. Through a continuous series of shots we are able to watch her every movement. She walks down a hallway, opens a door, peers into a room and rummages through some draws. She runs down the street, past some friends, through an intersection, into a diner. Shot by shot, cut by cut, what she sees, we see. Where she goes, we go. We are already wise to the fact that her uncle is the infamous “Merry Widow Murderer.”
With this prior knowledge, Hitchcock creates tension by documenting her everyday life, and the viewer, identifying with her, not only wants her to unearth this secret, but also worries for her. Seemingly casual conversations take on a malevolent undertone when our heroine stands side-by-side with a serial murderer. We worry that the forces of greed and selfishness will corrupt such a wholesome entity, an extended metaphor between the protagonist and this urban American archetype. In the end our heroine is safe, but the innocence and trust she once possessed are tainted. While the audience, through Hitchcock, can hope that such good will and community can triumph over whatever challenges they face, they are faced with the stark realization that unnatural forces seek to ruin their everyday lives.
Living with Villains
While Hitchcock was enamored by the charms of small town America, he also realized that evil had its own way of entrancing its audience. One of the more stellar examples of this manipulation by the master is when he makes us feel sympathy for the villains. A fastidious schemer himself, Hitchcock had a soft spot for the Machiavellian designs of his rogues. In both Marnie and Dial M for Murder there are moments when characters, involved in unspeakable acts, are close to having their plans foiled.
In Marnie the title character has deeply driven psycho-sexual issues that have turned her into a thief and embezzler. At one point in the movie we watch as she takes money from her supervisor’s office. The workday is done, everyone but the cleaning lady has gone home for the night. Marnie has hidden in the office and takes money from the safe with a stolen combination. She removes her shoes, places them with the money in her purse, and walks in silence out the door. She hears the cleaning lady; her back is to the protagonist. Marnie quietly moves across the office, closer and closer to escape. Cut to a shot of her purse; one of her shoes is slipping out. She walks a few more steps. Another shot of the shoe; it slips some more. A few more steps; the shoe falls out; it crashes to the floor. “Oh no! She’s caught!,” we think. Hitchcock has ramped up the suspension for this scenario, carefully showing the approaching danger of the other shoe literally dropping.
Yet, we have seen this woman as a manipulator, a thief, and a liar. Should we, as moralistic individuals, not want justice to be served and see her get her comeuppance? Shouldn’t the suspenseful build make us joyous of her capture instead of anxious? No, it shouldn’t, because that’s not how Hitchcock views the blonde beauty, and that’s not how he wants us to view her either. Because she is the only character the audience has spent significant time with, she is the one we identify with the most. She may steal hundreds and thousands of dollars from her employers, but you know she doesn’t really seem all that bad and you don’t want her to get caught. And when we find out the cleaning lady is deaf, well, we can let out a big sigh of relief for our serial criminal’s narrow escape. Hitchcock has upset our preconceptions and—by painstakingly crafting how we regard her—has created a sympathetic scofflaw.
Dial M for Murder
Dial M for Murder creates a similar situation. When the titular event is taking place, the audience has been introduced to several characters, none of whom are particularly moral. However, Ray Milland’s plan to murder his wife is by far the dastardliest. If he had a mustache, he could easily twirl it with the plan he concocts. And if this were another movie, he would. But this isn’t how Hitchcock sees such a rascal. Milland’s character is exceedingly charismatic; the viewer is drawn to him no matter what is going on. He’s a slimeball, but he’s a very charming slimeball. He is not so much a spectator surrogate, but rather an interesting character that is so captivating that we don’t wish to see him fail. With Hitchcock’s direction, the camera, our gaze following Milland around as he details his plan, we fall under his spell.
Thus, when his blackmailed accomplice is committing the crime we are torn. Suspense envelops as the would-be murderer moves into the apartment. Will Grace Kelly survive this fiendish plot? But then Hitchcock cuts to Milland, at a party, checking his watch for the appropriate time, waiting to call his wife on the phone, luring her out of the bedroom and into the arms of her murderer. He keeps checking his watch, but it has stopped. Now we say, “Oh no! He won’t be able to make the call to kill his wife in time!” Our connection to this character through viewing him, through his spellbinding manner, through voyeurism, has created a twisted sympathy that exists whenever he is on screen. During this scene, whenever the point of view switches back to the apartment the viewer is inclined to fear for the wife’s safety; when the film cuts back to Milland, we are hoping he makes the call that will bring about her death.
The Martyrs and the Manifestation of One Man's Obsessions
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?