Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.03

Mark William Padilla, Classical Myth in Four Films of Alfred Hitchcock.   Lanham; Boulder; New York; London:  Lexington Books, 2016.  Pp. xvii, 295.  ISBN 9781498529150.  $100.00.  


Reviewed by Edmund P. Cueva, University of Houston-Downtown (cuevae@uhd.edu)

Preview

Mark W. Padilla’s Classical Myth in Four Films of Alfred Hitchcock is an interesting book that analyzes Hitchcock’s films to demonstrate “the capacity of ancient myth to organize thematic-rich narrative” (2). The book is divided into five chapters: “Introduction”; “One: Hestia’s Hearths and the Judgment of Paris in The Farmer’s Wife”; “Two: Eleusinian Mysteries and Heroic Catabasis in the 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much”; “Three: The Heroine Pattern of Cupid and Psyche in Rebecca”; “Four: Crisscrossing Strangers on a Train with the Homeric Hymn to Hermes.” The book includes a list of the feature films of Alfred Hitchcock, forty-seven photographs, and an appendix of story summaries.

Padilla provides close readings of the four films and analyzes the mythological components in them. The author asserts that the artistic forces and cultural currents of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-centuries must have influenced Hitchcock to seek or include classical materials in these films. Additionally, Hitchcock’s three years of study at a Jesuit preparatory, which presumably had the ratio studiorum as its educational curriculum, implanted into the director a lasting knowledge of the classics and classical mythology that shaped his work. However, these artistic forces, cultural currents, and Jesuit training all must have functioned for him at the subconscious or unconscious levels, as Padilla writes that “Hitchcock does not refer to the presence of myths in his films, but he came of age in a culture that remained engaged with classicism and neoclassicism … whether in the classroom or in the public realm” (5). Moreover, arguing that Hitchcock used myth as the “glue for his patterned approach to building up scenes involving reoccurring ideas and visual tropes” (5), so Padilla aims to uncover the myths that are interwoven into these four films.

“Hestia’s Hearths and the Judgment of Paris in The Farmer’s Wife” introduces the reader to Padilla’s methodological approach and suggests that myth played an important role in Hitchcock’s films from an early point his career. This silent film, the director’s seventh, was created in 1928 and is an adaptation of a play of the same name, written by Eden Phillpotts and first staged in 1916. At work in The Farmer’s Wife are the myths associated with Hestia, Paris (and his judgment of the three goddesses), Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, and Hera. Hestia is reflected in the character of Minta, who looks after Sam at the request of his dying wife. Minta takes on the nurturing role in Sam’s household but does not become his wife. Rather, after witnessing the marriage of his own daughter, Sam decides that he needs to remarry. He then ventures to make a judgment about whom to marry: Louisa Windeatt (Hera or perhaps Artemis), Thirza Tapper (Aphrodite), or Mary Hearn (Athena); another character named Mercy Bassett is also a possible bride, and Padilla suggests she may be seen as a Dionysian bacchante. Padilla makes use of a multitude of sources to support his interpretation of the mythological components of the film, for example Hesiod, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, the Splanchnopt Painter pyxis (British Museum 1894, 0719.1), Walter McEwen’s The Judgment of Paris, and the Campo Iemini Venus. The sections on Hestia and the Judgment of Paris are quite convincing.

In the second chapter, “Eleusinian Mysteries and Heroic Catabasis in the 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Padilla focuses on the 1934 film rather than the 1956 film because, he argues, the mythological components have a greater resonance in the 1934 version. These components emphasize “archetype and traditional motif” and incorporate “the heroic myth to resolve” crises (99). The discussion of myth in this film is multilayered and thought-provoking, as we encounter the figures of Demeter and Persephone in the characters of Jill and Betty Lawrence, the Minoan labyrinth myth in the St. Moritz mountain retreat, and Dionysus (costumed as Heracles) and Xanthias in the characters of Bob Lawrence and Clive. Padilla’s textual resources for this analysis are The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Aristophanes’ Frogs. The author connects the threat of the loss of a child made to Demeter, the archetype of maternity, to the abduction of the Lawrence child, and sees them as a reflection of the then-current fascist threat stemming from Nazi Germany. The section on the “Storm Clouds Cantata,” which is found in subchapter entitled, “The Demeter Who Knew Too Much,” and the “Metal Magic” subchapter are somewhat confusing and need, perhaps, a more focused analysis. At times, it feels that the lines of argumentation are desultory. The problem might be that Padilla “finds” too many references to too many myths in some parts of his analysis. Sometimes an opera is just an opera, and a cymbal is just a cymbal.

“The Heroine Pattern of Cupid and Psyche in Rebecca” argues for a “redeployment” of the myth from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses in Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Padilla begins his analysis by noting that the unnamed heroine who refers to herself as “I” in the film and, therefore, is similarly referred to as “I” by scholars who have worked on the film, is an analogue to the figure of Psyche. It is a bit difficult, however, to follow Padilla’s line of reasoning at this point. He notes that the ancient Greek word for soul is Psyche and then writes, “The naming convention also suggests that she has an identity in the making; ‘I’ is shorthand for the mythic heroine” (151). Is the intent that “Psyche/soul” means that the heroine has not yet developed in some way? This may be the case for the development of the “I” in the film who has not yet matured in any meaningful way, but it is somewhat challenging to understand how this underdevelopment fits in with the name of Psyche. A minor point that contributes to the challenging complexity of this chapter is the emphasis on the selection of the masquerade costume by “I”. Padilla seems to imply that “I” is solely responsible for choosing the dress, but in the film it is clearly Mrs. Danvers who is at fault for the selection of the dress and the dreadful consequences that stem from this selection. As was the case with certain subchapters in the previous two chapters, the section titled, “The Conflagration of Manderley as Hera’s Daedala Rite,” is not convincing. While Padilla's analysis is provocative, his arguments invoke but do not prove meaningful correspondences with the myth. Certain small slices of the film may possibly allude to the myths of Hestia and Juno (Hera), but it is hard to picture Hitchcock structuring the fiery destruction of the mansion on the rites of Hera. Although these criticisms appear to cast doubt on the validity of the comparison between the film and the myth, without a doubt, this chapter makes a good case for the “redeployment” of the myth of Psyche by Hitchcock’s use and manipulation of the Cupid doll and by the constant staging of the film’s action on precipices, heights, and places that empower the spectator to see things from above. This setting captures the crags, peaks, and summits that appear in the retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius' Metamorphoses.

The last chapter, “Crisscrossing Strangers on a Train with the Homeric Hymn to Hermes,” has as its premise that the “narrative, characterizations, and symbols” (212) of Strangers on a Train are organized unconsciously by the director “in a fashion that dips into classical myth’s storehouse of archetypes” (213). This chapter is the most substantial of the four analyses. Padilla leads the reader through a multilevel analysis that takes into account not only the hymn to Hermes but also the 1950 source novel written by Patricia Highsmith and the adaptation of the novel by Whitfield Cook. The author expertly reveals how boundary crossings and other liminal elements are conspicuous in the film: the train rides across the country; the boundary-crossing figure of the writer, Cook; the possibility that Hitchcock may have been gay or bisexual; the film’s mutable figure of Hermes and its various incarnations; and the interplay and literal crossing of Bruno and Guy. The presentation is learned.

This book is relatively free of mistakes, but there some errors: the Splanchnopt Painter pyxis is misnumbered in figure 1.5; “Hitchcock’s” should read “Hitchcock” on page 97, four lines from the bottom; and Pasiphaë and Ariadne are not sisters as stated on page 104 (“The taboo-crossing sexual desires of the sisters, Pasiphaë and Ariadne, are displaced…”). It should be noted that, while not everyone will agree with Padilla in his interpretations of the films or in the selection of myths that he suggests shaped those films, his work expands the terrain of classical reception studies because his analysis of Hitchcock and myth opens up the director’s unacknowledged development in a classics-rich background as a new area of investigation. This book needs to be read by anyone interested in myth and film, Hitchcock, or reception studies.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Home
Read Latest
Archives
BMCR Blog
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Commentaries
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010