Hitchcock’s London: From Suspense to Cynicism

Alfred Hitchcock was a Londoner.

It’s a fact easy to overlook, when you think of the classic locations in his films. You probably imagine Psycho’s rain-soaked motel forgotten on an old Californian highway, the sun-scorched fields of Bakersfield beset by a murderous corn-dusting plane in North By Northwest or even the sweltering, fevered Greenwich village courtyard of Rear Window. All of these settings are distinctly transatlantic.

However the director was an East End boy as the blue plaque near 517 High Road, Leytonstone will attest. He married in the Brompton Oratory. And he became the most famous Londoner in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. So it is unsurprising then, that whilst not being the first place we may associate him with, the city of London is nonetheless a consistent and intriguing element throughout Hitch’s canon of films. How his hometown is depicted in his movies perhaps gives us an insight to how the director’s perspective on the city changed throughout the years.

Hitchcock’s first opportunity to direct at the famous Gainsborough Studios came in 1922 with a film called Number 13. Filmed in Rotherhithe, with the rather contemporary theme of Londoners on a low income struggling to afford to live in the city, the superstitious title proved portentous. The movie’s finances collapsed and it was never completed. It was a “somewhat chastening experience”, the director commented wryly to biographer Donald Spotto.

London’s earliest major appearance came with his 1927 film The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a picture the director himself called the “first true ‘Hitchcock movie”’. Although redolent in contemporary German expressionism, Hitch depicts the city through an almost-historical prism. The capital shrouded in fog harks back to Jack the Ripper tropes – a landscape ripe for suspense. The silent film opens with a scream and a death. There’s a serial killer on the loose in London, murdering fair-haired girls. Crowds gather at Embankment, keen to view the murder scene – a hint at the voyeurism that will become a recurring Hitchcock theme. While we are initially directed to like the crowd, sharing in their gallows humour, later in the movie we see a darker side. A pub full of locals turns into an angry lynch mob pursuing and attacking someone who turns out to be an innocent man. It appears the London Fog of the title refers also to the city’s moral ambiguity.

In Sabotage (1936), one of the famous director’s last movies before he went to America in 1939, he loosely adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel “The Secret Agent”. Although the story sees London under attack from foreign terrorists and saboteurs, it depicts Londoners in a much more sympathetic light, cheerful during a blackout, stoic against the threat. The film takes in the then-newly-built Battersea Power Station, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, London Zoo and even one of Hitch’s favourite restaurants, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The feast of tourist spots is undercut when a young boy unknowingly carries a bomb in a parcel across the city on a London bus – this sequence demonstrates the director’s willingness to sacrifice his home city on the altar of Suspense.

Having moved to the United States and under a not-entirely-harmonious contract to David O Selznick, his representation of his home city began to change. In his second film across the Atlantic, the Oscar-nominated Foreign Correspondent, the crime-reporter hero is despatched by the New York Globe to England to get a handle on the unfolding political situation in Europe. The film very much views London through American eyes. The picture postcard snapshots are delivered as a sea of bowler hats at Waterloo Station, the chimes of Big Ben and Trafalgar Square viewed from a cab. There’s even a running gag that the American reporter can’t master wearing a bowler hat. The comedy gives way to the more serious theme of the imminent international crisis posed by Germany under Hitler, most clearly seen in a memorable and technically ambitious sequence where the flight back to America is shot down by a German cruiser and crash lands in the Atlantic Ocean. The film ends with the foreign correspondent radio-broadcasting from London as the bombs drop, in the hope that, as he says “America is listening”. This ending, a replacement of the original denouement, was filmed five days before the actual Luftwaffe began dropping bombs on London. Designed to galvanise support in the States for his homeland, Hitchcock’s affection for London is at its high point. Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels described the film as “a masterpiece of propaganda”.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was made twice by Hitchcock, once in his British era in 1934, and once at the height of his pre-eminence of his Hollywood era in 1956 – each reaching a climax in that timeless iconic location: Royal Albert Hall. Both films reveal clues to their director’s regard for his home city, eras apart. The original picture opens in St Moritz, Switzerland (where incidentally Hitchcock spent his honeymoon with his wife Alma). It’s there that the daughter of a holidaying British couple is kidnapped. Great contrast is made between snowy alps and the congested streets of London in scenes that follow. Hitchcock’s eye on the capital stretches from the less-than-salubrious East to the grandeur of the West, but each is riven with threat and danger. Both the murky, dingy Wapping with its sinister dentist (decades before Laurence Oliver in Marathon Man) and the furs and tails at the Royal Albert Hall with its murderous assassin, paint a picture of London under constant threat.

The threat in the American remake by contrast comes from the British. It’s the son of an American family (and you couldn’t get more American that James Stewart and Doris Day) who gets kidnapped by a British couple. Later in the film the lead kidnapper disguises himself as a vicar to lend himself an air of respectability. By 1956, you can sense that Hitchcock has grown critical of his homeland. “You English intellectuals will be the death of us all”, is the line of dialogue that perhaps most clearly reveals the director’s distancing from Britain. By this point he was celebrated in Hollywood as its most successful director and in France he was being critically fêted by Cahiers du Cinema, an influential French film magazine where Francois Truffaut hailed him as an auteur. With his golden decade of films stretching between Rear Window (1954) and The Birds (1963), Hitchcock was riding high in Hollywood and was the most famous director in the world. Despite the antagonism for his homeland evidenced in the American remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and his preferred exploration of his adopted home of the United States, the director was not above continuing to brand himself as the essential Englishman with publicity shots of him taking tea with Grace Kelly or Leo, the MGM Lion!

When tastes changed in the 1960s, Hitchcock suffered a reversal of fortune. His health began to slow him down and the films he did make (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz) were progressively less well-received. In 1972, the director’s second last feature film Frenzy brings him home albeit with a different outlook. This film, with a serial killer loose in London murdering women with a necktie, and its washed up corpses in the Thames, might suggest the director has come full circle with his film The Lodger. But a change is evident in the time elapsed between the two films. Hitchcock makes a sustained cameo appearance as part of the crowd of onlookers at the crime scene at the start. It’s tempting to read his bowler hat and suit, anachronistic against the 1970s fashion of the rest of the crowd, signalling the director’s acceptance that he is a man out of step with the times. Frenzy’s hustle and bustle of Covent Garden barely covering a horror just under the surface, is a hard-hearted look at a London that was about to die. “Here you may buy the fruits of evil and the horrors of vegetables” intoned Hitchcock in the trailer for the film, about the place where, as a child, he would have hung around his father William, a fruit importer.

Unlike The Lodger’s gentleness and happy ending, Frenzy is brutal and sadistic. Death is everywhere. The reimagining of his childhood haunt as a much darker place, is as if the London-born director is coming to an almost cynical vision of his own past. The result feels as though Hitchcock has reversed Samuel Johnson’s aphorism: he is tired of life, so he is tired of London.

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