Alfred Hitchcock book reviews

Early in Hitchcock Lost and Found (p. 2) Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr note the unique “enthusiasm” that has surrounded the director’s films – at any rate since Cahiers du Cinéma in France and then Movie in the UK spelled out his auteur status and Robin Wood (one of the Movie team) proceeded to ask, in a ground-breaking 1966 book, “Why must we take Hitchcock seriously?” Barr himself was associated with Movie from its early days, and he and Kerzoncuf (suitably French!) now demonstrate the enthusiasm they write about in their own book, which spans most of Hitchcock’s career, from when he entered the industry in 1921 as a title-writer and assistant, to 1969, when he narrated for Scottish Television a half-hour program called Hitchcock on Grierson. Along the way, the authors describe many other “lost” or obscure films involving Hitchcock (some of them now “found”), such as a couple of British wartime documentaries by other directors that Hitchcock anonymously re-edited for US cinemas. For his part, William Rothman, in the US, was not involved with Movie: there is no mention of it in his new book, nor of another Hitchcock (and “auteur theory”) proselytiser closer to home, Andrew Sarris. Back in 1982, when Rothman brought out his Hitchcock – The Murderous Gaze (Harvard University Press), he claims he felt that he was almost single-handedly taking up the Hitchcock cause. A quick check shows that Robin Wood is mentioned in the book, but only once and that almost dismissively! Nonetheless, as Must We Kill the Thing We Love? shows, and given that Rothman’s analytic method is so distinctive – while having constant resort to, and acknowledgment of, his mentor, Stanley Cavell – his “taking Hitchcock seriously” is undeniable. And richly rewarding. If I concentrate largely on the Rothman book in this review, that reflects the relative degree to which I personally have been stimulated by it (while not always agreeing with its premises, or its individual conclusions).

The truth is, enthusiasm takes you only so far – even well-tempered enthusiasm. Kerzoncuff/Barr write at the start of Hitchcock Lost and Found: “Our aim has been to examine successive stages of Hitchcock’s career in a level-headed way […] providing solid data about a wide range of lost or neglected or otherwise problematic material.” (p. 2) (Rothman’s undoubted enthusiasm for Hitchcock is of a different order, as I hope to show.) I think the best moments in reading Kerzoncuf/Barr are those that connect with films we (supposedly) already know. For example, Hitchcock first worked with the very capable director Graham Cutts on a feature that still survives, Flames of Passion (1922), made in black-and-white plus “short sequences in two-tone Prizmacolor.” (p. 33) C. Aubrey Smith (eighteen years before Rebecca) plays a prosecutor at the Old Bailey, married to Mae Marsh. Elements of the story prefigure Hitchcock’s The Manxman (1929), The Paradine Case (1947), and even Vertigo (1958) – a mother deprived of her child. Kerzoncuff/Barr note most of these. Particularly interesting is a formal pre-echo. In a scene where a chauffeur attacks his wife, the images have a “brutal shot-reverse-shot intensity that Hitchcock will from time to time create.” (p. 34) At this point, Kerzoncuff/Barr provide a double-page reproduction of two such sequences from, first, Flames of Passion, then the marital-rape scene in Marnie (1964). The correspondences are striking.

And yet the authors never comment on something that is surely important (or am I not being “level-headed” enough?): the film’s built-in note of pity for all its erring characters. In narrative terms, no-one comes off unscathed, though the suffering takes several forms. Again one may think of Vertigo. Of course, Cutts’s film probably doesn’t raise its general tone much above that of the standard film melodrama of its day. What I’m suggesting is that the youthful Hitchcock responded to something else, beyond the individual film – more a generic subtext – that may have spoken to his Catholic sensibility. By employing such a motif (of pity, of suffering) in films like Under Capricorn (1949), I Confess (1953), Vertigo, and above all Marnie – while often artfully counterpointing it with sardonic humour – he gave those films a rare universal appeal. To such matters, Rothman’s “Emersonian” approach (see below) is largely open, Kerzoncuff/Barr’s “level-headed” one less so.

Alfred Hitchcock book reviews

Under Capricorn (1949)

An area where Kerzoncuff/Barr are especially helpful concerns Hitchcock’s filmic contribution to the war effort. As mentioned, he re-edited and re-mixed for US release two British propaganda shorts: Men of the Lightship (David Macdonald, 1940) and Target for Tonight (Harry Watt, 1941). The authors describe the changes made and note that both films can be viewed on YouTube, though only the former (re-titled Men of Lightship “61”) is Hitchcock’s version.

In 1944, Hitchcock went to England to personally direct two Ministry of Information shorts, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, to be shown in France. The following year he would return to England as “treatment advisor” on a “German Special Film” showing the horrors of the newly liberated concentration camps, a project recently documented in André Singer’s film Night Will Fall. The indirect basis of Bon Voyage may be Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940), which hinges on an escape from a Nazi concentration camp by a professor’s daughter accompanied by a “friend” who proves to be a Nazi plant. The Hitchcock film shows a gullible British airman, Dougall, accompanied by a Pole, Godowski, fleeing the Germans across occupied France, and seeking the help of the Resistance. (Godowski, the plant, intends to report back to the Germans.) Now, I’m particularly grateful to Kerzoncuff/Barr for spotting how an incident in Bon Voyage gets re-cycled in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Screenwriter Ernest Lehman claims on the North by Northwest DVD that the moment when Eva Marie Saint “shoots” Cary Grant came to him ex nihilo, after he was stuck. But Kerzoncuff/Barr point to what Leonard tells his boss Vandamm: “It’s an old Gestapo trick: shoot one of your own people, to prove that you’re not one of them. They just freshened it up a bit with blank cartridges.” (p. 156) That last bit, at least, might seem novel (Godowski hadn’t bothered with blanks!). Nonetheless, Hitchcock regularly watched films by his colleagues and associates. And, in fact, a “fake shooting” had already featured in Johnny Allegro (1949), directed by Ted Tetzlaff, cinematographer of Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). [My thanks to Christopher Daly for this observation. One can imagine Hitchcock chatting to Tetzlaff on the set of Notorious and mentioning, perhaps in a context of Nazi ruthlessness, the recent shorts he had made in England.]

Not all the information immediately above comes from Kerzoncuff/Barr. As I’ve indicated, anything speculative, like that last item, can’t match the “solid data” that fills their rigorously compiled book. Now hear the crunch of changing gears as I turn to Rothman’s rather more subjective study of Hitchcock’s creative process – subjective on the part of both author and director. In a long chapter on Marnie (not to be confused with the even longer chapter on that film added in 2012 to a second edition of Hitchcock – The Murderous Gaze), Rothman attempts to enter Hitchcock’s mind by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson (here, “Experience”). Some excerpts: “If I have described life as a flux of moods, I must now add, that there is that in us which changes not. […] The baffled intellect must still kneel before this cause, which refuses to be named. [Objects] slip through our fingers […] when we clutch hardest at them. […] I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects […] to be the most unhandsome part of our condition.” (pp. 213-14) It is Rothman’s belief that there were two opposing Hitchcocks – a life-affirming (or life-seeking) one, and a life-negating (or life-disappointed) one – and that his films show this conflict, in complex ways. Also, that while Hitchcock, like most of us, sought self-betterment, and sensed the direction he should take (Rothman characterises it as Emerson’s “wonderful ‘way of life’”, or “Emersonian perfectionism”), for decades something held him back, or continued to try his intellect. Rothman observes: “No doubt affected by a Catholic upbringing that impressed on his young imagination a strong and abiding sense of original sin, he never tired of quoting Oscar Wilde’s line, ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’” (p. 6) Finally, though, came Marnie, “Hitchcock’s last masterpiece,” and with it, release. Marnie herself is liberated by Mark Rutland, who had earlier come close to killing the woman he loved – Marnie – but who confounds Wilde’s maxim in the end (we must suppose). As for the film’s director, Rothman writes: “I wish to believe that […] Hitchcock, too, was changed. And there was no going back.” (p. 254)

Alfred Hitchcock book reviews

Rope (1948)

That is, Marnie has finally freed herself from her compulsive “clutching” (literalised in the scenes of her robbing her employers’ safes), and perhaps Hitchcock likewise. Integral to Rothman’s argument about the two Hitchcocks is the supposition that making art is somehow unhealthy, and that Hitchcock’s art is “murderous”. Part of the director identifies with his villains, who “are his accomplices in artistic creation”. Or, to put it another way, “Hitchcock is their accomplice – or they are his – in murder.” (p. 6) Rothman’s claim may remind you of Rope, 1948, where the theme of murder-equals-art runs strong, and sadistic killer Brandon muses, “The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.” As for how Emerson enters the Hitchcock scene, Rothman notes that the director arrived in the US in 1939 just when the “Hollywood comedy of remarriage” was peaking – later to be identified and lauded for its Emersonian qualities by Stanley Cavell in his tour de force book Pursuits of Happiness (1981) – and that Hitchcock would have quickly caught the spirit of such films as Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1939) and The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940), both starring Cary Grant. In turn, Rothman is happy to consider himself one of Emerson’s “perfectionist” followers, someone whose writing and teaching serve to integrate his best intuitions into what is essentially a moral outlook: whether we know it or not, he writes, we all seek “to become more fully human, to realize our humanity in our lives in the world, which always requires the simultaneous acknowledgment of the humanity of others (our acknowledgment of them and theirs of us).” (p. 4) Not exactly an indifferent platform from which to write a book on Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock book reviews

The 39 Steps (1935)

In the mid-1930s Hitchcock made a famous sextet of thrillers in England, each ending “with the union of a man and a woman who can presumably look forward with hope to a relationship worth having.” (p. 36) (I’ll come back to that “presumably” – KM.) Though he acknowledges their brilliance, Rothman notes that the films hardly qualify as “comedies of remarriage”; rather, they underscore “their author’s ambivalence toward the American genre’s Emersonian worldview.” For one thing, their protagonists lack a sufficiently raised consciousness. Rothman’s critique here, if not his tone, is almost Nietzschean (Nietzsche admired Emerson): “They are not driven by a wish to change, to walk in the direction of the unattained but attainable self.” Also, Hannay at the end of The 39 Steps (1935) remains subject to Hitchcock’s whim (“One of Hannay’s hands is still handcuffed, after all” [p. 39]). That is, Hannay isn’t yet self-reliant enough (in Emerson’s sense), which may indicate that neither he nor Hitchcock has yet learned the importance of not-grasping. So what is Rothman’s verdict when, a few years later, Hitchcock makes a screwball comedy, Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), that embodies typical comedy of remarriage ingredients? Rothman is very perceptive here. For example, he makes sharp observations about the “unlikeable” performances of both Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard (p. 65), and especially about how the native intelligence of Lombard can’t surface – her character is too “screwy”, too lacking in self-awareness, for the good of the genre (there were precedents, we’re told – p. 67). So Rothman vacillates. “Insofar as it is concerned with demonstrating that rules […] do not a true marriage make, Mr and Mrs Smith does align itself with the Emersonian outlook of the comedy of remarriage.” (p. 70) On the other hand, Hitchcock can’t help showing his hand: as early as the opening scene there are hints that the situation could turn lethal (Ann holds a straight razor at her husband’s throat), thus threatening to turn the film into a Hitchcock thriller. In short, Hitchcock’s ambivalence remains, for now.

Alfred Hitchcock book reviews

Mr and Mrs Smith (1941)

I have tried to give a fair indication of how Rothman’s argument runs, and his mode of putting it into effect. My biggest problem with that argument is its premise of Hitchcock’s “murderous” intentions – I believe that the director was far more objective than Rothman gives him credit for. Connected with this, I also have problems with the often tenuous way that Rothman tries to invoke a “conversational” camera whose images speak to us about – or for – Hitchcock personally. That part of Rothman’s methodology seems to me to push him into a trap, the huis clos of not being able to touch base in what is visible or verifiable. (Hitchcock himself once said: “Directors who lose control are concerned with the abstract.”) Lastly, Rothman seems to me to offer, for the sake of his general argument, skewed or one-sided readings of certain films – including North by Northwest – which of course is infinitely better than giving us no readings at all (and Rothman often plays individual films like a master cellist plays Elgar). I’ll take up these points in a moment, but first allow me a slight detour into philosophy.

My counter-text for reading Rothman, I own, has been Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will as Representation (we know that Schopenhauer influenced Emerson 1) – or, rather, my counter-text lately has been Robert L. Wicks’ 2011 study of Schopenhauer’s magnum opus. 2

As Wicks points out, the German philosopher’s idea that one might suspend one’s personality for a time in order to become “the clear eye of the world” (compare Emerson’s “a transparent eyeball” 3) was misguided. Such an attainment, Schopenhauer soon saw, though it bestows great peace and courage, and completely affirms the will-to-live (something Nietzsche adapted into his principle of the Übermensch 4), is only a higher selfishness. Wicks writes: “Schopenhauer’s […] highly inspiring, hope-restoring attitude arises in someone who has not yet come to know a deeper truth, namely, that constant suffering is essential to all life. [Schopenhauer] finds it morally repulsive that the will-to-live […] is the murderous energy that generates the world’s suffering and that flows through himself […] On moral grounds, Schopenhauer cannot condone a life-affirming and self-affirming outlook.” And when he looked around and asked himself what was to be done, the principal panacea that presented itself to him was an attitude of compassion towards all living beings. (Wicks claims in a footnote that Jorges Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, who had read both Emerson and Schopenhauer, believed that “the only philosophical view that seems to give an accurate semblance of the world is Schopenhauer’s.” 5) Now consider my observation above that Hitchcock was far more objective than Rothman credits him. I believe that the director was always more concerned (inter alia, of course) with portraying the world’s murderousness, and the importance of compassion, than his work had “murderous” intentions of its own (as opposed to its business of staying a jump ahead of audiences, with playfulness); and that precisely where Rothman most distorts Hitchcock is the claim that he systematically presented himself as a murderer. By the same token, the empirical (objective) Hitchcock certainly saw how our “murderous energy” – contingent with what Emerson calls “that in us which changes not” – has two sides to it, and how our task is to understand it and, if possible, come to terms with it. Schopenhauer called such a life/death “force” Will, and advocated compassion.

So when Hitchcock identifies with his murderers, it is actually an instance of his compassion. Rothman, following Emerson, seems to me to place too little store on it. (The very text he quotes, “Each man kills the thing he loves,” comes from Wilde’s 1897 The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which might almost have been Hitchcock’s model. A similar compassion infuses the 1937 novel, We, The Accused, by Ernest Raymond, which Hitchcock wanted to film.) When Mark Rutland tells Marnie, “It’s time to have a little compassion for yourself,” and Rothman comments, “Not a bad moral, as morals go” (p. 246), he sounds patronising, momentarily finding himself out of his Emersonian comfort-zone (so to speak). Further, his characterisation of Hitchcock’s murderers is distorted. He claims that a feature of the thrillers “is that a murderous villain, who aspires to exercise a godlike power over others, […] plays a key role” (p. 6) – which would, if true, support his general argument. (Hitchcock told Truffaut that directors must imitate God. 6) But the murderers, with few exceptions (e.g. Brandon in the parodic Rope), are the opposite of Rothman’s picture of them: most are sad creatures ducking for cover from untenable situations, such as a failed marriage. (A significant aspect here is that Hitchcock typically ensures that we can’t say with certainty who the “culprit” is, whether the husband or the wife or the bigger picture.) Their representative might be the sacristan Otto Keller in I Confess. Keller and his wife Alma are childless, and displaced refugees from the War. They are taken in by the Church but remain almost totally isolated in Quebec, Canada, from any social life. Similarly, in Sabotage (1936), Mr Verloc and his wife Winnie have a marriage of convenience which for Winnie mainly centres on her young brother, the dim-witted schoolboy, Stevie. Verloc, with Winnie’s help, runs a London flea-pit cinema, but it does not pay well, and Verloc has got himself involved with anarchists. It is clear that he is a mere pawn in their shadowy plans. Matters come to a head after Stevie is blown up by an anarchist’s bomb. Rothman writes of Verloc’s “utter indifference to the boy’s death. All he wanted to talk about, after he sat down to dinner, was how he likes his cabbage to be cooked. So now his goose is cooked. His utter lack of regard for human frailty makes him so loathsome in his wife’s eyes that she no longer sees him as a person.” (p. 54)

The trouble with that description is that (a) it misses how we had initially felt a degree of pity for Verloc, and may still do (both he and Winnie are foreigners in a strange land, and he does his best in his own blinkered way to support them); (b) he didn’t intend Stevie’s death; (c) his seeming indifference to that death may be read as covering up how uncomfortable, and inarticulate, he basically is; and (d) the moment leading to Winnie’s stabbing of her husband is ambiguous – as if both are equally responsible for something that neither of them fully wanted nor could prevent once the moment arrived. The whole situation beautifully shows Hitchcock’s objectivity – and inherent compassion. 7

Yet Rothman goes so far as to say that Hitchcock “hated” Verloc, as well as Willi in the 1944 film Lifeboat (p. 186). It is hard to agree. For one thing, I hear Father Logan saying in I Confess, “I don’t hate anyone, Keller.” Closer to the truth about Hitchcock may be what John Carey noted of another fine storyteller, Charles Dickens, that he exemplified Keats’s argument about the poetic character: how it is essentially free to do as it likes, and amoral. 8 How closely such “negative capability” resembles a form of compassion! From work to work, the poet/filmmaker explores fresh viewpoints, taking “as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.” The critic or scholar should respect that freedom, and thus I find myself resisting Rothman’s argument (however nuanced) that the films led in some organic progression to Marnie – a masterpiece, nonetheless. Consider, for a moment, some presumptions he makes, including about Hitchcock’s endings (which Donald Spoto says are typically ones of “open-ended pessimism” 9). It is characteristic of Rothman that he should consider Hannay’s dangling handcuffs at the end of The 39 Steps to be more a sign of Hitchcock’s unrelinquished (murderous?) control than the obvious joke – or question – about marriage we are surely invited to infer. Of course, he has already told us that Hannay and Pamela will “presumably” have a successful union. On that occasion, he was happy to admit not actually knowing – it suited his argument. Yet when he comes to discuss the end of North by Northwest, which has its own valedictory joke – the phallic train entering a dark tunnel – his argument requires that there should be no doubt. For Marnie looms. Accordingly: “At the end of North by Northwest’s ‘fiction,’ Roger and Eve have achieved a marriage of equals worthy of a comedy of remarriage.” (p. 182) But is it really a happy ending? Roger and Eve are en route back to New York, which – though Rothman’s analysis does not notice the fact – the mise en scène had earlier depicted in anything but salubrious terms: New York was implied to be as much a “waste land” in its own way as Prairie Stop. 10 On the matter of North by Northwest’s ending, I’m with Spoto.

Alfred Hitchcock book reviews

Marnie (1964)

So here we have two quality books, one (Rothman’s) whose view is predominantly through a powerful microscope, the other (Kerzoncuf/Barr’s) surveying Hitchcock’s entire canon for the first time, as if through a telescope, and finding unsuspected features. One book (Rothman’s) positively rings with moral fervour, the other is more circumspect, its style urbane and to the point. Both are recommended. But I find it salutary that neither of them, nor perhaps any of the scores of other books on Hitchcock, addresses directly the simple fact of the director’s genius. Many commentators have referred to that genius (I once likened it to that of Leonardo, another artist-engineer!), and Spoto wrote a Hitchcock biography called The Dark Side of Genius, which is as good as you’ll get (notwithstanding that Rothman appears to snub its author!). But the simple fact I mentioned is this, as told to Patrick McGilligan by Stirling Silliphant: that Hitchcock could take home the merest outline, or perhaps the original short story, for a one-hour television episode, and overnight turn it – in his head – into a full shot-by-shot scenario, including camera moves and opticals, needing only to be written out with dialogue (minimal) by his scriptwriter. 11 My conclusion? Perhaps just this: that Hitchcock had a “beautiful mind”, as both these books can not help but attest. Kerzoncuf/Barr, for example, include a charming aside from Hitchcock’s cutting notes for Bon Voyage, in which he humorously ponders whether a camera set-up in a barn can include two cows thoughtfully provided by the studio for “atmosphere” (p. 156). I dare say that the processes of filmmaking were like “spiritual exercises” for him – “murderous” only in a playful way – and that “the clear eye of the world” was something to which he thereby had regular access. Further, like the good Catholic boy he always was, he practised compassion in both his life and art, to everyone’s greater good.


Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr, Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015)

William Rothman, Must We Kill the Thing We Love? Emersonian Perfectionism and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)



  1. Elisabeth Hurth’s Between Faith and Unbelief: American Transcendentalists and the Challenge of Atheism (2007) has a chapter on Emerson and Schopenhauer.
  2. Robert L. Wicks, Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (Continuum, 2011). Unless otherwise indicated, the observations about Schopenhauer quoted in this paragraph are essentially from pp. 115-16. (However, I have changed Wicks’ paraphrase, “the universal eye”, back to Schopenhauer’s original “the clear eye of the world”.
  3. Emerson wrote: “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball.” (“Nature”) This is pure Schopenhauer!
  4. Wicks, p. 163, n. 39.
  5. Wicks, p. 163, n. 39.
  6. François Truffaut, Hitchcock (London: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 70: “in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life.”
  7. Alma Hitchcock once told an interviewer that her husband “has the most completely balanced mind I have ever known and … a talent for total objectivity.” “When the Master of Suspense Bolts His Own Door at Night.” Interview. The Straights Times, 7 August 1960, p. 15.
  8. John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 9. Carey adds: “Dickens… recognized in himself the same bond between imagination and inconsistency (as Keats described).”
  9. Cited in Neil Hurley, Soul in Suspense: Hitchcock’s Fright and Delight (Scarecrow Press, 1993), p. xiii.
  10. The opening of North by Northwest is sinister and “ghostly”, and things have not got much better in either the ensuing drab shots of rush-hour workers pouring out of buildings and down subways en masse, like a collective tidal wave (compare similar “Dantésque” imagery in the “Unreal City” passage of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land) or shortly afterwards, in Roger’s interrupted cocktail-hour meeting with his aging cronies.
  11. Patrick McGilligan, Backstory 3 (1997).

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).