Handcuffs are one of the most common motifs throughout Hitchcock’s films. Whether it’s a quick flash, or a major plot device, it goes without saying that Hitchcock loved handcuffs. And why not? Handcuffs are versatile and very open to interpretation. But what exactly is he trying to say? The sexual and authoritative overtones are obvious, but since handcuffs are something that spans several films, it’s worth delving into a little bit.
In Blackmail (1929), the use of handcuffs is much more subtle and rare than his other films. Hitchcock’s near obsession with authority is written all over this work, and there is little more that sums it up better than handcuffs. Handcuffs are the ultimate symbol of police authority especially, given that only the police are allowed to make arrests. This is clearly evident in the opening scene, where Frank and his partner make their on-screen arrest. Set in an obviously working class neighborhood, the presence of the law barges in, bringing their handcuffs with them. The following shots rush through the booking process, of which the handcuffs are the centerpiece. The shot below is in reference to the scene where the Frank and his fellow officers are fraternizing after work. Here we have a pretty intimate scene between men, yet the handcuffs make a big appearance. Where the police go, they go, no matter how relaxed the setting. It’s almost a sign of insecurity. There is a decidedly brave, almost Marxist theme going on here embodied in these two scenes. Just as an officer needs his to protect himself against violent criminals, Hitchcock wants us to know that cuffs are the only things standing in between civilization and chaos (with his tongue in his cheek, of course).
In The 39 Steps (1935), however, we see handcuffs in an entirely different light. Here Hitchcock takes an even bigger leap into social criticism. Whereas in Blackmail the cuffs are symbols of power and privilege, Hitchcock takes the image and turns it on its head. When Hannay and Pamela start as adversaries stuck together, their blossoming love nullifies the power of the cuffs. The cuffs go from tools of imprisonment to a set of wedding bands. This isn’t just Hitchcock being clever, but openly subversive. When the faceless Law tried to create a barrier between the characters, freedom and love prevails.