Of Staircases and Potato Trucks: Fear and Fatness and Alfred Hitchcock

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.

In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.

But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.

No one can deny that Hitchcock’s films are eminently physical. The so-called “psychological thriller” does not interest him; and his sorties into the worlds of psychotic aberration (Psycho, Marnie, Spellbound) are always manifest in physical action. The themes, images and action of a Hitchcock film are specifically those of the body, its mobility and dexterity, and the responses of characters who are either compelled to exert themselves or are restricted from such exertion.

Since Hitchcock deals exclusively in situations of fear and suspense, it is inevitable that a large number of the situations in his films have metamorphosed from his own fears and apprehensions; and it is equally likely that many of those fears and apprehensions are not universal, but represent the very particular anxieties and discomforts peculiar to the overweight or obese.

It has become a cliché among viewers who note Hitchcock’s recurring image-patterns to remark that his particular genius consists in making the commonplace seem terrifying. Andrew Sarris, for one, has noted that “Hitchcock requires a situation of normality, however dull it may seem on the surface, to emphasize the evil abnormality that lurks beneath the surface.”

But in truth, in such “normal” situations as climbing a staircase, standing in a phone booth, or moving along a narrow train corridor, what is commonplace or even “dull” to the average person is often already a terrifying, or at least discomforting, experience to the person of larger physical bulk. It seems to me likely that Hitchcock, in “making the commonplace terrifying,” has done nothing more than to translate into universal cinematic images the fears he already has of things that to most viewers seem ordinary. These fears, of course, are not necessarily obsessive, but are merely the overweight person’s normal reaction to situations that are less comfortable to him than to smaller people.

People tend to see all bodies in relation to their own, and naturally expect the perception of others to be like their own. This applies especially to film directors whose stock-in-trade is the creation of a perceptible image-world that may be grasped by the film-viewer. Roman Polanski, being interviewed by a Playboy reporter, has remarked:

I always had great difficulties getting onto film exactly what I had seen through my viewfinder before the camera has been set up. I always had these problems with my camera operators. All directors who have firm visual, graphic views have these problems, but I had it especially bad. Besides explaining exactly what I had in mind and trying to convey it to the operator and get our ideas conformed, there was always something missing, and I couldn’t find out what it was. Finally, on Rosemary’s Baby, it was working very well and I realized this important detail: Besides this cameraman’s willingness to understand me and follow my ideas, he was hardly any taller than I am. It’s important that his camera sees exactly what I see. On Macbeth, you can know that I have a camera operator exactly my size, and that works wonders, because it means he sees the world the way I see the world. [Playboy, December 1971]

The heavyset person—especially one who, like Hitchcock, has been so virtually all his life—will have a different concept of body than other people, because that concept is based upon his experience of his own body and its responses and reactions to the external world. By extension, his perception of the external world itself in relation to the body will be different from that of average or small persons. Hitchcock’s genius consists in his ability to recognize and exploit that difference, using his vast technical skills to re-create in the viewer of average build a sensation correlation to those which have aroused discomfort and fear in himself as a fat person.

He consistently uses well-bodied, often extremely attractive actors and actresses to create audience empathy, then evens the balance by adding an outside force to provide the feeling of discomfort he seeks to re-create. So, he might conjecture, the discomfort of a fat person standing in a phone booth under ordinary circumstances is approximately equal to the discomfort of an average-sized person momentarily trapped in a phone booth. And thus we get the stunning cinematic experience of watching Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels unable to escape from a phone booth during the onslaught of The Birds.

The Birds

The central situation of virtually all Hitchcock’s films is one of pursuit. Usually (The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest, Torn Curtain) the hero is being pursued by an authority bent on his capture, and is at the same time pursuing an object that will free him from the pursuing authority. This situation-image arises as much from the fat person’s low degree of mobility and his resultant fear of being chased as it does from Hitchcock’s well-publicized fear of the police. Having to run after something or away from something is hardly comfortable for anyone; but for the large-bodied person, whose body control, speed and dexterity are severely limited, it is a compound unpleasantness. The degree to which Hitchcock, in fancy, has become aware of that unpleasantness is matched by that of his genius in conveying its essence to viewers of his films in imaginative terms.

Narrow corridors, especially on trains, appear in many Hitchcock films, and again provide by repetition a screen image of a “common” situation that is obviously much less comfortable for the fat person. In truth, narrow places of any kind are particularly forbidding to fat people; and, in Strangers on a Train, when Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony gropes through a sewer grating for the dropped cigarette lighter, seemingly shrinking the girth of his arm, stretching his fingers with almost superhuman endurance, and actually retrieving the lighter, Hitchcock is indulging in a fat man’s fantasy, creating and celebrating an accomplishment he himself could never achieve. But the same excruciating suspense of Bruno’s reach must be a far more common and far less endurable experience for those whose wide, fleshy limbs make reaching into a narrow place a near-impossibility.

To create on the screen in average-sized people this same limited ability that plagues heavier persons, Hitchcock has frequently used restricting devices, such as the handcuffs in The 39 Steps and Saboteur, or the leg cast worn by Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart) in Rear Window. In other instances, a limitation of space is employed, as with Melanie Daniels’s phone booth and the frequent train corridors of the British films. Jeff Jeffries spends all of Rear Window confined to his small apartment with a cast on his leg; sequences of Frenzy find Jon Finch as Richard Blaney confined to a hotelroom hideaway, a prison cell, and a hospital ward; and the helpless isolation of the innocent Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), imprisoned by the authorities in a classic case of mistaken identity, is the whole concern of The Wrong Man.

Occasionally Hitchcock will ironically trap his characters in a normally unconfining situation, as he does with Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) in Saboteur, compelled by gunmen to remain unwilling guests at a perfectly innocent house party. Similarly, in the American remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the MacKenna family is trapped at an embassy party by agents who hold their son captive upstairs. And of course there’s that wide-open prairie in North by Northwest.

Equally restrictive, though in quite a different way, is the space of Lifeboat, set entirely within the confines of a small boat carrying survivors from a sunken ocean liner during World War II. (The fat person’s claustrophobia is here intensified by the knowledge that food rationing is required.) A tiny, crowded boat is no place for a fat person; and the two identifiably large characters on the boat are both misfits of a sort. Gus (William Bendix) is seriously injured and must have his leg amputated. He regrets placing a burden on the others. The amputation is performed by Willy (Walter Slezak), the commander of the U-boat which sank the liner. He comes to represent a clear menace to the other survivors, and especially to Gus, who spies him drinking water from a flask he has kept secret from the others. Gus himself goes off his head from drinking saltwater to satisfy his greater need and is tipped overboard by Willy.

Lifeboat

Small boats appear frequently in Hitchcock films, in fact, presumably to effect this same kind of isolation to heighten dramatic effect. Most notable in this regard are the tunnel-of-love boats in Strangers on a Train which serve as red herrings (we expect Bruno to murder Miriam there, but he waits until later), and the outboard motorboat that Melanie Daniels rents to cross Bodega Bay and play her practical joke, and that becomes the scene of the first bird-attack.

Hitchcock’s recurring use of boats and water locales may point to the suggestion of a kind of water-fear also characteristic of fat people. (Despite the fact of physics that a fat person should float with greater ease than a smaller person, most oversized people have an intense fear of sinking and will rarely attempt to swim. Hitchcock himself, in seeking a medium for his ritual personal appearance in Lifeboat, rejected the idea of being a body floating past because “l was afraid I’d sink.”)

This sort of hydrophobia is brought to vivid cinematic immediacy in the astonishingly realistic plane-ditching in Foreign Correspondent; Barry Kane’s desperate, handcuffed dive into the rapids in Saboteur; Madeline’s suicide attempt in San Francisco Bay in Vertigo; and the swim to freedom in the climax of Torn Curtain. The shower murder in Psycho is a stunning linkage of spatial confinement with the water motif, its image-content not significantly different from the main title sequence of Frenzy: a long, descending, narrowing forward shot down the waters of the Thames, past the immaculate sights and sounds of a postcard London, coming to rest finally at the shore near Parliament, where a group of insouciant tourists will soon notice a young woman’s body bobbing in the water, altering everything.

Next to pursuit, the most frequently recurring motif in Hitchcock’s work is that of heights, and particularly falls from great heights. From the chase over the roofs of the British Museum in Blackmail to Philipe Noiret’s tumble from his apartment window in Topaz, it is one of the most easily recognizable and identifiably Hitchcockian devices in cinema. The fat man’s native difficulty in balancing his bulky body finds an objective correlative in the acrophobia of countless Hitchcock situations.

The definitive presentation of this motif is, of course, Vertigo, in which James Stewart as Scotty Ferguson, dizzied and immobile, observes a terrifying fatal fall in the film’s beginning, middle and end. The church tower he must climb in the film’s climax represents Hitchcock’s most complete expression of fat people’s fears: it is high, dark and confining, and attainable only by a steep, narrow, winding old staircase (an image-with-in-an-image which calls to mind the ominous stairways of many other Hitchcock films; it is especially interesting that this tower and stairway do not really exist at the film’s location site).

Vertigo

The desperate leap and the fatal fall have long been common devices of suspense, horror and adventure stories; but Hitchcock’s voluminous use of these devices hints at a personal fascination which goes quite beyond the purely professional exploitation of a handy crowd-pleasing trick. To name only the few most memorable instances, one would have to include the cliff scene in Suspicion, the awful plunge of Frank Frye (Normal Lloyd) from the Statue of Liberty in the climax of Saboteur, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) falling from the train in Shadow of a Doubt, Jeff Jeffries pushed from his Rear Window, Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall (Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint) clinging for life to Mt. Rushmore while Leonard (Martin Landau) tumbles over, the rooftop finale of To Catch a Thief, and Roscoe Lee Browne as the Harlem florist of Topaz, leaping from a hotel window onto an awning.

Even a small fall is a more serious matter to a fat person, since he falls harder and has more difficulty recovering and getting up again. Such a small fall, scarcely serious at all, is given ominous significance by the camera and the editing in Torn Curtain when Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is tripped on a staircase in an East German school building. That particular fall is of special interest in Hitchcock’s work, since–like the stairway “accident” in Shadow of a Doubt–it combines the fall image with the staircase, two of the most important motifs in his films.

Climbing stairs is a greater physical effort for a person of more bulk: it can be a strain on the heart and respiration, besides taxing the ability to maintain balance and calling up the nagging fear of a fall. Scarcely a film has come from him in which Hitchcock does not place this same kind of dramatic emphasis on a staircase in at least one scene.

But while a fat man may fear the staircase itself, because of the discomfort of climbing it, Hitchcock, to provide an objective correlative for his own perceptions in expressing them to a not-so-fat audience, must posit something awful coming up the stairs towards us, or appearing at the top as we approach, creating and even heightening the apprehension he already has for stairs.

Thus we recall John Aysgarth (Cary Grant) ascending the long stairway in Suspicion as the camera waits above, watching that suspect glass of milk; the amnesiac John Ballantine (Gregory Peck) in Spellbound creeping sinisterly downstairs to receive his own doctored drink; the long, tense walk down the steps in the finale of Notorious; Guy Haines (Farley Granger) moving apprehensively up the stairs of the darkened Anthony household in Strangers on a Train to confront an ominous Great Dane (which anticlimactically licks his hand); Ben MacKenna (James Stewart) and his son descending the stairs of the embassy in the last scene of the American Man Who Knew Too Much; Melanie Daniels climbing the forbidding stairway to the bird-filled attic; the astounding up-the-stairs-and-back-down-again single-shot track preceding the murder of Babs Milligan (Anna Massey) in Frenzy; and, of course, Hitchcock’s two most crucial stairways, the one in the old Bates house in Psycho where private investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam) meets his grisly end, and the creaky steps in Vertigo‘s old church tower.

Suspicion

Hitchcock’s frequent indulgence in sly sexual snickers also adds impact to some of the stairway scenes. In Spellbound, Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) climbs the stairs to the hospital library, exuding delicious anticipation until ultimately she turns toward the room occupied by Gregory Peck, the bogus Dr. Edwardes. (The camera action is repeated in the climax, when she climbs to confront the real murderer.) And all the fears of Lina (Joan Fontaine) in Suspicion come together in the sexually suggestive image of John locking them both in together for the night, and reaching from beyond the frame to lead her upstairs to bed.

The stair image calls up another fact about overweight people that may come into play here: the fear of normal things breaking under their weight. Certainly the doctored staircase on which Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) falls in Shadow of a Doubt conveys that sensation, as do Frank Frye’s relentlessly ripping coat sleeve in Saboteur, the breaking drainage pipe in the opening sequence of Vertigo, and the slipping rocks of Mt. Rushmore in the climax of North by Northwest. And there might be more than a hint of the mistrust of one’s weight in the ill-fated carousel ride in Strangers on a Train.

In using all of these devices, Hitchcock is able to make his viewers feel the ominous, physically unbalanced apprehension of the oversized who attempt to do things most people take for granted, just as he is able, by positing a crisis situation and interrupting it with a siren, to transfer to the audience his own fear of the police.

In quite a different vein, another prevailing motif in Hitchcock’s films calls the viewer’s attention to the director’s battles with his weight: food. Hitchcock films abound with food: dinner scenes, snacks, nighttime drinks, markets, produce trucks, chocolate factories, picnics, idle drinks, and food used in bizarre settings to serve even stranger purposes.

Any overweight person has an ambivalent view of food that can reach obsessive proportions. On the one hand, he needs more food than others by virtue of his greater bulk, and he likely enjoys eating more than the average person does. On the other hand, he is well aware that food is his undoing: large amounts of food only worsen his condition and may shorten his life expectancy. Dieting becomes a monumental battle of conscience and will, a battle Hitchcock himself has frequently fought. To Truffaut he described his crash diet during the filming of Lifeboat that led to his inspired “appearance” in that film as the “Before and After” models in a newspaper ad for “Reduco,” a mythical dieting aid.

In any case , this oppressive ambivalence of food in the fat man’s life, the constant interplay of love and mistrust for food, viewed either with horror or with whimsy, appears to have metamorphosed into another typically Hitchcockian device: the constant juxtaposition of foods with situations involving fear, violence or death. We inevitably recall Beaky (Nigel Bruce) in Suspicion, who enjoys brandy but isn’t allowed to drink it because of his weight and heart condition, and Lina’s subsequently fantasizing that her husband John is the cause of Beaky’s having drunk himself to death, paving the way to the “fatal glass of milk” scene. Suspicion marked Hitchcock’s first extensive use of food consumption as an image integral to the plot. John and Lina attend a dinner where a lady crime novelist discusses poisons with John, and her brother, a coroner, dissects a partridge while conversing about corpses. In Shadow of a Doubt Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn play amiable nextdoor neighbors who enjoy discussing murder methods over dinner–the two activities becoming one when Herb (Cronyn) brings a basket of mushrooms to Joe (Travers) for supper, and then remarks that nobody could tell if one was poisonous.

Handcuffed Barry Kane consumes a tense meal at a blind man’s cabin in Saboteur, trying to keep his bracelets quiet to avoid detection. The “fatal glass of milk” shows up again, four years after Suspicion, in Spellbound, filling the screen as the subjective camera, standing in for John Ballantine, forces the audience to drink it down. Notorious sees a burned chicken dinner become representative of the abortive love affair between Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) and Agent Devlin (Cary Grant), while uranium dust is disguised as wine and doses of arsenic masquerade as cups of tea.

In To Catch a Thief one of the key locations is a restaurant owned and operated by paroled burglars. Angered because they think that John Robie (Cary Grant) is responsible for a new wave of burglaries that has them all under suspicion, they threaten him with kitchen utensils and throw food after his retreating body. Later in the film the whimsical treatment of food in the dinner discussions of Shadow of a Doubt gives way to verbal foreplay, with Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) offering Robie a piece of chicken, inquiring with sensuously, parted lips, “Would you like a leg or a breast?”

Hitchcock’s food humor has taken an increasingly grimmer turn in more recent years. In Psycho, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) snacks on a glass of milk and a sandwich, surrounded by stuffed birds and listening to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) discuss taxidermy. We will later see him remove his own stuffed mother from her bedroom to the house’s fruit cellar. Then there is the torturously long kitchen murder scene in Torn Curtain, originally followed by a scene in a sausage factory, cut from the final print. In Topaz, espionage equipment and information are hidden in a loaf of bread and in a stuffed chicken.

Psycho

But beyond any doubt Hitchcock’s quintessential food-joke is Frenzy. In terms of recurrent image-patterns, Frenzy is to food what Vertigo is to acrophobia and The Wrong Man is to confinement. The key scenes all center on food, and are set in a produce market, the back of a potato truck, various pubs, a club dining room and the home of a detective whose wife is a self-styled gourmet chef. The sex-murderer Rusk is a food merchant in a Covent Garden produce mart. Richard Blaney, divorced and down on his luck, works in a pub, where he meets waitress Babs Milligan. After quitting his job over an argument, Blaney goes to another pub where he listens to a doctor and a lawyer discuss stranglings over lunch (again recalling Suspicion and Shadow of a Doubt). He accepts an invitation to dine with his ex-wife at her club (where she secretly slips some money into his pocket, money that will later be used as evidence that he murdered her). She (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is actually murdered by Rusk, during her lunch hour. For all its intensity, the murder is placed in an atmosphere of lunchtime casualness, carried out between bites of a pear Rusk has taken from Brenda Blaney’s lunch.

Rusk, taking pity on Richard Blaney in his dejection, gives him two gifts: a tip on a race horse and a bunch of grapes—a rare delicacy in London, particularly during the colder months. Blaney doesn’t place the bet, and when the horse wins at overwhelming odds he disgustedly crushes the grapes in his hands and tosses them away, the camera watching sardonically as they are trampled on the sidewalk.

When Rusk murders Babs Milligan, he stows her corpse in a potato sack, to be shipped out at night in a produce truck. Later, when he discovers his tie-pin missing, he must board the truck and ride with it, searching in sack after sack of potatoes before finding the corpse. The tie-pin is clutched in her hand, and as potatoes dance around him on the rumbling truck he methodically breaks her fingers to retrieve it. After he has made his escape from the truck, leaving the tailgate open, potatoes begin to tumble out onto the road. A police car follows, in time to see the body and the potatoes spill out onto the road as the truck pulls to a stop.

The Chief Inspector assigned to the case (Alec McCowen) discusses first Blaney’s guilt and later his innocence, while squeamishly avoiding eating the hideous gourmet meals—fish heads stare at him from a bowl of bisque—served cheerfully up by his wife (Vivien Merchant). He finally slips away to Scotland Yard to eat with relish a breakfast of eggs and sausage. Hitchcock seems to take a curious relish in subjecting the Inspector to a forced diet. McCowen is a slim, lean-favored man, yet the delight with which he consumes the sausages approximates the sinister glee with which a fat person secretly breaks a strict diet.

Frenzy – The Chief Inspector’s meal

As with all of Hitchcock’s films, most of the characters of Frenzy are of slim or at least average build. His consistent use of well-built, attractive actors reflects the fat person’s fascination with physical attractiveness among more average people.

Notably absent from virtually all of Hitchcock’s films is the hackneyed situation of the hero threatened by and fleeing from a larger, stronger person than himself, one who could easily overpower him. This is not the sort of threat that scares Hitchcock heroes—perhaps because it does not scare fat people. And Hitchcock characters, though invariably slight in muscle and flesh, have the minds and reactions of fat people.

The one exception that leaps to mind is Thorvald (Raymond Burr) coming to menace Jeff Jeffries in Rear Window. Thorvald is undeniably large and Jeffries is all but helpless in a wheelchair. Yet despite these and the additional facts that the man has committed a horrible murder and carried out an even grislier mopping-up operation afterward, when Thorvald is translated from distant image to closeup whimpering human reality (“What do you want from me?”), he becomes unexpectedly sympathetic.

There are, of course, occasional foils to Hitchcock’s well-bodied, attractive heroes. One is reminded of the portly Beaky in Suspicion, the circus freaks in Saboteur, and Rusk’s grotesquely obese mother in Frenzy. But the only consistent foil to the dashing types who people Hitchcock’s films is Hitchcock himself, making his ritual appearance on the screen. Passing by a telephone booth, looking out from a class photograph, walking a pair of poodles, just missing the convenience of a bus ride and having to walk, sipping champagne, or beaming out at us from a “Reduco” ad, this is the film’s director. We know it and we watch for him. He has none of the physical attractiveness or agility of his heroes—they endure and accomplish things he can only have nightmares about. But he alone of all the faces on the screen knows what is really going on. He put it there; he is behind it all; he is controlling their fates. That is the fat man’s final victory.

Copyright © 1973 Robert C. Cumbow


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