Male Protagonists in Hitchcock Films
Alfred Hitchcock had been a leading figure of the British movie industry for nearly a decade by the time his films began to receive serious international recognition. His 1927 silent drama The Lodger, coupled with the 1929 thriller Blackmail, had first propelled him to the upper echelon of filmmakers in his native England. It was Hitchcock’s 1935 film of The 39 Steps which became the director’s first major hit in the United States, catching the eye of, among others, his future producer David O. Selznick. The 39 Steps really cemented Hitchcock’s reputation as a director of witty, briskly-paced thrillers. Indeed, the action of The 39 Steps happens at such breakneck speed as to render the story’s inherent implausibility a moot point. No sooner is the audience beginning to understand one set piece than Hitchcock and his screenwriter Charles Bennett have moved on to something entirely different.
Hitchcock’s compulsion with developing taut narratives is what the director would, in his later years, call the “MacGuffin.” Taking its name from an old Scottish folktale, this plot device is, in Hitchcock’s words “the thing the spies are after” — this is to say, that which is of vital importance to the characters in the story but ultimately irrelevant to the overall plot. By ignoring the point of the action, Hitchcock wasted no time in explication and instead focused on action, humor and romance. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock also developed what would become his typical male protagonist — the ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
That theme was one which Hitchcock revisited many times. His obsession with that subject, the historian Peter Bogdanovich has suggested, can be traced back to an incident which occurred when Hitchcock was about five years old. The director’s father wanted to deter his son from pursuing a life of crime and so had his friend, a prison warden, lock young Alfred in a jail cell and walk away for several minutes. That lesson was effective. It was devastating. Understandably, Hitchcock was traumatized by that experience. No wonder, then, that as a filmmaker he should have been so obsessed with stories surrounding the wrongly accused.
After the success of The 39 Steps Hitchcock next returned to that subject with his comic 1938 thriller The Girl Was Young. His protagonist in that film is once again an unlikely suspect who is forced to go on the lam and his implication of a police inspector’s daughter in his escape. Unlike his previous attempt at this story, though, here Hitchcock explores not so much the chase to uncover the real criminal but rather the relationship that develops between his two main characters. A welcome departure from the darkness which permeated his previous film, Sabotage (1936), Hitchcock in this film sacrifices true suspense for slapstick comedy and it is a change of pace that works. While it lacks the polish of his next film, The Lady Vanishes, altogether The Girl Was Young is surely one of Hitchcock’s most underrated directorial efforts.
The Girl Was Young is at least as enjoyable as 1942’s Saboteur, which marked the next time Hitchcock would investigate the wrongly accused man archetype. Here he is played by Robert Cummings. It was Hitchcock’s first American film which was set in America — if you discount the anomalous Mr. and Mrs. Smith — and he takes full advantage of his American setting by taking Cummings and his leading lady Priscilla Lane on a cross-country trip from California to New York, culminating with a sojourn to the Statue of Liberty, which plays host to one of the more memorable deaths in the movies. The film was produced shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitchcock used Saboteur to express warnings about homegrown fascism and disloyalty along the lines of other propaganda of the period. But for the most part Hitchcock utilized this film to show that he could do in the States what he had done so well in his native England with The 39 Steps, except with the higher budgets that only Hollywood could provide.
While The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s first ‘wrong man’ film, it was his 1934 film of The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring Peter Lorre, which launched Hitchcock’s nearly unbroken run of films that fall squarely in the mystery/suspense genre. Hitchcock later revisited his source material when he made the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring James Stewart and Doris Day. It was the only remake of Hitchcock’s directorial career. Inspired by a trip he had taken to Morocco with his wife Alma, Hitchcock decided to do this version of his ‘wrong man’ story with a distinctly international flavor. This necessitated filming on locations in Morocco and London. The international feel that Hitchcock was going for with this outing was aided immeasurably by the song “Que Sera Sera,” performed in the film by Doris Day, which ended up providing the picture with its only Academy Award. The 1956 film of The Man Who Knew Too Much certainly centers on Hitchcock’s theme of the ‘wrong man’. And while the film is big and colorful and reasonably entertaining, it feels like a more pedestrian effort on Hitchcock’s part. His next film, however, bears a closer examination.
Some have claimed that The Wrong Man (1956) is the most personal of Hitchcock’s films. It is not an unfair assertion to make, given Hitchcock’s childhood experience in a jail cell. Of all the films Hitchcock made with a ‘wrong man’ at its center, The Wrong Man is by far the darkest. That aspect is unavoidable, since the film is based on the actual experiences of Stork Club bassist Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, who in 1953 was incorrectly identified as a bank robber. The story is a bleak one, with Balestrero’s wife Rose eventually losing her sanity amid lingering doubts about her husband’s innocence. Henry Fonda is perfectly cast as Balestrero, conveying the right sense of urgency and bewilderment in his portrayal, while Vera Miles delivers her best performance as his high-strung wife. Unlike most other Hitchcock movies there are no dramatic chase sequences in this film, nor is Hitchcock’s quirky comic sensibility readily apparent here. But The Wrong Man, in eschewing the qualities which we most associate with Hitchcock, achieves a level of substance to which the director rarely aspired. Watching this film you cannot escape the feeling that the theme of The Wrong Man — suggested by its title — is really what Hitchcock’s films have always been concerned with. The action, romance and other superficial qualities, you could argue, are merely present to make the films more palatable to a typical bourgeois audience.
I am unconvinced, though, that The Wrong Man, as Peter Bogdanovich has argued, is truly the most personal film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. If you want to see a film that was truly personal for Hitchcock, then you should see his 1953 drama I Confess. Hitchcock had been raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and he was understandably drawn to this project, based on an obscure French play, about a priest who hears the confession of a murderer and the moral dilemma each man faces after the priest is charged with the crime. Montgomery Clift stars as the priest, and though he’s not exactly Hitchcock’s ideal leading man, this is an unlikely bit of casting that genuinely works.
Clift delivers a fine performance in I Confess, which should be credited as much to Hitchcock as to himself. Clift was an early and legendary practitioner of Lee Strasberg’s ‘method’ acting, paving the way for Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Rod Steiger, Anne Bancroft and others. This inward, meditative style of acting was far removed from Hitchcock’s utilitarian approach to actors. To Hitchcock, the actors were props, no more or less important than the lighting, the sets, and the costumes. This dichotomy between the approach of director and star was evident during the production. During the filming of a crucial scene near the end of the film, Clift is required by the script to look up at a tall building as he is exiting the courthouse, an action which serves as the catalyst for the picture’s climax. Clift protested the inclusion of this business, saying to his director “I can’t just look up, I need a reason to look up.” Hitchcock, who knew how to glare at a dolt, responded that “If you don’t look up then I can’t yell ‘cut’.” And that was that.
I Confess was shot almost entirely on location in Quebec City, and the location is nearly as important a character in the film as Montgomery Clift’s priest. Hitchcock uses the city’s old cobblestone roads and myriad dark alleyways to particularly good advantage here. This has the effect of creating a foreboding atmosphere which suggests early on the terror and misfortune which will be visited on the ‘wrong man’ at the story’s center. I Confess is not your typical Hitchcockian exercise in suspense. The film works best when you view it is an intimate character study, which it is, rather than a dramatic thriller, which it is. Perhaps that is why the film has largely faded from the popular recall. If that is the case, then it is an unfortunate reality because I Confess, steeped in the same traditions as Hitchcock’s strict Jesuit upbringing, is one of the most effective of his ‘wrong man’ films.
The most famous ‘wrong man’ in any Hitchcock film, though, is surely poor Cary Grant, trying to outrun that damn crop-duster in North By Northwest. It is, with the competition of Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window, the best-known of Hitchcock’s films today. It is also easily the most consistently enjoyable of that quartet. The film was produced at screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s suggestion that he should write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Thematically, it is certainly that. Here you get the man-on-the-run for a crime he did not commit (Grant), the famous MacGuffin (in this case Grant being mistaken for some guy called Kaplan), and the icy blonde love interest with more than a few secrets (Eva Marie Saint). This was reportedly the favorite film of the master of suspense; Hitchcock once said of it that the film had “been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”
Yet even the most casual analysis of Hitchcock’s films would indicate that the master was being a little unkind to his own body of work. Certainly, few people would disagree that Alfred Hitchcock was a master filmmaker. But why are his films so much better, and better-known, than other entries in the mystery/suspense genre? Well, surely there are many reasons and I am not at all confident of most of them myself. What I do know is this: There was an inherent seriousness to Hitchcock’s preoccupation with the ‘innocent man’ theme which makes even his lightweight films like The Girl Was Young worth more than a passing glance.
Gottlieb, Sidney, ed. Alfred Hitchcock Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. Print.
Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and the Wrong Man. Dir: Laurent Bouzereau. Warner Home Video, 2004. DVD.
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