C.S. Morrissey – Global Theatre

Classic Hitchcock films unveil deepest patterns of human behaviour

Voices Aug. 4, 2017

Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. (Wikimedia Commons)

The films of Alfred Hitchcock, with their abundance of indelible images and suspenseful scenarios, have long been considered classics.

In this age of ephemerally streaming video, we need a body of classic films, like Hitchcock’s, to return to again and again. But who gets to decide which films are classics? Is it something decided solely by popular acclaim?

If so, then we have a problem. Today everyone is watching almost completely different films and television shows, because our newest technologies empower highly individualized choices and extremely personalized viewing habits.

Yet a culture will always need to have some universally shared experiences. And even today, a handful of artists will still break through into widespread cultural consciousness.

But their artworks will only come to be considered true classics, if there is not only popular acclaim, but also a critical consensus.

Viewers are hoping the buzz just might be true.

That’s why viewers will rush to the cinemas when a new movie like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk receives critical approbation as not just the best movie of 2017, but also one of the great films of all time. Viewers are hoping the buzz just might be true and they, the popular audience, are getting to discover a new classic in real time.

That magic combination of critical endorsement and popular ratification will eventually seal the fate of today’s latest candidates. Yet sometimes, popular films will achieve success both in the marketplace and also among the critics, even though the critics cannot agree on the reasons why the movies are so good.

This lack of a common critical vocabulary about film is part of what makes talking about popular art so fascinating. The critics can agree with the audiences that a movie is a classic, and yet they will argue amongst themselves about just what it is that makes it so classic.

A fine new book about the films of Hitchcock, Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock: A Study in Mimesis, makes a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about Hitchcock’s classic films. The author is Professor David Humbert of Thorneloe University, a federated school of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.

Humbert’s approach is to use the mimetic theory of René Girard to better understand the unusual power of Hitchcock’s films. Girard’s theory argues the greatest works of art will be much more “mimetic” than all of the run-of-the-mill, lesser works of art. That is, the classics will be much better at “imitating” the fundamental realities of human behaviour.

Human beings are notoriously complex in their thoughts and actions.

It sounds like a simple theory, but the more you explore it, the more you will see how it can uncover hidden depths. Human beings are notoriously complex in their thoughts and actions. It is difficult to understand them most of the time, even when making use of the best of the latest scientific or humanistic theories.

Girard offers a controversial thesis: the best artworks will contain more wisdom about human beings than any of those mere theories. That’s why the greatest works of literature or cinema will invariably have a popular impact. People will recognize these artworks are not simply entertainments or diversions, but rather truly profound statements about the deepest meaning of their life experiences.

Critics struggle to understand exactly why the classic artworks are so powerful and true, and they apply all of their acumen to discover why. Their efforts may fall short of an adequate theoretical grasp, yet they will at least endorse the experience of a classic as a classic.

Humbert’s book begins with a statement of the inadequacies of the most common critical approaches to Hitchcock’s films. It has been very popular to use Freudian psychological theory to try and understand Hitchcock’s portrayal of human desire, but Humbert convincingly shows how impoverished such attempts have been.

Another approach has been to use the Catholicism of Hitchcock’s mindset to decode the deeper meaning of his films. While this tactic has yielded some promising insights, Humbert shows how it doesn’t go far enough. The conventional ideas about Catholicism wielded by such critics are too clichéd, whereas Hitchcock is so innovative he doesn’t fit into the parochial caricature of Catholicism to which they want to reduce him.

Girard himself was also an expansively Catholic thinker. His theory about art’s mimetic power embraces the truth of the Gospel as unveiling the deepest realities of human behaviour. Humbert’s book is thus an excellent companion for viewers of Hitchcock’s classics, The Birds, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, and Psycho. His application of Girard’s ideas helps us understand why Hitchcock’s finest movies are so good.

Morrissey's Hitchcock "classics"

The Birds
Shadow of a Doubt
Strangers on a Train
The Wrong Man