Alfred Hitchcock: Visions of Guilt and Innocence

Mathieu Deflem
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This chapter is published in Framing Law and Crime: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, edited by Caroline Joan S. Picart, Michael Hviid Jacobsen, and Cecil Greek. Roman & Littlefield/Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, April 2016.

Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2016. "Alfred Hitchcock: Visions of Guilt and Innocence." Pp. 203-227 in Framing Law and Crime: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, edited by Caroline Joan S. Picart, Michael Hviid Jacobsen, and Cecil Greek. Latham, MD; Madison, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.


I explore dimensions and modalities of guilt and innocence in the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Situated at the intersection of the sociology of law and cultural sociology, this analysis conceives of Hitchcock’s films as manifestations of liminality that are essentially marked by a process of transition from one state to another. Through this ritualistic experience of transformation, which pertains both to the characters in the movies as well as their viewers, the ritual subjects are not only transformed but also subjected to, and actively experiencing, a transitional existential process that escapes from, and often even contradicts, the usual structures and demands of the social order. The accompanying visions of guilt and innocence in Hitchcock’s movies involve a demarcation between private guilt and public guilt, the transference of guilt across subjects, and a generalized universality of guilt.


In this chapter, I analyze the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock from a sociological perspective that thematically focuses on the themes of guilt and innocence. The analysis relies on some of Hitchcock’s more popular movies, but also discussed are some of his lesser known films and some of his earlier works. While this study is decidedly sociological in orientation, the discussion also builds from insights from the so-called auteur theory, popularized by François Truffaut’s (1984) interviews with Hitchcock, and centrally revolve around the notion of pure cinema, with which Hitchcock expressed his artistic ideal of movie making.

Working from a sociological perspective, I offer an interpretive analysis of the visions of guilt and innocence in Hitchcock’s films that refrains from any psychologistic dream analyses or otherwise reductive introspection. Instead, I rely on the work of Emile Durkheim, one of the central founders of sociology, and the anthropology of Victor Turner to develop an appropriate perspective of film making (and viewing) as a ritual event. I argue that Hitchcock’s movies are most centrally to be conceived as liminal experiences whereby both the characters involved in the plot and their viewers go through a series of events and adventures that leave them in an altered state, from what was before, through the pains and pleasures of change itself, to an outcome that is never certain but essentially still ambiguous. Hitchcock thereby portrays attributes of guilt and innocence that involve a demarcation between private guilt and public guilt, a transference of guilt from one to another, and a universality of various degrees and kinds of guilt among many, possibly even all who are involved in a movie (and its viewing). I will substantiate my arguments by means of illustration, relying on analyses of various events and characters from a range of Hitchcock films.

Cinema as Ritual

The sociological analysis of cultural events revolving around ritual and symbolism, especially within the realm of religion, is built upon the seminal work of Emile Durkheim (see Alexander 1988). The work of Durkheim is centrally concerned with the question of social order and integration, especially under conditions of increasing cultural complexity and individualism. No society more than a modern one, which Durkheim described as organic, emphasizes the individual as the core unit of normative prescriptions on rights and responsibilities (Durkheim 1914). How then, Durkheim and any other sociologist since have asked, is social integration achieved? To Durkheim, the answer lays in the fact that there has to be a higher normative force that individuals accept as valid to enable adherence to binding obligations and specifications of rights and duties. Society is this moral force.

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 or community is most consciously and most actively aware of itself as an order higher than the participating individuals. A community is therefore no more truly conscious of itself, displaying itself as a community, than when it celebrates itself. Among the functional implications of this idea is that through ritual practice a community’s cohesiveness, exemplified by the physical assembly of people and the focus on a particular symbol during ritual practice, is secured, lived, and maintained. The community is renewed, and the individual, as individual and at once as member of the community, is strengthened by participation in ritual activity. Particularly because of the impact of powerful symbols, a society is celebrated through rituals.

From Durkheim’s work, sociologists have learned that rituals, both small or momentous and temporary or more enduring, serve to re-enact the central values and norms guiding a community or society at large. A wedding, by example, is not merely a ritual consecrating the marriage between two romantically or otherwise intimately linked partners, but it is also, because of its public display and legitimation, a central event on behalf of all of society, specifying and celebrating fundamental social norms related to gender, sexuality, and life. Sociologically, a wedding is not about the love between two people, but about the adoration of society for itself.

Durkheim’s sociology forcefully argues for the societal constitution and re-integrative functions of ritual. Yet, Durkheim also tends to emphasize the social origins and consequences of ritual at the expense of an analysis of the practice of ritual enactment itself. It is this question of what happens during ritual practice that forms the center part of the work of anthropologist Victor W. Turner, who critically built on Durkheim’s oeuvre (see Deflem 1991). 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” (Turner 1967, 19). A symbol is the smallest unit of ritual which still retains the specific properties of ritual behavior. Importantly, Turner identifies a three-phased process of ritual. Building on the fact that a ritual brings about a transition from one state to another, Turner observes that between these states the ritual subjects are often secluded, spending time in an interstructural situation, which Turner characterizes as liminality. During this 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 argues that the very essence of ritual performances is not, as Durkheim would have it, a celebration of the social order or social structure, but a successful attempt, albeit a temporary one, to escape from the demands and functions of the structures of society in order to create anti-structure by means of so-called ‘communitas’ or a new sense of belonging. Communitas is defined in opposition to structure. Whereas social structure refers to the normatively proscribed arrangement of social positions, communitas refers to liminality, marginality, inferiority, and equality. The characteristics of the social structure are no longer applicable during the period of liminality that is displayed in ritual and other forms of communitas. Yet, eventually, the fate of communitas is a “decline and fall into structure and law” (Turner 1969, 132), upon which a new form of communitas may arise. A view of cinema, in particular the films of Alfred Hitchcock, as liminality can enable a sociologically illuminating vision surrounding the legal and moral themes of guilt and innocence.

The Case of Alfred Hitchcock

A reading of Hitchcock’s movies as rituals of liminality has at least two dimensions, involving the cultural place of his films in their social environment as well as the specific form that Hitchcock gave to his individual films and the response they were meant to invoke on the part of the viewer. I begin with a very brief overview of the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock for the reader who may not be sufficiently familiar with this legendary director.

Life and Work

The work of Alfred Hitchcock counts among the most popular and revered in the history of Western cinema. Hitchcock was also a very famous person during his days, a true celebrity (Kapsis 1992). These days Hitchcock is still a cultural icon, although his work is not always well known anymore. Alfred Hitchcock directed movies for a period of more than fifty years, over a time period when the medium evolved tremendously. He was born on August 13, 1899 in a part of Essex that is now part of London (Chandler 2005, 29-42; Taylor 1978, 25-36). He attended a Catholic (high) school and studied engineering. A fan of the theatre, Hitchcock first began working in the cinema world in 1920 as a title card designer for silent pictures. Gradually, he would take on different, more creative roles in the movie-making industry, eventually becoming assistant director and subsequently director.

Hitchcock’s first directing effort was in 1922 with a movie called Number 13, but the production was canceled because of financial problems (Chandler 2005, 41). In 1925, Hitchcock was assigned to direct The Pleasure Garden, which was released the following year, when he also directed The Mountain Eagle, a movie that is now lost and which Hitchcock himself considered to be “very bad” (Truffaut 1984, 39). While both of these movies were not successful, a year later, Hitchcock released his first commercial success, The Lodger, the movie that the director and his admirers often refer to as the first true ‘Hitchcock movie’ (Chandler 2005, 60; Truffaut 1984, 43). Several more silent movies with various themes followed in the years to come. In 1929, Hitchcock released Blackmail, the first British ‘talkie’ (Truffaut 1984, 64).

In the early 1930s, Hitchcock directed several more movies with different themes that met with varying levels of success. Then, between 1934 and 1938, Hitchcock made several very successful movies, now often referred to collectively as the ‘thriller series’ (Chandler 2005, 92). Among them are The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934, The 39 Steps in 1935 (arguably his best movie of this era), Sabotage in 1936, and The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (Chandler 2005, 91-119). By the late 1930s, Hitchcock had come to enjoy an international reputation that was such that he, as the then acknowledged best British director (Gottlieb 2003, 14), could move to Hollywood, the center of the movie industry.

In 1939, Hitchcock and his wife and daughter moved to the United States, where he signed a contract with David O. Selznick, one of the most successful movie producers at the time (Truffaut 1984, 121, 127). Hitchcock and Selznick would go to on to make several pictures together, but to escape Selznick’s control, Hitchcock also worked with other producers (Taylor 1978, 161). Hitchcock’s first American movie (largely set in England) was Rebecca in 1940, a huge hit, which won the Academy Award for best movie, an honor that went to producer Selznick (Truffaut 1984, 133). Hitchcock never won an Oscar for any of his movies.

During World War II, Hitchcock made several successful films, such as Suspicion in 1941, Shadow of a Doubt in 1943, and Spellbound in 1945 (Truffaut 1984, 145-173). He also directed two small French-language movies that were oriented at occupied Europe, to help in the war effort, and he edited a documentary about the Holocaust that was not seen until the 1980s and has just very recently been restored (The Telegraph 2015). In 1946, Hitchcock directed Notorious starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, followed by his last movie for Selznick, The Paradine Case in 1947 (Truffaut 1984, 173). Hitchcock then started his own production company, Transatlantic Pictures, for which he directed Rope in 1948, his first color movie, which was an experimental film based on long single-take camera shots (Truffaut 1984, 179-184). Like Rope, his next movies, Under Capricorn in 1949 and Stage Fright in 1950, were not very successful (Truffaut 1984, 185-189).

Returning to the studio system, Hitchcock would during the 1950s and early 1960s be at his absolute peak, both artistically and commercially, directing some of the best and commercially most successful movies of his career. Among the films Hitchcock directed in this period special mention can be made of Strangers on a Train in 1951, Dial M for Murder in 1954, Rear Window in 1954, To Catch a Thief in 1955 (the year in which Hitchcock became a U.S. citizen), Vertigo in 1958, North by Northwest in 1959, Psycho in 1960, and The Birds in 1963 (Chandler 2005, 191-266). Hitchcock had by this time acquired fame, wealth, and complete control over his art. However, because the thriller genre had long been looked down upon in the so-called serious artistic circles of the modern cinema, it was not until the late 1960s that Hitchcock also acquired prestige as an artistically accomplished filmmaker, especially because of the efforts by François Truffaut (whose 1984 book on the director was originally published in 1967) and other directors of the ‘French new wave’.

The movies Hitchcock directed in the 1960s after the release of Marnie in 1964 were not as successful, largely because he had lost some of his independence as well as some of his best collaborators, such as film music composer Bernard Herrmann, with whom Hitchcock had a creative falling out, and long-time associates, cinematographer Robert Burks and editor George Tomasini, both of whom had died (Taylor 1978, 273, 277-278). A planned movie in the second half of the 1960s, involving rather explicit depictions of sex and violence, was vetoed by Universal studios, and Hitchcock had to turn to projects, including scripts and actors, that were more or less forced upon him (Chandler, 2005, 287-295).

Hitchcock’s last two movies were again more independent manifestations of his cinematic talent (Taylor 1978, 283-305). In 1972, Hitchcock returned to his native England to direct Frenzy, a successful movie, that can be regarded his final masterpiece. In 1976, Hitchcock released Family Plot, a comedy thriller that was to be his last film. Hitchcock began working on another movie, The Short Night, but because of his failing health, he had to abort the project and he formally retired in the spring of 1979 (Chandler 2005, 326). Hitchcock died on April 29, 1980. He received a Catholic funeral service, and his body was cremated (Chandler 2005, 329).

Hitchcock’s Liminal Subjects

At its best, the art of the cinema 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 viewing must be intertwined, and Alfred Hitchcock counts among the directors who are most aware of this central ambition to engage the viewer into the movie. Indeed, the connection with the audience is central in a Hitchcock movie, who argued that a film has to be designed “as Shakespeare did his plays –for an audience” (Truffaut 1984, 283). The director cannot make a movie just for his or her own pleasure, according to Hitchcock, because of the enormous financial cost that is involved as well as because of artistic considerations (Gottlieb 1995, 186-89). The cost of cinematic expression is, according to Hitchcock, the most delicate aspect in finding a balance between the artistic and the commercial. Hitchcock’s best movies should therefore also be among his most commercially successful ones. The Hitchcock audience should ideally be (and to a large extent is) a global audience to the extent that viewers respond identically all over the world to the exact same stimuli on the movie screen (Gottlieb 2003, 130). The more specific manner in which Hitchcock seeks to involve the audience in his films is emotional (Gottlieb 2003, 131, 181; Truffaut 1984, 283). The approach is resolutely non-intellectual, not oriented at making people think, but making them feel a certain way, for the duration of the movie and possibly thereafter as well. Hitchcock likened this approach to the experience of being on a roller coaster or visiting a haunted house, indicating the centrality of what he argued to be the audience’s quest for “the satisfaction of temporary pain” (Gottlieb 2003, 69). As such an escape into the pleasures associated with danger and suspense, a Hitchcock movie constitutes a ritual performance of liminality, a temporary but nonetheless real experience of communitas.

Hitchcock’s films are also manifestations of liminality in a more specific sense. A Hitchcock film typically displays a basic three-fold structure that follows the processual scheme of ritual performances outlined by Turner from social structure (before a ritual) to anti-structure (during a ritual) to a return to social structure (upon the completion of a ritual).

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, a rather banal (ideally even a completely banal) and hardly noteworthy object or event that is introduced to move the rest of the story forward but that is otherwise not relevant to the experience of the film (Gottlieb 1995, 124; Truffaut 1984, 137-138). The typical example of a MacGuffin mentioned by Hitchcock is the government secret the spies are after. The wine bottle with uranium in Notorious (Hitchcock 1946), the love letter in Dial M For Murder (Hitchcock 1954), and the stolen diamond in Family Plot (Hitchcock 1976) are examples. In the movie North by Northwest (Hitchcock 1959), Hitchcock felt he had come up with the best MacGuffin yet (Truffaut 1984, 139). In that story, a man played by Carry Grant is mistakenly believed to be a U.S. agent and subsequently chased across the country by a group of spies. Why the spies justify their pursuit is deadly important to them but wholly irrelevant to the emotional experience the viewers undergo while the hero is being chased. At some point, rather late in the movie, an American agent explains only in passing that the spies are chasing the hero because they are looking for “government secrets, I suppose” (Hitchcock 1959).

In a next phase, Hitchcock’s subjects are typically held captive in some situation of extreme danger, involving illness, panic, confusion, and other intense states, both mental and physical, of despair and destitution. The heroes are now stripped off their worldly status and are caught in an adventure that is not of their own choosing but forced upon them by circumstance. In North by Northwest (Hitchcock 1959), the hero on the run is continually tortured and victimized by the spies who are chasing him -- first when they force him to drink a bottle of liquor and try to get him killed in a staged car accident, subsequently when they involve him in many kinds of torturous ways all throughout the movie, and eventually when they try to kill him on top of Mount Rushmore.

In a final phase, the Hitchcockian heroes return to the world of social structure. Yet, they are never the same as they were before their adventure. They return into the world differently, not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but always changed. For example, in North by Northwest (Hitchcock 1959), the hero is in the end united with the woman he fell in love with throughout his ordeal. In the last scene of the movie, as they are sitting in a train that enters a tunnel, he refers to her as his wife, ‘Mrs. Thornhill.’ From the story we know that it is his third wife. While it is therefore the third time our hero will give up on his bachelor lifestyle, it will be the first time, so the story implies, that he will be happy in matrimony.

The Auteur Theory and Pure Cinema

There are two technical aspects of Hitchcock’s film to be mentioned that are useful to explain for my analysis. 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, artistically accomplished films, including those directed by Alfred Hitchcock, are to be conceived as manifestations of the creative talent and vision of the director. The director is the author of the film as much as the writer is of a book (Kapsis 1992, 13-14)

While the auteur perspective need not lead to analyze Hitchcock’s movies on the basis of the assumed traits of his inner psychology (Wood 2002), it is also important to realize that a film is not a natural phenomenon but 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 the most important principles of the various techniques he applies. The cinematic 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 other demands placed by the director on those who work for him on making a movie (Gottlieb 2003, 177-78). Hitchcock’s increasing stature and fame over the course of his career gradually enabled him to fulfill this ambition more perfectly.

Hitchcock referred to his ideal form of film making as pure cinema (Truffaut 1984). The concept of pure cinema conveys the notion that film cannot be reduced to any other art form than itself. A film is not a novel, not a painting, not music, though it contains narrative, visual, musical and other elements. When he was making a particular movie, Hitchcock therefore usually only very loosely relied on the ideas presented in a short story or a book. Hitchcock’s movie The Birds (Hitchcock 1963), by example, relies on a short story of which Hitchcock retained nothing except the birds (Taylor 1978, 266). As a result, also, Hitchcock did not make movies of any of the great books of world literature. The very notion of a movie version of a book is antithetical to the Hitchcock style.

Ideally, also, Hitchcock seeks to accomplish pure cinema in a purely pictorial form, emphasizing the images, along with the corresponding sounds, and how they are framed and assembled to be presented to the audience (Truffaut 1984, 31). The director does not say anything, but instead must show something. The Hitchcockian cinematic emphasis is entirely on the visual aspects of a movie. Pure cinema places the emphasis on the assembly of pieces of film both to communicate an idea and to invoke an emotion (Gottlieb 1995, 288). Therefore, also, the director should have complete control over the actors, of which Hitchcock was famously fond of saying that they are to be treated like cattle (Truffaut 1984, 140). Actors are but one element in a Hitchcock movie, neither more nor less important than the lighting, the set design, and other formal aspects of the movie. Actors should therefore be directed, i.e., they should be told what to do as a function of the movie, especially the placement of the camera. Hitchcock’s reliance on a carefully prepared script, often accompanied with a detailed story board, are the technical expressions of the ideal of pure cinema (Gottlieb 1995, 288-292; 2003, 35-37, 68-69). The underlying notion is that a movie to Hitchcock is most essentially a presentation of assembled slices of film projected on a white large rectangular screen in a movie theatre. The advent of the talking picture, therefore, had an ambivalent effect to Hitchcock, although he did use sound (and music) creatively in his movies as well, but always in connection with the presentation of visual images (Kapsis 1992, 143).

While Hitchcock preferred to work meticulously on the form of his movie, his films nonetheless also rely on content, on a plot and various themes that work as the narrative devices of pure cinema. The best form to engage the audience, as Hitchcock discovered early on in his career, was by means of suspense (Gottlieb 2003, 61-64). Unlike a sudden moment of intense shock, suspense is accomplished by the director showing the audience full knowledge about what is going on, so that the viewers will become emotionally involved. In the case of shock, by contrast, something unexpected happens, gripping the audience for a few seconds. But in suspense, the members of the audience know everything. They are, as Hitchcock said, allowed “to play God” (Gottlieb 1995, 113), precisely when and because the characters in the story are unaware of what is going on. However, the audience also has to be relieved and, in sociological terms, be allowed to leave their liminal experience behind and return to social structure. The themes of Hitchcock’s movies therefore relate to very basic emotions, involving fear, death, sex, and indeed guilt.

The Order of Guilt and Innocence

Guilt and innocence are constitutive principles of a society’s legal and moral order. A central notion of a modern system of law holds that no one can be held accountable for a breach of law unless the offender, who has been held to have factually committed the crime, also had the intention to commit the illegal act. More specifically, 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 formally pronounce guilt (Hall 2005).

A central clue to the understanding of liminality in Hitchcock’s films revolves around the dual nature of guilt. There is, on the one hand, the guilt formally declared by society. This is what can be called public guilt. It is the public, official, and legal branding of a person to be accountable for an illegal act. Typically in Hitchcock’s films, public guilt is applied to a person who is factually innocent, someone of whom the viewer knows that he or she did not do what they are accused of having done. 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. The display of public guilt in Hitchcock’s movies immediately involves the audience on an emotional level as the viewer sympathizes with the hero who is wrongly accused.

Intimately relating to but distinctly contrasting public guilt, another form of guilt is portrayed in Hitchcock’s films as a condition relating more closely to the sentiments and thoughts 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 that of society at large, they recognize themselves for what they have done wrong, typically in a more generally moral rather than a strict legal sense. They can, therefore, often no longer hide themselves from their immediate others as they truly are. Most typically, private guilt in Hitchcock is rigidly separated from public guilt. Private guilt refers not to a formal and objective order of law but to codes of conduct in the realm of private and subjective morality and ethics. It is a matter of individual consciousness. Strikingly, private guilt applies in Hitchcock’s universe to almost everybody, even and especially those who are victims of circumstances.

In the remainder of this chapter, I substantiate my arguments on the liminal nature of Hitchcock films and the modalities of guilt and innocence by means of illustration, relying on analyses of events and characters in several of the master’s 53 movies.

Hitchcock’s Liminality and Guilt

What is readily striking from the viewpoint of ritual introduced in this chapter is that the process of liminality and the notions of public and private guilt are very closely related in the Hitchcock universe. Public guilt is the guilt of a person so labeled by some authoritative agents or institutions of the social order, representing a formal system of laws. Most often in Hitchcock’s films, public guilt implies factual innocence, manifested by the image of the hero who is wrongly accused. By contrast, private guilt occurs when the characters in a story recognize themselves as guilty. In Hitchcock’s movies, private guilt is experienced by those who committed the illegal act of which the hero is falsely accused, but also by the hero, albeit it for other reasons. Importantly, both forms of guilt in the world of Alfred Hitchcock entail a process that evolves through several successive stages. In the following pages, I present examples of the various phases most typical in this process of liminality through public condemnation.

Involvement and Affliction

For the drama of a movie to unfold successfully from the viewpoint of Hitchcock’s pure cinema, a person who is legally innocent of a crime (through not innocent in all, moral respects) will typically get involved in an adventure that 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 (Hitchcock 1959), the masterful comedy/romance in which the character played by Cary Grant is chased across northern America, for no reason apparent to him, but straight into the arms of the beautiful cool blonde played by Eva Marie Saint. Many observers find this movie to be quintessential Hitchcock both in contents and form. The involvement in North by Northwest occurs through a seemingly very innocuous and silly coincidence. The Cary Grant character is in a hotel bar having a drink with colleagues. At some point he stands up to make a phone call just at the precise moment when a certain Mr. Kaplan is being paged as part of a clever trick by a group of spies who are looking for a covert American agent. As the spies now mistake him for the agent, a process is set in motion that entails a long and arduous series of strange events, which will greatly and emotionally involve the viewer in the hero’s trials and tribulations.

Similarly, in The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock 1956), Hitchcock’s remake of his own 1934 movie, a man played by Jimmy Stewart is on vacation with his wife and son in Morocco. Out of nowhere, he is suddenly approached by a dying man, who tells him of a plot to kill a statesman in London. Now the man knows too much, even though he does not even know so himself. Once the hero is involved upon the kidnapping of his son, a series of unexpected events, full of danger and suffering, are forced upon him and his family.

The labeling of guilt in Hitchcock continues from an initial involvement through a process that, through several stages, includes various public instruments and symbols of condemnation. Examples of this unfolding of the ritual process in Hitchcock’s movies are far too numerous to mention, for the obvious reason that no movie would be of any cinematic merit were it not to involve this essential processual aspect of drama. While in the social order at large, liminality is a relatively temporary process that is reserved only for special occasions such as rites of passage, in the world of the cinema (as in art in general), the emphasis shifts entirely from structure to the process and experience of anti-structure. In Hitchcock’s own words, drama is “life with the dull bits cut out” (Truffaut 1984, 103).

Two cinematic types of Hitchockian affliction can be specially mentioned: the wrong man and the chase. As already indicated on several occasions, the archetypical affliction in Hitchcock’s movie pertains to is a hero wrongly accused. In his movie The Wrong Man (Hitchcock 1957), Hitchcock brought this theme to the center of attention, additionally strengthening the impact of the story by the fact that it was based on real-life events. In the movie, an innocent man played by Henry Fonda is mistakenly identified as a thief and from then on subjected to all the humiliating degradations of criminal justice, from arrest through booking and arraignment to detention. As the man is questioned by the police for a crime he did not commit, one of the officers observes: “An innocent man has nothing to fear, remember that” (Hitchcock 1957). Although the man is eventually cleared, his wife suffers a mental breakdown.

The chase in Hitchcock’s universes involves a process whereby the initial involvement leads the publicly condemned guilty person to go on the run (Gottlieb 1995, 125-132). The Hitchcockian chase is not simply an exciting adventure, although it is that too. It involves a transference of guilt from one person (who did commit a crime) to another (who did not) (Truffaut 1984, 203). The chase is seen by representatives of the social order, typically the police as well as the ignorant public, as a confession of guilt. Yet, because of circumstances, for the protagonist the chase is the only possible means to search for the true culprit and rid himself of the guilt society has inflicted upon him. The chase involves a cleansing. Additionally, the tormented hero will have to find the real wrongdoer, because the police in Hitchcock’s world are often incompetent and outright stupid, and usually only implicate the falsely accused even more.

In Hitchcock’s prototypical chase movie The 39 Steps (Balcon and Hitchcock 1935), a Canadian man visiting London accidentally meets a woman who, unbeknownst to him, is running away from secret agents. He agrees to hide her in his flat, but during the night she is murdered. Fearing (quite rightly as it soon turns out) that he will be accused of the woman’s murder, the man goes on the run and finds himself in various situations of danger. Though he will be able to clear (and cleans himself) in the end, the price he has to pay is an involvement in immoralities and even illegalities that result from the accusations to which he is subjected. At some point, he has to bribe a man he despises but whose help he desperately needs so he does not get caught and is able to close in on the real culprit.

At the end of the chase, the Hitchcockian hero is cleared of all formal charges and legal accusations. But this cleansing always comes at a price, after a long and intense period of suffering and loss. In The Lodger (Balcon and Hitchcock 1927), a man is mistakenly held to be Jack the Ripper (see Figure 7.1). Just when the real murderer is discovered by the police, an angry crowd chases him and forces him off a bridge, barely staying alive because his handcuffed hands snag, catching him hanging over a fence. Only in the final moment, after he has been beaten repeatedly by the mad mob can he be rescued, not by the police but by his love interest. Hitchcock portrays the return to the social order as serious and weighty, such as in The Wrong Man (Hitchcock 1957) where the hero’s wife in the end has gone insane, but at other times the director shows the cost of the return to the social order in more humorous terms. The hero in To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock 1955), by example, in the end has the beautiful Grace Kelly running into his arms, only to be told that her mother will be coming along as well.

Figure 7.1 The hero in the 1927 silent movie The Lodger, portrayed by Ivor Novello, looks guilty in a city gripped by fear for a serial killer who targets blonde women. Movie still published in 1927, in the public domain. (Retrieved at:

Symbols and Techniques

Relying on the basic technique of suspense, Hitchcock most always reveals to the audience, typically at the very beginning of the movie, who the real villain is. The cinematic technique thereby is primarily visual so that the audience can literally see the guilt of the offender’s crime, typically through some small, intimate or otherwise seemingly innocent symbol. By example, in Frenzy (Hitchcock 1972), the audience knows who the real murderer is very early on in the story when a man is seen brutally raping a woman. Yet, the man’s guilt is seen most sharply in his eyes, which is to say, through the manner in which Hitchcock’s camera captures those eyes and projects their filming onto the screen. In the early thriller Murder! (Maxwell and Hitchcock 1930), the only explicit whodunit directed by Hitchcock, the killer’s guilt is betrayed not despite but precisely because and when his head and eyes turn away from sight. In Psycho (Hitchcock 1960), the murderer is surrounded by stuffed birds, especially owls, who, as Hitchcock himself argued, are watchers of the night through whom “he can see his own guilt reflected in their knowing eyes” (Truffaut 1984, 282). In Suspicion (Edington and Hitchcock 1941), a man whose own wife thinks he is out to kill her is symbolically visualized as guilty by means of an illuminated glass of milk thought to be poisoned. The movie Shadow of a Doubt (Skirball and Hitchcock 1943) leaves little doubt as to who the guilty person is as the opening scene of the film shows a man lying in bed, fully clothed, during the daytime, smoking a cigar, with several dollar bills carelessly placed next to him.

As parents often tell their children to look into their eyes when they suspect a lie, the Hitchcockian symbols of private guilt are especially powerful and critically contribute to lead to the unmasking of the real culprit. In Young and Innocent (1937), we know of the killer only the one tiny detail that he has a nervous twitch in his eyes. Towards the end of the movie, we see the wrongly accused hero’s love interest looking for the murderer in a hotel. While she is desperately looking around, Hitchcock’s camera takes us a through a long tracking shot closer and closer to the eyes of the drummer in the hotel band. At the final moment, when the close-up can go no tighter, we see his eyes starting to twitch.

Hitchcock did not make any movies containing shock or horror except Psycho (Hitchcock 1960), which Hitchcock himself described as a “shocker” (Kapsis 1992, 63). It is not altogether unfortunate that Hitchcock is sometimes today known only for this movie, especially among a younger generation today, for even though Psycho is an a-typical movie in many respects, the film does vividly demonstrate the ideal of pure cinema and some of the cinematic techniques Hitchcock used to portray guilt. In typical Hitchcock fashion, the movie is only very loosely based on a novel derived from the real-life story of a serial killer. Hitchcock radically shifts the focus in his movie from the killer, a mentally disturbed young man, to the victim, an attractive female. The woman is romantically and sexually involved with a man to whom she is not married and at some point steals money. The first half of the movie is essential in its very lengthy, drawn-out and rather distracting build-up towards the woman’s sudden and violent killing while she is taking a shower.

The shower scene in Psycho is rightly discussed as a stellar example of pure cinema as there is simply no way to convey in words the experience of viewing the scene in the film and its impact for the remainder of the story. Less discussed, but critical to unravel Hitchcock’s visions of guilt and innocence, are the many scenes in Psycho where the characters of the offender, on the one hand, and the victims as well as her loved-ones, on the other hand, can be viewed standing or sitting opposite from one another. The characters are either filmed from left and right angles respectively, or, more often and more poignantly still, they are each positioned on one side of the screen. This Hitchcockian technique can be referred to as doubling, that is, the splitting or multiplying into two, such as two characters representing good and evil, respectively, or two sharply contrasting sides of one character (Sterritt 2002, 106). While this narrative device is hardly specific to Hitchcock, what is much more particular about Hitchcock is the visual manner in which doubling is achieved. Indeed, a straightforward but very effective device of pure cinema, doubling accomplishes by purely pictorial means that which at once separates and connects, specifically guilt versus innocence and private guilt versus public guilt.

Hitchcock’s most striking use of doubling is when the technique is used to convey the separation of guilt on one side of the screen 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 to one another. Thus, importantly, they are also connected as there is no guilt without innocence. In Psycho, the splitting of the characters over the screen is very rigid and omnipresent throughout the movie to distinguish clearly and repeatedly the offender from the victim, further augmented by the sharp black and white photography and Bernard Herrmann’s accompanying music score. This splitting is additionally used to visualize the dual personality of the offender and the ambiguities of the victim, most distinctly by the use of mirrors that pop up time and time again throughout the movie to visualize the dual nature of a character. Hitchcock often uses the doubling technique at various levels at once. This creates not only an added dimension of splitting or separation but also conveys an ambiguity of guilt and innocence and/or a transference of guilt. On these rare but poignant occasions, there is, rather than a mere separation of guilt from innocence, a vagueness and ambiguity of who is guilty and who is innocent.

Doubling to demarcate guilt from innocence is, in both narrative and visual form, most clearly seen in the Hitchcock movie Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The story involves a man who romantically befriends widowed women, only to kill them and rob them of their wealth. To hide from the police, he visits the family of his sister, whose daughter, Charlie, is named after him. The entire unfolding drama concerns the relation between the uncle and his niece, the killer and the young woman who must and will reveal his true identity. Uncle and niece not only have the same name, they also share a very close, at times, telepathic bond. The dilemma for the two is whether to love or to hate, to belong or to leave, to hold or to push away, and their portrayals throughout the movie accordingly constantly position them left and right of the screen, moving closer to and removing themselves from each other, holding hands and letting go.

The role of symbolic doubling is particularly well realized in a scene from Hitchcock’s movie Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock 1951) because here the technique is displayed in entirely pictorial means. In the story of the movie, a man has killed another man’s cheating wife, hoping for him to kill his annoying father in return. After he has committed the murder, the man visits the unsuspecting beneficiary of his crime and informs him of what he has done. Their meeting takes place with the murderer standing behind the bars of a fence, as if he is in a jail cell, shown to the left of the screen, and the unsuspecting hero standing beside the fence to the right-hand side of the screen. As the hero becomes aware he has gotten involved in the crime because he did not take the plan of the mad murderer seriously but now stands to benefit from it anyway, a police car comes to the house, whereupon the hero moves to the side and is shown standing next to the murderer behind the fence. Now, both are guilty.

Hitchcock’s Universe of Guilt

In Hitchcock’s world, nobody is ever truly innocent. This theme in Hitchcock is strikingly congruent with a basic tenet of the church in which he was raised. For the separation between public and private guilt not only corresponds, as mentioned before, to a distinction between formal law and individual morality, it is at times also expressed by Hitchcock in terms of a secular versus a higher, indeed sacred order of normativity. Most distinctly, the notion of original sin is on display in Hitchcock in the idea of universal guilt.

Even the most dashingly handsome and courageous heroes and the most tragic of victims are in Hitchcock’s cinema also portrayed as guilty in some other discernable sense. The examples that can be mentioned are numerous and stretch the entire length of Hitchcock’s career. For example, in The Paradine Case (Selznick and Hitchcock 1947), a man defends a woman accused of killing her husband. The woman is guilty and the lawyer loses the case. Yet graver is his moral loss, because he fell in love with his client despite his being a married man. In Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock 1951), the hero may not actually have killed his wife but he did at some point scream that he wanted to strangle her. In Torn Curtain (Hitchcock 1966), the hero lies to his girlfriend to hide his identity as a double agent. He later kills a man. In Family Plot (Hitchcock 1976), a woman and her boyfriend manage to uncover a couple of kidnappers. The woman herself, however, is a fake medium and takes advantage, emotionally and financially, of an aging widow desperately looking for a family member.

In Hitchcock’s world, private guilt in a moral, if not always legal sense is generalized to apply to everybody. It is original sin. This private guilt can often also be observed to refer to a moral code that is of a distinctly sexual nature. The examples are again numerous. In Rich and Strange (Maxwell and Hitchcock 1931), a married couple suddenly gains a fortune and decides to travel the world. Before they find happiness together at the movie’s end, they cheat on each other. In The Lady Vanishes (Black and Hitchcock 1938), the heroine manages to help uncover a spy ring and along the way falls in love with a man even though she was engaged to someone else. In Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock 1951), the hero benefits from the killing of his wife by being free to marry a woman he was already having a romantic liaison with. In Marnie (Hitchcock 1964), a man marries a woman he knows to be a thief. He later forces himself upon her during their honeymoon, when he it turns out she is frigid.

In Hitchcock’s universe, a sexually charged sense of private guilt can apply to heroes as well as to villains and their victims. In Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock 1954), a man tries to kill his wife through a hired hit man. The wife manages to survive the failed murder plot, but she was cheating on her husband. The woman who is killed in Psycho (Hitchcock 1960) not only stole money, she was also sexually involved with a divorced man. In The Birds (Hitchcock 1963), an attractive, affluent woman falls in love with a down-to-earth, handsome man. Despite the objections from the man’s jealous mother, the two are in the end brought together, even receiving the approval of the man’s mother. The affluent woman is spoiled and arrogant. The man was unable to maintain a relationship with another woman, a school teacher, because he lacked the courage and strength to resist the interference of his mother. Still in love with the man, the school teacher remained single and eventually is killed during a bird attack, allowing the man to pursue the affluent woman. In Topaz (Hitchcock 1969), a French secret service agent uncovers a Communist espionage ring. The agent cheats on his wife with an informant, while his wife is cheating on him with a close friend who is later discovered to be the head of the spy ring.

Between Structure and Anti-Structure

Hitchcock made 53 movies and despite the fact that he uses certain re-occurring plot devices and techniques of visualization, the stylistic range of his movies is broad. Sometimes the emphasis is on romance, comedy, and adventure, while at other times the themes are more seriously concerned with fear, death, and despair. Almost never did Hitchcock use the thriller genre to focus on a crime. To Hitchcock, the thriller was about form, not substance. From the viewpoint of the framework adopted in this chapter, two very different kinds of Hitchcock movies deserve special consideration as they represent the two polar opposites of structure and anti-structure.

Representing the normative demands of the social structure are most clearly those Hitchcock movies that are closely related to reality. This approach is a-typical of Hitchcock as his style lends itself best to realistic portrayals of fantasy stories. Only the very special and tragic circumstance of World War II forced and allowed Hitchcock to break with this approach. Indeed, Hitchcock made several movies during World War II that explicitly dealt with the theme of war and that served to function as contributions to the war effort. In 1944 Hitchcock made two short propaganda movies (in French) for the British Ministry of Information. Moreover, Hitchcock made three regular features during the war that can be additionally conceived as part of the director’s “little contribution to the war effort” (Truffaut 1984, 159): Foreign Correspondent (Wanger and Hitchcock 1940) about the coming of the war in Europe; Saboteur (Lloyd and Hitchcock 1942) about Nazi infiltrators in the United States; and Lifeboat (Macgowan and Hitchcock 1944) about the triumph of American democratic culture over Nazism. Because of their focus on a disturbing reality that nobody could avoid, Hitchcock’s wartime movies break with his usual quest for liminality. These films do not present any ambiguity in moral or legal respects and instead clearly and resolutely demarcate guilt from innocence. There are villains who are to be defeated and there are heroes who will defeat them. The moral order of Hitchcock’s wartime movies have boundaries that are precise, unquestionable, and unshakeable.

Contrasting his wartime work, Hitchcock’s other movies entail a search for liminality in varying ways and to various degrees. In the vast majority of Hitchcock’s movies, guilt and innocence shift and change. In at least two films, Blackmail of 1929 and Sabotage of 1936, Hitchcock even went as far as to portray and justify a radical and near complete reversal of some of the most central principles of the social order, to present an anti-structure in which even murder is justified. In Blackmail (Maxwell and Hitchcock 1929), a young woman 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 look at his paintings. When the man forces himself upon her, the woman defends herself and kills her assailant with a bread knife (see Figure 7.2). When the body is discovered, the woman’s boyfriend is assigned to the case and quickly discovers that his girlfriend is the killer. However, after a man with a criminal record who witnessed the killing blackmails the woman, it is the blackmailer who is thought to be the killer. He accidentally dies, and the young woman goes free.

Figure 7.2 The heroine of the 1929 movie Blackmail, played by Anny Ondra, kills a man who is trying to rape her. Movie still published in 1929, in the public domain (Retrieved at:

The film Sabotage (Balcon and Hitchcock 1936), which in the United States was released under the title The Woman Alone, portrays a woman who discovers that her husband is involved in a gang of foreign saboteurs. The woman has a younger brother whom she adores. When the woman’s husband is assigned to let a bomb explode in the heart of London, he conceals the bomb in a package he gives to the young boy. As the boy is delayed taking the package to its destination, the bomb explodes and the boy is killed. Hitchcock later regretted this scene as a “grave error” (Gottlieb 2003, 70), because the boy’s death followed a lengthy suspense scene that at the end offered no sense of relief for the audience. However, the boy’s death does serve to justify the extraordinary event that will occur later in the story. After the boy’s older sister finds out her own husband was responsible, she holds a knife while preparing dinner and looks at her husband. When the man stands up in amazement from the look in his wife’s eyes and approaches her, she stabs him to death. A police detective finds out about the woman’s involvement, but he has fallen in love with her and, with the police assuming her husband died in a subsequent explosion, the woman goes free.

Hitchcock’s Search for Liminality

Hitchcock’s movies, like other noteworthy expressions of art, offer reversals of the structured and rigid principles of the social order to create a distinct if temporary sense of communitas. Additionally, within the stories of Hitchcock’s cinema, the dramatic characters are submitted to a process of liminality, a drama that takes them through a process of moving from one state to another. Cinematically, Hitchcock is very effective at displaying liminality because his movies cannot be exhausted by reference to the story that is told. Instead, the prime element of his cinema is the experience of the inter-structural journey through which Hitchcock makes his characters undergo for the benefit of the viewer. As guilt and innocence are constitutive principles of a society’s normative order, liminality infuses the order of guilt and innocence with ambiguity and fluidity. The liminal subjects are on the run because they are publicly condemned. Heroes who are victims in some respect are guilty of wrongdoings at another level of normativity. Only in Hitchcock’s wartime movies is there a lack of ambiguity over guilt and innocence, because war is an exceptional state of turmoil that precludes liminality.

The singularly 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. Not surprisingly, this viewpoint is typically couched in highly sexually charged terms (Wood 2002). In truth, Hitchcock’s supposed torture of his subjects represents a ritual of affliction that is a necessary component of the quest for a new existence. Hitchcock identified with the victims in his movies, especially when they were women, who he also reckoned to make up the major part of the audience (Gottlieb 1995, 73). Shame, loss, and moral guilt are needed as part of a ritual process in order to accomplish a new life. 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. To accomplish a new existence, the final phase of the ritual performance must end in some tragedy, which in other respects represents liberation.

Realistically connecting to fundamental principles of the normative order of society, Hitchcock’s films contain elements of a social and cultural identity that do not necessarily belong to the director, but to the society from which the viewing audience is drawn. Thus Hitchcock’s films reproduce elements of a social order from which the audience can successfully part during the experiential process of cinema. In search of another reality, Hitchcock and his audience sought to escape from the normative bounds imposed by society as the essential purpose and desire of his movies. The success of the cinematic accomplishment of spontaneous communitas in which the artist successfully involves the audience is the measure of Hitchcock’s genius.


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