BMCR 2020.07.40

Classical myth in Alfred Hitchcock’s Wrong Man and Grace Kelly films

Mark William Padilla, Classical myth in Alfred Hitchcock's Wrong Man and Grace Kelly films. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2019. xl, 371 p.. ISBN 9781498563505 $120.00.


Classical Myth in Alfred Hitchcock’s Wrong Man and Grace Kelly Films is the follow-up to the author’s 2016 Classical Myth in Four Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Many methodological and conceptual aspects of Mark William Padilla’s earlier work recur in his new publication, which focuses on two sets of three films each by the great English director and producer. A few more or less direct repetitions from Four Films are unavoidable, and in fact, Wrong Man and Grace Kelly Films tends to read like the second volume of a much larger project.

A concise introduction outlines Hitchcock’s career as well as the main topics, influences and narratives of the following case studies. The first main section of the book then analyses The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), and North by Northwest (1959). Padilla groups these productions by a common main narrative: a man is dragged into a sinister plot, which he has to unravel to prove his innocence. While dodging police and/or secret agencies, he becomes involved with a sceptical female, who later on develops into his helper and lover. The second main section focuses on Dial M for Murder(1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955), marked by powerful female main characters played by Grace Kelly. Instead of a concluding chapter, this section finishes with a three-page coda linking the two sets of case studies. The following bibliography is accompanied by an index, whose idiosyncratic structure will be discussed below.

For The 39 Steps, Padilla retraces the intermediate role of classicist George Gilbert Aimé Murray and his influence on John Buchan, the author of the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps that inspired Hitchcock’s film. Combined with the director’s own classical education, the numerous echoes of the mythological tradition are hardly surprising. Padilla places Homer’s Odyssey at their centre, and from there he convincingly dissects the structures and motifs of the film. The extent to which other aspects like the scapegoat narrative of classical literature or modern influences such as James Joyce’s Ulyssesbecome visible is impressive. The same is true for the close reading of alluring female characters or the heroic descriptions in both the Odyssey and The 39 Steps. Unfortunately, not even a table listing direct parallels (p. 24) gives the corresponding timecode for the latter. Without it and in lack of a declaration of a corresponding verifiable copy of the film, it can be an exhausting experience to check Padilla’s findings against his cinematic sources.[1]

Compared to the neo-Homeric narrative of the first film, Saboteur requires a slightly longer detour to bring out the Elgin Marbles as Hitchcock’s artistic resource: “he associated them, in a culturally normative way, with the defeat of an imperialist aggressor in a compounded fashion” (p. 66). Apart from the political and ideological implications for the plot, Padilla points out the aesthetic references to classical sculpture and architecture. Furthermore, he identifies Athena, Hephaestus, and Poseidon as archetypes upon which the film’s three main characters are based. That an actor’s stiff performance is ascribed to an imitation of Greek sculptural ideals may feel a bit forced. More convincing are Padilla’s remarks on space and architectural design and on mythological character analogies. Having watched Saboteur twice before reading this analysis, I was pleasantly surprised by how the close reading, e.g. of the parallels between Barry Kane and Hephaestus (pp. 101–6), brought forth new insights. The same could be said about the observations on Hitchcock using the Elgin Marbles to reflect the political situation at the height of World War II and his doubts about the United States’ reliability as a bulwark against fascism.

The last of the first three case studies, North by Northwest, returns to an analysis of literary tradition, with the main character Roger Thornhill interpreted as an Oedipal figure. Having considered Freud, Sophocles, and Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Padilla enters into a more detailed reading of the film with regard to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian – Dionysian dichotomy. The line of argument is often inspiring, although not always easy to follow, e.g. when it leaps from Nietzsche to The Sound of Music to Hesiod to 19th-century decadentism (pp. 160–4). The attempt to describe North by Northwest as a meta-myth has a certain appeal, even if, as a reviewer of Padilla’s Four Films remarked, “[s]ometimes an opera is just an opera, and a cymbal is just a cymbal.”[2]

Dial M for Murder opens the second main part of the book, concentrating on three Grace Kelly movies. Padilla convincingly identifies aesthetic influences by classical epic films that were coming into vogue again in the early 1950s. The main focal point, however, are the echoes of Homeric tradition similar to the above-mentioned likening of characters in the 39 Steps to divine archetypes and analogies. Unlike the former, the treatment of Dial M for Murder is more succinct but no less efficient, especially in the discussion of the intermediate function of Frederick Knott’s homonymous stage play.

The chapter on Rear Window enforces a recurring idea. The main female character is read as Aphrodite, this time using the corresponding Homeric Hymn (or more precisely: its “pattern of Aphrodite’s heroism”, p. 234) as a blueprint. As often in reception studies, it is difficult to establish a line of tradition with absolute certainty. However, Padilla makes an excellent case to for the plausibility of influences from James Frazer’s interpretation of the Adonia or Aristophanes’ Lysistrata on Hitchcock’s work. Some of the following comparisons between the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and Rear Window may seem slightly forced and could have profited from a more pointed conclusion. Nevertheless, the chapter is surprisingly effective in achieving a different goal: providing inspiration for re-reading the classical sources with fresh eyes.

The last case study, To Catch a Thief, is less straightforward and refers to neoclassical art, Platonic ideals of moderation, and the maenads in Euripides’ Bacchae in order to characterize the film as a creative act of classical reception. Hitchcock’s remarkable cinematic techniques make the comparisons to ancient theatre and architectural use of space particularly fruitful. The link to Epicurean philosophy (pp. 324–6), on the other hand, appears less cogent. Padilla’s discussion of To Catch a Thief unites several strands of analysis developed in the previous five chapters. Personally, I would have preferred this to lead to a final synthesis instead of to the three-page coda (pp. 337–9) mentioned above. In many regards, the book is an impressive example of how reception studies can go beyond mere archival coverage, enhance theoretical discourses, and provide new perspectives for classical research. It is rather a pity that Wrong Man and Grace Kelly Films ends without what I would have considered to be the logical form of conclusion to six very detailed case studies.

On the whole, the volume is well edited, and I found few typos such as “atarxaria” instead of “ataraxia” (p. 326). The 21 illustrations are well reproduced and helpful. Random checks of the bibliography proved it to be reliable, although the absence of non-English research is rather unfortunate. The index requires a certain amount of creativity on the reader’s behalf: the motif of water and the Erechtheion may both be found under “A” – the former one as part of “animals and fire-and-water motifs”, the latter one under “architects, buildings, edifices, spaces” (p. 361). The 9/11 terror attacks are subsumed under “national leaders and wars” (p. 369). How helpful it is to have an entry for “Hitchcock, Alfred, film motifs – wrong man” (p. 368) in a monograph on the wrong man films of Alfred Hitchcock might also be debated.

Classical Myth in Alfred Hitchcock’s Wrong Man and Grace Kelly Films is certainly a rewarding, if not exactly an easy read. That many of the endnotes are small essays of 20 and more lines contributes to this effect. To anybody interested in the subject, I would suggest starting with the author’s Classical Myth in Four Films of Alfred Hitchcock before approaching this very profound piece of classical reception studies. Analysing Hitchcock films along the lines of (and as a helpful comparison to) classical myth is not an entirely new approach.[3] Padilla’s book, however, takes it to the next level and is therefore recommended not only to specialists, but also to everyone interested in classical myth as a dynamic phenomenon.


[1] For a solution and the technical background see M. Lindner, Rom und seine Kaiser im Historienfilm, Frankfurt 2007: 22–7.

[2] Cf. BMCR 2017.09.03.

[3] See e.g. M. M. Winkler, ‘Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus. Between Aristotle and Hitchcock’, in E. P. Cueva and S. N. Byrne (eds), A Companion to the Ancient Novel, Chichester 2014: 570–83.