From the August 2008 issue of Chronicles.
In 1939, a short, fat Englishman named Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood at the invitation of David Selznick. Impressed by Hitchcock’s work in British film, Selznick thought he would be perfect to direct Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Things did not go well. Selznick was among the most overbearing of Hollywood producers. He thought himself more aesthetically competent than anyone he paid. As far as he was concerned, Hitchcock was hired help, and Selznick naturally expected to oversee his every move. Needless to say, the soft-spoken, gentlemanly Brit was appalled.
Although Hitchcock thought Selznick’s “suggestions” ruined his filming of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca succeeded commercially, and in Hollywood that was all that mattered. So Hitchcock labored on, often unhappily, under Selznick’s ever-watchful eye until he had built a reputation that allowed him to become his own producer. By 1948, at last free of Selznick, Hitchcock began to make films on his own terms, and he changed what Americans thought movies could be. He won a popularity that rivaled even Walt Disney’s. And yet his films had none of the original Mouseketeer’s syrupy reassurance. In fact, Hitchcock’s work had become the prescribed antidote for the indigestible surfeit of saccharine self-congratulation force-fed to the nation following the hardships of the Depression and World War II. From every side, especially television, Americans were being told that their country had become an unprecedented success story. Opportunity was no longer around the corner but here and now. Everyone had everything necessary to modern life—cars, refrigerators, televisions, even college degrees. And those that did not were assured they would rather soon. Of course, there was a price. You had to play by the rules, or at least seem to. This meant smiling a lot to signal you were a team player. Do that, and all would be well.
Hitchcock, a Jesuit-trained Roman Catholic, demurred from this prescribed ethic of compulsory cheer. In film after film, and week after week on his television show, he quietly questioned America’s heady optimism, drolly reminding his audience of the human capacity for duplicity, cowardice, and mayhem. There was no moral hectoring, however; he preferred indirection. Irony was his mode, and he wielded it to devastating effect. Under the guise of a simple entertainer, he held up a mirror in which his adoptive compatriots could behold some unflattering truths about themselves. Most of all, he left the attentive members of his audience disturbed, their certain certainties thoroughly knocked about.
Hitchcock owned the 50’s screen. Even his few critical failures had compelling moments that far surpassed anything else Hollywood was offering. He found means to reach into his audience and roil their self-flattering dreams. In 1954 he adapted a conventional murder-mystery play, Dial M for Murder, shooting it in a three-dimensional glass-wearing format. Some theaters showed it in 3-D, others flat. Both formats did well at the box office. Few would talk about this film today, however, were it not for its signature Hitchcock moment. This comes when Grace Kelly, the spoiled, adulterous wife of Ray Milland, is attacked by Swan, the would-be murderer the cuckolded hubby has hired to dispose of her. Sneaking into her apartment, Swan wraps a nylon stocking around Kelly’s lovely neck and begins to throttle the life out of her. But Kelly will not go quietly. As we watch the struggling pair from behind, she bends back across a desk, reaching with her right arm seemingly into the audience, scrabbling about for something with which to defend herself. Finally, her fingers fall upon a pair of shears. Once she has them, her fully extended arm comes over her assailant’s shoulder in one swift arcing motion and plunges a scissor blade into his back. The man rears up spasmodically, futilely clawing at his back. He then falls onto the blade, driving it even deeper into his flesh. The shock of this moment has nothing to do with blood or gore. Instead, we are profoundly unsettled by having joined this elegant woman in delivering the death blow to the intruder. It is as though we provided her with the weapon. This effect is especially pronounced when the film is seen in its original 3-D format. Hitchcock took sly advantage of this 1950’s gimmick, demonstrating once more that he was ready to exploit his medium’s every resource. The murder scene is the only one in which he allowed anything to project from the screen, and that it is Kelly’s lovely arm he chose to put under our noses makes the murder feel all the grislier. While we might suppose we would be gratified by her triumph, we are not. Yes, she’s still breathing, and her assailant is not, but we are left shaken nevertheless. Her counterattack has been executed with the same cool aplomb she has displayed while cheating on her husband, an indiscretion she has tried to cover with easy lies. We cannot help feeling that, had she been an honest wife, all this would have been unnecessary. The Grace Kellys of Hollywood’s pantheon were not supposed to begrime themselves in such sordid doings.
Hitchcock came to be known as the “master of suspense,” and indeed he was. But suspense was really a byproduct of his true calling. Hitchcock’s real métier was his ability to disquiet his audience. Few directors have been as successful in producing a squirming unease in their viewers. He achieved this by dislodging his audience from their voyeuristic position in the theater’s darkened auditorium. So, he seems to say, you’ve come to watch people grapple with the consequences of their misbehavior. Well, why should I permit you to look on from the comfortable detachment of your theater seat? It’s only fair that you feel these consequences also.
In Hitchcock films, this strategy has special clout because the characters indulging in betrayal and mayhem are played by such beautiful people. However she conducted herself in the real world, in the 50’s the celluloid Grace Kelly was supposed to remain ever incorrupt. Hitchcock enjoyed subverting this movie convention. He worked with the best-looking film actors America had to offer, often making them do things that were unforgivable. Cary Grant once boasted he had never played a heavy, but that is flatly untrue. In his Hitchcock films, Grant was a shadier character than his polished persona suggested elsewhere. In Notorious (1946), Hitchcock had Grant play an American intelligence agent who callously uses Ingrid Bergman to undo a Nazi agent, played by Claude Rains. After romancing Bergman himself, Grant coerces her to seduce and even to marry Rains in order to frustrate his espionage operation and compromise him in front of his colleagues into the bargain. At the film’s conclusion, Rains, who genuinely loves Bergman, allows Grant to rescue her from his home in front of his Nazi colleagues, thus putting his life in jeopardy. When he begs to leave with his wife, however, Grant coldly refuses to save him.
Hitchcock’s most disquieting theme was the notion that Americans lacked a moral center, that they had somehow lost their essential decency. This is Grant’s condition in North by Northwest, the gaudy, surreal comedy Hitchcock made in 1959. Despite his mid-Atlantic, cockney-flavored accent, Grant stars as the perfect upper-middle-class American male. He is the exquisitely tailored Roger Thornhill, suave advertising executive who through a series of preposterous misunderstandings finds himself a murder suspect. Trying to elude the police, he takes a train on which he meets the mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Despite the brevity of their acquaintance, she begins to flirt with him in the dining car, announcing in so many words that she is entirely available. Thornhill returns her advances with knowing looks, his expression registering his smug conviction that he is simply irresistible to women. Well, after all, I’m Cary Grant, he seems about to say. Even so, he feels compelled to ask her: Why so impetuous?
She replies airily, “It’s going to be a long night, and I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started. Know what I mean?”
With a coy moue, he pretends to consider. “Now, let me think. . . . Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” She then takes out a cigarette, and, in the prescribed movie code of an era as yet untroubled by our current antitobacco fervor, he dutifully produces a book of matches. The flirtation is about to ignite. But then his matchbook gives Eve pause. It bears his initials, rOt, Roger O. Thornhill. Anticipating her question, he explains with a smirk, “My trademark. Rot.”
“What does the O stand for?” she asks.
“Nothing,” he breezily replies. There has been speculation that this was Hitchcock’s payback to Selznick, who was supposed to have invented a middle name for himself so he could sign his contracts more grandly as David O. Selznick. True or not, it certainly fits the self-promoting character of Thornhill. He has had his O made much bigger than the R and T, apparently thinking the zero in the middle of his identity an achievement—as, indeed, it is. He is a man who takes pride in his own vacuity. There is no center to him, no loyalties. He has been divorced twice and now dates a woman with whom he casually breaks dates, sending her, by way of apology, coin-shaped candy wrapped in gold foil. “She’ll like that; she’ll think she’s eating money,” he tells his secretary. He is also a consummate liar. He steals a cab from one bewildered man, claiming the secretary he has in tow is deathly sick. When this robust young lady chastises him for practicing such obvious deceit, he responds, “Ah, Maggie, in the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie; there’s only the expedient exaggeration.” He is all surface charm and no ethical center, and he likes it that way—until his moral absence transmutes into a surprising presence.
Foreign spies have mistaken him for George Kaplan, a fictitious American intelligence agent invented by American counterspies to throw the foreign spies off the trail of their real agent, which explains how Thornhill comes to meet the real agent—who, it turns out, is Eve Kendall, who is pretending to be in cahoots with the foreign spies and is now using her charms to mislead Thornhill. Got that? So convinced that Thornhill must be Kaplan, the enemy spies kidnap him. When Thornhill later escapes, he goes to Kaplan’s room, which is, naturally, at the Plaza Hotel. (The real Cary Grant—if there was a real Cary Grant—had a permanent room in this swankest of New York establishments.) Thornhill feels compelled to confront this phantom who has caused him so much trouble. Finding Kaplan out, he bribes his mother to wangle the key to Kaplan’s room from the desk clerk. (Yes, his mother, who also expects her 55-year-old boy-man home for dinner.) Once in the room, Thornhill tries on one of the fake Kaplan’s suits thoughtfully hung in the closet by detail-oriented American intelligence agents. Is there some weird resemblance between them, Thornhill wonders? But, no, these suits were made for a much shorter man. Through the first half of the film, Thornhill will pursue the decoy Kaplan while the enemy agents chase him, the Kaplan of their suspicious imaginations. Setting these shenanigans in motion is the Professor (a wonderfully imperturbable Leo G. Carroll), the head of a CIA-type organization. “We’re all in the same alphabet soup,” he explains.
No, the plot does not make sense. But the imagery does. As a man with a zero in the middle of his name, it is fitting that Thornhill should chase his own shrunken identity from New York to Rapid City, South Dakota, where he is forced to confront the iconic identities of the four presidents carved on Mount Rushmore. While he and the Professor impersonate sightseers at the Rushmore observation deck, these unamused paternal presences seem to frown on Thornhill’s lack of all conviction. “I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me,” he complains.
Under the noses of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, Thornhill is forced to confront the rot of his own existence as an American boy-man doted on by women while he eludes responsibility at every turn. He is a madcap north-by-northwest Hamlet too lacking in direction for his showdown with Claudius, here appropriately renamed Vandamm (James Mason), the leader of the enemy spy operation. As he did with other performers, Hitchcock draws upon Grant’s image and biography to develop his point. Born Archie Leach in Bristol, England, Grant was a Gatsby figure. Trying to make a career in his early 20’s in America, he set about to reinvent himself. “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person; or he became me,” Grant once explained. In his later years—with rueful self-awareness, one imagines—he famously remarked on this Platonic conception he had made of himself: “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant, even I want to be Cary Grant.” So Grant, so Thornhill. He is not a person but a collection of mannerisms gathered into a sleek bespoke suit. In fact, he is Hitchcock’s anticipation of that pejorative term that became so popular 20 years after the film’s release. Thornhill is the original empty suit.
I am one of the club who maintains that Thornhill’s suit should have been given second billing. It is a light, silver-gray affair, seemingly indestructible despite its gossamer drape. It is Thornhill’s modern armor. Even an attacking crop-duster can barely wrinkle it. It does not lose its crease until the portentously named Eve trifles with its occupant. At last, Thornhill discovers Eve is a Cold War pawn wielded by both the Professor and Vandamm. She had been forced to deceive him to conceal her patriotic identity. It is then that he ditches his decorative armor for simpler apparel and goes about rescuing her from Vandamm’s Mount Rushmore redoubt. (How perfectly 50’s to suppose America’s enemies would own a sort of aluminum-beamed Bauhaus home on top of those presidential brows! Calling Joe McCarthy!) Thornhill and Eve escape by scrabbling across Rushmore’s forbidding presidential mugs. Doing so, Thornhill regains his agile identity against their stony but, one hopes, approving regard. While hanging perilously from the monument, Eve sensibly asks him why his wives divorced him. “I think they said I led too dull a life,” he replies. A few moments later, she slips, and he catches her by the hand. As he pulls her to safety, the film cuts to a Pullman car, where Thornhill is hoisting the smiling Eve into the upper berth. Between Rushmore and the train, she has become Mrs. Thornhill, and, we are to suppose, Thornhill has become for once an authentic man capable of committing himself in sickness and in health to the woman he loves. There is another cut, and we watch the train plunge into a mountainside tunnel. A consummation devoutly to be wished.
Not all of Hitchcock’s empty suits fare so well. Consider Vertigo, released a year before Northwest. It leaves in its wake an irremediable disquiet. Here, Hitchcock’s mockery of the empty suit became its bleakest and, by several accounts, most personal. The story concerns obsession with commercialized romantic love. Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is a detective forced into retirement by his vertigo. When an old university friend, Gavin Elster, asks him to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), to find out what’s behind her suicidal tendencies, he reluctantly agrees. When he sees Madeleine, however, he is almost immediately smitten. She is a portrait of the kind, upper-middle-class glamour to be found in the pages of Vogue and wears a signature suit the same shade of lustrous gray that Grant wears in Northwest. As Madeleine, Novak is quite beautiful but rather vacant, as if she were lost in a dream, which she is. Only it is not her dream but the one Scottie shares with untold millions of 50’s men: the dream of a compliant yet demure and classy version of Marilyn Monroe. In fact, Madeleine’s a fraud. She is really Judy Barton, the working-class girl Elster has remade to resemble his wife. He intends to murder his wealthy spouse and needs a plausible suicide scenario to get away with it. Hence, Judy and Scottie: She will impersonate Madeleine, and Scottie will witness her “suicide.”
Hitchcock took direct responsibility for Novak’s clothing and coiffure, giving her the look and manner of a prized American woman of the time. She is blonde beyond blonde, her hair subtly incandescent and done up in a French twist with an enigmatic little curl at the back of her neck that matches the one in a painting of her supposed ancestor, the 19th-century suicide Carlotta on whom she is fixated. The curl becomes a trope echoing the series of animated spirals that open the film and reappear in Scottie’s dreams, suggesting his vertigo while harboring a discreetly vaginal hint at their oval centers. This reinforces Madeleine as the vertiginous hollow center of the movie. She is a sexual lure devoid of a genuine personality who leads Scottie to play his part in Elster’s scheme. The deception works splendidly for Elster. Madeleine’s pretense that she is haunted by her ancestor leads Scottie to take her to the mission church she says appears in her dreams. Once there, Madeleine breaks from Scottie’s protective embrace and runs up the mission tower, knowing his vertigo will make it impossible for him to follow. In the tower, Elster is waiting with the body of his wife. Once Judy reaches him, he throws the real Madeleine to the chapel’s roof below, and Scottie becomes the desolate witness to the supposed death of the woman he has come to love.
The real drama of the film is not the staged murder but Scottie’s obsession with the impersonated Madeleine. She becomes his perfect woman. When, after the faked suicide, he accidentally meets Judy, now a gum-chewing brunette wearing a too-tight working-class sweater, he is compelled to transform her into Madeleine. She submits to his wishes, willing to forgo her safety and even her own personhood to be with him again. It is a perverse but hardly new representation of romantic love as inherently murderous of authenticity. By calling forth the fake Madeleine from the real Judy, Scottie eerily repeats what Elster had done to her. This must be one of the strangest and saddest sequences in film history. Even as she submits to the makeover, Judy desperately tries to cling to some vestiges of her own personality, but in vain. She agrees to a suit in the same lustrous pearl gray but wants one with a different cut than the fake Madeleine’s. But, no, Scottie insists, it must be Madeleine’s exactly. She agrees to the hyper-blonde hair color but not fake Madeleine’s coiffure. Again she is overruled. Finally, she comes back exactly as Scottie recalls her. Shortly thereafter, however, he detects the ruse when Judy wears one of false Madeleine’s necklaces. He takes Judy back to the tower saying he must lay the ghost of the past. There at the top of the tower, he confronts her with his knowledge, and she pleads to be forgiven, pointing out that she could have easily eluded him by simply going away after their chance meeting. She did not because she loves him and hopes he can love her again. But Scottie is lost in his obsession. “There’s no bringing her back,” he says with anguished desolation and then bizarrely addresses Judy with reproach. “Madeleine, I loved you so,” he nearly sobs.
Vertigo is Hitchcock’s grim essay on romantic love. With the flesh-and-blood Judy before him, Scottie still longs for the imaginary Madeleine. Better the unobtainable ideal than the too-available actual. And then, for a moment, it seems as if the ideal has returned after all. A hatch opens and a dark figure—Madeleine’s ghost?—steps onto the tower’s deck. No, it is a nun from the mission. Before Judy recognizes this, however, she recoils as if from an apparition and falls to her death As so often happens, the dream slaughters the reality.
Of course, Scottie could have avoided his fate. Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, never simpler and never lovelier), the woman who genuinely loves him, had provided him with all the information he needed. Early in the film, Scottie visits her apartment, where she works as an illustrator. She is drawing a picture of a strapless bra hung up on a modeling stand. Scottie asks, “What’s this doohickey?”
She replies, “It’s a brassiere. You know about those things. You’re a big boy now. Works on the principle of the cantilever bridge. . . . An aircraft engineer . . . designed it.”
This is Hitchcock’s little joke on Howard Hughes, who had designed just such a “revolutionary uplift” bra for his next big star, the exceptionally pneumatic Jane Russell. There is more to it, however. Hitchcock wittily calls attention to how women collaborate with big-boy desire, molding themselves so they can flaunt their breasts before susceptible men. It is all part of the commercial packaging of desire, a pleasing illusion with sometimes untoward consequences. Later, after Midge has found out about Scottie’s interest in Madeleine and her supposed fixation on a painting of her 19th-century ancestor, she paints a picture of the romantic Carlotta and puts her own very 50’s head on the body. When she shows it to Scottie, he is nearly dumbstruck. Midge’s large framed glasses, practical pageboy hairdo, and frank, knowing smile all mock Scottie’s obsession. There is nothing dreamy or vacant about her painting, nothing that needs completing by him. This woman is not an image to be possessed and adored but an independent, self-sufficient person. Everything about Midge works to demystify romance. And yet she looks remarkably like the exotic Madeleine—she is blonde, although not in Madeleine’s supernova shade, and her proportions are similar, although they haven’t been given the subtle uplift of a revolutionary bra and poured into a pearl-gray suit. As such, Midge is not at all what Scottie wants. He wants an illusion created by aircraft engineers who dabble in moviemaking. He wants the packaged ideal, a perfection impossible to attain. In short, he wants the empty suit. It is a longing that has doomed him—and many others—to eternal dissatisfaction, if not madness.
To this day I marvel that Hitchcock gained such popularity in the optimistic 50’s. That an artist with a vision so dour, so disquieting, could have found welcome in this period is cause for hope. We weren’t completely Disneyfied after all. Of course, Hitchcock had art on his side. Had he said directly what his films imply, he might have been deported tout suite with his recklessly didactic countryman Charlie Chaplin.