Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): The Essence Of Gothic Horror

by Paul Batters

 

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On those cold nights when the winds howl, the rain is falling and perhaps even the lightning startles the dark sky, who has felt the need to immerse themselves in the deep abyss of a Gothic tale? Whether it be a book or a film, the atmosphere of dread, gloom and fear takes us down dark corridors through ancient mansions and past a myriad of doors behind which are secrets which shock us to the bone. We seem to be drawn to what lurks in the shadows and our curiosities are aroused. The Gothic tale, born in the era of Romanticism, has been interpreted and presented in fascinating ways and its’ themes and tropes are ever-present in popular culture. Whilst initially the classic Gothic tale was bound to its’ British and European origins, it has found life in the ‘New World’, with the term American Gothic also becoming a mainstay in literature (think Edgar Allan Poe!).

But with the birth of film, there was a new way of telling stories and Hollywood was not slow to exploit Gothic literature to not only tell stories but use the visual medium to its’ own advantage and establish a new way of telling stories. From the silent era to the present, Gothic horror has both fascinated and terrified us. Of all the directors who were adroit in bringing Gothic horror to the screen, none were as expert or as influential as Alfred Hitchcock. He was no stranger to Gothic literature, having made Rebecca(1940) and even drew on Gothic tropes when making Notorious (1946); and of course would later re-visit Gothic horror with The Birds (1963).

Hitchcock had long been considered a master of the thriller by the time he made Psycho. Loosely based on the infamous Ed Gein case, the film has oft been considered the beginning of a new wave of horror film and in some regards a precursor to the slasher film that would emerge in the 1970s. Yet it is far more than that and indeed. As Misha Kavka points out in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction:

“Gothic film brings a set of recognizable elements based in distinct visual codes. Such codes constitute the language, or the sign system, of the Gothic film”

If ever a film had all the hallmarks of a Gothic horror film, then Psycho has them in spades.

(Warning! Be prepared for spoilers!)

The House

The infamous (or famous, depending on your viewpoint) house is perhaps the most powerfully visual and recognisable Gothic element in the film. Once we start to unpack the powerful symbolism of the Victorian mansion, we discover there are incredible depths to what it reveals.

Art historian Rose Heichelbech states that Hitchcock used Edward Hopper’s The House By the Railroad (1925) (below) as the basis for the Bates’ Mansion. But unlike the bright water colours of Hopper’s work, Hitchcock has drained the colour through filming in black and white, leaving a house bathed in greys which give the house an omnipresence which informs the film. Sitting high on the small hill and imposing in its’ nature, its’ looming dominance highlights the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother (which of course taps into another Gothic theme later to be explored). Later when Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman speak of being unable to escape ‘traps’, the house certainly comes to mind as what Norman finds inescapable.

 

House by the Railroad, by Edward Hopper

Not only does the house become a symbol of dominance and a foreboding presence over the characters but it is also a strong symbol of values and morals that belong in another era, in complete contrast to the present which could be represented by the Bates Motel below. Both buildings also represent Norman’s fractured state of mind, which in the end will be challenged to the point of breaking completely. In fact, despite the motel also suggesting a new progressive world on the move and the house representing ‘stability’, both are isolated from that same progress; particularly with the new highway built away from the motel. Like the classic Gothic house in literature, those who live there are thus isolated from society, wallowing in their stagnation and living in seclusion from the changes that are occurring in the larger world. They grasp onto the past with desperation which is also transforms into madness and insanity.

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The house holds a fascination for the audience, especially one so old and steeped in history. What secret does it hold inside? What if those walls could talk?  Indeed, the house remains one of the best advertisements for the film and would feature in trailers at the time. Hitchcock knew that the house had a life and spirit of its’ own – as it always has had in the Gothic tradition.

Dark Secrets

If Psycho holds its’ audience with incredible tension from the opening, it’s through the power of secrets. In Gothic literature, secrets run deep and dark, and their exposure reveals trauma, anxieties and conflict. In Psycho, these are already evident in a sexualised and lascivious way, as we become voyeurs to the illicit affair between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin). But far darker are the secrets that will only slowly be revealed regarding Norman. All appearances will be shattered and the dark secrets within the Bates family exposed.

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Again in terms of the house, the audience is desperate to look inside and see what it is hiding. When that chance arrives, we discover a house filled with antiquity and bejewelled in trinkets and fashion from a different era. Of course, the most shocking and terrible secret will be revealed in the deepest and darkest place in the house – the cellar. As in Gothic literature, the terrifying familial secrets in the Bates family provide the psychological reasoning for Norman’s mental state and perversities.

Corpses and Corruption

By corruption, the Gothic trope of death and decay comes to mind. But what also permeates is the corruption of the mental state and the decay of a family into madness. Strangely enough, corpses are not left to rot per se but are ‘stuffed and mounted’ (through Norman’s ‘hobby’ of taxidermy) and of course, he goes much further than that!

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Norman sustains his insanity via the corpse of his mother and though physically dead, her presence is elaborately constructed and becomes a reality in Normans’ world. Any Freudian can go into great detail about the Oedipal complexities at play.

Madness and Insanity

The incredible twist in the tale hits the audience in the climactic scene in the cellar, where the truth behind Norman is revealed. Initially, the audience believes that Norman is a shy yet pleasant enough young man, who may have some serious mother issues – until his perverse ‘peeping Tom’ moment as Marion gets ready for her shower. The audience is also led down the garden path, when Norman and ‘Mother’ conversations  are heard. Yet even then there is no indication of what will follow.

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When Norman states with a smile ‘She just goes a little mad sometimes’, it becomes the forewarning for what will come – Norman as his own mother committing horrific crimes on his behalf. His personality is constantly at war with himself until the ‘mother’ part of him ‘wins’ the battle.

In Psycho, insanity and madness result in horrific violence and the infamous shower scene (which has been definitively unpacked and analysed a thousand times over) shifts the film’s narrative from the heroine to Norman Bates. The moment still shocks and is much a rape as it is a brutal murder. Again, the climax will reveal the full and terrible truth to Norman’s insanity.

And of course, the split personality is also suggestive of the darkness of secrets, and what is revealed to and hidden from the world.

The Heroine

Marion is the classic Gothic heroine – finding herself in danger and indeed even placing herself there, initially through her own act of stealing the money. Her own conscience pursues her, and she constructs conversations which question what she does. What makes Marion a classic Gothic heroine is that like her predecessors in classic Gothic literature, she’s a breaker of convention and seeks independence to find happiness in her life. The traditional role constructed for her by middle America is not enough.

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Her pulling into the Bates Motel is a fateful one, a trope also present in Gothic fiction, and of course the pouring rain and gloomy atmosphere further adds to the strong Gothic overtones. The stormy night is an ominous sign that something bad will happen and indeed it is a terrible shock to the audience when it does. Marion’s horrific ending in the shower, is a ‘punishment’ for her deeds (as much as a reflection of Hitchcock’s pathology) but it also reflects the physical and emotional pain that the heroine traditionally experiences.

Mood And Atmosphere

From Saul Bass’ opening credits, underpinned by the anxious musical score and split titles, the tension is heightened and the audience knows they are going to be weighted down by it. The audience peering into the window find an attractive couple half-undressed but despite the sexualised scene, their conversation is one of despair and hopelessness, already setting a negative tone.

Marion’s flight from Phoenix with the stolen money thus drives the narrative into one of heightened tension, which is worsened for us by her interactions with the cop and the car salesman. Her nervous and an anxious state therefore becomes ours.

But of course, as Marion drives through the stormy night to find refuge in the Bates Motel, it evokes for the audience the familiar Gothic trope of the traveller lost in the storm and finding themselves in an old isolated house filled with dark secrets and danger (i.e Wuthering Heights, The Old Dark House). Again, the looming shadow of the house with darkened skies above it adds to the gloomy atmosphere.

Of course the audience enters the house itself, it is antiquated and frozen in another time, as well as being terribly silent and filled with shadows.

And of course the decision by Hitchcock to film in monochrome certainly helps shape the Gothic atmosphere!

Psycho would become one of Hitchcock’s most successful and well-known films. It is not only a superb thriller which still never fails to shock; it is also a superb example of the Gothic horror film.

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This article has been proudly submitted for the Gothic Horror Blogathon hosted by Gabriella at Pale Writer . Please click on the link to read other fantastic entries!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): The Art Of Obsession

by Paul Batters

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‘Scottie, I was safe when you found me. There was nothing that you could prove. When I saw you again, I couldn’t run away. I loved you so. I walked into danger, let you change me because I loved you and I wanted you. Oh, Scottie, oh Scottie, please. You love me. Please keep me safe, please…’ Judy Barton (Kim Novak)

The experience of cinema is an intensely personal one, not simply in terms of what we like or dislike but how a film or a performance can touch us and leave a deeply lasting impression. A film can caress us, soothe our emotions or it can jar us with a violent intensity that shakes us to our core and challenge our values and beliefs. Speaking for myself, Vertigo is a film that haunts me – it is has done so since the first time I saw it and does so after every viewing.

Vertigo has had a polarising effect, to some degree. A film that was famously panned on release by The New Yorker and Variety and disliked by Orson Welles, was stilled liked and favourably reviewed by the acerbic Bosley Crowther. The film barely broke even at the box office with fans thus showing their disappointment. Despite eventually removing the film from circulation and outlining his own criticisms, Hitchcock would himself go on record during an interview with Francois Truffaut that Vertigo was a favourite. It would be re-released after Hitchcock’s death and following a restoration and showing in San Francisco in 1996, the film’s reputation has become almost obsessive amongst film critics and cinephiles. Perhaps more than any other event to cement its’ reputation was Sight And Sound leapfrogging Vertigo over Citizen Kane as the most influential and greatest film ever made.

Yet there has been much critiquing over Hitchcock’s depiction of women, most recently and famously by Anne Bilson in The Guardian, which whilst not denigrating the value of the film certainly brings into questions the motivations of its’ director. Additionally, critics in recent times have spoken much about the nature of the ‘male gaze’ and the stylising of Hitchcock’s ‘sexual creepiness’. Whilst tempting to analyse the mis en sceneand how Hitchcock achieves his vision through via his framing of Madeline (Kim Novak), my aim here is to look at what I feel is a key theme of the film and one which Hitchcock addressed in a number of his films: obsession.

Much has been written about Vertigo and I don’t want to spend time simply recounting the storyline. It is far better to watch the film and for those who have seen it, it would be superfluous to detail the plot. However, as a quick reviser, I will attempt a run-through for the purpose of focusing on the discussion point.

The film tells the story of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), a former cop who has retired due to his developing a combination of acrophobia and vertigo. After a period of recovery following the traumatic end of his career, he is hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who wants Scottie to keep an eye on his wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Initially reluctant to take the job, he accepts it and the seeds to his obsession are planted. 

Scottie relents and begins to follow Madeline, saving her from an attempted suicide and eventually falling in love with her. Tragedy ensues after expressing love for each other whilst visiting the Mission San Juan Bautista, the childhood home of a woman named Carlotta who committed suicide and whom Madeline has become obsessed with. Despite the moment of truth, Madeline breaks away from Scottie, who paralysed by his acrophobia cannot prevent her from running up the bell-tower and plunging to her death.

Her death is deemed a suicide and whilst Scottie receives no blame, he falls into deep depression and catatonic state, leaving him institutionalized. Upon his release, Scottie seeks out the places that Madeline visited and incredibly sees a woman that resembles Madeline. She claims her name is Judy but there is an incredible twist. Madeline and Judy are the same woman, as she had been impersonating Madeline as part of a murder plot. But by the time Scottie discovers this, Judy has fallen for Scottie and continues the pretense, hoping that they can be happy together. But Scottie is still obsessed with ‘Madeline’ and forces Judy to change her appearance to look like the woman he still loves. But whilst they seem to be happy, Scottie will discover the truth and his world is again turned inside out, leading to the incredible climax. 

So how does obsession rear its’ formidable self in Vertigo?

The title itself is multi-layered and suggests more than just Scottie’s medical condition. The nature of vertigo is the inability to maintain balance, perception and focus and certainly Scottie suffers from this. The end of his career sees the beginning of a trauma from which sees him struggle with his own sense of identity and worth, particularly with his ‘failure’ during the rooftop chase at the start of the film. Already, Scottie faces a vulnerability, which of course will open him up to the intimacy of romance and need for the woman he will fall for. But the title also pre-supposes and foreshadows the further depths of confusion and depression that Scottie will fall into much later. More importantly, Scottie’s obsession with Madeline is also a form of vertigo, where the dizzying heights of his desperate fixation cause him to lose sight of his reality. This confusion is also emblematically symbolised in the use of mirrors which allows for a different gaze and the suggestion that all is not what it seems, as well as the concept of voyeurism.

The first time that Scottie sees Madeline is perhaps one of the most complex, highly stylised and brilliant scenes Hitchcock ever framed and shot. It is in Ernie’s Restaurant that Elster has convinced Scottie should come to surreptitiously familiarise himself with Madeline in order to follow her. Again, there has been much detailed analysis regarding this incredible moment, but it needs to be examined with obsession in mind. Here, Scottie’s obsession will be anchored and Hitchcock will play with our perception of what we view as an audience. The scene begins with the camera merging both the viewpoint of Scottie and the audience, with the camera languidly moving through the restaurant, decked out in lavish, rich red tones to see in the background the back of Madeline, resplendent in green. The gaze is Scottie’s but it becomes ours and we are clued in to something special happening, with Bernard Hermann’s haunting and beautiful score underpinning the moment. But Hitchcock’s stylising of the scene, using the physical frames in the restaurant to frame Madeline is symbolic of Scottie’s own fascination. He will later idealise her and attempt to frame Judy in the same way, with an obsession that is all consuming.

As Madeline leaves, she pauses for a moment where a close-up of Madeline establishes her ethereal and ghostly beauty, in a voyeuristic moment for Scottie but also for the audience. His illicit looks betray more than he intends and Hermann’s score lifts the scene into a transcendental moment. Scottie is trying to appear nonchalant but he cannot hide his awoken feelings for Madeline and the truth is that he’s hooked. Indeed, she is so breath-taking that the audience is perhaps also becoming obsessed during the close-up, whilst feeling Scottie’s desire to look at her as the camera inter-cuts between them.  It is an obsession that will consume Scottie and one he will not recover from.

Yet deception also walks arm in arm with obsession, most evident with Madeline’s fixation on Carlotta, the beautiful woman from the past who committed suicide. Gavin Elster believes Madeline is haunted by Carlotta’s spirit and sets the context for why Scottie is supposed to follow her. But this obsession on part of Madeline is false and part of the charade in drawing Scottie in. Or is it? Is Madeline starting to fall for her own deception? Much like the classic femme fatale in film noir, deception is an art by which the femme fatale gets what she wants and/or leads the unwitting fool down the garden path. Scottie starts to see her more and more as a spirit or some kind of phantom, aided and abetted by Madeline’s talk of the past and the strange and mysterious demeanour she channels. And of course, this feeds his obsession to the point where there is no turning back. Director Martin Scorsese makes the point that when first seeing Vertigo as a teenager, he did not fully understand it but he was deeply drawn into the film and was impressed by the camera work showing Scottie follow Madeline around. He makes the point that Hitchcock crafts Scottie’s descent into obsession with subtle poetry.

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Mark T. Conrad in Philosophy Of Noir (2006) raises an interesting point which adds meaning and understanding to Scottie’s obsession; the problem for the protagonist with their own existence and the meaninglessness of life. Scottie is an unmarried man with a career in tatters due to a traumatic past. The woman he has fallen in love with is someone he is watching and following around, and yes there are obvious voyeuristic elements here (which speak deeply to Hitchcock’s own obsessions and psycho-pathology). But the real obsession begins after Madeline’s apparent suicide, where Scottie has lost the woman he loves in an incredibly tragic and appalling manner. Unable to cope, he falls into catatonia and is institutionalised. Hitchcock depicts Scottie’s mental collapse in an alarming yet fascinating way and though eventually released, he begins to frequent the places that he visited with Madeline. There is nothing left for Scottie but to relive the moments he had with her, with all the sad and pathetic reality of a broken man who has nothing left but memories to obsess over. As an audience, it is impossible not to feel incredible pathos for Scottie, desperate to see her again. Perhaps one of the most intriguing moments is Scottie returning to the restaurant where he first saw he. It is the hope of the hopeless and Hitchcock brilliantly frames the scene exactly as he did previously, so that for a fleeting moment the audience believes they will see Madeline as well, only for the spell to be broken by harsh reality.

His chance sighting of Judy, during his desperate search, fuels his obsession and here we see Scottie lose himself completely to his absorption in Madeline. The incredible and uncanny resemblance (sansHitchcockian blonde hair and dress-suit) to his lost love tips him into following her and eventually making contact. At the risk of revelation of the film’s twist, the audience discovers that Judy and Madeline are but one and the same woman, with Judy being paid to impersonate ‘Madeline’ in a murder plot and make the death look like as suicide. The audience knowledge of this, adds a powerful dimension to what will follow. The audience discovers that Judy/Madeline also loves Scottie and her reluctance to see him becomes intertwined with her desire for him. But the complexity of Judy’s position becomes problematic as Scottie’s obsession is relentless in his attempts to turn her into the physical embodiment of Madeline. “Judy, please, it can’t matter to you,”he implores her but the audience realises that it does. There exists the fear that he will discover the truth and any hope of love being realised will become extinguished. Yet for all her concerns and the eventual realisation that Scottie’s obsession blinds him from seeing the truth, Judy will do what he asks, with the hope that he will love her. As she begs him, If I do what you tell me, will you love me? it is impossible not to feel deep sympathy for Judy, despite the subterfuge she has engaged in and still involved in. She is a woman frustrated by a man not loving her for who she is but what his obsessive and idealised vision of her is – imprinting on her being what he desires, using her as a mannequin for his own needs and wants. Yet she continues with the illusion – love has tragically misguided her as well.

Jim Emerson brilliantly channels gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe when he states, ‘Scottie is so obsessed with creating his “work of art,” that he doesn’t even notice that he’s draining the very life from his subject’. And herein lies the tragedy of the story and the damaging aspect of Scottie’s obsession. Unable to deal with his reality, he cannot make the physical connection with any flesh and blood woman, whether it’s his ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) or Judy. It is a heart-breaking moment when she exclaims, ‘“You can’t even touch me!”; fully aware that he prefers the illusion of Madeline (the character she created) to the actual woman before him.  It will take a complete transformation for Scottie to respond physically as well as emotionally.

The scene where Scottie’s obsession is completely realised is perhaps one of the most beautiful and tragic ever filmed. Finally yielding to Scottie, Judy had dyed her hair. The risk that Scottie may discover the truth is now greater than ever but it is still not enough – Scottie states that her hair isn’t up the way it should be. Judy is afraid yet also hurt that he does not love her for herself. When the final step must be taken, Judy goes into her bathroom and emerges, completely transformed into Madeline. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and beautiful score reaches its’ powerful crescendo as she stands ghost-like before Scottie; a phantom that takes him back to that moment during the earlier garden sequence, when their love was first realised. The symbolism of green is never more marked in the film than this moment, a symbol of re-birth, as critic Jim Emerson suggests, as well as the constant love that Scottie has felt – and I would suggest his obsession. As they embrace, Scottie’s world now seems complete and the room bathed in green, suggests that romantic renewal.  Yet it also suggests that the illusion has also won over and reality has taken a back-seat to fulfil Scottie’s obsession.

But Judy/Madeline has also bought into the illusion and this is evident as she moves forward from the ghostly stance at the bathroom door into a close-up. Her reluctance morphs into what seems like a look of victory, as she sees Scottie is finally fulfilled and his re-shaping of her realised. Yet watch the moment when she steps closer; her own surrender is obvious and her love for Scottie tragically evident. The look in her eyes and the slight turn of her face betrays her own ‘happiness’ that now Scottie can love her completely and that the two of them can find happiness. Bathed in the symbolic green of love, the camera swirls around the couple as they kiss and embrace. It should be the culmination of everything they have wanted. Even if it is an illusion.

It is an illusion that will come crashing once reality hits their relationship, like a stone smashing a mirror. And therein lies the tragedy of obsession – that Scottie’s fixation on an illusion could never be sustained and when the truth is revealed, it is almost too painful to bear. And yet even at the critical moment during the climax of the film, when Scottie and Judy revisit the scene of the earlier trauma, there is a moment where their love is realised as the illusion is removed. Has Scottie overcome his own psycho-pathological problems?

Much has been recently written about the misogyny of the film, in terms of the male gaze as developed by theorists such as Laura Mulvey, and a somewhat justified feminist perspective of the obsession of men to reshape women according to their standards. Yet recently Anne Billson in The Guardian stated that ‘Vertigo…mercilessly scrutinises romantic love while swooning over it’and ‘it is not an example of misogyny, but an overblown, beautiful and tragic deconstruction of it’. In essence, there is also the interesting allusion that in the arena of love, lies and deception are commonplace.

Scottie is ultimately a man without an identity; one which has been shattered by his traumas resulting in a loss of sense of self. To find meaning in a meaningless world, Scottie becomes a man obsessed and even when the fixation (as far as he knows) is gone, the obsession remains even after complete mental collapse. It is arguable that Judy is the typical femme fatale in film noir who has fooled Scottie and led him on through deceit. Yet Judy is also a victim of the illusion, as much as the creator of it and her sense of identity is also obliterated to meet Scottie’s obsession.  And arguably both Scottie and Judy have been manipulated and been taken advantage of by Gavin Elster, who has used Scottie’s weaknesses to establish his murder plot. Conrad describes Scottie’s vertigo as being ‘spiritual’ as much as psycho-physical and this has also led Scottie into his obsession, as he searches for something deeper to fill the void. Scottie’s love and obsession for Madeline transcends death and her ‘re-birth’ also transcends reality whilst simultaneously bringing the illusion to life.

Obsession is not only a theme instilled in film noir but one long-investigated by Hitchcock and one that has perhaps never been better examined in any of his films. Despite the reluctance of audiences and critics to embrace the film on its’ initial, Vertigo has established itself and held onto its’ lofty place in cinema. It’s a film that is stylistically resplendent but not for its’ own sake and reaches incredible depths of meaning and denotation far beyond what other films which they could achieve. Hitchcock uses very cinematic technique at his disposal, in the way a master painter uses the palate and expands the canvas in a way never done before. If we as an audience are still obsessed with Vertigo, it’s not without good reason.

This article was to have been submitted for the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – but is ridiculously late! My sincerest apologies to a kind and wonderful host, as well as being a passionate cinema buff and writer! 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 39 Steps (1935): Classic Hitchcock – One Man Against The World

by Paul Batters

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Richard Hannay: Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.
Annabella Smith: That’s exactly what it is. 

Cinema has seen some incredible directors – many of whom have had the term auteur added to their profile. There is no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most influential auteurs – a director whose films remain as masterpieces. The ‘Master Of Suspense’ has been so influential that a number of film historians have given his films their own status as a genre; hence the ‘Hitchcock thriller’.

It becomes difficult to consider the quintessential Hitchcock film and and no less easier to compose a list of ‘must-see’ films. Which should be first viewed? After all, Hitchcock’s work spans an incredible period from the silent era into the 1970s, from British cinema into Hollywood, from black and white to full colour.

However, the film that sees the classic tropes and themes of the Hitchcock film first fully realised, is his 1935 British film The 39 Steps.

The story was drawn from the spy/adventure novel by John Buchan but the final script would look nothing like the book, seeing wholesale changes that suited Hitchcock’s vision, including elements of screwball, expanding Madeleine Carroll’s character into a starring role and introducing the classic Hitchcock plot device – the McGuffin. The film is also one of the first of a number of films that would examine a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s films – the innocent man on the run and against the world. It is this aspect of the film that this essay will focus on.

The superbly cast Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting England, who is introduced to us as a member of a London music hall audience, watching the incredible powers of Mr Memory (Wylie Watson). Here, Hitchcock establishes the everyman hero, a character with which the audience can identify. Most importantly, the character of Richard Hannay becomes the vehicle by which we experience the story and Hitchcock establishes a character in which our faith is wholly placed. His innocence is beyond question and we identify with him, because of his individuality whilst still being outside the class system (despite the obvious accent) being declared a ‘gentleman’ in spite of his being Canadian. Additionally, as the film progresses, we never find anything about Hannay’s background and he remains a ‘mystery’ aside from what is learned as the story initially unfolds; he’s a Canadian visiting England, unmarried and not connected to anyone. 

Thus, through some subtle yet crucial masterstrokes, Hitchcock shapes the innocent man, who world is about to turn inside out and find himself pitted against the world around him. But it is also the panache and charisma of Robert Donat, that we want to identify with; much like Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s later films, again playing the innocent man on the run.

Mr Memory’s performance and the theme music accompanying his entrance is on the surface a seemingly just an introduction to the story. But it will be a crucial keystone to the structure of the mystery and as William Rothman points out in ‘Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze”’ ‘the poignancy of the film’s ending … requires that we be distracted from recollecting Mr Memory until Hannay himself remembers him’. As we, along with Hannay, enjoy the performance, it soon becomes interrupted by a fight but an even more frightening moment occurs when a gunshot sends everyone into a panic and out into the street. During the chaos, a woman becomes intertwined with Hannay in the crowd and when they reach the safety of the street, she asks to come home with him. The interaction is highly suggestive and Hannay seems happy to bring her home, quipping with incredible irony, ‘Well, it’s your funeral’. Unbeknownst to either of them, it will prove a dark and ominous statement.

The woman, who calls herself ‘Annabella Smith’ (Lucie Mannheim) is willing to exchange sexual favours for safety and upon returning to Hannay’s flat, her initial sensual overtones turn to nervousness at every noise. Whilst Hannay humours her and her ‘delusion’, to the point of cooking her something to eat as she begins telling her situation – of a government secret being taken out of the country by a spy, part of a group called the 39 Steps, and given to a foreign power.

Hannay plays along but the story becomes a reality and Annabella’s burden becomes his when she stumbles into his room with a knife in her back. And so the story begins, where Hannay is suddenly thrown into a nightmare. As William Hare illustrates in ‘Hitchcock And The Master of Suspense’, Hannay has two objectives; one, to stay alive in a rising tide of ruthless efforts to kill him because of what he came to know through sheer accident, and two, to learn all he can about the forces out to get him and resolve the mystery by turning the tables on his pursuers. Therein lies the predicament of the innocent man on the run, facing a world that does not believe his story and where there is no one to turn to for help.

What follows is a tense journey as Hannay uses the only clue he has – a map with a circle around the town of Alt-na-Shellach, a village in the Scottish Highlands, where he must track down the man who Annabella was speaking of before she was murdered. Hannay knows nothing of the man, except that he is missing the tip of his smallest finger.

The journey is fraught with tension and excitement, as well as some well-placed humour, as he travels by train to Scotland before traversing the moors. Hannay’s isolation and loneliness is perfectly captured by the camera in these sequences – the wide-open spaces leave him exposed with nowhere to hide, creating a sense of open-space claustrophobia. Always open to attack, Hannay from the moment his nightmare begins finds himself constantly solving problems on the fly. Every situation he faces has been placed as some sort of trap, which if not traversed will seal his doom. What makes it interesting is the solution that Hannay has to come up with. Very quickly, he realises that the truth won’t save him – Hannay needs to ‘play a role’ and invent some story to avoid capture by the authorities or his villainous pursuers. When fleeing his apartment, his truthful revelation to the milkman doing his rounds whilst asking for help is scoffed at. However, he quickly realises that like Annabella, he will need to assume identities in order to survive and he quickly invents a lascivious tale, which the milkman accepts as the truth. Hannay learns one of the key lessons to his survival.

His train journey also meets with desperate measures and fast thinking. By the time he reaches Scotland, the police are checking the train and his attempts to seek help from the beautiful Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) come to nothing. She gives him up but Hannay manages to escape in a dramatic and death-defying manner to make his way across the Moors.

Whilst not wishing to outline the story and spoil the fun for first time viewers, it is worth mentioning some important steps in the story. On his journey to Scotland, he stays overnight with a farmer (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft), whom mistakes for the farmer’s daughter – naturally evoking the farmer’s malcontent. As occurs in more than a few moments in the film, Hitchcock is certainly playing with the concept of marriage. In another fashion, the young wife is like Hannay trapped in a loveless and isolated marriage to a miserable man and the short but strong interaction between her and Hannay is one that is innocent yet certainly punctuated by feelings of romance and lost opportunities for the young wife. She is also the only one that accepts Hannay’s truth and goes out of the way to help him as best she can. Her seemingly limited help of giving her husband’s coat will later prove life saving for Hannay.

Hannay finally encounters the man he needs to see, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) – a respected man in the area who gives him refuge. But as in all things Hitchcock, he is, as the Professor describes himself, ‘not all I seem’. Hannay realises he is trapped and responds grimly to the Professor’s apology for ‘leading him down the garden path’ to which Hannay says ‘it’s certainly the wrong garden’. If the Hitchcock thriller is anything, it is not a simple and straightforward thriller and like Hannay, the audience has been led down the garden path as well.

Hannay’s journey is far from over but he has found out far more than he bargained for and an eventual escape leads him into of all things, a political meeting. Being mistaken for the guest speaker, Hannay delivers what is an impassioned and memorable speech calling for a better world. More so, he elicits from the audience the universal feeling of isolation when he emphatically declares, ‘ and I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel’. An audience just out of the worse years of the Great Depression would certainly have been touched by these words. The dour crowd is energised and despite again playing a role for survival, Hannay’s call for a better world is certainly tinged with the reality of his situation and an underlying concern from Hitchcock regarding the world of 1935, which had seen the rise of fascism, the Nazis and the tensions leading to World War Two.

Here, Hannay is stunned when during his speech, Pamela walks in and she is equally stunned to see him. Again, she refuses to believe his story and the Professor’s men posing as detectives take them both for questioning. However, here the story takes a turn into screwball, at least primarily in the relationship between Hannay and Pamela. Pamela’s cold distrust and wariness turns into irritation then grudging acceptance of his innocence and finally – love. The dialogue and timing between them is perfect and the chemistry between the two magnificent. Donat’s charisma and charm melds with Carroll’s exquisite beauty and talent for comedy, for a duo that finally works towards the goal of unfurling the mystery.

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Much has been written about Madeleine Carroll fitting and/or forming the cool ice-blonde woman that figured in most of Hitchcock’s films from here on. Like those other women, as pointed out by Roger Ebert, Pamela too would go through humiliation and suffering. When the faux detectives take the two, they are handcuffed together and Pamela is dragged around by Hannay in his escape, half-drowned in cold water and bullied by Hannay, who pretends to be the murderer she believes him to be. However, their arrival at an inn and the scene that follows combines all the classic elements of screwball a la It Happened One Night, whilst remaining totally original, perfectly crafted and relevant to the story and an absolute treasure to watch. Later when she discovers the truth, the musical accompaniment and warmth of her smile, ties together for Pamela everything that Hannay has gone through. Hitchcock was canny enough to prepare the two for their screen relationship by cuffing them together during their first meeting and pretending to lose the key. As the hours drew out, both Donat and Carroll not only got past initial politeness and mild irritation but also used the opportunity to get to know each other. Hitchcock certainly drew on their experience and used this on the screen to masterful effect.

Pamela plays a fundamental role in Hannay’s experience from our gaze as the audience. Before her personal revelation that Hannay is an innocent man speaking the truth about a dangerous spy, she believes him dangerous and like Hannay, we are incredulous that he is not believed. He literally bristles with frustration for us and all his protestations fall on deaf ears. She does eventually thaw (evocation of the ice blonde) and our joy in her acceptance and warmth to him becomes twofold; we enjoy seeing her acceptance, not as an audience wanting the two to come together but also through our identification with Hannay that he is final believed. The innocent man pursued and persecuted has an ally but there is hope in the fabric of how this story has been weaved.

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What draws us to Hannay, aside from the outstanding performance he gives us and our identification with him, is that he possesses an incredible spontaneity, which serves him amazingly well in his double/combined quest of survival by absolving himself and revealing the villains. As William Hare correctly states, he pieces everything together on the spur of the moment, with an amazing ‘creative intelligence’. Hannay, of course, is constantly haunted by Annabella’s words of which some come to full realisation as his understanding unfolds along the way. Daniel Srebnicki’s 2004 essay points out that Hannay’s incessant whistling of Mr Memory’s theme music not only annoys Pamela but Hannay as well, whose frustration turns to abject joy when the full discovery of the truth is made in the finale. It is the perfect link and full coming of circle from the first scene in the film. Yet even then, Hannay needs to push the limit, testing the situation with the crucial and fundamental question to reveal the truth and seek full vindication. ‘Solving the riddle’ is not enough as far more is at stake.

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The 39 Steps is Hitchcock at his finest prior to his career shifting full gear into Hollywood. It is a film where the audience enjoys the freedom of ‘filling in the blanks’ as Hare puts it and we enjoy some of the masterful tools that Hitchcock gainfully used for the first time such as the McGuffin, the ice blonde woman, the chase for freedom and vindication and particularly the innocent man against world. James Naremore believes that Hannay is a character placed in all kinds of public situations where he has to put on an act – this Donat is acting within the acting on screen (no mean feat!). Furthermore, the tone veers from screwball to melodramatic danger to perverse anxiety, without missing a beat or losing itself in any way. It is held together by Hitchcock’s brilliance but also by brilliant performances, tight pacing and a fine-tuned script. Donat as the innocent Hannay caught in a web of intrigue is perhaps one of cinema’s finest performances. Charles Laughton would call Donat one of the most brilliant actors he had ever seen and his incredible naturalness in the role is such a joy to behold. Naremore adds that ‘dark humour mingles with sexual innuendo and utopian romance, and the movement between these modes is often treated like a dialectical montage’. Indeed, it could only be so by the design of cinematic tools of the trade, used by masters of their craft. Interestingly, according to biographer J. C Trewin, Donat would declare his time on the set of The 39 Steps as some of the happiest moments of his career.

Perhaps Richard Hannay could be described as the patron saint of the innocent man on the run, at least in the Hitchcock universe. Certainly it would become a powerful and central theme that Hitchcock would re-visit albeit with a different actor e.g. Cary Grant, who also had charisma and screen presence and a persona whom audiences were happy to identify with. We can all find ourselves in the persona of Richard Hannay, finding ourselves in life situations that challenge us to make it through, find our way and come out the end as survivors. No wonder films like The 39 Steps and the themes they examine, never lose their impact.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2018

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.