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hitchcock s'est trompé

21 october 2023

Hitchcock s'est trompé – "Hitchock was wrong" – is this year's offering from Pierre Bayard, in Minuit's "Paradoxe" series.

By now you know the shtick: Bayard will take a famous murder mystery and reveal that the detective got it wrong. What's different this time is that it's a movie (Rear Window) instead of a book; it never was much of a mystery story; and though there may be a murder in the film, we were always looking at the wrong one.

I'll spoil Bayard's conclusion, because it's hard to talk about Hitchcock s'est trompé without doing so. He starts with an exemplary, scene-by-scene synopsis of Rear Window. The ubiquity of home video in the past 40 years has made such analyses possible. When critics first saw Rear Window, or returned to it in art-house revivals (though it disappeared for decades at one point), they had to try to take it all in, in real time, and remember or reconstruct it from notes. Anymore, you just crawl through it, practically frame by frame, at your leisure. Bayard's exercise confirms that Rear Window must be one of the most visually intricate narratives ever attempted.

But also, seen in such detail, a very flawed narrative. Raymond Burr (as Thorwald) kills his annoying wife, chops her into pieces, and takes her out a suitcaseful at a time to dump her in the East River. Nobody notices except James Stewart, shut-in with a broken leg. His friends – Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and Wendell Corey – are initially skeptical. You're a peeping Tom, Ritter's character (Stella) tells Stewart's (Jeff). Corey, as the police detective Doyle, is outright dismissive. But Kelly, as Jeff's girlfriend Lisa, more quickly aligns herself with Jeff's murder theory. It becomes a veritable folie à deux.

Madness, because there's no reason to believe Mrs. Thorwald is dead. The killing is unseen. Her body never appears. Witnesses have placed her here and there, after the supposed killing occurs. Everything Thorwald does has a mundane explanation; if it's perhaps criminal, it is far more plausibly about stolen goods than murder.

Of course, Thorwald eventually attacks Jeff (after a great deal of provocation). And Thorwald is reported as confessing to the murder. Bayard shows cleverly, though, that the "confession" must have been elicited in a matter of seconds, and could have consisted of no more than a sharp remark or two. There is no known motive. Thorwald's actions don't add up (not to mention that, for the film to exist at all, they have to mostly take place in front of an open window, which is the height of unlikely).

Film critics always see Jeff as a voyeur. Bayard disagrees: Jeff, he says, is clearly paranoid. He fits everything into his schema for making sense of Thorwald as a murderer. Lisa comes to accept the whole narrative; so does Stella. Doyle remains the last holdout, till holding out seems untenable. But Bayard notes that the mystery might well be resolved minutes after the conclusion of the film by the production of a live Mrs. Thorwald (who had possibly absconded for undisclosed reasons, benign or larcenous or just inscrutable). In a telling observation, he notes that Jeff is shown with Lisa in a coda at film's end. Jeff's apartment is a shrine to his exploits, but in the end there's nothing there to show that he's broken a second leg while catching a killer.

Bayard demonstrates that Alfred Hitchock's work shows a pervasive concern with men unjustly accused of crimes. One of his films is even called The Wrong Man. The plots of The Lodger, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Young and Innocent, and North by Northwest hinge on false accusations. Apparent guilt that resolves into innocence – or, as in Suspicion, remains undecidable – is practically Hitchcock's trademark. So Thorwald may be only another in a long sequence of wrong men.

Bayard cites evidence from parody. A TV episode called "Mr. Blanchard's Secret," directed by Hitchcock himself, ends with the Thorwald substitute exonerated. (So, for that matter, does a Simpsons sketch in the episode "Bart of Darkness," where Ned Flanders hasn't killed his wife, either.) Was this parody a sly admission that Thorwald was wronged?

But to see Hitchock's œuvre as being all about wrong men is in itself tendentious, if not paranoiacally so. Robert Walker really does commit the murder in Strangers on a Train. Joseph Cotten really is the Merry Widow murderer in Shadow of a Doubt. There is no shadow of a doubt about the guilt of John Dall and Farley Granger in Rope. Edmund Gwenn almost succeeds in pushing Joel McCrea from the cathedral tower in Foreign Correspondent. There are a lot of wrong men in Hitchock's movies, but a lot of right ones, too.

I will not spoil the way that Bayard solves the one murder in Rear Window. I was proud of myself for even guessing what that murder was. To solve it, Bayard makes excurses into the work of Anne Simon and Jacques Derrida. But not the signature/event/context Derrida: instead, the Derrida who got weirded out by his cat looking at him in the bathroom.

Bayard, Pierre. Hitchcock s'est trompé: Fenêtre sur cour, contre-enquête. Paris: Minuit, 2023.