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Some Thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov

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The Doppelganger and "Unreliable Narrator"
Both Hitchcock and Nabokov (as well, it must be noted, as many other authors and filmmakers) made substantial use of the narrative devices of the doppelganger and the "unreliable narrator," established in the 19th century romantic literature that heavily influenced both men. In terms of the former, we should note that each used the device to slightly different ends; for Nabokov, the doppelganger is primarily used for purposes of parody (especially in his later novels), while for Hitchcock the effect is primarily ironic.

In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock's first American masterpiece, he uses the doppelganger theme straightforwardly to contrast the "evil" Uncle Charlie with his "good" niece, young Charlie, who must reach within her own heart of darkness to kill her uncle at the film's end. Hitchcock seemed to be having more fun with the motif in Strangers on a Train (see above for a discussion of the film's cameo), utilizing a memorable performance by Robert Walker's flamboyant Bruno to contrast Farley Granger's "normal" Guy.

The film's numerous references to tennis doubles, double crossing, criss-cross, and double drinks comes the closest of any film of Hitchcock's to effecting a Nabokovian parody of the doppelganger. Hitchcock used the "double" theme playfully again in North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant's character is mistaken for a non-existent secret agent, and more seriously in Psycho and Frenzy.

Guy and Bruno in Strangers On a Train

Although elements of the doppelganger exist in virtually all of his works, Nabokov gave the theme the most thorough treatment in his early novels in Despair (1933) in which the narrator, Hermann, kills Felix, his exact mirror double. By the time of Lolita, Nabokov, feeling the device was worn out by it's use in contemporary fiction, was using the doppelganger purely for purposes of parodying the typical mystery or suspense story. Nabokov's use of Claire Quilty as a double to the novel's protagonist, Humbert Humbert (whose own name is a neat parody of the doppelganger), is so cleverly convoluted and hidden within the framework of the novel's narrative that the effect is purely parodic. Quilty shadows Humbert and Lolita throughout the novel in the same way that Bruno shadows Guy in Strangers on a Train (Lolita plays tennis and, at one point, Humbert comments "Lolita was playing a doubles game"). Appel points out "Quilty is so ubiquitous because he formulates Humbert's entrapment, his criminal passion, his sense of shame and self hate. Yet at once a projection of Humbert's guilt and a parody of the psychological Double..."16

As far as the "unreliable narrator" goes, the narrators in Nabokov's novels frequently give us information that appears to be unreliable. Kinbote in Pale Fire, for instance, is convinced that Gradus is coming to kill him when, as noted above, a close reading of the text reveals otherwise. John Ray, Jr.'s foreward to Lolita is also clearly intended to make us doubt the veracity of Humbert's narrative. Nabokov, however, seems to always have the last word in his novels and the existence of his strong authorial voice again assaults the conventions of this well used literary device.

The camera in Hitchcock's films is often co-opted by the subjective vision of his characters, and he frequently gives us instances when this vision is "unreliable." Vertigo (1958) offers several good examples of this, particularly when Scottie thinks he sees the supposedly dead Madeleine outside her apartment and at Ernie's Restaurant. And Scotty's vision is totally unreliable after he convinces Judy to change back into Madeleine; as she comes out of the bathroom in her clothes and makeup, she appears to emerge from a haze of green fog. Finally, as they embrace, the room around Scotty becomes the mission stable where he last embraced his lost love. As mentioned above, Hitchcock also used an unreliable narrative technique playfully in Psycho, when his camerawork and use of voice over convinces us that Mrs. Bates is actually alive.

View an animated GIF of Judy's transformation into Madeleine in Vertigo. (14 frames, 79KB)

Common Literary Influences
Hitchcock and Nabokov's insistent use of the doppelganger motif and "unreliable narrator" technique reflects their common literary influences, as both of these devices were used often in the 19th century fiction they grew up reading. Nabokov frequently made references to the authors and novels that influenced him in this works, perhaps a function of his "other" life as a professor of English Literature at Wellesley and Cornell in the '40s and '50s. Lolita, particularly, is a grab bag of allusions and references; these have been admirably catalogued in Professor Alfred Appel's The Annotated Lolita. In the poem "Pale Fire," John Shade, attempting to name his work, bemoans to the Bard of Avon, "But this transparent thingum does require/some moondrop title./Help me, Will/Pale Fire."
17 Hitchcock, while not as allusive as Nabokov, did use occasional literary references in his films to various end. Shadow of a Doubt contains a reference to Ivanhoe, apparently a Hitchcock childhood favorite, as well as several other references to detective fiction. In The Trouble with Harry (1955), Dr. Greenbow stumbles over Harry's body while he is quoting a Shakespeare sonnet. In Marnie (1964) Mark Rutland misquotes a few lines from one of Emerson's "Voluntaries," and is quickly corrected by his sister- in-law.18 And Hitchcock also alluded to classical music; in her investigation of the Bates homes, Lila discovers Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony on Norman's turntable (and Hitchcock has another joke when Lila, wide-eyed, discovers some Victorian pornography on Norman's shelf).

Of the myriad of influences that these two men of the same age must have had in common, one can mention briefly Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), A. Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes stories), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), and Franz Kafka ("The Metamorphosis," The Trial); but the most noteworthy is unquestionably Edgar Allen Poe (1809- 1849). Poe, although an American, borrowed heavily from the Gothic European Romantic style of literature in creating his best works; it is somewhat ironic, therefore, that he influenced Nabokov and Hitchcock, foreigners who made their most important contributions in America. Poe also made frequent and imaginative use of the doppelganger and "unreliable narrator" in his fiction.

Although it is an incredibly allusive work, the author most frequently alluded to in Lolita is Poe. Humbert's early love, whom Lolita is an attempt to recapture, is named Annabel (after Poe's "Annabel Lee"). Humbert, moreover, appears to go through many of the same agonies as Poe did in his life; loving a girl too young for him and indulging in self-obsessive behavior, alcoholism, etc. Poe is repeatedly alluded to throughout the book. In the poem "Pale Fire," John Shade writes "I tore apart the fantasies of Poe"19; and Nabokov is on record as having stated a fascination with Poe as a child that dissipated somewhat as he matured. Unlike Nabokov, Hitchcock did not discover Poe until he was about sixteen, but then he became fascinated by reading Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. In a 1960 article Hitchcock noted "'s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe's stories so much that I began to make suspense films. Without wanting to seem immodest, I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe put in his stories; a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." 20

Like Nabokov, Hitchcock fascination with Poe is reflected in his work. While Poe was a general influence on Hitchcock, the maker of "scary" movies, there appears to be several very specific and direct allusions to Poe in Marnie. As opposed to Winston Graham's novel, Marnie's last name in the film is changed to "Edgar." The film takes place in New York (Strutt's office), Virginia (Garrod's Stables) and Philadelphia (Rutland Publishing and Wickwind). These are the three places that Poe lived throughout the better part of his life. Finally, and most conclusively, the film's climactic scene takes place at Marnie's mother's home in Baltimore, the city where Poe died under mysterious circumstances in 1849. Hitchcock's allusions to Poe in Marnie are not surprising since the film is probably Hitchcock's most ambitious effort to detail the subjective inner states of his problematic central character through the use of cinematic technique (like the red flashes), just as Poe devoted himself to writing stories in which his characters are subject to psychological terror.

The intent of this article is not to suggest that there was any direct connection or even any overt influence between Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov is on record as having seen at least one Hitchcock film and probably saw several others (I'd be surprised if he did not see Strangers on a Train) and Hitchcock, in asking Nabokov to collaborate with him, must have had a least a passing familiarity with Nabokov's work (again, I'd be surprised if he had not read Lolita). My intent here, however, is merely to suggest that there was a strong affinity between the work of these two men, an affinity based on their artistic personalities that has not, by and large, been acknowledged. While I have tried to point out some areas of confluence in their works, I feel the primary affinity is in the similar relationship that Hitchcock and Nabokov established with their audience/readers; a relationship of playfulness, obtuseness, self-allusiveness and parody. Both men were masters of their respective mediums; Nabokov, a brilliant user of words, and Hitchcock a manipulator of cinematic imagery. As a result, both men attempted (usually successfully) to control the aesthetic game that they played with their respective audiences.

In 1972 Hitchcock released Frenzy, his second to last film and Nabokov published Transparent Things, his last novel. Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov did not ever collaborate. One can only imagine the kind of involuted, complex, and playful work these two men would have produced; unfortunately, we can only speculate about what might have been. Still, we can acknowledge that the works of Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Hitchcock share much in common, just as these two men's lives shared many common circumstances. What is left, in the end, is the work they produced, which can be well summarized by a line the fictional John Shade wrote in "Pale Fire": "Life is a message scribbled in the dark."21

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Go to notes.
James A. Davidson is a film enthusiast and videographer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. (

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