click to buy 'Dickens and the Dream of Cinema' at Amazon.comWhen young Pip, the would-be hero of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1862), first arrives in London, he seeks out the address of Jaggers the lawyer in “Little Britain” (1). The hour is “a little past mid-day”, and Pip’s senses are wide awake. To the reader, he confides:

We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything; otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.

While Pip waits for Mr Jaggers to come from Court, he takes a turn in the nearby streets. Smithfield with its abattoirs, “being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam”, does not appeal, so Pip next finds himself in “a street where I saw the great black dome of St Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building”, Newgate Prison. A helpful if drunken gatekeeper offers to show him the yard where the gallows is kept, and points out the laconically-named Debtors’ Door, “giving me to understand that ‘four on ’em’ would come out that door the day after tomorrow at eight in the morning” to be publicly hanged.

Carl Mayer and F.W. Murnau

The tutelary Mr Jaggers, then, is established as a life-death figure, of somewhat equivocal status, and Dickens himself as given to a form of expressionism (2) with forebears including the poet and engraver William Blake (“London”, “The Vision of the Daughters of Albion”) and heirs including, surely, the German Expressionist and Kammerspiel filmmakers. The key figure here is screenwriter Carl Mayer. Mayer, whose ideas inspired the work of Wiene, Grune (Die Strasse), Murnau, and Ruttmann (Berlin: die Symphonie einer Grosstadt), and who died in England dreaming of another city film, this time about London (3), “was animated by Dickens’ love of aimless vagabondage, his sympathetic concern with cobblestones and stray souls alike – the very impulses which prompt the camera itself into action” (4). Thus writes Siegfried Kracauer in his seminal From Caligari to Hitler. Kracauer’s words may usefully be compared with an observation of Peter Ackroyd writing of “the Cockney visionary tradition”. It began early, Ackroyd notes. Invoking Blake and Bunyan, Langland and Hogarth – as well as Dickens (5) – he observes: “To hear the music of the stones, to glimpse the spiritual in the local and the actual, to render tangible things in the material of intangible allegory, all these are at the centre of the London vision” (6).

I wasn’t speaking lightly, I trust, when I called Mr Jaggers a life-death figure. With expert economy, David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), taking its lead from the novel, locates Jaggers’ office directly alongside and above the public gallows where a scene of multiple execution duly occurs – this at the exact moment when Jaggers is explaining to Pip how he had been able to save the girl Estella and her mother from just such a possible fate. I would call this fraught moment a prime example of Lean’s – and Dickens’ – “all-at-onceness”, invoking both life and death and putting Jaggers and Little Britain at their epicentre, pretty much in the sense that a 1960s writer on Dickens spoke of that author’s “dreamer’s stance”:

his [especial] habit of “seeing” all the visible aspects of a scene, his hypostatising of such scenes, so that they offer themselves to the imagination almost cinematically, in tableaux and “all-at-once” (7).

That such a “dreamer’s stance” may allow Lean or Dickens to bring out invisible aspects of a scene – that is, besides “all the visible aspects” – seems to me a true part of what is said here. St Paul’s and Newgate Prison, the teeming London streets and the gallows, life and death, spirit and matter – Pip’s first hours in London put him at the heart of a great mystery, a major stimulus no doubt to “the London vision” which Dickens’s novel is finally part of.

Great Expectations

Of course, Jaggers is essentially a pragmatic and worldly figure, one in whom the country boy Pip initially puts considerable trust. The novel’s visionary is its author, Dickens. But here we need to tread carefully. “Vision” may be of various kinds – even if, crucially for what I’m going to say, these may all be focussed in images of the city and of cinema, which is (as André Bazin indicated) the most synthetic of the arts. In Dickens there is a moral vision to which Lean’s Great Expectations does ample justice, I believe. Inasmuch as such a vision involves seeing through appearances and learning compassion, the depth and maturity of the actors’ performances is all-important. Equally, in Dickens, there is a related vision, more metaphysical, involving such things as all-at-onceness and an understanding of the inextricability of life and death, good and evil – and again I think Lean’s Great Expectations renders it superbly, on the whole. Finally, “vision” may refer to more purely analytical matters, including analysis of the nature and diversity of city life. Here Dickens (and Lean) may be on more questionable ground these days. In the wake of post-modernism’s adopting of the ideas of Walter Benjamin, whose Illuminations was translated into English in 1973 (8) studies of “the city” have appeared on all sides. This very month (March, 2004) a conference is being held at Trinity College, Cambridge, on “Filming Cities: The Modern Metropolis and Visual Media”. Speakers include Stephen Heath on “Marseilles”, David Trotter on “London on camera from the stereoscope to Hitchcock”, and Thomas Elsaesser on “Das Neue Frankfurt: City Synergy and German Modernism”. My point is that not all of the new work on cities speaks kindly of Dickens.

In particular, I’m thinking of a recent essay by Mike Davis, “Bunker Hill: Hollywood’s Dark Shadow” (9) which zeroes in on Dickens’s journalistic pieces (these often the foundation of remarkable descriptive passages in the novels themselves). Davis objects to Dickens’ allegedly patronising reports on his visits to slums, whether in London or New York. Speaking of “the Victorian public’s peculiar need to be simultaneously horrified, edified, and titillated” (10) he discusses the passage in Dickens’ American Notes (1842) in which “the great writer” recounts his visit to New York’s notorious Five Points:

The contemporary reader may have shuddered in suspense, but Dickens knew exactly where he was. The description was already in the can: “hideous tenements, which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here”. He had written the same thing about London’s [Seven] Dials and, indeed, makes clear that the Five Points is the generic Victorian slum […] Dickens was hardly aiming at documentary realism. If anything, he was trying to take his readers somewhere already subliminally familiar to them, a secret city visited in dreams (11).

However, Davis’ larger – and perhaps more valid – thrust is aimed at studio film which “has generally preferred to meet the city on the familiar terms of literature (and, later, of commercial photography and advertising). Thus 1940s film noir, with its trademark “city of night”, was indelibly derivative of classic templates laid down a century before by Dickens, Eugène Sue, Poe, and Baudelaire” (12).

* * *

What Mike Davis writes about Dickens is reductionist – it ignores the full visionary nature of Dickens’ writing. (To the point, it also misses the engaging brilliance and, yes, charm of the youthful Dickens’ evocation of London’s Seven Dials district in Sketches by Boz [1836].) Davis is looking backwards at one particular Dickens and trying to fit him to a Procrustean theory. However, Grahame Smith, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and author of the entry on films and filmmakers for the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens (2000), has effectively come at the subject from the opposite direction. In Dickens and the Dream of Cinema, he refers to Dickens as a proto-cinematic writer, and in the process never once, you feel, diminishes or slights the real Dickens. On the contrary, as he quotes passage after passage of that author’s work, he reminds you of how multi-faceted Dickens was – and adds a new dimension to the term “the London vision”.

Smith isn’t just saying that Dickens had a filmmaker’s eye; he is suggesting that Dickens helped shape and focus the conditions that were conducive to film, and thereby hastened the cinema’s coming. It might even be said that Dickens actively “dreamed” the birth of cinema. First of all, Smith establishes Dickens’ symbiotic relationship with the metropolis. “It is within the city that Dickens lives, moves and has his being, not merely in terms of his novels’ subject matter, but in the pulse of their language and form” (p. 3). Dickens (1812–70) was a flâneur before Baudelaire (1821–67), and his walks through the metropolis, including at night, are famous. Here, then, is one obvious connection with the conditions of cinema. As Smith reminds us, early cinema drew its audience from the city and reflected back the look and feel of city life, “although it also soon began to explore its capacity to reflect the wide open spaces of, say, the Western” (p. 3).

Also, Dickens was a lover of most forms of popular entertainment, from stage theatricals, including melodrama, to the panorama and the diorama, to parlour toys like the kaleidoscope and the magic lantern. Smith shows how the intense visual quality of Dickens’ writing often embodied effects he had first seen employed by these popular forms. For example, a public variant of the magic lantern was the phantasmagoria which used back-projection to conceal the mechanics of its working. Smith writes:

Given the apparently uncanny absence of the means by which its illusions were created, the phantasmagoria was able to specialise in the supernatural and conjure up, seemingly out of nowhere, skeletons, spirits, ghosts and so on. However, its key distinguishing feature was the ability to enact the effect of “images appearing to approach and recede from the spectator” (pp 27–28).

In connection with this early use of a zoom-in/zoom-out effect, Smith cites a passage from Chapter 48 of The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) in which the evil Quilp is described as energetically eyeballing the hero, young Kit:

Quilp said not a word in reply, but walking so close to Kit as to bring his eyes within two or three inches of his face, looked fixedly at him, retreated a little distance without averting his gaze, approached again, again withdrew, and so on for half-a-dozen times, like a head in a phantasmagoria (p. 28).

Anyone who has seen Max Ophuls’ Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) will appreciate another of Smith’s observations. Citing Ian Christie’s remark that “sixty years of railways had prepared people to be film spectators” (p. 90) (13) Smith recalls the scene in which Louis Jourdan takes Joan Fontaine to an attraction in a Viennese fairground consisting of a “railway carriage” and a moving, hand-painted panorama to represent the “view”. Smith describes the scene as “a charming tribute to, and evocation of, primitive cinema” (p. 91). It is also a pungent reminder of mortality (for one thing, the attraction is run by an uncomplaining elderly couple…), something on which Smith has no need to dwell as he proceeds immediately to an elaborate discussion of Dickens’ mixed attitude to the railways in Victorian England. That discussion starts with a reminder of Dickens’ adoration of the Arabian Nights with its magic-carpet world – a precursor of both the kaleidoscope and the cinema – and then, with a change of tone, singles out Dombey and Son (1848), “the novel which is often seen as marking Dickens’ entry into a more responsible and aesthetically controlled mode of writing” (p. 95). That novel shows Dickens keenly aware of the human upheavals, and often suffering, the railways had wrought. Equally, trains and the railways provide him with imagery that is Turneresque in its power. The death of the villain Carker in Chapter 55, run down by the new juggernaut that “licked his stream of life up with its fiery heat, and cast his mutilated fragments in the air”, is brilliantly and ruthlessly described by Dickens. Smith sees here a “seamless transition … between the worlds of melodrama and advanced technology” (p. 98).

Of course, Smith has read Sergei Eisenstein’s famous essay “Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today” with its emphasis on the indebtedness of both Dickens and director D.W. Griffith to aspects of stage melodrama, including spectacle. (The Americans came to excel at this. One example, cited by Eisenstein, was the “moralistic melodrama” The Ninety and Nine which climaxed with a raging prairie fire and a massive locomotive speeding – on rollers – to the rescue of an encircled hamlet.) Dickens’ refinements in his novels of the techniques of melodrama included, notably, the use of “affective logic” to imbue objects and events with psychological weight and potency. In effect, Dickens invented both the close-up and “parallel montage” – the latter becoming the very foundation of Griffith’s climaxes as seen, for example, in Way Down East (1920) where Lillian Gish clings for her life to an ice-floe being swept towards a waterfall and shots of Richard Barthelmess are intercut to show him coming to her rescue.

When Eisenstein criticises Griffith on the grounds that his parallel montage precludes “achieving a unity of a higher order” – in effect, precludes celebrating the power of the masses (14) – Smith wants to defend Dickens. Rather irrelevantly, he tells us that Bleak House (1853) is finally about, in Dickens’ mocking words, the “one great principle of the English law”, which is “to make business for itself” (p. 174) – my emphasis. In addition, Smith adduces how the novel uses “parallel action” to show us “links between the worlds of Chancery and Fashion, the hopeless degradation of [the slum] Tom-all-Alone’s and the empty splendour of the Dedlock [mansion] in Lincolnshire” (174). If his argument here is more hopeful than conclusive, so, it must be said, is his general thesis that Dickens helped “dream” the cinema into being. Nonetheless, that thesis has the power to fascinate a sympathetic reader.

Little Dorrit

True, Smith is perhaps over-respectful of the ideas contained in Eisenstein’s admittedly brilliant essay. At a key moment, he uses it as a stick with which to beat director Christine Edzard for the perceived shortcomings of her six-hour film Little Dorrit (1987). How dare she, he almost fumes, appear “not [to] have read this seminal piece, above all its analysis of parallel montage” (p. 144)! Smith and I seem to have experienced Edzard’s film in contrary ways. Personally, I was enthralled from the start by the teeming credits sequence and by its use of Verdi’s “La forza del destino”; what followed was cinematic magic for me. I can’t agree with Smith that “Part One is…a severe disappointment” (p. 143). His criticism, made after citing Eisenstein on Oliver Twist (1838), that “a sense of panorama is what Edzard’s film singularly lacks” (p. 144), actually points to something I think very right about this first part of the film: it doesn’t dissipate its hold on the viewer in “commentary”. It draws you inexorably into its world, one to be experienced on its own terms in all its moving immediacy. As far as I am concerned, a dismissive reference by Smith to Edzard’s “journalistic realism” (p. 145) is misplaced. On the other hand, he and I can agree that the film’s “pivotal device of repeating moments from Part One [in Part Two] as they are seen from Little Dorrit’s perspective … becomes wearisome through repetition” (p. 143).

If Smith could arrange it, who of the cinema’s all-time great directors would he nominate to make the “ideal” Dickens film? It would need to reflect “[t]he vastness of scope of such works as Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend (1865); the glittering visual brilliance of their writing; … the Byzantine complexity of their plots, which are the vehicles of meaning as much as of melodramatic mystery-making”(p. 173). After naming Griffith, Vidor, and Gance (but no British directors, not even, say, Mike Leigh (15)) as some possible candidates, Smith settles for Orson Welles, “whose version of The Trial (1963), for example, is as Dickensian as it is Kafkaesque” (p. 173) (16). In “A dream epilogue” to his book, Smith elaborates his reasons for choosing Welles. They are partly formal – another of Smith’s revered theorists is Bazin, whose Orson Welles: A Critical View (1991) speaks of the “equivalence of meaning in the forms” of the two artists. But Smith also draws this nice parallel. Dickens once thought of giving himself the persona for his weekly miscellany of “a certain SHADOW, which may go into any place, … and be supposed to be cognisant of everything … I want him to loom as a fanciful thing all over London” (p. 177). As Smith notes, Welles actually played such a figure, in a successful radio series called The Shadow, in the late 1930s (p. 177). At about the same time, Welles dreamed of becoming “an American Charles Dickens” (p. 177). On radio, he acted in The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities (p. 193). Among his many unrealised film projects was a version of Pickwick (p. 193).

In sum, Smith has written a rich, if finally Quixotic, account of one important area of narrative cinema and its immediate pre-history. The IMDB currently lists 181 film and TV adaptations that have been made of Dickens’ works – an impressive figure. Smith himself is a distinguished Dickens scholar who has previously done valuable work writing about some of those early adaptations, notably films by Thomas Bentley and Cecil Hepworth (they made no fewer than five Dickens films together). And Smith often makes his points with style, as when he refers to how both Dickens and Welles might be tempted sometimes “into an over-egging of the pudding that may irk the sensibilities of the literal-minded” (p. 184). Developing that last point, though, Smith shows that he himself can still be the cautious professor:

The baroque extravagance of Kane’s opening scenes seems more than is strictly necessary to make the point. And is the London of Bleak House muddy enough to demand that “Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill”? (p. 184)

Reading Smith’s thesis, indeed, you never quite discard a feeling that there is something “bookish”, and even a tiny bit “cranky”, about it. What Smith suggests about Christine Edzard – that she is a “wilful” filmmaker whose Little Dorrit is “not daring enough to be truly revisionist” (pp 144, 143) – may contain an unintended irony. But by all means, gentle reader, obtain Dickens and the Dream of Cinema, and maybe Edzard’s film for good measure, in order to decide matters for yourself. Meanwhile, I have set down some further thoughts of my own, as follows.

* * *

Grahame Smith would say that his singling out of Orson Welles to make a “dream” film based on Dickens is primarily a theoretical point. Which it is. Smith is thinking of Welles’ characteristic resort to deep focus and long takes, as noted by Bazin and others. Following Bazin, Smith sees these things as offering the best cinematic equivalent of the “panoramic richness” found in Dickens’ late works (p. 175).

Nonetheless, Smith manages to give the impression that few other directors would be in the race to make a film worthy of Dickens. (I am not necessarily contesting Smith’s point that no director “with even remotely the vision and imagination of Dickens himself” has yet attempted to adapt Dickens (p. 175).

Accordingly, taking my lead from Ed Buscombe’s trail-blazing article “Dickens and Hitchcock” (17) I offer here, in condensed form, some pointers to my own conviction that it is Alfred Hitchcock (born London, 1899) and not Orson Welles (born Kenosha, Wisconsin, 1915) who has the best claim to be considered the cinema’s single most legitimate “heir” of Dickens and the story-telling tradition in which he wrote.

Berlin: die Symphonie einer Grosstadt

1. Alfred Hitchcock, London-born and an “Anglophile” all his life, was steeped in film and literary history. If not exactly a flâneur, still, by the age of ten, he had ridden to the end of every London bus route. At his Jesuit school, he studied four of Dickens’ novels. In adulthood, he cultivated an extensive collection of artworks, including originals by such figures as William Hogarth and Walter Sickert. His library, including works by English writers and humorists, was also extensive. His collection of Dickens included boxed sets of the original serial publications of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (18). In the early years of his filmmaking career, Hitchcock worked in Germany and watched Lang and Murnau direct. Obviously inspired by Ruttmann’s Berlin: die Symphonie einer Grosstadt (1927), he would dream of making his own film showing 24 hours in the life of a city – a dream eventually part-realised in Frenzy (1972), set in London and appearing to draw some of its imagery from Our Mutual Friend. All of his life, Hitchcock gave interviews and wrote articles showing his intimate knowledge of film craft and film history. His first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), used “parallel montage” in sophisticated ways (working from Eliot Stannard’s excellent script). In later years he gave talks (e.g., at Columbia University in 1939) on his own innovations “after Griffith”, and was interviewed on that and similar matters (e.g., “Core of the Movies – The Chase” in the New York Times Magazine, Oct. 29, 1950). He had a detailed knowledge of true-life murder cases. He cultivated a connoisseur’s interest in the grotesque, the sensational, and the macabre, in art and fiction, including the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, et al. He listened each week to the series Suspense which ran for over a decade on American radio (and eventually TV). He was a friend of Orson Welles, the latter sometimes visiting the Hitchcocks at home.

2. The origin of the “Vertigo-effect”? When Smith notes how a distinguishing feature of the phantasmagoria was “the effect of ‘images appearing to approach and recede from the spectator’” (p. 28), he is effectively describing an early, crude version of Hitchcock’s famous track-in/zoom-out shot in Vertigo (1958) which critic Robin Wood interprets as simultaneously evoking the desire and the fear of falling. (In Hitchcock’s Marnie [1964] there is in fact a more exact equivalent of the phantasmagoria effect, used to suggest Marnie’s torn state of mind as she starts to rob her husband’s safe.) Dickens, we’ve seen, put such an effect into The Old Curiosity Shop (p. 28), but Hitchcock gave it an absolute subjective dimension. Smith does refer to Vertigo in his book: astutely, he notes the Hitchcockian nature of passages in Our Mutual Friend in which “upper-class Eugene pursues the illiterate, beautiful working-class Lizzie by eventually seeking her out in the streets” (p. 71). Actually, other passages in Our Mutual Friend are even more redolent of Vertigo. At one point there’s this: “’It is a sensation not experienced by many mortals’, said he, ‘to be looking into a churchyard on a wild windy night, and to feel that I no more hold a place among the living than these dead do …’” The full passage needs to be read (in Book the Second, chapter XIII), especially when the speaker steels himself to seek out the “real” – as opposed to “fanciful” – side of his situation. But we have only to remember that Vertigo was based on a novel called D’Entre les Morts (Among the Dead) to sense the affinity of this Dickens passage with a part of Scottie’s (the James Stewart character’s) situation in Hitchcock’s film. Further, when Smith notes Dickens’ career-long “fascination of repulsion” with crime and the problem of evil, I am reminded of a similar ambivalence in Hitchcock – and his saying, for example, that he liked to film stories “with lots of psychology” in which “the audience can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds”.

3. All-at-onceness. Although Smith, early on, evokes Henri Bergson in a marvellous quote – “the uninterrupted humming of life’s depths” (p. 15) – and reports Bergson’s opinion that it takes a genius to constantly tune in to such “humming” (a view, by the way, echoed in Schopenhauer and in Proust), I’ve implied above how he misses an opportunity to use such a view to defend Dickens when Eisenstein advocates that art reveal “a unity of a higher order” (p. 173). In fact, though, I see much film art as aspiring to give us the satisfaction of all-at-onceness. For example, that’s what seems implied in the camera obscura scene in Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) where Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey) tells June (Kim Hunter) that from up here the village looks different “because you see it all clearly and at once, as in a poet’s eye”. (The cinema should be “an eye in the head of a poet”, Smith quotes Orson Welles.) I have written elsewhere (e.g., on the MacGuffin website) on how I see the literally “theatrical” climax of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) as offering a “Bergsonian” riposte to Mr Memory who knows only “facts”, i.e., facts unconnected to lived life (cf. a theme of Dickens’ Hard Times [1854]). In his thrillers, Hitchcock attempts to awaken his audience’s “intuition” of “life’s depths” and to give us a sense of being fully alive. (Near the end of North by Northwest [1959], hero Roger Thornhill [Cary Grant] cues us by saying, “I never felt more alive!”) The opposite of this state of being fully alive is explored in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1957) where Manny (Henry Fonda) never comprehends the reality of his situation and its connection to what philosophers call the time/space/causality nexus. This is Hitchcock’s “city film” par excellence, and it is no accident that the film’s drawn-out legal procedures may remind you of the interminable lawsuit in Bleak House. (There are other connections.) The Wrong Man has been called Hitchcock’s most Kafkaesque film but in fact Kafka’s The Trial took its inspiration from Bleak House. My point is that Manny never attains all-at-onceness. That would entail a “miracle”, and “miracles take time” as the sanatorium nurse says at the end. Meanwhile, the film has dwelt on the universality of what is shown. The dialogue contains lines like the remark by Rose (Vera Miles) on how her dentist gave her “a little lecture on evolution” (cf. Dickens’s Megalosaurus). Ultimately, all-at-onceness is connected to Hitchcock’s Pateresque notion of “pure film” …

Strangers on a Train

4. Trains. Hitchcock fondly recalled from his London boyhood “Hale’s Tours”, in which an audience “went into a long car, like a Pullman car, with rows of seats and a screen at the end”. Back-projected onto the screen was a film taken from the front of a train going through, say, the Swiss Alps. “Purely subjective treatment” was Hitchcock’s laconic description of it. Later, of course, nobody did train films better than Hitchcock. From The 39 Steps to The Lady Vanishes (1938) to Strangers on a Train (1951) to North by Northwest, he was always aware of trains’ cinematic potential. What else is a train journey than an analogue of moving film itself? And what else is “pure film” than an analogue of what Kracauer calls “the flow of life”? Even the humble suburban train trip (cf., say, The Wrong Man) offers an exercise in mild suspense, like a modest version of Scheherazade’s serialised story-telling in the Arabian Nights (which Hitchcock, like Dickens, had read and would sometimes cite (19)). Hitchcock also knew, intuitively, that the cross-country train journey, in which a mixed group of passengers find themselves thrown together for a time, with no immediate way out, provided a cinematic equivalent of the country-house mystery à la Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. But again like Dickens, he sensed bigger things were workable. Carker’s death in Dombey and Son finds an equivalent of sorts in the death of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – the train as literal deus ex machina (Uncle Charlie, it’s hinted several times, is Lucifer) goes unrecognised by the Santa Rosa townsfolk. It’s doubtful that even Uncle Charlie’s namesake, young Charlie (Teresa Wright), who had prayed for “a miracle” and thought her prayer answered when her uncle arrived, understands. Shades of The Wrong Man, clearly.

5. “The SHADOW”. Dickens’ fanciful animus that would “go into any place” and “loom … all over London” prefigures aspects of German Expressionism (think first of the rooftop-scaling somnambulist Cesare in Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari [1920]). A sophisticated variant on such a concept, not unrelated to all-at-onceness, links three successive images in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947). On the evening after the opening day of the trial at the Old Bailey, we see, in the first image, Judge Horfield (Charles Laughton) at home, smoking complacently an after-dinner cigar and sipping brandy. Watching him, obviously concerned, is Lady Horfield (Ethel Barrymore). Then we’re in a darkened cell where the prisoner, Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli), is lying awake, watched by a wardress. Lastly, we find ourselves in the bedroom of Gay Keane (Ann Todd) where she, too, lies awake, although she pretends to be asleep when her barrister husband, Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck), looks in. I could relate this triptych of images to Schopenhauer’s notion of “eternal justice” versus “temporal justice” (Robert Hichens’s novel, chapter XL, makes specific mention of “the great Schopenhauer”), but the images equally invoke a notion of “putting on the city”. Such a notion applies, too, I think, to the East Berlin art gallery sequence in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) with its magnificent floor-tiled mandala in the middle of which visiting American physicist, Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), pauses. In turn, that deserted art gallery reminds me of the sequence in Welles’ The Trial in which Joseph K (Anthony Perkins) walks at night past a giant shrouded figure of Christ while, nearby, silent, miserable, half-naked people stand motionless. Grahame Smith writes of how, for Dickens, Paris and London “are rooted in the observable realities of his experience of them but, simultaneously, take on mythic status, … the ‘unreal city’ of T.S. Eliot” (p. 27). Such a city, based on a conception of Baudelaire (whom Hitchcock had read), is also seen in The Wrong Man (where pedestrians in Queens, caught in car headlights, look like wraiths) and the credits sequence of North by Northwest (where home-bound office workers, reflected in the side of a glass skyscraper, look equally ghostly – this follows the MGM logo printed on a sinister green background, green always being Hitchcock’s colour for ghosts and death). But, speaking of The Paradine Case, I should mention that Hitchcock was drawn to the novel by its English law courts setting. “’What do they have there?’ he asked [producer David Selznick]. ‘The Inner Temple with its Dickensian backgrounds, the Pump Court, little bay-windowed wig-makers shops, and other characteristic backgrounds’”(20).

Dickens and the Dream of Cinema, by Grahame Smith, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003.

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  1. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1862), chapter 20. This particular street still exists near St Paul’s and the Old Bailey.
  2. This broad sense of “expressionism” is usefully defined by John Willett as “a quality of expressive emphasis and distortion which may be found in works of art of any people or period”. See J. Willett, Expressionism, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970, p. 8.
  3. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, Noonday Press, 1960, p. 256.
  4. Kracauer, 1960, p. 256.
  5. Dickens, of course, was born in Portsmouth. But by general agreement, it’s fair to say, his London-centred writings made him an “honorary” Cockney.
  6. Peter Ackroyd, Albion, Chatto and Windus, 2002, p. 307.
  7. Taylor Stoehr, Dickens: The Dreamer’s Stance, Cornell University Press, 1965, p. 283. Grahame Smith seems unaware of Stoehr’s excellent book, which overlaps with and complements his own in several respects.
  8. Illuminations contains, most famously, the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
  9. Mike Davis, “Bunker Hill: Hollywood’s Dark Shadow”, in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice, Cinema and the City, Blackwell, 2001, pp. 33–45.
  10. Davis, 2001, p. 34.
  11. Davis, 2001, p. 34.
  12. Davis, 2001, p. 34.
  13. As Smith notes, Ian Christie is one of several authors who have drawn connections – including psychological ones – between the railways and early cinema.
  14. That power, Eisenstein tells us, might be expressed “in the ‘Odessa steps’ of Potemkin, in the ‘attack of the Kappel Division’ of Chapayev, in the hurricane of Storm Over Asia …” Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form and Film Sense (in one volume), Meridian Books, New York, 1959, p. 253.
  15. Another British director, Neil Jordan, is no genius, we’d been told earlier; nonetheless, his Mona Lisa (1986) is “strikingly successful in creating a hellish image of modern London, a surreal world of degradation and cruelty” (p. 148)
  16. Indeed it is. As Mark Spilka’s Dickens and Kafka, Indiana University Press, 1963, shows, Kafka’s The Trial (1925) was greatly influenced by his reading of Dickens’s Bleak House; and Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850) is “an early Amerika [1927]”.
  17. In Screen, vol. 11, no. 4–5, August/September 1970, pp. 97–114.
  18. For information about Hitchcock’s library and art collection, I thank Bill Krohn in Los Angeles.
  19. See, for example, Hitchcock’s introduction, “The Quality of Suspense”, written for the short-story anthology Alfred Hitchcock’s 14 Suspense Stories to Play Russian Roulette By, Dell Publishing, 1945, pp. 6–7.
  20. Leonard J. Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, p. 229.

About The Author

Ken Mogg, [email protected], is author of The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999; 2008) and has published widely on Hitchcock matters. He is currently preparing a study of children/childhood in Hitchcock’s features and television shows, with emphasis on the motif of “growing up” (or not).