In a suspense story such as a murder mystery, the storyteller has choices – a limited set of choices, to be sure, but we must always be conscious that there are choices – of how to tell the tale. She can reveal the murderer and the circumstances of the killing in advance (as for example in the Columbo mysteries); she can reveal these facts as they are discovered by the detective. Put another way, the narrator – that is to say, the camera (for if the author of the film is the director, the narrator is essentially the camera) – can be essentially omniscient, or present the story from the viewpoint of the characters, usually the protagonist.
Typically, a Hitchcock film uses the latter approach. Thus we the audience unravel the mystery along with the hero. A central feature of Hitchcock’s films is usually the discovery of a vital piece of information – the solution of the mystery, or some significant plot twist. At the same time as the protagonist is working to discover this information, he is also looking to rescue himself from a dire situation. The climax of the film, then, is in fact made up of two separate but related climaxes: a climax of knowledge, and a climax of drama. Alternatively, we can label these – if we are not put off by the religious overtones – revelation and salvation. Again speaking on a general level, a Hitchcock film tends to revolve around the working out of these two interlocking elements. It is therefore surprising, then – given that Hitchcock is rightly regarded as a master of suspense, and a supremely talented director – that the climax of the film and its resolution are so often a structural flaw in his films: the climax (or climaxes) comes too early, there is a disjunction between the salvation and revelation, the resolution is not weighty enough to be an effective release of the tension built for most of the film. The audience is (or, at least I am) so often left unsatisfied by the final result. Why should this be the case?
It may be worth starting with one of Hitchcock’s bigger failures, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). This film is a failure on a variety of levels: the acting (perhaps especially of Teresa Wright as Young Charlie); the dialogue (even recognizing that Hitchcock’s films are generally unbelievable to some extent, the dialogue here is particularly unrealistic). But beyond these problems, it is one of Hitchcock’s least suspenseful works: the audience knows almost from the beginning that Joseph Cotten’s character Charlie is in fact the Merry Widow Murderer; the only suspense is whether this fact will be revealed before he manages to murder his namesake young Charlie. And, given that Hitchcock’s films (especially in the years around World War II) trafficked greatly in a black-and-white worldview, it is not surprising that the answer is yes.
A similar problem occurs in Suspicion (1941). Here, the audience spends most of the film suspecting that Johnnie (Cary Grant) is a murderer and is now plotting to kill his wife Lina (Joan Fontaine). The film constantly sets us up for this resolution; and this is effected not only by the plot but by Hitchcock’s directorial decisions. Most famously (and successfully), we see this in the scene with the glass of milk: Johnnie brings Lina a glass of milk at bedtime. The scene comes shortly after a discussion of poison. And in the scene itself, the camera focuses for an extended time on the glass – as if to confirm our suspicions.
But, at the film’s climax (immediately before its end), we suddenly discover that Johnnie is not in fact a killer. The novel on which the film was based did indeed have Johnnie murder his wife, and Hitchcock has stated that he intended to follow this part of the novel’s plot but was overruled by the studio; changing the outcome leaves a major plot twist for the very end of the film. It thereby escapes the lack of climax of Shadow of a Doubt. The authorial decision to have Cary Grant’s character be innocent also means that the clues and hints left for so much of the film are in retrospect to be understood as products of Lina’s mind (the fact that this is not evident at the time leads of course to the suspense). The story is told from her point of view. Even the scene with the milk glass, which begins with a focus on the glass as Johnnie brings it up the stairs – that is, before Lina has even seen it – is still seen, psychologically, from Lina’s viewpoint.
While the suspense of the film is thus quite effective, and the resolution pleasantly surprising (especially when compared with the lack of suspense in Shadow of a Doubt), the resolution is ineffective in another sense. Coming at the last moment, suddenly all is set right: the dark gives way to light, the foreboding music is gone, and Johnnie and Lina are reconciled. The suspicion that eroded their relationship is barely a problem. The turn to sweetness is both abrupt and jarring given the tone of the film up to that point – and therefore is ultimately unconvincing.
Shadow of a Doubt and Suspicion, however, are two of Hitchcock’s lesser efforts. Having seen the negative effect of the problem of climax and resolution in these films, it will be all the more significant when we consider two films that – beyond this single but unignorable flaw – would be considered major triumphs: Notorious (1946) and Strangers on a Train (1951).
In Notorious, the moment of revelation comes when Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) discovers that his wife Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is an American spy. This is part of a wonderfully paced, suspenseful party scene that climaxes when Sebastian discovers an out-of-place wine bottle on a shelf in the wine cellar, in a section where he is secretly storing uranium ore in bottles. The sense of danger increases throughout the party as we expect a showdown at the wine cellar between Sebastian, his wife, and her contact/lover Devlin (Cary Grant), but it is achieved unexpectedly Sebastian scans from one bottle to the next, until he finds one with the wrong year. We have been told nothing of the significance of the years (this has been withheld from the audience as it has been from the heroes Alicia and Devlin; it is essential to the plot as they mistakenly replace a broken bottle with another from the wrong year). Instead we learn the significance as the camera scans – from Sebastian’s viewpoint – from one label to the next.
But, while the scene itself is brilliantly executed, this climax of knowledge is problematic within the larger structure of the film. For one thing, it comes well before the film’s ending, meaning that revelation and salvation have been effectively delinked – compare Rebecca (1940), where the moment of revelation, when Maxim de Winter’s (Laurence Olivier) second wife (Joan Fontaine) learns that he hated the first wife under whose shadow she’s been living, also comes far too early. Beyond this, though, the revelation is not one for the hero but for the antagonist. This twist, this authorial decision, is unusual for a Hitchcock film, in some respects allowing for a freedom of exploration of different possibilities in suspense. Unlike many of his other films, Notorious is not (solely) presented from the viewpoint of the hero, but from an omniscient viewpoint – or one that switches between protagonist and antagonist. The withholding of knowledge from both is key not only to the climactic scene (remember that the significance of the bottle labels is withheld not only from the heroes but from us as well) but to the film as a whole. Devlin and Alicia are trying to learn the nature of Sebastian’s plot; Sebastian is trying to learn the nature of his wife’s relationship with Devlin, which leads to his uncovering their espionage. The following scenes involve further effective playing with the selective release of knowledge: Sebastian and his overbearing mother plan how to deal with Alicia, with his mother hinting that they should find a way to make her sick. We then switch to the scene of Alicia’s poisoning. Again this is achieved without informing the audience in words, but – similar to Suspicion – by keeping the camera trained throughout the scene on a beverage (this time, not a milk glass but a teacup). But of course, unlike Suspicion the camera’s focus reflects the viewpoint not of the heroine but of the antagonist; Alicia does not yet know the significance of the cup of tea.
The salvation, then, is the deliverance of Alicia from Sebastian. But how is this achieved? By Devlin’s visiting her and simply walking her out of Sebastian’s house. This is an entirely unsatisfying conclusion, not nearly an effective enough counterweight to the prior buildup of suspense and danger. We are told that Sebastian cannot stop them and risk having the mistake of his being married to an American spy revealed to his conspirators – who are currently in the house – as they may decide to dispatch him as they did another conspirator for a sloppy mistake earlier in the film. But Sebastian is put in a similar spot, as the film silently suggests, by having Devlin take Alicia away in front of them. Unfortunately, Hitchcock was not able to find a resolution sufficiently effective for a film that had been such a success on so many levels up that point.
A similar problem plagues Strangers on a Train. For most of the film, Hitchcock keeps up the especially creepy mood of the opening, when Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) meet on a train and discuss the possibility of each committing a murder for the other: Guy’s wife and Bruno’s father. The discussion is disturbing, but does not seem to be real, or at least not to Guy. But then Guy’s wife is mysteriously killed, and Bruno reappears, expecting Guy to live up to his end of the bargain. Throughout, Hitchcock maintains and even intensifies the disturbing feel – until the very end, when the mood suddenly changes. At that point, salvation comes (in part) from an unlikely, and previously unseen, old man who manages to stop a moving carousel and help save Guy. The sudden change in mood is reminiscent of Suspicion, except that here it becomes not lightness but absurdity. This absurdity highlights the old man’s role as deus ex machina to rescue the hero, who had been otherwise trapped by the structure of the film.
The one Hitchcock film I’ve seen that avoids this plot weakness is The 39 Steps (1935). Along with The Lady Vanishes (1938), it was a major achievement of Hitchcock’s first peak, in Britain in the 1930s. It introduces a characteristic Hitchcockian hero: the wrongly accused man (Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat) who attempts to prove his innocence. At the same time, also in typical Hitchcock fashion, the wrongly accused man crosses paths with a mysterious group of spies. Through these two related scenarios, Hitchcock links the climax of knowledge and climax of action – the revelation and salvation – in a combined climax that comes almost at the end of the film. At this point, British military secrets are about to be taken out of the country, and Hannay knows this, but has no idea how it will happen. He goes to a music hall – as he did at the beginning of the film – and hears the same tune repeated from the beginning. Hannay has whistled this tune periodically through the film as it was stuck in his head; more than a device to bring a sort of unity to the film, it also served to foreshadow the climactic moment itself. Hannay realizes that Mr. Memory, on stage now as at the beginning, is at the center of the plot: he memorized the military plans and is being taken out of the country. But, just at this moment of realization, Hannay has been spotted by police and is being taken away. It is now, with an extraordinary sense of urgency, Hannay shouts out the famous question “What are The 39 Steps?” Having continually built the suspense up to nearly the final moment, Hitchcock now provides a sudden, dramatic release: Mr. Memory’s answer reveals the existence of this international spy ring, the group’s leader shoots Memory, and the police foil the plot. Here, unlike in any other film I have discussed, the effective linking of revelation and salvation near the very end of the film provide an ultimately satisfying conclusion.
In many respects, The 39 Steps was effectively a dry run for the much later American-made, and much more famous, North by Northwest (1959). Not only do we have the archetypal heroic wrong man accused of a crime and caught up in a web of international espionage; we have a pivotal scene on a train, where the wrongly accused hero is both traveling to find information (revelation) and to escape his pursuers (salvation), and salvation is provided (willingly or not) by a woman who becomes the hero’s romantic interest. North by Northwest, of course, has the bigger budget, the bigger stars (notably, Cary Grant again), and its share of memorable lines and scenes – “That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops”; the hero and female lead dangling from the heads of Mount Rushmore – but in terms of climax and resolution it is to my mind ultimately inferior to its forerunner. Revelation has already come, and so the final scene, while exciting, involves merely the drama of salvation.