Chapter 4(a) of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, Le Contrôle de l’univers (The Control of Universe), is a very thoughtful, albeit highly idiosyncratic tribute to Alfred Hitchcock whom he deems “the only poète maudit to have a huge success.” For Godard, it seems, Hitchcock doesn’t just belong to film history, but to the history of the 20th century at large, rather like Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. In an interview conducted by Jonathan Rosenbaum, he appoints Hitchcock as “the master of the universe”—more powerful than Hitler and Napoleon—and “a poet on a universal level”—surpassing Rilke and Rimbaud. Now, don’t be so quick to dismiss this as mere garlic-flavored hyperbole. Godard’s bold assertion is actually posited on an exceptionally acute observation on Hitchock’s work:
“[…] something which is very astonishing with Hitchcock is that you don’t remember what the story of Notorious is, or why Janet Leigh is going to the Bates Motel. You remember one pair of spectacles or a windmill — that’s what millions and millions of people remember. If you remember Notorious, what do you remember? Wine bottles. You don’t remember Ingrid Bergman. When you remember Griffith or Welles or Eisenstein or me, you don’t remember ordinary objects. He is the only one.”
Why, yes! Those wine bottles, lighters, keys, and (many, many) staircases. These commonplace objects, when placed in Hitchcock’s hands, are transformed into haunting objets that sometimes leave on us far greater impressions than his human characters. It’s not necessarily a question of whether these objects serve as McGuffins in a given story; regardless of their storytelling functions, they stand out and leave permanent marks on our remembrance of a film.
Hitchcock’s extraordinary power to ‘sensationalize’ ordinary objects is often shared with gifted poets and painters, but, as Godard notes, rare among cinéastes. (Perhaps Yasujiro Ozu is among these rarities—think of the vase and the apple in Late Spring; falling cherry blossoms in Floating Weeds; and a countless empty passageways.) Is it any wonder that he admired Salvador Dalí, a prominent figure in the Surrealist movement that sought to connect to the unconscious via ordinary objects as the bridge? And much like Dalí, the Master of Suspense also enjoyed an incredible run of success, possibly to the detriment of his career as an artist, or rather an auteur.
The Hitchcockian poetry that permeates these tales of moral and sexual transgressions was perhaps way too seductive and fun to be considered ‘serious’ and ‘meaningful.’ Until François Truffaut approached him to do a book-length interview in 1962, the general consensus was that Hitchcock’s movies were, in the words of Pauline Kael with regard to Notorious, “great trash, great fun.” From the vantage point of post-nouvelle vague cinephilia, we now know that Kael’s remark is more fitting to describe Brian de Palma (this is not an insult, in fact a tribute), and poète maudit is closer to the essence of his work.
And what better way to salute this master than pulling some visual quotations from his work? Here I have gathered together some of the objects reborn in Hitchcock’s films.