FILM THEORY & CRITICISM

Truth and Perception: Guilt and Innocence in Hitchcock

One of Hitchcock's favorite themes is the innocent man caught in a desperate situation, especially one is which he appears guilty of some crime. Sometimes the innocence or guilt is ambiguous; more often, it is clear to the viewer but unclear to the other characters in the film. Hitchcock's plots tend to revolve around characters' suspicions of each other and the efforts of the hero or heroine to discover who is truly guilty, and who is innocent. A sample of Hitchcock's films provides an opportunity to draw conclusions about his worldview regarding innocence.

In The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), the innocence/guilt theme is clear: Robert Donat is an innocent man who must behave as though he were guilty in order to clear himself, and although by the end of the film he is indeed guilty of numerous crimes, it doesn't occur to the viewer to think of him as guilty because his crimes feel like crimes of necessity. Innocence versus guilt is more than a theme in Suspicion (1941); it is the question that makes the film interesting. The film plays a guessing game with the viewer: are the deaths of those around Johnny coincidence, (as Lina and therefore the viewer would like to believe), or is he a murderer (as it sometimes seems we must believe)? Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is faced with much the same predicament as Lina when she begins to suspect that her beloved Uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow Murderer. This time the viewer is certain of Uncle Charlie's guilt before young Charlie is, giving Shadow of a Doubt an entirely different feeling. It is more psychological thriller than mystery.

Notorious (1946) is concerned with secret guilt. Alicia and Sebastian maintain an innocent façade even while they spy on and poison each other. This reverses the more typical Hitchcock scenario, in which the innocent behave as though they were guilty. Hitchcock returns to the innocent man idea in Strangers on a Train (1951), but with the twist that Guy is in the know, and carries the secret burden of psychological guilt inflicted by a death he has not-so-secretly wished for. Bruno's naiveté gives him an air of innocence despite his obvious guilt. Rear Window (1954) also gives us a protagonist in the know about a crime who suffers from a credibility problem. Is Jeffries a peeping Tom with an overactive imagination, or is Thorwald a murderer? Once again we see the innocent committing crimes as they try to reveal the truth, only this time they do it not to clear themselves, but to prove themselves. In Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock downplays Judy's involvement in Madeline's murder in order to preserve her appeal as the romantic lead; her principal crime seems to be deception, which the audience can more easily forgive her for. North by Northwest (1959), a study in genuine and apparent guilt, gives us the classic Hitchcock mistaken identity crisis. Vandamm has no problem convincing the authorities of his innocence, Eve's innocence or guilt is in constant question, and the only character who ever seems to be suspected of anything is the one the audience is sure is innocent—Thornhill. Psycho (1960), however, may be Hitchcock's most complex study of innocent and guilt because it forces the viewer to wrestle with the "guilty by reason of insanity" defense. Norman is physically guilty of murder, but is he morally responsible? Was the viewer paradoxically right when they believed his mother was the guilty party?

What is Hitchcock saying about guilt and innocence? He clearly believes in the possibility of innocence, even where guilt seems obvious. He is interested in telling stories that highlight how coincidence and circumstance can easily lead outsiders to the wrong conclusion, and imply that society is too quick to accept the simplest explanation, resisting more complex possibilities. In Hitchcock's world, deciding guilt and innocence is never simple, and justice's best hope seems to lie in the individual quest (often that of the accused) to find the guilty. Authorities are as likely to hinder the process as they are to help. Hitchcock believes in the ability of the individual to piece together the evidence and discover the truth, but implies that this detective work is best done by someone who is somehow involved, whether because they are themselves suspect, or involved with the guilty somehow (family member, lover, neighbor). Perhaps his point is that these are the only people who care deeply enough to unravel the truth. The frequent persecution of the innocent should not be interpreted as pessimism, however, for although in Hitchcock's world the innocent often struggle, in the end, guilt always comes to light and the innocent hero always gains something (often romantic love) from the experience. Guilt and innocence are often intricately bound up in questions of identity, as Hitchcock explores the slippery nature of both. Wary of seeing innocence or guilt in absolute terms, Hitchcock's films suggest that there are different kinds or degrees of both. Rather than viewing innocence or guilt in black and white terms, Hitchcock is more interested in exploring the spectrum of grays.

3 Comments

By Tiel Lundy on April 29, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Thanks so much, Jody, for this informed and engaging essay. You really know your Hitchcock! Indeed, Hitch saw guilt and innocence as foils to one another. In Hitchcock films the guilty are never wholly despicable, and are often quite charming (I'm thinking of Bruno in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN); and by extension, the innocent are never without fault (Jeffries is a case-in-point).

You've done such a good job cataloguing the major instances of the guilty-innocence theme, but here are just a couple more to consider. Scottie, in VERTIGO, acts as a doppelganger to Gavin Elster. Not only do they resemble each other physically with their grey hair and grey suits, but they are similarly guilty of constructing and oppressing Judy/Madeline.

Another film that is a particularly complicated investigation of this theme is LIFEBOAT. While it's not my favorite film in the Hitchcock oeuvre, it's a great example of the responsibility of choice and the culpability that comes with making--or failing to make--a choice.

By Stefan Richarz on May 5, 2011 at 3:57 PM

That was a great outline of (what I had yet to identify as) an important theme through the Hitchcock catalog, Jody. The only Hitchcock flicks I have only seen are "North by Northwest" and "Rear Window" (and I think "Vertigo," some time ago), so much of this was new. But, I wholly agree (based on your synopses) that Hitchcock was strongly invested in this complicated take on innocence and guilt.

It made me think of something that I was recently telling Tiel in class. The first exposure I had to any Hitchcock films was (appropriately enough, for me) through The Simpsons, and this same issue arose. Your post adds a layer of understanding to something I always thought was very clever but never came together like this for me. In The Simpsons episode "Bart of Darkness," the second half of the storyline is devoted to a parody of "Rear Window" where Bart suspects Flanders of murdering his wife Maude after watching clues through a telescope. He coerces Lisa into investigating and Flanders returns as she is searching through his house. In the end, Bart's suspicions were misinterpreted; Flanders was innocent. The first time I watched Hitchcock's "Rear Window," I fully expected Thorwald to be innocent and for Jeffries to come off as crazy/misdirected. But, Thorwald did it! It surprised me, and I laughed at how Simpsons had inverted the ending of the story.

But your post here is illuminating because I thought The Simpsons were really just being playful with the plot, whereas it now seems that they were taking a Hitchcock-esque spin on a theme that Hitchcock himself investigated. Innocence and guilt, as you have demonstrated, is a dichotomy that Hitchcock destructively plays with. The Simpsons take it to the next level in their parody by inverting the innocence/guilt of the antagonist in the film version.

This all may seem like an aside, but I appreciate the effort in fleshing this topic out. I thought I knew everything there was to know about The Simpsons, but here we are!

By Jody Thomas on May 24, 2011 at 10:57 PM

Stefan, I fully expected Thorwald to be cleared and Jeffries to be exposed as a nutjob the first time I saw Rear Window, too - and that was without benefit of The Simpsons! Should I be flattered or frightened that Matt Groening's mind works the same way mine does (just a tiny bit) - assuming he wrote that episode, of course.

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