Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock
A Study in Mimesis
Publication Year: 2017
Published by: Michigan State University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
Thanks are due first of all to my home institution, Thorneloe University of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, for sabbatical leave and for the financial support to conduct research, writing, and editing of the manuscript. Thanks are also due to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California, for access to their collection, including books by and about Hitchcock and the papers, scripts, and stills of the Hitchcock Archives that are housed there. The UCLA Library was also very helpful and provided me with many of the books...
This study is a critical analysis of the films of Alfred Hitchcock in light of the mimetic theory of René Girard. Critical work on Hitchcock has been dominated in recent times by the approaches of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. Girard’s mimetic theory provides an alternative to Freudian and Lacanian theory and casts a very different light on Hitchcock’s cinema. While Girard is one of the leading theoreticians of the relationship between violence and religion, Hitchcock is perhaps one of the most prominent, and controversial, practitioners of cinematic violence. Hitchcock’s treatment of...
Chapter One. The Birds
Discussions of the relationship between desire and violence appear regularly in modern film criticism, and studies of this issue range in theoretical orientation from the Lacanian to the feminist.1 Though René Girard’s view of this relationship is also regularly mentioned in studies of film violence, it is often with less than full appreciation of the way in which it departs from central features of structuralist and psychoanalytic approaches to film, approaches that, until recently, have dominated film theory. Furthermore, cinema is mentioned only in passing by Girard himself, while Girardian...
Chapter Two. Shadow of a Doubt
As I have shown in my analysis of The Birds (1963), Hitchcock is fully aware of the scapegoat problem, though he approaches it not with the conceptual equipment of a self-conscious theoretician but with the intuitions of a dramatist. It is present in a variety of other films from the beginning of his career, but in the guise of the “wrong man” theme. One of the most common of his plot structures involves the pursuit of an innocent who is victimized by hoodlums or falsely accused by society or the law because of mistaken identity. Robin Wood has listed eleven films that span Hitchcock’s...
Chapter Three. Rope
n the course of his career, Hitchcock reveals a deepening fascination with the tragic implications of moral knowledge. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) is warned by Uncle Charlie ( Joseph Cotten), before she finds out the disturbing truth about him, that “it’s not good to know too much.” Oedipus Rex is perhaps the earliest evocation of the disturbing implications of such knowledge, and Oedipus is the archetype and original of the man who knew too much. The analogy of Oedipus with Young Charlie in Shadow is imperfect, as Charlie is not destroyed by the knowledge she gains...
Chapter Four. Strangers on a Train
Critics often assess the central character of Strangers on a Train (1951), Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), in terms of his mirrored relationship with his coprotagonist, Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno meets Guy by chance on a train trip and proposes an exchange of murders, one of which would rid Bruno of his hated father, and one of which would rid Guy of his troublesome wife. The claim is sometimes made that when Bruno goes on to carry out the murder of Guy’s wife he is carrying out Guy’s own secret desire to kill her because she refuses to give him a divorce. Guy...
Chapter Five. The Wrong Man
The title of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956) identifies one of the principal themes in Hitchcock’s oeuvre: the theme of the wrongly accused or the innocent victim. The film was not a box office success, and critical reception was mixed, drawing reverential appreciation from French reviewers and bland indifference from American critics. There were diverse reactions to Hitchcock’s unfamiliar use of documentary realism to portray the real-life story of Emmanuel Balestrero, wrongly accused and arrested for a series of robberies. Then a reviewer for Cahiers du Cinema, Jean-Luc Godard...
Chapter Six. Vertigo
Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is perhaps his greatest narrative of desire. Produced after the austere The Wrong Man (1956), it appears to break stylistically with the experiment the latter film represented. In Vertigo the documentary approach is replaced by a lush, dreamlike, romantic tone, the very intensity of the color design suggesting a radical departure from the noirish realism of The Wrong Man. But the plight of John “Scottie” Ferguson ( James Stewart) is as somber as that of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), even if the aesthetics of kitchen-sink realism are left behind. With his...
Chapter Seven. Psycho
Treading a familiar path of interpretation, it would be easy to describe Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as a story of a mother-obsessed killer and to ignore the fact that it is also a tale of parental indifference and cruelty. This path, gilded and maintained by Freud’s followers, makes us remember the imagined incestuous passions of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) rather than his mother’s punitive will and mistreatment. The mother’s tone of voice, which we first hear from the point of view of Norman’s first victim, Marion Crane ( Janet Leigh), is harsh and brutal. Norman’s plan to serve Marion dinner...
In The Birds, Hitchcock evokes the theme of apocalyptic contagion. Violence
or anarchy, as the birds illustrate in the film, can take flight and become a
firestorm. The root of this anarchic potential is mimetic desire. Hitchcock
records the shadow that falls across human life when desires clash, differences
are erased, and doubles emerge everywhere.
The Birds deals with a crisis that is not only personal but collective and mimetic. The same properties that make mimetic desire conflictual in the relationship of a few individuals make it a source of violence in groups and...
Page Count: 210
Publication Year: 2017
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