The Flipside of a Dream

The Subversive Success of Alfred Hitchcock


in Uncategorized • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


Alfred Hitchcock was born 124 years ago and has been dead for just over four decades, and we still can’t stop talking about him. He’s a household name with an instantly recognizable profile, and his films are required viewing for both movie nerds and newbies alike. Vertigo was recently voted the greatest film of all time in the influential Sight and Sound poll. 

Various aspects of his work and life have been intensely examined in documentaries, interviews, biographies, academic studies, YouTube posts, and appeared in museum displays. There were two long-running anthology shows on TV, amusing cameos in his films, and his imprint (if nothing else) was on a delightful series of young adult books. He’s even got his own theme song

Hitchcock successfully branded himself (pardon the corporate language) as few directors ever have. It’s quite a feat for such a reserved, enigmatic fellow to have flourished in the public eye as often as he did. Offering himself up for public consumption, so to speak, was yet another one of his directorial masterstrokes. 

I love the moment in “What’s Beef?” when the late great Notorious BIG refers to himself as “the rap Alfred Hitchcock.” It’s a brilliant association for another stout, black-clad, droll storyteller who also found fame and fortune by seducing the public with his morbid visions. The line “You’re nobody till somebody kills you” is certainly something that you could picture Hitchcock saying. Game recognizes game. 

Edward White, a British culture writer, has given Hitchcock a thorough and nuanced appraisal of by exploring what he calls his “twelve lives.” We learn about his bitter relationship with the church, his deeply felt Britishness even after living in America for years, his dry but occasionally cruel sense of humor, how he acquired the masterful technique, his deep devotion to his family, an insatiable (even obsessive) taste for the best food and drink, and of course the notoriously turbulent relationship with women. As we microscopically focus our lens, a double helix of fantasy and guilt begins to emerge, warring themes at work in pretty much every story he ever told. 

It’s astounding how he maintained such a consistent level of quality. If you’re going to make over 50 feature films spanning multiple decades, they obviously can’t all be bangers. Even so, his less heralded films like his silent breakthrough The Lodger, Young and Innocent, Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent, and Suspicion, contain wonders. Any director would be proud of having made Strangers on a Train, for one example, and it’s not even the best of his ’50s era. 

There’s a lot of discussion these days about whether Hollywood has lost its touch, gotten cheesy with comic book franchises, and so on. Maybe they should take a page from Hitchcock’s book of tricks. Focusing on real people in extraordinary situations is something that directors who are drunk on special effects ought to consider. There’s real dramatic power in those gripping close-ups of faces in distress, looking deep into a person’s eyes can be more absorbing than a booming spectacle. What you don’t see is so much more powerful. 

One thing that’s always bothered me about most action movies is that it’s hard to suspend disbelief. I already know that James Bond or whoever is going to make it out of whatever fantastic predicament they’re in, for the simple fact that we’ve still got another hour left to go. There’s not much that’s truly at risk, so there’s very little suspense. I wish more movies did what Hitchcock loved to do, which was put a big climactic scene in the “wrong” place in the story. 

The perfect example is Psycho, where we’ve gotten to know poor Marion Crane long enough to hope that she can make amends for her rash decision only to have her suffer in a mind-blowingly unexpected way. The fact that we now can learn all about the mechanics of shooting the shower scene doesn’t diminish its effectiveness. Audiences really did have to be kept from coming in late and spoiling that brutal plot twist, which made it genuinely exciting. 

I also must point out that when I watched Gus van Sant’s misfire of a remake in the theaters, there was a scene where Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates (my how things have changed since 1998) peeks at Marion Crane in the shower through a hole in the wall and you can tell what’s going on down below, if you know what I mean. The audience I was with made disgusted sounds and mumbled about meddling with a classic. I chuckled when I found out later that this added level of perversity was exactly what Hitchcock wanted to include in the first place, but it was considered too risqué for audiences way back in 1960. 

White astutely points out that even though he was very much in control of his creative efforts, the movies were the result of a team effort, relying on a trusted inner circle. Interestingly, this included women like the ambitious producer Joan Harrison, the actresses he consistently worked with like Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, and who can ignore Edith Head’s luscious costumes, which are always a key part of his visual language. Above all else, his multi-talented wife Alma was an essential, trusted collaborator who was given the ultimate respect of being equally authoritative at every part of the process. 

Even though Hitchcock happily collaborated with many serious writers on the scripts, there’s no doubt that he was a true auteur. When you’re watching a Hitchcock film, you know what you’re getting into. The French critics who would later become the Nouvelle Vague venerated the parts of American culture that were often written off as cheap entertainment, caught on to Hitchcock’s innovations early, and then used them in their own films. 

White explains that in many ways Hitchcock’s life was built around creating his art, and this resolute work ethic helped him to pull off the greatest aesthetic coup: turning his private obsessions and fantasies into capital-A Art while successfully courting a mass audience. Hitchcock’s films are certainly subversive in any number of ways, and even avant-garde at times, but he never consciously tried to make political statements or big philosophical gestures. He always maintained that his job was to entertain. And that deceptively simple showman’s boast is the key to everything. 

You must be, to borrow a phrase, in the world and yet not of it to do what Hitchcock did. He knew how to play the emotions of his audience like an organ (which is the comparison he liked to make) precisely because he was living multiple lives. He understood what it was like to be a genteel, respectable, upstanding member of society and what it was like to be a charming, amoral, impossibly slick lunatic. It’s interesting that his favorite director was the anarchic surrealist Luis Bunuel, who lived to turn bourgeois conventions upside down, gleefully slicing up eyeballs by parodying the sacred. 

Hitchcock loved to turn the tables on the audience’s emotional identification with the handsome, All-American leading man. They harbor devilish desires (Suspicion, Strangers on a Train), or are a neurotic mess (Rear Window, Vertigo), or are straight-up evil (Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt). This was an especially gutsy move in a prosperous midcentury America when the ideal of normality was taken for granted. Women are certainly not given an easy time, for reasons we’ll get into, but White reminds us that they can also ably match wits with the men and refuse to back down, as in The 39 Steps or To Catch a Thief

These days we are a little more naturally suspicious that the rich and handsome aren’t actually good guys, and that the nice boy next door might very well be a closet freak. Someone is no doubt writing a thesis on how Hitchcock’s villains tend to come from the upper crust. Within every glittering ballroom and elegant old house, there may be ghosts lurking, or evil machinations afoot, and one false move could suddenly enwrap you in a spider web of intrigue. 

At the same time, his bad guys are often much more intriguing, glamorous, and confident than the ostensible good guys. If a character isn’t already preparing to bump somebody off, they sure do like to eagerly banter over the various dos and don’ts of murder as a sweet science. 

It’s kind of amazing to see how much he got away with. Rewatching Rope, I was surprised by how overly erotic, even postcoital, the first few minutes are between the two implicitly gay Nietzschean preppies who have just strangled their friend and are about to throw a party over his hidden corpse. It’s based on a true story, as were quite a few of his films, which is another way in which Hitchcock held a mirror up to the more diabolical side of our nature. 

There’s an implicit bond, done entirely through subtle visual cues, between the debonair serial killer Uncle Charlie and his smart but innocent namesake teenage niece in Shadow of A Doubt, which was Hitchcock’s favorite of his own work. The extended make-out scene on the balcony in the lovely Notorious, where Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman peck at each other is only made sexier because it’s held for the few seconds allowed by the Hays code, while they make very thinly veiled double entendres. He is essentially using her sex appeal as erotic bait to catch a secret Nazi, but let’s not let such a messy thing like that get in the way, shall we? 

Given that we’re living in an era where pretty much every indulgence is instantly available — discreetly — all the time, it’s nice to be shown the static electricity of restrained desire. These films really do swoon over kissing, over long lingering looks, and they gaze at figures amid settings that are at least as appealing as the people themselves. Slightly more than murder, the most important moment for Hitchcock is the romantic one, the ultimate prize for which his characters sometimes go to great lengths to attain, if only for a moment. 

Part of what makes Kim Novak’s appearance in Vertigo instantly captivating is the velvety crimson backdrop that frames her profile. Appropriately, it took me a few viewings to have Vertigo finally cast its spell, despite the plot holes that you could drive a truck through. Hitchcock clearly loved to shoot in fabulous locations. The sunny south of France, labyrinthine San Francisco, Brazil, the Swiss Alps, Morocco, foggy old London. You wonder what he might have done with a place like New Orleans or Paris for a canvas. 

It’s interesting how Hitchcock openly admitted that he was the most squeamish of men, that he ate incessantly, and that he was afraid of everything. It’s not too hard to make a connection between sublimating a deeply anxious emotional life into a voracious appetite. In his best work, he seemed to indulge in exploring what he dared not approach in real life. Had the internet been around in his day, I think his head would have exploded. 

White’s quite right to say that — of all his classics Rear Window is the definitive Hitchcock film. It connects all the essential strands: voyeurism, a preoccupation with the inner life, a complicated romance, and the compulsive need to uncover the hidden evil within an otherwise pleasant environment. 

Immobilized, Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. Jefferies hoists his massive camera and peers beyond the confines of his Greenwich Village apartment into his neighbors’ windows. That space could easily substitute for the myopia of suburbia, a miniature film set, or the internet’s endless hall of mirrors. 

We’re all voyeurs now, aren’t we? Jefferies’s intent in peering out at the world from a not-so-safe distance is just like the ways we tend to be very online. We’re all so painfully self-conscious, lost in our labyrinth of thoughts, floating within our own delicate little bubbles, constantly surrounded by the dark mirror of those ubiquitous screens. We keep sizing images of each other up, which makes us uneasy, and we aren’t sure of what we assume we know, or how we’re supposed to feel about it. 

At times, Hitchcock is one of the great interpreters of modern dread, anxiety, and guilt, which puts him closer to Kafka territory, or maybe to Graham Greene, a fellow brooding English Catholic with a flair for ominous locations. The uncanny — defined as when the every day becomes unfamiliar — was his bailiwick; a glowing glass of poisoned milk, nuclear codes hidden in the wine bottle, the seductive curl of a woman’s hair, the creepy way Cary Grant’s arm slides around his wife’s back, the eerie neon glow seen through a city window at night. 

Given how so much of the 20th century turned out, we’re also more aware than ever that in real life the bad really do tend to get away with it, and the wrong person often ends up paying the price. In many Hitchcock films, there’s always someone out to get you, a secret sharer who knows your deepest weaknesses, and there’s always something coming around the corner that is about to snatch you out of your comfort zone. Some critics have astutely pointed out that the loss of control is one of the crucial concerns in the films, as it clearly was in his life. 

And who among us isn’t dreading the threat of chaos these days? 

As we get into the later years, Hitchcock’s always delicate balance between desire and dread starts to fall apart. The Birds, a near-cosmic apocalypse of thwarted intention, is arguably his last great work. That by no means suggests that what he did to poor Tippi Hedren, on and off the set, is in any way excusable. This is where Hitchcock’s worldly, debonair persona falls apart: he constantly pushed Hedren into a nervous breakdown and, worse, by her own account straight-up assaulted her. It isn’t that far away from the kind of atrocious behavior we’ve seen happen all throughout society, let alone in Hollywood — it’s just less tolerated now. 

It doesn’t get any better with Marnie, also featuring Hedren, a movie that some people apparently love (one critic argued that not liking it is missing the whole point of Hitchcock and even of cinema itself) and which never fails to make my flesh crawl. The tacky plot, smarmy leading man, and the utterly sadistic wedding night sequence, which apparently Hitchcock was creepily indignant about, even if it totally unsettled his peers. And that’s to say nothing of Frenzy, a ferociously misogynistic killing spree set in ’70s London, which I couldn’t even finish. The flip side of a dream is, after all, a nightmare. 

It’s a little too easy to call Hitchcock the “master of suspense” and leave it at that. This he certainly was, and he deserves all the credit for his technical skill. We should also realize that he was a fantasist, a solitary dreamer, and a connoisseur of the gaze. He didn’t believe for a moment that movies were about reflecting everyday reality. 

If anything, they were about escaping everyday life for a more sensational world where the people are beautiful, the banter is witty, and the ambiance is elegant and poetic and always spiked with more than a hint of danger. The kind of glamorous world we might like to sample for a little while but probably couldn’t survive for long. Not as we are, but as we might like to be, which is not always a good thing. When asked what he looked for in making a film he musingly replied: “sex, violence, beautiful costumes, and a joke or two” and then grinned like the Cheshire cat. 

Maybe because Hitchcock was admittedly a very shy, sensitive, and reclusive type who lived most fully in his own imagination, he seems like he could easily fit into today’s anxious, interior world where fantasies of all kinds seem to collide with reality on a regular basis. What made him unique was how gracefully he unfurled the curtain of the cinema in order to display the private theater of his mind. And in the process, he somehow managed to tap into the collective unconscious by scaring it half to death. He showed us an image of ourselves that we recognize but might not want to look at too closely, as we focus in on his infamously dramatic fantasies and obsessions, turning our gaze back at the man who knew too much because he so loved to watch.•


Matt Hanson lives in New Orleans and is contributing editor at The Arts Fuse and American Purpose. His work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Baffler, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, LARB, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He Tweets at: @MattHansonAF. He can usually be found in the nearest available used book store.