In Defense of Hitchcock and Serious Criticism
By Robert K. Lightning.
“It follows that the critic should read without inappropriate bias. We cannot properly object to The Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, because we think that John Bunyan’s theology is false: it is not a valid criticism of a work that it disagrees with the critic. What we judge is the work itself as the material form of a sensibility defined by, and addressing itself to, a culture, and we derive our sense of this form from an analysis of the work both as historical project and realized meaning. Interpretation and evaluation are, in any case, continuous with each other: interpretation necessarily implies, and appeals for the reader’s assent to, a judgment. The critic should be aware of this fact and should write accordingly as a person judging in the present, from a given position, that such and such a work is or is not significant and valuable for what s/he takes to be creative cultural life now. The critical enterprise, in other words, is intrinsically – and should be frankly – political.” (Britton 2009: 425)
Very recently, on this very site, an article was posted devoted to the decimation of the reputation of one of the twentieth century’s premiere artists, Alfred Hitchcock. The perpetrator of this act of iconoclasm, Wheeler Winston Dixon, a frequent contributor to this site, willingly acknowledges in his article the technical skills of “the Master” but questions his profundity as an artist. If this sounds vaguely familiar to film scholars it of course should: it is a fairly accurate replication of the opposition to serious Hitchcock scholarship (in the English language) in the years preceding the publication of Robin Wood’s groundbreaking Hitchcock’s Films (1965). At that time, the major objection to taking Hitchcock seriously as an artist was the fact of his popularity with mainstream filmgoers, the assessment by the critical establishment of the director as merely an entertainer. Judging from his article on the director, the major objection to taking Hitchcock seriously as an artist for Dixon is that Hitchcock makes him personally uncomfortable.
One would think that an artist’s ability to disturb might provide evidence (though not exclusive or even necessarily primary evidence) of his artistry. There are, of course, degrees and types of disturbance. I am disturbed by Hitchcock in a very different way than I usually am by, say, Ophüls, von Sternberg, or Mizoguchi. The conclusions of Morocco (1930) and Street of Shame (1956) affect me somewhat differently than does the shower murder in Psycho but I would certainly describe the effect upon me when Amy Jolly unexpectedly strolls out into the dessert (in the former film) and the young initiate confronts directly the world of street prostitution (in the latter) as disturbance. That the directors in question are capable of producing effects similar to those regularly provided by Hitchcock goes without saying: Simone Simon’s leap from the window in Le Plaisir (1952) (Ophüls’ camera adopting an approximation of a POV shot from her position as she hurries up a flight of stairs to the window where, upon arrival, the camera in effect “leaps” from the window) provides the only instance in my film-going history where I actually jumped from my seat. But such an effect is far more common in Hitchcock than Ophüls, etc.
Clearly what is at issue is the more visceral effect of Hitchcock’s directorial technique, his habitual attempts to have the viewer experience directly the action that occurs on the screen. (He uses POV shots far more frequently than the other three directors noted). Dixon is quite explicit about Hitchcock’s ability to disturb: he describes the rape/murder of Brenda Blaney in Frenzy (1972) as “an absolutely repellant sequence.” His additional comments on this sequence are revealing and worth examining in their entirety,
“We are spared nothing in this sequence, in which Brenda pleads for her life, and then, knowing violent death is inevitable, prays for deliverance. As the life is choked out of her, while Robert [sic] fondles her breasts and murmurs ‘beautiful, beautiful’ over and over again, Hitchcock implicitly asks us to identify with the killer, framing the sequence in a series of unflinching, opposing close-ups. Yet what is even more disturbing is the obvious delight that Hitchcock takes in forcing us to witness this horrific scene.”
We can perhaps deign the degree of disturbance experienced by Dixon after viewing the rape/murder of Brenda Blaney by the remarkable degree to which his account of the sequence veers from the way Hitchcock actually renders the event on the screen.
- Brenda Blaney does not pray for “deliverance” in response to the inevitability of death but in response to the sexual assault that precedes the murder (her prayer begins during the assault’s enactment), the possibility of murder not occurring to her until after the assault has ended and her assailant removes his tie.
- “Robert” (he calls himself, as do all his acquaintances, “Bob”) reiterates the word “lovely” during the assault, not “beautiful.” The word is used almost as a mantra in a seeming attempt by Rusk to both completely objectify his victim and to convince himself of a desire that he might not actually possess. (She is “lovely” and therefore should be desired.)
- Bob never fondles Brenda’s breasts and thus could not conceivably accomplish the physically impossible task of both fondling and choking his victim at one and the same time.
The actual details of the assault and murder are of the utmost importance in assessing the sequence, for rather than the two events occurring simultaneously (as Dixon would apparently have us believe) they occur sequentially, the sexual assault in essence producing the murder. In his analysis of the killer’s motives the fiction’s authority on crime, Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), notes that 1) in the latter stages of sexual psychopathology it is “the strangling not the sex that brings them [the sexual psychopath] on” and 2) that the sexual psychopath is likely sexually impotent. Although, like all the men in the film, the inspector is subjected to Hitchcock’s systematic critique of patriarchal masculinity, Hitchcock’s camera suggests nonetheless (while refusing to confirm indisputably) the probability that Bob is impotent, with Brenda’s look of perplexity (after what appears to the viewer to be coitus) seemingly confirming the impression that Bob has been unable to climax. His frustration manifests itself in the condemnation (“Bitch!”) and murder (“I’ll show you”) of his victim.
More open to debate is Dixon’s reading of Hitchcock’s “framing” of the sequence. Dixon’s reference to “opposing close-ups” would seem to suggest that he views the sequence as a series of POV shots alternating with reverse shots, producing (in the primitive interpretation of POV deployment) viewer identification, in this case identification with Brenda’s assailant and killer. A moment’s reflection (or a careful perusal of the images) makes us aware that the reverse shots that “answer” the close-ups of Bob are positioned from a variety of angles (and therefore do not reflect an identical subjective viewpoint) with two shots in particular (matching lateral close-ups – right and left – of Brenda’s neck during the murder) being clearly unattainable from his strict POV. In a detailed examination of the “structuring of symmetry” in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), Robin Wood notes that “POV editing technique, though it may be used to reinforce identification, is not essential to its construction” (1989: 271). The logical corollary to Wood’s hypothesis that POV technique is not essential to identification is that POV technique does not inevitably produce “identification” at all. (That is exclusive of other identification strategies such as the viewer’s sympathetic regard for the character). Thus while granting that Hitchcock, in positioning the viewer so relentlessly close to events (through a sophisticated deployment of POV technique beyond Dixon’s appreciation and apprehension), wants that viewer to experience what the characters experience, this in no way guarantees that that viewer will share the identical emotions, desires, psychological or ethical positions (or lack thereof) of the characters in question.
I will declare here my critical position that Hitchcock engages in Frenzy and throughout his career in a feminist critique of patriarchal masculinity and patriarchal gender relations, the director habitually focusing upon the masculine tendency to control and manipulate women as well as to objectify them. (Tendencies supremely scrutinized in Vertigo ). From Rebecca (1940) to Marnie (1964) Hitchcock films have habitually focused upon patriarchal marriage as an institution that seeks to normalize and reinforce these tendencies but in Frenzy analysis extends to religion as an institution which traditionally seeks to demonize and deny libidinous urges and, in the process of doing so, directly and indirectly vilifies women. It must be recognized that Hitchcock has an intense sympathy for the emotional balm religion provides society’s most victimized and disenfranchised members: compare Brenda’s prominent cross and her quotation from Psalms at the time of the assault with the sympathetic if critical treatment of prayer in Lifeboat (1944) and The Wrong Man (1956). (See my account of Hitchcock and religion in Lightning 1999). In Frenzy, however, Hitchcock is more concerned with the historical tendency of organized religions to derogate desire and the parallel manifestation of that tendency in secular life. Hence, not only does the inspector (in conversation with his wife) note the strong correlation between religious and sexual mania (the denial of desire formulated by the former clearly capable of inducing the latter) but the porter at the hotel where Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) and Babs Milligan (Anna Massey) tryst comments “Sometimes just thinking about the lusts of men makes me want to heave,” his surprising reference to “lust” expressing the classical religious attitude toward an activity that the film presents as having become generally mundane (as evidenced by the midday trysts by which the hotel profits). Moreover, the denigration of what can never be fully repressed (sexual desire) results in a response by the heterosexual male to the object-of-desire (woman) that is by turns salacious and full of disgust, a dual response realized in the film’s symbolic language where women are, on the one hand, compared to ripe produce (“the goods” as Bob puts it) as succulent objects-of-desire and, on the other hand, to detritus and dirt (the woman’s violated body found in the already polluted waters of the Thames, Babs’ corpse fouled by the residue of a potato sack, residue already referenced in a conversation between Bob and a fellow produce vendor).
Equally throughout his career does Hitchcock engage in a socialist critique of capitalism and the insidious class system which it enables and which, in turn, mutually sustains capitalist institutions. Hitchcock regularly links his critique of patriarchal gender relations to his socialist critique of class privilege, a tendency fully articulated in Rebecca (although already evident in The Skin Game  and culminating in Marnie) where Maxim de Winter is presented as both an oppressive and bullying husband to his bride and the privileged member of an oppressive class system. (The “little trades union” to which Jack Favell [George Saunders] refers so bitterly). In Frenzy Hitchcock turns his attention to capitalist production, specifically that inclination of industry to both exploit and destroy natural resources for profit. This dual industrial relationship to resources is evident during the title sequence where the Thames is presented first from an aerial position as a bustling hub of industrial activity (with the musical score at this point suggesting patriotic vigor) and then, upon closer inspection, as a resource polluted by industrial detritus. It is neither a coincidence that the marketing of produce provides the background to the murder story nor that the murderer enjoys a degree of social respect as a successful merchant: Bob Rusk is an extreme example of the intersecting ideologies of patriarchy and capitalism, where women are regarded as desired and exploitable resource and, once used, as so much sexual waste product. (It is noteworthy that Bob, as efficient capitalist, exploits Brenda-as-resource to the fullest: having murdered her he takes not only her money but her leftover fruit).
It should be apparent from the preceding paragraphs that, in my estimation, Hitchcock’s psychopathic killers represent an extreme form of psychological and behavioral norms ideologically determined and reinforced within patriarchal-capitalist social relations and practices. It should come as no surprise then that I view Hitchcock’s recurring interest in a “homicidal man who is driven by compulsions beyond his control to destroy those around him” (Dixon) not as fascination with the extreme per se but with the norm of which it is merely an extension. This is the self-same artistic logic underlying the relationship between hero and villain, wrongly-accused man and criminal in mature Hitchcock: the villain merely displays tendencies equally exhibited by the hero. (Note the mutually threatening caresses to which Eva Marie Saint is subjected by both villain and hero in North by Northwest ). And just what has this to do with Hitchcock situating the viewer in the position of a sexual psychopath during the assault? It will not have escaped the observant viewer’s notice that Hitchcock is not Edward Albee. Hitchcock is a melodramatist and as such his forte is extremes of (among other categories) emotional response, emotional states, and narrative situations. Thus while nagging recriminations, sexual frustration and dissatisfaction, philandering and boredom are not uncommon features of marriage and they only occasionally result in spousal murder, as a melodramatist Hitchcock is more likely to deploy murder (as in, say, Rear Window ) in his critique of marriage than barbed repartee. This is the artistic logic behind the director’s preoccupation with rape throughout his career (symbolic in Psycho  and The Birds , fully dramatized in Marnie and Frenzy): it is the extraordinary form of the “normal” social practices involved in the objectification and control of women found in everyday life.
As melodramatist Hitchcock is also more likely to situate the viewer in an observational position that will generate the most emotional, if not physical, response from that viewer. When Hitchcock places the viewer in close proximity to the brutal violation of Brenda Blaney he wants the viewer to be repelled. In positioning the viewer so I would argue that the director is fully aware that the viewer has been inevitably conditioned to objectify women’s bodies (an inclination exploited and greatly exacerbated by the motion picture medium itself) and might along with Rusk view salaciously the exposed body parts of the helpless woman. But Hitchcock hardly needs to encourage an attitude toward female nudity and female prostration both generally held and greatly accentuated by the industrial practices of the medium in which he operates for the purposes of critiquing that position: he need only be sufficiently sensitive to the fact of its existence. One can perhaps deign something of his personal attitude toward the assault (while never being able to definitively confirm that attitude) from his casting of Barbara Leigh-Hunt as the victim rather than, say, Janet Leigh, an actress whose physical presence has already been aggrandized and fetishized through the institutional habits of the Hollywood studio system. (Hitchcock’s attitude toward the assault might be additionally deigned from his treatment of nudity, evidenced specifically in that moment when Hitchcock, after Bob roughly exposes Brenda’s breast despite her acquiescence to his demands and offer to remove her own dress, has her quietly and without hysteria replace the brassiere’s cup over her breast, the director providing, in my estimation, one of the most humane and sympathy-inducing gestures in cinematic history).
If Hitchcock doesn’t encourage audience prurience during the assault he certainly doesn’t disallow it. Even if such an encouragement (through POV, etc.) could be proved indisputably however, its existence would only be to place said prurience in Hitchcock’s efforts to critique the manipulation and objectification of women in common social practice. In Psycho Hitchcock does encourage viewer prurience through (among other methods) displays throughout the early parts of the film of the partially clothed body of its fetishized female star. That prurience is placed during the shower murder when at the precise moment that the star’s body might be more fully exposed to the viewer, the character that she portrays (and with whom the viewer deeply identifies) is violently murdered. Some might say that the viewer is “punished” for his/her voyeurism but I prefer to view Hitchcock’s method as producing a violent conflict between cinematically-enhanced objectification (of the female body) and cinematically-induced subjecthood (i.e. identification with the victim), a conflict in which the latter position is victorious. (I have never read the critical proposition that the viewer delights in Marion Crane’s death). In sensitizing the viewer to his/her own culturally-induced inclinations toward voyeurism and domination, Hitchcock establishes a similar conflict in Frenzy. While Bob Rusk strangles Brenda Blaney the viewer is very likely to (I think inevitably) empathize with a character (Bob) who is exhibiting both a high degree of physical effort and emotional stress, even in such an endeavor. This, I propose, is the significance of the close-ups of the killer. But as these shots are always countered by close shots of his victim’s opposing efforts to survive the assault (as well as shots of her grotesquely twisted flesh) the viewer is also very likely to sympathize with her efforts and be repelled by his/her empathy with the killer’s efforts. The conflict culminates and is resolved in the one shot during the sequence that seems an unmistakable attempt to suture the viewer to a character through POV: the 180 degree extreme close-up of Brenda’s eyes at the moment of death, her death signified not only by the shot of the actress freezing into a still shot but by the fact that it is not “answered” by any reverse-shot that could conceivably be described as from her ocular position, the viewer’s sense of pitiable human loss – the invitation to identification denied the viewer by the character’s death – reified through POV technique. But just in case an obstinate viewer takes some perverse delight (despite the director’s best efforts) in the spectacle of the female body salaciously violated and dominated, Hitchcock follows with a close shot of Brenda’s body, the first of the film’s three grotesque images of the female form brutalized. (A similar process is instigated by Hitchcock when Bob searches Babs’ corpse for his tie pin, where any humor the viewer might derive from the potentially slapstick proceedings is placed by the close-up of the hideously distorted face of a character of whom the viewer had likely become very fond).
As far as Dixon’s assessment of Hitchcock’s “obvious delight” is concerned I will only comment that a statement so baldly put yet so unsubstantiated is offensive, inappropriate, incendiary and slanderous in the truest sense of that adjective. Among other examples of the airy speciousness that characterizes the entire piece are the following assessments of Hitchcock’s character:
“[H]e emerges as the ultimate anti-humanist, in love with nihilism and the emptiness it represents”
“His obsessions took hold of him to the point that he couldn’t control them – or perhaps he simply didn’t want to anymore”
“[H]e didn’t like people – they were just associates or colleagues, and in the end, only his films were real to him”
Dixon’s attempt to denigrate the work of an artist through a denigration of the artist’s character recalls for me an occurrence sometime after the death of another major cinematic artist, Bette Davis. A report broadcast on an Entertainment Tonight-type television show focusing on the late star sought to arouse suspicion regarding her possible involvement, decades earlier, in the sudden and mysterious death of her second husband Arthur Farnsworth. The attempt to sully the reputation of Bette Davis (the star of melodramas which regularly sought to challenge prescribed gender roles) through an equation of Davis the woman with Davis-the-occasional-onscreen-murderess serves two possible purposes. On the one hand, despite the passage of time, Davis (like Hitchcock) remains a marketable and exploitable name, able to sell DVD box sets, unauthorized biographies, and valuable advertising time on commercial television: she is “good copy.” On the other hand her work on screen (also like Hitchcock’s), the material basis of that continuing marketability, remains to this day controversial and ideologically challenging and as such is likely to provoke a conservative response on the part of some viewers which, in turn, may provoke an attempt to neutralize or deny the significance of the art. Assessing transgressive art as the product of a perverse, pathological or criminal mind is only one way to achieve these ends, the strategy facilitated when there is extra-textual or biographical material that coincides with elements in the artist’s work. Publicity centered on Davis’ temperament (expressed in her sometimes volatile relationship with family, producers and co-workers) is an example of that supportive material. Hitchcock’s public persona of the overweight Brit given to darkly comic commentary (deriving largely from self-promotion) is another.
I hope that we can disabuse Dixon of the former purpose: to judge from what has appeared on this site (my only exposure to his critical writing) his scholarship (with the obvious exception of the Hitchcock piece) seems to be generally responsible, even admirable. (His forte would seem to be film history rather than criticism). In my opinion the latter purpose (of which the author himself might be totally unaware) provides the reasoning behind Dixon’s efforts. That Dixon’s article represents one of the most reactionary critiques I have read in some time is confirmed by the article’s conclusion:
“Not to be too Manichean about it, but there is good in the world, and there is also evil. Evil can be charming and attractive, but that’s how it often attains its’ [sic] objective. Hitchcock understood the lure of evil, but after that, he drew a blank. The normal world is something Hitchcock never really understood, or if he did, he spent a great deal of time and energy trying to convince his audience otherwise – that it was all a game. And I, for one, am not convinced.”
Students of critical writing could hardly do better than to study these five lines for their voluptuous display of critical don’ts. As I read them they are as follows
- One might begin with Dixon’s insulting underestimation of the reader’s intelligence evidenced by his transparent attempt to deny an oversimplifying and moralistic intent (“Not to be too Manichean about it…”), one that is nonetheless blatantly confirmed in the compound clause that follows (“…there is good in the world, and there is also evil”).
- Having directed a simplifying moralism toward the object of critical study, Dixon is obliged to defend taking such a position. (Even when that moralistic attitude derives from “humanism”). The competing humanist values of empiricism and rationalism are largely parodied in an article where sensory experience is so marred by the subject’s bad feeling toward the object of study and the disciplines typically implemented in film criticism to weigh the exercise of reason – political philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, the various film theories – are notable for their total absence. Having introduced the metaphysical concepts of “good” and “evil” into the discussion while largely ignoring the disciplines that have come to define responsible scholarship since at least the advent of New Criticism in film studies, Dixon is at least obliged to explain his reasons for doing so.
- Speculations about an artist’s personal understanding or lack thereof are beyond the critic’s professional purview as are those regarding his/her personal engagement with the world (“this is the world as Hitchcock knew it, as he presented it, and as he lived it”). They serve no purpose in a work of serious criticism – even when textual analysis is offered in support of that speculation. Such guesswork is at best irrelevant and at worse slanderous. It bears repeating that the object of any critical study should properly be an artist’s work(s) rather than the artist’s person. (“Hitchcock,” that is, rather than Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock).
- Unless the critic provides a very specific definition of the term, “normal world” is completely without meaning and no more belongs in a work of serious critical analysis than does the application of the descriptions “good” and “evil” to that world. Not only is the critic’s duty to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the text confounded by the use of such vague terminology but the political intent that should inform the critical enterprise (and to which Andrew Britton alerts us in this essay’s opening quotation) is actively impeded.
- Whether or not Dixon is convinced of Hitchcock’s philosophy is only of importance insofar as that philosophy is 1) represented in the text and 2) that representation can be argued as an “appeal to the reader’s assent” by Dixon. Otherwise, Dixon’s final statement is as consequential as a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” With its factual errors (“beautiful, beautiful”) and blatant subjectivity (“repellant”) Dixon’s reading of the rape in Frenzy is exemplary of an approach to the text that can hardly be called argument. Analysis here amounts to no more than opinion, confirming for me the assessment put forth in my very first paragraph: Dixon is merely made uncomfortable by Hitchcock.
Impressionism, that bane of the serious critic, is implied by the belligerent tone that pervades the piece as a whole, primary evidence of the writer’s affronted sensibilities when encountering Hitchcock’s films. But the quality of the scholarship itself provides the material basis of such a reading, the article evidencing numerous faults in elementary reportage (in Strangers on a Train , Ruth Roman portrays Ann Morton not Barbara Morton), deficient research (one begins to doubt that Dixon is aware that there is even a branch of film studies devoted to the director’s work when he asserts – uniquely I think among critics – that the sailor in Marnie attempts to “molest young Marnie”) and even substandard writing. Dixon devotes nine paragraphs to reproducing the condition of Hitchcock’s career “As the 1960s dawned,” concluding in the final paragraph that Hitchcock operated in the 1960s essentially as an independent artist (“he would do precisely as he pleased”), more or less unrestrained by studio intervention. This is an interesting thesis, and within the nine paragraphs Dixon devotes to its exposition, considerable space is committed to covering the making of Psycho and to the production of Hitchcock’s popular television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the success of both enterprises obviously important factors in the direction his career took in the 1960s. One wonders, however, in light of Hitchcock’s prior commercial successes at Paramount, MGM’s concurrent financial investment in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and that film’s subsequent box-office success, upon what evidence Dixon bases his estimation that, at the time Hitchcock purchased Psycho (in spring of 1959), the director knew that “his big-budget suspense films were fast falling out of favor”? Despite the disappointing box-office returns for both The Wrong Man and Vertigo (the two films that immediately precede North by Northwest) such an assessment certainly deserves further elaboration: with whom were they falling out of favor and why? (One can certainly argue that the success of North by Northwest demonstrates the continuing popularity of “his big-budget suspense films” at the time, presumably with audiences and producers.) And to what ends does it support Dixon’s thesis to reveal that Psycho’s shower-murder contains “only one point of contact between the blade of the murder knife and a Styrofoam torso”? Or that this shot exists in the film despite Hitchcock’s denial? If Dixon fails to fully substantiate his premise that at the time of Psycho’s production the director was experiencing something of a professional crisis he very generously compensates for this failure by redirecting the reader’s attention to interesting (if extraneous) production details.
Dixon’s rather casual approach to critical writing is additionally displayed in his description of Hitchcock’s Universal films of the 1960s and 70s:
“All of these films are elegantly crafted, and meticulously designed, but in all of them, the women exist merely to be objectified, with the few exceptions (and some others) noted above. By the time we get to The Birds (1963), with its seemingly endless diffusion filtered close-ups of Tippi Hedren for the first third of the film, in an obvious attempt to build her up as a star, Hitchcock’s obsessional fixation on the image of a blonde temptress who needs to be punished merely for her beauty has become permanently fixed.”
In the first sentence of this paragraph Dixon restates his original thesis that Hitchcock was a master craftsman but a flawed artist. Abruptly the subject of female characters in Hitchcock reemerges (it was introduced in a discussion of Shadow of a Doubt ) to illustrate the latter point but Dixon’s “and some others” alerts the reader immediately to the degree of seriousness with which Dixon regards the topic. (What “others” and what is the nature of their difference?). It all goes downhill from there. The topic of the objectification of women is introduced but Dixon fails here, as throughout his article (obsessively one is tempted to say), to distinguish at whom his criticism is being aimed, that is, just who (among several possible candidates) is doing the objectifying and to what ends. That the objectification of women is a major concern in The Birds is obvious and worthy of discussion, the film introducing its heroine Melanie Daniels as the recipient of an admiring whistle (a little boy’s) and thereafter presented as the “object-of-the-gaze” for a series of men and women (Mitch Brenner, his neighbor in San Francisco, a Bodega Bay shopkeeper, Lydia Brenner, etc.). It is very unlikely that Hitchcock himself was unaware that characters within the diegetic world of The Birds were objectifying the film’s heroine and one is next obliged to explore (without bias) the possible ends these occurrences could serve. That Dixon assesses them as serving no particular artistic purpose is clear and he tries to link their artistic extraneousness to practices common to filmmaking (diffusion filtering, star-making), practices that are apparently only odious to Dixon when Hitchcock deploys them. He finally resorts to resurrecting the cliché that victimized women in Hitchcock are being “punished” (which he seems to confuse with Hitchcock’s star-making efforts on behalf of Tippi Hedren) while failing not only to explain by whom and to what ends they are being “punished” (in a way common to banal Hitchcock criticism) but also to distinguish between (or demonstrate a substantial correlation between) the appeal certain actresses held for the director, the director’s particular use of these actresses onscreen and the dynamics of the director’s interpersonal and professional relationships with these actresses.
Dixon’s tendency to cloud meaning through his writing is evidenced throughout his diatribe, but he forecasts the coming storm in his opening paragraph.
“Alfred Hitchcock is routinely regarded as one of the most profound and technically adept directors in the history of cinema, but I would argue that only the latter half of that statement is accurate. Starting in his American period, if one picks Hitchcock up with Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and then continues up to his final film, Family Plot (1976), the cumulative effect is both traumatizing and disappointing. No doubt Hitchcock would find this amusing, as one who explored the darkest regions of the human psyche – particularly his own.”
I will ignore both the now familiar tactical obfuscation of just who is being traumatized and disappointed as well as the groundless assumptions about Hitchcock’s personal reactions to draw the reader’s attention to the dramatic final clause of the concluding sentence. As it is structured it is impossible to interpret with any assurance the sentence’s meaning. “Particularly his own” what? Are we meant to read Hitchcock as having spent his whole career fruitlessly exploring, deliberately or unconsciously, his own psyche? (“his obsessions took hold of him to the point that he couldn’t control them”). Or are we meant to interpret Hitchcock as possessing a “particularly” dark psyche when compared with other psyches? Or that the particular pitch of Hitchcock’s psyche can only be appreciated through comparison with other “dark” psyches? We none of us are above making syntactical or grammatical errors in our writing but as the late Andrew Britton once noted: “Bad syntax is often telling, particularly when it passes the proofreading stage” (2009: 447). It is my personal opinion that bad syntax (in collaboration with subpar scholarship) here implies that Dixon set himself the daunting task (for whatever reasons) of challenging the considerable reputation of Alfred Hitchcock and finding that there was little in the director’s work that could be reasonably utilized to substantiate his own feelings of repugnance when encountering that work, instead submits for the reader’s assent an impressionistic “reading” of both the art and the artist, a reading fleshed out by gossip, production details and other bric-a-brac. (Did Dixon need to quote Uncle Charlie’s entire dinner speech from Shadow of a Doubt to make a point? Couldn’t the uninformed reader simply be redirected to the film itself or to Youtube.com?)
One could easily dismiss Dixon’s piece if so much wasn’t at stake, and I am not speaking here of Hitchcock’s artistic reputation which will, I think, easily survive this petty assault. However, in an era when the maxim “everyone’s a critic” has become almost a fact Dixon’s effort cannot be so easily ignored. We are living at a time when digital media have facilitated both the wide and rapid circulation of opinion, as well as the accessibility to the means of circulation, to a degree unimaginable even twenty years ago. This “democratization” of critical opinion made possible by advanced technology is to be applauded as long as categories of “opinion” are clearly established and maintained: we should never confuse the significance of a close-reading of, say, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) with the posting of an impression of a star’s attire at a red carpet event simply because the wide and immediate dissemination of both evaluations is made possible by the same technology.
The readers’ comments posted on the Film International internet site immediately following Dixon’s article conveniently illustrate the potential hazards to serious criticism I am trying to describe. Providing a public forum for discussion of the preceding article or of related issues, the readers’ comments section represents a rapid expansion of the means for the exchange of ideas made possible by advanced technologies: a reader’s response can be submitted with a mere “click”. The comments on Dixon’s article, presumably not subjected to the same editorial standards as the articles posted by the journal, are comprised of roughly equal parts impressionism, gossip, and miscellanea. (Dixon himself utilizes this “thread” to mourn the death of an artist unrelated to Hitchcock or Hitchcock’s work). While one might regret the deficiency of informed opinion to be found among this particular group (Christopher Sharrett’s commentary being one notable exception), one would in no way mistake the readers’ comment section as providing an opportunity for a detailed, scholarly, strenuously proofread appeal to the reader’s assent.
What is unfortunate is that the two forms of opinion – Dixon’s article and the comments on it – mirror one another so closely in style and substance as to seem nearly indistinguishable in the types of appeal they make to the reader. While a more facile means of transmission does not necessarily foreclose attention to detail, fact-checking, significant research, and the rigorous arguing and evaluation of a given hypothesis (quoting Uncle Charlie’s dinnertime speech in its entirety is not an argument for Hitchcock’s identification with the character) there is certainly nothing in the means of circulation itself that reinforces the maintenance of these standards and the reader must then rely upon the individual writer’s commitment to responsible scholarship. This is a commitment that, until recently, one could safely presume of any contributor to a reputable journal. While the movement away from the more rarefied and insular medium of the printed film journal to the wider circulation of one’s opinion made possible by the Internet (said opinion available now to anyone with a home computer, tablet computer, smart phone, etc.) should give the responsible critic pause and inspire increased diligence, it would seem that a more facile means for the wide transmission of one’s opinion has inspired in Dixon a more casual approach to criticism.
To conclude I would like to address the issue of Hitchcock’s preoccupation with “the dark side” and I would like to do so by proposing a question: If an artist is born into and practices his/her art in an actively oppressive totalitarian state, would s/he be considered a responsible artist if s/he reflected positively upon the society to which s/he has been acculturated, that is his/her “normal world”? Like most such propositions this question both exaggerates the case at hand (Hitchcock never lived in a totalitarian state) and disgracefully oversimplifies the central issue I wish to raise (here of artistic responsibility) by omitting historical specificity from the equation (and in the process doing a disservice to those unfortunate individuals who have found themselves in those historically specific circumstances) but I think that most readers will anticipate the point I am trying to make and will forgive the exaggeration and overlook the generalization. Hitchcock’s fifty year career traverses several significant geopolitical developments of the twentieth-century – Britain between the two World Wars and the rise of European fascism, America during the Second World War and its postwar political restructuring, the postwar rise of Third World liberation movements and the Cold War, America during the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement – and while his films often refer overtly to immediate geopolitical concerns he returns repeatedly to class stratification and restrictive gender construction for analysis, domestic issues that in their persistent social relevance transcend the historical moment even though inevitably informed by it. In their persistence, class privilege and sexism qualify as critical social problems yet, as they are imbedded in practices that are likely to be generally perceived as “normal” (inevitable, eternal), they are equally unlikely to be perceived as systemic (capitalistic, patriarchal) in origin and, thus, susceptible to change.
Now what does the responsible artist do once s/he perceives social systems as not only oppressive but recalcitrant? To judge from his films, Hitchcock’s response was to commit himself, from very early in his career, to dramatizing the “dark” effects of these social systems upon individuals. Hitchcock’s adaptation of Galsworthy’s The Skin Game is only the most overt example of the director’s early engagement with the issue of class privilege and a still-developing engagement with the issue of patriarchy’s oppression of women, concerns that, before and after this film, would be largely incorporated into his “thrillers”. That he should utilize his films for social criticism at all seems to me an indication of his sense of artistic responsibility and, as my comments on Frenzy were meant to demonstrate, the intensity of disturbance experienced by viewers is indicative of both the urgency with which Hitchcock regarded these issues as well as the profundity of the political analysis.
It is true that Hitchcock’s films rarely suggest constructive alternatives to these social systems. The conclusion of The Birds offers one of the few instances in Hitchcock where an alternative is proposed (rather than its necessity being implied by the analysis): the tender exchange of looks between Melanie Daniels and Lydia Brenner (demonstrating the evocative potential of “diffusion filtered close-ups,” the film’s deployment of which Dixon so deplores) marks not only the final dissolution of enmity between the two women but the symbolic reconstitution of the severed bond between “mother” and “daughter” (severed for Melanie when she was abandoned by her biological mother as an adolescent, a symbolic rendering of the institution of the Oedipus complex), the restoration of that bond implying the possibility of the “daughter’s” retention of female identification and same-sex object choice into adulthood and, thus, her potentially successful subversion of her role in the Symbolic Order. Like a great many women’s films, Hitchcock’s films regularly explore and dramatize (e.g. Melanie’s symbolic sexual violation in the attic) the social necessity for developing alternatives to the oppressive systems that entrap women and men in traditional roles. (It is a noteworthy feature of The Birds that two of its female characters – Lydia Brenner and Annie Hayworth – correspond to feminine stereotypes deriving from the Western: the farmer’s wife and the schoolmarm/whore with a heart of gold). The Birds’s distinction lies in its attempt (however ambiguously or tentatively) to formulate an alternative system of psychosexual development for women.
Far more regularly do Hitchcock films provide those “negative affirmations” to which Christopher Sharrett alerts us in his comments on Dixon’s article, those “views of the impossibility of humanity thriving under present circumstances.” But the full value of negative affirmations can only be appreciated from an historical assessment of the industry in which Hitchcock toiled: for progressive artists working in a communications industry like classical Hollywood, where visionary challenges to social norms are impeded both by industrial doctrine (the Production Code) and through story-telling conventions (the “happy ending”), the refusal to convincingly affirm oppressive social norms is inevitably a responsible (if not heroic) act. This is a position with which the father of Hitchcock studies, Robin Wood, was in tune and he expressed it often in his work on Hitchcock. Even when expressing reservations about the director’s work, however, his comments are never reductive, let alone dismissive. At the conclusion of a reading of Shadow of a Doubt, originally published in Film Comment, Robin Wood himself assessed Hitchcock’s vision (in words later echoed by Dixon) as being “nearer the nihilistic than the tragic” (1977: 51). This is an evaluation that finds its caricature in Dixon’s article: to judge from his writing, Wood would never have reduced nihilism to mere “emptiness” or describe a philosophical doctrine as something with which one could be “in love.” More to the point, Wood’s comments mark a transitional phase in his overall assessment of Hitchcock: Wood chose to republish this article as a chapter in his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989: 288-302), a text devoted overwhelmingly to demonstrating (and re-demonstrating: Wood’s original 1965 text Hitchcock Films is reprinted there), through incomparably detailed textual analysis, the importance of the director’s films. (Wood further commits his original article to a transitional phase of his career by attaching the date of its writing – 1976 – to the chapter’s title). If one had to summarize the value ascribed to Hitchcock’s films (more or less explicitly) in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, it would be as dramatic texts whose cultural and political analyses is so insightful and precise that they make themselves readily available for appropriation and use by the Left.
One regrets the absence in Dixon’s article of any description of the “normal world” to which it refers or examples of directors who reflect only positively on that world. In an additional posting in the readers’ comment section of his Hitchcock article, Dixon proposes the work of director Terence Fisher as worthy of “further study” (describing this proposal as an additional act of “critical apostasy”), specifically citing his Stolen Face (1952) and Four Sided Triangle (1953) as exemplifying Fisher’s ability to deal intelligently with complex “moral issues.” I am not familiar with the body of Fisher’s work but I have seen Stolen Face and admire it. It is an intelligent account of a doctor’s disastrous attempt to “recreate” his great love by surgically altering the face of a female criminal. It is easy to see its thematic and political parallels with Hitchcock’s Vertigo but Fisher’s film is worthwhile viewing for its own limited merits: it suffers only by comparison with more complex cinematic investigations of romantic love and presumptive male authority, such as that provided by Vertigo. Although I have not been able to read it yet, I hope to find an explanation in Dixon’s own book on Fisher, The Charm of Evil (1991), of how “the values of innocence and charity […] shine through” in this admirable little film or how it exemplifies (or reflects positively upon) the “normal world.”
Robert K. Lightning is a New York City based film and media critic. He is a regular contributor to CineAction magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Britton, Andrew (2009), “The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole: Wisconsin Formalism and ‘The Classical Style,’” Britton on Film, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Lightning, Robert K. (1999), “A Domestic Trilogy,” CineAction, No. 50, September, pp. 32-42.
Wood, Robin (1977), “Ideology, Genre, Auteur”, Film Comment , Vol. 13, Issue 1, January, pp. 46-51.
___ (1989), Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, New York: Columbia University Press.