Bright Lights Film Journal

Under the Sign of 39: The Case of the Curious Coincidence from Hitchcock to Antonioni and Beyond

Blow-up

In movieland, there is also the kind of coincidence where someone indeed has planned it, someone acting from behind the scene, manipulating appearances. In this case, a coincidence is a setup, not accidental at all, but the planning is hidden behind a screen of appearances, appearances that are intended to mislead and distract the protagonist. It is in short a deception.

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Coincidences are just coincidences. Accidents.

Or are they?

At times, coincidences feel like fate, especially in the movies. The coincidence is a unit of plot-construction, and it is one that is indispensable to movies. It would be interesting to know what proportion of movies feature a coincidence. Or several coincidences. Most? A great many, for sure – a fact that itself calls for some investigation. Why is the coincidence so important?

We can look at coincidences in a variety of ways, but the basic form is simple: a coincidence is an accidental meeting. Someone runs into someone else. For instance, Scottie in Vertigo “runs into” Judy – or is it Madeleine – or is it Judy after all? – by accident, on the crowded street of a major city, a glimpse so fleeting as to be practically a hallucination. The whole of Hitchcock’s masterpiece hinges on this coincidence, this brief glimpse, a matter of a second or two. In the real world, the coincidence is unlikely, but in movie world it is necessary and inevitable. There are other coincidences besides accidentally meeting someone, for example happening to find or “run across” some crucial object, or losing something that turns out to be a critical unit of plot-construction. For example, a distracted Uncle Billy happens to lose the vital bank deposit in It’s a Wonderful Life: a coincidence redoubled when Mr. Potter – of all people – coincidentally happens to find that same deposit.

“Judy” or “Madeleine” appears on the street: Vertigo

Money seems to be a magnet for coincidences. No wonder film noir loves coincidences. Take a famous noir, Out of the Past. Jeff Bailey, the hard-boiled detective (played by Robert Mitchum) bumps into his former partner at the race track, and the past that he had escaped now returns with deadly force. Accidental meeting at the race track: it’s almost too perfect, since the race track itself is a marker, an omen, as it were, signifying fortune, chance – luck. Bad luck. Coincidence. Or fate. Movie fate, that is. The fate that the story-teller can’t resist.

A coincidence is what students of folktale would call a plot-motif, one of the building blocks that recur in plot construction, plot being a sequence of plot-motifs within a larger arrangement. Coincidence is presented as a random happening, but the plot does not see it that way. The plot wants them. Plot has a passion for coincidence. Coincidence generates plot.

For example, Marion Crane “happens” to stop at the Bates Motel, which happens to be owned and run by a multiple murderer who is now alert for prey. An accident, but not an accident. Poetic logic, poetic fate, is at work. Poor Marion could have stopped anywhere. She could have gone on to Fairvale, but, no, she had to stop at the one motel where, in the world of slasher justice, a thief like Marion can find her executioner. Coincidence – or fate? The coincidence is essential to the design of the plot and of the movie as a whole. There would be no Psycho without it. On the one hand, it is a merely random, unplanned, and accidental event that Marion goes to the Bates Motel and meets the multiple murderer who will then slash her to death. On the other hand, the whole episode implies much more than accident, even to suggest that murdering Marion is what a woman can expect if she thinks she can steal money from propertied men – and get away with it. In other words, it is a vision of sexism enacting its abusive and violent logic. But as we know from decades of commentary, that is only one meaning to be found in the “coincidence” that galvanizes the plot of this masterpiece.

“Coincidence – or fate?” Psycho

Interestingly, comedy is even more fond of coincidences than films with the darker shadings of Vertigo or Out of the Past or Psycho. In Bringing up Baby, one of the funniest movies ever made, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) has an aunt who “happens to be” the one person with the money that Dr. Huxley (Cary Grant) absolutely has to bag for his museum. Or Dr. Huxley just happens to go to the splendid restaurant where Susan is playing with olives. Or there just happen to be two leopards on the loose in the vicinity, one a pet, the other “a killer.” Or Dr. Huxley and Susan Vance just happen to come across the house of the psychiatrist who gave Susan advice earlier in the splendid restaurant where she was playing with olives. The fabric of the plot is coincidence coincidence coincidence. Comic fate was rushing to arrange things, whereas the (equally) chance meetings in film noir suggest a sinister fate – the mysterious “bad luck” that can stalk a doomed protagonist like a curse. In story world, there are no coincidences, no random happenings: all fit the design of the tale. Fate unfolds its fatal plan. Movie fate, that is, the fate that the moviemakers impose because it plays the audience. In fact, coincidences are what make many stories work; without them, there would be no story at all. Understanding coincidence is understanding story itself. And to understand movie coincidences is to understand movies.1

In real life, of course, coincidences can be startling, but are rarely more than “just a coincidence” – a striking oddity, but not one with intent. Surprising, because life events are largely random – but they rarely indicate destiny, fate, or divine intervention, or even a story-teller’s design. Coincidences in life give the impression that life almost makes sense, that life has a shape to it, as Northrop Frye used to say, as if for once it looked like a meaningful design is present in life. Like a story. In a story, everything makes sense. Coincidences are part of the logic of the form itself, because stories do have a shape and a pattern, unlike life. Coincidences in life make life story-like, suggesting a design in experience that gives it meaning – that gives it a plot, in short.

This is the basis of the famous conception developed by Carl Jung known as “synchronicity.” “Synchronicity” is essentially a theory of coincidence.2 For Jung, the coincidence is both unintentional and yet intentional in the sense that it has meaning. That is, it is a coincidence that has meaning for the one who experiences it. Its significance is psychological, not scientific. Certain coincidences have emotional and imaginative rightness. However it came about, the coincidence is not experienced as merely accidental, even if it is an accident. Such coincidences mean symbolically, not realistically. It is random in fact but feels planned, deliberate, as if a designing intelligence put it there. Thus it is random, but it does have meaning. Hence Jung’s conception of “synchronicity” as an “acausal connecting principle” (ein Prinzip akausaler Zusammenhänge). In this “acausal connecting principle,” the coincidence has meaning but not intention. One sees meaning that is not there; more precisely, it is there and not there, at the same time – there, because one experiences it; not there, because it was not put there by anyone. It was not “caused.” It was perceived.

In movieland, there is also the kind of coincidence where someone indeed has planned it, someone acting from behind the scene, manipulating appearances. In this case, a coincidence is a setup, not accidental at all, but the planning is hidden behind a screen of appearances, appearances that are intended to mislead and distract the protagonist. It is in short a deception. We can thus distinguish between a genuine coincidence and a false coincidence: one is random but meaningful; the other is designed to deceive, to look like an accident. After all, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, “One confides in what has no concealed creator”; one trusts the accidental and unplanned, because there is no hidden manipulator shaping events in order to entrap the unwary.

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39: David Hemmings: Blow-up

One movie coincidence that is particularly striking occurs in Antonioni’s provocative 1966 film Blow-Up. Blow-Up puts a specific number on display – the viewer cannot not notice it. It is the number “39” – the un/lucky number 13, times three.3 In Blow-Up it is the street address of the photographer’s studio in London: that studio features a large number 39 on the door, stylish, bold, and in-your-face. This is where he lives, or where his ego as a rich-photographer-artist lives, anyway. Coincidentally, the number 39 is the basis of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces of the 1930s: The 39 Steps, maybe his most important movie of that period. But so what? the spaced-out shaggy-dog story of Blow-Up is far from the taut pace of The 39 Steps, with its out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire rhythm of action. These are very different movies. Can this shared #39 be a coincidence, or are Blow-Up and The 39 Steps connected? Let’s explore this coincidence and the implications.

The 39 Steps is a reworking of a novel of the same name by John Buchan. Buchan’s The 39 Steps is a best-seller adventure-espionage-thriller type of story that made money for its distinguished author, but would now be forgotten4 if it were not for Hitchcock’s extraordinary movie remake of the book. Buchan is not a great novelist,5 and The 39 Steps is one of those cases where the movie is definitely better than the book – an occurrence quite frequent in the Hitchcock canon, it should be noted.6 Very often the source material that he chose to draw upon is, from a literary point of view, unimpressive, sometimes overwhelmingly unimpressive, much as Blow-Up, Antonioni’s masterpiece, has a non-impressive source, especially compared to the film he “adapted” from it.7 Antonioni, “like Hitchcock,” was “working with literary sources to which he felt no need to be faithful” (Pomerance 238). But Hitchcock saw in Buchan’s novel features that would make a terrific film, and the resulting movie proved how powerful his judgment was.8 To call it an “adaptation” is misleading: he remade it, and he did so by picking out certain plot-motifs and allowing these motifs to drive the action. Almost all of the rest could be discarded – and was.9

He had what makes a great director, what you have to have: an educated imagination: “imagination” in the technical sense of that word, that is. This is the power to visualize, to visualize forms latent in the materials that, till now, are not visible – outcomes that others do not see. This kind of imagination visualizes possibilities: it perceives shapes in what to others looks random. The random in this sense is not chaotic: it is, rather, the potentially created. It is unformed, not yet shaped into something, but capable of such transformation. Hitchcock could see a pattern in a body of material that others could not see. Interestingly, he was famous for, and even boasted about, his technique of visualizing each scene before shooting it, a method that is regularly reported by those who worked with him.10 But Hitchcock’s success as a director went beyond this practice, and was based on his power of seeing possibilities in material – to see the picture mentally before seeing it physically – an ability that Michelangelo Antonioni shared with Hitchcock, and that Blow-Up is all about.11 For Blow-Up is about nothing if not about seeing things that aren’t there – and yet are there. Potentially. In imagination.12

“Seeing things that are not there – and yet are there”: Blow-up

The power to visualize possibilities in material, possibilities that others do not see, is not magic; it definitely concerns imagination, but imagination as a professional ability. It is the capacity to see how film creates its impact, as well as the imagining of scenes before shooting. Like other professional abilities, it is a skill that can be developed by study of what others have done before. This type of study is a training in seeing, training in seeing the story as a viewer would see it, to experience it as a plot shape, a pattern or rhythm that interacts with viewer expectations and reactions, a pattern required in order to create maximum impact. Hence the use of coincidence. Coincidences are patterns, patterns in themselves, but also the building blocks of a larger structure. Antonioni puts “39” literally on the Blow-Up door, right at the doorstep, as if to usher the viewer into the world of his weird masterpiece – as if to say, you are now entering the same kind of world as The 39 Steps, where nothing is as it seems, and yet what it seems, it is. Or so it seems.

The use of 39 – the movie address – looks like un hommage, as they say, Antonioni’s tribute to a more famous movie-maker.13 After all, “Antonioni knew and often reflected the work of Hitchcock,” as Murray Pomerance notes (13), but any such tribute would coincide with the fact that this location is a piece of reality. This 39 was not a fictional location – it was not made up. It was a real address of a real photographer, in fact the address of a famous and fashionable photographer of the time, precisely as Thomas, the lead character in the movie, is an ultrafashionable photographer: “Outside shots of the photographer’s studio were at . . . 39 Princes Place, W11. Photographer Jon Cowan leased his studio at 39 Princes Place to Antonioni for much of the interior and exterior filming, and Cowan’s own photographic murals are featured in the film.”14 This is reality.15 The 39 is thus technically a coincidence and at the same time a meaningful connection, the indication of an affinity between the films.16

This particular coincidence is curious in another way, because it is only the first of a 39 series in Blow-Up. Consider, for instance, the mystery character of Blow-up: the strange young woman played by Vanessa Redgrave, aka “Jane” (Jane as in “Me Tarzan, you . . .”). When the narcissistic photographer orders her to give him her telephone number, she meekly complies. But surprise surprise. No one can reach her – not at that number, because it is concocted by her imagination. She has slipped her bullying pursuer a pseudo-number – an image of a phone number, as it were, not an actual phone number. No one is to reach her – unless she wants to be reached. Her inaccessibility is essential to who she is, her mystery. Thus her number is – it includes – the mysterious number 39. “39” is part of the phony phone number. The phone, the means of communication, has a number that is given and not given: 39.

“No one is to reach her”: Vanessa Redgrave: Blow-up

But there is more, because 39 turns up at least once more in Blow-Up. Thus the number of the mobile phone used by the photographer Thomas is – it includes – 39, another phone number again. And this particular 39 is given special emphasis, because the movie emphasizes this phone. It is displayed conspicuously, an object of interest for its own sake. We remember that in the Blow-Up era, a “car phone” was a rare means of communication, and all the more conspicuous for its novelty. In Blow-Up it is a symbol of a lifestyle of ostentatious and fabulous consumption. Totally. He can talk to anyone anytime for any reason. In Thomas’s world, there is nothing to see beyond surfaces – there are only surfaces, and nothing beneath, nothing to be seen in the scene. He is outside reality like someone exempt from its contingencies. He is “outside” it and that is why he can take pictures of it. The photographer is detached and detaches images from reality. He is not connected, but floats above reality, detached like his 39 car phone.

Blow-Up displays the “postmodern world,” according to Mary Ann Carolan, who identifies the photographer’s “misunderstood images” with “the larger scheme of aggression in Thomas’s postmodern world” (45). It’s about aggression. This photographer goes out of his way to show that he can do whatever he likes to whomever he likes, and till now, he has lived this fantasy, a fantasy enabled by sycophants and hangers-on eager for him to use them, even to prostitute themselves to get his attention.17 This is the glam world, the world of publicity. The world of celebrityBlow-Up is one of the first movies to be almost literally all about celebrity, about publicity, the profession of celebrity, of taking and selling images. Thomas lives entirely on the surface, propelled by whim. When he can’t get what he wants for free, he has money to buy it, such as the propeller he buys on impulse. His purchases matter – people do not matter. Hence he is openly abusive toward the mere wage-labor units that move this awkward piece of conspicuous consumption for him – a point Antonioni goes out of his way to emphasize by showing us the men awkwardly moving it and Thomas verbally abusing them.

Thomas uses his “cell phone” – the proto-cell phone – with the stylish arrogance that his persona projects. It is curious, though, that his phone number also includes 39, just as the magic number of the one woman he cannot buy includes the number 39 . . . the one woman who definitely has something more beneath her surface, whatever that may be that is under the surface.

The coincidence of the shared number – one false, one true – indicates that the two individuals, one known to us and the other unknown, are on the same wavelength. The familiar is in contact with the unknown. For this number is not just a number, a mathematical notation – it is a channel of communication, the means of connection, like the door that bears the number 39. The two characters are communicating with each other, like “the 39 steps” in Hitchcock, spies communing with spies, often people they do not really know. Some connection, some “acausal connection,” draws Thomas and Jane together, whether they want that connection or not, and even if their time together is as brief as the mystery woman can make it. There is a pattern in the coincidence of 39. It looks random but it is not random in terms of meaning. It is (not) a coincidence that the photographer, randomly walking in the park, just happens to meet up with “Jane” (compare “Jane Doe”) and her mysterious man doing whatever it is that they are doing in the park, engaged in whatever sinister conspiracy they – or she – are engaged in – or not engaged in.18

“Acausal connection”: Blow-up

The connecting number 39 links both the lead characters in Blow-Up with each other; it also links Blow-Up with The 39 Steps. But this coincidence is bigger. One of Hitchcock’s American films, a movie regarded as a remake or redevelopment or re-creation of The 39 Steps, is the more famous film, North by North West, starring the glamorous Cary Grant, and full of the kind of Hollywood appeal that is alien to the earlier 39 Steps, with its rough-and-tumble working-class English ambience. Many connections link North by North West with its predecessor and model, The 39 Steps. We almost expect it to feature the number 39. And North by North West does. Indeed, the number is conspicuous: attention is brought to 39 with sly and flirtatious energy. Thus the number of the railway car that Eve Kendall, that tricky female (and not, at first, unlike Jane in Blow-Up), shares with the fugitive Roger O. Thornhill just happens to be 3901.

3901: “39” plus “1.” In other words, “the next 39, the next 39 Steps.”

It is a significant gesture, made in humorous double-entendre style. Thus the mystery woman Eve invites Roger/Cary to her compartment on the train (“a bedroom”); she gives him the car number, the sign, to look for.

THORNHILL: “Such a nice number.”

KENDALL: “It’s easy to remember.”

THORNHILL: “3901”

KENDALL: “See?”

THORNHILL: “No luggage.”

He’s definitely ready to roll. She is definitely “a nice number.” This 39 is a small detail – like the “O,” Roger’s middle initial, the “O” “that stands for nothing,” as he explains to Eve when she asks him about it.19 The dialogue is a not untypical Hitchcock in-joke: “such a nice number,” “it’s easy to remember” – few phrases are more packed with wordplay. The “3901” railway car and its female-occupied bedroom compartment are critical to more than the plot: the image of the railway compartment is itself critical to the romance of Roger and Eve, as we learn in the climactic last scene of the film as they rush into the magic tunnel of love together.

Of course, in an erotic scene like this, the 39 reminds us of another number, the one with a “6” rather than a “3.”20

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39 is the sign of the kind of story that features it, a story genre. As a unit of plot construction, the coincidence is not what a coincidence in real life is. It is a fusion, a paradoxical fusion, of the planned and the unplanned, the potential and the actual, the random and the deliberate, the instinctive and the calculated. It includes and transcends these opposites. For a director, the coincidence is the power to see patterns that others do not see, and to take that penetrating insight and develop it into a coherent form, a form that communicates with the audience. This is usually regarded as the “theme” of Blow-Up. Everyone notices the scene in Blow-Up where Thomas’s friend, the painter, muses about his painting. He puzzles over his own creative process, the process of gradually perceiving a shape in what at first had none. He sees what isn’t there, even though it is there. To create something that was there in potential form, to bring it into reality, requires human action: it is not something simply “there,” like a mountain or a snowflake or a random event. It requires a shift from passive to active, from not knowing/seeing to knowing/seeing. The pattern must be created, not just perceived – that is, it must be perceived and created. Perception becomes creation. It is not simply the act of making something, but of liberating the potential in the material itself. It fuses perception and creation, and, it cannot be dominating or forcing, because it is an act of liberation. The sculptor “sees” a figure in the block of marble. Hence it is not creation out of nothing, but the freeing of something “within” the material itself, within it but not evident in it, just as a flower is potential in the seed, even though flower and seed could hardly look more different.

The coincidence is life that is like art – the point where life turns into art, where life is turned into art. It is the point where active replaces passive, where material becomes form, where the unshaped and random becomes meaningful, purposeful, and part of a larger design that sustains it. The point recalls Kant’s principle in the Critique of Judgment that art has purposiveness without purpose. The coincidence points to a creative impulse that lies behind it – it discloses a hidden arrangement, a plan that in practice is simply the will of the filmmakers. The coincidence in the plot coincides with the action of creating the movie itself.

The 39 Steps and Blow-Up have much in common with detective fiction, where a pattern emerges out of a distracting complication of events. The pattern is invisible until the detective, like a magician, makes it appear. This “making” requires an act of perception: the moment when the detective “remembers” a detail that turns out to be the clue needed to solve the mystery. Thus the detective “remembers” a vital detail, because they were reminded of it by a coincidence. It’s the big scene and we are all familiar with it and we watch for it. Our sleuth, brilliant Miss Maypole, accidentally happens to hear that the vicar, Canon Jones, loathes marmalade. Suddenly, a memory hits her. Jones was seen buying marmalade just three days before Lady Apricot-on-Thames choked to death – appeared to choke to death – while consuming a crumpet spread with poison marmalade! Died with her mouth still filled with the ghastly sticky stuff. Presto! Murder solved. Marmalade did it – Jones did it. The brilliant Miss Maypole has the clue dropped in her lap, as it were, by accidentally overhearing a casual remark about what an eccentric shopper the vicar was. Now she perceives the truth.

Enlarging the real: Blow-up

The coincidence of happening to hear something ushers the sleuth to a realization, and this realization changes the picture. It looked one way before – now it looks totally different. Miss Maypole is not going to say outright what her sudden realization has revealed, of course. No movie magic that way! The movie has to tantalize – stimulate – the viewer. The viewer has yet to catch up with the brilliant sleuth, and has no idea what the magic of the moment signifies, why her face has lit up with fortuitous inspiration.21 That will come only when suspense has been milked to capacity.

The coincidence is the point where what is in front of the screen of appearances coincides with what is inside that screen, behind it, hidden from view. It is the point at which we glimpse what is behind the screen of appearances. A pattern becomes visible that was invisible before: the pattern was in that picture, yet not visible, until now. The coincidence signifies a shift in perception. It is a metaphor for insight. It is insight that dispels an illusion, and it requires a coincidence to make this shift happen.

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Blow-Up is in many ways a remake of The 39 Steps, a re-creation that is arguably a more creative version of Hitchcock’s earlier movie than his own North by North West is – and North by North West is, in so many ways, a reincarnation of The 39 Steps.22

In all of these movies, the theme of putting on a performance is basic. Performance would seem at odds with the pursuit-escape imperative they depend on, but performance is in fact a requirement of the form. The movie genre at play in each of these films is a form that clearly fascinated Hitchcock – call it the conspiracy narrative. Everything about Hitchcock has been subject to scrutiny, indeed to dispute and argument, but one thing everyone agrees on is that Hitchcock had a predilection for the chase-adventure plot construction, a construct that makes innocence and guilt central to the action. It’s a great formula, but there would be no chase-adventure if there were no conspiracy first. By definition, a conspiracy is a hidden intention shared by people who want to remain unseen. What the conspiracy does is to generate a façade of false appearances – a performance. This “screen of appearances,” as it might be called, is an elaborate front of deception designed to conceal the conspiracy. The conspiracy of the bad guys then incites a counter-conspiracy, a counter-conspiracy by the good guys, which penetrates the screen of appearances and neutralizes those who have projected it, de-performing and de-forming those appearances.

In the chase-pursuit plot, you have to be running from something, something that is a plot against you – or better yet: a plot that is not against you so much as a plot that you are caught up in, but without understanding what is going on, a formula with big cinematic payoffs. In creative hands of directors like Hitchcock or Antonioni, the chase-pursuit plot acquires another dimension altogether.

On the surface, it is a chase narrative where the action takes us over hurried distances, often employing a variety of means of transportation, including a lot of walking as well as running, climbing – and sometimes falling. In this respect The 39 Steps sets the model for North by North West, where every sort of transportation/travel is evoked and enlisted. Travel – escape – is the first thing we see even in Marnie, a film that is a close variant on the conspiracy narrative. The formula consists of constant movement punctuated by awkward periods of stillness, for instance the scene in North by North West of waiting and waiting on the desolate roadside next to a fatal cornfield, or in The 39 Steps, the tense meal with the religious bigot and his frustrated young bride. Like Antonioni, Hitchcock is very good at these tense pauses (scenes where nothing may happen except the arousal of viewer engagement). In movies of this type, one is either running in panic, in a situation one has no control over, or one is standing around tensely trying (not) to be noticed, a combination that isolates but also exposes the protagonist. Blow-Up uses the same rhythm, with its soundless moments of tense and intense isolation and mounting anxiety, notably when Thomas examines the “blow-up” itself, but also when he returns to the scene of death, with its eerie hyperreality.23 He wants to penetrate his own photograph and to enter the reality that he by coincidence caught on film. The coincidence now controls his life, as if his whims, formerly under his command, have now taken him over and control him. Because of the coincidence, he has seen behind the screen and must now penetrate and dispel it.

Escape: Marnie

Hurried movement is a basic means of creating the kind of rhythm that the conspiracy narrative requires.24 Another basic motif here is that of the crowd. Movement and crowds are features that are automatically gripping, visually speaking, not just because they are stimulating visually but because of the exaggerated quality of crowd emotions. Crowd emotions are ramped-up emotions – emotions by definition larger than individual feelings. They convey a loss of control, even panic or hysteria: useful materials for this type of plot construction. Blow-Up, despite its conspicuous silences and stillnesses, also conspicuously features crowds. There is a surprising amount of running and racing around. The plot barely justifies the crowds, or the running and racing around. The crowds have little plot function, if any, except to rev up the energy level without actually taking us anywhere; one thinks of the opening scene of Blow-Up, of the “revelers” careening through the streets of London going where the spirit takes them.25 They stop when they have the impulse to stop, not because of some compelling agenda. The random-seeming racing and running about in the movie (e.g., Jane in the park at our first meeting, with her mystery man close at hand) is not really randomness at all, but expresses another kind of logic, a logic of image and sensation, rather than a logic of cause-and-effect.26Movie logic. The logic of the coincidence, where events always have meaning. Synchronicity: “acausal connection.”

At its profoundest, the “conspiracy narrative” ushers us into a reality where space and time are different. Different from the space and time of ordinary experience – routine is broken. Indeed, reality itself becomes plastic, fluid, mysterious, operating on principles and codes that are unfamiliar. For instance, at the party, so central to Blow-Up’s imagery (but hardly to its “plot”), Thomas asks Veruschka, the famous model, why she isn’t where she said she would be – in Paris. She famously replies, spliff in hand, “I am in Paris.” (Veruschka is, of course, “a real person,” in the real – the non-cinema – world: that is to say, the advertising-modeling world specializing in illusions and manipulations.) Time and space change. The scene presented in the mystery photo, when “blown up,” reveals spaces within spaces, realities within realities, possibilities within possibilities.27 In Blow-Up, time and space are different, unpredictable and energized. Such energy and unpredictability are unimaginable in the workaday world where Thomas is a total winner who need never think of anything except self-gratification.

This point is made right away in Blow-Up. Thus the film presents the workaday world immediately at the opening, where we are shown “a column of morose workers emerging from a brick factory” (Schwarzer 212). The sequence is practically black-and-white, a spectacle of zombie-style workers filing across a scene of grim Victorian factories and “doss houses” (not unlike the “doss house” of Hitchcock’s ’30s film Young and Innocent). In Blow-Up, this routine-work world is visualized as repulsive drudgery, but nevertheless, those who have money, like the photographer or his editor, rather enjoy this repulsive drudgery – for others. Zombie routine and idle waste are literally two sides of the same scene, as Thomas doffs his worker disguise, climbs into his Rolls, and motors off. Thomas is detached from others and indifferent to the reality around him, except as a source of personal gratification, because reality is nothing but ownable surfaces: property, in short.28 Compare the routine world of Roger O. Thornhill at the beginning of North by North West, with its complacent self-satisfaction, exemplified by his sense of complete control. Coincidences in this world are merely accidents. In his time and space and circumstance, everything is predictable, nothing is a surprise, others take care of him (mostly dutiful women), and all is in order. Until he meets Mr. Vandamm in the house of strange appearances: James Mason makes a perfect Mephistopheles to the arrogant and the complacent, like Roger “O.” Thornhill.

Thus in the conspiracy narrative the routine world becomes bizarre and the bizarre world becomes routine. In Blow-Up, the mad conflict over the broken guitar ends when Thomas runs off with it, pursued by crazed fans. Then, having won the big prize, as the winner he is, he throws it away. Absurd. The counterpart to this scene in North by North West is the insane auction sequence. As in Blow-Up, we are shown an audience that is calm, controlled, even immobilized; then it explodes into a riot, as standards of value reverse – as the protagonist loudly bids absurdly, bidding expensive stuff down, not up, and even threatening the integrity of numbers, to the horror of the auctioneer. Another scene of this type is the political meeting in The 39 Steps. Hannay must give a speech extempore: it inverts reason, yet somehow makes sense in a different way (as indeed Thornhill’s “bidding” in North by North West makes sense in a subversive way, too).

The auction scene: North by Northwest

Thomas the photographer races off with the broken guitar, a prized trophy, then tosses it, because he recognizes it for what it is: a broken guitar of no use to anyone, and an emblem of pointless ego-inflation. Like the propeller he purchases for his studio, it is nothing more than the display of arrogant self-absorption: the status of winner who can do anything whenever whatever. Conventional valuations are inverted and made vacuous, postmodern-style. The absurdity of his pretension as fashionable “artist” is evident in the upside-down world where customary values, even dollar values, are suddenly exposed as madness. He himself feels this exposure, because he has run into something that he wants to control but cannot: and that is, namely, the strange woman he happened to run across in the park, the woman who would not yield to his arrogance – along with the disappearing dead man somehow linked with her, like a shadow to a body.

The relentless chase-pursuit theme, with crowd scenes to punctuate the action, and a rhythm of breakneck action alternating with tense uncomfortable stillness, are all characteristic of this type of story – and The 39 Steps is possibly the most perfect illustration of the type. Nevertheless, incessant activity spread out over chase-distances is only the surface, so to speak. In a sense it is really a distraction. There is another dimension, another axis, to this type of plot construction when employed by a genuinely imaginative director – and this is a vertical action, in contrast to the horizontal rhythm of rush-crowds-escape-tense-waiting-rush.

This is where the coincidence becomes important. In a director like Hitchcock or Antonioni, the conspiracy narrative is not a lateral adventure, sequential, site to site, episodic event to episodic event, so much as it is a penetrative action, a going-deeper type of action. The word “penetrative” needs a caution: it is action that goes deeper but it is not “penetrative” in the sense of male sexual action (especially assault). But vocabulary is lacking when it comes to describing actions that go forward into what is in front of us, or for action that passes through a surface familiar to us, an action that enters into something different “behind” or “beneath” the familiar appearance of things. That is, the action is penetrative in that it takes us deeper into the action, not further along on the action; it takes us behind the action, so to speak, into a different kind of order than what the outer surface shows to the viewer.

Thus the story is about breaking through appearances, rather than hurrying from appearance to appearance, even running, though there is usually plenty of such lateral motion – a necessity in the cinematic world, in any case. Movies must move, after all. But unlike the kind of motion which is built into the form of the movie itself, the action of going deeper into something, of a situation progressively clarifying, is much trickier to present on the screen. It takes skill to do that, and perhaps no movie shows this skill better than Blow-Up. It is not difficult to present linear action, one event after another – in fact, that is practically a definition of movies: one thing after another. What movement means. But the action of finding more in what is already present on screen, within the scene itself, has its own kind of logic. Thus, at first, the situation looks one way – later, especially at the end, it looks another way – passage from outside the action, so to speak, to inside the action. The progression is not a linear movement from varied scene to varied scene, but a change of perception. The progression presents the same thing, same but seen differently. As the movie advances, its presentation goes deeper, in the sense of displaying a different kind of event, a different way of perceiving. The point is not to see what is different – but to see in a different way. The scene has changed, because it is seen with changed eyes. Hence the prominence of the political meeting in The 39 Steps, the auction scene in North West, the concert with the famous Yard Birds band in Blow-Up (where the photographer wins the insane guitar trophy and spirits it away): in Blow-Up routine events are “blown up.” Each “inverts” normal reality. The coincidence signals the shift from surface to what is beneath the surface, from random events to a complex pattern slowly revealing itself.

* * *

In The 39 Steps, this change of perception is strikingly visualized in the form of one of the oddest characters in all of movies: the strange man known as “Memory,” the man we see at the outset performing astounding mental feats, like the ultimate Jeopardy winner on intellect steroids. He is a human encyclopedia. Ask any question and he knows the answer – surely he is a character type unique in cinema history. He even knows something about the remote regions of Canada, such as the distance between Winnipeg and Montréal. That is the question posed by the Canadian protagonist Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), who is sure his question about how far it is to Montréal will be a stumper for Mr. Memory. But no – Mr. Memory seems to know everything, even things about a place as uninteresting as Canada. Hannay is not outside the observation of others, as he will soon find out, like the leads in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Mr. Memory (center): The 39 Steps

At the end of the movie, Memory is no longer an encyclopedia full of useless knowledge, a kind of upscale circus attraction. He is now the locus of power, the bone of contention, the “MacGuffin.” For he possesses the specs for new military technology capable of changing the balance of power between rival nations – a not insignificant matter in 1935, in the gloomy age of Hitler’s drive to war. “Memory” appears in the opening sequence as a vaudeville act, on the same level as “performing dogs, a comedy sketch [or] a patriotic effusion” in Jefferson Hunter’s words (227). At the close, he is hardly an entertainer – anything but. He has become a technological mechanism to serve others, precisely like the military technology he encodes within his memory. He has become, in short, a tragic figure, a man reduced to the status of a tool for those who care only about his usefulness to them. This man knows but does not know what he knows. He has lost understanding, instead of gaining it. He has the data, but not the meaning – he has the appearance, but not the pattern. As he dies, he repeats the information that is the reason why he is dying, downloading the illicit information stored in his unconscious. On stage, in the background behind him, a file of flashing female legs joyously dance a cancan. We literally see behind the curtain. A man degraded and exploited dies – beautiful young women dance for the titillation of men: “wretches hang [so] that jurymen may dine,” as the poet Alexander Pope puts it. This kind of harsh contrast is typical of Hitchcock’s British films of the 1930s.29 They have a dark even shocking directness not found in his American postwar movies (e.g., North by North West, even if it is, in so many ways, a remake of The 39 Steps).30

In North by North West, the chase – a chase across a continent (and roughly the distance between Winnipeg and Montréal) – is, finally, a penetration of Vandamm’s plot, where, again, the scene that is presented to us “turns out” to be utterly different from our earlier perception of it. This shift of perception is much more complicated than merely switching from episode to episode, or even returning to a scene that is and is not the same scene. The first half of the film follows the pattern set by the superb Long Island mansion scene that opens North by North West. Roger O. Thornhill, advertising executive par excellence, has been kidnapped and taken to a splendid mansion that stands imposingly in the estate of a millionaire. Then, after its bizarre disclosures and surviving the wild alcoholic ride intended to snuff him, he returns to this mansion the next day to expose the facts. As movie fans remember, it is not the same. It is and is not what it was – everything is the same except that everything is different. Apart from the vanishing liquor cabinet, everything looks precisely as before, even if it is totally different. We are shown the same place in two succeeding episodes, the second designed to re-create the first, yet the action remains episodic, one thing after another: no penetration of the screen of appearances, no shift of consciousness, has taken place. One scene overlies the earlier one, like a palimpsest, yet there is no connection between them. Not yet, anyway.

What follows is the familiar lateral adventure, as projected by the overland train journey and the unforgettable scene in the cornfield with the truck that explodes and the airplane that crashes. The critical shift of perception is not realized visually until the end, where it is presented in the form of a vertical action, vertical in the sense both of going upward but also of going downward, in a dramatic descent. The fall from atop Mount Rushmore supplies the classic fate of the bad guy – he plunges to his death off a cliff, like Satan hurtling down to hell in Paradise Lost. The fate intended for the protagonist is the fate of the man who intended that fate. Here the action goes deeper, not merely bouncing from adventure to adventure.31 Vertical action indicates what I have called penetrative action, that is, a going deeper into the story rather than jumping along on the surface. The “screen of appearances” inverts itself; the viewer penetrates the screen and sees it from the other side.

The cornfield sequence: North by Northwest

With a “screen of appearances” the conspiracy creates a false look, a misleading appearance, juggling things into a phony version of reality. The conspiracy manipulates the screen from behind it, using it to subvert the consciousness of those on the outside of the screen, their dupes. The dupes on the outside of the screen of appearances are actually in a state of altered consciousness caused by the false look of things presented to them, a false look that is really an illusion. Those under its spell are being manipulated for the benefit of the conspiracy. This illusory condition confuses the action but also prolongs it, providing the point of the drama, which is to dispel or penetrate the illusion. Hence there is a shift of consciousness, when you go from outside the screen, looking at it and being mystified and deluded by it. Then, after you penetrate the screen and pass through it, you find yourself on the inside, and from that vantage, everything looks different and has a different meaning. Eyes wide shut become eyes wide open.32

This shift accompanies the exposure of a conspiracy, but it is also something else. It stands for or expresses something else. It is a metaphor for attaining understanding, for expanding the powers of perception. It is consciousness, but consciousness intensified. We see it in the look of fascination on the face of the sleuth as the sleuth now “remembers” the decisive clue. It is the “ah ha!” moment, when awareness shifts dramatically. It is not memory but memory transformed by an expanded understanding, when we remember – and understand what we remember in a new way. The coincidence is this moment.

In movies, lateral motion – back and forth on the screen – often projects normalcy and routine. But if you leave normalcy-routine (for example in the shift of perception when penetrating appearances), verticals make sense. “Breakthroughs” call for verticals. Or, if not vertical movement, then a shifting of the camera focus forward from the viewer into the field of vision. Shifting forward – but also the reverse: toward the viewer, from what is distant in the field of vision in toward the viewer. Hitchcock’s use of dramatic vertical action at the end of his films is well known, an action that indicates resolution. Most of his outcomes include falls downward or vertical camera movement upward (even in Marnie, where the camera pans back and up in the closing scene, somewhat as the camera pans upward to the diamond drop at the end of Family Plot). Typically, in this scene someone falls off a high place (Hitchcock spares us what they look like when they hit bottom).

Compare Blow-Up. It is not an accident – not a coincidence – that Blow-Up also features such a cinematic gesture to close the film. This cinematic gesture is not a plunge downward, but a dizzying shift upward, high above the scene. The photographer shrinks into a small figure, like someone seen from a high place far below the viewer – then he disappears altogether, as if passing through the vanishing point – and vanishing. The superb sequence of the mimed tennis game emphasizes the same penetration of distance: in it, the tennis ball goes into the distance, as it is thrown, hurled, and returned, but it is a distance present only to the viewer’s imagination. The spatiality of the scene, its sense of depth as the ball bounces invisibly away from us, is outstanding, because it is all in our visualizing imagination and not on the screen at all. One is going deeper into the cinematic space itself, penetrating its depths, guided by the playful energy of a tennis ball being watched with breathless interest by a crowd of clowns. Except that the tennis ball is not there at all.

“Deeper into cinematic space”: Blow-up

It is, as they say, only in your imagination.

Again, the point is not to see something different – it is to see in a different way. That is what the coincidence is. What it reveals.

The protagonist in all three movies (The 39 Steps, North by North West, Blow-Up) is forced in each case to face a situation so testing that he has nothing to bring to it but his own wits. The resources available to him because of his social standing and the connections he counted on prove useless. He must penetrate the screen of appearances in order to free himself from a trap, the trap of the coincidence: being in the wrong place at the wrong time – or the right place at the right time, depending on how you see it. Hannay in The 39 Steps just happens to meet Annabella at Mr. Memory’s show, and everything follows from it. Roger O. Thornhill happens to get up when the conspirators page “Mr Kaplan.” Thomas just happens to be scampering around the park where “Jane” is doing something with someone she doesn’t want seen. In each case the encounter is an encounter – an “accidental” meeting – with death.

Even in Blow-Up, someone has desecrated Thomas’s artist sanctum, invading it in order to retrieve Thomas’s incriminating photos – and indicating that he is under observation, and therefore under threat. He has committed the crime of penetrating the screen of appearances and discovering that what-seems is not what-is, and what-seems is produced by others who have something to benefit from it, as opposed to allowing what-is to be open and visible. In North by North West, the protagonist is actually in the business of constructing what-seems rather than what-is – the business known as advertising, with its deliberate, concocted illusions. He enters a concocted illusion himself immediately as the story begins, in the form of the kidnappers and the mystery mansion where he meets the even more mysterious Vandamm; the theme of altered consciousness is emphasized by the alcohol conspicuously on display in the mansion and then poured down his throat. The wild ride that follows is emblematic of the wild ride that is to come in his life, smashing the OCD routines that enclosed him, routines of executive decisions, secretaries, calendar appointments, bureaucratic meetings, bridge games, and predictability: something now in the past.

The “wild ride”: North by Northwest

But that is what great movies do for us: they take us deeper into something that is far beyond the colored lights flickering on a flat screen, something far deeper than mere appearances, even if that is, coincidentally, all that they are.

All is revealed – under the sign of 39.33

Works Cited

Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” In Naremore, ed. 28-37.

Archer, Neil. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009/2011) and the New ‘European Cinema.’” Film Criticism 37.2 (Winter 2012-13). 2-22. Print.

Bluestone, George, Novels into Film. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957.

Cartmell, Deborah, and Imelda Whelehan, eds. Adaptations from Text to Screen, from Screen to Text. London: Routledge, 1999.

Ebert, Roger. “Blow-Up.” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-blow-up-1966

Edgecombe, Rodney S. “The Emblematic Texture of Antonioni’s Blow-Up.Film Criticism 36.1 (Fall 2011). 68-84

Garrett, Greg. “Hitchcock’s Women on Hitchcock: A Panel Discussion with Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren, Karen Black, Suzanne Pleshette, and Eva Marie Saint.” Literature Film Quarterly 27.2 (1999): 78-90.

Hunter, Jefferson. English Filming, English Writing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. “Afterword: Adaptation as a Philosophical Problem.” In McCabe et al., eds. 215-234.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1957.

Kunze, Peter. “Shadow of a Debt: Hitchcock’s Literary Sources.” Review of Palmer and Boyd, Shadow of a Debt: Hitchcock’s Literary Sources. Literature/Film Quarterly 41.2 (2013): 154.

Lamster, Mark, ed. Architecture and Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Lee, Sander H. “Escape and Commitment in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 7.2 (Winter 1988): 18-28.

MacCabe, Colin, Kathleen Murray, and Rick Warner, eds. True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

MacCabe, Colin. “Bazinian Adaptation: The Butcher Boy as Example.” In MacCabe et al., eds. 3-26.

Mulvey, Laura. “Max Ophuls’s Auteurist Adaptations.” In MacCabe et al., eds. 76-90.

Naremore, James, ed. Film and Adaptation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Naremore, James. “Introduction: Film and the Reign of Adaptation.” In Naremore, ed. 1-16.

O’Casey, Ronan. Letter to Roger Ebert (February 10, 1999). https://sites.google.com/a/blowupthenandnow.com/blowup-then-now/the-ebert-interviews/ronan-o-casey-letter—february-10-1999. Accessed 10 February 2016.

Palmer, R. Barton, and David Boyd, eds. Hitchcock at the Source: The Auteur as Adaptor. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Pierson, Michele. “The Object of Film Analysis.” Millennium Film Journal 58 (Fall 2013): 66-72. http://www.mfj-online.org/issues/mfj-58-since-78-vol-1/#sthash.PxhYe4cC.dpuf Accessed February 2016.

Pomerance, Murray. Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.

Pressler, Michael. “Antonioni’s Blow-Up: Myth, Order, and the Photographic Image.” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities 5.1 (Fall 1985): 42-59.

Schwarzer, Mitchell. “The Consuming Landscape: Architecture in the Films of Michelangelo Antonioni.” In Mark Lamster, ed. 197-214.

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

Warner, Rick. “Contempt Revisited: Godard at the Margins of Adaptation.” In MacCabe et al., eds. 195-214.

Whelehan, Imelda. “‘A Doggy Fairy Tale’: The Film Metamorphoses of The Hundred and One Dalmatians.” In Cartmell and Whelehan, eds. 214-225.

  1. Also literature, including the most sophisticated and rarified writing. Take Henry James, for instance. The hinge of the plot of his great novel The Ambassadors is the surprise accidental meeting of Strether with Mme. de Vionnet: she is accompanied by her lover Chad, proving that she is indeed having an affair with the young man. Everything in the novel revolves around this scene – this coincidence. []
  2. Synchronicity is the subject of volume 8 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton UP). Perhaps the most interesting exploration of coincidence (apart from Jung) is The Roots of Coincidence, by the novelist and political philosopher Arthur Koestler. []
  3. For many people, 13 is the unlucky number, but for some, it is a “lucky” number. 13 is the number of revolution, traditionally, so perhaps those who like things the way they are find it unlucky, while those who want change find it to be their number. For more on this, see my book 13 Ways of Looking at Images (and the poem by Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”). []
  4. Forgotten, that is, by the general public. Academics and scholars would not forget or ignore Buchan. []
  5. Buchan was a good writer for the kind of genre he was working in, but he had no pretensions as a great novelist. An important English politician and diplomat, Buchan – Lord Tweedsmuir – was Governor-General of Canada until his death in 1940. A vast wilderness park in British Columbia, Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, is named after him. []
  6. Another example of this phenomenon, though not by Hitchcock, is Lost Horizon, the great Capra film of 1938 (not the annoying remake). The movie version of Lost Horizon is far superior to the James Hilton novel, in terms of impact and scope. Pomerance compares Antonioni to Hitchcock on Hitchcock’s use of sources (238). In many respects Antonioni was similar in his approach to sources, dramatically changing the original Cortázar story upon which Blow-Up is based. []
  7. Hitchcock’s attitude toward his sources is well expressed in the collection of interviews he did with François Truffaut, the one indispensable book relating to Hitchcock. Sources are to be read, selected for the scenario they suggest, and then discarded. See James Naremore, “Introduction” 7. []
  8. John Buchan is an interesting figure for many reasons; probably his most important novel, apart from The 39 Steps, is Greenmantle, a thriller of interest today because its plot concerns Muslim extremism. The 39 Steps is not a book one is eager to reread, unlike Hitchcock’s version, a movie which can be screened repeatedly without any loss of interest. []
  9. For a useful survey of Adaptation Theory and its travails, see Colin MacCabe, “Bazinian Adaptation” 3-26. The issues are complicated, as the existence of the Association of Adaptation Studies indicates (not to mention its Journal of Adaptation Studies) – issues too complicated to be more than touched on here. The one thing that Adaptation scholars seem to agree on is that film studies have been contaminated by literary studies. In “the ordinary process of mutation from a linguistic to a visual medium,” as George Bluestone puts it (162), the critical, common factor to keep in mind is that both text and film depend upon mental images: the form/trans/forming of mental images. In Dudley Andrew’s words, “imagery functions equivalently in films and novels” (34). []
  10. Janet Leigh, star of Psycho, was one of many who observed this method of Hitchcock’s close up as he was working. See Greg Garrett, “Hitchcock’s Women on Hitchcock: A Panel Discussion with Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren, Karen Black, Suzanne Pleshette, and Eva Marie Saint.” []
  11. As Murray Pomerance observes, “It is immaterial to an analysis of Antonioni’s method and effects to dwell at exceeding length on the transformations he effected from his source materials: rather like Hitchcock working with literary sources to which he felt no compulsion to be faithful, he sees in literary works the necessary skeletons upon which he can build his films. . . . What Antonioni retains of this [Julio Cortázar’s original story] is the mystery of the photograph that contains multiple meanings, the photographer hungry to photograph, the idea of the sexual setup, the contrast between one apparently blissful eventuality and another that can be taken to be darker” (238). []
  12. Antonioni’s style, like Hitchcock’s, emphasizes the play of imagination – in Rick Warner ‘s words, “the innovations of Michelangelo Antonioni (the relentless play of frames within frames, the ‘autonomous mediating gaze’ of the camera, the ‘inquiring detachment’ that regards incidental details as elements of suspense)” (199). []
  13. Fresh from North by North West, Hitchcock was then, in the 1960s, at the peak of his fame and his creative power. []
  14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blowup#cite_note-19. Wikipedia cites an article in The Independent (“On the Trail of the Swinging Sixties” by Robert Nurden): http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/uk/on-the-trail-of-the-swinging-sixties-415444.html. Mark Lamster emphasizes Antonioni’s fascination with buildings and real places: “Unlike such architecture films as Metropolis (1927) . . . the architecture and landscape explored by Antonioni are real” (198). []
  15. See Ian Bolton for photos of sites in the movie, then and now. []
  16. Rodney S. Edgecombe details the puns (including visual puns), and he draws attention to the number 39, but as “an ancestral voice prophesying war” – that is, 1939, not the Hitchcock film (8). []
  17. “Parts of the film have flip-flopped in meaning. Much was made of the nudity in 1967, but the photographer’s cruelty toward his models was not commented on; today, the sex seems tame, and what makes the audience gasp is the hero’s contempt for women.” His identity as aggressor, not simply consumer, is conspicuous. []
  18. A lot of the mysteries of Blow-Up look less mysterious when an important fact is acknowledged: in the words of Ronan O’Casey, “Of course it was mysterious; it was never finished!” []
  19. And much noted by deconstruction-minded critics. []
  20. 39 is traditionally a year of crisis, because it marks the end of youth and the beginning of middle age. 39 is the age that women have a reputation for finding especially difficult to let go of. It is the perpetual age of the great comedian Jack Benny. Once you are 40, you are no longer young. The number 39 is a number often related to female body shape. []
  21. In fact, most detective fiction works with – or depends upon – coincidence. A notable example relevant to Blow-Up is Raymond Chandler’s great book The High Window, where someone has accidentally photographed a murder. []
  22. Curiously, there is another 39 movie, the 2009 film Glorious 39, directed by Stephen Poliakoff. Its period is the same period as The 39 Steps – the lead-up to World War II. While Glorious 39 draws on the genre of The 39 Steps, it is closer to the conventions of horror, especially Rosemary’s Baby, which the director acknowledged as a major influence on his film. Hitchcock would never have made euthanizing cats (as Poliakoff did in Glorious 39) a significant part of his movie! Another 39 movie is Zone 39 (1996), a sci-fi movie directed by John Tatoulis, which I have not seen. []
  23. Hitchcock works partly in the “classical” Hollywood mode – and partly not, thanks largely to his training in German Expressionist filmmaking. David Bordwell argues that European cinema was shaped by its opposition “against the classical narrative mode” (“The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice” 95). Both Hitchcock and Antonioni are stylistically distinctive, no doubt because of their non-American training and origin. []
  24. This kind of hurried movement is basic to TV commercials, even more so, where the pull on attention is designed to be hypnotic, something viewers cannot take their eyes off of. For a good director, the movie tempo of hurried movement is to hold attention – not assault it. []
  25. In Roger Ebert’s words, “a British audience would have known they were participating in the ritual known as ‘rag,’ in which students dress up and roar around town raising money for charity.” []
  26. Imelda Whelehan calls it “the determining language of the visual image” (145). []
  27. Of course, the actual nature of what we are seeing/experiencing in film remains a disturbing question: “we know that film analysis cannot but produce a new object: the film as scholar, reviewing it at close range, and in the light of a research question, an idea sees it. Less clear is the relationship between this new object and the film screened for an audience” as Michele Pierson puts it (70). For instance, because the new technology allows us to see the film in a new way it has never been seen before (frame by frame, with easy enlargement) it creates a whole new object – different from what movie goers experience. Hence, to quote Rick Warner again, Antonioni’s “relentless play of frames within frames, the ‘autonomous mediating gaze’ of the camera, the ‘inquiring detachment’ that regards incidental details as elements of suspense” (76). []
  28. Thomas’s behaviour makes his “winner” mentality look ridiculous, while emphasizing what Barry Keith Grant refers to as “the construction of ‘natural’ behavior in American screen,” in which “acting is just that – a construction” (36). Thomas is masculine without being macho: this is not a man who has spent a lot of time in the gym with personal trainers lifting weights. Indeed, he represents what Laura Mulvey, calls “contrasting iconographies of masculinity” (76). []
  29. For example, the Swiss Alps of the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much are a tourist destination: a symbol of the social status of the upper middle class, the class of the family whose child is kidnapped – a location quite different from the alien emphatically un-American Morocco of the 1956 remake. []
  30. The same contrast between those two movies also appears between the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, where the British film of the 1930s is moving in a world of fascist crisis, and has little time for singing pop songs, let alone for exotic tourist destinations, so conspicuous in the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The Switzerland we see at the beginning of the earlier Knew Too Much is hardly exotic: it borders Hitler’s Germany, and the shadow of a sinister presence is felt in this film, as it is felt in the even more sinister Secret Agent also. Hitchcock’s British films, unlike the American ones to follow, have the backdrop of growing crisis and imminent war; the American films by contrast all partake of what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called “the great American celebration.” The remake has a different tonality altogether. Unlike the American movies, a deadly seriousness informs the earlier films and is particularly noticeable in the way they close. []
  31. The imagery of statues of American icons, the size of a mountain – Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt – suggests a penetration to the depths of American national mythology, exposing “an authentically American set of contradictions,” in Fredric Jameson’s phrase (230). Hitchcock was gleeful at the idea of a character entering Lincoln’s nose. In the dream world of cinema, there are no coincidences, and the symbolism of climbing down the American mountain has deep resonance. Both the director and the protagonist – and the antagonist – were, of course, English, not to mention Leo G. Carroll. Skeptical appreciation of American national mythology is always a factor in Hitchcock’s American movies. The bizarre imagery of climbing on giant statues illustrates Neil Archer’s point: “political import is achieved through a formal disruption of the classical narrative text” (11). []
  32. Stanley Kubrick’s final movie, Eyes Wide Shut, has much in common with the 39 group studied here (The 39 Steps, North by North West, Blow-Up), but has much darker shadings, treating the motifs of the earlier movies in a way that brings it closer to horror. Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer is another important film in this line with affinities to Eyes Wide Shut. []
  33. Some other 39s: Hitchcock’s cameo in Spellbound comes at exactly 39 minutes in. In an episode of Star Trek Voyager there is a robot that B’lanna calls “39” (full name/designation: “3947”). There are 39 chevrons on the stargate in Stargate SG1. George Orwell’s great protagonist in 1984, Winston Smith, is 39 – and Rossini, the legendary composer, composed 39 operas – yes, 39. And then there is my own 39 . . . the house where I grew up was #39 on Glenwood Avenue . . . it must be fate, not a mere coincidence. []