May 14, 2009

Random Musing: The 39 Steps

*“The 39 Steps” and Viewer/Audience Participation: The Epitome of British Hitchcock*

Without a doubt, “The 39 Steps” is the quintessential example of Hitchcock’s British work—a perfect, neatly-assembled combination of all of his themes and styles into one film. A certain overarching tendency of his work continues to be an awareness of his films’ viewers, particularly by including themes that center on “viewing,” such as spectacles and voyeurism. This awareness furthermore implicates his films’ spectators into the actions of his protagonist(s), just as, from a symptomatic, global perspective, all world citizens were being implicated into combating the rise of evil in the 1930s. Thus, in Hitchcock’s “light spy thrillers” of the 1930s (Hark 9), the recurring theme of “the wrong man” on the run who must stop the work of evil in order to free himself, I contend, runs parallel to and deals with fear of the growing world crisis from Germany. In any case, film viewers become as implicated in the idea of Hitchcock’s new film “citizenship” as the hero himself, thus acknowledging Hitchcock’s tendency toward making the incorporation of the viewer into this “citizenry” central to the film. Therefore, a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s British films concerns the way that he acknowledges his viewers by incorporating them into his films through parallels to on-screen audiences. He accomplishes this by comparing the two audiences through framing, which matches real, off-screen audiences to on-screen audiences’ political responsibility as “citizens.”

Before going too far, though, a working definition of Hitchcock’s “political citizenship” is necessary, especially for how it applies to on- and off-screen audiences. First, it is important to recognize that the film begins and ends in halls with viewers/audiences. Hitchcock’s propensity toward narrative circularity in his early British films returns to “The 39 Steps” to center the story on the on-screen viewers, thus acknowledging the real, off-screen viewers. Hark identifies the connection as “positioning the film’s viewer as guilty, voyeuristic spectator, [which] corresponds to the positioning of the acquiescent audience member within the film as ‘bad citizen’” (13). To explain the usage of this term, as Hark develops it, Hitchcock transforms the idea of an audience and spectacle into a political democracy where the spectacle is often an enemy who tries to lull the audience into a stupor of entrancement and passivity, usually by means of socially sanctioned silence (8). By the same token, Hitchcock “endorses participatory democracy” (12), where audiences become active. Activity involves fulfilling the duties required to combat an enemy who threatens the freedoms of democracy. For example, on-screen viewers fulfill their duty to becoming active by breaking their passivity, represented by silence. By extrapolation, Hitchcock wants to snap real viewers out of their own political hypnotization and passivity, too, in order to shape them into active viewers who analyze the images before them and glean a message.

However, before identifying the comparisons of on- and off-screen viewers’ political responsibility as “citizens,” the recognition of visual mutual identification between Hitchcock’s on- and off-screen audiences is warranted. This, in turn, develops audiences’ mutual identification as “citizens.” First, Hitchcock compares on- and off-screen audiences by way of framing; that is, the two audiences are frequently one and the same in a shot’s off-screen space. For example, in shots presenting the democratic relation between a given onscreen speaker and his audience, framing separates those two and tends to place on- and off-screen audiences together in the off-screen space, mutually identified. The on-screen speaker is usually presented alone in a medium or close-up, low-angle shot that both esteems him and maintains his separation from the spectators. In this way, the film’s two on-screen public speakers and audiences are all paralleled by identical framing. However, the real difference between the film’s two speakers, Mr. Memory and Hannay, is found in what they say. This difference thus brings about the different forms of political “citizenship.” While medium, low angle shots seclude Mr. Memory from his audience, his regurgitation of facts toward them in the off-screen space dupes them into a false sense of security and passivity. On the other hand, when Hannay addresses the crowd at the political function, he is also secluded from the crowd with medium, then close-up, low angle shots, but the recounting of his personal predicament excites the audience, transforming them from passivity to activity as they begin to fidget, murmur, then cheer. Thus, while the two examples of spectacles seem to be set up the same way visually, the activity or passivity of the audience hinges on the speaker’s words, activity being achieved through presentation of new information. Meanwhile, the film’s real viewers are engaged simultaneously because of the framing’s seclusion of the speakers—though viewers expect the reverse shot of a given speaker to be the on-screen crowd in both cases, the speaker, thanks to his isolation, is just as much addressing the real viewers off-screen as he is the on-screen audience in the off-screen space.

Besides comparison of audiences in a shot’s off-screen space, point-of-view shots, of course, serve to connect on-screen characters’ perspectives to off-screen film viewers. However, in the Hitchcockian sense, the characters share with viewers their feelings of paranoia or anxiety. They specifically share with viewers the anxiety of unabashed voyeurism, representing off-screen audiences’ cinema screen with on-screen windows or facilitative tools for seeing. As an example of transmitting paranoia, Hannay sits on the train after escaping his flat and listens to the men across from him discuss Annabella’s murder in the newspaper. With the camera showing his point of view, he asks to see the newspaper, and his perspective becomes that of the viewers, as well. A reverse shot shows Hannay from only the eyes up, hiding behind the paper, and then his eyes slowly rise up from the print and travel slightly toward the off-screen right. An eyeline match in the next shot identifies the man with the pipe as staring at Hannay and, thus, at viewers. Out-of-focus at the bottom of the frame, the newspaper article shows Hannay’s photograph next to an article declaring Annabella’s murder, but selective focus reveals the other passenger’s eyes just above the top of the page, staring straight into Hannay (and viewers) and articulating paranoia in both, as it seems he recognizes them both and might expose them. A shot/reverse shot combination of the same images continues to heighten the suspense as it seems that the passenger is wise to Hannay, and thus viewers, in their mission. Thus, mutual paranoia between on-screen characters and off-screen spectators conveys a fear of being found out as active “citizens” engaged in exacting their mutual political responsibility by way of voyeurism.

The previous example does one other thing besides simply comparing on-screen characters and off-screen audiences by way of point-of-view shots. It also features the reverse, which is a character “breaking the fourth wall,” where a character stares directly back at the ones who are doing the staring, the imaginary barrier of film is broken, and awareness of the spectator is generated. In point-of-view shots, off-screen audiences watch others from the perspective of a character, but a different kind of mutual comparison occurs because others are watching them. Because the man with the pipe seems aware of viewers watching him, they become paranoid and forced to feel ashamed for their voyeurism (and perhaps, activity). In another prominent example, awareness of the spectator by “breaking the fourth wall” also employs character identification by endowing the spectators, just like the protagonist, as active “citizens.” As Hannay looks at the map of Scotland that Annabella had been clutching when she died, her face is suddenly superimposed on it, and she looks directly at Hannay and at viewers, imploring both to help her mission. “The police will not believe me any more than you did,” she says, chastising both viewers and Hannay but also implicating them in her quest because she obviously cannot complete it. After she finishes recounting her former goals, her face suddenly fades away, and both Hannay and viewers have been left to her mission, now their mission.

At this point, comparisons of on- and off-screen viewers’ political responsibility as “citizens” can now be generated. Audience activity, according to Hitchcock, engenders “good citizens,” such as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, where the protagonists understand their entitlement to stop the spies upon becoming implicated in the web of espionage. However, the “bad citizen” becomes introduced to “The 39 Steps” because the on-screen audiences adhere to the “socially sanctioned activity” (15) of silence and passivity. For example, at the beginning of the film, the audience sits together as a “moron mass” (14) while Mr. Memory pacifies them into a false state of security with his “hollow reflection of free speech” (18). By extrapolation, off-screen audiences, with whom on-screen audiences are identified, are also pacified into inactivity by watching without thinking. On the other hand, at the end of the film, when Hannay’s forceful, directed question of “What are the 39 Steps?!” erupts from the mass, Mr. Memory is trapped in a low-angle close-up when he is taken aback by the question, and he is killed while enabling the now-active audience with information. By offering this particular shot of Mr. Memory, Hitchcock connects on- and off-screen viewers to Hannay’s perspective, negotiating mutual active spectatorship for all. By questioning everything, all viewers have become active. Thus, the on-screen and off-screen audiences, by way of Hannay, have finally become the ideal of a “participatory democracy.” (However, off-screen audiences, unlike the others, run away soon after, which will be explained further later.)

The differences between Hitchcock’s political activity and passivity can also be distinguished by way of the contrast between voyeurism and spectacles used in “The 39 Steps.” Voyeurism involves a character or audience thinking about what they see, which ultimately leads to knowledge. Spectacles, on the other hand, are simply entertainment that blind viewers, effectively incapacitating their thoughts and, thus, ability to gain knowledge. Voyeurism, then, is usually deemed “active” because it involves off-screen audiences and/or a given on-screen character hiding in an off-screen capacity and actively employing the power of unrestricted observation to study something without permission. Thus, the active voyeurs are usually off-screen, so as not to be seen. There, the resulting acquisition of knowledge which others do not share in essentially means “knowledge is power.” As L.B. Jeffries proves in Hitchcock’s later work, “Rear Window,” voyeurism can mean considerable knowledge and certainly power. Knowledge, unrestricted observation, and proper utilization of the cinematic screen actually endow the film’s most socially constructive voyeurs. For example, at the Palladium in the film’s final scene, viewers gaze through the opera glasses by Hannay’s perspective and see a visual exchange between Mr. Memory onstage and the Professor in a box as the “glasses” pan from one man to the other in a medium close-up. The glasses become a tool that also signifies the cinematic screen as viewers again become voyeurs aware of an interaction between two men whom are being spied upon unaware. Besides unrestricted observation permitting Hannay’s gain of knowledge, another factor benefits him: the power of the audience (democracy) surrounding him and his greater knowledge of the situation transpiring around him, which makes him the informed citizen of on-screen participatory democracy. In this way, on-screen Hannay and the off-screen audience have collaborated in the common goal of an active, participatory democracy.

As I already outlined in contrast to voyeurs, spectacles produce “passive” on-screen audiences who become so absorbed that they no longer think about what they are watching. Remember that the difference between Mr. Memory’s and Hannay’s speeches rests in the messages—a regurgitation of facts causes passivity, whereas the personal becoming political inspires activity. To outline passivity, then, an analysis of Mr. Memory is necessary. The first scene of the film, in which Mr. Memory appears, begins by presenting a pan of a flashing sign that reads “Music Hall,” indicating a spectacle. Inside, as Hark identifies, Mr. Memory is literally an enemy of participatory democracy, lulling his guests into inactivity as they ask non-pointed, insipid questions and he responds only to the questions to which he can respond with facts. When Mr. Memory performs at the Palladium at the end of the film, the fact that Memory’s purpose is to entertain is established by a detective who emphasizes, “You don’t want to cause any trouble and spoil these people’s entertainment,” arguing that Hannay’s decision to stand up as a “good citizen” would shatter the passivity—and thus, entertainment—of the audience. Hitchcock’s theme of “murder as entertainment” is invoked when Mr. Memory is shot in the process of revealing the secret of the 39 Steps. Remember that knowledge is power and leads to activity—thus, Memory’s divulging of information has led to activity and he is no longer a spectacle. However, the fleeing of the on-screen audience after his murder is very much passivity because they are choosing to do nothing with the information they have and, thus, are Hitchcockian “bad citizens.” This agrees with the way passive characters are generally considered “bad citizens” because they deny and ignore their implication into “citizenship” and responsibility in participatory democracy. In this way, perhaps Hitchcock is giving more credit to the off-screen, voyeuristic audiences than to the on-screen, spectacle-fixated audiences. It is because activity is better than passivity in participatory democracy.

As a result, a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s British films concerns the way that he acknowledges his films’ spectators by incorporating them into the films by way of parallels to on-screen characters and audiences. For example, Hitchcock employs various aspects of framing to ultimately generate a sense of mutual political responsibility for on- and off-screen audiences as “citizens.” Off-screen spectators are compared to “active” voyeurs, endowed with knowledge and quick to fulfill their duties as “citizens,” whereas on-screen spectators are frequently shown as “passive,” absorbed in a spectacle and trying to run away from their duties as “citizens.” In addition, Hitchcock also mutually identifies on-screen characters and audiences with off-screen audiences by way of point-of-view shots and characters who “break the fourth wall,” all of whom, respectively, either watch together or are watched as a collective. Certainly, Hitchcock employs collectivity, knowledge, and participatory democracy as a way of fighting the antagonists in the film, but the particular construction of his 1930s spy thrillers, such as the outlined “The 39 Steps,” likely deals with the symptomatic implications of evil in the real world of the 1930s, when fascism was a growing threat to the world. As a result, Hitchcock’s message of developing an active, participatory democracy in the film may be a message for global mobilization of off-screen audiences against the threat of evil. Like Annabella’s plea for help and the implication of Hannay and off-screen audiences in her mission, Hitchcock also begs off-screen audiences to listen to the information he presents. Like Hannay, his personal predicament is intended to excite the audience, transforming them from passivity to activity in the real world’s political stage. In “The 39 Steps,” then, the personal is political.

*NOTE: This musing finds much of its basis in a film article by scholar Ina Rae Hark. Citation: Hark, Ina Rae. "Keeping Your Amateur Standing: Audience Participation and Good Citizenship in Hitchcock's Political Films." Cinema Journal 29.2 (1990): 8-22.*

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