In the dark

Philip Horne

  • The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto
    Collins, 594 pp, £12.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 00 216352 7
  • Howard Hawks, Storyteller by Gerald Mast
    Oxford, 406 pp, £16.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 503091 5

Television recently showed a likable young man from Florida who had committed an atrocious murder giving evidence in court against his ‘accomplice’, whose trial had been thrown open to the cameras. The photographs of the victim’s wounds were sickening, but the softly-spoken young man went back over the sequence of incompetent brutalities which produced them with unbroken equanimity. Interviewed outside the courtroom, he was deferential and polite in explaining why it had been sensible for him to turn State’s Evidence; and as he talked, he coughed, his hand went demurely up to cover his mouth, and he murmured: ‘Excuse me.’ Looking for a qualitative deviation in the murderer’s demeanour, a frightening glint or a nervous tic by which to know him for different, we were baffled by his ordinariness; anxious not to be thought ill-mannered, he held out no greater token of a need for forgiveness than this piece of social small-change.

Alfred Hitchcock would have been pleased and frightened by this incongruity, as he was by so many others. The representative of evil in his films usually appears to exemplify orderliness and cordiality; the power to deceive makes his wickedness conveniently incredible. As Hitchcock put it in 1972:

He has to be charming, attractive. If he weren’t, he’d never get near one of his victims. There was a very famous man in England called Haig, known as the Acid Bath Murderer. He murdered about four people and was a dapper, very presentable-looking little man; he could never have committed these murders without being accepted.

Writing about film acting in 1937, Hitchcock pointed out that ‘people today in real life often don’t show their feelings in their faces.’ Hitchcock’s films are informed by the sense that pleasant faces may conceal murderous feelings. Respectable appearances repeatedly dissolve into extraordinary menace. Benign professors whip out guns, as do nuns and housekeepers. Being afraid that friendly looks might fade to an ominous black stare isn’t, of course, an emotion which the sane can much afford in real life: but we have to grant the premise that improbable things can happen, and bare possibilities have an uncanny hold on the mind which gives a force to ‘implausible’ fictions.

One of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, the terrifying Psycho (1960), shows a young woman who steals some money happening to stop at a maniac’s motel; the fortuitous conjunction of criminals is seriously witty, at the same time funny (because patently unlikely) and not funny at all (because so powerfully demonstrated). Our pleasure in the film comes from its dual attitude to this central coincidence; it conveys to us the terrible dizziness of being lost and trapped on our own in circumstances beyond our control, and yet also offers the light relief of its po-faced jokes, reminding us as an audience of the comparatively safe community we form with its makers. The script is full of, ironic glances that mark and alleviate the cruel logic of the action – like the policeman early on who admonishes Janet Leigh for sleeping in her car: ‘There are plenty of motels in this area. You should’ve – I mean just to be safe – Anthony Perkins, who plays Norman Bates in the film, has justly remarked: ‘Luckily, I think that most of the people who saw the picture enjoyed it in a very good warmhearted way. When they were frightened, they were pleased that they were frightened.’ For Hitchcock to say, ‘To me it’s a fun picture,’ then, is not callous or barbarous: the ‘fun’ involved is part of the film’s serious value. Hitchcock’s sense of humour evokes the general social solidarity which enables us to contemplate Psycho’s grimly particularised hypothesis – that ‘we’re all in our private traps.’

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