Hitchcock’s Final Steps on the Path to Destruction

“Once a man commits himself to murder, he will soon find himself stealing. The next step will be alcoholism, disrespect for the Sabbath and from there on it will lead to rude behaviour. As soon as you set the first steps on the path to destruction you will never know where you will end. Lots of people owe their downfall to a murder they once committed and weren’t too pleased with at the time.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock’s films are heavily punctuated with remarkable twists and turns, secrets and reveals, MacGuffins and red-herrings, but, to borrow an observation from Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978):

“Endings are very important. That’s what people remember. The last exit. The final close-up.” Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960) in particular, are three prime examples of how the closing few shots in a film are inextricably linked with the content that has come before it in a way that is so much more complex than simply concluding a story. In these three films, morality is intertwined with sexuality and desire, and as the Hitchcock quote in the title to this essay suggests, it is in the conclusions of these films that the accumulated assumptions of the audience are further teased and tested, and made memorable.

Roll Over Beethoven

Rear Window is based on the 1942 short story, It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich, and most of the narrative has been transferred, yet the endings are substantially different. To quote Hitchcock, the short story “climaxes with the killer taking a shot at the man from the other side of the yard, but the invalid manages to grab a bust of Beethoven… so that Beethoven gets the bullet.” (in Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, [1968] p. 181) Beethoven’s bust will get its socially-symbolic cameo in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), but Woolrich’s original ending is neither dramatically ironic nor tense enough for Hitchcock’s film. In Rear Window, the transgressional invader is symbolic of the sanctity of interior-space being punctuated, a process that has repeatedly occurred throughout the film, and it is in a neat reversal of this dynamic that ‘Peeping-Tom’ Jeffries’ literal inability to move from the window prohibits him from fleeing the intruder into his own personal domain, inviting calamity.

Lisa (Grace Kelly) finds satisfaction, for the moment, in Rear Window

The conclusion to Vertigo is also significantly different to the ending of Boileau and Narcejac’s 1954 crime novel, D’Entre Les Morts, on which it is based. The book has Flavièrs (Scottie) strangling Renée (Judy) on a couch in a mad fit. Vertigo gives away the fact that Judy was Madeleine about two-thirds into the film, which as far as mystery thrillers go is breaking a cardinal rule. As with the premature death of Marion in Psycho, altering the conventions of the genre obviously affects the function of the ending. Therefore, whilst the novel has a spectacular conclusion to rival Judy’s fall, the cathartic rage of Flavièrs has no retributive agent, nor does it have the consequences that are so apparent for Scottie in Vertigo, where given his mental breakdown earlier in the film, one can surmise that Scottie will relapse into a worse state than before once the credits begin to roll. Suspense has been exchanged for pathos, as the audience can no longer align themselves with Scottie and his dream; it can only watch, empathetically detached and more than slightly unsettled. This is reflected in the camera movement of the final scene: as the characters move up the staircase, the camera tracks and cuts, focussing on either of the two protagonists, before it then hovers between them, suspended and uncertain, potentially enacting an audience members’ attempt at identification and sympathy.

Psycho is based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, but some of the textual changes that I consider most interesting are made in the transition from screenplay to film. Psycho arguably loses a little of its metaphoric impact by containing the “he wouldn’t even harm a fly” assertion to only the penultimate scene. Originally, it was intended that when Sam and Marion were together in the Phoenix hotel, a fly would pester them and that later, as the swamp consumes Marion’s car, a plane would fly and buzz in the background. These specific scenes are crucial to the progression of the narrative, and so by tying these moments in with the animal symbolism, which is most famously employed by the Bates’ stuffed animal collection, Marion’s demise could have been more fatalistically tied to both her moral downward spiral — by the standards of the era, and Norman’s on-screen ascendancy into a de-humanised (or more precisely, corruptively re-humanised as Mother) murderous form. However, Psycho does still directly tie Marion’s sexuality with Norman’s maternal idiosyncrasies.

The romantic exposition of the film between Sam and Marion in a generic hotel features a forward tracking shot to the glowing semi-naked couple, and a subversion of such a natural scene occurs in the final shots of the picture, which also features a forward tracking shot, as a deliriously grinning Norman, corrupted from his time in a hotel and wrapped up in a blanket, metaphorically hiding Mother and his special’ relationship with her from the world. Usage of the term transvestite was opposed to when the censors looked at Psycho just as the voice over of Mother, through Norman, saying: “Always peeping…. and reading those…. Obscene books and disgusting me with his love” was cut. By losing some of the overt connections between natural/unnatural sex and animalistic urges/decay, Psycho remains a complex film, but it is one that does not play a heavy handed role in suggesting meaning. Psycho is very similar to Rear Window and Vertigo in that they are all films that remove the spectacle of mono-connotative violence from their ending and invite the viewer to use their own moral compass for (mis)direction.

The Order of Nuns

The end of Psycho climaxes with the police station, the symbol of judicial order. Hitchcock’s films often climax with a (national) symbol of order — for archetypical examples consider: North by Northwest (1959) with Mt. Rushmore, and Saboteur (1942) with the Statue of Liberty finales. Aside from the great spectacle, one of the purposes of this technique is to introduce disorder within these comfortable safe places, suggesting that the audience cannot rest on its assumptions of civil/social sanctity. For Vertigo, the order of religion is used. Instead of it affecting peace between Scottie and Judy, it is the actual cause of her death. The ghostly nun rising, Donald Spoto suggests (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, p. 281), is the “avenging Carlotta or Madeleine.” In the final two-shot Judy implores of Scottie: “Please keep me safe” to which Scottie replies: “It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” The music stirringly climaxes as they embrace. The nun appears, then Judy (who like Norman Bates hears ‘voices’ when there is only the one) jumps. At what seems a pivotal point in the psyche of both leading characters, the nun deflates all hope of reconciliation.

For Madeleine Elster / Judy Barton (Kim Novak), the bell tolls in Vertigo

The only real sense of order within the three endings to Rear Window, Psycho, and Vertigo is that they are specifically the consequence of a dead woman’s influence. Scottie has been driven mad in his quest to recreate Madeleine and Judy dies as a consequence; Jeffries has two broken legs because of the death of Mrs Thorwald, and Norman has been fully possessed by his dead mother. All three endings also share empty victories. Scottie alternately calls Novak’s character Madeleine or Judy but he is also cured of vertigo en-route, Jeffries gets a wife-murderer arrested but consequently has both legs broken. In addition, Norman is arrested for his sexually driven murder of Marion, but the doctor’s analysis is not too convincing and Mother is already plotting her way out.

The Pyrrhic victories that Hitchcock characters may enjoy are not necessarily designed to satisfy the audience through narrative closure; the empty victories and distortion of order are significant because they move beyond cinematic generic tropes and more closely resemble, and toy with, the complexities of reality (and our expectations of it). Hitchcock said of Rear Window, “what you see across the way is a group of little stories that… mirror a small universe.” His interviewer, François Truffaut, replied, “all the stories have a common denominator in that they involve some aspect of love” and that the viewer witnesses a “display of human weaknesses and people in pursuit of happiness” (Truffaut, Hitchcock, p. 182 & 188).

As I have already discussed with Psycho, the initial establishing shots of Rear Window are similar to the final shots of the film. Both cut to a close up of a thermometer, and shortly after the shot of Jeffries asleep in his chair there is a downward tilting to his leg(s) encased within plaster cast. The beginning of the film features a blonde woman on a magazine, with the same image on a negative beside it, and the ending has Lisa equally shown in both a positive and negative way. The emphasis on the temperature dropping from over ninety to seventy-two degrees suggests a bridging of time. These identical shots, taken of the thermometer and the repetition of visual themes, suggests ellipsis, which tentatively implies closure by suggesting that life is as serenely similar as it initially was before the murder.

Nevertheless, outside Jeffries’ window is a microcosmic world representative of the possible choices he can make regarding Lisa. The newlyweds are suffocating (metaphorically) behind their closed blinds; a sterile couple have invested all their love in a dog; Miss Lonelyhearts has been trapped within her own cycle of suicide and elation, rejoicing over the musicians new piece; and the sculptress having finally satiated her desire to finish ‘Hunger’ is now lying artistically redundant, asleep in her chair. Moreover, the film ends with the final resting image of Lisa changing the appearance she wishes to give of herself to Jeffries as soon as he is asleep. She has to lie to keep him, an ironic ending to a film which has been based on the assumptions Jeffries himself has proved to be right.

The final scene shows the audience what the consequences of such relationship choices are, so that whilst surface appearances may suggest that things are practically identical and intransigent in Jeffries’ world, the subtle bubbling undertone to the ending is that the narrative of his life is destined to change after the final shot, and that the “pursuit of happiness” resists permanent stability.

If the final shot of Jeffries is of him dreaming of his future relationships — the scene being introduced through a slow fade giving an ethereal dream-like effect, then Psycho could be a musing on the American Dream turned perversely sour. The establishing shots leading up to the doctor’s scene feature a camera crew waiting outside the police station. Like Scotties’ obsession with a false idol in Vertigo, the concern for truth in the final two scenes of Psycho is lost in the pursuit of sensation, spectacle, and classification, as perceptions once more are proven to be false. The concern of evil, as portrayed by Norman’s ‘madness’, is of less concern to people like Cassidy who wants the money for his ‘baby’, being seen dredged up in the final shot. This is why the end analysis is a purposefully ineffective explanation of Norman’s behaviour. Norman hints that he has been in a mental institute before, and he has obviously not been rehabilitated. Talking to Marion, Norman worries about the “laughter and the tears and the cruel eyes studying you”, and this theme reappears in the final shot: “They’re probably watching me now”, to which Mother replies, “Well let them. As if I could do anything but sit here and stare…. They’ll see and they’ll know.” This seems to be a call to the audience not to take the doctor’s suggestions seriously but to derive their own more competent and objectively questioning views from what has been shown to them.

There will be no peace for Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) at the end of Vertigo

“They’ll See and They’ll Know”

Like Psycho’s shower scene, Vertigo has a shocking scene that obliterates viewer perceptions of where the film is going. The fantasy of the central protagonist surviving until the end of the film is built up and purposefully destroyed by Hitchcock, which has obvious connotations for the ending of the film in so much that it can be allowed to tackle the issues that Hitchcock wishes to present instead of being concerned solely with the traditional parameters of the genre. Furthermore, Paramount’s advertising manual stated that “No one will be seated during the last ten minutes of Vertigo”, which implies that in addition to the ending being the crucial tie between all of the plot strands, watching an ending separated from the context of the preceding narrative, and the motivations of the various characters, will invite a reading/understanding that differs substantially from Hitchcock’s specifically desired effect on the audience.

Douchet has interpreted Rear Window with Jeffries being akin to the cinematic spectator where “The flats before him are like the screen to the audience; a projection of his own desires” (cited in Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, p. 101). This analogy can be slightly adapted. Jeffries actually confronts his desires when he is thrown out of his own rear window, which leads to the final scene featuring a comprehensive panning shot of the yard — the focus of Jeffries attention throughout the entire film, but as the camera tracks back into his apartment, Jeffries is facing away from it all, whilst the viewer is still positioned to be sat watching him. Therefore, through the act of being asked to consider Jeffries and the view that is now unobtainable to his position, the audience is being faced with its own reflection” as it were, which threatens to reflexively destabilise the fourth wall of their perceptions, much as Thorwald did with Jeffries, and ask them to consider their own relationship to the film.

Portraying a character in a way that would complicate the opinion of the audience is a technique that is also employed in Psycho. Given that the film is concerned greatly with the reflection and fracturing of images through character and mirrors, the final image of Mrs. Bates’ skull could also be that of the cinematic spectator, slowly creeping forward with the subjective forward tracking shot and then seeing its own reflection in the face of Norman as he looks back at us. This notion is reinforced by the parallel image of Marion smirking in the car when she is recalling Cassidy’s reprisals. At once, Norman Bates, Mrs Bates, Marion, and the viewer are united thematically. The following shot, of the car being pulled out of the swamp, equally pulls the viewer out of the uncomfortable bond it has just been a party to, and goes some way to relieving the tension as a dampener to the now manifest connotations of our implicitness in the story.

The audience is equally drawn into Scottie’s vertigo by the track in/zoom out subjective shot that gives the impression of going forward at the same time as moving backwards. For Scottie, this symbolises a desire to get closer to Madeleine but being pushed away at the same time, as she never existed; for the audience this shot could encapsulate their wanting to identify with him, but in knowing that he is wrong at the same time also causes a retreat from complete alignment with his character. By the end of the film, Scottie is cured of vertigo after learning the truth, and so the audience is invited to have sympathy with him as there is a close shot of the couple embracing. However, after Judy falls to her death the apathy of the audience could go towards her, because she has died due to the conflict within herself. Consequently, the camera pulls back to a place in the air that Scottie cannot occupy; the camera distance, akin to the distancing that the audience makes, leaving Scottie standing on his own, arms out, imploring to God (or anyone, including the audience) for help. The camera perspective may even be a point of view shot from Judy who wears green, symbolic in stage tradition of the ghost.

The endings to Rear Window, Psycho, and Vertigo are all loaded with significant details that resonate backwards across the narrative, offering audiences the potential to re-read scenes and character motivations with a slightly different perspective. Sex and death; Eros and Thanatos; or whatever you may call it, Hitchcock knew how to cinematically present the drives and compulsions that inhabit an audience, whilst skilfully teasing and probing them with the limitless possibilities of how these desires can become conflicted, twisted, and depraved.

These scenes also offer to audiences the fact that knowing is not the same as witnessing, and that despite their apparent, and at times unwitting, co-conspiracy in the unfolding of the narrative and the cinematic pleasures contained within, by the final few shots of the film the audience is still being manipulated by a master puppeteer who refuses to allow them to become complacent in their reception of his films. The path through destruction that they have walked, guided along by Hitchcock much like Virgil guided Dante in the circles of Hell, is what people remember most after watching Rear Window, Psycho, and Vertigo.

Psycho’s chilling finalé

Carl Wilson is writing a Ph.D. on the work of Charlie Kaufman at Brunel University, London. He has lectured internationally on film and television, and has contributed to Scope: The Online Journal of Film Studies, The Essential ‘Sopranos’ Reader (2010) and The Directory of World Cinema series: American Independent — Volume One & Two (2010/2011) and Hollywood (2011).