December 15, 2017
Hitchcock, De Quincey, Murder
On this day in 1980 Alfred Hitchcock died at the age of eighty. Hitchcock averaged a film a year for over fifty years, and all but a handful of them began as a short story, novel or play. While many films came from "shocker" or noir writers such as Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window), or more mainstream suspense writers such as Daphne du Maurier (The Birds, Rebecca), John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train), a surprising number came from more famous or literary types -- Conrad, Steinbeck, Galsworthy, Maugham, Wyndham Lewis, Sean O'Casey and others. Hitchcock worked with Thornton Wilder, and tried to work with Raymond Chandler, and wanted to work with Hemingway. The biographies report that Hitchcock read widely looking for new sources; they also make it clear that, once found, the text was treated with anything from imagination to contempt.
At the conclusion to one of his last public speeches, a tribute gala held at the Lincoln Center on this day in 1974, Hitchcock made a connection to a much older literary source. This came in the context of his plea "that murder should be treated delicately," and "brought into the home where it rightly belongs," rather than left to "the underworld thug who is able to murder anyone -- even people to whom he has not been properly introduced":
Finally, I think I can best describe the insidious effect of murder on one's character by reading a paragraph from Thomas De Quincey's delightful essay "Murder as One of the Fine Arts." He said: "If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun on this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dates his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time."
But Hitchcock and De Quincey are linked by more than a good joke. De Quincey's "Murder" essays -- there were three magazine installments, the first in 1827 -- were framed as satire, but they provided the "impulse for an innovative art form cum aesthetic ... that pointed the way toward the work of Poe and Baudelaire, of Wilde and Borges, of Robbe-Grillet and Eco, of Hitchcock and De Palma " (Joel Black, The Aesthetics of Murder). The first essay contains the first English usage of the adverb "aesthetically" in any context, let alone in application to murder. The third installment is a detailed study of two sensational murder cases of the day, and here De Quincey is so caught up in recreating the scene of the crime that he not only drops any pretence of satire but jumps to the present tense -- if not the film treatment:
They tell me that murder is committed every minute, so I don't want to waste any more of your time. I know you want to get to work. Thank you.
What was it? On the stairs -- not the stairs that led downwards to the kitchen, but the stairs that led upstairs to the single storey of bedchambers above -- was heard a creaking sound. Next was heard most distinctly a footfall: one, two, three, four, five stairs were slowly and distinctly descended. Then the dreadful footsteps were heard advancing along the little narrow passage to the door. The steps -- oh heavens? whose steps? -- have paused at the door. The very breathing can be heard of that dreadful being who has silenced all breathing except his own in the house. There is a door between him and Mary. What is he doing on the other side of the door?...
De Quincey and Hitchcock can be connected in other ways. As 'tortured soul'-mates, they shared the same restless productivity, the doppelganger themes, the dark humor, the shadow-dweller's temperament -- though Hitchcock became rich on his, and given to drink and food rather than opium.