The Trains of Alfred Hitchcock

This is a post about Hitchcock and trains. It is also a post about Hitchcock and psychoanalysis, and also about psychoanalysis, cinema and trains. The link between cinema and psychoanalysis has been described by Christian Metz and others.

Cinema was born on the station platform. The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat (1896), by the Lumiere brothers, caused a sensation. Audiences jumped from their seats as the train entered the station. Later, the railway tracks became associated with the villainy of damsels in distress. It was natural, in the darkened cinema, to associate the flickering images on screen with the recall of dreams and the associated feelings of pleasure, anxiety and guilt.

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the great film directors of the 20C. He was born in England and enjoyed success at home and in America. Hitchcock’s career began in the silent era and continued until the 1970s. His professional career also included a stay in Berlin working at the UFA studios. This short, but important, period introduced Hitchcock to the potential of expressionistic feeling in film.

Hitchcock’s arrival in the USA, during 1939, gave him access to greater resources and to a global cinema audience. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Hitchcock observed America as an economic system and social organisation that promoted freedom but was, at the same time, deeply conservative and anxious. In addition, he observed that American mass-media provided a back-drop of justification for the American-way-of-life by constant appeal to Cold-War paranoia and psychoanalytical ideas derived from Freud. Hitchcock described these cultural polarities through the production of exaggerated feelings of fear and desire.

The concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis were incorporated into the world of US consumerism by Edward Bernays. Co-incidentally, Bernays was a member of Freud’s extended family.

During the 1950s, the idea of reality was re-conceptualised as a social and psychological construct. Academic research, Freudian psychoanalysis and the developing mass media combined, in America, to create a powerful force of normative formation.

The nascent US advertising industry used its influence, characterised as hidden persuasion, to fuel the development of consumer culture through emotional appeal. This association was promoted by the normative connection between products and feelings. The advertising industry became increasingly skillful in its manipulation of consumers by appeal to feelings of pleasure, desire, anxiety and guilt.

Hitchcock exploited the voyeuristic potential of film. The erotic potential associated with Hitchcock’s exploration of suspense was heightened by the director’s use of cool, elegant and blond-tinted actresses. Laura Mulvey has described the profound consequences of this alignment between psychoanalysis and the formal qualities of film.

As Freud’s ideas gained popular currency, the film experience became increasingly understood as psychologically contiguous to voyeurism. The voyeuristic observer, hidden or otherwise, and marked with the obsessive-compulsive personality associated with sexual dysfunction, became a staple, not just for Hitchcock, but for the whole of cinema.

A number of constants emerge from Hitchcock’s career. This is a post about trains and Hitchcock. The Thirty Nine Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959), each make significant use of trains.

The idea of the train was useful to Hitchcock as a visual symbol for a number of reasons. It was, first of all, widely familiar to all of his audience. Not so the car in 1935! It then had the great advantage of containing the action of the film. This constraint provided a creative challenge to Hitchcock at the same time as providing reassurance to the financial administrators of the production. Not only did the train contain the action of the film, it provided a scenic and cinematic backdrop through the train window. The slightly detached observation of the world, facilitated through the train window, was understood as analogous to the sensation of dreaming. The expression train of thought, gives credence to the associations between train travel, movement and feeling.

The established punctuality of railway services provided a readily understandable timeframe against which the action of the film could be played out. The time-pressure implicit in this sense of an unalterable timetable was a most effective device in creating a feeling of excitement, suspense and anxiety as good and bad play out along the tracks. Lastly, the speeding train gives the protagonists, and the audience, a powerful sense of unstoppable destiny. Obviously and because the train is roaring along the tracks, there is no escape from this destiny.

In addition to these possible meanings and associations, there are all of those usually associated with speed and large machines. The opulent luxury of the train, evident in the appointment of carriages, and the quality of service is implicit to the idea to international express travel. All this positions the protagonists within a narrative of money, power and politics. That’s sexy; which brings us back to Freud again.

The sleeping car, implicit in the experience of overnight travel, also provides a context of exciting pyjama-clad proximity for the personalities of the action. This is certainly the sub-text to the end of North by Northwest when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint retire to their sleeping compartment. The train enters a tunnel, as the end titles begin, to make the Freudian connection to sexual desire explicit.

Indeed, the subconscious associations between train travel and desire is always being emphasised by Hitchcock. The close-proximity of passengers and overheard conversation seem to allow for unusually relaxed behaviour amongst the passengers. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, for example, there is a sequence where two traveling salesmen begin to discus the ladies’ underwear samples. In The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train the relaxed informality of the train provides a disturbing counterpoint to the narratives of abduction and murder.

Our own feelings towards trains are equivocal. We appreciate the convenience of this form of transport. But we recall, through the long history of accident and fatality that these machines are brutal. Suicide victims acknowledge this practicality and symbolism in their widespread use of railway platforms and bridges. The rich Freudian potential of all of these meanings was expertly used by Hitchcock, the master of suspense.

If you’re interested in any of this, you should begin by watching the films. You can buy an enormous boxed-set of Hitchcock very cheaply.

Then, you can move on to the books. There are hundreds about Hitchcock. The place to start is the book of interviews between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. You can then move on to the theoretical association between between psychoanalysis and cinema. Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey are the names to look-out for there. For Hitchcock and psychoanalysis, look at Slajov Zizek.

If you want to find out about advertising and desire (Madmen) look at Vance Packard and JK Galbraith.

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