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Hitchcock's Motifs

Hitchcock's Motifs

Michael Walker
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 496
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  • Book Info
    Hitchcock's Motifs
    Book Description:

    Among the abundant Alfred Hitchcock literature, Hitchcock's Motifs has found a fresh angle. Starting from recurring objects, settings, character-types and events, Michael Walker tracks some forty motifs, themes and clusters across the whole of Hitchcock's oeuvre, including not only all his 52 extant feature films but also representative episodes from his TV series. Connections and deeper inflections that Hitchcock fans may have long sensed or suspected can now be seen for what they are: an intricately spun web of cross-references which gives this unique artist's work the depth, consistency and resonance that justifies Hitchcock's place as probably the best know film director ever. The title, the first book-length study of the subject, can be used as a mini-encyclopaedia of Hitchcock's motifs, but the individual entries also give full attention to the wider social contexts, hidden sources and the sometimes unconscious meanings present in the work and solidly linking it to its time and place. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0545-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-12)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 13-14)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 15-22)

    This book examines Alfred Hitchcockʹs work through his recurring motifs. Motifs in general are a neglected area of Film Studies. Although the decade by decade multi-volumeAmerican Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States(see Munden 1997; Krafsur 1997; Hanson 1988, 1993 & 1999) includes a ʹSubject Indexʹ for each decade, and several film guides have either a ʹCategory Indexʹ or a ʹGeneral Subject Indexʹ – all of which include motifs – these are no more than listings of the films in which a specific feature occurs. Actual discussions of motifs in the cinema are rare, and...

  5. Part I Hitchcock, Motifs and Melodrama

    • Introduction
      (pp. 25-25)

      In an article on Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948), I wrote of objects in melodrama that:

      they become charged with internally generated meaning. Flowers (e.g. Lisaʹs white roses), jewellery (e.g. Madame deʹs ear-rings), photographs, music-boxes, handkerchiefs, letters, indeed any objects which evoke romantic/nostalgic/symbolic associations for the protagonists function within the films less to convey generic information than to contribute a wealth of internally accumulated significance.

      (Walker M. 1982c: 44)

      In other words, as certain sorts of object circulate within a melodrama narrative, they generate associations deriving from the different contexts in which they are found. My project...

    • Three motifs
      (pp. 26-30)

      Home movies viewed within a film are traditionally used to evoke the past, usually with a sense of loss, as in the home movie Charles (Michel Duchaussoy) watches of his dead wife and son in Que la Bête Meure (Claude Chabrol, 1969), or the one the middle-aged Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) watches of his lost love, filmed when both of them were teenagers, in Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988). These are strong examples of the motif: we are being told a great deal about the man who obsessively shows himself the films, and both scenes are very poignant.

      Neither example, however,...

    • Melodrama and Hitchcock’s motifs
      (pp. 30-35)

      Hitchcockʹs use of the Milk motif is by no means as sophisticated as his use of the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, but it illustrates the distinctiveness of his point of view. Within the cinema generally, motifs could be said to operate across two broad continua: from conventional to unconventional and from simple to complex. Hitchcockʹs motifs consistently gravitate towards the unconventional and/or the complex, with milk illustrating the former and the cigarette lighter both features.

      In particular, Hitchcockʹs motifs continue to accumulate significance throughout the individual films, and throughout his films overall. In order to explore this...

    • An elaborated motif: the Bed Scene in Rebecca and Marnie
      (pp. 35-42)

      I would like to extend the discussion of melodrama in the motifs by looking at the ways in which one motif – the BED SCENE – is elaborated to the point where it opens up an investigative path through two films, Rebecca and Marnie. Here both condensation and displacement are in evidence in the workings of the motif.

      In Part II, I discuss the BED SCENE in Hitchcock. Most of his films have at least one such scene, and their associations are nearly always negative, to do with pain and suffering. The bed scenes in Rebecca and Marnie are typical...

    • A melodramatic motif: hands
      (pp. 43-46)

      With some Hitchcock motifs, melodrama is infused directly into the expression of the motif in the sense that it is presented in a heightened, stylised form. This is perhaps a corollary of Hitchcockʹs visual style: the assembling of pre-visualised shots according to a precise editing plan. As a result of this style, certain elements are focused upon in a manner which is ʹexpressiveʹ, charged with affect. In an article published in 1937, Hitchcock himself discusses this aspect of his style. I would like to quote two extracts.

      What I like to do always is to photograph just the little bits...

    • Diagrammatic representations
      (pp. 46-50)

      A crucial feature of Hitchcockʹs motifs is that, collectively, they serve to say a great deal about the ʹworldʹ Hitchcock creates through his films; in some cases illuminating areas which one feels would have surprised him. They may appear fragmentary, but they are, rather, part of a complex, a network of associations which only really emerges when the motifs are considered across the whole of Hitchcockʹs work. Although it would not be possible to illustrate diagrammatically all of the ways in which the motifs interrelate with one another, the two figures are intended to indicate the dominant patterning of the...

    • Overview of the key motifs
      (pp. 50-54)

      My general argument is that a psychoanalytical reading of Hitchcockʹs motifs helps reveal the resonances, undercurrents and associations. In a number of examples, the motif is sexualised: ENTRY THROUGH A WINDOW, EXHIBITIONISM / VOYEURISM / THE LOOK, HANDCUFFS AND BONDAGE, KEYS AND HANDBAGS. One could even say the same of THE MACGUFFIN: when it is an object, it frequently hints at a sexual meaning. The sexualisation of (elements of) Hitchcockʹs cinema is well-known, but it almost always has a disturbing edge or forbidden undercurrents to it. On the one hand, this is a reflection of the general sense in Hitchcock...

  6. Part II The Key Motifs

      (pp. 57-68)

      The first bed scene in Hitchcock is when Jill shares Patsyʹs bed in The Pleasure Garden. As Truffaut has suggested, with Patsy wearing pyjamas and Jill a night-dress, there are perhaps suppressed sexual undercurrents to the scene (Truffaut 1983: 33). But the rather playful tone of the scene is less typical of Hitchcock than the filmʹs subsequent, more troubled, bed scenes. When Patsy marries Levet, the ensuing extended honeymoon sequence includes a scene of her waking after her wedding night and being tended by him. Levet seems considerate, but the honeymoon sequence overall serves, rather, to emphasise his moral corruption:...

      (pp. 69-86)

      Although Hitchcockʹs preference for sophisticated blonde heroines did not really dominate the casting of his films before Grace Kelly in the mid-1950s, it has nevertheless tended to dominate the relevant discussions of his films. To my knowledge, only Molly Haskell inFrom Reverence to Rapemakes a point of considering Hitchcockʹs brunettes alongside his blondes (Haskell 1974: 349-354). I shall follow her example, and indeed look at the full range of Hitchcockʹs heroines, albeit from the rather selective point of view of the implications of their hair colour. Feminist studies such as Tania Modleskiʹs (1988) have explored in detail the...

      (pp. 87-97)

      A full listing of Hitchcockʹs cameo appearances in his films will be found in the filmography. Despite the familiarity of the cameos as a phenomenon, there have been relatively few attempts to look at them analytically. Two contrasting discussions date from 1977. In ʹHitchcock, The Enunciatorʹ, Raymond Bellour considers some of the cameos from a psychoanalytical point of view, suggesting that the ʹappearances occur, more and more frequently, at that point in the chain of events where what could be called the film-wish is condensedʹ (Bellour 1977/2000: 224). Bellourʹs argument is that, through his cameos, ʹHitchcock inscribe [s] himself in...

      (pp. 98-110)

      At first glance, children may not seem to be a major feature of Hitchcockʹs work. They have substantial roles in relatively few of his films, and even in these they are seen primarily in relation to the adults: Hitchcock does not enter into the childʹs world in the manner of, say, Robert Mulligan. The TV episode ʹBang! Youʹre Deadʹ is the furthest he has gone in that direction (➢ APPENDIX I). On the other hand, children do in fact make some sort of an appearance in a surprisingly large number of his films and, even though their parts may be...

      (pp. 111-122)

      Confined spaces is a loose term. I wanted a designation which covered two sorts of setting in Hitchcock: on the one hand, small private rooms such as bathrooms and toilets; on the other, a variety of public spaces, from jails to telephone booths, which enclose the characters in more or less claustrophobic ways. There are also more elaborate examples: the action of Lifeboat is entirely confined to the lifeboat itself; that of Rope to the increasingly claustrophobic apartment of the two killers. But my concern here is with small rooms and with ʹboxed-inʹ spaces such as booths, bunks and trunks,...

      (pp. 123-141)

      Just as most Hitchcock films include at least one murder (or other violent killing) which in some sense involves the hero and/or heroine, so most of them include at least one corpse. This applies, of course, to many films, but Hitchcockʹs corpses are sufficiently important to the narrative to function as a motif: they are related to the characters and to the internal dynamics of the films in a patterned way. The importance of the corpse in Hitchcock may be gauged from its place in the repressed childhood traumas of the hero in Spellbound and the heroine in Marnie: when...

      (pp. 142-145)

      On the evidence of his films, Hitchcock did not think much of cats. They appear quite often in the British films, and occasionally in the Hollywood ones, but usually a bit sneakily. They turn up on dinner tables (Rich and Strange, Mr and Mrs Smith); their propensity to flee from danger is used to signal murders (The Lodger, Murder!) or to add a sense of farce to a panicking crowd (Juno and the Paycock: ➢ PUBLIC DISTURBANCES). They tend to be metaphorically associated with suspicious behaviour: when the Lodger sneaks out late at night, the shadow of a prowling cat...

      (pp. 146-153)

      One of the more familiar of the directorʹs motifs, the double has received a fair amount of attention in the Hitchcock literature. Its prominence in Hitchcockʹs work is not surprising: not only was it a feature of some of the writers whom he admired – Edgar Allan Poe; E.T.A. Hoffmann – it was also found extensively in the German Expressionist cinema of the 1910s and 1920s which influenced him so strongly. Both these traditions are examined in Otto Rankʹs seminal psychoanalytical study of the doubleDer Doppelgänger(1914), and Rankʹs discussion in turn influenced Freud. (See Rank 1971, which includes...

      (pp. 154-157)

      InThe Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcockʹs Films, Lesley Brill points to the similarity in the endings of The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur and To Catch a Thief. The police do not simply get the ʹright manʹ (woman in To Catch a Thief), and so free the falsely accused hero for his reunion with the heroine. Their role goes further: itʹs as if they supervise the happy ending: e.g. in Saboteur a policeman helps Barry to safety on the Statue of Liberty and into Patʹs arms; in To Catch a Thief the police drive Francie up...

      (pp. 158-163)

      There is nothing very interesting about most of theexitsthrough a window in Hitchcockʹs films: someone is usually escaping. The motif of someone entering through a window is very different, because almost all the examples are sexualised. (The stress, here, is onsomeoneentering. I exclude examples in which the camera alone enters, which may – the beginning of Psycho – or may not – the beginning of I Confess – be sexualised.) In the British films, the motif receives a number of different inflections. In The Manxman, before Pete goes abroad, he tries to get Kate to say...

      (pp. 164-178)

      ʹVoyeurism has become identified with masculinity, and exhibitionism with femininityʹ (Grosz 1992: 448). Hitchcockʹs films conform quite strongly to the first half of this statement, but more loosely to the second. The fact that Hitchcockʹs voyeurs are generally male is well known. In her seminal article ʹVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinemaʹ, Laura Mulvey uses Hitchcock to support her theoretical discussion about the function of ʹthe male lookʹ in identification processes in the cinema (Mulvey 1975: 6-18), and numerous feminist critics have followed suit.

      InHitchcockʹs Films Revisited, Robin Wood challenges Laura Mulveyʹs model of identification, noting in particular its failure...

      (pp. 179-200)

      InThe Alfred Hitchcock Quote Book, Laurent Bouzereau includes a chapter on Hitchcock and food, beginning with a bold statement:

      Hitchcockʹs greatest preoccupation was not sex, women or crime. It was food. While it had a place of honor in his everyday life, it quickly became an important theme in his films; food is linked to (or is the substitute for) marriage, sex and murder.

      (Bouzereau 1993: 128)

      Although Bouzereau merely cites quotations from the films – there is no discussion – he at least provides a start. Because of the number and range of examples, food is a tricky...

      (pp. 201-213)

      Feelings of guilt and an attendant impulse to confess haunt Hitchcockʹs films, a feature which led the 1950sCahiers du Cinémacritics to identify a Catholic discourse in his work. The Catholic overtones are present in the narrative structure: nearly always, after the confession, a character must then face an ordeal, as if penance must be done before redemption can be achieved in the secular form of a happy ending. In other words, confession is not just therapeutic, but also potentially redemptive, and the flawed or blocked confessions in Hitchcockʹs work are to a greater or lesser extent harmful to...

      (pp. 214-219)

      In The Lodger, this motif has several inflections. (1) The detective Joe is proud of his handcuffs, telling Mr Bunting that they are ʹa brand new pair of bracelets for the Avengerʹ. When Daisy joins the two of them, he declares cockily that when he has put a rope round the Avengerʹs neck – he uses the handcuffs to mime the hanging – heʹll put a ring round Daisyʹs finger. (2) Joe then threatens to handcuff Daisy and, when she resists and flees, pursues her up the back stairs. In the front hall he catches her and carries out his...

    • HANDS
      (pp. 220-237)

      In his originalCahiers du Cinémaarticle, Philippe Demonsablon divides ʹThe Handʹ into four subheadings: ʹfloating handsʹ (e.g. the Lodgerʹs going down the banister rail); ʹstrangling gesturesʹ (e.g. Ashendenʹs hands reaching out as if to strangle Marvin after the train wreck in Secret Agent); ʹgrasping handsʹ (e.g. Bruno reaching down into the drain to retrieve the cigarette lighter) and ʹindicating handsʹ (e.g. Kateʹs father publicly pointing out Philip as ʹher betrayerʹ in The Manxman). Apart from these groupings, Demonsablon makes only a few points about the overall significance of the motif: to hold something is to have it in oneʹs...

      (pp. 238-247)

      The prevalence of the motif of threatened or actual falling from a height in Hitchcockʹs films is well known, but I am unaware of any attempt to analyse it. At a relatively basic level it refers to a fear of the abyss: another metaphor for the chaos world. Noting that we are never told how Scottie in Vertigo is rescued from his predicament at the beginning – suspended from a roof gutter over a terrifying drop to the ground – Robin Wood suggests that: ʹThe effect is of having him, throughout the film, metaphorically suspended over a great abyssʹ (Wood...

      (pp. 248-261)

      There are widely differing opinions about the prevalence of homosexuality in Hitchcock, and it would be useful, first, to look at what are probably the two extremes: the essentially conservative assessment of Robin Wood inHitchcockʹs Films Revisited(1989), and the far more radical one put forward by Theodore Price inHitchcock and Homosexuality(1992). In his chapter ʹThe Murderous Gays: Hitchcockʹs Homophobiaʹ, Robin Wood begins by looking at the claim that many of Hitchcockʹs psychopaths are coded as gay (Wood 1989: 336-57). In certain cases – Fane in Murder!, Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, Brandon and Phillip in Rope and...

      (pp. 262-268)

      In films generally, as in life, jewellery has a wide range of possible associations. These may be romantic: in two early Garbo films – The Temptress (Fred Niblo, 1926) and Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926) – she and the hero signal their love by exchanging rings. But, as a gift from a man to a woman, jewellery may equally connote the manʹs sense of his own status and wealth, as in the familiar situation of a husband wanting his wife to wear the expensive jewellery he has bought her. Such jewellery may have little sentimental value: Random Harvest...

      (pp. 269-285)

      In a stimulating discussion of objects in Hitchcock, Susan Smith uses the circulation of the wine cellar key in Notorious as a major example. Alicia takes it from her husband Alex’s key-ring, gives it to Devlin, and he uses it to explore the wine cellar, where he finds the MacGuffin (a mysterious ore in a wine bottle). But Alex then notices its absence from and subsequent return to the keyring, which alerts him to what has been going on and exposes Alicia as an American spy. Smith points out that the key is used both as a structuring device throughout...

    • LIGHT(S)
      (pp. 286-295)

      About fifteen minutes into The Lodger, there is a close-up of a light in the Buntingsʹ lodging house growing dim: money needs to be inserted in the meter. This theatrical device – as William Rothman points out, like lowering the house lights (Rothman 1982: 14) – is in fact to cue Ivor Novelloʹs star entrance. When he appears on the doorstep, wearing a hat and with a scarf over his mouth, he is intended to look like descriptions of the Avenger. But there is another association, missed by Rothman, though since noted by Richard Allen (1999: 223). With his pale...

      (pp. 296-306)

      The concept of the MacGuffin in Hitchcock is more slippery than may, at first, be apparent. To Truffaut, Hitchcock defines it as the secret or documents the spies are after, distinguishing between his own point of view and that of the characters in the film: these items ʹmust seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, theyʹre of no importance whateverʹ (Truffaut 1968: 111-12). To illustrate this last point, he says that the uranium MacGuffin in Notorious had troubled the producer (Selznick), so he had offered to replace it with industrial diamonds (138). (I am...

      (pp. 307-318)

      My concern here is with Hitchcockʹs representation of middle-aged mothers and mother figures. His young mothers are presented sympathetically: Kate in The Manxman, Jill and Jo in each version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Jennifer in The Trouble with Harry, Rose in The Wrong Man. But his older maternal figures are a much more mixed bunch. The general consensus is that such figures in Hitchcockʹs films are usually viewed negatively, but that this is restricted to the American period. ʹThroughout his British films, Hitchcockʹs maternal figures are loving, sympathetic and attractive, even when they are slightly ridiculousʹ (Leitch...

      (pp. 319-334)

      Paintings in Hitchcockʹs films are not simply part of the décor; they inform us about the characters who own them and/or those who look at them. On occasions, the paintings may simply be appropriate to the household in question. In Stage Fright, for example, Charlotteʹs house is full of portraits of herself (the narcissistic theatre star), whereas the house where Eve lives with her mother contains the sort of traditional bourgeois family portraiture often found in a well-to-do middle-class British household. However, Jonathanʹs flat contains modernist paintings, the connotations of which are more subtle (➢Modern art). Similarly, the Vladimir...

      (pp. 335-343)

      Perhaps the most familiar examples of Hitchcockʹs public disturbances are those bourgeois social occasions which are suddenly disrupted by an ʹimproperʹ event, e.g. Bruno almost strangling Mrs Cunningham during Senator Mortonʹs party in Strangers on a Train, or Roger making a nuisance of himself in the auction room in North by Northwest. There seems little doubt that Hitchcock enjoys the confusion and embarrassment such disruptions provoke – we could indeed see them as illustrating Hitchcock the practical joker, amusing himself at the expense of bourgeois stuffiness. However, if we take a public disturbance to include any disruption which causes a...

      (pp. 344-349)

      Of all the motifs considered here, this is the one which smacks most heavily of cliché. Hitchcock has his characters wear spectacles for a limited number of reasons, almost all of them familiar from a thousand other films. For both men and women, there are six or so broad types who wear spectacles, although the types are somewhat different for each of the sexes. For men, a wearer of spectacles is either:

      1. highly intelligent, e.g. the psychoanalyst Dr Brulov in Spellbound, the nuclear scientist Professor Lindt in Torn Curtain, or

      2. comically absent-minded, e.g. Robertʹs lawyer in Young and Innocent, Dr...

      (pp. 350-372)

      The first shot of The Pleasure Garden shows chorus girls descending a spiral staircase as they come on stage. The penultimate shot of Family Plot shows Blanche sitting on the staircase in Adamsonʹs house and winking at the camera. Staircases thus frame Hitchcockʹs entire directorial oeuvre. They are also one of his more famous motifs, mentioned quite often in the Hitchcock literature. Equally, however, they are familiar features not just of the cinema generally, but of cultural forms which preceded the cinema – myths, folk tales, art, drama – so that one needs to look at Hitchcockʹs use of the...

      (pp. 373-387)

      Hitchcockʹs boyhood obsession was equally with the means of transport themselves, and this preoccupation shows clearly in his films. There are relatively few of his films in which cars are the dominant mode of transport, and these are mostly late in his career. Hitchcockʹs characters tend to travel quite a lot, but journeys of any length are more usually undertaken by public transport. As a consequence, there are many scenes in his films set on trains and boats in particular. Planes and buses feature less prominently, but they are still sufficiently popular to each constitute a motif. With trains and...

      (pp. 388-400)

      Hitchcock seems to have had a fascination with water, particularly the sea. Almost half his films include a coastal setting and/or a sea voyage: ➢ BOATS for a discussion of the latter. At the same time, water – especially the sea – is most often a source of threat. There are various inflections of the motif

      1. Suicides and suicide attempts in water. Most of the Hitchcock characters who try to drown themselves are women; his men prefer more violent deaths. Men also occur in this motif more often as murderers. The female suicide/ male murderer distinction is present from Hitchcockʹs...

  7. Appendix I: TV Episodes
    (pp. 401-415)
  8. Appendix II: Articles on Hitchcock’s motifs
    (pp. 416-417)
  9. Appendix III: Definitions
    (pp. 418-420)
  10. References
    (pp. 421-430)
  11. Filmography
    (pp. 431-462)
  12. List of illustrations
    (pp. 463-466)
  13. Index of Hitchcock’s films and their motifs
    (pp. 467-480)
  14. General index
    (pp. 481-490)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 491-492)