Alfred Hitchcock May Be a Moralist, but He Does Not Moralize

Hitchcock’s Moral Gaze argues that Hitchcock examined the darkest edges of his characters to help his audience understand their connection with the act of watching, gazing, and sometimes not connecting.

Hitchcock's Moral Gaze

Publisher: SUNY Press
Author: R. Barton Palmer, Homer B. Pettey, Steven M. Sanders, eds.
Publication date: 2017-02

The status of Alfred Hitchcock as a master stylist/auteur film director was cemented by Francois Truffaut in his 1954 essay “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”, and solidified by Andrew Sarris’s 1962 essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory”. Simply put, the theory posited that the filmmaker was the primary creative force in the production of a motion picture.

At first glance, Hitchcock’s output from 1955-1965 gave truth to the Auteur theory. Dismiss the films for a moment (Dial M for Murder, Vertigo and Psycho, arguably the best of the bunch) and look at his ten-year run as on-air host and darkly comic provocateur of the TV drama anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Others might not have bought into the idea that this corpulent film director was anything save for a clever manipulator of sound and image, but Hitchcock gladly took the bait.

It’s within the context of Hitchcock’s reputation now that editors R. Barton Palmer, Homer B. Pettey, and Steven M. Sanders present Hitchcock’s Moral Gaze, a compelling collection of 15 essays that examine what they hope to be a reconsideration of “…the concept of morality in terms of Hitchcock himself, the content of his films, and their effect on his audience.” In essence, among the missions of this volume seems to be a desire to rehabilitate the image of Hitchcock that came to light in The Birds and Marnie star Tippi Hedren’s memoir of her time under his direction. Add to the mix Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto’s dip into his subject’s darkness, his alleged sexual indiscretions and obsessions with Hedren and his other cool icy blonde actresses, and we get the 2012 HBO film The Girl and feature film Hitchcock. Stuff all these items into the baggage of Hitchcock as a man and filmmaker and the weight can be overwhelming.

While Hitchcock’s Moral Gaze isn’t ostensibly about the man as auteur, there’s an implicit dismissal of that theory in several of the essays. A good case in point can be seen in Neil Sinyard’s “The Loyalty of an Eel: Issues of Political, Personal, and Professional Morality in (and around) ‘Torn Curtain’”. Sinyard is certainly at a disadvantage with his subject matter. Torn Curtain (1966), was one of Hitchcock’s most tepid films. He’d come off the groundbreaking successes of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) and was being pressured to come up with something equally commercial.

Paul Newman and Julie Andrews did not fit well in Hitchcock’s world. Newman played an American scientist in Russia and Andrews played his fiancée. The film played within the Cold War intrigue of the era (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and early James Bond vehicles). It was the dramatic separation between Hitchcock and his regular film composer, Bernard Herrmann, that probably would have made for a better film. Hitchcock and Herrmann had been collaborating for ten years, their work including the gorgeously tragic score of Vertigo (1958), and the horrific screaming violins of Psycho. With Torn Curtain, though, the clash of supreme egos meant only one man -- the director -- would come out victorious: “Frustration, anger, a sense of betrayal, ambiguity of motives, and a final sense of incompleteness; Hitchcock and Herrmann were acting out something of the emotional landscape of Torn Curtain…”

Sinyard goes on to note that while Herrmann was indeed fired from the film, neither he nor Hitchcock came out unscathed. It’s in this sense that Sinyard does what he should as a Hitchcock scholar. He takes a minor effort from the Master (and they were not all gems by any means) and he compels us to read more, to dig behind the apparent "A story" (the film itself) and deliver something more substantial.

Nick Haefner’s “Heroic Satans and other Hitchockian Heresies” elaborates on the idea of the “Spoto Myth”. In 1983, writer Donald Spoto published The Dark Side of Genius, a compelling but ultimately unfortunate study of Hitchcock’s work from a distinctly psychological (and ultimately judgmental) perspective. In it, the theory was that Hitchcock’s Tippi Hedren films (The Birds, Marnie) and his penultimate film Frenzy (1972), were manifestations of his increasingly vivid rape and revenge fantasies. Haefner argues that the figure of Hitchcock (the personality) contains multitudes. He dismisses Hitchcock as auteur (a theory that supports Spoto’s conclusions) and instead notes that all his efforts were the results of extreme and intense collaboration. Finally, he notes that Spoto’s theory disavows any complicity on the part of the audience.

One of the recurring questions in Hitchcock’s Moral Gaze is simple: why are we watching? Would we get involved if given the chance? Rear Window (1954) was the apotheosis of this idea, and it can still dig into our deepest impulses of guilt and regret. Sidney Gottlieb’s “Hitchcock the Amoralist: Rear Window and the pleasures and Dangers of Looking” examines what’s known as “the gaze” that temptation to look and keep looking, a concept that was big in the mid-'50s and remains strong in our visual culture.

The hero in Rear Window is L. B. Jefferies; James Stewart, is a photographer, “both a professional and to a certain extent a psychopathological ‘looker,’ and the film traces how his gaze marks him as a justifiably punishable Peeping Tom, immature watcher rather than doer, and manipulative objectifier and victimizer of women.” That’s a deep and extreme claim on which to hang an essay, but Gottlieb carefully takes us through the process. He notes that “…this is a film [not only] about eyes that bind, but also eyes that blind.” Jefferies is incapacitated, an action photographer temporarily rendered crippled with a full leg cast, brooding in his apartment. He starts looking at action in the apartment building across the alley (windows all open and awaiting his gaze.) Complications happen, and Jefferies, along with his beautiful girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) gets sucked into the vortex of a possible murder. “Rear Window is very much about the culture that we live in… a culture of the eye and a culture of the I.”

In “Hitchcock’s Immoralists”, Steven M. Sanders has the enviable task of examining Rope (1948), one of the director’s more interesting, and for many, more difficult films. Inspired in part by the Leopold and Loeb murder case (two men murdering for pleasure), Rope takes place within the confines of one room as Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) host a dinner party after having kidnapped and killed a former classmate. Their philosophy is simple and clear. If objective morals do exist, they contend, these standards would be non-moral, anti-moral, outside convention and therefore beyond the confines of legal consequence. There are superior beings, and the lives of their counterparts (inferior beings) are irrelevant. Rupert, (James Stewart), their housemaster and among the guests at the party, has to deal with the likelihood that his regular pontificating of such Nietzschian philosophies might have been the primary motivating factor in their classmate’s murder.

Sanders argues that Hitchcock’s films are replete with egoists, amoralists, and nihilists. “Hitchcock is not a moral skeptic. He regards morality -- or more accurately, he assumes his audiences regard it -- as extremely (if not supremely) important…” The idea is that even the most average of his protagonists might eventually slip into morally troubling actions as a means to an end. There are many layers to a Hitchcock film beyond the pure suspense story. Nothing is as simple and direct as it appears. Hitchcock may indeed be a moralist, but he does not moralize. The characters in the films covered in this volume are free moral agents who enter into these plot predicaments with eyes wide open. They can look at their surroundings, but they won’t be able to see everything.

Alan Woolfolk’s “The Dread of Ascent: The Moral and Spiritual Topography of Vertigo” might not be the best essay in this volume, but it covers the Hitchcock film that has stayed longest with me. In Vertigo, Scottie (James Stewart) is a former police detective trying to deal with the vertiginous after-effects of a rooftop chase that resulted in the death of a uniformed officer. He takes on a case involving an old college acquaintance and Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) who proves good at shifting identities. The film is less about the elements of the case than it is about, as Woolfolk argues, “…the poverty of American institutional and popular psychology… a dying ascetic culture and an emergent remissive culture…” In short, it’s about a character who is blind to the spiritual topography of his surroundings and a woman who allows herself to become the physical manifestation of whatever man enters her surroundings.

Woolfolk argues that beyond its moral considerations, Vertigo is also the last of the classic noir films, in the tradition of Double Indemnity (1944) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), but the only difference (besides the beautiful color Hitchcock uses) is that the film hinges on the triumph of psychological thinking that's prevalent in the '50s. Scottie feared falling from both literal heights and moral heights. There are long stretches without dialogue, only Bernard Herrmann’s lush score, as Scottie trails Madeleine through San Francisco. We flash back, we return to the present, but we never feel stable. It’s Hitchcock’s greatest romantic tragedy with an ending that, as Woolfolk notes, will provide Scottie with “…a definitive, irrevocable despair.”

Hitchcock’s Moral Gaze effectively argues that Hitchcock was in fact a director of great morality, an artist who chose to examine the darkest edges of his characters as a means to help his audience understand their connection with the act of watching, gazing, and sometimes not connecting. The essays that shine light on I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1959) also fulfill the obligations of a great film studies collection: look, watch, see, and understand. He may in fact have been working through personal issues, a consideration which surfaces at points in this volume, but they never seemed to overwhelm his consistent moral vision.


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