Alfred Hitchcock made two films that spoke to the communist undertone of America: The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. Both were about spies, deceit and keeping your mouth shut. Although they did not directly deal with communism, they asserted the idea of people working undercover. Keeping secrets was a major theme, along with deception, as this is what many subservient Americans were thought to be doing at the time they were questioned.
In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a family accidentally became part of an assassination plot while on vacation in Morocco, and conspirators do everything they can to prevent them from obstructing their grand plan. The film stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as Dr. Benjamin and Josephine McKenna, respectively. This film was made in the period where Hitchcock was deemed the master of suspense. It is Hitchcock’s only remake of one of his previous works (the original film was made in 1934) but this version shows much more of a grasp of the psychological thriller genre. The New York Times says that Hitchcock “virtually educated critics in the techniques and refinements of the ‘chase’.”
The idea of giving up names and information in order to save yourself, along with the ones you love, is exactly what the whole witch hunt was for those accused of spreading communist ideals. As stated above, Hitchcock refined the chase, which was reflective of the witch hunt that had previously been going on in America’s government and film industry. With Stewart and Day starring as starkly American characters, their efforts to remain true to American values despite outside forces also is similar to how Hollywood was so intent on keeping those ideals at the forefront.
North By Northwest (1959) is lauded as one of the greatest films of all time, along as one of Hitchcock’s best. Even though it does not give off darker and morbid tones as much as other Hitchcock films, North by Northwest is laced with themes of deception and moral relativism concerning the Cold War. “‘North by Northwest’ is a colorful and exciting route for spies, counterspies and lovers,” according to the New York Times, which glorified the idea of Russian and American spies. It is also considered the prototype for James Bond films to come, since it shares many similarities with the franchise: spies, a debonair hero, villians and an ingenue.
The film stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Roger Thornhill (Grant), a Manhattan ad executive, gets sucked into a world of spies (Saint) and counterspies after being falsely identified as a government agent. Ultimately, he becomes a victim of circumstance and chased from New York all the way to South Dakota. His honesty sees him through to the end, along with exciting chase scenes and innuendos that were considered bold at the time.
The moral relativism of North by Northwest is significant, seeing as what is considered right and wrong varies across cultures and belief systems. For example, what Russians and other communist countries consider normal, Americans may find outrageous. Despite Thornhill’s accusations, he remains grounded in his circumstances, even though others disagree and treat him accordingly. Thus, this motif works its way subtly into the film as far as the Red Scare was concerned.
Overall, Alfred Hitchcock was a creative and prolific filmmaker. Appropriately referred to as “The Master of Suspense,” he is able to capture the underlying fear that Americans may have felt in an implicit way. He did so successfully in the respect where at first glance, the films stand out on their own without politics getting in the way.