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Alfred Hitchcock's fascination with psychology and the manipulation of the human mind greatly influenced early spy-thriller masterpieces. During his British sound film period, Hitchcock explored the effect of being unwillingly pulled into a psychologically complex environment has on an individual and the consequences that he or she must deal with. These concepts can be found in The 39 Steps (1935) and in The Lady Vanishes (1938), both spy-thrillers that highlight the dangers of espionage and serve as a warning of the impending social and political threat posed by spies. Hitchcock's infusion of psychoanalytic concepts, and the influence thereof, emerge through The 39 Steps's and The Lady Vanishes's narratives, characters, and film structure and style.
Thriller films aim to "promote intense excitement, suspense, a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, anxiety, and nerve wracking tension" (Dirks). The 39 Steps, a tale of an innocent man, Richard Hanney (Robert Donat), is on a quest to uncover what or who the 39 steps are after Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim), an admitted spy, is stabbed and killed in his apartment. Because Hanney is introduced to an alternate reality in which spies are prevalent among society, he must learn to determine whom he can and cannot trust while attempting to prevent the transmission of government secrets to enemy forces. On the other hand, The Lady Vanishes deals with similar issues of espionage, however, also introduces personal psychological uncertainty. These issues are heightened through the introduction of a contained space, in this case a train, on which most of the action takes place. In the film, Iris befriends Miss Foy, an old lady who mysteriously disappears from the train. As Iris attempts to find out what happened to Miss Foy, a conspiracy is afoot that aims to convince Iris that Miss Foy was a figment of her imagination as everyone that Iris interrogates denies having seen Miss Foy and claim that Iris has been by herself. While The Lady Vanishes, like The 39 Steps, introduces espionage into the narrative, it is used as a plot device -- Hitchcock's MacGuffin -- to explain the motivation of the passengers to cover up Miss Foy's disappearance; it is revealed that the seemingly innocent, old lady was in fact a British spy. The anxiety and uncertainty in both The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes is heightened by Hanney's and Iris's inability to determine whom they can trust or if they can even trust themselves.
Hitchcock further examines psychoanalytical constructs through the development of psychologically complex characters. A central psychoanalytical concept that is employed by Hitchcock in both The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes is duality. In The 39 Steps, the construct of duality can initially be seen through Annabelle Smith, whom Hanney befriends after fleeing a performance by Mr. Memory, a man with eidetic memory, at a London music theatre after shots are fired. It is only after Hanney takes Smith back to his apartment that she reveals that she is a spy. By definition, a spy lives in a world of dualities; one persona is created to portray a certain, non-threatening image to the public, while the second persona is obfuscated out of necessity. By revealing to Hanney that she is a spy, Smith also reveals an alternate society of which Hanney was not aware of that operates alongside the world Hanney knows and recognizes. It is also during this encounter that Smith informs Hanney of her discovery of a plot to steal valuable British military secrets and technology, which has been masterminded by an unknown man who can be identified by a missing joint on one of his fingers. After Smith is killed in Hanney's apartment, he is forced to adopt a dual persona, although he does not do so willingly, but rather the persona is created for him by the media. Moreover, the misinterpretation of his persona leads him to flee from the police on several occasions, one of which is by jumping off a train in transit after he fails to convince Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a passenger on the train, that he means her no harm. As the narrative develops and Hanney continues to attempt to elude police in Scotland where Smith was headed to before her unfortunate demise, Hanney eventually stumbles upon the home of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle). Unbeknownst to Hanney, Professor Jordan is the man that Smith warned him about. As a spy mastermind, Professor Jordan has created a dual persona to hide his criminal activities. At the surface, Professor Jordan's public and social persona is that of a respectable member of the community and a family man. As such, Professor Jordan travels in certain social circles that trust his public persona beyond a shadow of a doubt and will dismiss any claims that are made against him, even if they are credible. Because of this, Professor Jordan's second, spy persona remains well hidden, even from his family, so much so that he is willing to take drastic steps of killing anybody, such as Hanney, who uncover his dual identities. The third dual persona is Mr. Memory, who serves as a mode of transmission for Professor Jordan. Psychologically, Mr. Memory possesses the ability to retain any information that he encounters or is exposed to -- an eidetic memory. Mr. Memory's dual persona is created by how the public perceives him and through his secret persona as a British spy. Mr. Memory's public persona is adored by fans that are impressed by his ability to retain massive amounts of information, whereas his spy persona is created by people like Professor Jordan who recognize Mr. Memory's eidetic talents and seek to exploit them for personal gain.
The role of duality plays an even bigger role in The Lady Vanishes because of a conspiracy to convince Iris that she has imagined the existence of Miss Foy. The conspiracy to convince Iris that she is psychologically delusional and paranoid is set forth by Doctor Egon Hartz, who utilizes his "medical expertise" to attribute Iris's "delusions" and hallucinations with a head injury. Unbeknownst to Iris, Dr. Hartz has adopted a dual persona; one persona is a seemingly trustworthy physician, whereas the second persona is that of a spy that is attempting to prevent Miss Foy from making contact with the Foreign Office in London. Dr. Hartz utilizes his superficial persona to take advantage of Iris through expertise of medicine. As a spy, Dr. Hartz manipulates the passengers on the train to deny that that Miss Foy was ever on the train; he utilizes a variety of methods to do so including bribery. Miss Foy has also constructed dual personas. The first persona is an innocent and mild-mannered old lady that Iris finds a connection with and strikes up a pleasant conversation. The second persona is that of a spy; this persona is only revealed after Iris discovers that Miss Foy was kidnapped by Dr. Hartz with the intention of preventing her from delivering vital information to the Foreign Office in London. While espionage plays a role in the disappearance of Miss Foy, and Iris's subsequent investigation into her disappearance, Hitchcock's focus on Iris's psychological state and the journey she takes from psychological certainty to "hallucination" and delusion and back again to certainty highlights the fragility of the human psyche and how easily it can be manipulated. Furthermore, this manipulation casts doubt over any individual's intentions and creates moral ambiguity, which is a recurring theme in many, if not most, of Hitchcock's spy-centric films.
The psychoanalytic concepts and constructs that Hitchcock employs in The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are emphasized through a combination of the cinematic influences of German Expressionism, Soviet Constructivism, and Grierson's Documentary Realism. German Expressionism seeks to focus on subjectivity and incorporate a sense of mystery and disharmony through mise-en-scene. Additionally, German Expressionism aimed to showcase dualities in individuals and show that people had a light side and a dark side. In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock uses chiaroscuro to symbolize duality. The use of light and shadow can be seen in the ending sequences of the film when Hanney finally tracks Professor Jordan to a theatre where Mr. Memory is giving a performance. Although Hanney knows that Professor Jordan is a person that cannot be trusted, especially given the fact that the theatre is used as a meeting place for the exchange of government secrets, Hitchcock further emphasizes Professor Jordan's unreliable character by keeping him seated in the shadows, away from the general audience. The use of shadow further emphasizes the duality that Professor Jordan has constructed. Additionally, German Expressionist influences can be seen as Hanney traverses the Scottish countryside, before he inadvertently arrives at Professor Jordan's home. The angular lines of the Scottish hills are reminiscent of the angular lines that were frequently found in works by German Expressionists including F.W. Murnau and Robert Weine. These influences can also be found in The Lady Vanishes as all the action takes place within a closed environment, a train on the move.…[continue]
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