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Some Thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov

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The Cameo Appearances
The most exemplary of Hitchcock's games is "find the director," in which the audience looks for Hitchcock's customary unbilled cameo appearances. Furthermore, the cameos are "not isolated moments of self-consciousness; instead, they are quintessential examples of Hitchcock's ludic approach to storytelling" that, along with "highly artificial set-pieces and stylistic exercises"12 defined Hitchcock's films to several generations.

Perhaps the most self-reflexive and playful of Hitchcock's cameo appearances occurs in Strangers on a Train (1951), a film in which game playing assumes a particularly high degree of importance. Hitchcock is seen getting on a train carrying a large bass cello; the audience's pleasure at noting the cameo is increased not only by the comedy of the situation (Hitchcock appears to struggle with the large, awkward instrument) but by the fact that the bass appears to double Hitchcock's own rotund form (an irony further increased by the film's insistence on the importance of the doppelganger). I find this a particularly Nabokovian moment in Hitchcock's films; I don't mean to suggest that Nabokov directly influenced this particular scene, just that this particular cameo functions visually as the type of pun or involuted joke that Nabokov often utilized in his writing.

Hitchcock also used the cameo as a foreshadowing device; in the opening of North by Northwest (1959) the doors of a bus shut in the director's face and this anticipates the crop dusting scene later in the film when Cary Grant has a bus door shut in his face.

Hitchcock's cameo in North by Northwest.

Cary Grant watches the bus pull away in North By Northwest.

Nabokov too made what we might call cameo appearances in his novels, although the use of the first person narrative somewhat complicates what are and aren't "cameos" in his case. At the end of Bend Sinister (1947), the first book Nabokov wrote in America, the writer clearly makes a cameo. The bulk of the novel is written in third person, but at the story's conclusion Krug, the protagonist, is shot and the narrative is magically transformed into the first person as we find Nabokov, the writer, finishing his manuscript and getting up to look out his window. At this point he notes "I knew that the immortality I had conferred upon the poor fellow (Krug) was a slippery sophism, a play upon words."13

He saw the Toad crouching at the foot of the wall, shaking, dissolving, speeding up his shrill incantations, protecting his dimming face with his transparent arm, and Krug ran towards him, and just a fraction of an instant before another and better bullet hit him, he shouted again: You, you—

and the wall vanished, like a rapidly withdrawn slide, and I stretched myself and got up from among the chaos of written and rewritten pages, to investigate the sudden twang that something had made in striking the wire netting of my window.

from Bend Sinister, page 216


Another cameo occurs at the end of Pnin (1957) when Nabokov roars into the narrative in his car as the professor hired to replace Pnin. Arguments could also be made that the forward to Lolita (1955, U.S. 1958) authored by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. functions as a form of cameo appearance, but Nabokov's authorial voice is so strong through both this novel and Pale Fire that there is hardly any necessity for a cameo appearance as such in these two works.

The Technique of Self Reference
By "technique of self reference" I mean that Hitchcock's films and Nabokov's novels contain a number of self references (above and beyond the cameos) that—if perceived by the viewer or reader—lend a uniquely heightened sense of artificiality and self consciousness to the experience. Pale Fire is perhaps the best example of this self-referential technique in Nabokov's fiction. Both John Shade and Charles Kinbote of the novel have a considerable amount in common with their creator, Nabokov; Shade is the brilliant writer (and professor at the aptly named Wordsmith College) living a cloistered life in the environment of academia, while Kinbote is the exiled king from the country of Zembla. Nabokov, the lifelong academic who considered himself an exile from his homeland of Russia, must certainly have strongly identified with his two characters. But there is a further, more specific biographical aspect to Pale Fire: the assassination of Shade by Jacob Gradus is a working out of Nabokov's complicated feelings about the assassination of his own father, who was shot to death (probably accidentally) by a Czar loyalist in 1922 while living life as an exile.

The biographical nature of Hitchcock's work has been considerably commented upon since the director's death in 1980. In Dark Side of Genius, Donald Spoto goes to considerable lengths to detail the biographical references in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), including the fact that Hitchcock named the mother character, Emma, after his own mother who was dying in England at the time the film was made.14 In another personal work, I Confess (1953), Hitchcock names the wife of the film's villain, Otto Keller, after his own wife, Alma. He also completes a pun a la Nabokov (or James Joyce) by having the killer in the film named Keller. And Hitchcock was not above referring to himself in his films; in his next movie, Dial "M" for Murder (1954), Tony Wendes and T.J. Swann discuss the porter at their college whom Swann framed for a robbery. The porter's name, mentioned several times: "poor old Alfred." These intrusions of "real life" on the artificial world of the film and novel only serve to heighten the self-reflexive effect and remind the viewer/reader that they are experiencing the creation of an imaginary world. Hitchcock, in fact, created a neat visual metaphor for this effect in Psycho by filling the Bates Motel and home with mirrors that reflected the world back on the film's characters (and viewers).

Hitchcock also appears to have made reference to his own films on several occasions. North by Northwest is a film in the "picaresque" tradition of several of Hitchcock's earlier works, most notably The Thirty Nine Steps (1935), his first major British film. Thornhill and Eve in North by Northwest spend the night on the train in room 3901, an allusion, no doubt, to The 39 Steps. Several of the characters in Rope (1948), Hitchcock's first independent production, at one point are clearly referring to Hitchcock's own Notorious (1946) in a discussion about recent movies they have seen. In the concluding scene of Psycho, the psychiatrist "explains" Norman Bates condition while a calendar on the wall behind him reads "17"; this is, perhaps, a reference to Hitchcock's early film Number Seventeen (1932) made at British International.15 Nabokov was also not above this type of playful self reference. In the poem "Pale Fire," John Shade writes "Hurricane/Lolita spread from Florida to Maine," a clear reference to the fact that Lolita became a bestseller after its eventual publication in the United States in 1958.

Vladimir Nabokov's fiction features a litany of examples of the literary technique of "the-work-within-the-work." One of Nabokov's most self-reflexive works is The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov's first novel written in English, a pseudo-biography of a fictional writer that contains numerous references to Knight's (non-existent) works. This technique is also repeated to varying degrees in Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire. A similar effect in Hitchcock's films occurs in references to acting, theatricality and the numerous climaxes within the setting of a theater. The British film Murder (1930) also contains a "work-within-the-work," a play called "The Inner Life of the Barring Case." Finally, Sabotage (1936) is actually set in a home within a movie theater, making the film's very setting a unique reference to the self-reflexive world of Hitchcock's films.

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