With the new series Bates Motel airing on A&E this spring, Hitchcock’s seminal film Psycho is re-emerging in popular culture. The show follows a young Norman Bates and his mother in a ‘contemporary prequel’ to the horrific Psycho story. David Greven’s Psycho-Sexual charts canonical Hitchcock films as precursors to 1970s New Hollywood films like Dressed to Kill (De Palma), Cruising (Friedkin) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese). Get your DVD players ready, because David Greven gives us some ‘must see’ viewing and insightful commentary to accompany his new book.
‘The Essential Cold War Hitchcock’ by David Greven
Alfred Hitchcock directed, according to IMDB, 67 titles (including episodes for his anthology TV series). Narrowing down a list of the “essential” Hitchcock is an impossible task given how substantive the director’s body of work remains. So, here is a list of films that are particularly germane to the questions I raise in my book Psycho-Sexual. My thesis in this book is that Hitchcock’s films from the Cold War era onward thematize an emergent form of American masculinity that will prove to be crucial to several directors of the 1970s (in a period usually called the New Hollywood) and beyond. This Hitchcockian masculinity is defined by a tendency toward voyeurism, a push-pull attraction to the homoerotic, and an attitude toward sexuality that can be best described as pornographic. The current fascinations with surveillance in our culture—the spycam-sensibility of the present, the fears over identity theft—have their roots in the Cold War paranoia Hitchcock depicted.
Rope (1948). Two young men, lovers who share a swanky New York City apartment, kill one of their friends and stuff his body into a long, rectangular chest. They then host a dinner party, serving food on the chest with the dead body in it; the guests include the dead man’s father and the killers’ former headmaster, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). Hitchcock’s film is an acute analysis of homophobia, masculinity, women’s ambiguous relationship to gay subculture, fascist ideology, and the director’s own career-long fascination with food-sex-death imagery.
Strangers on a Train (1951) and I Confess (1953). This pair of films thematizes the “open secret” of homosexuality, simultaneously unspeakable and nearly explicit. In Strangers, Bruno Anthony’s desire to kill for Guy Haines, and to have Guy kill his father, emerges as an allegory for homosexual courtship. In I Confess, the priest (Montgomery Clift) bound by the secrecy of the Catholic confessional, is hounded by the murderer, who confesses to the priest but then proceeds to hound him for his own crime. In a culture that increasingly viewed relationships between men as suspect, these two films show a culture of repression at its breaking point.
Rear Window (1954). One of Hitchcock’s most famous films, Rear Window indexes his major concerns: voyeurism, male-female relationships, and the potential for murderous violence that lurks within the banality of everyday existence. Watch the film this time for its depiction of relationships between men—the protagonist Jeff (James Stewart) and his uneasy interactions with his war buddy Tom, now a police detective, and Jeff’s strange similarities to the villain, Thorwald, who murders his wife. Grace Kelly’s Lisa is much more than simply the girlfriend—she is a complex character in her own right who typifies the frustrated yet resilient woman of Hitchcock’s films of this period. Jeff is an early version of the pornographic male spectator that has now become so familiar; he turns the neighbors in his apartment complex into objects for his voyeuristic gaze and derives a sadistic gratification from observing them.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Hitchcock’s remake of his own 1934 British original about a family on a holiday whose child is kidnapped to prevent the couple from revealing what they know about a political assassination plot is one of his most important and underrated films. Doris Day’s Jo McKenna, a famous singer now married to James Stewart’s Midwestern doctor Ben McKenna, emerges as the chief protagonist of the film—her resourcefulness, ingenuity, and courage being central. The “sedative scene” is one of Hitchcock’s most emotionally wrenching. The film responds to Cold War paranoia that the straight American male could be corrupted by foreign agents by depicting its stalwart American hero’s uneasy fascination with the seductive French male spy Louis Bernard, which arouses Jo’s suspicions. The film dismantles the Cold War culture of homophobia and redomesticated femininity (making women newly wife-like and motherly after World War II) while critiquing the dominant image of the stable, happy American family.
Vertigo (1958). Voted the greatest film ever made in Sight and Sound’s latest poll, this film needs no introduction. If you watch it with an eye on the Kim Novak character’s experience of the narrative, the film becomes even richer, deeper, and more painful to watch. What is also fascinating about the film is the protagonist’s growing obsession not only with a beautiful, mysterious, seemingly doomed woman, but also with another man’s ingenious story about this woman. No other film so acutely thematizes our willingness to be seduced by narrative.
North by Northwest (1959). It’s easy to classify this wildly entertaining movie as just that, an entertainment. Yet it is one of Hitchcock’s most moving and probing films. The hero, Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), a 50s era ad man whose personality is as blank as his middle initial, which stands for nothing. The espionage plot in which he, mistaken for “George Kaplan,” becomes embroiled allows him to find an authentic identity, ironic given that Kaplan does not exist at all. Thornhill learns to care for someone else, the double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), and in the process develops a human identity. Queer theorist Lee Edelman reads the character of Leonard (Martin Landau), the henchman of the urbane villain Vandamm (peerless James Mason), as the embodiment of the queer death drive. But the real drama here is Thornhill’s identification with the endangered woman.
Psycho (1960). Hitchcock’s film is many things, but it’s perhaps especially acute as a portrait of modern despair and isolation. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) attempts to buy a marriage, stealing $40,000 to rid her lover of the debts he claims prevents her from marrying him. The sensitive, handsome young man she meets on her desperate journey turns out to be anything but her salvation. Of particular fascination in this film is Hitchcock’s doubling of masculinity—the “straight” Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and the “queer,” mother-obsessed Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). With their dark looks and builds, the men are meant to be polar opposites but are presented as eerily similar. The split masculinity of Psycho will prove to be a definitive, influential concept for the directors of the New Hollywood of the 1970s, in particular Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin. Norman’s voyeuristic peeping on Marion as she undresses for the shower is the defining moment of cinematic modernity, the moment in which the male gaze as such becomes explicit film text. Less explicit, and certainly less obvious, is what motivates and results from Norman’s looking—what does he see when observes Marion undressing? What is Norman’s desire? The blankess of the male gaze in Psycho will transform into an entire body of paranoid, violent, and anguished cinema in the 1970s.
David Greven is Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. His previous books include Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema, Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush, and Men Beyond Desire.