Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock: A Study in Mimesis

Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock: A Study in Mimesis

by David Humbert


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ISBN-13: 9781611862393
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2017
Series: Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David Humbert is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.

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Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock

A Study in Mimesis

By David Humbert

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2017 David Humbert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-239-3


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. 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 studies of films and filmmakers are relatively few and far between. One of the yardsticks by which René Girard demonstrates the truth of his theory is the degree to which it illuminates key aspects of canonical literature that remained unexplained or were passed over in silence. The fundamental concepts of the scapegoat, the double, the rival, and triangular desire illuminate similar interpretive lacunae in a wide variety of films of many genres.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) is a case in point. The theories of the scapegoat and triangular desire persuade because of the particular way they bring to view and explain previously unnoticed features of Hitchcock's films, and notably The Birds. One must bear in mind, however, that, previous to The Birds, Hitchcock produced a remarkable body of work that is consistently (some would say obsessively) built upon the cluster of themes that Girard identifies with the scapegoat problem. For those who are familiar only with Hitchcock's later, more sensational work, like Psycho (1960) and The Birds, it may come as a surprise to discover that the director earlier produced films like I Confess (1953), The Wrong Man (1956), and Vertigo (1958) in which the suspense is largely psychological and in which themes of faith, romantic obsession, and moral conflict take center stage. The Birds is a variation on the works of the 1950s, rather than a completely new point of departure. It is an apocalyptic crystallization of themes that have always preoccupied him.

The Birds is perhaps the only film by Hitchcock that envisions total societal breakdown, a disaster of the proportions of a medieval plague. Generally his films are set in stable, if modern and troubled, societies in which there are at least more or less unquestioned social and economic orders. Flaws in these social orders, however, are evident in the small-scale disasters that happen to individuals in many of Hitchcock's scenarios. The Wrong Man focuses on the story of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who is wrongly identified as a criminal and has his life destroyed by a morally blind justice system. In Rope (1948), the practitioners of a nihilistic thrill-kill are shown to be symptomatic of a pervasive moral and intellectual vacuum in contemporary society. Both these films and others by Hitchcock underline the need for morality and social order to withstand the irrational tendencies of human nature. Psycho, in particular, stresses the ambivalence of man in modern civilization. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), it seems, is both the product of and yet the immoveable obstacle to the drive for civilization and order.

In contrast to these, The Birds is a film in which civilizational disaster is abrupt, all-consuming, and catastrophic. For no reason, out of the blue, birds collectively mass to attack human beings. The film is nothing more, some would argue, than one more film in the "revenge of nature" genre. But the attack of the birds is not a response called forth by a moral transgression. It is not a reciprocal act of violence, as the "revenge of nature" mode of interpretation would imply. In fact, the key to understanding the film is to comprehend the very randomness, irrationality, and suddenness of the attack. The preeminent question is, as Slavoj Zizek puts it, the "stupid and obvious" one: why do the birds attack?

Critics are typically unanimous in affirming that the birds are not merely a disaster from without, any more than they are some sort of reciprocal response to human evil. Instead, most argue, they represent an expression of specifically human psychological conflict, most likely sexual in nature. Freud, as usual, is drawn into the fray. The birds' attack, as Zizek asserts, constitutes an outbreak of "raw, incestuous energy," while for Camille Paglia, "The Birds charts a return of the repressed, a release of primitive forces of sex and appetite that have been subdued but never fully tamed." The incestuous and sexual tensions among the principal characters do not erupt in actual conflict between them, but in the vicious and unprovoked attack of the birds. The birds, in other words, are a "return of the repressed," or in Lacanian terms, an irruption of the Real into the Symbolic order.

Operating as an artist rather than a psychoanalyst, however, Hitchcock inserts elements in the scenario that are not compatible with this interpretation. As an artist, he is interested in the interaction among a variety of characters and the mechanisms that emerge independently of their intentions, independent of any singular desire from within. This interaction is difficult to reduce to the Oedipal paradigm. Clearly he is aware of the debilitating effect a parent can have on a child and of the ambivalence of sexual desire. He openly refers to it in the script. Many of his films involve the tortured relationship of a child to a mother. But he is also aware, insofar as it is repeatedly incorporated into these same film narratives, of the phenomenon of triangular desire. This desire, as Girard has argued, is primarily imitative. Desire is determined not only internally, or by its relation to a fixed object (the mother or the father), but by the model, the example of what others desire. Not only is desire infinitely malleable in this sense, but it is also the specific force that causes two characters to converge on one aim and object, and then to engage in dramatic conflict. Those who desire the same thing also become rivals: "To imitate the desires of someone else is to turn this someone else into a rival as well as a model." While the theme of incestuous desire is certainly an element in the scenario of The Birds that contributes to its structural tension, the primitive and potentially violent vortex of rivalry that emerges from imitative desire is a more decisive ingredient. It is also an ingredient that has an important history in Hitchcock's work.

The role of the birds in Hitchcock's film is strictly analogous to the role of the plague in ancient myth and in historical times. It is in the cinematic interaction of its characters that one discerns a central feature of mimetic desire: its quality of contagious propagation. As Girard has remarked, the plague operates as a potent symbol not only of physical contagion, but of the moral and social contagion of anarchy, mutual suspicion, and reciprocal violence. Girard has found a cluster of themes that occur again and again both in persecutions prompted by historical plagues and in myth. Those themes, of social dissolution, mimetic doubling, and scapegoating, are all present in The Birds.

Premodern societies undoubtedly experienced catastrophes like the plague as more than just an immediate threat to physical existence. Catastrophe creates those unique conditions for the dissolution of social order, the hierarchy of differences, that Girard argues open up the mechanism of rivalry. In a society in which social differences and hierarchies are a matter of general consent, desires do not necessarily converge on the same objects. Rivalrous desire is kept in check, at least temporarily. But in a condition of social dissolution, during plague, war, or massive economic failure, the differences no longer hold: "The distinctiveness of the plague is that it ultimately destroys all forms of distinctiveness." The desires that foment rivalry and violence reign unchecked. Mobs lose respect for law and order, brother turns on brother, family on family, peasant on noble, subject on king. Each becomes the double of the other, giving rise to a vortex of competition. In most cases, however, the potential "war of all against all" is forestalled by the selection of a scapegoat, thereby channeling violent reciprocity onto a single object or group. Under conditions of plague in the Middle Ages, the scapegoat in question was often the Jew or the witch. Social peace was bought at the expense of a victim, and Girard argues that the order of sacrifice and the sacred must have emerged out of the same conditions of rivalrous desire that precipitate violent confrontation. Sacrifice and the sacred are the product of a historical short circuit, he argues, by which sacrificial crises, sometimes generated by catastrophes, are resolved into stable forms of religious belief and practice. These beliefs and practices are both a memorial and continued reaffirmation of the original short circuit, a collective murder and sacrifice of a scapegoat, now disguised as a ritual or a myth. Only this, he maintains, can explain the prevalence of violent motifs in both myth and ritual.

In modern times, although the threat of plague and the social disorder that goes along with it has not disappeared, it has receded. Mythic and pre-modern societies were able to reduce the profane violence of social disorder to the sacred or good violence enacted by sacrifice. Anarchic violence, the war of all against all, found its remedy in collective violence against one, in the scapegoat, which both banished the contagion and memorialized it in ritual and myth. The peculiarity of modernity, in Girard's view, is that the solving of violence by scapegoating is no longer acceptable. Humanity in the scientific age "is no longer capable of producing idols of violence around which it might achieve unanimity." Though sacrificial ritual is no longer an acceptable safety valve for human violence in the Bodega Bay of The Birds, the scapegoat mechanism continues to operate, albeit in a different form. For that reason alone, it is worth observing the logic of violence in the film and the way in which the scapegoat mechanism continues to function in modern society, if on the level of narrative rather than through religious ritual.

The Birds begins with a chance encounter in an urban pet shop. The lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) mistakes wealthy Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) for an employee of the pet shop and, on a whim, Melanie plays along. As it turns out, Mitch is fully aware of Melanie's identity and later makes it clear that he views her as a spoiled rich girl who has narrowly and unjustifiably avoided legal consequences for her irresponsible actions. Despite harsh words between them, the mutual attraction is clear, and Melanie decides to play a practical joke by buying the birds he was looking for. She even makes the trip to the small fishing village of Bodega Bay to deliver them to his home, signaling both her brash, impulsive nature and her unacknowledged desire for Mitch.

In the setting of Bodega Bay, Melanie is clearly an outsider. Her wealth, grooming, and couture set her apart immediately. She wears a fur and a finely tailored dress that she does not change for the duration of the film and that is systematically destroyed, along with her coiffure, over the course of the action. In one sense, because of her unexpectedly down-to-earth character, she blends easily with the ordinary inhabitants of Bodega Bay. She is aristocratic, but not aloof, and self-possessed, though not at all snobbish. But just as she is restricted throughout the film by one elegant outfit and one stylized coiffure, she is also imprisoned by her social role, open as it is to the judgments of the public and the critical and moralistic eye of a man like Mitch, or anyone else who resents her exemption from conventional social limits. She is what Girard calls, in reference to Oedipus, a marginal insider. Like Oedipus, she is an insider in the sense that she is privileged because of her wealth and social position. She is an outsider as well, not only as a stranger in the town, but also, as we find out later, because she was abandoned by her mother as a child, yet another parallel with Oedipus. The reduction in social rank that she playfully accepts in the pet shop both emphasizes her difference from others and anticipates the violent attack at the end of the film. In the course of The Birds, her victimization as a marginal insider/outsider, both blessed and cursed, brings the fragility of social difference home with shocking severity.

Upon arrival in Bodega Bay, Melanie wastes no time in delivering the lovebirds to Mitch. In doing so she violates etiquette, as well as commits a crime. Hitchcock dwells on her secretive entry to Mitch's house, and the suspense this induces in the spectator stems largely from the muted but distinct sense of violation it entails. This low-level home invasion is innocent, to be sure, as it is a practical joke. It anticipates Melanie's intrusion into Mitch's family, and especially into his mother's domain. It also underlines Melanie's sense of exemption from ordinary rules of conduct, as if her social position entitles her. She seems to want to confirm Mitch's opinion of her out of spite. It is what is both attractive and exciting — one might say transgressive — about her. It also stresses her marginal status as someone who is charismatic, yet stained by the aura of taboo and violation that often surrounds the powerful and the fated in tragic drama.

After Melanie makes her escape from the house, Mitch catches sight of her in the boat on the lake, and he rushes by car to confront her when she lands at the town dock. Just as she approaches him in the boat, tipping her head with mock insolence, we witness the first bird attack. A seagull dives suddenly into the frame, hitting her, and Hitchcock cuts to a close up of Melanie's gloved finger, stained by the blood that she has wiped from a wound in her head. This attack, literally out of the blue, could arguably be seen as the first reprisal for her violation of Mitch's private home, or even as a kind of retribution for her sexual feelings for Mitch and her attempt to aggressively engage him.

Another interpretation of this and later attacks in the film is that Melanie is undergoing a selection process for her eventual role as scapegoat. The irrationality, the suddenness, of the seagull's attack is decisive. The attack of the bird is in no way a fit punishment for her crime. She is attacked, not because she deserves it, but because she doesn't deserve it. The attack of the birds reflects the irrationality of the scapegoat mechanism itself. The victim is not chosen because he or she deserves it, but because he or she is marginal: weak, poor, or sick on the one hand, or wealthy, privileged, or eccentric on the other. This brief attack is the prelude to more serious victimization in the climactic scene of the film. A scapegoat, Melanie is singled out not because of what she has done or what she unconsciously wishes but for what she is. There is no doubt that the attacks begin upon her arrival in the town; the question is why.

A further Oedipal dimension is introduced in an important exchange between Melanie and Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), the town's teacher and Mitch's former love interest. Early in the day of her visit to Bodega Bay, Melanie has met Annie and arranged to stay with her. That evening, the two women settle down with drinks to get acquainted, and the subject naturally turns to Mitch.

Annie reveals the story of her aborted relationship with Mitch and puts the blame squarely on Mitch's mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Mitch has never married and continues to live with his mother in Bodega Bay, one of several of Hitchcock's male leads who are still avoiding matrimony late in life. Though Annie appears not to resent Melanie, and stresses that the relationship is all in the past, she is clearly not yet over the relationship. She even emphasizes that she "still like[s] him a hell of a lot," which Hitchcock underlines with a reaction shot of Melanie, who is clearly taken aback by the comment. The tension in this scene is finely tuned. The women remain polite, even friendly. Yet with subtle imagery, Hitchcock reminds us that the rivalry, which could have far more violent consequences, is there, lurking. Melanie and Annie are rivals for Mitch.

In the first place, their conversation is interrupted by a call from Mitch. Annie receives the call and hands the phone over to Melanie, then occupies a seat in the foreground of the frame. Annie smokes meditatively as Melanie talks to Mitch in the background, her one-sided conversation indicating that she is being asked to meet him again. The love triangle, with all its nervous energy, including the phallic cigarettes, is open to view, tightly framed by the camera. Melanie glances nervously at Annie and plays suggestively with the phone cord.

Pressed intimately in this frame, we begin to suspect that they are not just rivals, but doubles. Underneath the politeness, their desires are converging on the same object. Despite the obvious differences between them, from hair color to social status, their rivalry threatens to bring them into conflict. Perhaps the similarity in their names is intentional: Annie and Mel-annie. The way their earlier conversation is shot, both drinking brandies, both smoking cigarettes, emphasizes their growing affinity. Just before Melanie takes the phone, there is a standard two-shot of both women standing and staring at one another. For a moment, underneath the pleasantries, they are potential adversaries.


Excerpted from Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock by David Humbert. Copyright © 2017 David Humbert. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

Chapter 1 The Birds 1

Chapter 2 Shadow of a Doubt 19

Chapter 3 Rope 41

Chapter 4 Strangers on a Train 55

Chapter 5 The Wrong Man 75

Chapter 6 Vertigo 95

Chapter 7 Psycho 117

Conclusion 139

Notes 151

Bibliography 165

Index 171

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