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Alfred Hitchcock Presents Class Struggle

Mervyn Nicholson (mnicholson [at] tru.ca) is the author of Male Envy: The Logic of Malice in Literature and Culture and of 13 Ways of Looking at Images: Studies in the Logic of Visualization, in addition to numerous articles, most recently in brightlightsfilm.com.

Class struggle is the last thing most people would associate with Alfred Hitchcock, probably the most famous director of them all. But there is a connection, nevertheless. No one would call Hitchcock a socialist; he emphasized that all he wanted was to entertain people—not instruct them. He was proud of his commercial success (and so were the studios that employed him).1 He made cynical-sounding remarks about manipulating audiences, and he never bothered with deep-level interpretation of his films. It is true that his movies of the war period (1939–45) are conspicuously antifascist, Lifeboat most of all, but the common view is that Hitchcock is essentially apolitical. “You generally avoid any politics in your films,” the French director François Truffaut said to him, and Hitchcock’s reply sums up his attitude: “It’s just that the public doesn’t care for films on politics.”2 He has nothing against it, but it is not what the public wants. It is significant that even Lifeboat was accused by some critics of supporting the Nazis.3

Academics typically discuss everything about Hitchcock, except class—class not in a quasi-cultural sense, but in the technical and Marxist sense of class, with related themes of surplus extraction, alienation, immiseration, and revolution, implied in the term.4 As John Grant puts it, “the notion of ‘class’ is a dirty word in today’s America.”5 Critics notice the “dark side” of American society, plainly depicted in Hitchcock’s Hollywood movies; they discuss the alienation and cynicism, the satire, even nihilism, in his films. But the possibility that the alienation in his movies is a function of economic and class issues hardly registers. What they focus on is the sort of thing that academics have a penchant for, often psychoanalysis, with its ever-complicating webwork of infant sexuality, Oedipal rages, anal sadism, castration anxiety, the “family romance” (a misnomer if ever there was one), phallic mothers and penis babies, and other exciting esoterica. Class dynamics tell us a lot more.

For many, it will sound absurd to claim that Hitchcock has anything to do with class struggle. It is an interesting reaction, because issues that are a function of class struggle are plainly on view in Hitchcock, even if they are ignored—or blocked out. Many of his movies are built around class-struggle issues: without them, there would be no movie. A conspicuous indicator is that, even in his thrillers and his fluffier films, Hitchcock shows an unusual interest in work, in depicting people engaged in working for a living—as well as depicting other people enjoying the advantages of ownership. He often shifts between scenes of opulence and scenes of deprivation. Hitchcock goes out of his way to feature worksites, from the assembly line in the factory of Secret Agent to the greengrocer wholesale market in Frenzy to the inside of a cab (with its frustrated worker-driver) in his very last movie, Family Plot. Hitchcock was interested in what people do for a living; their place in the capitalist order, as worker or as owner, is always carefully marked and meaningful.

Part of the appeal of this film-maker with a mass audience surely has to do with what are really mass issues, with the fact that he depicted struggles that resonated with the actual lives of viewers, even if in an unconscious or displaced form. These issues are plainly evident, yet the viewer’s attention is rarely on them directly. They are necessary, but invisible. Necessary, in that they are a prerequisite to the plot—the plot could not function without them. And they are invisible in that they are unnoticed, not that they are not there.6 Here, as so often, what is plainly in view is the hardest thing to see.

Consider Hitchcock’s big one: Psycho, one of the best-known movies ever made. Its terrifying “shower scene”—of the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)—is arguably the most famous sequence in film history. In the enormous body of commentary on this film, what is rarely acknowledged is that Psycho is all about class.7 The plot is clear about this. The central character, Marion Crane, has worked for years as a secretary in a Phoenix real estate office. Her boyfriend, Sam, lives in another city, the mythical “Fairvale.” She is at a point in life where she wants marriage, not an affair, but Sam does not make enough money to get married. So their relationship consists of Sam’s brief sex visits; they make rushed love in a grubby hotel during Marion’s lunch break, resulting in her being late for work in the afternoon. Meantime, the unhappy secretary who shares her work space keeps an eye on Marion’s comings and goings. She cannot be trusted. Marion is fed up.

This is a movie about money. It is a movie about money far more than it is a movie about over-the-top psychiatric problems. Marion makes enough to live on—and that is it. Her boyfriend may be a hunk, but he has a nothing career (clerk in a hardware store is hardly the American Dream come true). Marion’s basic, simple desire for what everyone is supposed to have is blocked. She cannot start a family or do the respectable things she longs to in the era of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver—the glorious 1950s, when everyone was supposed to be happy and everything was just fine, and the American Dream was available to all who were worthy of it. In the face of this “Great American Celebration,” in C. Wright Mills’s phrase, Marion is frustrated enough to pose an ultimatum to her boyfriend—we get married, or it is over. Her angry dissatisfaction already marks her as a class outlaw. She is simply not fulfilling her assigned function of willing submission.

Something then pushes her over the edge, something that looks minor. Back at the real estate office after rushed sex in the grubby hotel over lunch hour, the boss comes in, accompanied by a rich oilman in a cowboy hat. They have just closed a sale: Cassidy, the rich man in the cowboy hat—shades of the noble Hopalong Cassidy—has purchased a house as a wedding gift for his teenage daughter. He has in hand enough physical cash to pay for it. Mortgages, like taxes, are for little people, plainly. As soon as he spots the beautiful Marion, Cassidy is on her, leering shamelessly; he parks himself on her desk, invading her space and asking rude personal questions. He demands to know if she is happy; he casually invades her private life as well as her work space, as though unlimited access to her was his right. But that is what being rich means. You can treat people like Marion as you please—there are lots more where they come from, whereas rich people are scarce and precious, indeed they are where wealth comes from. Marion is not permitted to express her feelings; the strain on her face is evident. Cassidy concludes that what she needs is a vacation—in Las Vegas, “the playground of the world,” he ecstatically proclaims. He waves his wad of bills in her face and announces that he “buys happiness.” He has plenty of cash because, he boasts, he does not pay taxes. The boss, nervous at having so much cash in the office over the weekend, tells Marion to deposit it at the bank—clearly he trusts her with a lot of money on a Friday afternoon. Cassidy, deliberately embarrassing the boss, then announces that the two men are “going to get some drinking done,” leaving the “girls” to their dull tasks.

Marion experiences a wave of rage in this scene. After years of boring semi-drudgery, she has nothing. Her youth is slipping away, but she cannot get married to the man she loves—or start a family—because there is not enough money. Years of work have brought her nil. Ditto boyfriend: burdened by debts from his dead father, he is resigned to a fate of debt peonage. This is a class situation, not just an individual one. Marion is very, very stuck. Screwed, in fact. Now this dirty old man Cassidy, wad of bills in hand, tells her that Las Vegas, whorehouse to the world, is where she should go so she can “buy off” unhappiness: a man who is rich and rude, who pays no tax and who does no work. In a moment of terrible frustration, Marion absconds with the Cassidy cash. No longer will lack of money stand in the way of her American Dream. She will boldly take and live her fantasy, finding it, with her boyfriend, in Fairvale. It is the kind of dangerous impulse that overwhelms even hard-working and conscientious people in a spasm of frustration. As Norman Bates instructs her later, everyone goes a little crazy sometimes.

Marion’s boss assumes that she will do as she is told with the money—but Marion clearly does not feel much loyalty to the business she works for. She is not even out of town before she is spotted—by her boss. Hitchcock goes out of his way to make sure that her impulse and her theft are doomed (note also his interest in the details of the work situation). Academics are inordinately fascinated by voyeurism in Psycho, and there are many scenes of Marion being observed by others. But watching and being watched has another, more important meaning, and it has nothing to do with the kinky sex that obsesses psychoanalysis—and academic and tabloid culture generally. Surveillance of those who work for a living is part of what it means to work for a living. As Cassidy’s ritual invasion of Marion’s space makes clear, access to every aspect of the life of those who work for a living—as opposed to those who own for a living—is a normal feature of working-class existence. Privacy is not a right. It is certainly not taken for granted, as it is by the rich.

Despite having been seen in her car by her boss (after being excused from work because of a “headache”), she persists in her flight to mythic Fairvale. In the grip of churning emotion, Marion loses her way in a rainstorm. Enter Norman Bates. She stops for the night at a motel (as she was warned to do by a menacing policeman): the Bates Motel. The boyish Norman hospitably invites her into his creepy parlor for a bite to eat before she turns in. In a disturbing speech, he expounds a nihilistic theory of misery and meaninglessness, in which people are caged in a boring routine existence and can never get out. He sneers at people, like Marion, who try to escape. He “doesn’t mind” his cage, he proclaims. Norman’s speech is the movie’s heart of darkness, a manifesto of despair and hostility: do not think you can escape—there is no escape. Accept hopelessness. Resistance is futile. The friendliness and frankness with which he ushers her into his parlor are not his actual feelings; the happy face is a construction. Behind the façade is a vicious belief in the pointlessness of existence and therefore the further belief that if you have the power, you can do anything you want to anyone you want to do it to, the belief Cassidy flaunts in the real estate office. It is the principle expounded by the rich young men of Hitchcock’s Rope, who illustrate it by murdering a friend. It is the fascist ideology that lurks within capitalism. In such a regime there are no “friends”—there are only people you can use in various ways.

Norman’s crazy harangue shakes Marion out of her crazy dream: her big impulse was a big mistake. She must go back to Phoenix. She must return the money. And she will be deeper in the hole than ever. She has much on her mind as she returns to her motel room. The scene of Marion flushing the toilet, a first in movie history, has excited much academic heavy breathing, but it really refers to the fact that that is where her life is, in the toilet, down the tubes, in the hole. She must find a better way to deal with frustration. Norman meantime spies on Marion. Through his secret peephole, he watches her strip for a shower. Norman then dons his murderer outfit, and takes her by surprise as she unwinds under the soothing hot water. He slashes this beautiful rebellious woman to death. He does it when, in the shower, she is utterly vulnerable—naked, alone, tired, expecting nothing (certainly no harm), relaxed. The point of this scene is that she is totally unable to resist. She cannot fight back. He attacks her at her most vulnerable. It is a truly terrible moment. This, it seems, is what you get when you are trapped in a dead-end job, and allow your frustration to momentarily drive you crazy, to act on an impulse that magically promised freedom, like winning the lottery—fantasy cash to solve all problems—market magic: the same dream, in short, that sustains a lot of real people, lottery tickets in hand, in the real world.

Psycho is all about money—about deprivation, frustration, and the privilege of property. It is about those who work for a living and have nothing—and those who do not work and have everything. Academic discussion of this astounding movie is more interested in Norman than in Marion.8 Nor is Norman treated as himself subject to economic forces, even though a lot of the movie deals with his financial situation and the horrors of the small-business world.9 No: Norman is endlessly explained—and explained away—a prize specimen for psychoanalytic exposé, no matter how unsatisfying.10 But obsessing over Norman’s private kinks has a notable effect: the effect of taking attention away from Marion, distracting us from her alienation—and her revolt. Shifting attention on to the crazy (who knows why?) Norman demotes Marion, but it also does something else—it takes attention away from Cassidy and the incitement to revolt.

Hitchcock is fond of showing us rich people, but Cassidy is the only rich person in the film. His droit du seigneur boasting and rudeness are what trigger Marion’s doomed rebellion. A particularly important fact about Cassidy is rarely acknowledged, namely his class status. For Cassidy is the embodiment of property—of capital. He is, in Marx’s phrase, “a social hieroglyphic.”11 Psycho is subtly but visibly a movie about class struggle, a movie where class struggle forms the essential assumption of the story—there would be, that is, no story without it. The term “class struggle” sounds a bit grandiose for a movie about a foolish theft and a murder (or two or three or four), with a dressing of Gothic frisson and film noir cinematography. Besides, when the term “class struggle” is heard now, it is usually just capital swearing at its enemies. In the view of today’s masters of the universe, the term means the threat of undeserving people taking property away from the deserving rich—the owners of capital—and thus a threat to the very essence of civilization and its survival. But that is precisely what Marion does. Marion is not a thief by nature or vocation; she appropriates the property of capital, and redistributes it, from the greedy to the needy. She does so as a matter of genuine justice, as opposed to the property justice imposed by the powerful, even though it is an act of madness. In so doing, she commits the ultimate archetypal crime—appropriating the property of the wealthy, the most terrible anxiety that exists in the regime of capital.

Class struggle is waged by the owners of capital against those who work for a living. It goes on all the time, simply because the extraction of surplus value requires constant pressure, constant forcing, constant aggression—otherwise it does not function. The work world is the world of forcing. And that is where the Marion Cranes of this world are—as well as, in fact, most of the audience who watched Psycho. Money in Psycho is not just an abstraction or a symbol, a Lacanian “signifier” for instance, a “phallogocentric” marker, as in much discussion of this film: it is a force. It is the power of life and death, the power of capital. Motivation is not simply personal and private: it is a function of class relations. The effect of class-forces is wide-ranging, subtle, and complex—not simple. To interpret the anxieties and wishes of people as solely private motivations is to misunderstand them, without also attending to their class context, which is strangely extremely hard to do. Devoid of this class context no rational explanation for the alienation that besets them is to be found.12

Unless its aggression is constant, capital does not get what it wants. But class aggression must meet cost-benefit analysis, like everything else. Thus, the less workers resist, the lower the costs of class aggression. In order for surplus extraction to proceed at maximum efficiency, that aggression must disguise itself. Generating and distributing illusion is a primary function of capital. It must propagate the belief that “the wealth and privileges of the few are based on natural, inborn superiority,”13 the belief that working people choose freely, that the existing system is efficient and just. Or, if not exactly efficient and just, it does not matter, because it is all there is. Thus not only is the system efficient—it is the only system. Even thinking about anything else is an invitation to chaos. Given the stakes involved, it is better for capital to erase the notion that there is a system at all. And that is indeed a common belief: there is no “system”—capitalism is simply reality, or nature, or the random workings of existence. It may not always have been there but it certainly always will be. Even the word “capitalism” must be handled with care: it is just “reality.” Since capitalism is not a system, whatever goes wrong is an accident or the result of the “bad choices” strangely popular with foolish victims. In this reasoning, Marion causes her own mutilation and death, by her “bad choices”; if you run off with the rich man’s money, you forfeit your rights. Anything might happen to you. In order to continue, capital must constantly inculcate a series of illusions that disable people’s thinking processes and their power to act in any way other than that desired by capital itself, or, like Marion, to act out some program of self-destruction. How this conditioning works is a question that has engaged the attention of almost all progressive thinkers, from Karl Marx, Emma Goldman, and Antonio Gramsci to E.P. Thompson and Pierre Bourdieu. We may not understand how this process works, but it does work. One of the effects of oppression is to impede the capacity to know that you are oppressed. The intensity of brainwashing cannot be overestimated.

In Psycho, Cassidy is marked as a “capitalist” in cartoon fashion: the big man with the big cowboy hat and the big swagger—emphatically different from his companion, “Mr. Lowery,” Marion’s nerdy boss. (The cowboy hat updates the Monopoly-game top hat, insignia of the capitalist of an earlier era.) Marion, by contrast, is powerless. She is also isolated. Above her desk Hitchcock has hung a huge picture of an empty desert. She is literally in a desert. There is no solidarity. The other worker in the office cannot be trusted—just as her man Sam pointedly cannot trust his coworker in the hardware store where he sells his labor, as we are shown in another grim worksite moment. There is no social scene in this film, no community or mutual aid. Everyone is atomized in the regime of Psycho, separate from everyone else. Everyone—except Cassidy—is trapped.14 Cassidy buys what he wants, including “happiness,” he says, vaunting the miracles of capital. What accumulates wealth at one pole of society accumulates misery at the other. Provoked by the rich man’s conspicuous consumption, Marion cannot control the impulse that hits her. But her revolt is doomed. She is inept as a thief, because she is plainly a responsible, hard-working individual. Far from being crazy, she is, as Hitchcock said of her, “perfectly ordinary.”15

Psycho is a thriller, a horror movie, indeed the inaugurating film of the “slasher” genre, a movie with sensationalist scenes and bizarre twists. But, at the same time, it deals with a real set of real problems of people who are deliberately presented as ordinary (well, a bit better looking than ordinary). The bizarre and melodramatic features of this film shift attention from what the film also shows: the struggle of ordinary working people to find some measure of control over their lives, in a social context of alienation and frustration. Contrary to the Cassidy ideology of freedom to choose, such control is out of reach of so many working people, while others, of no greater merit than the Marions and Sams of this world, have more than enough, even though they do not work. Not only do they not “earn” what they possess, they have veto power over the lives of others. Others serve, indeed exist, at their whim. Marion’s impulse looks simple but is in fact complex. On the one hand, she wants to find happiness with her man. But on a more important level, it is to strike a blow against Cassidy. Or more precisely, against not Cassidy personally, since there are other Cassidys, but against the power and arrogance that he wields and that he represents, and that she can no longer accept, any more than she can accept the frustration of not having the basics—a husband and a home, precisely what Cassidy hands gratis to his teenage daughter. Cassidy is not just an individual: he is a class. Marion’s revolt is a blind revolution against a system that oppresses her but that she cannot resist, except by actions that harm herself and that have no effect on her oppressors. Cassidy will get his money back, most of it, even if, after its detour in the swamp accompanied by a decaying body, it does not smell so good.

The fact that Marion fails so disastrously is, again, not simple; it is not a matter of accidentally happening to run into a psychopath. The “psycho,” Norman Bates himself, begins to look rather different, in the context of class aggression. He is not simply a loony. He is himself trapped by the economic circumstances he inherited from his parents—a failing business he cannot “unload.” At the same time, he functions as the “enforcer” of the system—the hidden violence that makes the Cassidys of this world safe, that enables them to consume Las Vegas, without responsibility and without caring about anybody or anything, except whatever turns them on. He acts on behalf of Cassidy without acting on behalf of Cassidy. As enforcer, Norman is conveniently “insane.” Being “insane” means that you can be utterly uninhibited in aggression against those who do not conform to authorized requirements. He has a license to kill. He can assault a defenseless naked woman he had made a big deal of befriending—and with no hesitation, no restraint, no compunction. His violence recalls the facts of class society. Marion’s impulse to take what she needs is like a spontaneous protest demonstration, like a food riot. Norman in practice functions like the thugs who attack demonstrators, like the torturers in the dungeon beneath the police station, the ones who know how to make people hurt, who are “crazy.” Marion is “disappeared” by Norman; she vanishes down the drain, down into the swamp, as if she had never existed. She is an error that has been corrected. She is now nothing, what she really was all along, anyway, according to the values of class society, another nobody.

What I am suggesting is that Psycho is not about a psycho who kills women: it is about oppression and alienation and blind revolt; it is, in short, about the power of capital and the fearful consequences of resisting its regime. It is about the violence that happens to those who revolt. These realities—oppression, alienation, blind revolt, the power of capital and the powerlessness of the worker—are the realities that make the story possible. Yes, from the conventional point of view this is a horror movie about a crazy person, but from a more realistic point of view, it is all about something else. The “psycho” is a psycho, because this is a society, a social order, that is “psycho.”16

Perhaps the most obvious class-struggle film made by Hitchcock is The Wrong Man, which is again about a working person not having enough money—and a disastrous theft. The Wrong Man was an important project for Hitchcock. Instead of a cameo appearance, he opens the film with a dramatic personal statement.17 The Wrong Man is based on a true story, about a man falsely accused of robbery who is freed thanks to a fluke—after having his life ruined. The protagonist, Manny Balastrero (played by Henry Fonda), is a Father Knows Best type—ultra responsible, hard-working, a family man with two children and a wife to support, a working musician who shows sensitivity and kindness. The ordeal is a nightmare from the start—a “horror” show of a different type from The Birds or Psycho. This working man and his family live paycheck to paycheck, always one bill away from financial disaster. But, like Marion, they cope. The hinge of the story is a toothache. His wife Rose’s wisdom teeth pose financial crisis. To pay for a commonplace dental procedure, Manny must borrow on a life insurance policy. At the insurance office—another dreary worksite scene, peopled by jittery and unhappy clerks—the confused workers mistakenly identify him as the thief who previously robbed the office. They call the police, who interrogate him, produce corroborating evidence, and charge him. A catastrophic ordeal, including a trial (judge, jury, prosecutor, defence lawyer, the works) follows. Trying to get a “micro loan” to pay for his wife’s necessary dental work, he finds himself in a trap that gets tighter and tighter—in the movie’s terrible jail cell sequence, literally tighter.

As his situation deteriorates, in a manner critics compare to Kafka, his wife with the toothache cracks up. She blames herself for everything. If only she had not wanted relief from the pain in her teeth! How self-centered of her! She believes that the catastrophe was caused by her selfishness. She has brought nothing but disaster to her family. When her husband is finally cleared, she is past caring—she feels worthless. Her bizarre reaction to an ordinary working-class stress illustrates another irrational principle of capitalist society: blame the victim. In what Braverman terms “a generalized social insanity,” those who suffer are conditioned to blame themselves, to internalize the damage of oppression and deprivation. In a rational society, the only worry about a dental problem would be whether the needle might hurt. In the regime of capital, it is a disaster of unimagined proportions, like bringing down an avalanche by a shout. Those who work for a living are conditioned to believe that their problems are caused by their own failings, or are accidents that nothing can prevent or fix. It may be noted here that class analysis, far from being heavy-handed or simplistic, reveals subtleties and complexities that are obscured and even confused by the approaches that dominate the academy. Is there any problem that is not either caused or made worse by capitalism? Perhaps, just as advertising can dispense its messages covertly, a great movie can present subversive messages covertly, also, merely by presenting the facts of the real world that real people experience.

In an epilogue to The Wrong Man, the viewer is reassured that in actual life Rose Balastrero got better. But what stays with us is a spectacle of devastation.18 When there is not enough money in a household, the result can be catastrophic for every member. Rose’s mental disintegration parallels the social disintegration: there are people who can give Manny an alibi, and he searches for them diligently, but they have all moved away—or they are dead. His lawyer is conscientious, but can accomplish little. In Manny’s world, despite a loving family, there is hardly any social connectedness—no social support—any more than there is in Psycho, where everyone is separate from everyone else. The exception in Psycho is Lila (played by Vera Miles), the sister who assertively cares about Marion. But here even family is ineffectual—Manny’s family tries to help, but to no avail. Love is not enough. Manny is saved by a fluke—a miracle: the real thief is caught, a blank-faced and mute lookalike of Manny, who will now be jailed in his place. One working-class individual is just the same as another, anyway; Manny can be “replaced,” just as Marion will be “replaced.” In the working world of The Wrong Man, you had better have a miracle when things go wrong, because nothing else is there for you.

The Wrong Man, made in the shadow of McCarthy,19 is a movie about poverty—not about the ironies of mistaken identity, random resemblances, or fate or chance or the meaninglessness of ordinary existence. Nor is it about entrapment—unless being an ordinary working person is entrapment. “The cards are stacked against [me],” Manny says—which in class society is precisely true. This is definitely a horror movie, but the horror involved is that of making your living by selling your labor. Hitchcock goes out of his way to make clear that this could happen to anybody—anybody who makes a living by working for it, that is. The characters are not simply individuals. They are individuals and at the same time they are more than individuals. They are representatives of a certain situation in society, a particular location in the social order, which determines their options and their actions. That does not mean they are not individuals with specific personality traits, desires, and relationships, but it does mean that they are not actors in a psychoanalytic vacuum, separate from the world they live in and depend upon.

The preoccupation with fear in Hitchcock’s films corresponds closely with a key reality of working people’s existence, that it is permeated by fear—the fear of losing a job, not having a job, not getting a job, fear of the job itself and its demands, routines, and boredom, fear of pay cuts, of inadequate pay, inadequate health care and inadequate pensions—and fear for relatives, dependants, or friends, who may need help that cannot be supplied. The record makes clear that capital will go to any lengths to get what it wants, and cares nothing about the suffering of the working class upon which it feeds. When unimpeded by democratic hindrances, capital commits cruelties that amount to unspeakable and terrifying atrocities: a fact regularly ignored. Indeed, capital and its media encourage fear, especially fear that divides the working class and pits one group against another—and against nature itself. (Working-class fear is very different in quality from the fear that capital has. Fear is second nature to capital, it should be noted, as its full-spectrum vigilance testifies.) In the meantime, finding ways to keep people separated from each other and thinking crazy thoughts is a full-time responsibility for capital.

The opening shot of The Wrong Man is another work-site scene. Manny is at the glamorous Stork Club playing with the band. He works glumly—the rich make merry. The contrast is a typical Hitchcock irony, but here it expresses a blunt class clash. Hitchcock’s movies often feature what could be called the idle rich, and they are typically not treated with respect. Melanie in The Birds is free to inflict mischief on others (people who work for a living), because her father is a VIP and—therefore—she can do anything to anybody. In earlier films, such as Notorious, Saboteur, The 39 Steps, or even Shadow of a Doubt, the rich are often fascists. In Vertigo, the action is launched by a rich businessman named Gavin Elster who is tired of his wife, and wants to dispose of her but keep her money, not unlike Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. The entire plot development of Vertigo, where Scottie tries to re-create his lost love and fails—the subject of no end of psychoanalyzing and theorizing and pontificating by critics—is the working out of an act of class aggression.

The disposability of people is essential to capitalism and it is, in fact, the basis of Vertigo. Elster unscrupulously manipulates a working man—someone from his class point of view that is expendable, anyway, just as any other worker he might “employ” is expendable. His “employment” of Scottie is not merely a deception—it is an act of aggression. Scottie is converted into a tool for Elster to use (precisely as he uses the hapless Madeleine as a tool); after being used, Scottie will in large measure take the fall for Elster, as will, in a disturbingly literal way, Madeleine. Scottie will do the suffering for Elster. The power to pass costs on to others is a defining feature of capital. Cassidy does not pay taxes—Marion pays. Elster in turn will not merely get a woman he wants (like Cassidy in Las Vegas), but will appropriate the property of a woman he wants to get rid of, his wife, people being interchangeable and disposable in the world of capital. Madeleine’s impulsive suicide is itself a kind of despairing protest at entrapment (compare Marion’s impulsive theft), a reaction to a hopeless situation that recalls the exaggerated reaction, the self-implosion, of Rose Balastrero. Hopelessness makes people do crazy things.

Vertigo is a tragedy of capitalism, whatever else it is. Unless that fact is taken into account, everything else about the film, including Scottie’s melancholia and obsession, is distorted.

The personal problems in these movies are not exactly personal. They are class problems. They are precipitated by the pressures of the class situation. What we are shown is that individual stresses are a function of class and are subject to class struggle. They can of course be viewed idiosyncratically (Norman’s murderous rage can be treated as a matter of kinky sex, Manny’s misery the result of happening to resemble someone), but to do so is a distortion. It excludes the context that generates these problems and that determines the possibilities characters have for action. This principle applies to features that seem unconnected to class aggression. For example, Hitchcock’s well-known dislike of the police—his negative portrayal of police in his movies—is always treated as a personal predilection, a quirk or private idiosyncrasy. But in practice it has another significance altogether: a recognition of the role of the police as agents of domination and control in class society. As such, they are indeed frightening. Likewise, authority figures do not get special treatment in Hitchcock. Even in his last film, Family Plot, Hitchcock treats the pillars of society—the business tycoon in his palatial office and the bishop in his magnificent cathedral—with crude, even shocking, disrespect.20

It will be objected that Hitchcock was not intending some exposé of class oppression or advocating socialism, or, in the manner of “socialist realism,” calling for revolution. That is obviously true. Hitchcock was not a socialist; politically speaking, he was a modest liberal. And so it may seem strange to link fear in a movie to the existential fear of those who work for a living. But no horror is too extreme for capitalism, as its history and practice make plain. Capitalism is horrifying. Hitchcock’s very professionalism, his dedication to his craft, made the presentation of class conflict inevitable, simply because class conflict is a reality so powerful and so evident that it cannot easily be ignored. It takes specialized training to ignore it. He had the eye of someone outside society looking at it and using what he saw, which is perhaps what we most require from our artists and creators: to show us what we need to know. That is, to show us what we need to know—but not force us to see it. We have to see it for ourselves. That is the only way you can see it, by your own perception. In fact this act of perception is the basis of revolutionary consciousness.

There are important implications here but they can only be touched briefly in a short exploration such as this. They can be summed up in the form of some simple questions. First, why is the theme of class aggression so invisible to critics, and why do critics typically prefer the convolutions of psychoanalytic or poststructuralist theory? Second, Hitchcock presents class aggression, but seeing class aggression is one thing—understanding it is another. How do we—how does an audience—go from seeing, to understanding? Does seeing class aggression presented to us change our perception, even if we do not recognize what we are seeing as class aggression, or process it in those terms? Finally, what is the function of movies like Hitchcock’s in the struggle to create a better world? To put it somewhat pretentiously, what is the role of art in building a better society? We know that all the techniques of art are employed by capital as means of indoctrination—of class struggle. The colossal advertising and public relations function makes this plain. Can the indoctrination be, so to speak, reversed? Can the instruments of indoctrination become the instruments of consciousness?

Questions as complex and as difficult as these are probably more important to raise than to answer. They are connected with each other, however, and finding an answer for one question, however incomplete, offers insight into the others. Thus the fact that critics seldom show interest in class aggression in Hitchcock (or in anything) is not surprising. To them, there is no such thing as class aggression. There are just separate persons engaged in various interactions with each other and with themselves, compelled by a variety of private personality traits, anxieties, and drives. But there is another reason for their failure, and that is that class analysis—perception of class struggle and aggression, the basic realities of everyday existence in our society—is, to put it a bit awkwardly, not allowed. There is a taboo. We are not permitted to see these facts. If we do, we are engaged in an act of rebellion, and those who rebel are liable to punishment, sometimes severe. Academics get intensive training in what to pay attention to—and what not to pay attention to; they show great sensitivity in detecting anything that deviates from acceptable thoughts. Academics occupy a privileged niche in society, much like a caste, with the emphasis on conformity so characteristic of caste society. Conform—or leave. They understand that insubordination is not worth it. Exceptions to this conformity are rare, but serve to make the ruling ideology of freedom look plausible, especially in the eyes of those who do not wish to see.

Class aggression is difficult to see because of the taboo on seeing it, not because it is hidden or not there. Once we pay attention, the movies of a director like Hitchcock disclose aspects that the usual preoccupations of academic analysis block from view. The movies look different. There is a shift in perception, and it is this shift of perception that is particularly important if we are looking for answers to the questions raised above. One of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Shadow of a Doubt, is especially revealing in this regard.

Shadow of a Doubt is set in a classic small-white-picket-fence town of the type so dear to American national mythology—the “Main Street, U.S.A.” of Disneyland or the happy small town community of Tom Sawyer or, in an updated tonality, TV shows like Cheers or Friends. In Shadow’s lily-white, happy ideal town in sunny California, we meet Charlie (short for Charlotte), a bored teenager suffering the itches and urges and growing pains of adolescence. She is thrilled to learn that her mysterious uncle—also called Charlie—is coming from the East for a visit. What she does not know is that Uncle Charlie murders women whom he has sponged off and robbed. Now he is on the run with a suitcase full of cash.21 As in Psycho, Hitchcock goes out of his way to show us the bills, the physical money, and much is made in the film of banks, banking, and counting money. The emphasis on the physical details of money is a subtle but typical touch of a director who was ultrasensitive to the way power is exercised in society, power as a physical existential reality, not as an abstraction. It complements his interest in worksite scenes.

One of the most chilling moments in all of Hitchcock is a very quiet scene in Shadow of a Doubt. Psycho is not the only movie by Hitchcock where a murderous character expounds nihilism in a hypnotic speech of hate: there are two of these manifesto-style speeches in Shadow of a Doubt, uttered, as in Psycho, by a murderer. In Shadow, Uncle Charlie takes his innocent niece to a bar, where he bullies her with a nihilistic tirade. (This bar, drab and ugly, interestingly gives Hitchcock opportunity for another worksite snapshot: the waitress turns out to be young Charlie’s less privileged former schoolmate—now a worker, who zombie-like speaks of an empty existence and the meaninglessness of work life.) Uncle Charlie has already, in a moment of impulsive boasting, spoken of his contempt for people, how ardently he desires to see them eliminated. He is not merely a murderer, but an ideologue. He is like the devotees of capital who think that the human race should be culled (say by two-thirds?) as the solution to the problems facing the globe. Uncle Charlie lives by robbing his victims; he articulates his nihilistic vision with the frigid zeal of the fanatic.

It is a suggestive combination: a man who does no work, who is rich and lives on those he in fact destroys, and who even theorizes his right to do so, turning vicious crimes into praiseworthy achievements of a superior being. He is the voice of capital.

Young Charlie thus attains a terrifying realization, as facts she could not have dreamed of force themselves upon her generous, unsuspecting, and caring spirit. She realizes that the man she has worshipped as uncle is a juggler of appearances—a calculating murderer, who believes in nothing but personal gain and gratification, even at the price of everything that ought to matter to human beings. He would destroy anybody and anything, including his young and innocent niece, if it proved advantageous to him. Self-interest rules. It is the governing attitude, very precisely, of capital, and it is the ideology of a ruthless murderer, who calmly justifies his right to the lives of others.

By attaining the truth, Charlie becomes a threat—indeed a target—of the uncle’s unswerving animosity. She must be killed. Her insight must be crushed out. He is clever at manipulating appearances; he makes his attempts to kill her look like “accidents.” All the odds appear to be with this cunning and experienced adult male, a multiple murderer—not with a sheltered and now profoundly shocked young woman. But in response to what she learns, she changes. She crosses the line of fear into rebellion, and confronts an enemy she never dreamt was an enemy. This is not an easy process. She must give up illusions she has taken for granted, illusions she has in fact cherished. It calls for courage, not only to accept the facts but to endure the isolation from others that consciousness brings with it. She must see in a new way. Evidence and reasoning can help her—and do, especially the insight of one of Hitchcock’s rare intelligent policemen (in plain clothes). But this transformation above all requires boldness and courage on her part, because she is facing a very powerful, a very unscrupulous, enemy, who willingly kills to maintain his control.

Young Charlie does, in short, what society itself must do. Change. Accepting the truth of what we see changes everything and forces us to confront fears instilled in us from the earliest days of our lives. What is remarkable about Hitchcock’s vision is that it prepares us to make this step, by showing us vividly what we can only grasp for ourselves.

Notes

  1. In James Naremore’s blunt words: “Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most profitable pictures ever made.” See “Remaking Psycho,” in Gottlieb and Brookhouse, eds., Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from The Hitchcock Annual (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 388. Hitchcock always aimed at popular, commercially successful movies; he was not interested in making movies for what he called “the art houses.” See François Truffaut, Hitchcock, revised edition (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 242. Hitchcock wanted to connect with an audience, not, so to speak, express himself, and still less to make “statements” about beliefs or positions. His comments about movie-making are all about technical matters, cinematography, and plot-construction, and he had no use for “method acting.” To him, the actor’s role is a function of the movie, not some entity prior to or independent of the movie.
  2. Truffaut, Hitchcock, 249. There are many good studies of Hitchcock, but only one is indispensable: this collection of Truffaut’s interviews with the director.
  3. Patrick McGilligan emphasizes Hitchcock’s work on behalf of the Allied cause. See Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (New York: Regan Books, 2003), 273. “In more than one postwar film, Hitchcock scattered such reminders of something he never forgave: the evil of Nazi Germany” (Ibid, 409); McGilligan’s biography of Hitchcock is much more objective than the better known biography by David Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, which is heavily psychologised. McGilligan notes sarcastic references to the “Red Scare” in Hitchcock’s films (Ibid, 599n). Later movies such as Torn Curtain are “anticommunist,” but what is noticeable about these films is that the official enemy is used for purposes of dramatic construction, like the famous “MacGuffin” device, i.e., something to weave a plot around, rather than an occasion to make socio-political statements (Ibid, 508–10).
  4. For instance, Christopher Sharrett observes that “Hitchcock develops a narrative that continually reveals itself to be a systematic analysis of American life. The frustration and confinement that form the bleak atmosphere of [Psycho] are established in the furtive affair . . . the dismal financial legacy Sam inherits from his father.” See “The Myth of Apocalypse and the Horror Film: The Primacy of Psycho and The Birds” in Gottlieb and Brookhouse, eds., 359. Sharrett is an insightful critic, but, like so many, he avoids class issues.
  5. John Grant, “The Battle Over PTSD,” April 15–17, 2011, http://counterpunch.org. For a comprehensive survey of progressive Hollywood in the Hitchcock era, see Radical Hollywood (New York: New Press, 2002) and Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television 1950–2002 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003), both by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, and both excellent.
  6. Few movies would seem to be less about class than Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, but in fact this film is intricately involved with, even built around, class themes; see my “Stranger and Stranger,” Bright Lights Film Journal 55 (2007), http://brightlightsfilm.com. For more details on class aggression in Psycho, see my “Boring Psycho,” Bright Lights Film Journal 71 (2011), http://brightlightsfilm.com. Ignoring class issues in a popular director is the norm, but class is often a determining factor when least expected.
  7. Hitchcock was interested in psychoanalysis, but he uses it as a means of constructing a dramatic situation, rather than as a believer propounding a system. Spellbound is full of psychoanalytic references, but as Hitchcock laconically observed, “It’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis” (Truffaut, Hitchcock, 165).
  8. The rise of feminist analysis has shifted some of the attention away from Norman over to Marion and to the sexism in the film. This welcome expansion of perception fails, however, to attend to the class status of Marion, to her work situation, and to her collision with the figure of Cassidy. Psycho is not just a movie about sexism—it is a movie about class relations. For instance, Sarah Street notes that “our identification with Marion as heroine…becomes stronger once she has committed the theft. It is of prime significance that the money she has stolen belongs to a rich tax-evader…. Marion’s ‘transgression,’ therefore, is not just stealing, but stealing money which has a clear patriarchal function.” See “Hitchcockian Haberdashery” in Gottlieb and Brookhouse, eds., 15. Again, the feminist point needs to be integrated with the class point. There has been an enormous amount of discussion of Hitchcock by feminists—Psycho in particular. See especially Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2005), 123–52.
  9. On occasion, critics notice Norman’s placement in the economic system—but do not consider the implications; e.g., Garry Leonard notes, “The Bates Motel is a particularly stark example of how badly one can get trapped by the abstract market system.” See “Monsters and Mortgages: The Horror Movie as Prime Economic Indicator,” Film International 8.1 (2010): 13. The “market system” is hardly “abstract”: Norman’s petite-bourgeois status in the economic system, especially in businesses that are failing, is typical of many who are attracted to fascist ideology.
  10. “Bates evades definition entirely,” as John Orr puts it. See Hitchcock and Twentieth Century Cinema (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), 78. Raymond Durgnat wisely emphasizes that “Hitchcock’s primary interest is, not Norman’s ‘inner’ psychology, but Norman’s practical thinking and actions.” See A Long Hard Look at Psycho (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 130; the emphasis is Durgnat’s. Hitchcock supplied the first of the psychiatric diagnoses of Norman—in the movie itself—when the psychiatrist at the end gives a lengthy explanation speech. Hitchcock had to have a scene like this, to satisfy the censors. The fact that it is actually unsatisfactory is plain from the movie itself, given that the last thing we see, apart from the car being pulled from the swamp, is Norman smiling directly into the eye of the camera. He got what he wanted. He is happy with himself.
  11. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 167.
  12. I explore the theme of work—physical work—in Psycho in my “Boring Psycho.”
  13. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press), 315.
  14. The local sheriff seems to be all right too—and misreads the situation. “Community” in this film is limited to showing the sheriff coming out of church on Sunday morning.
  15. See his interview in Truffaut, Hitchcock, 282.
  16. In Harry Braverman’s words, “that which is neurotic in the individual is, in capitalism, normal and socially desirable for the functioning of society”—“society” meaning, of course, the capitalist class. See Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), 63.
  17. He also took no salary for this movie.
  18. Hitchcock himself regarded this epilogue as phony. He believed that she did not recover. “His wife lost her mind and was put in an asylum,” he remarked to Truffaut, and added, “She’s probably still there.” See Truffaut, Hitchcock, 235. Hitchcock went to astonishing lengths at realism in The Wrong Man, even shooting scenes in the original rest home Rose Balastrero was sent to. Hitchcock featured the actual doctors there. See Ibid, 237.
  19. McCarthy was censured in December 1954. Hitchcock began work on The Wrong Man in 1955, and it appeared in 1956.
  20. As Murray Pomerance puts it, ”What we always learn from Hitchcock is his method of altering the resources he takes up; his method of applying to them his own forces of sight and arrangement and of perceiving and understanding in them resonances that had gone untapped.” See “Hitchcock Quotes,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 23 (2006): 140.
  21. We first see Uncle Charlie lying on his bed with a heap of bills. Critics have noted the numerous parallels between Uncle Charlie and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We learn that Uncle Charlie was brain-damaged as a child, apparently explaining his vicious hostility.
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