Although Alfred Hitchcock gave hundreds of interviews over the course of his career, as far as I can tell, he never discussed his political views in public, leading many to conclude that he had none. Nevertheless, a mountain of evidence has accumulated to indicate that he actually had a very clear, if personal, political vision that profoundly shaped his movies. Sometimes this worked to his advantage; other times, not. Yet, regardless of the popularity of his message or its lack thereof, Hitch determinedly kept his own counsel, occasionally leaving his producers, critics and even his audience baffled.
Shortly after the War broke out, the director, newly arrived in the Untied States, convened with a group of Britishers in Hollywood. They sought to find ways to help promote the cause of England, which sorely needed American military support and to nudge the United States away from its non-neutral stance. Members included actors Boris Karloff and Reginald Gardiner, director Robert Stevenson (who later went on to direct a number of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes) and screenwriter Charles Bennett, who, at the same time was working on Foreign Correspondent.*
Thanks to the then-recently-passed series of Neutrality Acts in the United States, such activity was illegal, and for two years the group met in secret. Among their projects was an anthology of short films intended to garner sympathy for England's plight. British-born creatives around Hollywood were discreetly approached to donate their services, with proceeds from the films going to war-related causes in the Mother Country. Such luminaries as Ronald Colman, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Herbert Marshall and George Sanders stepped forward to help out, creating what amounted to a very well-dressed fifth column. Hitch joined the Board of Governors of Charitable Productions, as this ad hoc group came to be called, and agreed to direct one of its five segments. He also co-chaired a fund drive to evacuate British orphans into Canada and the United States and met with Canadian officials to fast-track their passage into the country.
It’s against this background that he directed Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Suspicion (1941), two of those years’ biggest critical and financial successes. (Maybe that helps explain why he occasionally fell asleep on the set while making them.)
Biographer Patrick McGilligan writes:
“Of all the Britishers in his Hollywood cell group, ironically, it was Hitchcock — avowedly the least political of all of them — who found the earliest opportunity to ‘do his bit.’ The tense atmosphere in London stiffened his spine, and influenced the new ending he would shoot for Foreign Correspondent.”All of this happened in secret, while most Americans were only vaguely aware Hitler’s atrocities in Europe. Perhaps that ignorance steeled Hitchcock's resolve to get the message out one way or the other.
Those who had access to British and European news saw that Hitler's Nazi threat was unprecedentedly dangerous. Yet, most Americans didn't have a clue. Writer Susan E. Tifft explains why. In the April 19, 1999 issue of the New Yorker, she wrote that the publishers of the New York Times knew very well about the Nazis’ Final Solution, yet opted to bury the stories; during the 1930s they also banned all letters to the editor that discussed Nazi activities — pro and con. As the newspaper of record, it influenced editorial policy for other news outlets, which usually followed suit.
The publishers evidently had personal reasons for directing editorial policy in this way. Writes Tifft, “In the seven years that we have spent researching a biography of [Times owners] the Ochses and the Sulzbergers, it has become increasingly apparent that the family’s self-image as Jews has profoundly shaped the paper.” The paper’s owners were in a tight spot: anti-Semitism ran high in the United States at that time, and it would almost certainly have been very risky for a Jewish-owned news organization to publish pro-Jewish articles into which at least some would read Zionist sympathies. Tifft and others take the newspaper families to task for what might look like an abdication of their mission to deliver “all the news that’s fit to print.” Whether that’s a fair assessment or not, the Times’ policy had far-reaching consequences. Most Americans were not aware of the holocaust until the War was in full swing.
With that in mind, Foreign Correspondent can be seen as a rebuke to the U. S. news media. The film is dedicated to “those intrepid [journalists] who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America.... To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows.” Yet, Johnny Jones (Joel McCrae) aside, foreign reporters in general were portrayed as lazy and ineffectual. Stebbins (Robert Benchley), for instance, is a philandering, alcoholic career drone.
Long before then, however, Hitchcock was honing his political chops, at times resembling an outright activist. Like many others in London in the 1930s, Hitch watched with mounting alarm the rise of Hitler and his Third Reich, along with other Fascist and totalitarian states. Having lived through the horrors of World War I in London, he resolved to use his influence to thwart their incursion onto British soil. His films during the second half of that decade dealt with those threats head on while also criticizing British foreign policy as weak and ineffective.
Between 1934 and 1938, he made six movies in England, five of which commented directly on the then-current political landscape: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes. (The only exception is his 1937 classic wrong man film, Young and Innocent.) Most commentators fail to make the connection with Hitch’s behind-the-scenes activities, claiming that his films merely played on British fears as an entertainment gimmick. Regarding The 39 Steps, for instance, Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto sayss that Hitch and writer Charles Bennett “decided to exploit... aspects of the contemporary scene [such as the ]... vague rumors about Hitler and the rise of fanaticism.” (The Dark Side of Genius.) I think there's mor to it than that.
From his youth, Hitch had strong patriotic inclinations. During World War I he witnessed German air raids, whose bombs fell dangerously close to his home. It was his first experience of real terror. He tried to enlist in the British army, but was excused with a C3 classification, possibly due either to his age or his weight. Undeterred, however, he signed up for a volunteer cadet regiment of the Royal Engineers in 1917.
The memories of those days under German air assault haunted him throughout his life, the avian attacks in The Birds, for instance, were essentially a fevered re-envisioning of the Luftwaffe. Tellingly, his career really hit its stride when he began addressing those fears directly in his films, beginning in 1934 with the release of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The first of a series of overtly political films, it also kicked off his first unbroken run of box office hits, all of which have stood the test of time.
While making those six films, he hosted an informal film club that met almost nightly to discuss movies in general and to brainstorm ideas for his current projects. That guest list comprised an unmistakably politically active group of socialists, Communists and anti-fascists and their ideas made it into scene after scene of his finished movies. (During those years in England it was possible to be promote Communism with patriotic fervor.) In The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example, the title character must choose between saving his son who has been kidnapped and cooperating with British intelligence in order to avert a political assassination. A direct reference is made to 1914 Sarajevo as he is warned that his inaction could lead to another world war.
His next film, The 39 Steps, generally regarded as the first psychological spy thriller, takes place against the backdrop of foreign threats to England's security. Just months before its release, the Anglo-German Naval Agreement was signed, giving Germany enormous concessions and freedom to build up its military. Many viewed this as an appeasement move on Britain's part. Hitchcock and his cohorts did too.
The impromptu speech delivered by Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is a barely camouflaged call to political action: “I ask your candidate and all those who love their fellowmen to set themselves resolutely to make this world a happier place to live in. A world where no nation plots against nation.... A world from which suspicion and cruelty and fear have been forever banished!” In spite of its ironic humor, Hannay’s impassioned address is quite moving — and, again, relevant to the international climate at that time.
References to current events abound as well. Case in point: its MacGuffin is a state secret, the design for a noiseless airplane engine. At that very time, England was being publicly called upon by Winston Churchill to hasten efforts to maintain its air supremacy over Germany.
One year later, Hitch directed Sabotage, which dealt with the growing threat of anarchists and the fascists behind them; the shootout at the end of The Lady Vanishes (1938) reprimands the British government for its by-then-official appeasement policy toward Germany. As these six films were in turn released, each one’s cry for British action became more pointed and alarmed than the previous film.
For these reasons, I don’t think Hitchcock was "exploiting" or "capitalizing on" British fears as much as he was expressing his own, using the power of film to rouse public awareness and to move the government to take action. That he did so with high style and wit is evidence that part of his genius lay in his ability to detach himself from his subject and deliver first-class entertainment. Few other politically charged movies during this period carried their message with as much aplomb.
When Hitch moved to his family to the United States in 1939, he maintained that same ethos. Like his British films, his first two American war movies, Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, have held up well over the decades; audiences unschooled in the history of the second World War still find much to enjoy and admire in these classics.
At least on the political level, those two propaganda pieces drew a clear distinction between the good guys (England and America) and the bad guys (Fascism and Nazism). As the war dragged on, however, Hitch began to see grey where before there was black and white. With his next war movie he took an extraordinary gamble.
Commissioned as another propaganda piece, the wartime allegory, Lifeboat (1944) feels like a sequel to Foreign Correspondent, picking up where the airliner has crashed into the Atlantic ocean.** Set entirely in one location — a lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean — the boat's 10 occupants, including several Americans, one English woman and the all-too-likable commander of the Nazi submarine that had sunk their freighter, the film is a microcosm of the war. As the smartest, most physically fit and most capable leader of the group, the German seaman, aptly named Willi, exemplified Hitler's conceit that the Aryan race embodies Nietzsche's superman and its so-called Will-to-Life. Made during some of the darkest days of the War, this Nazi was painted in an astonishingly (for the times) positive light. Meanwhile, the other characters, loosely representing the Allies, were either weak, divided by infighting, or, when they resorted to mob violence by clobbering and drowning Willi, resemble nothing so much as "a pack of dogs," as Hitch described the scene to François Truffaut.
Lifeboat veered so far from the pro-Ally message that it prompted the United States Office of War Information to complain that it presented "a picture which the Nazi propagandists themselves would like to promote." In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that the film "sold out democratic ideals and elevated the Nazi superman." What was Hitchcock thinking?
On the face of it, he was shocked that the film could have been so misunderstood. Years later, he defended its patriotism, saying to Truffaut,
"While the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy."In other words, Hitchcock conceived of Lifeboat as a cautionary tale. No doubt there's some truth in that. But there was also much more going on. To quote D. H. Lawrence, this would be the time to "trust the writing, not the writer." Let's start with the matter of timing.
Justifying his portrayal of the German war machine as superior to that of the Allies, Hitch said, "At that time, 1940-41, the French had been defeated, and the Allies were not doing too well." That is correct. But there is just one problem: Lifeboat was filmed in 1943, two to three years after those events, the first draft of the screenplay having been submitted by screen writer Jo(seph) Swirling in August of that year. By that time, the fortunes of all the major players in the war had long changed, with the Germans taking a drubbing on multiple fronts. They had been repelled from London, all but expelled from North Africa, had surrendered at Stalingrad and were mollified before reaching Moscow.
Ironically (as far as the movie is concerned), by May, 1943, Germany had lost so many submarines that it was forced to temporarily halt its Atlantic naval campaign. When Lifeboat was made, it was the safest time in years for a merchant marine vessel to cross the Atlantic.
The Blitzkrieg was over and the Anglo-American forces were as well-coordinated as a ballroom dance duo.
Lifeboat was first screened in January, 1944. As propaganda flicks go, it was as relevant as a two-year-old newspaper. Hitch either seriously lapsed in his longstanding habit of including up-to-the-minute news items in his stories, or he had something far different in mind. The film — and real-life geopolitical events surrounding it — suggest that the latter was the case.
Without question, Nazi aggression was evil. But the fierce Allied retaliation was not much more humane. Take Operation Gomorrah. This U.S.-Britain joint bombing attack aimed to destroy Hamburg and inflict as many casualties as possible. First, bombers destroyed the center of the city, drawing Hamburg's firefighting force inward to battle the flames. A second wave of bombings drew a donut-like circle around the center, incinerating the fire crews and stopping any further firefighting activity. When another concentric circle of bombs was dropped, the city became hell on earth. By the time the Allied bombers had returned to their bases, the city was engulfed in flames shooting 1,500 feet into the air and 50,000 of its citizens had been roasted alive. British officials later dubbed it "The Hiroshima of Germany."
By the way, did I mention that this eight-day attack occurred about a month before the filming of Lifeboat got under way?
Is it possible that the director had Allied atrocities like Operation Gomorrah in mind when he directed his actors to kill Willi "like a pack of dogs" and, at the end of the movie, when another German tried to gain entrance to the boat, he instructed one of the Americans to hiss, "Exterminate him! Exterminate them all!"
Although Hitchcock was assigned to make a propaganda film, he fulfilled his duty like a bartender adding Vermouth to a dry martini: just barely.
Film critics and auteur theorists Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol got it right: Lifeboat is a moral fable. In their 1957 book, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, they wrote that "the auteur here explicitly exposes a philosophy that is implicit elsewhere: his refusal to judge, his exigence, his pessimism, his legitimate suspicion of pity, justice and other fine sentiments." The writers then add, "We profit from evil: let us know that it is evil from which we profit.... Let us expel evil, but at the same time acknowledge that its expulsion does not leave us with clean hands."
Or as the German philosopher who proposed the rise of a superman also famously cautioned, "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you."
Though it was released over a year before the end of the war, Lifeboat was really Hitchcock's first postwar film, for it was then that he began to take a close look at a subject he had previously only flirted with: the human and moral cost of doing battle in a modern world.
After production on Lifeboat was all but wrapped, Hitch fulfilled a commitment to his longtime friend Sidney Bernstein to direct two short propaganda films overseas. But Hitch seemed to have lost the heart to rally troops around the flag, at least in any conventional sense. Bon Voyage and Adventure Malgache were intended to bolster the spirits of French audiences. While making the first film, Hitch noticed that the work of the French freedom fighters had become bogged down in quarrels and infighting; he decided to include these details into the second film. At the end of the day, neither film was as rah-rah as its distributors in 1944 had hoped and they received limited circulation.
Hitch's next war movie, Notorious (1946), was developed before the war was officially over, its famous MacGuffin — uranium ore — having been devised while the development of the world's first atom bomb was still a top secret operation. Once again, like a water witch, Hitchcock instinctively honed in on the moral viciousness of the combatants' spy organizations. Ingrid Bergman was called upon to sleep with the enemy and put her life at risk in order to ferret out the details of a covert Nazi operation. As an American agent torn by love and patriotic duty, Cary Grant took on one of the nastiest roles of his career.
And then there's Rope (1948), where Hitchcock again revisited the high moral cost of maintaining our democratic way of life. A perfect bookend to Lifeboat technologically as well as thematically (both take place in closed spaces, the casts of which are representative of society), it picks up the thread of Nietzchean hubris he'd started four years earlier. The American castaways of the 1944 film were ultimately unable to face their own barbarism. But Rope's Rupert Cadell, an armchair fascist played by the ultimate American, James Stewart, stared unblinkingly at his guilt and shame. The message was: the Allies may have been right to repel Nazi aggression, but they had to resort to barbaric means to do it, implicitly assuming the superman's right to destroy human life. Stewart himself had piloted bombers on numerous raids in Germany, adding another layer of irony to them film, which I discuss in further in my August 22, 2005 post.
In 1959, with the release of North by Northwest, Hitch made his boldest political statement yet, once again observing that the Cold War’s deadly gamesmanship had compromised all sides in the conflict and putting these words into the mouth of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill: “If you fellows can't whip the VanDamms of this world without asking girls like [Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint)] to bed down with them and probably never come back, perhaps you should lose a few cold wars.” An astounding thing to say at the height of the Cold War.
10 years later, Topaz went even further, contrasting short-term expediencies taken by American and French diplomats with the more principled motives of the Cubans and Russians. The movie’s only comic relief was provided by the Russian defector who trades in his Communist ideals for Western materialism.
All right, I think I’ve proved my point that, while Hitch held strong political opinions, they tended to rise above ideology. An international traveler who played to a global audience, he was truly a citizen of the world. Nevertheless, an interesting point was made in a discussion thread on my Alfred Hitchcock Geek Facebook page, which seems at first to contradict all of the above.
D. K. made this comment regarding the propagandistic ending of Foreign Correspondent: “So many of Hitchcock's films are morally ambiguous. ... The moralizing nature of the speech at the end of Foreign Correspondent just seems so out of character from the point of view Hitchcock expressed in so many of his other films.”
Good point. How do we resolve the moral ambiguity in his films with the moralizing that also often takes place? Or, did Hitch merely contradict himself?
I think the key lies in separating the personal from the political in Hitch’s films. As mentioned, Hitch did not hesitate to weigh in with his opinions. When it came to his characters, however, his views were far more attenuated. In Foreign Correspondent, as propagandistic as it is, the villain, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) is an admirable family man who shows deep and tender feelings for his daughter. The movie’s final moments are as touching as any, as father and daughter struggle with their devotion to each other while coming to terms with the fact that his covert, treasonous activities have made them mortal enemies. From the joyful family man Professor Jordan in The 39 Steps to the adoring grandfather Charles Tobin of Saboteur (1942), almost all of Hitchcock’s political villains care well for hearth and home.
I believe that the origins of Hitch’s sympathetic view of all people, friend and foe, can be found in the years he spent in Germany. Hitch spent considerable time there in 1924 and 1925, often working directly for the German-owned Ufa studios, then the largest single studio in the world.
He rubbed shoulders with the people who were writing the book on the art of film, serving as art director for the great director F. W. Murnau, whose systematic, non-improvisational approach to filmmaking had an enormous impact on Hitch’s own working methods. He borrowed enough technical tricks and visual storytelling methods from Murnau to fill a book. He wandered about the movie lot as well, peeking in on the lavish sets of director Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen and soaking up the German Expressionist aesthetic that imbued his films down to the last. Though Hitch could be tight-lipped about his influences, whenever he was asked about the inspiration for his stylistic approach, he always answered, “The Germans.” In short, Hitch saw firsthand the Germanic mindset at its best and fell in love with it.
Then, in the 1930s, he saw that same culture exploited by a megalomaniac and his Third Reich. It must have pained him to see those disciplined minds turn to atrocious deeds. He knew some of those individuals personally. In those years, saw the worst of the Germanic mindset. For the rest of his life, Hitch would maintain a love-hate relationship with Germany, a conflict that would creep into his films.
How could he not conclude that the best of humanity and its worst resides in each one of us? At the same time, Hitch came of age toward the end of the Romantic era, which portrayed man as a tempestuous, roiling, loving, hating, animalistic, godlike creature.
So, to shave a corner off of D. K.’s comment above, Hitch wasn’t morally ambiguous as he was ambivalent, in the sense of one's holding "simultaneous conflicting feelings." Hitchcock’s morality, if there was one, is that man is essentially good and essentially bad.
Last year, the late and sadly missed Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood commented on the fact that Hitchcock’s villains are all very charming — good-looking, cultivated and seductively friendly. Referring specifically to the villains of The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, he wrote, “The charm of this group is superficial, a consciously adopted mask concealing politically evil intent... masquerading as good citizens, a further demonstration of how easily and glibly Fascism (unlike fascist tendencies) can be discredited and disowned.”
I'd like to expand that a bit and add a third layer to these particular characters:(1) their upper-class charm, (2) their Nazi and Fascist carryings-on and (3) their family lives. Looking at them this way provides a key to understanding their beguiling appeal, even as we are horrified to see them plotting evil.***
Their charm is, of course, a mask, part of a deceptive role they play in order to hide their political machinations in plain sight. That charm also draws the audience in, causing us to identify with them. Yet, aren’t their Totalitarian ambitions just a role too? These Nazis and Fascists are professionals, opportunists who have placed their bets on the side they believe will emerge victorious from the war. Though their politics do oppose those of the Americans and British, they are primarily motivated by a natural desire to be on the winning side. As Saboteur’s Charles Tobin says,
“There are millions like you [good Americans]. People who play along, without asking questions.... The great masses, the moron millions. Well, there are a few of us unwilling to troop along, a few of us who are clever enough to see that there's much more to be done than just live small complacent lives, a few of us in America who desire a more profitable type of government. When you think about it, Mr. Kane, the competence of totalitarian nations is much higher than ours. They get things done.”As essentially apolitical professionals, Tobin and company’s villainy is just another mask.
Finally, then, we see these characters at home, with their families. It’s here that their masks melt away. What do we find? Loving family men who come to home to a joyful house, fully engaging with their children and dutifully spoiling their grandchildren. Even as their politics puts them at odds with society, their family life connects them to all mankind. That’s what makes them so appealing. Their family is something to behold and envy, and it entices us to fantasize about their political ambitions, for who among us would turn down an opportunity for world domination? All of us engage in our own masquerade, whether we're professionals, laborers, students or Facebook users.
It's in that final, unmasked state that Hitch saw hope.
If there’s any kind of a clear “message” to Hitch’s movies, it’s that the world’s problems won’t be solved on the battlefield or at the bargaining table. They can only be solved at home. Lives can only be saved one at a time as the Roger Thornhills of this world keep their Eve Kendalls safe and sound; as parents like Ben and Jo McKenna stick it out in their marriage, protecting their children, their monthly fights notwithstanding.
In Shadow of a Doubt, when speaking of love and marriage and family, Young Charlie says, “Oh, it doesn’t matter anymore.” Detective Jack Graham replies, “What do you mean, ‘It doesn't matter?’ It's the only thing that does!”
Isn’t that also the point of The Birds? At the end of the film, there prevails a temporary, fragile truce between birds and humans that could also be nothing more than the calm before another storm. But then we see the Brenners — Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) included — clinging to each other as a family, hoping against hope, forced in the crucible of unimaginable evil to finally discover, if only as a last resort, love.
*Much of this history can be found in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock — A Life in Darkness and Light.
**In the latter film, however, the occupants of the lifeboat are the survivors of a merchant marine ship sunk by the Germans.
***Interestingly, Hitch himself fit this pattern to a T: as public-facing showman; as on-set Supreme Commander who occasionally demanded that his cast and crew pledge their allegiance to him; as devoted and doting husband and father. Print this post