used to listen to a radio show when I was a boy which began with a deep bass voice saying,
Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Movies know, too. Films make the human psyche visible as heroes and
villains act out scripts we already have in our imaginations; they give us a glimpse of
the human psychology behind law-breakingand lawmaking.
Alfred Hitchcocks Vertigo is a good example of film
revealing the darker side of human nature. When we
first meet "Scotty" Ferguson (James Stewart) we immediately recognize him as a
man who puts a premium on "control" in his life. Not a surprising personality
trait in a former lawyer who is now a retired San Francisco police detective. Scotty has
little interest in life, and less in sex. His only friend is Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes),
whose painfully obvious love for him he ignores; in fact, the only sexual interest he
exhibits is the mixture of fascination, fear and disdain he demonstrates in inspecting a
bra he finds in her apartment.
Scotty seems a harmless, if lonely, man, but Hitchcock shows us
that he has the potential to become a sadist, a monster whose need to remake the world and
people in the image of his fantasies leads to violence.
During the first hour of the film, Scotty forms an erotic
attachment to a frosty blonde aristocrat named Madeleine (Kim Novak) he is hired to
follow. He has been told by her husband that Madeleine has threatened suicide and Scotty
earnestly tries to save her from that fate, but he is unsuccessful. When she does die, he
blames himself for her death and falls into deep depression.
A year later he sees a young woman on the street who looks like a
workingclass image of his lost love. He follows her to her hotel where she claims to
be Judy Barton, a salesgirl in a San Francisco department store. He
asks her out. Here the sadism begins. Hitchcock changes the perspective of the film from
that of Scotty to that of Judy, his new "love." But the audience quickly sees
that Scotty has no interest in Judy other than in recreating her in the image of the dead
Madeleine. Accordingly, we see from Judy's perspective his badgering need to change her
hair color, her hair style, her clothes, every detail of behavior which allows her to be
herself. No excuse can stop him from bending her towards the goal of recreating his
Eventually he discovers that she is in fact his lost love,
and that he has been the victim of a ruse to conceal a murder. Despite her relative
innocence and pleas that she has risked discovery only because she so loves him, Scotty
finds no forgiveness within himself and hounds Judy to her death.
Scotty's sadistic treatment of Judy is even more troubling when we
consider how he got involved with her as Madeline in the first place. He took the job of
following her, not for the money, but because he was intrigued by the story told about her
and wanted to solve the mystery; then he became protective of her as a lost innocent whom
he wanted to save from a suicidal fate. Finally, he became sexually obsessed with her. So
we see the Madeleine/Judy transformed in Scotty's mind from a piece in an intellectual
puzzle, to an innocent victim, to romantic love, to sexual icon, to duplicitous fraud, to
object of revenge. Yet all along it was just workingclass Judy Barton, a woman
Scotty never knew at all.
This phenomenon of a male a character setting out to
"save" a woman only to end up as her executioner is not limited to Vertigo
or to Hitchcock. We see a similar phenomenon in John Ford's The Searchers.
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) shows us a similar transformation from savior to sadist in his
actions towards his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). The young pre- pubescent Debbie has been
kidnaped by red Indians and the "search" starts as an attempt to rescue her, but
as the years pass and it becomes clear that she has become a woman cohabiting with an
Indian warrior, the object of the search changes from saving Debbie to exterminating her
because her purity has been polluted by sleeping with a nonwhite.
In both films, the audience recognizes that the protagonists are
being driven by factors beyond their control, or even conscious knowledge. How should we
react to films like these? Are they telling us something of value? Some say we should
treat movies as mere entertainments with no connection to real life. But this
seems a short-sighted view. The reason we are attracted to film narratives is because in
some sense we identify with the characters emotions. For instance, while I would
never commit the criminal acts perpetrated by the protagonists in A Simple Plan, it
is only because I can identify with their greed that I find the movie engrossing. On the
other hand, it would be a mistake to accept films like Vertigo and The Searchers
as accurate social reportage, proof of an incontrovertible sexism and racism which poisons
the white male psyche. This view confuses fiction with reality.
I think watching films like Vertigo and The Searchers
should convince us that, no matter how many times your Torts professor told you otherwise,
there is no such thing as the reasonable person; we are all affected by
unconscious motivations which color our social interactions. Most likely these unconscious
motivations are even stronger when sex and/or race are involved.
The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a
study which showed that when patients of different races and sexes all reported the same
symptoms to doctors, they received radically different diagnoses. The white male patients
were selected for the highest quality care. I dont think this means these doctors
were racists or sexists in any active sense of those words, but it
does appear that they unconsciously attributed greater value to white male
The Supreme Court decided a case a few years ago which made the
same point. The plaintiff was an African-American who had been convicted in Georgia of
murder and sentenced to death. He challenged his conviction on the theory that racial
motivation had influenced the white prosecutors decision to ask for the death
penalty and the white jurys decision to vote to inflict it. In support of his suit,
his lawyers presented a sophisticated statistical study which showed that a black man
accused of killing a white was eight times more likely to receive the death penalty in
Georgia than a white who killed a black. The study was entirely consistent with The New
England Journal of Medicine study; a white life was just considered more valuable.
This, of course, does not mean that the prosecutors or juries in
Georgia were racist in the sense of consciously applying different standards
on the basis of race, but it does seem likely that racial stereotypes unconsciously
influenced their decision.
The Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs study and upheld
his death sentence. One senses that the Court felt that accepting the existence of
unconscious racial motivation would somehow undermine the publics belief in the
neutrality of the law. It would be reassuring to believe that unconscious racial prejudice
doesnt affect our justice system from top to bottom just as it would be reassuring
to believe that it was mere coincidence that the unarmed man the New York police shot
forty-one times was a minority. But we do know that it is not true. The interesting
question is not whether unconscious racial sexual prejudice exists, but what we, including
the Supreme Court, are willing to do about it. Because, no matter how strident the
Courts denials, the Shadow knows.