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Some Thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov

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I have identified five major categories that I feel are useful in comparing and contrasting the work of Hitchcock and Nabokov. They are as follows:

Game Theory
The films of Alfred Hitchcock and novels of Vladimir Nabokov have both been successfully critiqued using the theory of game playing. In the introduction to his book Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games, Thomas Leitch lists a number of incidents in which games or the playing of games have an important function in Hitchcock's films, but this is not to argue that "games have a unique importance in Hitchcock's work." To the contrary, he points out that "the importance of games for Hitchcock is not their significance within the diegesis but their role as a figure for the relation between the storyteller and his audience..."7 By approaching the filmmaking process as a game between the maker of the film and his audience, Hitchcock, in effect, bursts the illusionary bubble of the diegetic world he has created and reminds the audience, at least momentarily, that this is "just a movie" (as he reportedly said to Ingrid Bergman once). Leitch goes on to discuss the ways in which the game-playing technique of Hitchcock's films established a pleasurable contract with the audience and how, over the course of his career, he continued to redefine the rules of the game.

Professor Alfred Appel, Jr. has also endeavored to explain Nabokov's appeal in terms of the way the author used game-playing techniques with his audience. In his introduction to The Annotated Lolita, Appel writes "the process of reading and rereading his (Nabokov's) novels is a game of perception" in which "the author and the reader are the 'players.'" Appel notes the elements of parody, coincidence and techniques like the work-within-the-work that recur consistently throughout Nabokov's novels.8 The effect for the reader of Nabokov is the creation of an involuted imaginary world in which the experience of reading the novel is tantamount to playing a game of intellectual cat and mouse with the author.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed. She did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

   Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

from Lolita, page 11

An excellent example of the "games Nabokov plays" is his 1962 masterpiece Pale Fire. The book is made up of a foreward by Charles Kinbote, then John Shade's poem "Pale Fire," containing four cantos and 999 lines, and finally a lengthy commentary on the poem by Kinbote, complete with index. Within the commentary, Kinbote weaves the story of an exiled Zemblan King, which we take to be Kinbote's own story of himself, and the counterwoven story of the clownish villian Jacob Gradus, as he travels on an apparent date to assassinate the exiled King. The novel, therefore, contains several layers of reality: the reality of Shade's largely autobiographical poem (which contains little reference to Kinbote's story), the reality of Kinbote's tale of the homosexual King and his exile from the "distant northern land,"9 the counterwoven story of Gradus, and finally, the hard to discern level of "real" reality. Andrew Field notes of Nabokov that "many of his games are games of structure (these are the ones you must solve to understand the work properly)"10 and Nabokov gives us a key to understanding the "real" reality of Shade's murder in Pale Fire: Kinbote rents his house from a Judge Goldsworth, who has sent away a "homicidal maniac"11 to prison. Gradus, the assassin, is this homicidal maniac who returns, bent on revenge against the Judge, and who kills Shade purely by accident, thinking he is Judge Goldsworth. By hiding what is "real" beneath levels of artificial reality (keeping in mind that, in works of art, all reality is artificial), Nabokov turns the process of reading the novel into a convoluted game between reader and author: can we find the key to unlock the secrets contained within Pale Fire?

Gradus is now much nearer to us in space and time than he was in the preceding cantos. He has short upright black hair. We can fill in the bleak oblong of his face with most of its elements such as thick eyebrows and a wart on the chin. He has a ruddy but unhealthy complexion.

We see, fairly in focus, the structure of his somewhat mesmeric organs of vision. We see his melancholy nose with its crooked ridge and grooved tip. We see the mineral blue of his jaw and the gravelly pointille of his supressed mustache.

from Pale Fire, page 186

Hitchcock plays a similar game with his audience in Psycho (1960). At first we, along with Marian, Arbogast, Sam and Lila, think that Mrs. Bates is alive and living in the Bates home. Hitchcock toys with us by suggesting a reality to Mrs. Bates through the use of a voice over and a vertiginious camera angle as Norman carries his mother down to the fruit cellar.

Next, we are given the Sheriff and his wife's version of reality: Norman's mother died ten years earlier as the result of a homicide/suicide with her lover. Finally, after Lila's investigation of the Bates home, we "discover" the "real" reality: Norman killed his mother and her lover but kept his mother's corpse around the house to preserve her memory.

The final shots of the film, showing Norman completely transformed into "mother," suggest another, deeper still reality to the film. These shifting levels of reality suggest to us why Hitchcock thought of Psycho as a "fun" picture—this film that is largely concerned with the theme of voyeurism is an elaborate game of discovering what is real and what is illusion.

The last shot, as Norman (mother) grins into the camera, suggest we have had a delightful black joke played upon us; but it is a joke that audiences apparently loved, given that Psycho was Hitchcock's most commercially successful film.

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