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In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the Ambassador, while plotting to kill the Prime Minister, orders the kidnapped American child Hank McKenna killed, telling his would-be gunman, Edward Drayton: “Don’t you realize that Americans dislike having their children stolen?” Earlier in the movie, Jo McKenna entertains her son and husband by singing “Que Sera Sera,” and its playfulness becomes darkly ironic when she sings “the future’s not ours to see” on the eve of her son’s kidnapping.
The movie unfolds as a cat-and-mouse game in which the McKennas desperately try to locate and save their kidnapped son, revealing a recurring Hitchcock narrative device in his American movies: He often situates children and young adults in perilous situations that render adults as powerless to provide protection. This essay examines four of Hitchcock’s American movies for how they reflect, through their use of children and young adults, a collective societal anxiety of lost innocence during the so-called era of “Victory Culture”: The United States, from the end of WWII to the early onset of Vietnam, saw itself as an emerging and subsequently established world superpower. While Hitchcock is certainly not the first and only filmmaker to use children and young adults as reflections of societal anxiety, he demonstrates a unique ability to utilize them as vessels to mirror societal anxiety about the morally-dubious future of the Western “superpower” state even as that state clings to its morally-righteous “Victory” identity. These four movies—Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and The Birds (1963)—reveal the heart of this anxiety as a glaring inability to protect or shield children and young adults from the horrors of the modern world—horrors that render an “un-seeable” future, which for the American is contradictory to the nation’s mythological vision of shaping and controlling the future.
While an extended critical dialogue concerning Hitchcock’s treatment of children and young adults is, for the most part, non-existent, many critics point to Shadow of a Doubt (1943) as a turning point for Hitchcock the social commentator. It is his first movie to fully showcase both a child and a young adult in imminent danger. Robin Wood writes that Hitchcock overcame a “cautious” approach to filmmaking in America to hit full stride “with Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat (the sixth and seventh Hollywood films) [where he] begins to grapple with the realities and mythologies (material, cultural, spiritual, and ideological) of ‘America. He uses children and young adults as symbols of social anxiety for lost community and as representations of communal stability and as progenitors of human existence. And when the community can no longer protect its children, the community’s (or nation’s or world’s) very existence is jeopardized. As Hitchcock frames them, children and young adults in peril become symbolic of something much larger: Inscribed on their beings are the anxieties of a culture at large—anxieties about murder, war, terrorism, apocalypse, and so forth—and how these anxieties are meant to reflect audiences’ own proximity to the horrors of the modern world.
The American period (particularly the late-WWII to late-1960s period) of Hitchcock’s filmmaking can be considered his “Modern” period. While American attitudes shifted quite radically from post-WW II victory euphoria to Cold War anxiety to Vietnam-era (and after) loss of innocence, so, too, does Hitchcock’s attitude toward his narratives’ children and young adults (and, of course, the adults who are often rendered powerless to keep them out of harm’s way). David Trotter argues that “Hitchcock’s films continued to represent human experience from the point of view of representation; while acknowledging, in a manner we might call Modernist, that the nature and scope of representation’s ‘point of view’ had become, more urgently than ever before, the issue. Not surprisingly, then, given the social climate of the United States, this is the period in which Hitchcock “gets serious,” and in which he further complicates the elements of claustrophobia seen in his British movies by drawing upon the events of his childhood to inform the work, such as his infamous jail cell experience: “[Hitchcock] ‘recalled a story about his childhood when his father sent him, aged four or five, to the police station with a note asking the sergeant to lock him into a cell for five or ten minutes. Hitchcock was indeed locked in the cell for five minutes, and that incident, along with a parental “abandonment” incident when he has very young (his parents left him alone with a maid), contributed to his fascination with suspense narratives, the conventions of which would make him famous, including: “the unexpected complication,” “the subjective camera,” “claustrophobia,” and “the mind of the murderer. Hitchcock’s childhood, as many have argued, shaped his artistic vision, including his “obsession with the detail of suffering—perhaps because of his oversensitive and protected childhood” as well as his “general British interest in crime,” most notably murder.
Hitchcock’s emigration to the United States was in fact couched in his desire for more artistic “freedom” in his filmmaking, a direct result of his antagonistic relationship with the British film industry; in the late 1930s, he “began to believe that American audiences would permit him more freedom in his films.” Indisputably, Hitchcock’s films during the American period do adhere to certain genre conventions (suspense, psychological thriller, comedy, and even horror). To showcase his children and young adults in peril, Hitchcock often works with genre conventions more commonly associated with the psychological thriller and horror genres, in that he utilizes a threatening, monstrous presence which often serves as the major focus of the narrative. Beyond that, both the source of the monstrous threat and the nature and character of those who combat it and are pursued by it are foregrounded to varying degrees, often leading to a plot sequencing that relies on the stages of “order, disorder, order.” Finally, many of his movies (including the four films under investigation in this essay) reflect his (and society’s) changing attitudes about Americans’ ability to shield their children and young adults from the potential harm of the monstrous presence, including a long-standing American film tradition that children must survive. But certainly viewers will remember Hitchcock’s British film Sabotage (1936), with its terrorist plot leading to the inadvertent death of the child Stevie. Stevie, while unknowingly delivering a bomb for a terrorist, becomes distracted long enough (while petting a puppy, no less) to be killed when it detonates. Hitchcock was not afraid to place the child in harm’s way in Sabotage, foreshadowing a thematic trend he would continue in his American filmmaking.

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Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock

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Palgrave Macmillan


This is the pre-copy-edited author's manuscript as accepted for publication. Reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. This extract is taken from the author's original manuscript and has not been edited. The definitive, published, version of record is available here: