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Partie IV. Filming the Crime Novel

What Hitchcock Taught Us about Whodunnits

Dominique Sipière
p. 149-155


Même s’il a réalisé des films de suspense criminel, Alfred Hitchcock n’aimait pas les whodunnits. Or sa méfiance renseigne à la fois sur sa recherche d’un “genre-Hitchcok” original et sur la nature du whodunnit: ces romans à énigme dont l’apogée se situe dans les années trente reposent sur une double intrigue (le récit de l’enquête vise à reconstruire le récit du crime) et un double jeu entre l’“auteur” et le lecteur, d’une part, et entre les personnages qu’ils surplombent, d’autre part. Peut être l’émotion survit-elle grâce à la nature très particulière d’un contrat et de sentiments quasi religieux, qui assurent la révélation finale après le triomphe apparent de la raison: doute et certitude, maîtrise et subversion, machine ambiguë dont la nature profondément “littéraire” a parfois échappé à ses détracteurs.

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Texte intégral

- If it’s murder, said captain Wiles, who done it?
- Who did it, Sam corrected.
- That’s what I say. Who done it?

John Trevor Story, The Trouble With Harry, p.75

1Alfred Hitchcock disliked whodunnits and he carefully avoided filming them. His only exception is Murder, in 1930. On the contrary, Dial M for Murder, in 1954, with a somewhat reminiscent title, is not a whodunnit since the spectator knows the villain from the start. This means that Hitchcock filmed crimes, murders and blood… but among the twenty seven American films he made after Suspicion there is no story that can be called a whodunnit. Then, one must start with a simple question: what is a whodunnit?

2Whodunnits imply a specific central core that might read this way: “a murder has been committed and we are to identify its author”. The reader’s contract is very strict. It includes the final unravelling of the mystery and a set of rules, even though a certain amount of bending the rules is itself expected in the game.

3I’ve always felt a little sorry about Hitchcock’s mistrust for the genre, the sort of feeling one has about one’s parents’ quarrels. This may be why I started investigating the long divorce between Hitchcock and the whodunnit with the hope I would understand both of them better. Hitchcock’s attitude might result from his constant obsession with authorship and the creation of a “Hitchcock genre”, quite obvious in his dialogue with Truffaut in which he regularly discards some of his films as non-hitchcock films…

4I also found that the whodunnit as a genre was somewhat enhanced by this investigation, but most of all, I wanted to see through a small mystery: why do we read whodunnits? What is the nature of the specific emotion I feel at the end of these somewhat artificial stories and why do they survive among certain people, while other readers seem totally indifferent to them?

5I’ll start with the whodunnit contract and structures and the way Hitchcock deals with them; then I’ll consider the economical arrangement of information and emotions in this sort of fiction and I’ll conclude with what I’ll call the strategies of Revelation in both Hitchcock and the whodunnit.

The game

6The whodunnit is a game with a set of rules, the first rule being that anything worth unravelling will be explained in the end. There must be a clear separation between winners and losers and all the steps that led to the crime must be understood. The second rule, in its canonical version, insists on the partnership between writer and reader: all the necessary clues must be given in order to make it an even match. This insistence on the game aspect entails the risk of forgetting the whodunnit’s literary ambitions altogether and it accounts for its status as a meta literary genre.

7So far, there is no opposition between these ambitions and Hitchock’s conception of his role: both aim at giving pleasure to the reader spectator. They don’t want to offer “a slice of life, but a slice of cake”. Both must avoid unanswered questions, useless explanations and dull narrative. On the contrary, colours must be enhanced and life intensified by high stakes and dreadful villains, affording a real competition with both detective and reader. The whodunnit format – as exemplified in Agatha Christie’s narratives – is about improbable events bursting into a perfectly stable and clean world, with the addition of a few smiles, a little romance and properly distributed thrills… And all these, Hitchcock will arrange in his “kettles of red herrings”…

  • 1  Tzvetan Todorov, “Typologie du Roman policier”, Poétique de la prose, Paris, Points, 1971.

8My point here is that these ingredients are only the seasoning in both meals, not the main dish because the deep structure of a whodunnit is quite specific and it has to do with time and a split gaze on the narrative itself. As Butor and Todorov1 have observed, two different stories coexist and interweave in a whodunnit: first the story that led to the crime itself; then the story of the investigation, which constitutes the narrative itself. The second story (the inquiry) tries to rebuild the first one (the crime). The diegesis – that is, the world in which the characters live, on the inquiry level – becomes an instrument: it provides a phantom narration in which objects, bodies and words become potential signs for the detective and ourselves.

9Now, this double narrative is itself doubled: on the one hand you have the Game played by the Reader and the Writer who seem to use the characters as chess pieces, kept within their view. In this “top-bottom” game, the real Characters are the Writer-player (viz. Conan Doyle), the Narrator (Watson), and the Reader-player (you and me). Plot and characters are only tools in a board game, events and emotions are only lines and dots in a general pattern waiting for its final epiphany.

  • 2  Jacques Dubois, Le Roman policier ou la modernité, Paris, Nathan, 1992.

10But, on the other hand, within the diegesis, the characters read the same signs as ourselves and we may share their emotions and even be seized by them in a ‘bottom-top’ way. Now, these characters are strictly ruled by within a narrative square described by Jacques Dubois2: there must be four narrative functions, including a victim killed by a murderer (this is the first story, the crime) and a detective – the sleuth – who questions several suspects (and this is the second story, the inquiry). These four functions (victim, murderer, sleuth, suspects) are the basis for countless variations and they can prove helpful for my comparison between Hitchcock and the whodunnit.

11a) Let me start with the victims. They are mostly used as conveniences, appropriate devices for starting a scene or two, not to be mourned very long. Worse, they are often treated as mere suspects by the whodunnit. They remind me of Harry Worp, whose inopportune body mars the Vermont fall, in The Trouble with Harry. When he deals with victims, Hitchcock, being less interested in the enigmatic side, will drop mysterious motives and his attention will shift to the ambiguities the spectators share with the visible villain. Seeing the act may lead to a blurred understanding of its motivations, even when the murderer is obviously a dangerous psychopath (Bruno strangling Guy’s most unpleasant ex-wife in Strangers on a Train).

12b) In the classical whodunnit the sleuth is bound to win, but he must not humiliate the reader and spoil her pleasure. Hence the systematic assault on the character’s dignity as a sleuth, Poirot’s vanity and Holmes little idiosyncrasies. But, of course, they never alter his unerring deductive faculties. Should the reader doubt these deductive powers, she could not read the novel as a proper whodunnit.

  • 3  This character is absent from the original novel by John Trevor Story.

13On the contrary, Hitchcock’s contract does not include success. He always insisted on his fear of the police and the police character he introduced in The Trouble with Harry is only a suspicious nuisance called Calvin Wiggs3. Hitchcock was obviously on the suspect’s side. His efficient sleuths are nasty (Carl Malden in I Confess), and the pleasant ones tend to fall in love with the wrong person or, worse, they protect the murderer (Stage Fright) or they kill the wrong man (Ashenden who misinterprets a clue and eliminates Caypor, in Secret Agent). No, the good sleuth is only a dead sleuth, like Arbogast in Psycho: a very nice man, but pathetically blind, already a victim.

  • 4  Exceptions include murderers who had “good” reasons to kill, the most famous example being Christi (...)

14c) In a whodunnit, the murderer must be a match for the master-mind sleuth. He may be hateful and tragic, but he must have built a complex crime machine that will reorganise the whole vision of the apparent story4. In other words, story number one must clash with story number two, before they eventually merge.

  • 5  Gene D. Phillips, Alfred Hitchcock, London, Columbus Books, 1984, p.179.

15In The Trouble With Harry, everybody comes to think he or she is guilty because Hitchcock is more interested in guilt than in innocence. In a whodunnit, evil is to be suspected everywhere and it will be identified and removed at the end of the story, whereas, in Hitchcock, evil flirts with us and merely caresses us. As Gene Phillips of Loyola University, Chicago (a Jesuit), wrote: “In Hitchcock… Good and Evil can bundle together, like sly lovers…”5.

16In a whodunnit our knowledge of the character’s position (victim, sleuth, murderer, suspect) is always on the move, but it will be stabilised in the end. In Hitchcock it is the movement itself which is the theme of the story, and it will not stop after the end of the movie.

Information and emotion

17Thus, everything seems to amount to a question of relative positions within the landscape of information and emotions. A Whodunnit is a game based on withholding information and on belated knowledge, whereas hitchcockian suspense plays with a spectator who already “knows too much”. In a Poirot story the murderer will be caught, the sleuth will organise a ceremony of revelation and everyone will be on the same level including the murderer, the sleuth, and the reader.

18Before this stage, the normal hierarchy of the inquiry time goes as follows:

  • 6 Here, “>” reads: “x knows more than…”.

19Murderer >6 sleuth > privileged characters
> reader >
sleuth’s aide> other characters.

  • 7  See Dominique Sipière: “Marnie et l’éducation du regard masculin”, in Cycnos, Université de Nice, (...)

20The Hitchcockian economy of information is quite different: it puts the spectator in the best position, even better than both villain or hero. The result, of course, is the typical immersion within the diegesis, both a sharing of emotions and sensations, and a paradoxical form of empathy (not identification7) which leads to a specific form of psychological ambiguity. The Hitchcock movie informs the spectator in order to compromise her.

21The question is no longer “who did it?”, but “did this person really do it”, which soon leads to a deeply disturbing approach: we know he did not do it, but he might after all have done it… This reversal of the suspicion machine from a cold look upon everybody seen as a potential villain, to a focus on a specific character, who is usually quite attractive and whose individual feelings we may share, can become very disturbing and often leads to an ambiguous resolution of the story (See the unlikely end of Suspicion). These protagonists are usually proved innocent only because another villain emerges and takes the whole burden upon him, which leaves all motives and unfulfilled wishes disturbingly present.

22Both whodunnit and Hitchcockian suspense lead to a general or to a more focused suspicion and acute attention paid to details. But the whodunnit methodically gathers clues while suspense throws its threatening details at us. In a whodunnit, any object can become a sign at the heart of a Grand Design. It belongs to a coded cipher and it will either become a key or it will fall back into nothingness in the final equation explained by Poirot.

23This means that we are in presence of two contradictory movements: the whodunnit calls for a general distrust and a distanced use of method. And some suspense scenes force incandescent objets upon our emotions, white-hot with mad suspicion. This is the Hitchcock who will put a small electric lamp into Cary Grant’s glass of milk (Suspicion). Which does not mean that there is no emotion in a whodunnit: the whodunnit promotes the emotion of knowledge whereas hitchcockian suspense suggests knowledge about emotions.


24This leads to my last question and the specific nature of the pleasure one gets when she reads a whodunnit. Both genres give objects their moments of epiphany, a scheduled surprise, the instant of revelation. Poirot’s final lesson answers a code which separates the time of deciphering from the time of revelation. This rite and ritual include three stages: first Poirot unravels both stories of crime and inquest, including a few red herrings, and he produces a new readable common text. Second, he deciphers this text. This is the expected moment of revelation in presence of the murderer. His identity fixes the only acceptable design and it rejects all the other possibilities as non existent objects. Third, something, most of the time the murderer’s violent reaction, comes as a proof of Poirot’s theory often based on fragile inductions and bluffing.

25In Hitchcock’s films this order is often reversed as in Psycho (1960): first, we witness the instant of revelation (“Mother” is a dummy and Norman Bates loses his wig in front of us) before we are granted a long chain of explanations by the psychiatrist. Of course Alfred Hitchcock also knew how to tell a normal tale of detection: Constance, his psychoanalyst played by Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, behaves like the perfect sleuth even though we are already persuaded his lover is not guilty. And one will find many traces of the strict whodunnit in Murder, Shadow of a Doubt, Dial M for Murder or Rope: settings, atmosphere, motives, dialogues and a familiar sense of humour.

26But his special trick consists in betraying the secret long before the end. If you compare Vertigo with the original novel, you’ll find Hitchcock merely kills the whodunnit as a genre in a deliberate “crime de lèse whodunnit”: Scottie, the would-be sleuth is hired because he is ineffective, and the “real film” begins where the novel ended, with totally unexpected pictures of “how it all happened” and Judy (Kim Novak) explaining “her” crime to the spectator. In Frenzy, within the typical settings, situations, characters of a whodunnit, Hitchcock goes even further: the spectator is constantly used as a witness during Rusk’s crimes.

27The reason is that Hitchcock favours events and instants – a vision, a visual construction around which he will build the film – rather than the general structure, or the pattern of the crime. His best moments of revelation do without the mise en texte (textualization) and the deciphering by the detective. All of a sudden, in The 39 Steps (1939), right in the middle of the screen, a missing finger tells Richard Hannay he is confronting the Arch Villain. This missing object does not explain anything. Its void both stupefies and startles the spectator.

  • 8  Although one is surprised to realize how different the two men actually look when the film is seen (...)

28Now, the climax among these revelations might give us a hint about the deep nature of the pleasure we expect from any whodunnit. Towards the end of The Wrong Man, when all logic seems to crumble and Henry Fonda falls on his knees and starts praying to his God, the screen shows a stunning Miracle: the real murderer’s face, as he seems to be coming from nowhere, towards us, looking almost exactly like the wrong man8. In this absolute negation of the whodunnit the Mystery becomes the obvious truth for the believer to whom God has started speaking, at last.

29What I suggest here is that the whodunnit might share this kind of lost moments of revelation, but in a secularised version of course. It mimics the magic of a world in which everything would be explained, ordered, both terrible and delicious: at the same time a prelapsarian and a childish moment in a most civilised world. And the whodunnit would thus articulate two contradictory tendencies: on the one hand it subverts all the signs of a world it organises as a readable but perverted text; on the other hand it simulates a teleological order and the emotions of a revealed Meaning. And this contradiction creates the very original tensions between doubt and certainty, between mastery and subversion, I enjoy so much.

30But, of course, all the objects glowing with such intense meaning will very soon cool down and quietly take their places once more in Miss Marple’s showcase.

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Dubois, Jacques, Le Roman policier ou la modernité, Paris, Nathan, 1992.

Mellier, Denis et Gilles Ménégaldo, éds, Formes policières du roman contemporain, Poitiers, La Licorne, 1998.

Sipière, Dominique et Gilles Ménégaldo, éds, Les Récits policiers au cinéma, Poitiers, La Licorne, 1999.

Todorov, Tzvetan, “Typologie du Roman policier”, Poétique de la prose, Paris, Points, 1971.

Hitchcock and the whodunnit

Hitchcock Truffaut, Paris, Ramsey, 1983.

Alen, Richard and S. Ishii–Gonzalèseds, Alfred Hitchcock, Centenary Essays, London, BFI, 1999.

Brill, Lesley, The Hitchcock Romance, Princeton paperbacks, 1988.

Leitch, Thomas M., Find the Director and other Hitchcock games, Athens, University of Georgia, 1991.

Wood, Robin, Hitchcock’s Films revisited, London, Faber and Faber, 1989.

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1  Tzvetan Todorov, “Typologie du Roman policier”, Poétique de la prose, Paris, Points, 1971.

2  Jacques Dubois, Le Roman policier ou la modernité, Paris, Nathan, 1992.

3  This character is absent from the original novel by John Trevor Story.

4  Exceptions include murderers who had “good” reasons to kill, the most famous example being Christie’s Crime on The Orient Express. But the general pattern remains as challenging as ever and the villain’s role is finally transferred to the victim…

5  Gene D. Phillips, Alfred Hitchcock, London, Columbus Books, 1984, p.179.

6 Here, “>” reads: “x knows more than…”.

7  See Dominique Sipière: “Marnie et l’éducation du regard masculin”, in Cycnos, Université de Nice, 1996, pp. 23-33 and “Telling Eyes in Psycho” in Bulletin du CICLAHO, University Paris X, Nanterre, 1998, p.131-42.

8  Although one is surprised to realize how different the two men actually look when the film is seen for the second time. Was it, then, a miracle only in the spectator’s mind?

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Dominique Sipière, « What Hitchcock Taught Us about Whodunnits », Sillages critiques, 6 | 2004, 149-155.

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Dominique Sipière, « What Hitchcock Taught Us about Whodunnits », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2009, consulté le 16 octobre 2019. URL :

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Dominique Sipière

Professeur de Cinéma anglo-saxon, Université Nanterre-Paris X

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