Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hitchcock's Motifs

Not long ago I read a book by Michael Walker entitled Hitchcock's Motifs (Amsterdam University Press, 2006). It's an alphabetical listing of some of the images, character types, scenes, etc. that recur from film to film: bed scenes, children, confined spaces, doubles, guilt and confession, handcuffs and bondage, heights and falling, keys and handbags, mothers, stairs, and many others. The first time I saw it I thought "Why hasn't this been done before?" After I read it I thought, "Why wasn't this done better?"

Of course, entire books could be written on most of these motifs, so Walker's treatment of each of them is necessarily going to be less full than it might be. In the category "Blondes and brunettes"—a pretty rich subject for Hitchcock, I'd think—instead of focusing on the iconic cool, elegant blonde, or on particular actresses (Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, for example), Walker rightly points out that in Hitchcock's films "there are different types of blondes." Sure: in Vertigo (1958) Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge) is a blonde, while Kim Novak is both the cool, elegant blonde (Madeline) and the warm, available—not to say sluttish—brunette (Judy), until she becomes the cool, elegant blonde again, which she really isn't. What does it all mean? Beats Walker—he's just making as comprehensive a list as he can. By compiling every blonde actress and character in Hitchcock, Walker is left little room for analysis and an impossibly heterogeneous group to analyze. It would have been far better for him to concentrate on films where blondeness is clearly significant. A disappointment.

Update 3 September 2009: For a (brief) discussion of two better books on Hitchcock's films, Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much (2nd ed., Routledge, 2005) and Slavoj Zizek's Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (MIT Press, 1991), see my earlier post on Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday, 2005).


  1. No analysis at all?! What was the point of the book - just to list motifs? Maybe he's working on a second volume that finally looks at the meanings of the motifs? :-)

    Well inspite of its drawbacks, I must admit that I am tempted to check it out - just to see what were the recurring motifs!

  2. Bollyviewer, it felt as though the sheer effort required to enumerate all the examples of each motif in every Hitchcock film left Walker with no time or energy to probe very deeply into the meanings of any given motif. And as in the "blondes and brunettes" chapter, he often wound up with a group of examples that was so diverse that few generalizations could be drawn anyway.

    But his list of motifs is worth a look--you can find it here on Google Books.