So much has been written about my favorite filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock – more than any other director, living or dead – that I would be hard-pressed to come up with any original thoughts about his life or work. That’s because the French, including fellow auteur Francois Truffaut, elevated Hitchcock’s oeuvre from “mere” entertainment to art. Then critical luminaries such as Donald Spoto, Patrick McGilligan, Peter Ackroyd, Robin Wood, and many others delved into a wealth of biographical detail and film analysis from every angle. Whatever slightly original take I can offer comes from applying the perspective of a classic mystery reader to a filmmaker who began his career around the same time as the start of the Golden Age of Detection but raced away in a very different direction from the giants of mystery fiction.
The last time I laid out an analysis starring Agatha and Alfred, the subject was fairly superficial – trains. The difficulty surrounding any comparisons I could make comes down to this: despite dedicating their artistry primarily to mystery/suspense – with both being brilliant at it – on nearly every element of the genre Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock did not see eye to eye. Hitchcock did not hold much stock with the whodunit. His philosophy of suspense, honed to perfection throughout his career, was all about supplying the audience with more information than he gave his characters. When he filmed a birthday party, he took pains to show us the bomb strapped under the table – and then had the guests merrily gather round the cake as the fateful minutes ticked by, inspiring wave after wave of reaction from the audience.
This, of course, belies Christie’s stock in trade, that of obfuscation and misdirection, building up the suspense around one question – whodunit. At a Christie dinner party, everyone eyes each other sulkily, fully aware that they may be cut from the will when the lawyer arrives that evening. The small talk continues in fits and starts – until Sir Jasper falls face-forward into the soup. What occurs thereafter – the questioning of suspects, the sifting for clues, the mistaken deductions that lead to wild goose chases – all this is intellectual and inherently uncinematic, although a few good examples do exist, including The Kennel Murder Case, Green for Danger, and Death on the Nile.
The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
Hitchcock only made a couple of whodunits – Murder and Stage Fright – neither of which are considered topnotch examples of his work. No, the path toward comparison lies not in the creators’ choice of plot, but in their preoccupations, fancies, and techniques. Their mutual love of trains was a shared fancy. And both of them had a bag of tricks to which they turned time and again, varying the results but maintaining a signature style around their usage. And if you’re looking for a preoccupation, a fancy, an idea that connects both a literary genre dependent on the witnessing and interpretation of events with an artistic medium whose greatest merits are visual, then . . . the eyes have it.
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You . . . “
In addition to being windows to the soul, the eyes are conduits of valuable information in a mystery. Characters might be divided into victims, suspects, detectives and companions, but everybody is a witness. The detective and the reader are guided by testimony of what people saw – or thought they saw – and it is part of Agatha Christie’s genius that she could offer one hundred percent corroborated witness statements, one after another, and still manipulate the reader into misinterpreting the information. That Christie could accomplish much of this on a meta-cognitive level shows her mastery over the form in the same way that Hitchcock conquered film. Christie understood what readers look for, see and accept on the printed page. The success of A Murder Is Announced is as much about our misperceptions of what we read as it is about the confused recounting of what the partygoers saw. We gloss over “misspellings” that have great significance, and we accept blindly what the authorial voice tells us because we have been trained to believe in the total honesty of that voice. And Christie hasn’t actually lied to us; she merely has offered us a visual and allowed us to make whatever adjustments we see fit.
Homework: Re-read the opening section of After the Funeral that leads up to the murder, and identify the trick Christie pulls on us.
Hitchcock likened watching a movie to being a voyeur, and he intensifies the experience with a mastery of the POV (point of view) shot, placing the audience directly inthe scene and making witnesses of us all. In Psycho, we stand inside the shower between Marian Crane and her attacker, close enough to fend off the blows of a knife but powerless to stop this brutal murder. And even though we are first hand witnesses to every blow, Hitchcock fools us with editing, to force us to conjure up wounds that aren’t explicitly shown, and with lighting, to prevent us from accurately identifying Marian’s assailant.
In Rear Window, my favorite Hitchcock film, we are trapped with Jeff (James Stewart) in his studio apartment, and we watch his neighbors through Jeff’s POV, either with his naked eye – making the images too small for us to accurately interpret what’s going on – or through a telephoto lens. We see everything Jeff sees, and here is where Hitchcock plays Christie-like games with us. Jeff cannot be sure until the end whether or not his neighbor killed his wife. While he is sleeping, Hitchcock shows the viewer a scene that couldexonerate Mr. Thorwald: the salesman escorts a woman in weeds out of his apartment onto the street. Hitchcock does the reverse in Suspicion, a flawed adaptation of Francis Iles’ After the Fact. Everything he shows us points to Johnny (Cary Grant) being a killer, right down to the suspicious glass of milk (with a lightbulb in the bottom to give it a poisonous glow.) The interesting side note about this film is that Hitchcock was forced to change the book’s ending to maintain Grant’s reputation as a hero. This tips the film more into Christie territory: instead of being symbols of Lina’s (Joan Fontaine) growing awareness that her husband means to murder her, everything we see becomes misdirection rather than indications of the truth.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes . . . “
Christie is all about the bluff. Like a bridge player trying to finesse a king, she counts on at least fifty percent of her readers taking in some information – Tressilian the butler shuffling up to the calendar to check a date – and making the wrong deduction (the date is not what’s significant here). She figures that most of us will forget an important fact if enough time has passed. When, in Towards Zero, Mr. Treves tells the guests at Gull’s Point the story of a psychopathic child with a strange deformity, we go back and re-read every description of every character. Here is a case where it matters that we seethese people correctly. It doesn’t do us much good because most of the guests possess some sort of odd characteristic. But the thing we should be looking for has been slipped into our dossier in a much more subtle way; Christie is betting that we read certain passages more quickly than others and will miss this clue. Finesse!
We are challenged when reading to paint pictures in our mind and “see” the images offered to us. This skill is aesthetically stimulating for a reader but crucially important in a mystery where what you see can make the difference between life and death. In Murder Is Easy, as Miss Pinkerton sits on the train and tells Luke Fitzwilliam about her own village psychopath, she demonstrates the look that the killer gets in their eyes when they have decided to commit murder. And yet when, late in the novel, one of the characters evinces such a look, Luke – and we – fail to recognize its significance until it is almost too late. This idea of the eyes as arbiters of a man or woman’s true nature reaches its apotheosis in Five Little Pigs where Amyas Crale leaves a dying message as to the identity of his killer – and dares us to recognize what we see.
In the mostly mediocre Third Girl, Christie plays with our perceptions of a classic scene – the discovery of a body – and finesses us. What are we to make of this description?
“She inserted her key in the door of the flat. The light in the hall was not on yet. Claudia was not due back from the office for another hour and a half. But in the sitting room, the door of which was ajar, the light was on.”
“Frances said aloud: ‘Lights on. That’s funny.’
“She slipped out of her coat, dropped her overnight bag, pushed the sitting-room door open and went in . . .
“Then she stopped dead. Her mouth opened and then shut. She stiffened all over – her eyes staring at the prone figure on the floor; then they rose slowly to the mirror on the wall that reflected back at her own horror-stricken face.
“Then she drew a deep breath. The momentary paralysis over, she flung back her head and screamed.”
Nothing seems off here, nothing out of place. it seems an accurate description of a woman in shock as she comes across the body of a person she knows. Where’s the trick in that?
“Private Eyes . . . “
I can picture Hitchcock filming the image of Frances staring at her own reflection. He was fascinated by eyes and what they revealed about character. The murderer in Young and Innocent has a tic that causes his eyes to twitch. In a famous scene, the good guys are searching for the killer in a popular tearoom filled with dancers. As they explore, Hitchcock employs a remarkable tracking shot over the room that slowly narrows in on the live band until it focuses on the drummer. He is in black face, but as the camera gets extremely close, we can see his eye twitch.
James Stewart appeared in four films for the Master of Suspense, and in each one his eyes reveal the temperature of the emotional landscape. In Rope, two men commit the perfect murder and then invite the professor who inspired them to a luncheon party and almost dare him to uncover what they’ve done. Stewart’s eyes register the slow dawning of comprehension and horror that his philosophy could inspire this pair of psychopaths to destroy an innocent life for the pleasure of it. In Rear Window, you can see in Jeff’s eyes a burning hunger for knowledge about his neighbors’ proclivities, mixed with a sense of – what? guilt? collaboration? over what he sees. For if Mr. Thorwald didn’t murder his wife, then life will be dull again and Jeff’s all too glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly) won’t transform into an action heroine before his eyes.
In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart shares the honors with Doris Day, who delivers one of her greatest performances as Jo McKenna, wife of Ben and mother of the kidnapped Hank. In scene after scene, Day and Stewart communicate the McKennas’ desperate plight – to each other when they’re trapped in a social gathering, and on their own as they search for their son. The long, wordless scene in the symphony hall where Ben looks for Hank while Jo starts to piece together the kidnappers’ plot – and thenhas to decide whether to let it play out or stop a murder and thereby risk her son’s life . . . all of this can be read in her eyes
Finally, in Vertigo, Stewart plays the ultimate voyeur, hired to follow an old friend’s suicidal wife and doomed to fall in love with her. Hitchcock’s aim of the camera on his female stars could border on the lascivious, but when Judy appears at the climactic moment, having undergone a full Pygmalion-like transformation, we are riveted on Stewart’s gaze. As he takes his lost love in his arms in the sickly green light of the hotel sign and the music swells, his triumph is complete – it is one of the most tragic moments in film.
“With One Look . . . “
Finally, no technique is more striking to me than “The Look.”
A definition of “The Look” might be: a significant moment in the artist’s work where a person’s eyes take the spotlight, where something a character sees brings about a crisis in the plot. The moment results in layers of goose flesh for the reader/viewer; it creates moments of sheer delight in the author/director’s work.
With her most clever uses of “The Look,” the author conjures up a mystery over what exactly a character has seen. Christie may be known for the prosaic nature of her dialogue, but these situations constitute some of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the canon. Back to A Murder Is Announced, where Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd decide to play detective. Hinchcliffe has the canny mind, but it’s poor Amy who saw the important stuff; she just isn’t quite sure what it is she saw. Christie lavishes quite a few pages on the one woman’s increasingly impatient interrogation of the other. And then it happens: Amy reaches into the past, and she sees! In this case, Christie provides us with a clue right away as to the significance of what Amy saw when she calls out to Hinchcliffe: “She wasn’t there!” At that point, we combine the visual with the literary, as Miss Marple offers a fascinating discourse on the importance of verbal emphasis. I tell you, the tiny details of clueing here make this one of my top ten Christie novels!
Most of the time, however, Christie is less accommodating: the clues are either spaced out further apart, or she leaves you to figure things out for yourself. This is what happens in After the Funeral when Helen Abernethie ponders her own reflection in the mirror. What she sees gives the killer’s game away and prompts a deadly attack against Helen. But what could she have seen besides her own face? Christie has never been more Doyle-like: you must avoid superfluous theories; you have to eliminate the unsupportable and focus on what’s there – the reflection of a woman’s face.
Amy and Helen are attacked after they “see” something by accessing memories of a significant event. My favorite examples occur when the object of a person’s gaze is directly in view . . . only we don’t recognize it. In Death Comes as the End, Satipy, one of Imhotep’s daughters-in-law, is reduced from a powerful shrew to a gibbering wreck by the murder of the concubine Nofret. Walking home with her husband, she turns her head and looks back in horror. What does she see that causes her to lose her footing and fall off the cliff? Is it the vengeful spirit of the young woman she wronged before death? We know our Christie, and so we surmise that two thousand years makes no difference in the laws of nature. Is Satipy delusional, or does she actually see something? If it’s the latter, it’s important that we pay attention to exactly what is within her view.
This point is even more significant in A Caribbean Mystery. Miss Marple sits on the patio of a hotel on the tropical island of St. Honore, enduring the boring tales of old Major Palgrave, when he tells her about the picture he has in his wallet about a murderer. He takes out the picture and then looks aghast over the old lady’s shoulder, fumbles to put the picture away, and agitatedly changes the subject. By the next morning, Palgrave is dead, and the look he gave haunts Miss Marple for the rest of her vacation after she decides to find the Major’s murderer.
This opening sequence is brilliant on so many levels. As Palgrave rattles off his tall tales, Miss Marple drifts in and out of attention, allowing Christie to give us some delightful backstory about our heroine and allow the reader to share the agony of listening to the Major. He is a familiar (in the canon) and rather repellent person, with his red face and bulging glass eye. He comes to life in the few pages of life he has left. Christie also throws one red herring after another at us, so that we soak up far more information than we need and again (finesse!) half of us will forget the most significant detail of the situation. We have to pay close attention not only to what Palgrave says but what he sees – or does notsee.
In The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side,film star and hostess Marina Gregg is trapped with a gushing fan on a staircase in her new home, the former Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead, when she sees something that brings “a look of doom” upon her face. Even after the fan is murdered when she drinks from Marina’s cocktail, the star refuses to tell anyone what – or who – she saw. She may have her personal reasons for this, but the police reason that the information could save her life.
To be honest, this novel suffers from an underdeveloped cast of characters, much like a late Ellery Queen. For the most part, the relationships that the party guests have with Marina are barely touched upon, and there certainly doesn’t seem much between them that could cause the reaction we witnessed. The ending, however, is powerful and tragic, and nearly makes up for the fact that here we have a novel with a great set-up and a fine ending but a mushy middle.
“I Only Have Eyes for You . . . “
Given that “The Look” is such a strong visual cue, under the ministrations of a cinematic genius the technique is even more powerfully effective. A powerful shot occurs in Shadow of a Doubt. We are aware from the start that Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is a psychopath, the notorious “Merry Widow Killer” – but his family doesn’t know that, not at first. But his niece and namesake (Teresa Wright) knows Charlie better than anyone, and she begins to suspect. Emotions come to a head at dinner as Charlie discourses on the worthless lives of the “silly wives” of hard-working men. As his emotions begin to give his true nature away, the camera slowly zooms in on a close-up of his profile. His niece cries out indignantly, “But they’re alive! They’re human beings,” and Charlie turns to reply, “Are they?” His eyes meet those of the audience, and we can see the cold stare of a true villain.
Hitchcock was especially obsessed with eyeglasses. They figure so much into his movies that they take on iconic status. As Donald Spoto says, “. . . eyeglasses are Hitchcock’s variant on the Venetian mask – they enable one to see but they disguise, and they are a marker of frailty, of a flaw in vision.” In a film like The Wrong Man, this idea is explored literally: a jazz musician named Manny (Henry Fonda) has been accused of a hold-up and is charged based on the eyewitness testimony of two women. One of them – the one wearing eyeglasses – is the surer witness; in fact, she pretty much bullies the other woman into going along with her. Her downfall is one of the most satisfying things about this film.
But Hitchcock could utilize the imagery of eyeglasses in ways that were as poetic as the symbolic poster of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in The Great Gatsby. The murder of Miriam, the errant wife of tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger), by Guy Haines is reflected through the lenses of her eyeglasses after they fall to the ground. We watch the distorted image in equally eerie silence, powerless to help. Later on, Hitchcock doubles down on the imagery when Bruno, the killer, crashes a party to unnerve Guy and engages in a pleasant conversation about murder with two wealthy dowagers. He places his hands around the neck of one of the women, and as he looks up he sees Guy’s future sister-in-law, Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock) watching him worriedly and wearing the same eyeglasses as Miriam . . .
Saving the best for last, we get Jeff’s comeuppance in Rear Window. He has spied incessantly on Mr. Thorwald and accused the man, anonymously and without proof, of murder. He has driven the poor guy into a frenzy. And finally, he allows his girlfriend to potentially risk her life by sneaking into Thorwald’s apartment in search of evidence. Lisa finds what she’s looking for – Mrs. T’s wedding ring – but Thorwald comes home early and attacks her. In one of the most thrilling moments in Hitchcock, Jeff has to save his girlfriend and, in doing so, putting his own life at risk. And all of this is signaled by a look, one of the most jump-inducing stares in film.
I hope these ruminations have been enjoyable and that they inspire you to seek out Hitchcock’s work or read/re-read some of the Christie titles I’ve mentioned. Does that sound like a good idea? If you agree, raise your hand and say . . . eye.