Note: This article contains spoilers for I Confess, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Strangers on a Train, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Vertigo.
This summer, the Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM) took a month to celebrate “50 Years of Hitchcock.” They could have made it much longer. The beloved director left us a group of films so brilliantly crafted, and so rich in meaning, that they can be endlessly viewed, studied, and analyzed. And they have been. Those of us following the month-long movie marathon, and particularly those of us who took an online course that accompanied it, heard from film scholars and commentators with a wealth of knowledge to share on Alfred Hitchcock’s gifts, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and obsessions.When Hitchcock gets us to sympathize with the hero’s flaws and foibles, or even to outright root for the villain, what is he telling us about ourselves—not just as viewers, but as human beings?
Among the most intriguing of those obsessions was the idea of the innocent man who is caught up in events beyond his control, or even falsely accused of wrongdoing. Hitchcock came back to this theme again and again, thoroughly exploring a variety of different scenarios and aspects. In I Confess (1953), Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) stands trial for murder because he refuses to break the seal of confession and give the real murderer away. In To Catch a Thief (1955), former cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) must clear his name when he’s wrongly suspected of returning to his old ways. In The Wrong Man (1956), mild-mannered musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) finds his life turning into a nightmare when he is mistaken for a bank robber and arrested. There are plenty of variations on the theme: innocent man mistaken for a spy (North by Northwest); innocent man being coerced into committing a crime (Strangers on a Train); innocent man with amnesia who falsely believes he’s killed someone (Spellbound).
For Hitchcock, innocence and guilt were perhaps not always as far apart as they might appear. At times he seems to be inviting us to question the very concept of innocence. Who could be more innocent than a simple and devout Catholic priest, especially one who heroically obeys his vows even at the risk of his own life? “Aren’t you human? Haven’t you ever been afraid?” the real murderer demands of Father Logan in I Confess, when he fears the priest might break his silence. “You are so good. It’s easy for you to be good. Have you no pity for me?”
And yet, Father Logan has a secret in his distant past—a night spent with a married woman—that made him vulnerable to threats of blackmail, and hence to accusations of murder. It has not, in fact, always been easy for Father Logan to be good.
Hitchcock liked to pick apart the lives of his heroes, turning them inside out and putting their weak spots on display. In 1954’s Rear Window, for instance, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is guilty of murder, but he’s caught only because of the intervention of the man in the apartment across the way, Jeff Jefferies (James Stewart), who’s guilty of voyeurism. What has that voyeurism done to Jeff and to the friends he drew into watching with him? “We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known,” his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), comments dryly at one point, when their investigation has hit a dead end and they’re crestfallen that Thorwald might not have committed murder after all.
In Hitchcock films, the sins of the heroes, as much as those of the villains, often bring fitting consequences. Jeff, who watched the residents of an apartment building like some omniscient deity, loses all control of his little world when Thorwald figures out what’s going on and invades his apartment. Strangers on a Train (1951) is perhaps an even better example, as a desire the hero scarcely knew he had suddenly takes on a grotesque life before his eyes.
In Strangers, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) plans to divorce his adulterous wife, but the psychopathic Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), whom Guy meets by chance, dares to go further—he suggests that Guy’s wife should actually die. The details of the plot are too complicated to go into here, but along the way, you can see Hitchcock having a little fun with the era’s strict Production Code, which required a high degree of moral purity from film heroes. Guy has to be the innocent victim of his wife’s treachery, yet he’s already acquired an unofficial fiancée in anticipation of his divorce. He can’t murder his wife himself, but she is murdered nonetheless, ever so conveniently for him. As with so many Hitchcock films, even as we celebrate the hero’s victory, a part of us is left questioning his heroic status.
That’s not a coincidence. Hitchcock’s strict Catholic upbringing instilled in him what biographer Peter Ackroyd calls “a tremulous sense of guilt,” without which he could never have made the kind of unsettling and profound films that he did. (Note that his films are often saturated with religious images, like the crucifixes and statues that overshadow Father Logan everywhere he goes in I Confess.) In a Hitchcock film, critic Robin Wood has pointed out, “we all share a common guilt.” Even supposedly innocent characters feel it—as when, in The Wrong Man, Manny’s wife, Rose (Vera Miles), loses her mind because she’s convinced that she is somehow responsible for what happened to him.
Wood wasn’t just referring to the fictional characters, either. As the viewer is drawn into the world of the film, just as Jeff was drawn into the world he saw from his window, we are forced to deal with questions of our own morality. Are we ourselves complicit in some way in the uncomfortable, even disturbing situations we’re watching? When Hitchcock gets us to sympathize with the hero’s flaws and foibles, or even to outright root for the villain (as in the famous scene in Psycho when Anthony Perkins has trouble sinking Janet Leigh’s car in the swamp), what is he telling us about ourselves—not just as viewers, but as human beings? Are we like Guy, refusing to commit crimes, yet possibly secretly willing them and even benefiting from them?
Or is our participation even more active than that? That’s the question raised by Vertigo (1958), in which retired detective Scottie, again played by James Stewart, comes unraveled over his obsession with Madeleine (Kim Novak), the married woman he’s been hired to follow. In Hitchcock’s repeated casting of the idealistic and lovable Stewart in morally shady roles, we see another instance of his enjoyment in upending our values and expectations. The film’s title doesn’t just refer to the condition that plagues Scottie; it’s the feeling that permeates the whole movie, the sense of things being off-kilter and unreal. And, in fact, they are. Believing he’s falling in love with, and protecting, a troubled woman, Scottie is actually becoming a pawn in a killer’s carefully orchestrated scheme.
“Why did you pick on me?” Scottie cries at the climactic moment of Vertigo, disillusioned and enraged. “Why me?” The cry might have come from any of Hitchcock’s “wrong men.” In this case, the obvious answer—Scottie’s fear of heights, which the killer knew would prevent him from acting at a critical moment—doesn’t go nearly far enough. The truth, as we can see even if Scottie can’t, is that all along this seemingly decent character carried inside him the weaknesses that would doom both himself and Madeleine: the lack of compunction as he fell in love with another man’s wife; that love itself turning into a sick desire to possess and control. He is as much to blame for his fate as the characters who used and exploited him.
Are there really any “wrong men”—any men, or women, who are completely guiltless? Alfred Hitchcock, I suspect, would say no. Even when we have done nothing to bring a particular disaster upon ourselves, our shared sin nature ensures that disasters will come, and that we are rarely as innocent as we like to think.
Certainly, redemption is possible; Hitchcock was too good a Catholic to believe otherwise. It’s even possible that goodness means more in a Hitchcock film because he is willing to show us just how much easier it is to give in to our sin nature, and how difficult goodness and redemption can be. John Robie really can reform despite the suspicions and condemnation of those around him; Father Logan can “be good” despite the great cost; Jeff and Lisa can risk their lives to pursue justice; Guy can risk his to bring down his wife’s murderer. And as many have pointed out, even after Scottie has wrecked his life and destroyed Madeleine’s, a nun has the final word: “God have mercy.” But Hitchcock’s great gift was to remind us that redemption is only necessary because, in our hearts, all men and women have the fatal tendency to go wrong.