I Confess: Visions of Guilt and Innocence in Hitchcock's Films

Mathieu Deflem

This essay was first developed in April 1999, at which time it was among the first academic presentations to be primarily conceived to be read and viewed on the internet. The presentation was then also orally delivered at the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association in May 1999, illustrated with film segments on video. The online version subsequently went through several revisions, in June 2002, March 2003, and June 2007, as the medium of the internet changed.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 1999. "I Confess: Visions of Guilt and Innocence in Hitchcock's Films." Presented at the Law and Society Association meeting, Chicago, May 27, 1999. Online version available via www.mathieudeflem.net.

Since June 2012, this paper is permanently located on these webpages, where it is available as full-text document without illustrations, while the original and final illustrated versions can be viewed via the Wayback Machine.

The text-only version follows below.


This essay analyzes the films of Alfred Hitchcock from a sociological perspective that thematically focuses on the themes of guilt and innocence. This presentation is illustrated with production stills, movie posters, and movie segments.

The analysis will rely on some of Hitchcock’s more popular movies, such as Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), but also discussed are some of his less known films, including Lifeboat (1944) and Rope (1948), as well as some of his earlier work, such as Sabotage (1936). The discussion will use insights from the ‘auteur’ theory, popularized by François Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock, and the notion of ‘pure cinema,’ Hitchcock’s ideal of movie making.

The original version of this essay was presented at the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association, Chicago, May 27, 1999. I thank Vanessa Barker, Elizabeth Heger Boyle, Jeffrey S. McIllwain, and Gerald M. Turkel for feedback. I am also grateful to the many Hitchcock fans whose webpages have contributed to improve my site, including, in particular, Reel Classics, The MacGuffin Web Page, and other Hitchcock websites.


This presentation offers a study of guilt and innocence in Hitchcock's work. My analysis relies on a sociological perspective inspired by Durkheimian sociology and the work of anthropologist Victor Turner.

My analysis will rely on some of Hitchcock’s most popular movies, such as Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and The Birds (1963) as well as some of his less known films, such as Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948) and Sabotage (1936).

I offer an interpretive analysis of visions of guilt and innocence in Hitchcock's films that refrains from psychologistic dream analyses and instead develop a uniquely sociological perspective. In terms of sociological focus, I will rely on the work of Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern sociology, and the anthropology of Victor Turner. I will apply insights from the 'auteur' perspective popularized through François Truffaut’s published interviews with Hitchcock and Hitchcock's ideal of 'pure cinema'.

Durkheim and Friends

The work of Emile Durkheim is centrally concerned with the question of social order. No society more than our own emphasizes the individual as the core unit of normative prescriptions on rights and responsibilities. How then, Durkheim and any other sociologist ask themselves, is social integration achieved? Durkheim argued that there has to be a normative force that individuals in a society accept as valid to enable further binding obligations and specifications of rights and duties.

In his work on religion and ritual, Durkheim (1912) studied the mechanisms by which societal norms are lived, how they are produced and reproduced. Religion, Durkheim argues, is not only a system of beliefs, it is also action, particularly ritual action. A central idea in Durkheim's work is that during ritual ceremonies the participating group is most consciously and most actively aware of itself as a group. The group is really the group --is only the group-- when it celebrates itself. Furthermore, through ritual practice the group’s cohesiveness, exemplified by the physical assembly and the focus on a symbol, is secured, lived, and maintained. The group is renewed, and the individual, as individual, which can only be as group member, is strengthened by participating in the ritual. Particularly because of the power of symbols a society is celebrated through rituals.

From Durkheim's work, sociologists have learned that rituals --small or momentous, temporary or enduring-- serve to re-enact central values and norms guiding society at large. A wedding, for example, is a matter that pertains to all of society. It details and celebrates fundamental norms of sexuality, gender, and life. A wedding is not about the love between two people, but about the adoration of society for itself.

Extending the Durkheimian Circle

Durkheim's outlook forcefully argues for the societal constitution and re-integrative functions of ritual. Yet, it tends to emphasize the social origins and consequences of ritual at the expense of an analysis of ritual enactment itself. This question, "what happens during ritual practice?," is central in the work of the anthropologist Victor W. Turner, who critically built on Durkheim's oeuvre (Deflem 1991).

Victor Turner developed a unique anthropological perspective of ritual that extended beyond Durkheim's emphasis on the re-integrative functions of ritual (Turner 1967, 1969, 1974). Turner defines ritual as "prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers." A symbol is the smallest unit of ritual which still retains the specific properties of ritual behavior.

Importantly, Turner identified a three-phased process of ritual. Building on the fact that a ritual exemplifies the transition of an individual from one state to another, Turner noted that between the states the ritual subjects are often secluded and spend time in an interstructural situation, characterized by Turner as liminality. During the liminal phase, the ritual subjects have a "no longer/not yet" status: the subjects are "neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial" (Turner 1969:95).

Turner argued that the very essence of ritual performances was not, as Durkheim would have it, a celebration of the social order or social structure, but an attempt --successful, albeit only temporary-- to escape from the demands and functions of the structures of society in order to create communitas or anti-structure. Communitas is defined in opposition to structure. Social structure refers to the normatively proscribed arrangement of positions. Communitas refers to liminality, marginality, inferiority, and equality. The characteristics of the social structure are no longer and not yet applicable during the period of liminality in ritual and other forms of communitas. Ultimately, however, the fate of communitas is a "decline and fall into structure and law" (Turner1969:132), after which a new form of communitas may rise again.

I will develop the central argument of this presentation that the films of Alfred Hitchcock are to be conceived as rituals of liminality.


The central argument of this essay is that the films of Alfred Hitchcock are perfectly crafte rituals of liminality. This should be understood in a two-fold sense, referring to the place of film in its social and cultural environment and to the specific form that Hitchcock gave to his films and the response they were meant to and did invoke.

Hitchcock and Hitchcock's Audience as Liminal Personae

Film provides anti-structure. Movie viewing is a created environment of excitement and entertainment in which the audience hopes to find what cannot be found elsewhere. Film making and film watching are intertwined and Hitchcock was very well aware of this. The audience is essential to the creative process of the artist. Movies constitute ritual performances of liminality, temporary but real realizations of communitas.

Hitchcock's films are manifestations of liminality in a more specific sense. The films typically contain a basic three-fold structure that follows the processual scheme of ritual performances outlined by Turner.

First, there is in Hitchcock's films typically an event that triggers the action. The filmic device Hitchcock most preferred was the so-called MacGuffin, something rather banal --ideally, a complete banal, hardly noticeable object-- that is introduced to move the rest of the story forward but that is otherwise not relevant to the experience of the film. The typical example of a MacGuffin mentioned by Hitchcock is the government secret the spies are after. The wine bottle with uranium in Notorious (1946), the love letter in Dial M For Murder (1954), and the diamond in Family Plot (1976) are examples.

In the movie North by Northwest (1959) Hitchcock felt he had come up with the best MacGuffin yet. In the story, a man is mistakenly believed to be a U.S. agent. The spies chase the man across the country, because, it turns out, they are interested in... "oh... government secrets, I suppose."

In a next phase, the Hitchcock subjects are typically held captive in some situation of extreme danger, involving illness, disturbances, panic, confusion, and other states --mental and physical-- of dispair and destitude. The heroes are stripped off their worldly status and are caught in an adventure that is not their own. In North by Northwest, the man on the run is victimized by the spies, first when they force him to drink a bottle of liquor.

In a final phase, the Hitchcockian heroes return into their world. But they are not the same. They return into the world differently, not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but always changed. In North by Northwest, the hero is in the end united with the woman he fell in love with.

The Order of Guilt and Innocence

Guilt and innocence are constitutive principles of a society's legal and moral order. A central principle of our system of law holds that no one can be held accountable for a breach of law unless the perpetrator, who factually committed the crime, also had the intention to commit the act. The mere intention to commit a crime cannot be held as a ground for prosecution, but a 'means rea' (criminal mind) must be present for there to be an offense for which a court of law can declare guilt.

A central key to the understanding of liminality in Hitchcock's films revolves around the dual nature of guilt. There is, on the one hand, the guilt declared by society. This is what I call public guilt. It is the branding of a person to be accountable for an illegal act. Typically in Hitchcock's films, public guilt applies to a person who is factually innocent, who did not do what he or she is accused of doing. Most typically, also, the act for which public guilt is declared is a matter of a society's formal normative order as manifested in a system of laws.

There is also a notion of guilt in Hitchcock's films which relates more closely to the feelings people have about their own conduct. It is the private guilt subjects experience when, as members of a normative order which is not necessarily synonymous with society at large, they recognize themselves for what they have done. They can, therefore, often no longer hide themselves from their immediate others as who they truly are. Most typically, private guilt in Hitchcock is rigidly separated from public guilt. Private guilt refers not to a formal order of law but to codes of conduct in the realm of morality and ethics. It is individual consciousness. Private guilt in Hitchcock's universe applies to almost everybody.

The Auteur Theory and Pure Cinema

Tthere are two technical aspects of Hitchcock's film that need to be introduced. First, thanks to François Truffaut and other directors and movie critics associated with the French film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema, the so-called auteur theory of film making has been much discussed in connection with Hitchcock's work. What this perspective boils down to is that certain films --good films, Hitchcock films-- are to be conceived as manifestations of the creative talent and vision of the director. The director is the author of the work.

The auteur perspective has unfortunately led some observers to view every little detail in Hitchcock's movies as highly significant and as somehow reflective of some presumed aspect of Hitchcock's temperament and personality. I part with this excessive form of interpretive self-pleasure. However, it is important to remain aware that a film is not a natural phenomenon. A film is a purposely constructed reality. In Hitchcock's case, the control and command of the director in assembling the various pieces that make up the movie are famous. The vision of Hitchcock is achieved not only through the actual directing of scenes, but also through his choice of the script, his choice of actors, his choice of set decorations, and, most clearly, his use of story board. Hitchcock's stature and fame gradually enabled him to fulfill this ideal more perfectly. Additionally, the events that unfold in Hitchcock's films are not drawn from a random universe, but derive from a deliberate reflection of the director. Hitchcock once called his movies slices of cake, not of life.

Hitchcock's form of film making is called pure cinema (Truffaut 1984). The concept of pure cinema conveys the notion that film should not refer to any other art form but itself. A film is not a novel, not a painting, not music, though it contains literary, visual, musical and other elements. The typical method of creating pure cinema is montage through edits and dissolves. Edits shift abruptly from one image to the next to indicate continuity in motion. Dissolves gradually move one image to another to indicate a passage of time or move to another space.

Hitchcock was the master of pure cinema. The achieved creations are not only splendid works of art, they cannot be transformed into any other form without losing their experience.


Hitchcock made many, now famous cameo appearances in his movies, such as when he walked with his dogs in The Birds (1963) or his cassual walk-ins for no aparent reason at all. I made my own cameo appearance on the previous page, as a once 17-year old.

Of course, I warmly recommend you get more acquainted with Hitchcock's many films, which can only be through watching the work. You can check out some of the online materials about Hitchcock's work and life via Google or Wikipedia. You may also want to read one the short biographies available on Hitchcock, and view, or consult while scrolling these pages, one or another of the lists of his films.


Hitchcock did not make any horror movies except two: Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). It is not altogether unfortunate that Hitchcock is sometimes know only for these two movies, for they vividly demonstrate and realize the ideal of pure cinema.

In Psycho, the lengthy build-up to the shocking shower scene is central. It is the most central part of the film. Perfectly fitting the movie is the music by Bernard Herrmann --who was a partner to Hitchcock in several of his films. In the beginning of the film, for more than 45 minutes, we are led into a story of sex, deceit, seduction, theft, cheating, fear, and desire. Then something horrible happens.

A woman steals a large sum of money so she can marry her divorcee boyfriend. On the run, she is questioned by a police officer, sells her car, and is caught by a sudden rain storm. She decides to check in at a motel, where she is greeted by the proprietor, a young man with a passion for stuffing birds... The woman and the young man dine together. They go into the parlor of the motel. While she eats like a bird, they talk. The woman returns to her room. She is remorseful and decides to go back home, return the money, and accept the punishment she deserves. She undresses to take a shower. The young man watches her through a peephole. Then she is murdered.

The Punishment She Deserves

The shower scene is an intricately assembled sequence of images that lasts but few minutes. This is pure cinema at its best. There is no substitute for experiencing the scene in the film.


The previous page already introduced a central pure-cinematic device which Hitchcock resorted to throughout many of his movies. In many scenes of Psycho the subjects are viewed standing or sitting opposite from one another. Either they are filmed from left and right angles respectively, or, more often and more poignantly still, they are each positioned on one side of the screen.

The technique can be referred to as doubling, i.e. the splitting or dividing in two or multiplying to two. A simple yet very effective device of pure cinema, doubling can accomplish different things. It may separate or connect: two antagonists yelling at each other; a man looking longingly at a woman.

Hitchcock's most striking use of doubling is when the technique is used to convey the separation of guilt on one side and innocence on the other. The splitting of the subjects over the screen shows that guilt is what innocence is not, that they are in opposition. Thus, they are connected: there is no guilt without innocence, that they need each other.

In Psycho, the splitting of the characters over the screen is very rigid and omnipresent throughout the movie to clearly and repeatedly distinguish the victim from the offender, further augmented by the black & white photography and the chilling music of Bernard Herrmann. The splitting obviously also refer to the split personality of the offender and his victim. In Psycho the technique of doubling is additionally used with mirrors, which pop up time and time again throughout the movie. Through the use of mirrors, doubling typically can take places with one person. The notion is that one person has a guilty and innocent side. There is a dialogue with one's conscious.

Guilt v. Innocence

In To Catch a Thief (1954), John Robie (Cary Grant) and Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) are going for a ride in a car. The two are being followed by a couple of policemen who are after Robie, suspecting him of a series of robberies. Robie tries to evade the police without telling the woman of his real identity. What Robie does not know is that she knows.

In Frenzy (1972), the streets of London are terrorized by a vicious sex killer known as the "neck tie murderer." Following the brutal slaying of his ex-wife, Richard Blaney is suspected by the police of being the killer. Blaney goes on the run, the only way to prove prove his innocence.

The two men in Strangers on a Train (1951) share much of the same double identity of the young man in Psycho. Bruno Anthony meets famous tennis player Guy Haines on a train. Guy is dating a senator's daughter but still awaits divorce from his wife. Bruno wants to kill his father. Bruno dreams up a crazy scheme whereby he and Guy exchange murders. Guy takes the idea as a joke, but Bruno doesn't. Bruno fulfills his part of the bargain ("criss-cross") and kills Guy's wife. He informs Guy of his act at the gate of his house --behind bars. In the next scene the camera shifts from right to left causing Guy to be behind bars...

Adding and Blurring Boundaries

Hitchcock often uses the doubling technique at various levels at once. This creates not just an added dimension of splitting or separation but more often conveys an ambiguity of guilt and innocence. Now there is --rather than a mere disassociation of guilt from innocence-- a vagueness and ambiguity of who is guilty and who is innocent. The just mentioned scene from Strangers on a Train is a good example: the camera shifting from left to angle and back puts the two men alternately 'behind bars,' conveying confusion over their guilt for the murder.

In the movie Shadow of a Doubt (1943), doubling is constantly present. A killer is uncovered by his own niece. Both uncle and niece have the same name (Charlie) and share a very close, at times telepathic bond. Even more clearly than in Strangers on a Train, both Charlies are the same person. Throughout the movie, the dilemma for the two is whether to love or hate, to belong or leave, to hold or push away.

Beyond this basic duality of uncle and niece, there is the rest of the family --the family of both the uncle and the niece. Central to the symbolic order is the mother, the niece's mother who is also the uncle's sister. She adores her brother.


Public guilt is the guilt of a person labeled by the social order, the formal system of law and its representatives. Most often in Hitchcock's films, public guilt means factual innocence. The typical example --and Hitchcock gave us very many-- is the image of the man wrongly accused.

Public guilt in the world of Alfred Hitchcock is a processual event that moves through several successive stages. Here I give examples of the various phases most typical in this process of liminality through public condemnation.


First, the innocent person must get wrongly involved in an adventure than is someone else's. Often times mistaken identity leads to involvement through a rather silly but very consequential misunderstanding.

I have already used several examples from North by Northwest (1959), the comedy/romance in which Cary Grant is chased across northern America, away from the spies and straight into the arms of Eva Marie Saint. Many observers indeed find this movie to be quintessential Hitchcock both in contents and form. The involvement in North by Northwest occurs through a silly coincidence. A man is in a bar with colleagues. He stands up to make a phone call and walks out into the hall at the precise moment when a certain Mr. Kaplan is being paged, setting off a series of strange events.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) --Hitchcock's remake of his 1934 movie-- a man is on vacation with his wife and child in Marocco. Out of nowhere, he is approached by a dying man,
who tells him of a plot to kill a statesman. Now the man knows too much. Once the hero is involved, a series of unexpected events, full of danger and suffering, will be forced upon him and his family.


The labeling of guilt does not merely involve an initial involvement. Public guilt is a process that through several stages includes public instruments and symbols of condemnation.

In the Wrong Man (1957), the innocent man is questioned by the police for a crime he did not commit. Questioning him, one of the officers observes: "An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that." Thereafter, the man is arraigned before a judge and held in jail before he is eventually released.

In Saboteur (1942), the man mistakenly held accountable for an act of sabotage is marked by society's most forceful symbols of guilt.

The Chase

The initial involvement leads the publicly held guilty person to go on the run. The chase is not simply an exciting adventure, although it is that too. It involves a transference of guilt from one person (who did perform a crime) to another (who did not). The chase is seen by society as a confession of guilt, but for the protagonist its is the only possible means to search for truth, to attempt to rid one self of the guilt society has inflicted.

The chase involves ridding one self of someone else's guilt, a cleansing. It also means, by definition, that someone else must be held accountable. Therefore, it is the falsely accused who will have to find the real wrongdoer. And to make matters worse, the police are often incompetent, at times even outright stupid, and further complicating matters, implicating the falsely accused even more.

In The 39 Steps (1935), Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London, accidentally meets a woman who is running away from secret agents. He hides her in his flat, but during the night she is murdered. Knowing he will be accused on the woman's murder, Hannay goes on the run.

The chase is the ultimate device to portray the innocent person who is on the run from the machine of formal law. During the chase, furthermore, more and more public guilt is inflicted upon the falsely accused. In more and more ways, the victim of public guilt is put in situation of great danger.

The man on the run in North By Northwest at one point is led to an open field. He meets a man there who takes a bus and remarks, "That's funny, that plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops." Then, there is an attack.

In response, the accused must go through a cleansing, not only a stripping of the public guilt from one self but a tagging on to someone else. The price one has to pay is typically some form of wrongdoing, an involvement in illegality that is not of one's own choosing, a secondary guilt.

In The 39 Steps, the man on the run has to lie and steal to not get caught and move closer to the real culprit. At some point he has to bribe a man he hates but whose help he desperately needs.


At the end of the chase, the hero is cleared. But the cleansing always comes at a price, after a long and intense period of suffering, pain, and loss.

In The Lodger (1926), a man is mistakenly held to be 'Jack the Ripper.' As he is handcuffed, a crowd chases him. Just before the real murderer is discovered, he climbs over a fence and gets caught.


Subjects experience private guilt when they recognize themselves that what they have done is wrong. In Hitchcock's movies, private guilt is typically expeienced by those who committed the illegal act the hero is falsely accused of, as well as by the hero, albeit it for other reasons.


In Hitchcock's films, the audience is most always told --at the very beginning of the movie-- who the real culprit is. We can clearly see the guilt of their crimes, typically through some small, intimate or otherwise seemingly innocent symbol.

In Dial M for Murder (1954), a man hires somebody to kill his wife. In Frenzy (1972), the audience knows the real murderer early on in the story when he brutally rapes a woman. Yet, the man's guilt is seen more sharply in his eyes. In Murder! , the killer's guilt is betrayed not despite but because of his turning away. In Suspicion (1941), a woman gradually becomes convinced that her husband is out to kill her. One night, when she is ill in bed, he brings her a glass of milk. In The 39 Steps, the hero on the run only knows one thing about the man behind the spy ring: he misses part of the little finger on his right hand. In Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie is at the beginning of the movie seen lying on a bed, smoking a cigar and with several dollar bills carelessly placed next to him.


Intimate symbols cannot be shaken off easily. Like parents often tell their children to look into their eyes when they suspect a lie, the symbols of private guilt are powerful. They therefore often times lead to the unmasking of the real culprit.

In The Lady Vanishes (1938), a gang of foreign spies attempt to conceal --unsuccessfully-- that they plan to steal a government secret. In Young and Innocent (1937), we know of the killer only the one little detail that he has a nervous twitch in his eyes. In the end, he is caught, despite his mask.

Among the more disturbing consequences of the guilt on the part of the actual wrongdoer is the intrusion into a world of harmony and happiness.

In Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie has killed at least three women. But the more devastating guilt on his part is that he brought his crimes to Charlie and their family.

Private guilt is rigidly separated from public guilt. Private guilt refers to a general code of conduct in the realm of morality. It can therefore --and in Hitchcock always does-- apply to everybody, regardless of public guilt or innocence.


Much has been said and written about Hitchcock as a so-called Catholic movie maker. No doubt, many of these allusions are misplaced. Yet, some elements in Hitchcock's films are strikingly congruent with the themes and symbols of the church in which he was raised.
In one clear way, Hitchcock's film are influenced by his religious background. Earlier, I already addressed the separation in Hitchcock between public and private guilt. The division corresponds to a distinction between formal law and individual morality, which can also be expressed in terms of secular versus higher order of normativity.

In the Paradine Case (1947), a man defends a woman charged with killing her husband. The woman is guilty and the lawyer loses the case. Yet, more grave is his moral loss, because although he is a married man, he fell in love with his client. In Rich and Strange (1932), a married couple suddenly gains a fortune and decide to travel the world. Before they find happiness, they both cheat on each other. In Family Plot (1976), a woman and her boyfriend manage to uncover a couple of kidnappers. The woman is a fake medium and takes advantage of an aging widow desperately looking for a family member.

Under Capricorn (1949) is a movie about a man who in 1831 travels to Australia and meets a potential business partner, Sam Flusky. While attending a dinner party at Flusky's house, the man meets Flusky's wife Henrietta whom he had also known as a child back in Ireland.
In Torn Curtain (1966) a man lies to his girlfriend to hide his identity as a double agent. He later kills a man.

In Topaz (1969), an agent of the French secret service uncovers an espionage ring. He cheats on his wife with an informant. His wife has been cheating on him with a friend, who is later discovered to be the head of the spy ring.

The Victim's Guilt

There are many instances in Hitchcock's work when the hero or victim is guilty in a moral sense. In Psycho, the young woman who is killed is obviously also guilty in a legal sense (she stole $40,000). However, she is also guilty in a moral sense: she stole the money to be with her boyfriend with whom she has a secret affair. In Strangers on a Train, Guy is not guilty in any legal sense of the crime Bruno has committed (in fact, neither is Bruno, who is clearly not sane). But at some point Guy did want to strangle his wife. Also, he can never escape the fact that Bruno's murder did free him of her.

Original Sin

The examples above also show that in Hitchcock's world, private guilt refers to a morality or ethics that is of a sexual or otherwise highly personal nature. It is this private guilt that applies to everybody. Whereas public guilt is confined, private guilt is generalized. It is original sin. In Hitchcock's movies, nobody is ever innocent in a moral sense.

In The Trouble With Harry (1955), Hitchcock puts a humorous twist to the notion of universal guilt. The trouble erupts in a small quiet New England town when a boy finds a corpse. At some point during the story, almost everyone in town thinks that they had something to do with his death.

In The Lady Vanishes, several people are attacked by a gang of spies but none of them are innocent. The young woman will leave her fiancee and run off with a man she met on the train. The judge has an illicit affair with a young woman. And two Englishmen offer no defense because they do not want any time lost on their way to a cricket match.

In Dial M for Murder, a man tries to kill his wife through a hired killer. The wife is cheating on her husband with another man.

In Marnie (1964), a woman is a frigid, habitual thief. She is caught by a man who met her once before. Instead of turning her in, he decides to marry her. One night on their honeymoon, Marnie unsuccessfully tries to reject her husband's advances.


Guilt has many companions. Among them is most clearly fear. Perhaps even more clearly than innocence, fear is the contrast of guilt.

A clever device in Hitchcock's films to augment the fear felt by the protagonists --which is at once heightening the audience's sense of anxiety over the heroes' well-being-- is his use of famous movie stars. The audience cannot but readily identify and share the grief of the stars it reveres. Hitchcock does not just put anybody in danger but uses famous actors such as Ingrid Bergman, Carry Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Montgomery Clift, and Grace Kelly.

In some movies Hitchcock takes a slightly different stance and uses the stronger (sometimes but not always more famous) actor in the role of the villain. This also serves to heighten fear and terror, particularly on the part of the audience.

In Notorious, Claude Rains plays a Nazi obsessed with a woman. In the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), it is Peter Lorre who acts as the head of a gang plotting to kill a statesman.

In this respect, Rebecca (1940) is an exceptional film, because the hero as well as the villain --both women-- are strong characters played by excellent actresses. In the story of Rebecca, a young woman falls in love with a rich man, Maxim De Winter, whose previous wife Rebecca died a year earlier. Once married to Maxim, the woman constantly has to fight the ghost of the former Mrs. De Winter.

The terrorization of the victim in Rebecca is even more haunting because the subject of terror is not even visible (except in some of the movie's posters) and except of course through Rebecca's faithful housekeeper Mrs. Danvers).


Hitchcock is often referred to as the master of suspense. This title --constantly used in the advertisements for his movies-- applies, but it is but a fragment of the range of emotions Hitchcock's movies portray and evoke. Among the most interesting and often neglected facets of Hitchcock's films is the many ways in which romance is woven in the Hitchcock universe.


One function of romance in Hitchcock's movies is a way to make sense of the terrible pains and heartaches the hero is put through in the course of the action. Romance is the typical plot device whereby the hero 'gets the girl'. In this sense, romance is used very often in Hitchcock's work. The fact that his movies focus on plots involving crime necessitate an equal concentration on romance and love.


Occasionally, a touch of sexuality is added in Hitchcock's vision of romance. This does not happen often though, mostly because of the constraints put upon his work by the censors of his days.


Romance has different faces in Hitchcock's work. Often more than just indicating love, romance is complicated because of the heroes' involvement in an act of crime and/or immorality and their confusion over guilt and innocence.

In To Catch a Thief, seduction is playful. In North By Northwest, seduction is a tool of guilt as well as love...and romance is mixed with betrayal and danger.

In the previous pages I have dealt with various dimensions and aspects related to guilt and innocence in Hitchcock's work. I have not yet discussed some of the finest and/or most important films of Hitchcock's oeuvre because some of his films, I believe, deserve special attention. In the remainder of this essay, I will discuss some movies individually.


Arguably Hitchcock's most popular movie --together with Psycho-- The Birds (1963) is another fine example of Hitchcock's style of pure cinema. The story is deceptively simple. It should not affect your movie experience if I let you in on the adventure, even if you have not seen the movie. The Birds is a not a movie about birds. The Birds is a movie about people who are terrorized by inexplicable -- and left unexplained-- attacks by birds.

In The Birds, a young, affluent woman falls in love with a down-to-earth, handsome man. Despite the objections from the man's mother, the two are in the end brought together. They overcome their differences in personality and background as well as the horrible tragedy that is their destiny.

The Liminal Subjects

Melanie Daniels visits a man she just met, Mitch Brenner, to pay him back for a prank he played on her. In Bodega Bay, the small town where Mitch spends his weekends, she meets his mother (played by Jessica Tandy) and his former girlfriend Annie.

The central subjects in The Birds are three remarkably strong and intelligent personalities. As mentioned before, the use of famous actors in Hitchcock's films serves to raise the viewers' sense of involvement and heightens the impact of the tragedy the characters in the movie will be confronted with. The fact that in The Birds the actors also play very strong men and women, in intellectual, psychological and other respects, further ensures that the viewers will be left horrified by their tragic destiny and the inescapable terror of the seemingly senseless bird attacks.

The Conflict

Soon after Melanie's arrival in the small town, she meets Annie Hayworth, Mitch's former girlfriend. The confrontation is crucial to the rest of the movie. Annie's relationship with Mitch broke off, not because of any fault of their own, but because of Mitch's interfering and jealous mother. Now, Melanie has arrived to take Annie's place.

In The Birds, more than in any other Hitchcock's movie, the characters are at once innocent victims and guilty for their mischievous doings. Mitch's mother lost her husband, but caused the break-up of her son's relationship with Annie. Despite his clear strength and status as new head of the family, Mitch has tolerated his mother's whims to the detriment of himself as well as Annie. Annie is a victim of circumstances, but despite the misery she had to endure she decides to stay in Bodega Bay. Melanie is rich and spoiled.

The Attack

Starting with some sporadic attacks, the entire town of Bodega Bay is soon overtaken by attack upon attack of huge flocks of birds. No one is spared from the horror... As the birds get increasingly violent and deadly, the protagonists of the story are drawn closer and closer together.

The Punishment She Deserves

While Mitch rescues Melanie, Annie dies. Melanie, too, is in the end overtaken by the terror...


I Confess (1953) is not one of Hitchcock's favorite movies. He felt the film lacked in humor and wondered whether it could be related to his Catholic upbringing... The iconography of Catholicism is constantly present in Hitchcock's films. In I Confess, a story about a Catholic priest, played by Montgomery Clift, the symbolism does not need to hide.

In I Confess (1953), Otto Keller, a caretaker at a Catholic church in Quebec, confesses to Father Michael Logan that he has killed a man. The police suspect Father Logan, who cannot reveal what he has been told in confession. Father Logan is put on trial. Though acquitted, suspicions about his guilt remain... Eventually, Keller's wife Alma --for whom he stole and murdered-- points to the guilt of her husband... whereupon Keller shoots and kills her. Father Logan is freed.

Vertigo, The Birds, and I Confess are three movies that belong together inasmuch as they all create a new universe in which the boundaries between guilt and innocence are vague, shifting and ambiguous. Indeed, the ambiguity of guilt, the transference of guilt, the universality of guilt, and the painful cleansing ritual the liminal personae are involved with constitute the central themes of these films. The three films are quintessential Hitchcock. But, occasionally, Hitchcock's universe contains elements that are totally different.


To many viewers, Rear Window (1954) is Hitchcock at his best. The movie is indeed another fine example of pure cinema. A wheelchair bound photographer watches his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced that one of them has committed a murder. The film presents a disturbingly entertaining vision of human curiosity and voyeurism. Most all of the camera shots are from the protagonist's perspective, forcing the film viewers to see the adventure from his point of view and making us share in his voyeuristic pleasure.

The Apartment

Rear Window finds a photographer, L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries, looking outside his New York apartment into a courtyard, its apartments, and their tenants. Jeff is bound to a wheelchair because of an accident on one of his adventurous journeys. His girlfriend, Lisa, is not successful in persuading him to marry her. Also visiting Jeff's apartment is Stella, his nurse. With nothing better to do, Jeff is looking outside his apartment window and views his neighbors and their lives. So he sees the protagonists of Rear Window's universe.


One day, Jeff notices that Mr. Thorwald is constantly leaving and returning to his apartment
with a small suitcase. Mrs. Thorwald, meanwhile, is no longer to be seen. Jeff begins to
suspect Thorwald has murdered his wife and begins a surveillance. "We've become a race of Peeping Toms," Stella remarks. "What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change." Jeff's suspicion mounts when the next day the Old Couple's dog is found dead in the courtyard, killed after it had sniffed at a flower bed... because it knew too much?

The Conspiracy

Out to proof Thorwald's guilt, Jeff calls in the assistance of Lisa and Stella, who are now all too eager to help. First they trick Thorwald to leave his apartment. Then Lisa goes inside Thorwald's place, looking for his wife's ring. Lisa finds the ring. But Thorwald sees her and also him who is behind all of this.


Rope (1948) is a movie about two college students who kill a fellow student for the sake of proving that they are capable of murder. The story is isnpired by a true account (the Leopold and Loeb killing). In the Truffaut interviews, Hitchcock dismissed the movie because of the style of its filming. Rope consists of several continuous shots without interruptions (except at reel change) to indicate real time, as if in a play. However, while this 'stunt' may be less persuasive, the film is a fine study in guilt and innocence.

Two college students kill their friend just before they hold a party in their apartment, where the body is still hidden away in a chest. Attending the party are the dead man's girlfriend, his father and aunt, and another friend. Also attending is a former school teacher, Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart). At the party, Rupert touts his cynical philosophy.

Rupert gradually becomes aware that something's wrong. He particularly notices one of the students' anxiety over a piece of rope. When the party's over, Rupert first leaves with the other guests. Then he returns... with the piece of rope. Rupert uncovers the horrible crime and confronts the two men. Inspired by Rupert's own philosophy, the students question their former teacher's involvement and his guilt. In the end, caught between and among the guilty parties, Rupert dissociates himself from the two and calls upon society.


Hitchcock made several movies during World War II that explicitly deal with the theme of war and that served to function in the war effort. In 1944 Hitchcock made two short propaganda movies (in French) for the British Ministry of Information: Bon Voyage (1944) and Aventure Malgache (1944). Hitchcock made three regular features about the war that are to be seen as his "little effort" in the war. These are Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), and Lifeboat (1943).

In Foreign Correspondent, a journalist is sent to Europe to report on the prospect of war. Through a series of hazardous adventures, he finds out about a spy ring and secures the rescue of a political leader whom had been kidnapped.

Saboteur is a movie about a man who is wrongly accused of an act of sabotage. Over the course of the story, the man not only clears his name but also helps to unmask the real saboteurs.

In Lifeboat, an American ship and a German U-boat are involved in battle and sink. Survivors from the two ships gather in a lifeboat: an international journalist, a rich businessman, a radio operator, a nurse, a black steward, a sailor, an engineer, and the commander of the German submarine. The German commander tries to steer the boat to a German-held port, but the other passengers find out and kill him. Eventually, they are rescued when an American ship arrives.

Hitchcock's war movies as well as Rope break with his quest for liminality. These films do not present much ambiguity in moral and/or legal respects and instead clearly and resolutely demarcate guilt from innocence. There are villains who are to be exterminated and there are heroes who will do so.

The kidnapped man in Foreign Correspondent is a victim in all respects. His kidnappers are evil without question or qualification. In Saboteur the wrongly accused man can shake off his ill-fortune and expose the real saboteurs. In his fight, he is joined and supported by all members of society, manifested most clearly by a group of circus artists who help him. Lifeboat is a miniature of war-time America, wherein all --mand and woman, rich and poor, black and white-- are united against the Nazi evil.

Mostly, however, Hitchcock's films present a very different picture. Guilt and innocence shift and change. In two films, I believe, Hitchcock even went as far as to portray and justify a radical reversal of central principles of the social order.


In Blackmail (1929), the first British talking picture, Hitchcock introduced important themes and styles that would re-appear in his later work. Together with The Lodger (1926), Blackmail is a foundational work for Hitchcock in respect of style as well as theme.

A young woman is attacked by a man who tries to rape her. She defends herself and kills the man with a knife. A criminal witnessed the murder. Having kept the woman's glove found on the scene of the crime scene, he blackmail's her. The woman's boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective, is assigned to the case. Alice is a young woman who is displeased with her boyfriend's lack of attention for her and his preoccupation with his job at Scotland Yard. One night, she secretly meets with another man and goes to his apartment to see his paintings. The man, however, tries to rape her. Alice defends herself and kills her assailant with a bread knife. When the body is discovered, Alice's boyfriend is assigned to the case and quickly determines that Alice is the killer. A man with a criminal record witnessed the killing and blackmails Alice. Eventually, it is the blackmailer who is thought to be the killer and he dies accidentally. The young woman goes free. As the dead man's painting of a laughing clown is carried away, she starts to laugh.


Sabotage (1936) is a film about a woman who discovers that her husband is involved in a gang of foreign saboteurs. In the United States, the film was released under the title "The Woman Alone."

A man and a woman manage a small cinema in London. Next to the cinema, a Scotland Yard detective works in a grocery store to observe the man whom is suspected of sabotage. The woman has a younger brother, Stevie, whom she adores. One day, the woman's husband is assigned to leta bomb explode in the heart of London. When he cannot deliver the bomb himself, he asks Stevie, who unwittingly takes the package with the time bomb. The boy is delayed and he is killed when the bomb explodes. When the woman finds out about her brother's death and her husband's involvement, she is desperate on what to do. Preparing dinner, she holds a knife and looks at her husband. When the man stands up and approaches her, she stabs him. The detective finds out about the woman's involvement but because he has fallen in love with her, he covers up the facts and the woman goes free.


Hitchcock's films are the liminal expression of an experiential journey. As rituals, movies and other expressions of art offer reversals of the structured and rigid principles of the social order and create communitas. This by definition does not apply to commodity made for consumption on the basis of market inquiries of taste. It does not, therefore, apply to most movies Hollywood currently produces.

Additionally, in the films of Hitchcock the heroes are submitted to a process of liminality, a drama that takes them from somewhere to somewhere else, the beginning and end of which are inadequate to communicate the experience of the artistic outcome.

A Hitchcock movie is not exhausted by reference to the story told. Instead, the prime element is the experience of the inter-structural journey through which the heroes must go, through which Hitchcock makes them go, and shows them to go.

The centrality of a hitchcock film is the adventure in which the heroes are caught "betwixt and between" a previous and next phase in the social order. As guilt and innocence are constitutive principles of a society's formal order of law, liminality in this context infuses the order of guilt and innocence with ambiguity and fluidity, or even creates reversal.

The liminal personae are on the run because they are publicly condemned. Heroes who are clearly victims in some respect are guilty of wrongdoings on another level of normativity.

In Hitchcock's war movies there is a striking lack of ambiguity over guilt and innocence. The Nazis are guilty; those fighting them are innocent. In Rope, we notice the same motif. Although there was ambiguity over Rupert's involvement in the killing, in the end it is Rupert who calls upon society to bring the killers to justice. Also, the consequences are clear: the evil-doers must pay for their terror, and the victims must be able to return to a life of harmony and happiness (which later Hitchcock will show to be but an illusion).

Rope and the war movies are a-typical for Hitchcock. They are justified for exceptional reasons. In Rope, the killers are condemned not because they killed, but because they killed without passion or motive (also, the story is based on a real event). In the war movies, rigid boundaries of morality are introduced because war is an exceptional state of turmoil, a shocking if temporary horror that precludes liminality. But in Hitchcock's other works, reality is quite different...

The Punishment She Deserves

The single-most ridiculous thing that has been written about Hitchcock is that his films are the result of some deeper psychological state, a mental disorder almost, oriented at inflicting pain, particularly upon females. Naturally, this viewpoint is often couched in highly sexually charged terms. In reality, Hitchcock's supposed torture of his subjects represents a ritual of affliction that is a necessary component of the quest for a new existence. There is shame, loss, and moral guilt in order to accomplish a new life.

In The Birds, the rich woman in the end looks like the most beat up, most hurt of all the characters. But she is also the one who gained the most, as she escaped from the constraints of her bourgeois existence to find a happiness she earlier could not even phantom. In Marnie, the woman is liberated of the psychological disorder that prevented her from experiencing love after she kills her horse, the only being she was capable of loving.

To heighten the sense of loss and disorder, Hitchcock typically introduces the liminal subjects in a setting of complete order, a surrounding filled with familiar symbols. In Saboteur, the villain falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty. In Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie's guilt is uncovered in the sunny town of Santa Rosa. In North by Northwest, the hero's journey ends on the cliffs of Mount Rushmore. In The Birds, the beautifully quiet coastal town of Bodega bay is under attack.

To accomplish a new existence, the final phase of the ritual performance must end in some tragedy which in other respects represents liberation. In many of Hitchcock's most famous chase movies, the adventure ends literally in a theater.

Hitchcock's movies connect to fundamental principles of the normative order of society. The films contain --must contain-- elements of a social and cultural identity, not that of the director, but of society. Thus Hitchcock's films reproduce a social order from which we successfully part during the experiential process of cinema. Parting from society's order, we relate to it.


In search of a new reality, Hitchcock continually attempted to escape from the normative bounds imposed by society. That was the purpose of his movies, of all art. The success of the filmic accomplishment of spontaneous communitas in which the artist involves the audience is Hitchcock's genius. For Hitchcock happiness is a clear horizon.


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Deflem, Mathieu. 1991. "Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1):1-25.

Durkheim, Emile. (1912) 1965. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

____. (1914) 1973. "The Dualism of Human Nature and Its Social Conditions." Pp. 149-163 in Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society, edited by Robert N. Bellah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. 1987. "To see and not to be: female subjectivity and the law in Hitchcock's Notorious." Literature and Psychology 33(3/4):1-15.

Gordon, Paul. 1991. "Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar: a Freudian analysis of Uncle Charles in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt." Literature/Film Quarterly 19(4):267-75.

Holland, Norman. Hitchcock's Vertigo. http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/nnh/vertigo.htm

Kaganski, Serge. 1997. Alfred Hitchcock. Paris: Hazan.

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Rebello, Stephen. 1990. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

Sterrit, David. 1993. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Cambrdige University Press.

Taylor, John Russell. 1978. Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock. New York: Da Capo Press.

Truffaut, François. 1984. Hitchcock. Revised edition. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Turner, Victor W. 1967. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

____. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

____. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wood, Robin. 1989. Hitchcock's Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press.

See HitchcockOnline.org.
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