Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) and Charles Dickens
This page may take us straight to the essence of much that is Hitchcockian, in a less abstract way than our page on Hitchcock and the philosopher Schopenhauer (and the fin de siècle art movement known as Symbolism).
Two master entertainers from England, and the line connecting them is palpable.
Hitchcock studied four Dickens novels at school: 'Bleak House', 'A Tale of Two Cities', 'Great Expectations', and 'Our Mutual Friend'. His favourite was 'Great Expectations', which may have inspired a theme of 'growing up' found in several of his 'picaresque' thrillers (such as North by Northwest). But it was 'Bleak House', notes Donald Spoto, which 'seems to have engraved itself on Hitchcock's memory. More than a simple treatment of political corruption and the injustices of the legal system (which the young Dickens and his family had experienced firsthand), "Bleak House" details a grim distrust in any public institution. This same sort of cynicism informs Hitchcock's films, where statesmen and judges and lawyers and policemen are venal, small-minded, driven by the most intense lust and greed, and not much better than the apparent villains.' (Donald Spoto, 'The Life of Alfred Hitchcock' , p. 28. Spoto perhaps underestimates Hitchcock's personal detachment, but cynicism is certainly present in a work like The Paradine Case. See, for example, the note below on the sadistic, and lustful, Judge Horfield.)
In addition, as Bill Krohn in Los Angeles informs me, the adult Hitchcock owned various Dickens novels, including boxed sets of the original serial publications of 'Martin Chuzzlewit', 'Bleak House', 'Our Mutual Friend', and 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'. (These boxed sets remain in the posssession of the Hitchcock family today.)
Of course, the very fact that Hitchcock adapted many of his films from English literary sources no doubt accounts for some of the films' 'Dickensian' content. Hitchcock's Murder! (1930) was taken from the novel 'Enter Sir John' (1929) by 'Clemence Dane' (Winifred Ashton) and Helen Simpson. The scene in which Sir John (Herbert Marshall) is pestered by a landlady's small children seems a reference to another work about role-playing and the provincial stage, Dickens's 'Nicholas Nickleby' (Chapter 24, in which members of the Crummles troupe go door-knocking in Portsmouth in order to sell tickets for Miss Snevellicci's bespeak performance). But there is no reason to suppose that Hitchcock himself knew of the allusion.
Nonetheless, the Cockney Hitchcock was always something of an Anglophile - and Dickens, born in Portsmouth, is central to the English literary tradition of the grotesque, the macabre, and the comic, in which Hitchcock worked. Further, Osbert Sitwell's 'Dickens' (1932) calls that novelist the inventor of the modern 'thriller'.
Hitchcock told Charlotte Chandler: 'In [Wilkie] Collins's and Dickens's Victorian world, to murder someone was an unspeakable crime, an attitude which stayed with me. Even in murder mysteries, it is important not to waste human life. People cannot just be thrown away. (Charlotte Chandler, 'It's Only a Movie - Alfred Hitchcock: A Personal Biography' , p. 36.)
Hitchcock's master composer Bernard Herrmann, another Anglophile, saw exactly how it was. In 1964 he noted:
has his own world of film. He's created characters and places and
stories for it very much the way Dickens did. It's not a question of
whether it's a real world, or an actual world, but it's a world that has
been imagined and realized. Dickens was able to do it through the page
and Hitch does it through film. And although many of the stories he has
told are stories of our time, I believe the presentation and the
motivating psychology is essentially of the period of Dickens and the
great Victorian writers.
Psycho is very much, for example like a Wilkie Collins story. I think this is part of Hitch's great heritage as an Englishman and one he has been able to transmute and carry forth in the world of the cinema.
This page will be added to from time to time.
It is inspired in part by a stimulating recent book by Grahame Smith, 'Charles Dickens and the Dream of Cinema' (2003) - click here to read my (long) review of it - and by such predecessors as Taylor Stoehr's 'Dickens: The Dreamer's Stance' (1965) and John Carey's 'The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination' (1973). (Also recommended is Norrie Epstein's 'The Friendly Dickens' . It's fair to say that nothing so good-to-read as this book has yet appeared on Hitchcock!) An article by Edward Buscombe, "Dickens and Hitchcock" in 'Screen', Vol. 11, No. 4-5 (August/September 1970), pp. 97-114, was trail-blazing.
For now, then, I'm printing below a sequence of my "Editor's Day" items, slightly edited and revised, originally published on this website in 1998. However, there is much more to be said! (KM)
September 21 It's high time that I spelled out here why I consider novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to have been Hitchcock's main artistic forebear. To that end, it will be helpful if I work through some of the points made about Dickens by Prof. John Carey in his splendid book, 'The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination' (1973). So here goes. Carey introduces his subject by noting how closely Dickens conforms to Keats's argument about the poetic character: that it is essentially amoral and unprincipled. (Here the poetic character sounds remarkably like Schopenhauer's concept of the cosmic Will, which is indeed an amoral life-death force, essentially 'blind'.) Imagination matters above all else. 'Almost any aberration ... from drunkenness to wife-beating can be found eliciting at various times both Dickens' mournfulness and his amused toleration.' Any topic is grist to the mill of Dickens's imagination. And something very similar may be said about Hitchcock. He did, after all, tell Truffaut that no considerations of morality would have stopped him making Rear Window (1954), which he saw as an exercise in creating 'pure film'. (I believe that ultimately Hitchcock came to see 'pure film' as analogous to Will. It's significant, perhaps, that after expressing to Truffaut the sentiment just quoted, he added: 'Well, isn't the main thing that they [the anxieties expressed in his films] be connected with life?') Prof. Carey continues his argument in an opening chapter on "Dickens and Violence" where he notes how 'a leading characteristic of Dickens' mind [is] that he is able to see almost everything from two opposed points of view'. A prison may appear at different times as a hideous deprivation of freedom and as a cosy retreat from the world. You think of Hamlet's remark in one of his soliloquies, 'There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' The poet-prince then adds, 'I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.' But the true creative artist isn't stopped by bad dreams! He throws himself into all of his characters and their worlds with a burning enthusiasm, an intense imagination, which is itself akin to 'pure film'! [Editor's note. It will be interesting to compare the above with passages in Grahame Smith's book 'Charles Dickens and the Dream of Cinema' (2003). I also think of Walter Pater's dictum: 'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.']
September 22 More on the parallels between Dickens and Hitchcock, two great Londoners of rich imagination. (Other such men included Chaucer, William Blake, and Charles Chaplin.) Prof. Carey notes that Dickens 'never seems to have quite reconciled himself to the fact that violence and destruction were the most powerful stimulants to his imagination.' Hence he often sentimentalised family scenes, and often in a rather 'sickly' way. To Hitchcock's credit, his own brand of melodrama invariably moved with assurance between scenes of criminality and scenes depicting the home. And when the criminal element actually entered the home, as in The Lodger (1926) and its American 'remake', Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock showed himself no less assured. Prof. Carey notes that Dickens strongly identified himself with his murderers. 'He habitually speaks about murderers' mental habits with extraordinary self-confidence, as if he were one himself.' Both Dickens and Hitchcock were authorities on well-known murders and murder-trials of their day. And it's surely true that Hitchcock, like Dickens, could project himself quite knowingly into the criminal mind, especially the mind of a criminal who feels hunted (whether Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, Norman Bates in Psycho , or Marnie in Marnie ). Also, like Dickens, Hitchcock made many of his 'innocent' heroes feel hunted, as well: compare, say, Oliver in 'Oliver Twist' and Barry Kane in Saboteur ). Nonetheless, you think of the remark given to the crime writer Isobel (said to be based on Dorothy Sayers) in Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), about how her murderers are her real heroes - and it's easy to hear the film's director chuckling, 'But of course!'
September 23 Tonight I'd like to look further at John Carey's opening chapter in 'The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination', called "Dickens and Violence", and what it may suggest about that other great English master of storytelling, humour, and the macabre - Hitchcock. Dickens was fascinated by public hangings, and attended several, which he then described in detail in his various writings. But he also liked to dwell on such characters as Dennis the hangman in 'Barnaby Rudge', a big man with an enormous neck - a neck for stretching, as Dennis himself would say, and indeed that's what happens to it at the end of the novel! I'm sure Hitchcock would have appreciated such a character and his fate! (In fact, I'm tempted to cite the case of 'the Necktie Strangler', Bob Rusk, in Frenzy, who ends up being told by Chief Inspector Oxford that he's not wearing a tie - implying that he soon will be! In the form of a noose! However, Rusk appears in fact to be a composite of the real-life killers Neville Heath, known as the baby-faced killer, and 'Jack the Stripper', the bodies of whose victims ended up in the Thames near Hammersmith.) Moreover, Hitchcock, like Dickens, seems to have been fascinated by hangings and the sadistic feelings they might stir. There's much relish in the depiction of the 'hanging judge' (based on the real-life Mr Justice Avory) played by Charles Laughton in The Paradine Case (1947); and indeed Hitchcock confided to Bernard Herrmann (who must have broken the confidence!), as they washed dishes in the Hitchcocks' kitchen, that he'd liked to have been a hanging judge himself. Okay. Prof. Carey further notes of Dickens how there are scenes in his fiction where the villain's tormenting of his female victim/s has obvious sexual undertones. In 'Barnaby Rudge', when Hugh 'has the delicious Dolly Varden and haughty Emma Haredale at his mercy, imprisoned in a closed carriage, he insists on speaking of them as delicate, tender birds, and stares into the carriage, we are told, "like an ogre into his larder".' Again one may think of Charles Laughton's Horfield in The Paradine Case, where he gazes lecherously at Ann Todd's bare shoulder and passes a salacious remark to her about how pleasing she looks. Todd's bare shoulder - Hitchcock wants us to infer - prefigures the neck of Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli) whom Horfield will soon be sentencing to death. Also, 'Barnaby Rudge' is where Dickens's ambivalent fascination-repugnance towards 'mobs' (cf. Hitchcock's The Lodger) is most on display. Carey concludes his chapter: 'Riot, murder, savagery have to be there before Dickens' imagination is gripped.' Mutatis mutandis, there's a lot of Hitchcock in that description, I fancy.
September 28 Hitchcock studied four Charles Dickens novels at school. Tonight, then, more about similarities between Hitchcock and Dickens. The second chapter of John Carey's 'The Violent Effigy' is called "Dickens and Order". 'Neatness, orderliness and personal cleanliness ... were passionate concerns of Dickens', writes Carey. ' ... In his family life his concern with neatness was obsessive. Each morning he went upstairs to inspect the drawers in his daughters' bedroom, and left notes reprimanding any untidiness. ... "Method in everything" was his watchword. ... In Italy he was greatly irritated by the dirt and slackness of the foreigners ... England seemed "wonderfully neat" on his return.' Hitchcock, another Englishman, took after Dickens in most of these respects. He often told interviewers of his need for tidiness and method. 'After I've used the bathroom, I leave everything just as it was. You'd never know I'd been there.' Like Dickens, though, he was capable of being objective about these obsessions of his, as his remark about his visit to the bathroom shows. In Frenzy (1972), a newly-married and potentially henpecked little fellow asks meekly about his predecessor, 'A neat man was he then?' You sense that Hitchcock was allowing a degree of self-parody here! Next, Prof. Carey alerts us to why Dickens and Hitchcock were true imaginative artists. 'Once we come to recognize [the] sinister doubleness or reversibility which lurks within even Dickens' snuggest images of order and security, we shall find it easier to understand how the writer who craves for a bird[-like] bride in a ship-shape home [a reference to 'Dombey and Son'], is also the writer who needs to celebrate destruction and anarchy.' Clearly, a film director who once gave his preoccupations outside of making often violent melodramas as 'house and garden' belongs with Dickens in this respect. A desire for orderliness, for 'a clear horizon', provides impetus for fantasy in which such things are in danger of being lost or obliterated. [Editor's note. More broadly, I'm reminded of a description praising 'the Englishman' (specifically of the post-Edwardian era, in which Hitchcock grew up) by philosopher George Santayana, quoted in 'The MacGuffin' #29: 'The Englishman establishes a sort of satisfaction and equilibrium in his inner man, and from that citadel of rightness he easily measures the value of everything that comes within his moral horizon.']
September 29 Both Dickens and Hitchcock alleviated the grim and (merely) grotesque in their respective fictions, by means of humour. But reading John Carey's chapter on "Dickens' Humour" may show that the two artists' type of humour differed, a lot of the time. You'll find nothing in Hitchcock to match the savagery with which Dickens depicted 'the greatest gallery of hypocrites in fiction'. Such hypocritical characters as Mrs Gamp, Pecksniff, and Uriah Heep are the prime beneficiaries of Dickens's genius, says Carey. Without them, Dickens's novels would be maimed irreparably. Now, Hitchcock's films have their traitors and fakes and outright villains: such people as political fifth-columnist Stephen Fisher in Foreign Correspondent (1940), Blanche Tyler, the fake medium in Family Plot (1976), and Willy the Nazi U-boat captain in Lifeboat (1944). But there's little or no savage humour associated with such characters (not even when Blanche in Family Plot is being her alter ego, i.e., her 'control' named 'Henry', who seemingly lampoons the possessed Regan from William Friedkin's The Exorcist ), no savage showing up of any self-deceiving 'falseness', for clearly Hitchcock respects or appreciates each of these people too much to turn them into brilliant caricatures or 'types' (even Willy is made a real human being). I can't think of an instance where Hitchcock turns any of his major characters into caricatures; perhaps the nearest he comes is when he's adding to his gallery of (comically) grotesque mother-figures, such as Erica's aunt (Mary Clare) in Young and Innocent (1937) or Mrs Van Hoppper (Florence Bates) in Rebecca (1940). But even in these cases, you may sense compasion for these women: the spinster played by Elsie Randolph on the ship in Rich and Strange (1932) is probably representative. Mrs Van Hopper is less so - but just think of her 'successors', both played by Jessie Royce Landis, in To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959), to see the note of compassion returning. Hitchcock's humour, then, is gentler than Dickens's. In fact, it is often closer to 'gag' humour. An example: when Eve Gill in Stage Fright (1950) is practising being 'Doris Tinsdale' by donning her mother's glasses - and her usually rather dotty mother, sans glasses, instantly penetrates her disguise! But I do think that 'the Dickens touch' and 'the Hitchcock touch' overlap. I'll say why tomorrow.
September 30 More on humour in Dickens and in Hitchcock. As I suggested last night, though both men are undoubtedly humorists of the first order, who in their respective melodramas repeatedly joke about life-death matters, their type of humour nonetheless differs a lot of the time. Dickens didn't call himself 'the inimitable' for nothing. According to George Orwell, Dickens belongs in a certain tradition of genuinely popular literature, and took from earlier novelists 'the cult of "character", i.e. eccentricity'. (Think of the phrase 'he's a real character!') But what Dickens further brought to his work, says Orwell, was his 'fertility of invention, which is invention not so much of characters, still less of "situations", as of turns of phrase and concrete details. The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens's writing is the unnecessary detail.' I'll give an example of what Orwell means in a moment. But, first, note a possible contrast with (or divergence from) Hitchcock, who sometimes said that he favoured a type of humour akin to the Cockney love of droll understatement. (A film like The Trouble With Harry  may be said to pivot on it.) Now here's an example of what Orwell meant about Dickens' inclination to 'unnecessary detail'. In 'Great Expectations', thieves break into Uncle Pumblechook's corn and seed store. Before they make off with his cash, they tie him up and taunt him by drinking his wine, pulling his nose, and finally stuffing his mouth 'full of flowering annuals'. The unmistakable Dickens touch, says Orwell, is that bit about the flowering annuals. It comes after a long list of Pumblechook's indignities, and is so ... gratuitous! Nonetheless, notice the scene's mild sadism (and how the mealy-mouthed Pumblechook is really only receiving his just desserts, you could say!) and the 'organic' use of the setting. Hitchcock would have approved! Every scene must have a point, he insisted, and you must put a setting to work. Take the cornfield scene in North by Northwest (1959). As Hitchcock noted, you have a crop-dusting plane so you must have it dust crops. But now here's something else. When at the end of that scene Thornhill escapes by making off in a local bystander's small truck, the latter person's chagrin is no doubt increased by the fact that the truck was carrying a (newly-bought?) refrigerator in the back! That's a Dickensian touch of sorts! (So, too, I suggest, is another touch Hitchcock wanted for North by Northwest: to have Thornhill on Mount Rushmore hide in Lincoln's nostril and then have a sneezing fit. See below, October 6.) Possible conclusion: Hitchcock's humour may often be similar to Dickens's, and certainly given to the use of concrete details, but is typically 'part of the flow' rather than expansive - no verbal pyrotechnics, etc. Which may be to say no more, and no less, than that both artists understood and respected their respective media.
October 5 England's greatest and most popular story-teller, Charles Dickens - whom Hitchcock took after in many ways - had some peculiar obsessions, including hanging about graveyards, watching public executions, and indulging an interest in such matters as mob violence, cadavers, deformity, locks, prison bars, junkyards, and dustheaps. Notice that what virtually all of these have in common is the way they reflect life and death. Dickens told his biographer that he was well aware of his own enormous 'exercise of life' (doubtless a very Romantic notion). And Hitchcock would share many of Dickens's obsessions. Matters of police procedure fascinated him; in his younger days he often visited both the Old Bailey (to observe criminal trials) and Scotland Yard's Black Museum (where various relics of famous crimes were displayed), and later toured the Vice Museum in Paris; and he held a long-standing desire to film 24 hours in the life of a city (cf. Ruttman's Berlin ) and to show the city's waste products flowing into the sea. He once remarked sagely that 'everything's perverted in a different way' [incidentally a very Schopenhauerian remark - see 'The MacGuffin' #29, p. 21]. So in many respects, Frenzy (1972) should be seen as the culmination of Hitchcock's obsessions and of what someone called his 'Wasteland vision' - Hitchcock himself simply told a journalist that Frenzy was 'full of life'. Now let's return to Dickens. Prof. John Carey begins his chapter called "Corpses and Effigies" by noting Dickens's fascination with cadavers, wax figures, and the like. There are several undertakers in Dickens's novels. One of them, Mr Sowerberry in 'Oliver Twist', uses as a snuff box 'an ingenious little model of a patent coffin'. (Didn't Hitchcock once present 'Tippi' Hedren with a brooch in a miniature coffin?!) The novels also contain many waxworks which stare at people, and which people stare back at. Dickens was fascinated with this phenomenon. According to Carey, when Dickens was a toddler, his nursery was full of effigy figures, including a kind of Jack-in-the-box which to the child's imagination always seemed at least half alive, indeed 'demoniacal'. The accusing, Roman figure on the ceiling in 'Bleak House' who points to the scene of a murder may derive from one of Dickens's childhood memories; it always reminds me (in its function, at least) of the painting of an accusing jester in Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929). More later.
October 6 Novelist Charles Dickens' fascination with cadavers and effigies that watch the watcher (cf. the ubiquitous 'eyes' motif in Hitchcock) climaxed in 'Our Mutual Friend'. As John Carey writes: 'It wasn't until his last completed novel that Dickens produced his great set piece of dumb witnesses, and dumb witnesses who are real corpses as well as effigies. This is Mr Venus' shop [based on an actual shop in London] ... crammed with the stuffed animals and preserved babies and articulated human skeletons which make up Mr Venus' stock in trade [that of a taxidermist] ... .' And Carey goes on to note a typical brilliant and Dickensian moment in the novel when someone slams the street door of the shop, and the whole grisly population is shaken into momentary life. Among that population are (in Dickens's words) 'the green-glass-eyed cats, the dogs, the ducks, and all the rest of the collection, [which] show for an instant as if paralytically animated.' When I was an undergraduate, I remember describing Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) rather vaguely as 'the most "Dickensian" film I've ever seen' - well, here's part of the evidence for that remark! The scene in Mr Venus's shop in 'Our Mutual Friend' is surely a precursor for the fight that breaks out in the taxidermist's workshop in Hitchcock's film, in which Dr Ben McKenna (James Stewart) grapples with Ambrose Chappell and his assistants, and the struggle is 'watched' by stuffed animals including a tiger, a bear, a swordfish, and the head of a lion mounted on a wall. And just for a moment, with Bernard Herrmann's music going pell-mell, the animals seem to come alive and to be joining in the pandemonium. Or such seems to have been Hitchcock's intention - the effect doesn't quite come off, as he later admitted. Nonetheless the life-death 'grotesquerie' of this moment is Dickensian in its conception and design. Another scene from Dickens described by Carey comes from the story 'The Cricket on the Hearth' (which the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein read and admired). The toymaker's blind daughter stitches eyes onto dolls, and is silently 'watched' by dolls and rocking-horses around the walls. This anticipates the stuffed birds in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Further, the 'logic' of this scene reminds me of the moment I've mentioned previously that Hitchcock wanted for the Mount Rushmore climax of North by Northwest in which Thornhill would have hidden in Lincoln's nostril - and had a sneezing fit. More later.
October 7 Still on "Corpses and Effigies", John Carey notes of Dickens that he had a positive obsession with wooden legs, one of various lifeless body parts that fascinated him. What obsessed him about wooden legs were the things you could do with them, the damage such a leg is subject to, and its relations with its owner. Only a little different, perhaps, was Hitchcock's near-fetish (to judge from his films, that is) for legs generally. No doubt there were both 'Freudian' and cinematic reasons for this interest of his. For example, shots of a woman's lifeless or helpless limbs being hauled up a flight of stairs or through a doorway (as in Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds) are both potentially erotic while simultaneously formalised (like the genre of the nude in art) and facilitate a scene's montage. The amputation of Gus's gangrenous leg in Lifeboat (1944) is one of that film's memorable scenes, and the close-up of the knife being readied for its job by being cauterized in a candle-flame is a particularly telling image. But just as 'felt' by Hitchcock, you surmise, is the line given to Gus, who laments, 'If I lose my leg, I lose Rosie.' (Rosie is Gus's girlfriend and his partner in jitterbugging contests.) Trust Hitchcock, and his scenarist Jo Swirling, to see the matter like that! Leg-symbolism in Hitchcock is also present in Rear Window (1954), where several jokes, both visual and verbal, are made at the expense of the immobilised Jeff, and in Marnie (1964) - in the latter, Mrs Edgar's lameness is the visible reminder of both her 'accident' involving the death of a sailor and of her past in general, the guilt of which she represses. As in Dickens, then, a single 'identifying' trait given to a particular character can be richly expressive throughout an entire work. Here now is another of Prof. Carey's astute remarks about Dickens: 'With [his] inclination to break his characters into fragments, it's not surprising that Dickens' first success, "Pickwick Papers", already contains two medical students, Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen, whose function is to exchange anecdotes about the dissection of corpses, particularly at meal times.' That may remind you of some classic Hitchcock scenes! To be continued.
October 8 Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) is of course full of references to food and drink, and to both ingestion and digestion (and its products). If Charles Dickens could have a couple of medical students at dinner swap anecdotes about the dissection of corpses, Hitchcock could have a couple of professional men in a London pub at lunchtime discuss with a buxom barmaid details of the Necktie Strangler's modus operandi; equally, he could have Chief Inspector Oxford's wife serve him a watery consommé - in which unmentionable objects float - and then proceed to discuss aspects of rigor mortis as she absent-mindedly snaps a bread-stick or rusk (which happens to be the name of the film's murderer!). Frenzy is of course a film about all kinds of appetites and their satisfactions; it is also, as I've just hinted, a film full of images and references to waste, flow, and dust. (More on this later.) And here's a final point from John Carey's chapter called "Corpses and Effigies". Another body part that obsessed Dickens was the eye - or, rather, many eyes. He had recurrent nightmares of being stared at by disembodied eyes; there's such a moment in 'Pickwick Papers'. He was also obsessed with the phenomenon of looking at corpses or waxworks, of 'looking at something that could not return a look' (as he put it). Prof. Carey relates this to the near-traumatic episode from Dickens's childhood when the sensitive boy had been forced to go to work in a verminous blacking-factory, putting labels on bottles - and being watched through the window by countless passers-by in the street. Hitchcock of course had his own childhood trauma, of being fleetingly locked in a police cell. Taking a cue from Carey, perhaps we can say that here originated Hitchcock's deep sense of what it is to feel powerless and humiliated. Norman Bates in Psycho speaks of his mother (himself?) being locked in a madhouse with 'cruel eyes studying you' (imagery that harks back to the Freudian Spellbound ). Later, we're shown him spying on Marion in her cabin, undressing. Several Hitchcock films dwell upon scenes of incarceration as something especially mortifying or indelible, like a stain ...
October 12 Prof. John Carey's 'The Violent Effigy: a study of Dickens' imagination' has a chapter on "Symbols" in which he remarks astutely on Dickens's sea-imagery in 'Dombey and Son'. Carey feels that there's a split between the concrete evocation of the sea via a character like Captain Cuttle (ex-naval man with a hook instead of a hand attached to his right wrist) and the more 'religious' and 'preachy' evocation of the sea when, for example, someone dies or is dying. Mrs Dombey dies at the end of Chapter I with daughter Florence in attendance. 'Clinging fast to that slight spar within her arms, the mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world.' Something similar occurs in 'A Tale of Two Cities' which has resurrection as its central theme. Carey notes that the theme is adumbrated at various levels, as with the grave-robber Jerry Cruncher (a 'resurrectionist') on the one hand, and with a direct quote from the Christian burial service at the end of the novel, on the other hand, when Sydney Carton goes to his death on the scaffold ('I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die'). Carey admits that the quoting 'works' at this point, but he complains that we feel a 'gap' between it and 'Jerry Cruncher exemplifying the resurrection theme by digging up a coffin full of paving-stones'. Personally, I don't mind this 'grounding' of the metaphysical in something altogether more down-to-earth, even comical; and I think of how Hitchcock does exactly the same thing in Vertigo (1958) when on the one hand he has Scottie aspire 'upwards' after something nebulous yet profound embodied by Madeleine, his 'eternal-feminine' figure, and on the other hand gives comic lines and bits of business about 'uplift' and suspension to Midge, such as her reference to a new type of brassière 'built on the principle of the cantilever bridge'. Likewise, in such films as The Trouble With Harry (1955) and Family Plot (1976), Hitchcock refers to different types, or levels, of 'resurrection'. For example, Calvin Wiggs restoring an antique car represents one level; the cycle of the seasons (and the recurring sound of a church bell) evokes an altogether different order of 'renewal'. More on symbolism in Dickens and in Hitchcock tomorrow.
October 13 The way in which Hitchcock conditions his audience in matters of suspense often recalls Freud's 'Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious'. Freud shows, for example, that telling a 'tendentious joke' (one that has a point to make, particularly of a sexual nature) may require a certain mood for the recipient of the joke to be properly receptive. Such a mood may be arrived at by engaging in lesser forms of humour such as puns and non-tendentious joking. Similarly, I think, when someone like the writer Dickens or the filmmaker Hitchcock had a 'metaphysical' point to make (see last night's item), they instinctively knew that their audience had first to be conditioned in a certain way. Hence the various levels on which they might explore a particular image or theme. John Carey objects to some of this in the case of Dickens, but you suspect that his real objection is to Dickens's use of broad religious symbolism at all. Anyway, let's look further at Carey's chapter on symbolism. He notes, for example, the vaguely symbolic presence in 'Our Mutual Friend' of the London dustheaps. Very reasonably, he comments that Dickens could hardly be criticising in his use of such imagery the acquisitiveness of Victorian society and its quest for 'filthy lucre' (note: the dustheaps sometimes contained human excrement) - at least not unreservedly, for Dickens himself (like Hitchcock later) was a very rich man, and prided himself on his business skills. (Still, this is one of several places in Carey's book where you feel that he may be forgetting his own point from an earlier chapter, that Dickens might often take precisely contrary positions on one and the same topic!) Something I find interesting about the dustheaps, and the same novel's symbolic use of the Thames, is how they anticipate similar imagery in Hitchcock's Frenzy which, as already noted (see October 8, above), is full of references to eating and drinking, waste matter, and mortality. Think of that film's extreme suggestiveness when referring to potatoes, of which we're told there appears to be currently a glut, necessitating their being dug back into the ground. In turn, all of this imagery, in both Dickens and Hitchcock, may derive ultimately from the poet William Blake, whose poem 'London' refers to such things as 'the chartered Thames' (originally 'the dirty Thames') and 'Every blackening church'. (I discuss this further in 'The MacGuffin' #20, apropos Hitchcock's The Wrong Man.) More later.
October 14 Another memorable symbol noted by John Carey in the novels of Dickens is the fog and rain in 'Bleak House'. Because I've remarked at length in 'The MacGuffin' #20 about how a good deal of that symbolism seems taken over by The Wrong Man (1957), I'll not go into too many details here. (Hitchcock studied 'Bleak House' at school, and that novel, rather than Kafka's 'The Trial' - itself influenced by the Dickens novel - seems the true progenitor of Hitchcock's so-called 'Kafkaesque' film.) Carey admits the force of the particular imagery, but feels that in some passages Dickens tries too hard to give it a local meaning: he feels that what little a London fog can tell us of the legal system, or of people's ignorance of their affinities with others, 'is really irrelevant to its poetic force'. Maybe. Nonetheless, the poetry is pervasive, and splendidly done, while the fog's specific value as symbol - notably, its perceived relation to people - is what then 'fixes' the effect for us. In the case of The Wrong Man, Manny Balestrero's benighted condition is 'poetically' extended by the film's noirish style and by the pervasive imagery of mist, snow, and expressionist shadows - not to mention Bernard Herrmann's brilliantly mournful score - into a statement about an aspect of humanity in general. (In both works, another pervasive force is that of slow-moving time, and in particular the slowness of legal process: finally, though, both works allow a note of hopefulness, for time may also bring an element of healing, albeit slowly.) Next, Carey notes the pervasive symbolism attaching to prisons, bars, handcuffs - and birds, including birds in cages - in 'Little Dorrit'. All of those things are familiar Hitchcockian symbols, too. Moreover, Hitchcock could give them the light touch that Carey feels is sometimes lacking in Dickens. Read on tomorrow.
October 15 Speaking of Dickens's 'Little Dorrit': here's another similarity (cf October 6, above) between that novel and Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (either version). Dickens once said that the reason he began his novel in a sweltering prison in Marseilles was so that he might have the contrast, at the start of Chapter 3, of London on a dull Sunday evening, 'gloomy, close, and stale'. That, of course is exactly the same effect that Hitchcock sought, and gained, by beginning his film on the snowy slopes of St Moritz (the 1934 version) and in hot, glaring Marrakesh (the 1956 version) before moving on to the dingy back streets of London. Now, here's how Dickens further describes his London setting: 'In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could possibly furnish relief to an overworked people. ... [This] was the dreary Sunday of [hero Arthur Clenham's] boyhood, when, like a military deserter, he was marched to chapel by a picquet of teachers three times a day, morally handcuffed to another boy ...'. The city in a seeming death-grip, and the references to bars and handcuffs, are typical Dickens effects and metaphors that have at once a symbolic and a poetic function that in turn sets the tone for almost the entire novel. And the sense of death-in-life, of a palpable yet symbolic 'atmosphere' to be sustained throughout the work, was something that Hitchcock inherited. He probably got some of it from studying Dickens at school, but also from reading such other writers as Poe and Mrs Belloc Lowndes (the latter's 'The Lodger' explicitly evokes death-in-life in its Madame Tussaud's climax, which is itself the probable forerunner of several Hitchcock climaxes, such as that featuring the British Museum in Blackmail ). Typically, Prof. Carey prefers the concrete imagery of prisons, etc., in 'Little Dorrit' to any symbolic meanings attaching to them - but the two things are so interconnected in their effect on us that you may feel that he has missed the totality and essential indivisibility of what Dickens was doing. [Editor's note. Here I think of what Oliver Sacks, in 'Awakenings', says about Schopenhauer's twin concepts of Will and Representation: 'to speak in terms of either alone is to lay oneself open to a destructive duality ...'. I'll take this up another time.]
Dickens's phrase 'morally handcuffed' is a sophisticated idea,
formulated by an adult looking back on childhood. Nonetheless, there's
no doubt that Dickens as a boy was already a sensitive, intelligent,
imaginative lad! Any child may feel passing resentment at an adult who
forbids him from going out to play on a sunny afternoon, say, but you
sense that young Dickens was ambitious to 'improve' himself. We know
that he felt humiliated at being taken from school at an early age and
sent to work in a blacking-factory (his father had been arrested for
debt). Young Alfred Hitchcock was also sensitive, intelligent, and
'ambitious' after his own fashion. For example, he steered clear of
reading things like the popular Sexton Blake detective serials,
preferring the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. He cultivated inwardness and
imagination; he, too, you feel, was wary of adults who would
'morally handcuff' him! I mention all of this because I think it bears on why I see both Dickens and Hitchcock as being alike as artists of the imagination. Prof. Carey concludes his chapter on symbolism by noting Dickens's capacity to animate in his fiction even the most somnolent of objects. And Dickens himself said: 'It is my infirmity to fancy or perceive relations in things which are not apparent generally.' Caged birds were a frequent symbol in his novels, broadly 'representing either a protected favourite or a prisoner or both'. In Hitchcock, caged birds also figure more than once. The pair in the bus in To Catch a Thief (1955) constitute an ironic reference: even on the Côte d'Azur, your freedom may be restricted - a reference in turn to John Robie (Cary Grant), who has just avoided, for now, the searching police. Another frequent symbol in Dickens - and in Hitchcock - is the lock. More than one character in 'Bleak House' is given a set of keys: the detective Mr Tulkinghorn, for example, brandishes the key to his wine cellar as a way of impressing his authority on the French maid, ex-gaol bird Hortense. Carey notes that the lock in Dickens 'is a "symbol" only in the sense of being a strangely potent object, recurrently invoked'. Well, Hitchcock layered on some Freudian meanings to locks - but basically his sensitivity to such objects in the first place is what marks his close affinity to Dickens as an imaginative artist ...
October 20 We've been making some systematic comparisons of Hitchcock and novelist Charles Dickens (born at Portsmouth, but a resident of London for much of his life, and thus virtually, like Hitchcock, a Cockney). The second-last chapter in John Carey's book on Dickens, 'The Violent Effigy' (1973), is called "Dickens' Children", and its main idea is that children in Dickens's novels are of two kinds: the realistic ones and the plastic ones (the latter often like small adults, e.g., Little Nell in 'The Old Curiosity Shop'). When Dickens truly entered into the mind of a child, the result was convincing, as in the childhood chapters of 'David Copperfield'. He also had sharp memories of his own boyhood, such as of attending a child-funeral and fearing that his nurse was going to ask him to contribute some of his pocket money to the grieving mother - which is exactly what happened, whereupon young Charles stoutly refused to part with his wealth! As Prof. Carey notes, 'The child's response to death ... [typically] dismays adult sensibilities.' There's a sense of that in a couple of Hitchcock films, Young and Innocent (1937) and The Trouble With Harry (1955); more generally, children in Hitchcock's films are realistically shown to be a mix of amorality and resourcefulness. Carey observes that it's natural for children to exploit adults and Hitchcock wouldn't have demurred. Arnie in The Trouble With Harry, a budding capitalist, exchanges a dead rabbit for a live frog, then takes the rabbit back and trades it elsewhere for two blueberry muffins. The two youngest children in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) know a thing or two about getting around their mother; on the obnoxious side, there's young Jessie taking advantage of her status as virtual foster-daughter to Mrs Edgar in Marnie (1964). Perhaps the two most unexceptional (in two senses) children in Hitchcock are Hank in the 1956 re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much (his opposite number, Betty, in the 1934 version, is a trifle less bland) and Cathy in 1963's The Birds (not so unpleasant a child as Camille Paglia paints her, and clearly, I think, showing the insecurity of lacking a father to turn to). Against these, we must always recall the depiction of John Ballyntine at about age four in the Freudian Spellbound (1945) who 'accidentally' kills his brother in what seems a fairly literal, if extreme, instance of 'sibling rivalry'. In sum, in Hitchcock's knowing but generally not unsympathetic portrayal of children in his films - and I haven't even mentioned the young Cockney boy, Stevie, in Sabotage (1936) - he is far from disgraced when compared with Dickens in his novels. Another plus for Hitchcock: the generally excellent performances he got from his child-actors.
October 21 The final chapter of 'The Violent Effigy' by John Carey is called "Dickens and Sex" - which as Carey says, is an unpromising subject, since it's generally agreed that Dickens failed to fully and adequately depict even one normal sexual relationship. (The question for us is: did Hitchcock do any better?) The adult Dickens was particularly close to neither his mother (declining into senility) nor his clumsy wife, Catherine, from whom he eventually separated (after she had borne him several children). The woman in his life whom he seems to have most reverenced with an ideal kind of love was his wife's sister, Mary, who died in his arms at age 17 a year after his marriage, and who later served as a model of ideal feminine purity for several of the women in his fiction (e.g., the self-sacrificing Little Dorritt). (Here, by the way, seems the clue to why Dickens later so often hung around graveyards, for it's known that hours before Mary's funeral he went to the cemetery and meditated in solitude on her exposed coffin. He never forgot her.) Thereafter, as Carey notes, Dickens's fiction contained a kind of split marked by an erotic paternalism - which was carried over into his life when he felt attracted to young women, and eventually took as his mistress the teenage actress Ellen Ternan. When Dr Strong, lexicographer, marries Mrs Strong, in 'David Copperfield', Carey feels that we're left in some doubt about where the Doctor's energies are invested, and whether the marriage is consummated. 'Oh my husband and father', cries Mrs Strong confusingly. But of course there was always a parallel split in Hitchcock and his films. Fairly evidently, and naturally, the adult Hitchcock loved both his mother (until her death in 1942) and his wife, Alma, though he fathered just one child, Patricia. However, the split in Hitchcock, a Catholic, was particularly marked, precisely between two female figures as suggested by the quintessential line heard in Rich and Strange (1931): 'A wife is more than half a mother.' The indicated conflict for the male recurs in film after film, not least in Vertigo (1958) where Scottie experiences a mother-versus-whore form of desire, which only the ideal and essentially fictitious 'Madeleine' seems to him able to resolve - but which is defeated when an even more powerful and archetypal figure intervenes: the Great Mother, represented by the shadowy mother-superior. (Ambiguous here is whether the pagan or the religious element is uppermost.) More later.
October 22 Curiously, then, both Dickens and Hitchcock held an ideal of feminine purity linked to someone whose name was itself associated with the letter 'M': for Dickens, as we've seen, it was 'Mary' (his wife's dead sister); for Hitchcock, it was 'Emma' (his mother's name, itself cognate with that of the Virgin Mary). However, in Hitchcock's films, women whose names begin with the letter 'M' (e.g., Madeleine in Vertigo) may realistically also have something of the whore-figure about them, i.e., they are also Magdalen-figures (Madeleine's great-great-grandmother, Carlotta, had apparently been 'picked up' by a rich San Franciscan, had mothered him a child, and then had been callously returned by him to the streets). This division, and the conflict it causes, is seen prototypically in Hitchcock in his very first English film, The Lodger (1926), where the sister who is killed at her coming-out ball is a blonde and assimilated symbolically to the mother. (The obvious suspect for her killing is the brother who anticipates Norman Bates by then going mad.) The thing is, with such an ideal of feminine purity (and in Hitchcock's case a related image of 'the wronged woman'), both Dickens and Hitchcock, but particularly Dickens, might at times imply 'that even normal sexuality is guilty or unclean'. Certainly that's the implication that Carey finds in Dickens's novels; while there's at least a hint of the same thing in Hitchcock's films, even in potentially erotic scenes which are really as much comic as erotic (perhaps both Rear Window  and To Catch a Thief  might be cited). Arthur Laurents, who scripted Rope (1948), has said that the 'celibate' Hitchcock regarded sex with disdain, that he wouldn't be part of it - though in another way he would indulge it by telling associates dirty jokes and by teasing audiences with artfully suggestive love-scenes. Carey notes of Dickens's alter ego David Copperfield that he is 'terrified' of the cultured, educated Rosa Dartle; in turn, one may think of the line given to Thornhill (Cary Grant) in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), 'Honest women frighten me.' (This echoes a line spoken by Grant's character Devlin in Notorious .) In sum, there was a 'split' in Dickens in his attitude towards any woman regarded as a potential sex-object. In 'David Copperfield' the woman who eventually becomes David's second wife, Agnes Wickfield, is initially associated by him with a church's stained glass window that he'd seen in childhood; even just two or three chapters from the end of the novel, he can still say cheerfully that she is 'ever directing me to higher things'. One may be reminded, I think, of how Madeleine beckons Scottie to 'higher things' in Vertigo. However, Carey adds sagely: 'We should not suppose that Dickens failed to notice the sexual inhibitions of himself and his audience.' And he concludes his study of Dickens with an observation that may apply also to Hitchcock, by noting that Dickens was always a humorist: '[his] imagination transforms the world; his laughter controls it.'