Book Review: Hidden Hitchcock

Dust Jacket

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press

Release Date: August 1, 2016

“It is my project here to trace a different, more devious rout taken by the surplus scrutiny that Hitchcock mobilizes in us. In contrast to the games that he is known to play with his Pavlovianly [sic] trained mass audience, I postulate a game he would be playing with that absurdly, pointlessly watchful spectator who dwells within us all, but whom, as members of a mass audience, or as critics in loyal alignment with it, we mostly put on lockdown; and whom I call the Too-Close Viewer. In this game, and for this viewer alone, Hitchcock would cultivate, alongside his manifest style with its hyper-legible images, a secret style that sows these images with radical duplicity. The type of duplicity to which this book gives emblematic pride of place is the hidden picture, in which a strongly narrativized [sic] image has been fashioned to conceal something that – if ever seen – would not enhance its coherence, but explode it. Imagine a small continuity error made on purpose, or a Hitchcock cameo fashioned so as not to be seen or a narrative image secretly doubling for a figure of speech in the manner of a charade, and you will have anticipated three key subtypes of Hitchcock’s hidden picturing. I take all such hidden pictures as sporadic but insistent marks of a perverse counter narrative in Hitchcock that for no reason – or for no good enough reason – takes the viewer out of the story and out of the social compact its telling presupposes. Into what is hard to say. Structurally, the hidden pictures resist being integrated into the narrative or any ostensible intentionality; and whatever we might say about any one of them as a species of content falls markedly short of accounting for their enigma as a recurring form of Hitchcock’s film-writing. It is as though, at the heart of the manifest style, there pulsed an irregular extra beat, the surreptitious ‘murmur’ of its undoing that only the Too-Close Viewer could apprehend…” –D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Preview, 2016)

Miller’s thesis sounded somewhat questionable upon reading the first pages of his Preview (or introduction) chapter in Hidden Hitchcock. It felt as if the following chapters would be filled with what could only be over-reaching guess-work written in the wake of too many other questionable theories about Hitchcock’s work. Luckily, this is only partly true. There certainly are a few unseen visual anomalies in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and there are quite a few of these mentioned in Hidden Hitchcock that are unquestionably present on the screen. (This reviewer spotted some of them before reading Miller’s text.) As a quick example, I call to the reader’s attention a certain hidden cameo that alert viewers can see during the opening train sequence of Strangers on a Train:

“…We are unlikely, therefore, to pay attention to a small detail that emerges at the very moment when the suddenly upraised camera gives Guy and Bruno their first full registration. This is the book that Guy is holding, his train reading; on its back cover is the face of Alfred Hitchcock, who is thus visible, if not actually seen, eight minutes before what we commonly take as his appearance. There is no doubt about it we get several more views of this book—the front cover as well as the back, and the spine too—and though no one has ever noticed it, I did not find it impossible to identify. It is ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense,a collection of mystery stories, published by Simon and Schuster in 1947, that Hitchcock edited, annotated, and prefaced with an essay called ‘The Quality of Suspense…’-D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Hidden Pictures, 2016)

While this discovery wasn’t particularly surprising to this reviewer, having spotted Hitchcock’s appearance on this book several years prior to reading Miller’s thesis, this and a few other examples validate the possibility that some of his other discoveries could be legitimate as well. (There wasn’t time to go through the films discussed and analyze each one.) However, some of his theories as to what these Hitchcock appearances, continuity errors, and narrative images (or “charades”) actually mean could easily be disputed. The nature of film theory is that it is and will always remain theory. As a matter of fact, some of Miller’s discoveries cannot be proven to be intentional decisions made by Hitchcock. Certain continuity errors that have been brought to the reader’s attention might very easily be errors (every film has them).

It is particularly interesting that Miller has narrowed his focus to merely a handful of moments that can be found in three of the director’s films (with the exception of a moment in Murder that was analyzed in the Preview chapter):

“…Accordingly, I am at liberty to worship him in any of his fifty-two manifestations; there simply are no wrong choices. And yet, while forms of hidden picturing are lying all over the place in Hitchcock, the impetus for wanting to write on them came almost entirely from the three films I treat in this book: Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong Man. Why these films and not others? To anyone not myself, who was galvanized by it, my archive must appear, if not exactly marginal, a bit “off,” drawing on Hitchcock’s greatest period (the long 50s) by stopping just before Vertigo and the other universally acknowledged masterpieces in its wake… These films seemed to choose me; by whatever fatal attraction, they alone laid the traps I fell into with the sufficiently catalyzing thud.” –D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Preview, 2016)

It is nice that Miller has chosen to focus on three films that deserve more attention, and this is especially true of The Wrong Man. Too little is written about this underappreciated film, and it is nice to that Miller has seen fit to include it here. There is a particular scene in this film that I look forward to reviewing in order to test one of Miller’s discoveries. It might not be essential reading for casual film viewers, but Hidden Hitchcock has the power to inspire further (and closer) viewing of Hitchcock’s work, and it is certainly worth recommending to scholars and fans for this reason alone.

Review by: Devon Powell