PRINT March 2017


D. A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, Rope, 1948, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes.

Hidden Hitchcock, by D. A. Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 208 pages.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S FILMS have always invited what Freud called “wild analysis.” (“You Freud, me Jane?” Tippi Hedren’s character says to Sean Connery in Marnie [1964], as he forces her to free-associate.) Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other filmmaker who has been called on to prove so many points by so many critics. And it’s hard to think of any other filmmaker who has embarrassed us quite so thoroughly, by showing us, time and again, that we aren’t nearly as clever as we thought we were. “The New Yorker critic described that picture as ‘unconsciously funny,’” Hitchcock complained to François Truffaut, referring to the magazine’s review of North by Northwest (1959). “And yet I made [it] with tongue in cheek; to me it was one big joke. When Cary Grant was on Mount Rushmore, I would have liked to put him inside Lincoln’s nostril and let him have a sneezing fit.”

In Hitchcock, famously, everything is under control. The director’s characters mess up constantly, fret endlessly—Homo hitchcockiens is recognizable by its furrowed brow—but the films themselves always go according to plan. All is manifest, nothing latent; all medium, no message. Or so the story goes. In his wonderful book Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (2015), Michael Wood suggests that Hitchcock continues to offer us an “education in interpretation.” Even after all these years, we keep getting schooled. For D. A. Miller, in his similarly excellent new book, Hidden Hitchcock, the master’s films don’t only teach us, they tease us. Not a bullying kind of teasing so much as a strip kind of teasing, which is to say, they show us everything, just not that.

A big part of Hidden Hitchcock’s considerable pleasure lies in trying to figure just what that is. Miller takes us on an almost Herzogian (Werner, with a bit of Moses mixed in) quest to uncover a hidden drama playing out in the background of Hitchcock’s films. The title of the book alludes to the “hidden picture” puzzles that Miller enjoyed as a child, those labyrinthine line drawings of zoos or beach scenes where you search out small, often silly objects. Miller’s proposition is that if you look long, hard, and repeatedly enough at a shot, scene, or sequence in one of Hitchcock’s films, you frequently begin to notice that there is a little extra something there. A jury foreman counting ballots holds eleven slips of paper when he should only be holding ten. A candle in its candelabrum leans first one way, then another, then another still. The number on the side of the prison van transporting Henry Fonda changes between the time he boards in Queens and the time he arrives in Manhattan. And so on. Crucially, these errors have no official narrative function. The eleventh ballot, for example, has no effect on the verdict; the characters and the story proceed as if there were only ten ballots counted. They are, for all intents and purposes, continuity errors of the sort we might find in any film.

Unless, that is, Hitchcock had other intents and purposes. Miller’s chapters focus on Strangers on a Train (1952), Rope (1948), and The Wrong Man (1956). As in the hidden-picture puzzles, spotting the errors turns out to be a whole lot of fun, as well as very (consciously) funny. The game provides the occasion for a timely intervention in the ongoing debates over the place of interpretation in the humanities. Miller calls his practice “too-close reading,” a not-so-hidden rejoinder to Franco Moretti’s data-driven “distant reading,” by far the most compelling of the many recent efforts to move beyond the traditional concerns of criticism. Miller remains committed to the idea that details can be interpreted, and in showing us how, he enriches both our understanding of Hitchcock’s films and our own critical practice. The “Hitchcockian Error does not happen purely ‘on purpose,’” he writes, “nor does it happen sheerly ‘by accident,’ independent of all design; it happens, as children like to say, accidentally on purpose.” We are right back in the world of Freud, with his slips of the tongue and bungled actions—accidents with a purpose, every last one. Ultimately, Miller’s book is a powerful polemic in favor of an old-school, deeply imaginative, defiantly subjective mode of interpretation that we might associate with Susan Sontag at her best, or Roland Barthes pretty much all the time. And it returns us to the problem of the unconscious in an era when theorists keep trying to wish it away.

Ben Kafka is an associate professor in the department of media, culture, and communication at New York University and a psychoanalyst in private practice.