Hitchcock! The Musical!
Note: This post is my third entry into The Film Vituperatem's Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here here and here. Hope you enjoy.
There is one thing that Hitchcock can do better than any other director. Well there are a lot, but I'm focusing on his ability to make everyday items feel ominous. Where a Stephen King needs to possess cars with demonic spirits to make them evil, Hitchcock roots his terrors in the everyday world. Even the music we hear can become foreboding. This is most evident in The 39 Steps and Shadow of a Doubt.
The 39 Steps begins in a Music Hall at a vaudeville style show. We hear some music in the background, but we find it unimportant. We're much more focused on the hustle and bustle of England and the amazing abilities of Mr. Memory. In fact, if Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) didn't stop humming the song from the music hall, we probably wouldn't even remember that there was music in the Music Hall. But the music is there. It sets a mood of ease, letting us into the film as if we ourselves were in for a night of chorus girls and comedians.
Nevertheless, the music is the ultimate clue to the mystery. Hannay, while humming the music, cannot remember where he heard the music. It's worth noting that the music he hears is always associated with Mr. Memory. The music is memory, reminding us of everything that has come before, and suddenly it hits us. It hits us at the same instant it hits Hannay. These spy games revolve around memory, and they revolve around Memory. It is only when Hanny remembers the music that he remembers Memory. Now he can complete his quest.
The music in the Music Hall and later in the London theater are exactly the same. However, it makes us think of different things each time. First, it reminds us of the theater setting, simultaneously telling us that this is a film partly set in a theater and that the film is a theater. But the second time we hear it, it reminds us both of the theater and what is outside of the theater. Outside of the theater, we see evil like The Professor (Godfrey Tearle). Now the music reminds us of the evil, and it informs us that the theater, which we first thought was innocent and welcoming, is a harsh place. It's a place where The PRofessor can come at any time. Even Mr. Memory, whom we admired for his unique abilities, is revealed to be an agent of evil. The music transforms from exciting to foreboding. It's all a matter of circumstances.
A similar musical transformation occurs in Shadow of a Doubt. However, this transformation doesn't threaten the nature of the theater. This time, it threatens the nature of the family, that which we hold most sacred. The film's credits are shown over a scene of men and women dancing to the Merry Widow Waltz. The shot and music combine to give us a number of notions. First, we see normative heterosexual couples. After all, in the glossed over "Leave It to Beaver" America, there is nothing that says "normal couple" like a couple dancing. Second, it leaves the impression of great wealth and the air of class.
All of these things are embodied by Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), and it's just these notions that Hitchcock subverts throughout the course of the film. As we learn more and more about Uncle Charlie, we know he's done something wrong. He's afraid that someone will mention the Merry Widow Waltz, and he tears out newspaper articles that should have nothing to do with him. And then we learn the truth. We learn the truth through Charlie's niece, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright). At the moment where we learn the truth about Uncle Charlie, Hitchcock superimposes the same image of the couples dancing to the Merry Widow Waltz. And suddenly, this image of normativity is perverted. It's forever linked to Uncle Charlie, the Merry Widow Murderer. We, like young Charlie, cannot hear the music now without thinking of Uncle Charlie and all the terrible things he's done. Our view has been corrupted, and it cannot be saved.
It's not like young Charlie doesn't try. At the end of the film, we see the couples dancing again. Young Charlie has just killed Uncle Charlie, and everything should return to "normal." However, the couples do not give the impression of normativity like they did at the beginning. If anything, they lessen the relief we feel at the end of the film. The evil has been vanquished. Everything should return to the way it was, right? Sadly, no. The dancers, forever connected to Uncle Charlie, only serve to remind us that Uncle Charlie isn't the only evil in the world. He may be gone, but others go on.
Evil is all around us, if we'll only realize it. The person on the other end of that telephone call may be a murderer. That song may have been played while somebody was mutilating somebody else. But we never suspect anything until we cannot counter the facts. And when that thing is sullied, it cannot be restored. This is the lesson Hitchcock teaches to everyone who watches his film. But not everyone chooses to learn.