Themes and plot devices in Hitchcock films
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Alfred Hitchcock's films show an interesting tendency towards recurring themes and plot devices throughout his life as a director. This article lists some of the themes and plot devices that occur repeatedly in his films.
- 1 Birds
- 2 Suspense
- 3 Audience as voyeur
- 4 MacGuffin
- 5 The ordinary person
- 6 The wrong man or wrong woman
- 7 The double
- 8 The likeable criminal, aka the charming sociopath
- 9 Staircases
- 10 Food and death
- 11 Trains
- 12 Transference of guilt
- 13 Mothers
- 14 Brandy
- 15 Sexuality
- 16 Blonde women
- 17 Silent scenes
- 18 Number 13
- 19 Tennis
- 20 Falling from high places
- 21 The perfect murder
- 22 Violence in a theatre
- 23 References
There are images of birds in nearly all of Hitchcock's films. Some of the most prominent are listed below.
- Psycho—The film begins in Phoenix, Arizona and a Phoenix is also a mythological bird. Marion's last name is "Crane." Norman practices taxidermy as a hobby and his favorites are birds. Norman describes Marion's eating behavior as "eats like a bird".
- Vertigo—Gavin's last name is Elster, which is German for Magpie.
- The Birds—The film's plot revolves around birds attacking Bodega Bay.
- To Catch a Thief—Hitchcock's cameo is that of a man sitting next to Cary Grant on a bus opposite a cage of chirping birds.
- Sabotage—the front for the bomb maker is that of a bird-seller and the instructions for the bomb are in the base of a birdcage.
- Blackmail—Alice White (the killer) learns of the discovery of the murder (by police) from her landlady as the landlady enters Alice's room and uncovers a birdcage. The overwhelmingly loud bird's song fills the soundtrack for several minutes thereafter.
Hitchcock preferred the use of suspense over the use of surprise in his films. In surprise, the director assaults the viewer with frightening things. In suspense, the director tells or shows things to the audience which the characters in the film do not know, and then artfully builds tension around what will happen when the characters finally learn the truth. Hitchcock was fond of illustrating this point with a short aphorism – "There's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't..."
Audience as voyeur
Further blurring the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty, occasionally making this indictment inescapably clear to viewers one and all, Hitchcock also makes voyeurs of his "respectable" audience. In Rear Window (1954), after L. B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) has been staring across the courtyard at him for most of the film, Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) confronts Jeffries by saying, "What do you want of me?" Burr might as well have been addressing the audience. In fact, shortly before asking this, Thorwald turns to face the camera directly for the first time.
Similarly, Psycho begins with the camera moving toward a hotel-room window, through which the audience is introduced to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her divorced boyfriend Sam Loomis, played by John Gavin. They are partially undressed, having apparently had sex though they are not married and Marion is on her lunch "hour". Later, along with Norman Bates (portrayed by Anthony Perkins), the audience watches Marion undress through a peephole.
One of Hitchcock's favorite devices for driving the plots of his stories and creating suspense was what he called the "MacGuffin". The Oxford English Dictionary, however, credits Hitchcock's friend, the Scottish screenwriter Angus MacPhail, as being the true inventor of the term.
Hitchcock himself defined the term in a 1962 interview conducted by François Truffaut, published as Hitchcock/Truffaut (Simon and Schuster, 1967). Hitchcock used this plot device extensively. Many of his suspense films use this device: a detail which, by inciting curiosity and desire, drives the plot and motivates the actions of characters within the story. However the specific identity of the item is actually unimportant to the plot.
In Vertigo, for instance, "Carlotta Valdes" is a MacGuffin; she never appears and the details of her death are unimportant to the viewer, but the story about her apparently possessing Madeleine Elster is the spur for Scottie's investigation of her, and hence the film's entire plot.
In Notorious, the uranium ore that the main characters must recover before it reaches Nazi hands serves as a similarly arbitrary motivation: any dangerous object would suffice.
State secrets of various kinds serve as MacGuffins in several of the spy films, especially his earlier British films The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock has stated that the best MacGuffin, or as he put it, "the emptiest," was the one used in North By Northwest, which was referred to as "Government secrets".
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The ordinary person
Placing an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances is a common element of Hitchcock's films. In The 39 Steps, the protagonist Richard Hannay is drawn into a web of espionage, after a female spy he meets in a theatre is killed in his apartment. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), James Stewart plays an ordinary man from Indianapolis vacationing in Morocco when his son is kidnapped. In The Wrong Man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is an innocent person arrested for a crime he did not commit. In Psycho, Janet Leigh plays an unremarkable secretary whose personal story is violently interrupted by a murderer. Other clear examples are Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Vertigo, Notorious, and North By Northwest. The focus on an ordinary character enables the audience to relate to the action in the movie.
The wrong man or wrong woman
Mistaken identity is a common plot device in Hitchcock's films.
North By Northwest—Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan, a non-existent CIA agent.
Young and Innocent-Derrick de Marney is mistakenly accused of murdering his patron.
The Wrong Man—Henry Fonda is mistaken for a criminal.
Vertigo—The film tells the story of Scottie Ferguson's investigation of the false Madeleine Elster and also of the young woman who impersonated her.
The 39 Steps—Richard Hannay, the main character, is unjustly accused of murdering a woman, a spy by the name of Annabella.
Frenzy—The protagonist is thought to be the notorious Necktie Killer due the set of circumstances he finds himself in.
Saboteur—Barry Cane is framed by a saboteur named Frank Fry for a fatal fire in an aircraft factory.
Secret Agent—The two main protagonists kill the wrong man, believing he is the German spy they are looking for.
Shadow of a Doubt—Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is the real "Merry Widow" murderer, but the police end up blaming a man in another state who dies accidentally. Only Uncle Charlie and his niece (Teresa Wright) know the truth.
Dial M for Murder- Margot is unjustly accused of killing Swan.
Hitchcock often used the "double" in his films as a way to draw parallels between two characters. For example, two characters sharing the same type of desire, although only one of them is ruthless enough to take action.
In Strangers On A Train, Bruno carries out the plot of murdering Guy's wife; Guy wished somehow to be rid of his wife. In Rear Window, the tension between Lars Thorwald and his wife at the beginning of the film reflects Jeffries' initial inability to accept Lisa Freemont. In Rope, Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan kill an "inferior human"; they believe their teacher Rupert Cadell will approve of this action, since he taught this idea in philosophy classes. In Psycho, Marion Crane steals $40,000 and runs away; Norman Bates would have liked to be able to run away from his situation. In The Birds, Mitch Brenner is symbolically the new father of his family, since his actual father is dead, and this is reflected in multiple scenes, most prominently when he calls his mother "Darling".
The likeable criminal, aka the charming sociopath
The villain in many of Hitchcock's films appears charming and refined rather than oafish and vulgar. Especially clear examples of this tendency are Godfrey Tearle in The 39 Steps, Paul Lukas in The Lady Vanishes, Claude Rains in Notorious, Barry Foster (charming but not refined) in Frenzy, Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (film), Ray Milland in Dial M For Murder, William Devane in Family Plot, and James Mason in North by Northwest. Villains such as Norman Bates (Psycho) are portrayed as emotionally vulnerable and sympathetic characters.
Images of staircases often play a central role in Hitchcock's films. The Lodger tracks a suspected serial killer's movement on a staircase. Years later, a similar shot appears in the final sequence of Notorious. In Vertigo, the staircase in the church bell tower plays a crucial role in the plot. In Psycho, several staircases are featured prominently: as part of the path up to the Bates mansion, as the entrance to the fruit cellar, and as the site of Detective Arbogast's murder. In Rear Window, an entirely nonfunctional staircase adorns Scottie Ferguson's apartment, in addition to the numerous fire escape staircases seen each time we follow his gaze out of his window. In Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie attempts to murder his niece by rigging a staircase to collapse. In Dial M for Murder, a key kept under the stair carpet plays a pivotal role in catching the murderer. Frenzy features an unusual shot which tracks the killer and his victim first up the stairs, then retreats backwards down the stairs alone while the audience is left to imagine the killing which is taking place. One other iconic stairwell shot comes from the movie Suspicion as Cary Grant slowly walks up the stairs to deliver what would have been the poisonous warmed milk to his wife. Hitchcock, the studios and Grant decided his character could not end up as a murderer and that scene becomes a red herring with a new ending added. In The Birds, the camera follows Tippi Hedren up the stairs to the attic where (suspensefully) the birds wait silently to attack her. Staircases also appear prominently in the 'ball-gown scene' in Rebecca and in the 'guard-dog scene' in Strangers on a Train.
This stylistic interest in staircases is attributed to the influence of German Expressionism, which often featured heavily stylized and menacing staircases, for example in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Food and death
Food and death are often interrelated in Hitchcock’s films. It features most prominent in his second-to-last feature, Frenzy: the killer runs a fruit and vegetable stall, finishes his victim's sandwich after he strangles her, hides the body of his second victim in a potato truck, and, in a comic sub-plot, the Chief Inspector is forced to endure his wife’s experiments in cooking. It recurs in a number of earlier films, also:
- A bread knife is the murder weapon in Blackmail, and Alice panics while trying to use one during breakfast the next day, as she keeps imagining she hears the word knife when others are talking.
- In Notorious, Alicia is slowly poisoned by her husband and mother-in-law through her afternoon tea.
- In Sabotage, Mrs. Verloc kills her husband with a knife she has used to serve dinner.
- In Shadow of a Doubt Mr. Newton and Herb discuss murdering each other during dinner
- In Rope, Brandon decides to serve dinner on top of the chest where he is hiding the body of his murdered friend, David.
- In Strangers on a Train Bruno asks a judge what it's like to give someone the death penalty and then go home and eat his dinner
- In To Catch a Thief, Robie and Hughson discuss the ethics of murder and the death penalty while eating dinner.
- In Psycho, Marion talks with Norman and eats a small meal in the parlor behind the office of the Bates Motel.
- In Rear Window, the nurse Stella discusses how Thorwald probably disposed of his late wife's body as L. B. Jefferies tries to eat his breakfast.
In Hitchcock's films, trains are often featured. Extended sequences on trains occur in a number of Hitchcock films, including
- Number Seventeen
- Shadow of a Doubt
- The 39 Steps
- The Lady Vanishes
- Strangers on a Train
- North by Northwest
In The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, the limitations imposed by train travel on characters' movements enhances the suspense as the lead character is pursued for a crime he did not commit.
Hitchcock's most-extended train sequence is in The Lady Vanishes, where the inability to exit the train except at stations forces the two lead characters to accept that the lady for whom they are searching must still be aboard. The vertiginous excitement of moving around the outside of a moving train is exploited in Number Seventeen and The Lady Vanishes.
Transference of guilt
As related in articles by François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and others in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema -- and in Chabrol and Rohmer's book Hitchcock (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1957) -- Hitchcock often sets up a villain/antagonist who has a dark secret. In the course of the film, Hitchcock, through the screenplay and the filming, makes it clear that the hero/protagonist somehow shares in this secret or guilt. Examples include:
- Suspicion (1941): Lina (Joan Fontaine) suspects that her husband (Cary Grant) is a murderer, and allows this suspicion to ruin their life, even when he is revealed to be innocent.
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943): after Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is revealed as a murderer, his niece, Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) says she will kill him herself if he doesn't leave the household.
- Lifeboat (1944): the Allied shipwreck victims attack the German captain (Walter Slezak) after several days, in what amounts to a lynching.
- Strangers on a Train (1951): Guy (Farley Granger) goes along with Bruno (Robert Walker) because Guy does want to kill his wife.
- Rear Window (1954): Jeffries (James Stewart) spies on his neighbors, hoping to catch a murderer (Raymond Burr), leading to dubious tactics to catch the criminal.
- Vertigo (1958): Scottie (James Stewart) follows "Madeleine" (Kim Novak) and unwittingly accepts the story of Madeleine's life from her husband, indirectly causing her death.
- Psycho (1960): in a reversal of the usual pattern, a character who appears to be the heroine, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), commits a crime, is murdered, and the audience's sympathy is transferred to the ambiguous character Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
Mothers are frequently depicted as intrusive and domineering, or at the very least, batty, as seen in Rope, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, and The Birds.
Hitchcock includes the consumption of brandy in many of his films. "I'll get you some brandy. Drink this down. Just like medicine ..." says Scottie Ferguson to "Madeleine Elster" in Vertigo. In Suspicion, a character with a brandy allergy dies after taking a bet to drink a beaker-full of it; a decade later, in a real-life incident, Hitchcock dared Montgomery Clift at a dinner party around the filming of I Confess (1953) to swallow a carafe of brandy, which caused the actor to pass out almost immediately. In Torn Curtain and Topaz, brandy is defined more closely as cognac. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is offered a brandy by Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), and after being attacked by the birds, drinks the brandy offered by Mitch (Rod Taylor). In Rear Window, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is "just warming some brandy". In Frenzy, Richard Blaney is sacked for supposedly stealing brandy, and can be seen in several sequences to be drinking brandy. In Saboteur, Harry Kane offers Mrs. Mason some brandy to calm her nerves. In Murder! the main evidence in the murder case is a bottle of brandy. The identity of the killer is later confirmed by a bottle of brandy seen in his dressing room.
For their time, Hitchcock's films were regarded as rather sexualized, often dealing with perverse and taboo behaviors. Sometimes, the modest conventions of his era caused him to convey sexuality in an emblematic fashion, such as in North by Northwest, when the film cuts abruptly from two aroused but visually chaste lovers to a train entering a tunnel.
Hitchcock found a number of ways to convey sexuality without depicting graphic behaviors, such as the substitution of explicit sexual passion with the passionate consumption of food. In a particularly amusing scene in Psycho, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) carries on a conversation with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) while one of his hands strokes a dead animal and the other hand lingers on his crotch. Sexual feelings are often strongly associated with violent behavior. In The Lodger and Psycho, this association is the whole basis of the film. Biographers have noted how Hitchcock continued to challenge film censorship throughout his career, until he was allowed to show nudity in Frenzy.
Hitchcock had a dramatic preference for blonde women, stating that the audience would be more suspicious of a brunette. Many of these blondes were of the Grace Kelly variety: perfect, aloof ice goddesses, who also have a hidden red-hot inner fire.
In Vertigo James Stewart forces a woman to dye her hair blonde. One of Hitchcock's earliest films, The Lodger (1927), features a serial killer who stalks blonde women. Blonde actress Anny Ondra starred in Hitchcock's first sound film Blackmail (1929).
Hitchcock said he used blonde actresses in his films, not because of an attraction to them, but because of a tradition that began with silent star Mary Pickford. The director said that blondes were "a symbol of the heroine". He also thought they photographed better in black and white, which was the predominant film for most dramas for many years.
In Family Plot, Karen Black plays a kidnapper who wears a blonde wig and sunglasses as a disguise. Other notable blonde women include Tippi Hendren in The Birds, Dany Robin in Topaz, Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Frenzy, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Grace Kelly in Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest and Kim Novak in Vertigo.
As a former silent film director, Hitchcock strongly preferred to convey narrative with images rather than dialogue. Hitchcock viewed film as a primarily visual medium in which the director's assemblage of images must convey the narrative. Examples of imagery over dialogue are in the lengthy sequence in Vertigo in which Scottie silently follows "Madeleine," or the Albert Hall sequence in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Some Hitchcock films include use of the number 13, popularly an "unlucky number." Number 13 is also the title of an unfinished Hitchcock film early in his career.
Tennis is often mentioned in Hitchcock films. In Strangers on a Train, the main character is a tennis player. In Dial M for Murder, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is an ex-tennis player. In Rebecca, the second Mrs. DeWinter (Joan Fontaine) claims to be taking tennis lessons from Max DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). The sport is also briefly mentioned during passing conversations in Rope and Lifeboat.
Falling from high places
In Vertigo, North by Northwest, Saboteur, Secret Agent, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions), To Catch a Thief and Rear Window, among others, the protagonist, villain, or even a supporting character falls from a height.
The perfect murder
In several of Alfred Hitchcock's movies there are characters for whom murder is an intellectual puzzle. Several Hitchcock characters seek to establish the definitive "perfect murder", that is, a way to commit a murder that would leave no clues, and would prevent the police from ever finding the culprit. This notion is a core concept in Rope, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and to a lesser extent, in Shadow of a Doubt and Suspicion.
Violence in a theatre
- The Man Who Knew Too Much—both versions feature an assassination at the Royal Albert Hall.
- The 39 Steps—climactic shootout within a music hall
- Stage Fright—confrontation, confession, murder planned, and even an "execution" happen either onstage or below a stage
- I Confess —Keller, the real murderer, makes his last stand in front of a stage.
- Torn Curtain—escape from a theater
- Saboteur—shootout in a movie theater
- Sabotage—Mr. Verloc, the saboteur, owns and lives in a movie theater. His wife murders him in an adjoining kitchen.
- Michael Walker, 2005, Hitchcock's Motifs, Amsterdam University Press