The Working Class and Their Boxes Alfred Hitchcock's Films as Socioeconomic Commentaries

Over the course of his fifty-year directorial career, Alfred Hitchcock guided hundreds of characters across his camera lens, gradually building a repertoire of humanity along the way. Scholars have picked apart those characters ad nauseam, typically taking the course of psychoanalysis to explain their often inexplicable actions (inexplicable not because of their absurdity or unbelievability, though sometimes that is the case, but inexplicable simply because placing two-dimensional characters on an analyst’s couch is problematic) and put them in human terms. Of course, there are exceptions, when Hitchcock has stripped the human element away from the action of the film, The Birds (1963) the most obvious example, but that isn’t the only instance of the shortcomings of psychoanalyzing a character in his films. Too often the psychoanalytic work done on Hitchcock’s characters veers into territory of Sigmund Freud or Jacques Lacan, digging into pasts that, quite frankly, the viewer seldom has access to – looking for Oedipal complexes and mirror stage mishaps – when many times Hitchcock is giving the answer for the behavior right there on the screen. If there is one central theme across his work over the span of his career, one that propels virtually every plot, or is at least in the center of every plot in allowing it to propel, it is money. In the process of lauding Hitchcock with praise for his artful directorial vision as an auteur, or a visual representative of the inner workings of the human mind, his subtle views on class dynamics often go overlooked. By placing money at the center of many of his films, Hitchcock is consistently making a comment on the struggles of the working-class, working so often on the margins of his films, against the sublimating leisure class that typically takes center stage; his films are too often passed by as statements on class and the way that set roles in society along with privilege and access to money are constantly reinforcing those roles in ways that make it seem impossible to break free from them.

Perhaps this is such a difficult distinction to make through Hitchcock’s filmography given the relatively one-dimensional casting choices that permeate his films. On the whole, with very few exceptions, when one looks to any Hitchcock film, they can count on an all-white, or virtually all-white, cast. Particularly when Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood, the films were helmed by a cultural figure rather than an actor, a star or starlet already engrained in the minds of the viewers as representations of Hollywood personas or relative brand names. When Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly appear in a film, regardless of the often stellar performances given, the viewer may struggle with separating their elevated cultural image with the character portrayed on the screen. So, already there is a struggle with depicting class in interesting ways, because the stars themselves are so firmly of the white leisure class that the characters are too, regardless of what type of person they might be depicting.

However, when one looks at the films as a whole as depicting a certain type of class only, it makes them appear one-dimensional and easily dismissible in this context. Frankly, just because the vast majority of Hitchcock’s characters are relatively privileged white people (and they are), doesn’t mean they should be wholly overlooked as keen observations on the class distinctions at large in America while he is working. Hitchcock is keenly aware of class distinctions, even within the white race, and one need only take the world as he presents it and look inside to find them.

A major factor in Hitchcock’s decision to portray the types of characters that he did was actually the audiences that were going to see films. It’s important to remember that when Hitchcock released his first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), going out to see a film was still a very privileged way to spend an evening. Perhaps Hitchcock felt an obligation – one that wanes away as his career progresses – to portray characters relatable to the audiences that would be paying to see the films. In a study looking at the relationship between consumption of culture and social classes of audiences conducted in 1973, Pierre Bourdieu reported interesting findings. In their article expounding upon Bourdieu’s research, Lisa A. Barnett and Michael Patrick Allen write of his findings, “According to this perspective, culture is implicated with social class inasmuch as differences in cultural practices contribute to the maintenance of social boundaries between social classes. At the heart of this theory is the distinction between ‘high’ or ‘legitimate’ culture and ‘mass’ or ‘popular’ culture” (146-7). Though Bourdieu was researching cultures largely at the end of Hitchcock’s career, his findings are certainly applicable. Hitchcock himself was noted as saying, “It’s just that the public doesn’t care for films on politics.” There wasn’t a mainstream concern, so he didn’t feel the need to portray that area of society early on. Barnett and Allen write that upper-class audiences with more economic capital tended to prefer mainstream films while professors or those in the intelligentsia with more cultural capital tended to prefer art films. Hitchcock was working in the world of the mainstream for most of his career, but somehow did manage to toe the line and bring the art world into the mainstream. However, in order to reach that mainstream status, there was a lot of leg-work to be done, perhaps pandering to those with the economic capital enough to see his films early on. Hence, Hitchcock portrays characters the audience can relate to.

Once film became a more accessible artform to the masses, regardless of economic capital, is when Hitchcock’s films began to take this interesting turn into territory of peeling back the layers of class and portraying characters of all types, all levels of relatability to the growing and shifting audiences.

A great example to start with in talking about Hitchcock’s adept, and perhaps most importantly – certainly most contributing to the lack of mainstream scholarship regarding class – subtle commentary on class dynamics is actually a film that features both examples of Hollywood elite from earlier, Stewart and Kelly in Rear Window (1954). The film features Stewart as L.B. Jefferies, a photojournalist pent up inside his apartment with a broken leg he sustained on the job, and Kelly as Lisa Carol Fremont, a young socialite of the upper-class bourgeoisie elite (Kelly essentially plays herself, two years away from becoming the Princess of Monaco). Jefferies has become obsessed with watching his neighbors across the courtyard of his apartment complex, and becomes enraptured in a perceived murder by Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) of his wife. He pulls Lisa and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) into the plot to expose Thorwald of the murder, and ultimately implicates both of the women in the “detective” work, as he is incapable of moving due to his leg cast.

Much has been made of Rear Window as a reflection on the moviegoing experience in and of itself; Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson write in their essay “Hitchcock’s Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism” that each apartment that Jefferies and Lisa peer into represents a different genre of film: “Miss Lonelyhearts is borrowed from an earnest 1950s social realist film like Marty; Thorwald comes from a murder mystery; the dog couple comes from a domestic comedy. The songwriter belongs in a musical bio-picture such as Till the Clouds Roll By” (201). Interestingly, as a side note, Hitchcock already seems to subvert audience expectations by giving Jefferies (a character with more cultural capital) interest in the murder mystery (a more mainstream film genre), while Lisa (a bourgeois character of great economic capital) interest in the social realism going on in Miss Lonelyhearts’ apartment (a film genre often thought of in the context of the “art” world). The film takes on multi-leveled glimpses at the relationship between audience and film, as the audience watches stars play characters watching “films” in windows across the courtyard, eventually becoming actively implicated in those “films.”

However, Rear Window goes a step further than the voyeurism that scholars often first point towards. Jefferies makes constant references to the neighborhood in which he lives as being more of a poverse area of New York City, often making the implication that Lisa is actually slumming by coming to see him. She certainly does seem a bit out of place in her (meticulously planned by Hitchcock) gorgeous dresses and jewelry, like she’s a film star herself dropped right into the set of a film-lover’s living room. Every character that Jeff and Lisa examine is struggling economically; that much is known simply from the fact of the neighborhood in which they live. Jeff separates himself from them in the sense that he seems to live there as a choice, a comfort to himself, and his upward mobility is constantly accessible to him. Therefore, the characters that they examine: Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), the songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian), the dancer Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), and Thorwald himself, are subtly characters of the working-class that Hitchcock chooses to put not only under his own microscope, but that of Jeff and Lisa’s as well. It is through these glimpses that Hitchcock gives perhaps the most vivid visual representation of poverty or economic struggle.

Miss Lonelyhearts operates largely in the realm of love and loneliness, but her choice to kill herself comes in that window of poverty, where her character feels she has no escape from her situation; regardless of the decision coming from loneliness, it has major economic implications. The pianist is shown in various states of despondency as he attempts to pen his piano opus; his sorrow stems not only from his lack of creative output, but the implications that lack will ultimately have on him financially. His life depends on his ability to create, both spiritually and physically: if he can’t write, he can’t eat. Miss Torso too depends on her career, and on a larger scale, her looks, to provide for herself. Hers is a social provision where she seems to force herself in the company of strange men in order to get ahead. Thorwald sees no way out of his marriage other than murder. Quite simply, all of these characters feel backed into corners in which they must make drastic and hugely serious decisions to get themselves out of; Hitchcock colors these corners in different ways, but ultimately they all come back to money, and the lack of it. Even Stella’s role in the film is entirely predicated on money, as she must earn a living and take care of Jefferies. She becomes implicated in foray with danger and detection simply because she must earn her keep in life and take part in the endless struggle of the working-class.

Even the two main characters, Jeff and Lisa, when the whole mess of Thorwald’s mystery ends and they can continue their relationship in what way they see fit, seem to have an ambiguous direction. Jefferies consistently asserts his working-class stature throughout the entire film, insisting that he must work in order to feel worthwhile, and enjoys going into the thick of danger on the job. Lisa, however, lives a privileged life (the life of a princess, essentially), and Jefferies understands that she could never be happy with his lifestyle. They represent practically polar opposites of the spectrum of class. Jefferies is firmly part of the working class, while Lisa is a representative of the leisure class, participating in “conspicuous leisure” (Veblen). Jefferies takes a stand for the working class as a whole by refusing to adhere to a role that the amount of money he makes seems to dictate.

One reading of the ending, with Jeff in two casts now instead of one, and Lisa comfortably reading a fashion magazine as he sleeps, seems to be that the two have found some middle ground in which they can be happy. He craves the adventure and wants her to be more adventurous, and she obliges while still maintaining a bit of herself. There is a fair amount of projection in this reading, however. Nothing seems to indicate that Lisa could be happy in this economic environment, with a husband living in a poor neighborhood and constantly needing to work in order to maintain his own lifestyle and sanity, and their distance doesn’t seem to be bridged in any way in that regard. She still longs for the lifestyle she has grown used to, and finds solace in the pages of that fashion magazine. It’s a subtle nod to their class differences that leaves the audience wondering if the two characters could ever get over that hurdle.

Perhaps that subtlety is what does Hitchcock a disservice when scholars overlook his commentary on class. Films like Rear Window are rife with commentary on social class dynamics, but ultimately that’s not what the films are “about” on the surface. Perhaps his best example of scholarship looking only at the surface level of a film comes in his most defining statement on character: Psycho (1960). As film scholar Mervyn Nicholson writes in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Class Struggle,” “Critics notice the “dark side” of American society, plainly depicted in Hitchcock’s Hollywood movies; they discuss the alienation and cynicism, the satire, even nihilism, in his films. But the possibility that the alienation in his movies is a function of economic and class issues hardly registers (33)”. Pages and pages of ink have been spilled on the psyche of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and what could possibly make an individual behave in the way he does, but psychoanalysis is only half the story in Psycho.

It might not appear important to the film as a whole as a commentary on psychosis, but it’s nevertheless vital to remember that the film’s catalyst is Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) desire for pulling herself out of the throes of working-class drudgery and stealing money from oil tycoon Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). The film’s entire plot is predicated on a character’s perceived need to fight out of the economic corner in which she felt she was backed; the film itself is a grand commentary on the human mind, certainly, but the role that financial ruin plays in the characters’ lives can’t be ignored. Marion and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are both firmly part of the working class who are struggling to make their own life for themselves, and when Marion meets a caricature of the upper class in Cassidy, she sees an opportunity to make the next step with Sam and pull herself out of ultimately meaningless sex with no prospect of making a family. The film might end up elsewhere, with the focus firmly on a man’s schizophrenic murderous rampage, but one can’t forget where it started: in economic struggle.

In this light, Psycho can be looked at as a film not about psychosis, but one about people’s inability to rise above status, whether it be psychological status, or in Marion’s case, socioeconomic status. Nicholson takes it a step further: “Psycho is all about money—about deprivation, frustration, and the privilege of property. It is about those who work for a living and have nothing—and those who do not work and have everything” (37). In contrast, Psycho is certainly not “all” about money, but it is all about those boxes that humans find themselves in, and the economic box in the case of many of Hitchcock’s films, particularly his later works such as Psycho and Rear Window. He takes on the responsibility of representing the under-represented in film, by giving the marginalized a voice and showing their struggles in ways that bring together both types of audiences, the commercially or culturally wealthy.

In this respect, Hitchcock is one of film’s most important representatives for all types of socioeconomic backgrounds. He is keenly aware of the systems that Nicholson highlights as he writes that capitalistic systems “must propagate the belief that ‘the wealth and privileges of the few are based on natural, inborn superiority,’ the belief that working people choose freely, that the existing system is efficient and just. Or, if not exactly efficient and just, it does not matter, because it is all there is (39).” By placing these characters in boxes that they are despairingly aware of, to the point where suicide, murder, and theft are the only feasible options of escape, we get perhaps one of the most poignantly realistic depictions of class struggle in film. These aren’t characters that can simply be placed on the analyst’s couch and have their childhood repressions expounded upon. These are characters that are wholly results of their environments and the straits in which they find themselves.

So, what exactly is Hitchcock saying about the pursuit of wealth in Psycho, when Marion steals the money, removes herself from her box, only to be brutally murdered? She isn’t murdered for money, but it could certainly be said that she is murdered because of money; money that she didn’t rightfully possess and which ultimately brings her to her death. It might not be such a stretch to say that in all the cases of characters in Hitchcock’s films, perhaps no more exemplified than in Marion, the over-pursuit, the over-extension economically of a character attempting to achieve a higher socioeconomic distinction, results in disaster as an eschewal of the systems that are firmly in place. Economic striving belongs to the privileged, and there are those who will quite simply never achieve higher means. It’s important to remember that simply by Hitchcock showing something, he is not showing his approval. In many cases, it’s quite the opposite.

One of the most explicit examples of a character working up from below the poverty line to disastrous results is the titular character from 1964’s Marnie, played by Tippi Hedren. The film examines one of the most complexly layered characters in any of Hitchcock’s films in the form of Marnie Edgar, a twenty-something living with her mother in Baltimore and traveling around the northeast United States conning various business out of thousands of dollars. Much like Marion in Psycho, she is originally presented as a woman fueled by economic desperation, and while Marion’s thievery only somewhat relatedly results in her death, Marnie is forced into a marriage with a widower publishing CEO named Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Her openly exposed guilt of robbing Mark results in her having no choice but to succumb to his demands, which lead to a strongly hinted-at rape on their “honeymoon,” followed by an attempted suicide.

Ultimately, deep-rooted psychological problems come to light within Marnie, and Mark serves as somewhat of a savior of reconciliation between her and her mother, with whom love was stinted from growing following a traumatic incident early on in Marnie’s life. Whether purposeful or not, Hitchcock has again displayed the futility in upward mobility among the poor; Marnie and her mother are “grindingly poor,” according to Marnie herself, her mother has resorted to prostitution just to provide for their family of two, and Marnie sees no way out of her straits. Mark represents a bailout of sorts and he is seemingly covering Marnie and her mother in a warm blanket of wealth, but the film’s previous 119 minutes hint strongly at the fact that money isn’t going to be a clear reprieve from the problems Marnie has. Marnie ironically tells her mother early on that the Bible says “money answereth all things,” but Hitchcock makes it plain that this couldn’t be further from the truth for her. Hitchcock wraps things up tightly in a bow for the viewers at the end of Marnie, with her psychological dysfunctions worked through and hints at a happy future with Mark a possibility, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that Marnie’s pursuit of riches got her raped, all but kidnapped and held hostage, and her horse killed.

Further than the simple pursuit of ownership, Marnie is particularly interesting in displaying the repercussions of ownership when obtained. Whereas Marion never fully owns her prize in Psycho, Marnie seizes control of the wealth she desires; however disastrous it becomes – it becomes so in life. As Michele Piso writes in “Mark’s Marnie,” “Marnie revolves around the contradictory notion of ‘belonging’ as a matter of possession or domination on the one hand and belonging as a flow of giving and taking, of affinity with a place or a beloved, on the other” (286). Mark and Marnie are in a constant struggle for possession, with the object of possession shifting as the power struggle progresses; Marnie originally seeks to continue with her con and obtain a large sum of money from Mark and his business, while Mark only seeks to obtain Marnie herself. As Mark gains the upper hand, he hopes to obtain her love and sexuality, which he ultimately forcefully takes from her, just as she forcefully took his money from him – as Piso writes, “The convergence of differences that could result in a shared public world occurs instead as private collisions, acts of violation and invasion. In Marnie’s case, the invasion is robbery; in Mark’s the violation is rape” (282). Mark’s desires of possession continue to lay solely in Marnie herself, while hers shifts to her own autonomy, something he feels he can provide by helping her, ultimately getting what he wants in return. The opposing searches for possession in Marnie highlights a frightening economic realization: the poor simply seek autonomy, free-will, a chance, escape, while the rich seek to maintain their hold on the poor. Marnie and Mark are Hitchcock’s most clear-cut examples of the oppressed working-class fighting to escape their box.

Maybe scholars are forgetting that simple fact when they overlook Hitchcock as a keen observer of social injustices when it comes to class. He certainly shows a very slim subset of characters, all of varying degrees of whiteness and varying degrees of privilege, but the differences in their abilities to rise above their station are great. The trend may change over time. In his essay “Reputation Building and the Film Art World: The Case for Alfred Hitchcock,” Robert E. Kaspis writes of Hitchcock’s changing reputation as a master of the art world, “The transformation of Hitchcock's reputation is an intriguing case study of how an ‘artist’ or ‘auteur’ is socially constructed and of the forces which influence reassessments of reputation and cultural meaning” (15). The same shift in perception could very well take place when it comes to class dynamics in his films. The examples are there, even aside from Rear Window, Psycho, and Marnie; Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) overextends his status by murdering rich women, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) in The Wrong Man (1956) is a man in dire economic straits, and because of that perception of him in his society, is wrongfully accused of a crime. Hitchcock is keenly aware of the boxes in which we live, and the various ways that people attempt to rise out and above them, and it’s in these moments in his films that the viewer comes closest to their own realities and some semblance of humanity in his work.