Getting the last word in
How Hitchcock's endings tell us more about ourselves than we want to admit.
By Joel Gunz
When I was about 13, a friend and I snuck into The Exorcist. Of course, it was a given that my parents wouldn't allow me to see it. Feeling guilty and a bit ill, I walked out. Three times.1
The reasons for ditching the movie are obvious: I could only take so much airborne pea soup. The reason I went back in is that I like to finish what I start, which also helps explain why I like Alfred Hitchcock movies. He was a master at finishing his movies "just so." 2
That said, Hitch's films tend to end rather abruptly. Take "North by Northwest," for example. Within 30 seconds the bad guy is caught and the hero and heroine are locomoting into an oh-so-Freudian tunnel as the movie fades to black.
But - what a perfect ending! In that half a minute, several plot points are resolved: The authorities arrive to save the day; the microfilm is retrieved; the evil arch villain is captured and his murderous henchman killed; the leading man gets his woman gets saved, and gets married; and much, much more.
Similarly, "Frenzy" ends the instant the necktie strangler is caught, closing with the line: "Mr. Rusk - you're not wearing your tie."
Perversely, "Vertigo" has no ending. Hitch shot a concluding scene for the film, but it never made the final cut. As it is, the final shot portrays Scottie standing on a precipice, looking down at the fallen corpse of his beloved "Madeleine." He can't step forward, yet he can't go back, either. We are left hanging, with Scottie, in perpetuity.
And, speaking of perpetuity, "Rope" - which was shot using techniques to create the illusion that it was filmed in one perpetual take, and whose theme song is Poulenc's "Perpetual Movement" - has my favorite Hitchcock ending. James Stewart has exposed the murderers and fires a handgun out of the window of their Manhattan apartment to signal the police. The final moments - about two minutes - are wordless and music-less. The only sounds are the street noises wafting in through the open window as each character ponders his fate.3
My feeling is that "Rope" is, in fact, one long dénouement. The murder takes place in its opening moments, and the next 80 minutes involve the resolution to that act. In the spirit of the film's many allusions to perpetual motion, "Rope" is like one long exhalation. Then it comes to a still, motionless end.4
Hitch had a somewhat uneasy relationship with his audience. As a first-rate showman he delivered glamour, thrills and humor with unequalled panache. Yet, as an artist he understood - and was perhaps chagrined by - the complacency and selfishness of his audience (and, therefore, of mankind in general). With a mixture of love, condescension and grandiosity he referred to his audience as "the public." In less generous moments he called them "the moron masses".
Hence, I believe that these quick exits are Hitch's way of telling the audience: "Okay, you came, you saw, you got your thrill, now run along home." They also help to implant the tangy aftertaste of unresolved disquiet that is characteristic of his films.5
Sometimes one even feels as if Hitch were giving us a swift kick on the way out the door. In "Spellbound," the movie ends following the famous first person point of view shot of the villain shooting himself - which is to say, the audience - in the face. Immediately afterwards we cut to the leading couple laughing up a storm at the train station and embracing in a passionate kiss. The End. The juxtaposition of violence and glee gives this ending a dada tone as surreal as the film's earlier Salvador Dali-created dream sequence.
Characters rarely "live happily ever after" - in a complete sense - in a Hitchcock film. In the end, his movies rarely "square up" in the way that we expect from a Hollywood production. In a Hitchcock newsgroup, Ken Mogg, author of The Alfred Hitchcock Story,6 observes:
- I often think of the last line of Howard Hawks' comedy 'Man's Favorite Sport' - it's said of Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss drifting downstream in a boat - 'They're beyond help now'. That also applies to many Hitchcock endings involving couples - unless by 'help' you mean the sort offered by marriage-guidance counselors!
As a case in point, "Shadow of a Doubt" is about a girl nicknamed Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) and her namesake Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), a man with whom she shares a unique and deeply felt affinity. At the beginning of the movie, both Charlies are in a state of boredom, or ennui, that, in Hitchcock's films, is usually a prelude to mystery, conflict and, finally, enlightenment.7
As the movie progresses Young Charlie realizes that her uncle is the so-called Merry Widow Murderer. Because of her relationship to him, she, in a sense, shares his propensity for violence. Confirming this, in the final confrontation and ensuing struggle she apparently pushes him from a speeding train to his death.
Following a harrowing - and self-enlightening - experience such as this, you'd think that Young Charlie's life would change in dramatic ways. The film ends, however, with the young woman taking up a romance with one of the investigators who had been tracking her uncle. The implication is that she will settle down to an ordinary, probably banal life. We're left wondering how much Young Charlie has really changed.
For that reason, perhaps, Hitch's introductions and conclusions are often symmetrical - like the two halves of a clamshell. "Rear Window," for example, opens with a bored James Stewart laid up with a broken leg and asleep in his wheelchair - which is exactly how the movie ends, except that by then he has a second broken leg.
The implicit message is that life has now returned to normal for Stewart and his fiancée, played by Grace Kelly. Yet that normal, ordinary existence is a thin veneer over the internal conflict that the couple has yet to face now that they have confronted their (external) enemies. By film's end they have inched closer to resolving their domestic differences.
It's just like Hitch said: "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."
Or as Norman Bates in "Psycho" observed, "We're all in our private trap. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch." When you boil the drama and suspense away from Hitchcock's films, many of them simply chronicle the trajectory of that one-inch increment.
"Psycho" is a rarity in the Hitch collection in that it ends with a proper denouement8. All loose ends get tied up neatly (for Hitch) in two longish scenes: first, there's a clinical analysis of Norman's mental state, followed by a last good look at the monster we've been sympathizing with for the previous hour. If "Spellbound" ends with a kick in the tush, "Psycho" ends with Hitch rubbing our nose in our hypocrisy. And he lingers in the moment.
Alfred Hitchcock believed that most people are part of what Nietzsche called "the sleeping masses." That's why he created nightmares. Because, following a bad dream, we wake up.
And so his movies are full of shocks. They strike areas beyond the reach of Freddy Kruger or The Blob. They jab the enemy within us. And just when they've touched it, the house lights come up.
As co-founder of Three Star Fix, Portland's newest ad agency, Joel believes in letting his clients get the last word in. Sometimes, at least. Check his work out at www.threestarfix.com.
1I regret that I saw The Exorcist.
2Hitchcock obsessed over the endings to his films. Deleted footage - a rarity from a man who usually directed with a supremely sure hand - is available for some of his movies. "Suspicion," "Vertigo" and "Topaz" were each prepared with alternate endings as the director juggled the demands of his stars, the front office, censors and his own artistic sensibilities. Alternate footage for "Vertigo" and "Topaz" is available on special-edition DVD versions of these films.
3Like hothouse flowers, the two men are isolated from normal society in many ways: their homosexual orientation, their rarified philosophies , and their ultimate act of antisocial behavior - murder. When, in the final scene, Stewart throws open the window, fresh air - and the real world- enters the pair's claustrophobic apartment for the first time. In a soundscape worthy of John Cage we hear the sounds of traffic, rushing wind, distant voices and the wail of approaching sirens.
4In their hubris, the murderers embraced a fractured interpretation of Nietzsche's concept of the superman: by virtue of their self-styled "superior intellect," they felt that they were among the "elite few" who had a right to commit murder. In effect, they attempted to make themselves God. It was a bid for immortality, i.e. perpetual life. In the final moments of the film, as they heard the police coming, they came to realize that they awaited not endless life, but the gallows. And time seemed to stand still in one perpetual moment. In this way perhaps they did achieve endless life - but not on the terms they had been expecting.
5Hitchcock, a Bordeaux-phile, no doubt appreciated the stony, mildly bitter aftertaste of wines from that region, a flavor that has been dubbed "the kiss of Claret" - Claret being an alternative name for Bordelaise wines. It's a quality not unlike the aftertaste that follows the endings of his movies.
6Published by Titan Books, London, 1999
7In a book review published on his Hitchcock scholars' website http://www.labyrinth.net.au/~muffin/, Mogg further comments: "Young Charlie's state of mind in the early part of the film resembles what the philosopher Kierkegaard called 'dread', a state of innocence or dreaming that awakens a thirst for the prodigious and the mysterious. Later, when Charlie learns the truth about her uncle in the public library scene, the camera's upward retreat evokes The Fall."
8Of course, all of Hitch's films end with a denouement. But if you blink, you'll miss it. What's missing is the feeling of decompression or the restoration of equilibrium that accompanies a lengthier conclusion. Hitchcock consistently snatches that feeling from us and refuses to give it back.