Focusing on three films—Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong Man—Miller shows how Hitchcock anticipates, even demands a “Too-Close Viewer.” Dwelling within us all and vigilant even when everything appears to be in good order, this Too-Close Viewer attempts to see more than the director points out, to expand the space of the film and the duration of the viewing experience. And, thanks to Hidden Hitchcock, that obsessive attention is rewarded. In Hitchcock’s visual puns, his so-called continuity errors, and his hidden appearances (not to be confused with his cameos), Miller finds wellsprings of enigma.
Hidden Hitchcock is a revelatory work that not only shows how little we know this best known of filmmakers, but also how near such too-close viewing comes to cinephilic madness.
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By D. A. Miller
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
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Hidden Pictures (Strangers on a Train)
Perhaps you read too much.
Guy to Bruno in Strangers on a Train
First, from Strangers on a Train (1951), something obvious, literally obstructing the way. The eponymous train is coming into Metcalf; Guy Haines is about to get off, and though it's early in the film, he's bearing considerable narrative momentum with his valise and tennis rackets. At Metcalf, he's supposed to meet his hateful wife, Miriam, about a divorce that would allow him to marry the more personable Ann Morton, but he has also just met Bruno Antony, a stranger on the train, who has broached a less civilized plan: Bruno will murder Miriam if, in an undetectable (because unmotivated) swap of killings, Guy will murder Bruno's tyrannical father. We are already savoring the delicious conviction that the psychopathic alternative will be the one to grip the rails. But now, all of a sudden, a man comes onto the station platform proposing to board the train at the same narrow door where Guy stands ready to leave it; the man's corpulence, not to mention a large contrabass that he is brandishing like a second paunch, magnifies the impediment. Yet between Guy and this stranger, not the slightest contact. Nimbly slithering around the fat man as if tracing the invisible but firm line of a cordon sanitaire, Guy makes sure to avoid any brush of the sort that has just made him so unexpectedly intimate with Bruno. Indeed, as he waves his valise in the air to avoid grazing the fat man's fat instrument, his rather theatrical courtesy seems less a sign of good manners than the subtle expression of an aversion. After he has detrained, moreover, the camera is neither so polite nor so subtle. Instead of following Guy on the narrative business, it lingers on the fat man as he hoists his bass, and then himself, up the stairs onto the train, its low angle emphasizing the mighty labor of his haunch as he ascends (figure 1.1).
Humiliated by both Guy's polite disregard and the camera's merciless observation, this surreal fatso is of course Alfred Hitchcock, the director of Strangers on a Train. I have been describing what is known as his appearance in the film. Every Hitchcock thriller stages such a moment, when, as Richard Allen puts it, "the flesh-and-blood director himself" enters the image, cutting a passing figure onscreen; but the Strangers appearance is exemplary in being perfectly unmissable. No sooner does Hitchcock come forward onto the platform than every theatrical audience all over the world emits the pleased purrs, the complacent chuckles of its recognition; the communal gloating is as definitive of the cameo as is Hitchcock's own flesh and blood. Even so, it remains a somewhat puzzling response. To judge by our swollen heads, one would suppose that Hitchcock had been trying to escape our attention rather than call it to a convention of his own devising. One would further suppose that other people in the audience, less clever than ourselves, fail to notice his appearance, even though (barring infants and aliens) such ignorant spectators are hard to come by. This appearance is no secret, no obscure reference for an elite; mass-culture spectators, we read only what has been made legible for that purpose. And yet we all feel as pleased as a child who has just discovered a hidden picture, and as knowing as the cinephile who, watching Last Year at Marienbad (1961), smiles to himself when he detects Hitchcock hovering in midair among the hotel guests (figure 1.2).
For though everyone in the theater may be familiar with Hitchcock's identity, this familiarity is not shared by anyone onscreen. It is in relation to these ignorant "persons of the fiction" that our feelings of superiority have been instigated and feel justified. As whom, after all, does Hitchcock appear in his films? Certainly, he never appears as anyone other than Hitchcock; he is never a character who bears another name, or even anonymously exercises the slightest narrative function. As Anthony Shaffer put it, "He would be himself, but he wouldn't be anybody else." Accordingly, we do not say, "There is a bassist played by Alfred Hitchcock," but "There is Alfred Hitchcock carrying a bass." Yet though the fiction never identifies its author as someone else, neither does it acknowledge him as Hitchcock. Guy Haines, for instance, is utterly — and to us, amazingly — oblivious to the fact he has just crossed paths with a film director as famous for his image as for the films regularly signed by that image. This is the self-contradiction intrinsic to the appearance: the fat man is nobody but Hitchcock, and yet Hitchcock is nobody but a fat man.
His fictional nonrecognition is absolute, universal. It is not just that he is unsightly among the beautiful people, or anonymous and shabby among the rich and famous. With no part to play, no narrative pertinence, he lacks social being altogether; and absent such relational traction, his embodiment has no more existential grounding than a ghost. (That is what Alain Resnais lets us understand in Marienbad's faux-appearance, where the obese Hitchcock is shown defying gravity.) Paradoxically, Hitchcock's appearance in his films dramatizes his invisibility to their world; he arrives onscreen only to confirm this social death, and having done that, like a person who "knows when he is not wanted," he disappears to trouble us no more. That is why our own recognition of Hitchcock inevitably means patronizing him. Like gods, we seem to be giving him the only life he will ever know; like parents, we bestow on him the primal recognition that he seems able to get in no other way, and from no other source. "Yes," our complacent notice says to the fat man, "Your appearance to the contrary, you are truly Hitchcock the filmmaker. We love you for being him, and perhaps even more, for your self-abasing dependency on us to see that you are him."
Let me now bring forward another specimen of obviousness that comes even earlier in Strangers: the chance encounter between Guy and Bruno that gets the story going. If Hitchcock's appearance offered the obviousness of an obstruction, of something in the way of the story, this accident-waiting-to-happen — justly regarded as one of Hitchcock's most absorbing visual narrations — offers the obviousness of the way itself, of the narrative path that our attention is being directed to follow. The film famously begins by cross-cutting between two men's shoes, a pied pair walking leftward, and a plain pair walking to the right. The alternation accelerates, with suitable musical punctuation, and we expect it to culminate in a toe-on collision. Instead, it resolves in a shot that shows the men's shoes striding in the same direction, through the ticket gate and onto the train platform. But we are not disappointed, only further teased. The title has foretold an encounter between strangers "on a train," and it is this train that both pairs of shoes are now going to board, and whose departure is implied in the next shot, a low forward tracking shot along the rails. Unsurprisingly, the alternation resumes inside the train, and this time it reaches its promised end. The pied shoes again move left, until their owner, still invisible, sits down and crosses his legs. The plain shoes move right until their owner, also still unseen, follows suit; but in the process, his shoe kicks the other's across the aisle.
This is the moment we've been waiting for, and now the camera, as if it too had been kicked, shoots up from its low position on the floor and finally shows us something besides footwear: a brightly lit train car whose occupants, having sprouted heads and torsos, are busy talking, drinking, and playing cards. It is as if those touching shoes were the contact for an electric current that had turned everything on, including the narrative engine. For we immediately recognize the two men in the foreground as the film's stars and protagonists; and they waste no time striking up a conversation — "Aren't you Guy Haines? I'm Bruno, Bruno Antony" — chockful of exposition and suggested developments. Out of the womb of suspense, narrative is at last unmistakably delivered, healthy and full of beans; and after our drawn-out wait, we are the more pleasurably intrigued; the film is laying track.
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 (figure 1.3). 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,4 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 & Schuster in 1947, that Hitchcock edited, annotated, and prefaced with an essay called "The Quality of Suspense" (figures 1.4 and 1.5).
Let me note in passing that on discovering this book, I was seized with a desire to possess it. It was as if the discovery would not be verified, nor my satisfaction in it complete, unless the thing in the film were also a thing close to hand in my own home. Once I had got the book, though, the care with which I scrutinized the jacket (which I was surprised to observe was red, not gray as the black-and-white film stock had rendered it) was more than matched by the care with which I handled the book itself, so much more that it almost seemed I was afraid to touch it. I soon felt a need to insulate it; I put the book in a clear plastic zippered case, the case in an archival box, and the box in the empty drawer of a locked cabinet where, I told myself, this precious deposit would never get bruised against other books, or faded from the sun, or stolen by — but here I grew bewildered, for who would ever steal such a thing, a treasure whose value I was the only one to recognize? Though I had purchased the Fireside Book to hold and examine whenever I pleased, somehow what finally pleased me most was putting it away, out of sight and out of reach.
But I am jumping the rails. I return to the fact that Hitchcock makes, not one, but two appearances at the beginning of Strangers — or rather, to the fact that this fact is precisely what doesn't appear. Everyone thinks of the obvious or manifest appearance as the only one, and pays no attention to the hidden or latent appearance at all. In one respect, of course, both the manifest and the latent appearance do the same thing: they sign the film as the work of "Hitchcock." But they sign it with opposite implications. The manifest appearance — of "the flesh-and-blood director himself" — presumes that Guy doesn't know who Hitchcock is or what he looks like, while the latent appearance — in the author photo — implies that Guy is so fully appreciative of the Hitchcock brand — the name, the face, the suspense for which these are synonyms — that, to while away the tedium of train travel, he has chosen a book marketed on just that basis. And instead of complimenting our ability to recognize Hitchcock where no one else can, the hidden picture, when we do see it, is bound to irk us. For whether we owe this finding to our own (repeated, retarded, rewound) viewings, or to someone else's information — perhaps, for most of you, my own — it is always a discovery of what we have missed, what we have been set up to miss. We'd thought we were patronizing Hitchcock, when all along it was he who was patronizing us; in smugly discerning him, we were only being his dupes. He is not the person we imagined — or rather, that person is not the author we overlooked. Naïvely, we were content to find Hitchcock in the flesh when we should have been looking for his image on film, in that "still" which is the author photograph. And now that we can no longer take the same pride in recognizing Hitchcock, we are no longer able to take the same pleasure in his film for recognizingus in our competence to read it right.
"You'll ruin everything with your neat little touches," says Philip to Brandon in Rope, and the hidden picture here, neat as a pin, and almost as hard to find, seems to be just such a damaging touch: it mucks up the logic of the manifest appearance, and spoils the seigneurial pleasure, shared and sure, we take in it. This is a signature that, like Sam Marlowe's on his paintings in The Trouble with Harry (1955), is "not supposed to be readable" even if we end up being able to read it; and to confront its intended opacity, secrecy, or nonsense must radically disturb the straightforwardness of the film's art, along with the comfortable viewing practices we bring to it. Something thickens with this touch, and it's not the plot, which now begins racing forward like a train; it's the style, which, if we are to attend to it at all, must put the plot on pause, literally and otherwise.
But who would welcome such a violent application of the brakes? For if Hitchcock possesses the only great cinematic style with popular appeal, it enjoys this appeal on the basis of its beautiful clarity: the easy, immediate, and unbroken intelligibility of its purposes and means. As he tells us often enough, his trademark suspense depends on sharing information with the viewer. His camera is as directive as a teacher's pointer; it would designate everything noteworthy to the story, and only that. There never seems to be any money in letting our attention wander elsewhere on the blackboard. (During the most suspenseful sequence in Strangers, the camera is placed inside a gutter, where Guy's lighter has fallen onto a ledge; if you are sufficiently dégagé to look at anything here but Bruno's groping hand and the lighter it would grasp, you may be pardoned for thinking that nothing goes down a city sewer but a few dead leaves.) For all its brilliant withholding techniques, the style seems to harbor no deep secrets. As Andrew Sarris once put the point, "Hitchcock can be devious, but he is never dishonest"; we always feel we know what he is doing and why. Such is the compact that the cameo has proved a winsome device for making explicit; it is the quasi-heraldic emblem of a style that would be — like itself — obvious, consistent, unmistakable. It anchors a game we derive considerable pleasure both from playing and from knowing how to play.
That is why the hidden picture, tampering with the readability of this emblem, making it a question or problem, has such power to unsettle; with this neat little touch, Hitchcock's whole style seems momentarily to cloud over, to surrender its classic functionality to an enigmatic density. In the manifest appearance, the story obligingly halts for recognition of Hitchcock as its author, then resumes its now-certified course. But in the hidden appearance, the narrative juggernaut leaves us no leisure for such recognition; its commanding progress almost ensures that Hitchcock's claim to authorship — in itself perfectly obvious — will be lost on us. And this effective incompatibility between narrative cognition and authorial recognition suggests that the "authorship" we are being asked to recognize is not the same thing as — and may even be at cross purposes with — the authorship of a narrative. Look closely at the author photo, and you will see Hitchcock holding his lips between his thumb and forefinger; the secret image embeds an emblem of secrecy itself.
To shift our self-congratulation, then, from the manifest to the latent appearance, as though, having now identified it, we could once again feel sophisticated and clever, would be to miss the implication of its latency, which is that the film might be hiding other objects, other "Hitchcocks," that are likewise visible but not apparent. Two other neat little touches may be observed in this connection. The first is that Guy's book is not the only book to be found on the train; Bruno rests his shoes on another, a paperback presumably his own, as he reclines on the compartment banquette (figure 1.6). All we see of its cover are three differently sized lines of type, and all that can be distinctly read is the word SUSPENSE in the second and largest of these. But we've been given enough to know that the book is a kind of companion volume to the Fireside Book, a twinning that turns its author into Hitchcock by another name.
Excerpted from Hidden Hitchcock by D. A. Miller. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPreview
Hidden Pictures (Strangers on a Train)
The Long Wrong Man