Thoughts on the Psychology of Alfred Hitchcock


Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood director Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).

I am unavoidably dating myself by stating the wild fact that for the first 15 years of my life Hitchcock was a fact of contemporary life. He was still releasing films: Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976); his tv show Alfred Hitchcock Presents was still on tv (and although it was in reruns, it was very much connected to the present by the fact that I often saw the guy hosting it – – Hitchcock — on television talk shows), there was that Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazine that some of the kids read, and Hitchcock was working on a new movie The Short Night right up ’til he died (the script and storyboards were released as a book shortly thereafter). When Mel Brooks made High Anxiety in 1978, it wasn’t a tribute to some long dead thing like Young Frankenstein, it was contemporary satire (and in a lovely way, almost like getting one last Hitchcock movie). And when Steven Speilberg made the very Hitchcockian Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, Hitchcock was still around to appreciate the homage that percolates throughout. I wonder how he felt about passing the torch?

A double chase + little green men
A double chase + little green men

My exposure to Hitchcock has come in certain noticeable clumps with occasional, periodic exposure pretty consistently through the years:

1) I had the best possible introduction to him. When I was about 13 my friend’s dad, a cinephile, drove us to an art house in Westerly, R.I. where they were playing Hitchcock’s classics from the 30s. And so the first Hitchcock movies I ever saw were The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, The Man Who Knew Too Much (original version), and Sabotage. (This is as opposed to seeing the The Birds or Psycho first, which I think would have been the more common introduction at the time, as they then remained his most popular pictures in the late seventies. But I probably caught Psycho on television at around the same time )

2) In the early 80s, I guess around the time he died, they re-released five of his color classics from the 50s, and me and my high school friends all went up to the multi-plex to see them. So this is how I first experienced Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, Rope, Vertigo and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.


3) Also in the early 80s cable and home video came in, and so by the time I was in my early twenties I had seen pretty much all of the films of the 40s-70s, with about a half dozen exceptions.

4) I took a class in Hitchcock at NYU in the 90s. It was insufferable deconstructionist stuff, not altogether helpful, although I got to see a couple of Hitchcock films I hadn’t seen, including The Lady Vanishes. And I wrote my first papers on Hitchcock at this time.

5). In 2004 and 2005 I ended up watching a LOT of movies on cable, and, then they began selling $1 dvds at the bargain store. As a result, I re-watched a lot of Hitchcock films I hadn’t seen in twenty years, and began to see the ones that I had never seen. In fact, I ended up seeing every single Hitchcock sound feature, and some of his silents. (I still haven’t seen a few of the silents, and curse the fact that I was too busy to catch them at BAM a few weeks ago).

Also, in there I re-read some of the Hitchcock books I had read over the years. My understanding of him seemed to turn a corner, and I started a notebook on him in 2006.

Yes, I have even seen "Under Capricorn", an unjustly maligned film
Yes, I have even seen “Under Capricorn”, an unjustly maligned film

Some thoughts from the notes:

1. Despite being considered (and considering himself) primarily a maker of light entertainment (though he made some highly personal films), he is a chronicler of twentieth century history and a mirror of twentieth century anxiety. In his films, you can track the tensions leading up to the Second World War, then the War itself, and then the Cold War.

2. Hitchcock is obsessed with false accusation. Why? A feeling of alienation similar to Kafka and Dostoevsky. We have this vast twentieth century “system” that everyone trusts and thinks is infallible and yet is capable of gross, unjust errors. (Hitchcock would have done a much better job, one feels, than Welles, at directing Kafka’s The Trial).  The state is just as terrifying as anarchy.  Such injustices feel existential, as if our whole being were called into question. (Havel too provides a link between existential and political terror). What does it mean when you are telling the truth and the whole world accuses you of lying? What are we but the sum of our interactions with others? Our insights and perceptions mean nothing unless they are communicated, validated. If those perceptions cut us off from the rest of humanity, what are we? We cease to exist. And yet that is increasingly the condition of the individual in the modern, technological age. And so it is natural that Hitchcock eventually hit on the RESULT of this condition. From the heroes of the double chase films, we arrive at Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Tony Perkins in Psycho, the killer in Frenzy. Subconsciously, it seems, Hitchcock was working this out over the decades, or perhaps again, he was just chronicling the times.

Tony Perkins: perfect for Josef K. Welles as director, not so much
Tony Perkins: perfect for Josef K. Welles as director, not so much

And what does it mean to have no safety, no security anywhere? Think of the double chase films, where the hunted gets no chance to rest, even for a minute. Isn’t that similar to the modern condition, where people travel from job to job, move from city to city, no longer “settled” as people were in more agrarian times. The anxiety—the peril—is constant. The ultimate flowering of this feeling in Hitchcock’s body of work is in The Birds. Perhaps it’s not too much to claim that the nuclear bomb is in the back of everybody’s minds—and Hitchcock’s.

3.) On the other hand, Hitchcock rarely gets specific about the totalitarian enemy. It’s never political in that sense and thus never leaves the realm of pure entertainment. (but he might have done a better service to the cause of freedom if he had?) In fact, now that I think of it, nothing ELSE matters in Hitchcock (and apparently TO Hitchcock either). Death is treated very lightly, a mere plot device—never dwelt upon. Relations between men and women are entered into casually. While I admire him as a craftsman, it begins to dawn on me that he is perhaps a pioneer of a lot that has been wrong since with popular entertainment and consequently society. A detachment. One could rationalize that; dwelling on something would slow the thrill machine down. That’s fine. But thrills at the expense of meaning and/or morality? I begin to dislike it.


4.) Hitchcock’s interest in the subjective experience. All those subjective, POV angles and shots, the voyeurism, the illustration of the non-rational state of mind, the extreme identification with the hero and the cool disinterest in the welfare of anyone EXCEPT the hero add up to a pathological narcissism, a complete, childish lack of empathy with anyone beyond the self. Somehow the paranoia is part of it. The complete terror of someone being revealed as a sinister liar. Seeing the world in those terms reveals an inability to step outside the self. The other is just the other. Another person exists only to the extent that he or she are perceived by the perceiver. There are only friends and enemies, but no 3 dimensional humans with complex feelings and motives. Here is where directors like Ford, with his concern for morality, and Welles, with his understanding of human complexity, are superior to Hitchcock. He doesn’t give a damn about humanity. He is cut off from it and cares only about himself. (A can of worms: his lack of empathy for his personal torture victim Tippi Hedren).

Hitchcock’s terror of being spied upon becomes illuminated when we note his other preoccupation – spying on others. If the main theme in Hitchcock’s work is “everyone’s against me”, the sub-theme seems to be “sympathy for the stalker”. In a weird way Norman Bates is Hitchcock’s hero in Psycho. At least that’s how it’s presented. Bates is Vertigo’s Scotty just a couple of notches more into looney. So it’s a world where people are cut off from one another. They observe one another, they use one another for their own motives. But they do not connect. Every human connection is temporary, tenuous.

Sorry – -this is incomplete….just a bunch of notes I started!

Please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


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