Summer Reading Series – D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock

Professor D.A. Miller’s most recent book Hidden Hitchcock (University of Chicago Press, 2016) asks the reader to consider how Alfred Hitchcock works on two registers at once: as one of the most inviting filmmakers of our time, and as one of the most oblique. Miller argues that while the filmmaker’s “public style” has made him a favorite of audiences around the world, his “secret style” summons the attention of a “Too-Close Viewer,” a spectator who is teased, delighted, and flummoxed by the intricacies of Hitchcock’s direction.

Below is an excerpt from the first section of the book.

Public Style, Secret Style

Behind the impersonal detachment of a sovereign stylist, there often stands a damaged or disparaged person. Hitchcock is a famous—and self-conscious— case in point. The homely fat man who “appears” onscreen only to decamp straightaway, as if he knew he were hopelessly out of place amongst cinema’s beautiful people, is also the magisterial Auteur whose invisible hand has put these people in place— and will be bringing some of them, qua characters, to places they would never choose to be. The Hitchcock cameo always implies, along with his social abjection, the sado-artistic revenge he is taking for it from the pinnacle of cinematic mastery. And yet for all that, Hitchcock’s antisocial malice must generally strike us as pretty mild, even jovial. Though the man shows himself hastily retreating from the social field, its demands and norms remain in force to determine the substance and style of the work. Typically, the plots devised by this onscreen loner dramatize the most basic social obligation: that formation of the Couple for which murder and mayhem are merely especially thrilling catalysts. And no film style has more successfully courted mass-audience understanding and approval than Hitchcock’s. In his supremely lucid narrative communication, nothing deserves our attention that his camera doesn’t go out of its way to point out. This cinema has plenty of ploys, but none it doesn’t let us see through; suspense, the chief of these, depends precisely on forewarning us in such a way that our pleasure, if seldom unmixed with fear, is never spoiled by confusion. With a super-accessible style working hard to rehearse the emergence of the very unit of social organization, could there be (say at least until Psycho [1960] and The Birds [1963]) a more sociable author than Hitchcock?

I have been describing Hitchcock’s manifest style, his style reduced to its universally intelligible and beloved codes. But as anyone who has seen a Hitchcock film knows, the director primes us to be considerably more alert than his spoonfeeding requires. In addition to our instrumental attention, we find ourselves possessed of a watchfulness that seems to have no object or use. Even when Hitchcock is not enjoining us to “pay attention,” we remain poised behind a pane of vigilance, as if expecting to see something besides his unmissable danger signals and loud significance alerts. But it appears we never do. Our vigilance stays on idle, never sufficiently roused to put undesignated objects under the focused scrutiny we obediently bestow on the designated ones. A strangely futile vigilance, it irritates our vision only by virtue of being palpably in excess of what we are being asked to see; ready to be as observant as Sherlock Holmes, we are challenged with only the most elementary cases. Inevitably, we can’t help sensing that there is more to meet the eye in Hitchcock than, in his viewer- friendly manner, he arranges to greet the eye. To put the point bluntly, everything we are asked to see in Hitchcock feels a bit disappointing: a facade that blocks our view of all that we imagine we might see in the visual field. To watch a Hitchcock film is thus always to come under the spell of a hidden Hitchcock, and to want, somehow, to focus our attention on this imaginary thing or being. Whence the paradox of Hitchcock’s cultural reception. On the one hand, he is widely regarded as having little to say (a pure entertainer who toils in the “empty” thriller genre); on the other, his stand- out style is the object of an enormous fascination that those who feel it hardly know how to explain.

This excess attention no doubt accounts for the pronounced tendency of Hitchcock criticism to “close-read” his films. Even before the home-system revolution democratized the practice, critics like Raymond Bellour and William Rothman worked from prints that they would dissect shot by shot and sometimes virtually frame by frame. With their editing table or Lafayette analyzer, these great close viewers did what most of us only dreamed of doing— until the day when, with that thaumaturgic genie successively known as a Betamax, VHS, or DVD player at our command, we could attempt it ourselves. And yet, by and large, even such close viewing remains in thrall to the primacy of a film’s narrative structure; this is true even of an auteurist critic like Rothman, who allegorically reconfigures the given story as “the author’s story.” As a consequence, what close viewing finds under its microscope tends to accord with our unassisted observations when watching the film under theatrical conditions. Though close viewing often brings out things we hadn’t noticed, it typically uses them to explicate and enhance the things we had. It validates our normal narrative- driven viewing by extending its range, deepening its implications, and generally producing ever subtler proofs of its coherence. You might say that it “repays attention” in a double sense. Not only is it demonstrably worth everyone’s time and effort; it also seconds the priorities of our naïve first attention. In its own sometimes abstruse way, it piggy-backs on the social uptake of Hitchcock’s public style.

It is my project here to trace a different, more devious route taken by the surplus scrutiny that Hitchcock mobilizes in us. In contrast to the games that he is known to play with his Pavlovianly 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 hyperlegible 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 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 counternarrative 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.

The Hidden Picture Game

How does the game work? Let me demonstrate its paradigm with a passage from an early Hitchcock film I won’t be discussing later. In Murder! (1930), the foreman of the jury that tries Diana Baring is impatient for a conviction. He cuts off initial discussion with an appeal to the obviousness of sums: “The best thing for us all to do is to write down our opinions on a piece of paper, and then we can see how we stand.” From behind the foreman’s shoulder, we watch him write his own ballot, then receive, read, and sort the others. In a continuous shot that lasts over half a minute, the camera neither cuts nor moves; we see the process in its entirety and with the utmost clarity, as if the filming were meant to match the count in sheer straightforwardness (19:11– 19:54). For the foreman, however, the sorting proves unexpectedly laborious, and for the spectator, curiously tense. The first and second ballots, guilty and not-guilty respectively, efficiently set up the two opposing piles. The foreman starts to put the third ballot, a vote for guilty, in the not-guilty pile, catches himself, and resumes sorting. But the blunder he has almost made once, he almost makes twice again: not only does he put a second guilty vote in the not-guilty pile, he also proceeds to put a not-guilty vote in the guilty pile. Having rectified these mistakes, too, he counts the at last properly sorted ballots and announces the result: “That makes seven guilty and three not guilty. There are two not in.” The jury’s subsequent deliberation confirms his numbers: two jurors have not voted, and three have voted not-guilty. All five will speedily be persuaded, not to say bullied, into the duodecimal unanimity of a death sentence. The foreman has got what he wanted; and his achievement has been as easy— and almost the same thing— as counting to ten.

We had, of course, expected this outcome, and not just on account of the foreman’s pushy leadership; that leadership, rather, bespoke the structural law of the romantic whodunit, which requires Diana to be innocent but to be found guilty; were it otherwise, so early in the film, there would be no place for the plot to go, no point at which Sir John, the thespian turned detective, could “enter,” resolve the mystery, and woo Diana in the bargain. In this sense, the sorting shot falls appreciably flat; it might almost be singled out as a bad example of the thing Hitchcock is so good at: suspense. Though possessing all the hyperannotation proper to suspense (one ballot, then another, and another), it never generates sufficiently high stakes. We cannot possibly imagine that Diana will be hanged because of a sorting error that would surely be caught before it became fatal. And yet despite this failure, the shot remains vaguely gripping, as though we were in fact waiting for something— something other than the verdict— and also waiting to identify it. For no obvious reason, we remain on the lookout.

As a Too-Close Viewer whose powers of observation are in equal measure excited and frustrated by all this, I too wait. I watch closely— too closely, in all likelihood, for anything to come of it. But as it happens, something does— something breaks through the pane. For despite the narrative’s contention that the foreman has counted exactly ten ballots, this information is flatly contradicted by the image onscreen. I have only to look— and hasn’t the shot done everything possible to afford a plain view?— in order to count, not ten ballots, but eleven, and not seven guilty votes, but eight. Given the confirmed counts of abstentions and not-guilty ballots, this twelve-person jury has somehow, nonsensically, cast thirteen votes for Diana’s conviction! In the extra ballot, I recognize the deliberate double-dealing of the scene. The business of properly sorting the ballots was a monte-like ruse to prevent us from ever counting them; the game we thought we were playing with Hitchcock screened a trick he was playing on us. I have stumbled upon a hidden picture, without quite knowing it was there to be found. Though this picture demonstrably exists, the narrative does not— and cannot— acknowledge it; on the contrary, it is the narrative, with its ostensible sorting drama, that has kept the extra guilty ballot, entirely visible, from actually being seen.

But the burden of excess attention, which one might think had been blessedly lifted from my shoulders by this discovery, persists in the form of two new, more pressing difficulties. The first is that, however indisputable my finding, I don’t know quite what to make of it. The extra ballot seems to have no clear hermeneutic destiny, and when I try to give it one, I catch myself stretching. It is not that there is nothing to say about it, only that, in the community of Hitchcock spectators with their shared understandings and consolidating narratives, there isn’t enough to give it traction anywhere but on a list of film trivia. I have just mentioned, for instance, that the extra ballot brings the final tally of votes to an unlucky 13, but the point seems as silly as it is true. In a film that begins with the image of a church clock set to one thirty, why bother to conceal this banal signifier of the ominousness that is Hitchcock’s stock-in-trade? And though it is also quite plausible to regard the ballot as the metacinematic sign of an Author whose hand seems almost literally at work in shaping the narrative as he pleases, this does not explain why such a sign is produced as a hidden picture in which either one follows the narrative, and fails to see this hand, or one perceives the hand, and lets the narrative collapse into absurdity.

No, the force of the hidden picture does not lie in whatever glib meanings its content may be hosting, but in its form as an enactment— latent if you don’t see it, overwhelming if you do— of a semiotic stoppage productive only of nonsense. Even considered (as it can hardly not be) as a sign of Hitchcock himself, the hidden ballot is an all but unreadable index of a very uncommunicative Hitchcock. Instead of the cameo’s essentially comic guarantee of a “Hitchcock movie” as we know it, this Hitchcock would figure a radically private, singular, and inassimilable Author who, paradoxically, may only emerge on the sudden death of the sociable narrative style for which he is known. Prevailing only at the expense of his work, Hitchcock’s person has nothing personable about it here; it has shrunk down to the signature of sheer intractability.

My second new burden follows on the first one. Ten to one I am the only person to have noticed the hidden picture, which has gone unremarked even in so painstakingly detailed an account of Murder! as Rothman’s. Given my inability to say much about it, I fear that the very act of observing this uncounted and unaccounted-for oddity turns me into a sort of oddball, too. As the sighter of the unimportant, and indeed the anti-important, I find myself overwhelmed not by the heady elation of Cortez, but by disagreeable feelings of solitude and isolation: close to Hitchcock, if you will, but to a Hitchcock with whom I had never imagined, let alone desired, this kind of intimacy. The accident of my observation— which I seemed to fall into like a trap— has caused me to drop out of the universality of Hitchcockian spectatorship, and I can’t talk my way back into it. “Am I the only one?” The hoary question suddenly feels apt again.

My new problems are eminently social ones, as though, by means of all these relays, Hitchcock’s primordial out-of-placeness had come cunningly to roost as my own. Both what I find and my act of finding it make me as eccentric as the inconsequential hidden picture I have brought out of the woodwork. Before I fell into the game, my supererogatory vigilance had been like other spectators’— a diffuse, unspecified potential that had merely colored our Hitchcock-watching mood in varying degrees of intensity. But now I have actually found something— something radically discordant with the film we have all been watching, and belonging to another film that I may be the only one to see. Our vague, indeterminate watchfulness has crystallized into my act of spotting an intentionally hidden object. By a cruel dialectic, the original objectlessness has become the triviality of this object, just as the original universality now gets expressed as the social marginality of its observer. This is the dialectic that Hitchcock’s Too-Close Viewer, if he is to state his case at all, is fated to live with. That case entails publicizing not just the idiosyncrasy of his findings, but also, more radically, the idiosyncrasy of his critical practice as it simultaneously overreads and underinterprets these findings, presenting them in extensive detail, while failing to wrap them in adequate— socializable— importance.


Reprinted with permission from Hidden Hitchcock by D. A. Miller, published by the University of Chicago Press.
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