Hanging with Hitchcock

By Spinks, Randall | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Hanging with Hitchcock


Spinks, Randall, Literature/Film Quarterly


Hanging with Hitchcock Christopher D. Morris. The Hanging Figure: On Suspense and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Westport: Praeger, 2002. 314 pp. $65.50 cloth.

Alfred Hitchcock is widely regarded as a great artist, infinitely more profound than a master of "mere" suspense. In The Hanging Figure: On Suspense and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Christopher Morris defines suspense, through interdisciplinary scholarship, not as our anticipation of what will happen next to an admired protagonist. This fails to account for "recidivist suspense" upon subsequent viewings of, say, a Hitchcock film. Rather, Morris suggests that Hitchcock was effectively a deconstructionist, and the suspense resides, as in all art, in undecidability. Thus in Rear Window, suspense is not just about accused murderer Thorwald's invading Jeffries's apartment to do physical harm. When Thorwald asks, "What is it that you want from me?" neither Jeff nor the viewer can answer.

Hitchcock said, "The world is a 'glamorously dangerous charade.'" So also film-photons on a screen, clignotements, images of actors and objects-consists of signs without referents in endless, unpredictable relays of meanings. The history of Hitchcock criticism-whether New Critical, feminist, or New Historicist-has variously explicated the director's bleak view of the universe, or his gender or Cold War ideology. But with figure and ground, the ground, too, is figural, both inside and outside the text.

Morris shows how interpretation follows the de Manian two-stage act common to all hermeneutics: First we observe a figure, then apply a series of assumptions, a code-say, psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonial, or queer theory-by which we may work our way through previous New Critical or other interpretations, eagerly anticipating some "bottom of things" that proves the validity of our pet framework. The promise of graspable meanings is seductive, inevitable, and futile. Yet Morris gives exquisite, close readings of eleven of the master's films, elaborating aspects of most others in passing, yielding, he avers, no rich ambiguities, no paradoxes, nor any Concordia discors, but the suspense of arbitrary signs.

His subject, theme, and mode of analysis are complex and demanding; his avowed "misreadings" well earned. But rather than write an abstruse prose supposedly organic with the mode, Morris proceeds in a clear, engaging-I daresay readable-style, insisting that all signifying practices are unreadable. His working hypothesis is that "suspense is best understood not discursively but figuratively," a trope for which is Hitchcock's oft-repeated hanging figure. He could as likely have chosen doorways, portraits, jewels, or other iconographic representations found in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts at an exhibition of "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences" in 2001. Arbitrary signs apply equally to criticism: Contrary approaches in Hitchcock studies cancel themselves out, engendering still more questions about the films.

Morris would expose the erroneous assumptions in all ways of knowing. And Hitchcock's conflating the MacGuffin-or empty plot pretext-with his famous cameos is telling. This "parabasis" implies no real identity, either before or behind the camera, only baseless successions of personae. Thus, the act of film direction becomes associated "with the most questionable transfer of all, the shift from sign to referent." So much for Hitchcock the auteur, for "artwork exists independently of its creator." The Cartesian Self, Western metaphysics, and the unconscious come under doubt. The phenomenological world in general and Hitchcock's art in particular are but circulating signs (à la Derrida's trope of the postal) devoid of any identifiable origins, causality, reference, or inherent meaning.

To illustrate the apparent "universality" of art's self-reflexive deconstruction, Morris researches current theories of suspense, and Hitchcock's own contradictory remarks on the subject, only then to analyze various examples of suspended figures in noncinematic, visual art across cultures and time. …

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