Review: What do they have in Hitchcock’s America?

Review: Murray Pomerance,  Alfred Hitchcock’s America, Cambridge: Polity Press 2013

What do they have in Hitchcock’s America? They have the promise of open spaces, they have atomized lives framed by film-screen windows, they have innocents abroad and ambitious step jumpers at home, they have agrarian prophets and urban sophisticates sharing the small town paradise, they have ingenuity, humility, plucky courage and hidden faces, they have department stores and giants, they have Mount Rushmore and Bates Motel. All of these ingredients, and many more, are masterfully woven into this feast of a book.

During their discussion on the plotting of Secret Agent (1936), Hitchcock famously told François Truffaut:

“I said to myself, ‘what do they have in Switzerland?’ They have milk chocolate, they have the Alps, they have village dances, and they have lakes. All of these ingredients were woven into the picture” (Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966).

A superficial glance at some of his best remembered American films, with their postcard set-pieces (Sabotage’s climax at the Statue of Liberty, North by Northwest’s ending at Mount Rushmore), might suggest that he applied the same principle to American scenery. However, Murray Pomerance’s look at Hitchcock’s American body of work is far from a superficial glance.

Even if Hitchcock himself claimed to have used the “What do they have in Switzerland?” formula in many other films, basically as a template for box-office hits without ulterior implications, the truth seems to be more complicated, particularly when it comes to America. If Donald Spoto’s seminal biography (1991) unveiled how Hitchcock had placed very personal and deeply felt elements from his own life in films that audiences and critics alike regarded essentially as high budget pot-boilers, Pomerance’s study shows how his characteristically painstaking reconstruction of American landscapes, both geographic and human, goes considerably deeper than a mere picking of well-known highlights for a thrill-ride.

Hitchcock was not a documentarian: his unique approach to filmmaking was the opposite to the faithful recording of reality as it spontaneously unfolds (that is, assuming such faithful recording is possible). He meticulously arranged the figures and backgrounds in each frame and, disregarding coverage, shot precisely the pieces of film he needed in order to put together the story as he had conceived it in detailed storyboards. Hence, his films may not provide ‘objective’ snapshots of America as it evolved during the 20th Century, and we might well argue that lesser artists achieved, often unwittingly, that kind of living history record. But, for the same reason, what Hitchcock’s films provide is a series of richly layered portraits of America as that British immigrant, gifted with unparalleled talent and, among other things, a deeply ingrained sense of social class, perceived it. If we ignored everything about Hitchcock’s life and thought (and, as his conversations with Truffaut attest, sometimes he did his best to mislead us in that regard), we could still unmistakably identify his point of view, gaining a deeper and richer understanding of the aspects of reality on which it is specifically focused.

Of course, Pomerance is not the author to ignore anything about Hitchcock. He had already shown the depth of his knowledge and appreciation in An Eye for Hitchcock (2004), and included insightful Hitchcockian reflections in other books like The Horse Who Drank the Sky (2008). He will shortly publish a BFI monograph about one of the most misunderstood and underrated Hitchcock films, Marnie, presumably expanding on the suggestive interpretation he advanced in An Eye for Hitchcock.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s America he puts all that learning and insight to the task of illuminating the director’s vision of American society, because, as he writes, “Hitchcock is a storyteller, to be sure, but even more he is a visionary who reveals the social world through pertinent detail organized with exceptional cogency and cleanliness, that is, in an eloquent grammar”. Pomerance argues that Hitchcock’s peculiar perspective on America as an Englishman is not limited to, for example, playfully questioning the myth of social mobility: his attention to form (both cinematic and social) marks a stark contrast with American narrative (and existential) haste, which makes him an exceptionally perceptive observer of American social dynamics.

Alejandro Romero-Reche

University of Granada