- Hitchcock’s Underground
It would seem like a natural. A London boy obsessed by railroads who read train schedules as literature and grew up to become a director fascinated by the possibilities of modernity and transport for the creation of suspense and the expression of character. The underground urban railway system that he rode for years and that during the interwar decades became a key site of British modernism.1 What a surprise, then, to discover that the London Underground appears only four times in Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-three feature-length films and that its most substantial role as a setting occupies less than three minutes of the opening of a cinematic narrative that spends the rest of its duration in the Far East. Indeed, unlike his fellow émigré to Hollywood, the Viennese master filmmaker Fritz Lang, much of whose output can be defined according to its deployment of underground space, or his British colleague Anthony Asquith, who shot his debut feature almost entirely on location in the Waterloo Tube station, Hitchcock appears to have spent his career as a director pointedly avoiding the Underground.2 This is especially striking in that his suspense films are in fact almost uniformly structured such that false appearances give way to hidden truth uncovered by physical movement—a structure that has consistently lent itself to being visualized according to the movement of a descent and return emblematized in the modern city by the underground railway. And yet, time and again, Hitchcock flattens out the verticality of his narratives, plotting them horizontally and treating the Underground, when it does manifest itself, as just another feature of modernist space rather than an other world that follows other rules. In this, I argue, he allied himself with many modernist writers in refusing a Victorian dynamic—and a twentieth-century popular culture inheriting [End Page 125] that dynamic—that would seek for truth in spaces such as slums, sewers, tunnels, and other unknown realms that it defined as alien. In the modernist model, including the quintessential modernist spaces of the subway and the cinema, not only are secrets hidden in plain sight rather than buried but exposure initiates the narrative crisis rather than resolving it.3 The peculiar identity of Hitchcock’s underground, then, is that it no longer provides any place to hide.
Now, this dynamic could be unpacked according to the antiverticality of the classic Hollywood films of the late forties and fifties—think of John “Scottie” Ferguson’s crippling inability to look down in Vertigo (1958), the constant exposure of Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959), first in the lobby of the United Nations building, then in the emblematic flatness of an Illinois corn field, and, finally, like a fly on the nose of Mount Rushmore’s monumental presidents, or even the red herring of Norman Bates’s embalmed mother in the cellar of his hilltop house in Psycho (1960) when the real danger inhabits the bedroom above—or according to an oft-noted and career-long fascination with stairways as a vertical link between horizontal planes of action. But what interests me here is the origin of this dynamic in London and its relationship to the urban spaces in which Hitchcock himself lived and worked during his formative years as a filmmaker and the formative years of British modernism in literature and European modernism on film.4 I begin by detailing Hitchcock’s life and work in and around the London Underground. I then discuss the Underground in the context of British and European modernism and argue for the close relationship of the underground railway and the cinema in the articulation of that modernism. I conclude with a closer look at the anomalous spatial metaphorics of certain of Hitchcock’s British films and suggest some of their implications for the study of modernist literature and twentieth-century film.
Alfred Hitchcock was born and raised among the tramway and rail networks of London’s East End, where his family lived at 517 The High Road, Leytonstone, above his father’s greengrocery, around the corner from the Leytonstone High Road rail station (fig. 1).5 As biographer...