Hitchcock by Hitchcock

“Evil is disorder.”

As François Truffaut, who famously interviewed Hitchcock in the mid-1960s, observed: “Under the invariably self-possessed and often cynical surface is a deeply vulnerable, sensitive and emotional person who feels with particular intensity the sensations he communicates to his audience.”

Hitchcock’s idea of happiness was “a clear horizon, no clouds, no shadows—nothing,” and he went to great lengths to eliminate the unpredictable from his life, not only in his working methods, but in everything he did. To some extent, this was part of an assiduously cultivated public persona, but many people, including Hitchcock himself, also ascribed it to genuine fear—of surprise, disorder, conflict, confrontation, social disgrace, the police, the justice system—of all the things, in fact, around which most of his stories revolve.


The Wrong Man (1956) On the set with Henry Fonda and Richard Robbins, the actor cast as Fonda’s opposite. The film was shot entirely on location in New York City, a rarity for a director who preferred the controlled environment of the studio sound-stage. 

Vertigo  James Stewart and Kim Novak in a publicity still for Vertigo (1958.) The use of double-exposure to depict both Judy and Madeleine, as if they were twins, was meant to mislead the audience about the direction of the plot.

“The Case of Mr. Pelham"  Mr. Pelham (Tom Ewell) confronts his impostor in “The Case of Mr. Pelham.” “Why, why did this have to happen?” he pleads.  “No reason,” the double replies.  “It just did.”  Doubles and dual identities figure significantly in Hitchcock’s work.

Suspicion: “Four O’Clock”  E. G. Marshall registers despair, agony, and madness as a would-be wife-killer undone by his own plot in “Four O’Clock.”  Suspense, for Hitchcock, involved a single, iron-clad rule: Make the audience suffer as much as possible.

In Hitchcock’s decidedly jaundiced view of the world, "catastrophe surrounds us all and can strike us when we least expect it." The ordeal of the innocent individual stripped of his identity and trapped in the impersonal machinations of everyday life is one of the principle thematic concerns in his work. For Hitchcock, the most unsettling manifestation of “evil is disorder” was the terrifying notion that one has an “other” whose presence can upturn an otherwise orderly existence.  

Think of Roger Thornhill, mistaken for a spy, in North By Northwest. Or Manny Balestrero, arrested for armed robbery because of his resemblance to the actual culprit in The Wrong Man. Or the poor anonymous sap whom Ralph Meeker clubs to death in “Revenge” after his shell-shocked wife falsely identifies him as her assailant. Or the dual identities of Judy/Madeleine in Vertigo and Norman Bates/Mrs. Bates in Psycho—not to mention the latter film’s “doubling” of Norman/Marion with Sam/Lila, who seek to uncover the mystery of Marion’s disappearance in the second half of the story.

One of Hitchcock’s most striking uses of the double, or doppelgänger, is in the 1955 television episode “The Case of Mr. Pelham.”  Tom Ewell plays a successful attorney whose rigorously organized existence is disrupted by the sudden appearance of a look-alike seemingly bent on assuming his place. “I have the feeling that he's trying to move into my life, to crowd closer and closer to me so that one day he is where I was, standing in my shoes, my clothes, my life and I... I am gone, vanished,” Pelham confesses to his psychiatrist.

“You're pretty much a creature of routine, aren't you?,” the psychiatrist asks. “Regular habits, same kind of clothes, that sort of thing?” “Yeah, I suppose I am,” Pelham admits.  “I've always liked to feel dependable.” Taking up his doctor’s advice, Pelham purchases a garish tie—something he himself would never wear—but his efforts to disarm his replica only serve to bring about his own psychological undoing.  

In the Hitchcockian universe, the assault on identity is typically entwined with the threat of immobility or madness. “Poison,” which Hitchcock helmed from a story by Roald Dahl, a frequent contributor to the series, features a bed-ridden alcoholic who fears—or imagines—that a venomous snake has fallen asleep on his stomach, thus committing himself to indefinite paralysis and the swift dissolution of his sanity.   

In “Breakdown,” the first of the telefilms Hitchcock directed (although the second to air), Joseph Cotton is a calloused businessman paralyzed in a car wreck and presumed dead because he cannot speak or move. Initially derisive of people who display emotion, he is only saved from the grave when, laid out on a slab in the morgue, he finally sheds a tear.  

Hitchcock utilized a similar narrative in “Four O’Clock,” which he directed for Suspicion in 1957.  E. G. Marsall plays a watchmaker who builds a bomb to kill both his wife and her presumed lover, however his meticulous plan goes awry when a gang of burglars break in and tie him up in the basement—mere feet away from his ticking contraption. As the minutes wind down on his life, he watches the world go by outside a small window—the gas man reading the meter, a neighborhood child chasing a bug, mundane events elevated to a terrifyingly altered perception of reality. The ordeal leaves him insane, and the show ends with a familiar image in the Hitchcock canon: a close-up of a face frozen in a trance-like stare.   


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