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Postwar America in Hitchcock Films
Post-War America in Film
In the postwar America, expectations for men and women diverged from those that prevailed during the war years. The exigencies of World War II interrupted the evolution of social progress for Americans, substituting a "fast forward" that could better serve the national initiatives. From positions where everyone became focused on the war effort and their roles in supporting it, the postwar period saw a return to the traditional values that had dominated in the past. Supported by the G.I. Bill, men sought education at unprecedented levels and located themselves in business, resuming the positions and leadership they felt were their due. Homemaking and childrearing returned to center for women in postwar America. If women were engaged in business, it was considered to be secondary to their gender-based roles as mothers, wives, and daughters. Some effects of the wartime patterns were resistant to change. Women did press for more entry points into corporations, in addition to their more traditional employment as teachers, nurses, and secretaries.
In the films Strangers on a Train and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock explores these gender dynamics as subplots within two of his common frames: danger from unknown and known sources. These two perspectives are illuminated by Hitchcock's emphasis on danger that results from some contamination of the family unit -- that is, danger that has its origin outside the family but invades it like a virus -- and danger that originates and remains outside the family, thereby -- eventually -- bringing about greater family unity. The quotidian parallels to these two subplots are characteristic of the era, particularly in the guise of qual rights for women and homophobia.
All in the Family. Against this postwar background, films produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock largely echoed these traditional sentiments -- all the while engaging in unrestrained deconstruction of the premises undergirding them. From the outset, it is clear that danger lurks outside the family unit in Strangers on a Train. The immediate threat is that all of the family -- Senator Morton's family -- will be sucked down the drain, suffering much the same fate as the infamous cigarette lighter. Which is to say that the fate of the family will be in the hands of a "very clever man" who just happens to be both a momma's boy and a sociopath.
In Strangers on a Train, the characters Anne Morton, Guy Haines, and Miriam Joyce Haines are engaged in a deadly -- if somewhat improbable -- triangle. Divorce was not common in the 1950s, but one has only to look at the affair between Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales to recognize that divorce -- though considered scandalous by many -- could be relegated to the background of social life over time. The problem -- the core problem in the film -- was that since Guy seemed to navigating the social ladder quite successfully, Miriam did not want a divorce. Senator Morton, Anne's father, who seemed to be inordinately inured to gossip and bad press, played a stabilizing role in the scheme, the effect of which was to make the story more believable.
Any depth of character cannot be had from the Morton family. Ruth Roman seems completely wrong for the role -- in fact, she was the studio's choice, not Hitchcock's choice and he made her suffer for it -- but both Patricia Hitchcock and Leo G. Carroll are people one would like to invite to dinner. The most dimensional character is that of Bruno Antony, whose lunacy becomes more apparent as the plot progresses. Be that as it may, a more interesting dynamic plays out between the relentlessly intrusive Bruno and the preoccupied Guy. In this pairing, Hitchcock employed the same sexual ambiguity that had used in 1948 in the film Rope, in which
By 1951, the Red Scare in was going full bore, sped along by the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage and the trial of Alger Hiss. The trial and conviction of the Hollywood Ten that occurred in 1947, is commonly considered the harbinger of the communist (read: witch) hunt scourge in America. The script for Strangers on a Train was being furiously rewritten by Hitchcock, Cook, and Ormonde, at the time of the prosecutor activity in Hollywood and, indeed, across the nation. In his treatment -- one that finally pleased Hitchcock, Guy was painted in such a way as to make the story "a parable quietly defiant of the Cold War hysteria sweeping America" (MacGilligan, 2004). The hysteria had grown so deep that the U.S. Senate had begun investigating government employees who were considered to be moral perverts capable of undermining national security. Indeed, a study titled Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government was commissioned by the U.S. Senate.
The character of Guy was a boy-next-door type of wholesome athlete, unaffected by his fame as a tennis player. Because he was viewed as "a man of indeterminate sexual identify found in circumstances making him vulnerable to being compromised," he could stand-in for those men that were being singled out and victimized by the homophobic craziness that was permeating American society at the time (MacGilligan, 2004, p 443)
Although there is an absence of a homophobic threat in the film The Man Who Knew Too Much -- except perhaps for any implied improper motivation that could be associated with the kidnapping of a young boy in Morocco -- the dark cloud of The Cold War does hover over both films.
Not Part of the Family. The threat in The Man Who Knew Too Much exists outside of the family unit, which enabled a plot line of them against us -- a much less convoluted and more familiar story in film at the time. Dr. Ben McKenna, his wife Jo, and their son Hank are quite simply in the wrong souk at the right time, a situation that locates them at whisper distance from a dying man's last words. Because the whispered words are the key to unraveling a plot to assassinate a Prime Minister, the McKennas must be made to hold their tongues by those who plan to carry out the assassination. The most expedient way to accomplish this -- from the P.O.V. Of the bad guys -- is to kidnap young Daniel.
As the parents of Daniel strive to figure out how to rescue their son and prevent the assassination of the Prime Minister, they exhibit all the tensions of their postwar domestic -- not particularly blissful -- life. Jo is an accomplished pianist and singer who has given up her career to be a mother and wife. [Over a decade would pass before Betty Friedan would give this collective angst a name -- or rather refer to it as "the problem that has no name" (Friedan, 1963).
Men and women in postwar America were beginning to experience the movement toward greater individuation. For Jo, this would mean that she would be questioning why she could not be a concert pianist and a wife and a mother. For Ben, this would mean that he was experiencing some equivocation about his role as a man in the contemporary society. These blurred roles are evident in the final scenes of the film: the character of Ben moves with bravado to physically encounter the threat to his family -- the man with the gun who kidnapped his son -- and that the character of Jo taps the bravura Que Sera her son will recognize and hopefully to which he will be able to respond.
Hitchcock was a master of subtlety and for obfuscating his social critique in much the same way that he hid his cameo performances in plain sight. The scuttlebutt that surrounds…[continue]
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