D. A. Miller on Hitchcock’s “Hidden Pictures”

Strangers marquee
Strangers on the Marquee at the Castro Theater in San Francisco; photo from D. A. Miller's personal collection

With typical virtuosity, English Professor D. A. Miller brought an audience that filled the Nestrick Room in Dwinelle Hall all too close to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train on Friday February 12 as part of the Berkeley Film Seminar.  His title was “Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures,” and, to illustrate its meaning, he began with a slide of a children’s game in which a larger drawing “hides” a number of smaller, unrelated objects within the “strong coherence” of its lush detail.  (Think of the kind of games often featured in the pages of the magazine Highlights.)  The searching which this kind of children’s game demands – the paranoiac deciphering of details that have nothing to do with the main thrust of the picture – became a trope for Miller’s treatment of Strangers, since it was his project to show the way in which the film facilitates a similar kind of obsessive search.

As Miller noted, the attention to “insignificant” images is a hallmark of the Hitchcock film, as scores of viewers keep an eye out for the fabled sight of the director in each of his films.  Strangers, however, encodes more than one “appearance” by Hitchcock – not only the most obvious one that occurs towards the beginning of the film when the portly director is boarding the train with a contrabass at the same door from which Guy Haines is disembarking – but also what Miller called the director’s “hidden appearance” in a picture on the back of the book Guy carries to while away the time of train travel (Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense).

This picture, in Miller’s hands, became the means by which the film “tampered with its own readability” and replaced the “classic functionality of Hitchcock’s style” with what he called an “enigmatic density.”  An enigma so dense, in fact, that it hinders the forward movement of the narrative, not only because to notice it requires the technological supplement of the pause button on our remotes, but also because Hitchcock’s picture on the back of Guy’s book lacks the kind of motivating rationale and meaning that would allow it to be interpolated back into the film’s plot.  In a pun that was not lost on Miller, this was precisely a moment of narrative suspense.

As he went on to trace other kinds of hidden pictures in the film (kinds which, due to the incommensurability between the lengths of a blog post and a lecture, unfortunately must remain hidden until Miller himself chooses to unveil them in another public forum), he discussed what he called “too close reading” – “too” close because it abandoned the sense of proportion illustrated by the “close reading” of New Critical interpretations that treated the way a work’s details contributed to a sense of the whole.  Rather, Miller was focused on details that weren’t meaningful at all, that, as he put it, “measure the text’s drive to futility” and “create an alternative universe where the story is derailed.”  There is an “undue intimacy” here as the film offers an invitation to touch Hitchcock.  As Guy’s fingers gravitate constantly towards the director’s image on the back on his book, they indicate the way, according to Miller, that touch is the “indispensable means of his art,” how we see Hitchcock’s cinema “harboring the hallucinatory effects of touching.”

This hallucination of touch was no more apparent than in one of the personal anecdotes with which Miller peppered his talk.  Virtually obsessed with the book Guy was holding, Miller described how he ordered an old copy to get as close to it as possible.  His self-admitted obsession prompted him, however, to place it in a clear plastic case and then in a locked cabinet drawer.  (But who, he asked himself humorously, would want to steal this old book?)  He thus transformed the kind of contact at which he was aiming into exactly the kind of imagined or hallucinatory touching that Hitchcock’s film provides.

The talk was, assumedly, part of a larger project on Hitchcock and British cinema.  When this project reaches its conclusion, it will surely be in the form of a book.  As such, it will, like Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense, make perfect reading for a train trip.