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Film Criticism (1997) - The Allegory of Seeing in Hitchcock's Silent Films




Hitchcock's silent films provide a useful field for such an inquiry, for despite burgeoning interest in silent film, Hitchcock's have remained relatively free from commentary from either school of criticism; indeed, the persistence of "practical criticism"-readings of particular films-may reveal some ultimate limit to the relevance of theory for the study of film, as for literature.4 This paper's readings of Hitchcock's silent films interpret them as allegorizing the viewing process as inevitable error-the attribution of the presence of a Cartesian self or an object to an alternation of light and dark signifiers. Later in his career Hitchcock named this state of delusion the MacGuffin: a signifier universally believed in whose actual meaning is, on reflection, nonexistent.5 In his silent films, human delusion is dramatized by two means: first, through the depiction of the world as "postal," in Derrida's sense of a network of signifiers preceding the human and ensuring that the meaning of its messages never coincides with their sender's intention or recipient's interpretation; second, through the misapprehensions of visual signs by characters and viewers.


The Allegory of Seeing in Hitchcock's Silent Films

One benefit of the proximate publication of Linda Williams's Viewing Positions (1994) and David Bordwell and Noel Carroll's Post-Theory (1996) lies in their introductions' concurring summaries, from opposed perspectives, of recent developments in American film criticism. Both review the ascendancy of theories of spectatorship in the last two decades, including psychoanalytic, feminist, and Marxist/ Althusserian theory; both detail modifications of these approaches in the nineties. Williams makes the case for their continuing importance, in the light of reception- and cultural-studies; Bordwell and Carroll make the case for rejecting such approaches in favor of cognitive studies based on rational agency.[1] The articles brought together in each collection admirably represent both sides of this debate, which follow hermeneutic, Cartesian-based critical approaches: the essays in Viewing Positions assume the existence of a subjectivity to a great extent determined by a cultural environment that includes film; the essays in Post-Theory assume a rational, biological subject whose responses to film are to a great extent independent of culture. Of course, to summarize each side's conception of the human subject in this way is to notice, at the same time, that each side has some such conception, and that, from the perspective of deconstruction, the extent of the difference between the two sides may not, after all, be as great as their proponents believe.[2] For clearly, deconstruction begins with no assumption about either human subjectivity or culture; instead, both are only putative referents of signifiers whose meaning may remain indefinitely deferred. Instead, deconstructive criticism — literary as well as cinematic — interprets Cartesian-based theory as beginning with the error constitutive of all hermeneutics: the mimetic assumption of an authentic signified reality, self or object, referred to by the arbitrary signifiers of art. In some deconstructive criticism, with which the present essay concurs, this error is anticipated and allegorized in the very works whose different degrees of cultural construction and of reception by Cartesian subjects are the primary points at issue between adherents of spectatorship- or rational-agent theory.[3] A study of film as narrating such allegories might highlight the features common to both approaches and provide an alternative for scholars unable to accept their assumptions.

Hitchcock's silent films provide a useful field for such an inquiry, for despite burgeoning interest in silent film, Hitchcock's have remained relatively free from commentary from either school of criticism; indeed, the persistence of "practical criticism" — readings of particular films — may reveal some ultimate limit to the relevance of theory for the study of film, as for literature.[4] This paper's readings of Hitchcock's silent films interpret them as allegorizing the viewing process as inevitable error — the attribution of the presence of a Cartesian self or an object to an alternation of light and dark signifiers. To the extent that cinematic viewing may be analogous to other acts of vision, the films imply that humanity suffers from the permanent delusion of taking the visible world to be real. Later in his career Hitchcock named this state of delusion the MacGuffin: a signifier universally believed in whose actual meaning is, on reflection, non-existent.[5] In his silent films, human delusion is dramatized by two means: first, through the depiction of the world as "postal," in Derrida's sense of a network of signifiers preceding the human and ensuring that the meaning of its messages never coincides with their sender's intention or recipient's interpretation; second, through the misapprehensions of visual signs by characters and viewers. This is Hitchcock's allegory of seeing. After discussing its two parts, I summarize deconstruction's contribution to the present debate in film theory.


Hitchcock's silent films depict the verbal and visual world in ways that anticipate Derrida's idea of the postal, which renders the "signified" world unreadable.[6] In outline, Derrida's idea is that because there is nothing inherent in a "letter" to insure its arrival at an "intended destination," it never arrives. (By "letter" we are asked to understand any message, discourse, sign or signifier.) The metaphor of the postal is just another way of expressing Derrida's more abstract idea that "letters" are characterized by "spacing" or "self-division."[7] Hitchcock's silent films emphasize the division of visual and verbal signs from their referents, the purely arbitrary nature of any sign's representations of visual and verbal signifiers: (1) the face of a screaming woman; (2) a montage that illustrates the mass media's verbal dissemination of news. Since we come to believe that the woman is the Avenger's victim, and since the press reports her murder, the two scenes may be construed as the dramatization of any number of traditional binaries: cause and effect, signified and signifier, content and form. But as we examine each in more detail, their simple correspondence becomes problematic. As many critics have noticed, the face is decontextualized: we know nothing, and never learn, of its identity or circumstances; Hitchcock's elaborate backlighting seems to identify the face only as its synecdoche — golden curls. Decontextualization is a film technique that later in the decade came to be associated with French surrealism; in Figures of Desire, Linda Williams argued that the surrealists exploited decontextualization in order to expose the cinematic practice of montage and editing — that is, the assumption that disparate shots are related. The Lodger's first image provokes similar questions as to the relation between the cinematic image and its signified context.

The decontextualization also illustrates the postal. In the image of the screaming face see only the sender of a message. We don't know the nature of the message or the recipient; we don't know if the message was received; because we can't hear it, we can't even know if the message was sent. The scene presents a "pure signifier" independent of sender, significance, recipient. The image also emphasizes the separation between visual and verbal signifiers: this is a scream we can see but not hear. Like Edvard Munch's famous lithograph The Scream (1893), the image acknowledges its own incapacity for expression and renders that incapacity as a separate horror.[8] In fact, the rest of the film is nothing so much as the narrative of signs (of culpability) divorced from their referents: a scarf wrapping a face; a triangle drawn on a map; an attraction to golden curls. Indeed, at the end of the film the "true" referent of the signs — the "true" Avenger — is invisible and enigmatic.

The screaming face at the outset of The Lodger introduces a world of arbitrary visual signifiers; the verbal correlative of their delusion is the mass media. The homology between the two scenes is clear in the emphasis on the faces of the radio announcers, faces unseen by those who hear the voice. The faces dissolve into each other, leaving the viewer with a sense of a "generic face." Of course, the subsequent action of The Lodger dramatizes the impossibility of "reading faces." These newly misleading faces are succeeded by shots of newspapers being printed on a press. Like the screaming face, these shots emphasize the purity of signifiers, here in isolation from sender and recipient, moving quickly as if with a life of their own. The parallels between the first shots create an equation between oral and written, original and mass-produced messages. The film demonstrates that it is impossible to "name" the referent supposedly generating this circulating discourse: all of the film's detection and inference lead only to a figure, the antonomasia "The Avenger." Since we never learn what this is a figure for — if anything — we are left with the depiction of the world as postal, a place where messages circulate independently of sender, recipient, and referent.

The postal is also revealed in several telling scenes in Easy Virtue (1927). During the first trial, a woman juror writes notes and questions which obviously betray a prejudiced, if not lurid, interest in the proceedings. The association between writing and misrepresentation is continued in the note Claude Robson sends to Larita: intercepted by Aubrey Filton, this passionate entreaty hastens Claude's death; used in the court of law, it hastens the conviction of Larita. The fact that letters are "open" in the sense of being vulnerable to interception and available to interpretation by all is one reason Derrida uses the post-card as a metaphor for language; the illusion he deconstructs — that the meaning of a message is inherent in the sender's intention or the addressee's reception — is exposed in Easy Virtue by these notes and by the film's most famous scene, of the eavesdropping telephone operator.

That scene dramatizes the illusion that the signification of language can be privately fixed by sender or recipient; instead, even the most intimate message — a proposal of marriage — is open to new, public, equally valid interpretations. And when the operator puts down her novel to make the connection and begin eavesdropping, John Whittaker's marriage-proposal and Larita's responses become analogous to a work of fiction: each elicits vicarious identification; each is a representation of love "framed" (into voice or print) as a condition of transmittal. Of course, this parallel may suggest the one between the telephone operator and the film viewer: in Easy Virtue's allegory of seeing, the audience, too, must infer the existence of love only from framed, arbitrary signs. Film criticism — the reading of characters' struggles to achieve selfhood and love — may be as groundless, mute, and deluded as the telephone operator's momentary facial reactions or her wriggles in response to aural signs.

In The Ring (1927), cinematic inexpressiveness is implicit in film's analogies between the putative meaning of signs and the actual incoherence of boxing, especially in two famous dissolves. In the first, the numbers indicating the rounds during Jack's first fight with Corby are pulled from the wall, calendar-style; these frequently displace shots of the fight itself. In the second, Jack's progress in the order of contenders is illustrated by the upward movement of his name on successive placards advertising upcoming fights. In both instances, life's striving is reducible to shifts in arbitrary signs. Such a reduction is broadened by the conflation of signs with not only boxing but any mute percussion: for example, the film's credits are immediately juxtaposed with a carnival drum being banged. The irony here for silent film is similar to that of the decontextualized scream that opens The Lodger: such reflexive demonstrations of the muteness of silent film offer themselves as metaphors for the "normal" world of "sound-sense." The Ring's examples of "mute percussion" also include the scene of the carnival test of strength, in which a mallet-blow may ring a bell, and the scene in which the black man is pelted with eggs. These outside-the-ring scenes of silent, pointless physical contact are followed by others: the fortune-teller conked on the head with the horseshoe; Jack smashing the champagne glasses with the picture of Corby; Jack ripping Nelly's dress; the nightclub fight between Jack and Corby. Through these the film suggests that the plot-events inside the ring are the synecdoche for an unreadable world constituted by arbitrary signs of mute aggression. In fact, even the characters' names are presented in this manner: the name "One Round Jack" first appears upside-down on a placard held up by a carnival barker; Corby's name is introduced on the card of his promoter, James Ware. If at the outset names are separable from identity and as little expressive as the senseless battery they advertise, then continued sparring or fighting is a redundant, futile attempt to escape the network of the postal, or "the ring." As we shall see, Jack's ultimate "victory" in the ring and "award" of the woman he loves call into question the value of the strenuous efforts that led to both.

Such questioning also arises naturally in The Farmer's Wife (1928), where Samuel Sweetland's aggressive pursuit of a partner is associated with names on a list of prospective wives that proves to have been unnecessary, after all, since Araminta Dench, his eventual fiancée, was always, already willing to "air her master's pants" (in one of this film's many bawdy jokes). As in The Ring, it is difficult to support a claim for any intellectual or moral growth in the protagonist's encounters that would make the plot-resolution a readable culmination; instead, the achievement of the closing embrace is the arbitrary cessation of an open-ended series. The merely repetitive quality of courtship is also conveyed through its association with repetitive daily routines, such as wearing and discarding clothes (Sweetland exchanges a constricting collar for a more comfortable one and on several occasions one jacket for another); riding a horse (featured in the scenes with Louisa and Mercy); eating and drinking (Sweetland says, "There's a female or two floating around my mind like a Sunday dinner," and each of his prospective brides prepares or consumes food). To the extent that love (like boxing in The Ring) is reducible to shifting signs on a list, its association with the quotidian reinforces the redundant and open-ended nature of these endeavors, whose only "prize" could be just another signifier, not something of significance. Even the final betrothal of Sweetland and Minta is represented as a change in her clothes and his.

In this film, marriage-partners are as interchangeable as food or clothes; new ones simply fill a previously established "position" — like the empty chairs in front of the hearth in which Sweetland and Minta visualize his possible mates. In essence, then, human lovers, too, are like lodgers — temporary occupants of places which precede and outlast them. Love in such a place is not simply mediated by writing (the list); it becomes inseparable from the grammatical lapses, rhetorical ornamentation, and double entendres of its expression and from the unforeseeable grotesquerie of its reception.[9] (It is noteworthy that the film examines such linguistic breakdowns in the case of marriage-proposals — performatives which seek to elicit performatives, the speech-category most frequently cited as proof of some necessary relation between signifier and signified.) Sweetland's "proposal" to Minta consists of putting her name at the top of the list of previously crossed-out names; the mutual "assent" this induces (Araminta: "Isn't this sudden?" Sweetland: "The Lord works like lightning.") undermines not just the "success" of the proposal but also the whole sequence of Sweetland's consciously crafted utterances that went before. The film dramatizes nothing so much as the disastrous discrepancy between intention and reception, between reading and writing, that constitutes the world of the postal.

Champagne (1928) begins with juxtaposed scenes of reading and seeing: the Father's angry reaction to newspaper accounts of Betty's flight immediately follows the film's opening image — of flappers dancing amid a world of shipboard hedonism — seen through a glass of champagne. This juxtaposition, like the decontextualized scream-and-newspaper that opens The Lodger, likens the reading of life to visual misrepresentation. And like The Lodger, Champagne dramatizes the problem of readability using the example of the human face — in this case, the face of the Man, whose apparent stalking of Betty throughout the film undermines the distinction between love and lust. Until the film's deus ex machina ending, viewers may read the Man's face as an expression of lust and the Boy's as an expression of love. This reading may be encouraged by the absence of any cinematic signal that the scene of the Man's forcing himself upon Betty is only a fantasy.[10] Yet even the revelation that the Man was serving as "benign" protector of Betty does not resolve the issue of readability, since Betty — even after hearing this news — loses her smile and, just as the viewer must, rescrutinizes the Man's apparently still arrogant male visage. Betty's moment of doubt even "after" reading a face may be a surrogate for the viewer's; in any case, the Man's unknowable face is succeeded by the concluding shot, through a champagne glass, of the Boy and Girl embracing. Interpreted in the contexts of the Man's unreadable face, of the young couple's mercurial relations and of the film's link between champagne and visual distortion, the film's final image may render the question of the truth or reality of love as undecidable as it is at the end of The Ring or The Farmer's Wife.

In The Manxman (1929) the issue of readability is raised from the very outset, the shot of the triskeles (the three legged symbol of the Isle of Man) emblazoned on a ship's flag. From the first, this signifier may appear either arcane (one critic mistook it for a Catherine Wheel[11]) or a highly reflexive establishing shot (since the film was shot in Cornwall, not on the Isle of Man). But the device's most destabilizing effect is created by its enclosure of three linked elements within a circular field, since the triangle and circle also comprise the narrative pattern of the diegesis: a love triangle framed by shots of Peter on shipboard. Thus the sign of the place of the film is also an abstraction of its structure; put another way, the story may be seen as the acting-out of a prior schema, a process which lends a sense of necessity to the characters' illusions of their own moral autonomy. The triskeles that opens The Manxman is thus a polysemous sign, like the abstract spirals that introduce Vertigo or the network of grids just before the credits of North by Northwest: in each case the films proclaim the diegesis to be subordinate to something akin to Derrida's idea of the postal — signifiers that precede and may determine human action — though this sense of "proclamation" is, of course, apprehensible only in retrospect.[12]

That the human action of The Manxman is determined in this way may be surmised from several major elements: first, as in Easy Virtue, the story emphasizes the alienability of the message, in its separation from sender and recipient. For example, when Peter wants to ask Caesar for Kate's hand in marriage, he asks Philip to serve as an intermediary and gazes through an interior window behind the bar at the inn, as his message is relayed. Since Philip has already exhibited his own interest in Kate, the reliability of his relay is open to question and, in any case, unascertainable. The tableau's emphasis on the separability of sender, message, and recipient also repeats the film viewer's experience in watching silent film: like Peter, we are forced to infer from visual signs, to read lips, to acquiesce in an exclusion from the meaning of the signs we see.

Another example is Kate's promise to Peter. Again, the message is sent through a window-frame; again, Philip's assistance is needed in the sending of the message (Peter stands on his shoulders); again, the message's delivery and reception are fraught with doubt. Throughout the scene we are made aware of the difference between what Peter sees and what he hears: Kate retreats from the window and faces the camera, her back to Peter, who remains immobile and outside the casement. Kate's "answers" to the question "Will you wait?" are contradictory: she says yes, then no; she nods her head, then shakes it. Peter admonishes her to "be serious." Her final assent ("I promise") is delivered quickly and spontaneously, and, as soon as Peter leaves, she peers out the window anxiously, as if to reconsider. As in The Farmer's Wife, the promise to marry ought to illustrate some natural connection between signifier and signified in the performative; however, the plot events show otherwise.[13] Definitive moral judgement of Kate's subsequent behavior — or, for that matter, that of Peter and Philip — seems impossible; only the enormous disparity between the signifying message (Kate's promise) and the signified result (the ruin of three lives), in the world of the postal, seems inevitable.[14]


In keeping with their depiction of a postal world consisting only of signifiers of absent or deferred meaning, Hitchcock's silent films allegorize the viewing process as inevitable misreading — the attribution of presence, human identity and signification to an alternation of light and dark signifiers. At the same time, Hitchcock's films narrate a fatality or necessity for such an error: it comes about as the condition of intelligibility or reading in the first place. As human beings outside the films presumably do, the characters in Hitchcock's stories struggle to define themselves, to achieve goals, to act morally, to find love; however, these lifelong struggles are depicted as the futile pursuit of illusion. Whether the films end in the illusion of love (The Lodger, The Ring, The Farmer's Wife, Champagne) or in love lost (Easy Virtue, The Manxman), the characters are shown to be blind to the fated nature of the illusory world in which they strive to define themselves. But while viewers may note this fatal blindness, they can do so only by ignoring blindnesses of their own that momentarily permitted this "superior" insight. Thus Hitchcock's silent films dramatize both sets of illusions — first inside and then outside the diegesis. The two-step process of apprehending them is a cinematic analogue of Paul de Man's famous definition of allegory:

The paradigm for all texts consists of a figure (or a system of figures) and its deconstruction. But since this model cannot be closed off by a final reading, it engenders, in its turn, a supplementary figural super-position which narrates the unreadability of the prior narration. As distinguished from primary deconstructive narratives centered on figures and ultimately always on metaphor, we call such narratives to the second (or the third) degree allegories. (205)

Both the deconstruction of the figure (the proving-illusory of putative presences like human identity, love, gender relations, culture) and the allegory of seeing (the proving-illusory of the critic's view) are articulated in the circular nature of Hitchcock's silent films. Each ends with a reinscription of its beginning that indicates the illusory nature of the story's progress, change, or achievement; yet criticism's perception of illusion is in its turn conditioned on an equally culpable attribution of presence to light and shadow.[15] The circularity of The Lodger may illustrate this process.

Many critics have noted that The Lodger's ending in a lovers' embrace is accompanied by a reference to its beginning: behind the lovers and ignored by them is the blinking neon sign, "TONIGHT — GOLDEN CURLS," that advertises the spectacle of chorus-girls at a night-club or models at a fashion show.[16] In its first appearance, this is the sign of what attracts the Avenger. Its reappearance behind embracing lovers attests to the continuation of the lure, despite the fact that the Avenger has seemingly been captured.[17] In the context of the film's numerous analogies between the invisible avenger and everyone else, the blinking signs suggest the ineradicability of the "lure" of signifiers in a world where human identity remains unreadable.[18] The lovers' obliviousness to these uncertainties may make their love possible but also blind; in this way, the scene effects a deconstruction of its principal idea, romantic love.

But the film's deconstruction of its figure is quickly followed by its allegory of seeing: the blinking light may also serve to remind viewers that this is, after all, what they have been watching for the last ninety minutes — only an oscillating sign comprised of light and dark and not real lovers. The simultaneous ending of the diegesis and disabusal of the filmic illusion engenders the second reflection — that we could speculate about the persistence of the "lure" only after first suffering, ourselves, the illusion that these blinking lights were real, were really lovers.[19] Both inside and outside the story we are disabused of illusion — but the second discovery, or allegory, can come only belatedly, after the inevitable error has been made. That is why the illusion seems necessary. The Lodger dramatizes this two-step process of deconstruction and allegory of seeing.

The circular structure of Easy Virtue repeats the process. The two trials of Larita frame the illusion of both human identity and learning. In the first trial, as numerous critics have pointed out, we are shown the arbitrary nature of legal or institutionalized representations of identity; the second trial ends with Larita's comment to the photographers assembled to take her picture, "Go ahead and shoot; there's nothing left to kill."[20] Between the two trials, her experiences with John Whittaker reveal the illusion that society's (or a lover's) reading of identity is any less arbitrary than a court's verdict. This becomes clear as reading or interpretation in the film is depicted as a form of "framing" — that is, as a process of selecting-out that necessarily excludes and hence is inevitably fictional. Interpretation as framing is indicated in the very first shots, where a portion of a newspaper-column (on divorce) is highlighted, in a technique that duplicates the eye's act of focusing. The divorce report is selected first from the rest of the news and second from other courtroom topics — probate and admiralty. In this way, framing is associated with the process of selection and reading. Framing is ubiquitous in the film: in the jury and witness boxes; in Claude Robson's painting of Larita; in the symmetrical columns framing the reception desk in the hotel in France; in the tennis game framed by the racquet; in the palms that frame Larita on the balcony; in Larita's position in her bedroom at the Whittakers' mansion, framed by bedstead and doorway; in the dining table framed by murals; in Larita's position at the table, flanked by the Whittaker family; in her face, framed by the car-window, when she's recognized by her husband's attorney. Larita's wish (dramatically expressed when she hurls away the camera) is to escape her "framed" condition, to escape reading or interpretation, to have society read her identity as she does, to live without a frame. But her return to the courthouse and to the photographers attests to the impossibility of this wish; accordingly, Larita's belated "learning" — that "there's nothing left to kill' — implies that human identity may be considered a framed fiction from the outset.

Following this deconstruction of identity comes the allegory of seeing, the disabusal of any perceptual superiority in the film's viewers, who, as "seers" of Larita's visual representation are themselves linked to her arbitrary judges, persecutors, framers — to Mrs. Whittaker, the photographers, Claude Robson, Aubrey Filton. In the allegory of seeing, viewers may reflect that the "framing" of character was the necessary fiction of film-construction, too, the one that permitted the deconstruction of framing, or interpretation of identity, within the story.

As if to leave no uncertainty, The Ring expands the idea of circularity to the title, to its main setting, and to dozens of incidental images. As in The Lodger, the story culminates in a putative happy ending that has nevertheless puzzled critics.[21] The diegetic circularity is established by the first and concluding boxing matches; this reflexive sense of the title implies extra-diegetic analogies, too — parallels between carnivals, prizefights and films as sites of contested visual spectacle.

The empty result of the narrative's allegory of seeing is evident in the film's questions as to the value of Jack's pugilistic striving to establish his identity (here cast in terms of "rank") as a corollary of the pursuit of Nelly. As noted above, the film's famous dissolves assimilate a single boxing match and a career in boxing to changes in signifiers — to the numerical markers of rounds and to written indications of a prizefighter's rank. This reduction foreshadows the film's final tableaus of seeming triumph and defeat: Jack's winning the girl and Bob's discarding the ring he had given her. Jack's gain that produces Bob's loss is converted into a signifier whose significance is surely put into question: like the ring, Nell is given no identity except what is ascribed to her by the men between whom she oscillates. It might appear that her role as male-defined cipher of acquisition might be understood in the mediative or appropriative senses espoused by Rene Girard or Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick; however, the film depicts the men, too, as equal and interchangeable ciphers.[22] "One-Round Jack" and "Bob Corby" are nothing other than their "ring identities," which is to say identity framed or defined by the ring, or no identity at all, as Larita acknowledges. The "ring" of the title comes to mean a trap, a movement-in-circles that might have been anticipated in the film's first images of carnival merry-go-rounds and flying chairs.

Those images link the diegetic deconstruction of identity with its allegory, for film itself is the product of a mechanical turning-in-circles. From the outset, The Ring has been at least as much concerned with the spectacle of viewing as it is with the "signified outcome" of a match or love-triangle. This emphasis is clear from the credits, which are superimposed over a longshot of a boxing match in which the fighters appear microscopic in relation to the viewing audience that surrounds them. The carnival sequence continues this practice through the numerous reaction-shots of the audiences for the ball-throwing event, in which a black man is immersed in water, and of the crowd outside and inside the boxing-tent. Tom Gunning has argued that early silent film should be understood as an "attraction" that resembled a side-show.[23] The Ring makes this analogy clear as the mass audiences react to the commercial solicitude to see what is promised behind the flap of the tent. The close-ups on the wheel of tickets, spinning faster as the crowd eagerly anticipates Jack's challenger, link the cinematic and pugilistic audiences. (Of course, the attraction of both audiences to human misery is already clear when the young boy at the immersion-booth goes beyond the rules of the game to pelt the black man with eggs. Note that this license is even sanctioned by the grin of a policeman who stands behind him.) So far, at least, The Ring has made the film audience complicit with the vulgar meanness of the rabble to which it might otherwise be tempted to condescend.

In the allegory of seeing, this audience-complicity is further linked with film-criticism: that is, like the audience lured into the tent, film critics are those curious to determine what exists "beyond" the screen, to see what the visual spectacle signifies. The lure of the barker's words is almost irresistible; there seems some necessity to enter behind the flap of the tent. This is the hermeneutic lure, to determine the meaning of the visual signifier, a process which leads, however, not to any definitive truth but only to new fights, new signifiers. Allegorically, the "ring" refers finally to the endless hermeneutic circle.

The allegory of seeing is dramatized again at the end of the film, when a more affluent audience, some dressed in tuxedos, push through the doors of the arena in their hurry to watch the extensively advertised championship bout. Film critics may be like this audience, unaware that their assumed superiority to the spectacle on which they gaze is groundless. The attempt to derive empirical, cultural, or spectator-based significance from a ring of light is circular. The final scene teaches that film is only a shifting fictional signifier — The Ring is like the ring, only the promise or lure of something else, but devoid of meaning beyond itself. As in the case of The Lodger, the diegesis ends with the destruction of the filmic illusion, too, as Corby discards the now-worthless "ring."

In The Farmer's Wife, the allegory of seeing is presented first in the opening shot, of a sign in the shape of an arrow, for Applegarth Farm. The camera then moves in the direction of the arrow, a movement following the track of the "ostensible" signified — in the literal sense of "pointing." This elaborate movement establishes the separation between signifier and signified before the diegesis begins. It is instructive, too, that immediately following this movement we are shown Sweetland, at an upstairs window, gazing out; in this way, the fictionality of signifiers is extended to the act of viewing and film-viewing, too, though such hints must be ignored in order to comprehend the story.

As we have seen, the film narrates Sweetland's illusion that his choice of a mate, of a signifier on a list, has significance, an illusion based on a mistaken and arrogant belief in his own choice and autonomy. One scene dramatizing this illusion occurs after the wedding banquet, as Sweetland sits by the hearth, brooding over his dead wife's empty chair. He looks at a framed wedding-photograph, then returns to thought. All the while, the light from the fire flickers on his face; following this meditation, he calls Minta to help him write his list. In this scene the idea of the Cartesian self, autonomously arriving at a decision, is linked with a sign of emptiness (the chair), with photography, and with flickering light. The first two suggest how the illusion of autonomy is prompted by representations of absence; the third might remind viewers that their own illusion of autonomy in reading the film is gained at the expense of acknowledging it as merely the alternation of light and dark signifiers. To the extent that viewers are drawn to assess Sweetland's moment of decision here and elsewhere in the film, we must blind ourselves to our own construction of character and event from flickering light — much as Sweetland himself ignores the fire.

Such flickering accompanies key images in Champagne, too. The camera's first shot of Betty's face, as she is rescued from the door of her father's crashed plane, records a play of light and dark, imitative of the night-ocean, that also states in another way what film is. Flickering is also evident on Betty's sequined gown at the cabaret, where alternations of light and dark are even more emphatically associated with visual spectacle: with the moving spotlight that illuminates not just the dancer and acrobats but the club's seated and dancing customers, too. The conflation of viewer and spectacle in this dazzling mise-en-scene links it with the shipboard dancer who opens the film and with the fashion show at Betty's Paris apartment. In these instances, viewers inside the diegesis are as dazzled at a lifelike turning movement of light and dark as viewers of the film. That this visual hypnosis amounts to taking the arbitrary as real is conveyed through the framing shots taken through champagne glasses. The film opens with a turning dancer and ends with the lovers' closing embrace: the former is a "pure" or non-diegetical image, the latter promises to give the story its meaning. These two visual distortions work like other framing devices — like the cameras of Easy Virtue or the ring-scenes of The Ring — to question whether the intervening accomplishment or achievement, the love narrated by the story, amounts to anything other than empty visual spectacle. The fact that these images are "captured" inside bubbles of champagne makes it seem as if the film's title refers less to anything inside the diegesis than to the evanescence of film's illusion.

The Manxman deconstructs its own title not through such irony but through undecidability: its singular referent cannot be determined.[24] (The odd redundant quality of this word — "man" and "man" linked by an X — may contribute to this sense.) This undecidability draws into question the nature of "man" in the older, generic sense of humanity that is also invoked by the film's epigraph from the Sermon on the Mount: "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his soul?" The subtitle has puzzled critics to the point where its referent, too, seems in doubt.[25] At first it appears to refer to the career of Philip, who "gains the world" by becoming a deemster but "loses his soul" by guiltily suppressing his paternity of kate's baby. On the other hand, Peter, too, "gains the world" in that he begins as a humble fisherman but earns his fortune abroad, in order to return to the Isle of Man to redeem Kate's promise to marry him. Of course, Peter never seems to "lose his soul," but that is exactly the point: the film examines the corollary of the Biblical question, too: "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world, even when he does not lose his soul?" If the immoral life is profitless, what of the moral life? At the end of the film we see that Peter, who has gained material wealth, is empty-handed — without Kate, the baby, or the companionship of his old friend Philip. It might be said that Peter has less than he did at the start. Indeed, from a Christian standpoint, Philip's final repentance places him in approximately the same moral position as Kate and the never-blemished Peter. And so, the circularity of the Hardyesque story glosses the familiar quotation from Matthew less as an injunction against worldly accumulation than as a question about the value of any behavior, about the nature of "profit" itself. The ending of The Manxman asks the same question as the ending of The Ring.

Another way of putting this is to say that the story of The Manxman only appears to illustrate the meaning of its title and New Testament epigraph as it more subversively dramatizes the breakdown of "Illustration" itself, of the hermeneutic idea — a modem inheritance of Kantianism — that a narrative can constitute the "meaning" of a sentence or maxim.[26] Herein lies The Manxman's allegory of seeing. In order to comprehend the moral undecidability of the story of Peter, Philip, and Kate, viewers must assume that title and epigraph had referents that the film itself would manifest; this requires the illusion that the screen's arbitrary signs are real, an assumption unsettled by two new reflexive images — the mill and the lighthouse.

Because the watermill is the scene of an early tryst between Kate and Philip — it may well be the site of their child's conception — and also of the wedding banquet, its grinding is associated with sexuality as well as fate. (Kate's father Caesar comments, "The mills of God grind slowly.") But the emphasis on the mill's shafts and rotating gears may remind viewers, too, of that other turning apparatus situated behind them which is even more patently the site of the characters' crisscrossing fates.

Like the neon sign of The Lodger, the hearthlight of The Farmer's Wife, or the reflected light of Champagne, the lighthouse beams of The Manxman accompany scenes seemingly constitutive of love or human identity. Peter's crucial decision to propose to Kate is made in such intermittent light; in this way, the constructed character of moral certainty is implied. Moreover, the play of lighthouse-beams makes Peter's through-the- window viewing of Philip's intercession resemble even more a film-within-the-film: occupying the place of the film audience, Peter watches framed alternations of light and darkness which silently portend the presentation and rejection of his proposal. The unreadability of what happens within the frame implies an analogy to the film as a whole: ours is a visual construction of light and dark, just as Peter's is a visual construction of light and dark, of the mute unknowable "content" of a mediated message. In the scene of Kate's "assent," turning lighthouse beams again subordinate a moment of putative moral decision (and rational agency) to the play of light and dark. Peter is drawn to Kate's silhouette on the shade — a figure for film that recurs often — from Murder! to Rear Window. As in the images of the watermill or the proposal scene, it is difficult to separate the apparently signified idea of fate from the idea of filmed fate, from a construction of turning light and dark upon some framed surface.

The end of the story, in which Peter stands gazing alone, empty-handed, next to the broad white sail of his ship, returns the film-viewer both to the beginning of the film (to ask what has been learned, accomplished, achieved, meant) and to the extra-diegetic situation of the film audience (gazing in front of a different expanse of white which has seemed to take us to the Isle of Man). The ending teaches that condescending to Hitchcock's characters — through a viewer's necessary assumption of knowing them better than they know themselves — is as disingenuous as pretending to have seen their story, throughout, as only flickering light on a screen. Once articulated, the two-stage process of deconstruction and allegory in Hitchcock's silent films may foreground a fictionality in film criticism it is helpless to change.


The foregoing exemplifies one way of discussing Hitchcock's silent films without recourse to Cartesian film theory — whether that is grounded in cultural studies or rational-agency. At the same time, it has also suggested ways in which the stories of Hitchcock's silent films make the premises of Cartesian film theory difficult to accept. Especially through their depiction of the world as postal, the films imply that assumptions concerning culture or the individual, however necessary to intelligibility, are also fictional. The Lodger depicts mass media, an ostensibly powerful engine of cultural construction, as incapable of truly apprehending the signified Avenger; and as a part of that media, film itself can never escape the fog of its visual illusion to convey anything more than an alternation of light and dark. In Easy Virtue and The Manxman, social misrepresentations of identity, including those perpetuated by the legal system, are shown to be as unavoidable as the viewer's, which must assume a "self" where in fact there's "nothing." In The Ring's concentration on audience, boxing's objectless aggression is shown to be inherent, too, in the pursuit of empty visual signifiers, including that of film criticism. So these films question the existence of culture apart from arbitrary visual signs.

At the same time, Hitchcock's silent films challenge rational agent theory to construe films that show so convincingly the emptiness of human autonomy and choice. The Lodger's empirical investigator, Joe, is the first in a long line of Hitchcock detectives whose exertions only mark the blindness and cul-de-sacs of rationality. The final circumstances of Larita, Nell and Kate, heroines who seem to enjoy great latitude to choose their own destinies in love, make ideas of "rational agency" seem hollow. Samuel Sweetland's arrogant belief in his own autonomy is ridiculed; his quest for a new bride was unnecessary. Betty's assertion of independence from her father gains her just as little. In short, a viewer of Hitchcock's silent films who comes to them with Cartesian assumptions about the individual or culture may find them challenged, in the first place, just by the story.

Of course, any school of film theory remains free to read the films as incorrect, misguided or benighted mimeses of the individual or culture; however, doing so requires missing what the films may imply about film viewing — that construing their alternation of light and dark as signified presence is an error of the same kind made by their blinded characters. Entertaining the idea that the viewer is as fictional as the diegesis would appear to be logically impossible for Cartesian film criticism. So in the end, some aesthetic chastening, some sense of humility in viewing, may be taught by Hitchcock's silent films but inaccessible to such theory.


  1. The volumes by Williams and by Bordwell and Carroll espouse theories of spectatorship or cultural/ethnographic studies, respectively, as hermeneutic criticism: that is, each assumes cinematic meaning to be interperable in the context of some presupposed signified presence. (For psychoanalytic approaches, the "unconscious"; for Marxist/Althusserian approaches, the existence of state power; etc.) By contrast, deconstructive criticism begins without an assumption that cinematic meaning is interperable. For the distinction between hermeneutics and deconstruction, see the collections edited by Caputo and by Shapiro and Sica. Two recent collections advocating a combination of reception- and cultural-studies approach to silent film are Abel's Silent Film and Charney and Schwartz's Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Bordwell and Carroll made their cases against spectatorship theory individually and more extensively in, respectively, Making Meaning: and Mystifying Movies. Other useful discussions of this debate appear in the articles by Lehman and by Plantinga. For a review of British responses to theories of spectatorship in the seventies and eighties, see Hayward and Kerr's article.
  2. Bordwell, for example, is not opposed to all cultural theory, only to that which is grand and all-encompassing; he calls for "theory" instead of "Theory" and refers to his own work as "moderate constructivism" (105). Likewise, many of the essays collected in Viewing Positions adopt positions which are quite compatible with Bordwell's idea of rational agency — for example, the phenomenology invoked by Vivian Sobchak.
  3. In an article with this length, the phrase "deconstructive film criticism" is perforce shorthand, to be understood here as including those works that consider film as a text readable to some degree in the light of deconstruction's more generalized questioning of signification. The best known exponent of deconstructive film criticism in France is Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier. Deconstructive film criticism in America is relatively recent. The most extensive investigation of the relevance of Derrida to film theory is Brunette and Wills's Screen/Play; on this subject, see also Oswald's "Cinema-Graphia." Conley's Film Hieroglyphs develops a concept of "writing in the film" that problematizes film as play of signifiers and film-maker as character. White shows how Vertigo engages both feminism and de Manian deconstruction. An excellent deconstructive study of Hitchcock's films is part of Cohen's Anti-Mimesis. See also, his "Graphics, Letters, and Hitchcock's 'Steps'." Like the present study, my previous readings of Hitchcocks's films advance a thesis about film interpretation analogous to Paul de Man's idea of the allegory of reading. Deconstructive humor is examined in S. E. Linville's analysis of Europa, Europa. For the argument that literary and philosophical texts may narrate their own unreadability, see de Man's Allegories of Reading. For a similar argument with regard to the visual arts, see Miller's Illustration.
  4. So far, the critical approaches to Hitchcock's silent films fall in neither camp. Rohmer and Claude Chabrol's Hitchcock is a famous auterist study that concentrates on Hitchcock's Catholicism and developing technical skill. Yacowar offers New Critical readings of Hitchcock's nine silent films as well as the fifteen subsequent films made in England. Rothman examines the role of the camera in The Lodger as a metaphor for the presence of the director. Ryall concentrates on matters of production and genre. Brill interprets The Lodger as a contemporary version of the Persephone myth. Leitch invokes the reception theory of Wolfgang Iser in his analyses of the silent films' ludic effects on himself and his students; however, his study rarely takes up the matter of the historical and cultural reception of Hitchcock's films.
  5. First formulated in the forties, Hitchcock's original definition of the MacGuffin has been widely reprinted; one good source is Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock, 138-39. It should be noted that Hitchcock revisited the concept; see for example the lecture included in Gottlieb's Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 124. This term is usually understood to denote some object in the plot, like the uranium-sand in Notorious, that is meaningful to characters but irrelevant to the film-audience. In Antimimesis, Tom Cohen draws attention to the riddling nature of Hitchcock's definition; he reminds us that it tells us only what a MacGuffin is not. In the same spirit, this paper argues that Hitchcock's silent films allegorize a quest for meaning that is ultimately non-existent for both characters and audience; such an allegory offers an alternative way of understanding not only the pure MacGuffin films (The Thirty-nine Steps, Notorious, North by Northwest), but Hitchcock's other films as well.
  6. Derrida's The Post-Card advances this thesis with regard to verbal texts; The Truth in Painting extends it to the world of visual art.
  7. For an excellent discussion of the Derridean concept of spacing in surrealist photography, see Krauss, 105-110. While Hitchcock's affinities with surrealism lie outside the scope of this paper, they have been explored at length by Stam, 116-46, and by Ringel.
  8. Elisabeth Weis discusses Hitchcock's affinity with Munch in the context of the ironies of his later sound films. Munch is regarded as a precursor of German expressionism. Hitchcock's contact with Murnau is detailed in Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius, 75-76. For further discussion of the influence of expressionism on Hitchcock's films, see Woods, 206-209.
  9. Mary Hearn's hysterical reactions to Sweetland's proposal and to the news of his engagement are only the most extreme manifestations of a universal egotism. While romantic convention might seek to exempt Sweetland and Minta from such self-contradiction and irrationality, their language shows that lovers, too, are inseparable from the barnyard milieu that mocks all pretensions to individual dignity. This satire's combination of drollery and viciousness seems close in spirit to that of Bunuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
  10. Yacowar believes the scene is Betty's imagination; he writes of the Man's forcing himself on her: "We have no clues that it is not actually happening to her, until the scene snaps back from the threat to the couple's casual conversation" (79). Sloan implies that the Man's aggression actually occurs (82).
  11. Sloan, 69.
  12. In "Direction," Hitchcock said that film was born from "a sort of haze with a certain shape ... You see this hazy pattern, and then you have to find a narrative to suit it." See Sidney Gottlieb, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 253. He also argued that character in film should be subordinated to action and even to setting. A good example is his "Lecture at Columbia University," in the same volume, 267-75.
  13. Citations for the controversy over the performative are listed in the "Editor's Forward" to Derrida's Limited Inc.
  14. For a thorough discussion of the difficulty of making definitive moral judgements on the film's action, see Yacowar, 87-98.
  15. The framed nature of Hitchcock's silent films has been remarked upon in other contexts: Rothman notes how the epilogue of The Lodger echoes earlier parts of the film, especially the introduction of the lodger (55). In "Kissing and Telling," Gottlieb follows Robin Wood in arguing that the symmetry and closure of the film show Larita's entrapment and the "social conditions that produce it" (31). Of course, these perceptions of circularity of plot — like my own argument for the illusory nature of change — depend upon the prior critical assumption of the existence of character and social conditions. In these instances, criticism belatedly repeats a mistake already exposed by the work being analyzed.
  16. We don't know which: Daisy is a "mannequin" who appears in both roles remained with viewers. Yacowar cites Hitchcock's preference for leaving the matter of the lodger's guilt uncertain and emphasizes the parallels between the lodger and the Avenger (38-39). Rothman's interpretation is equivocal: he discusses the flashback as not ruling out the possibility that the lodger is the Avenger and the kiss as indicating that the lodger and the Avenger are "inseparable" (48). Mogg makes the argument that the lodger "may or may not be the avenger" (123).
  17. For excellent discussions of these analogies, see the appropriate chapters in Rothman and Yacowar.
  18. Rothman draws attention to this aspect of the film's conclusion: "It is as if Hitchcock is declaring that everything we have viewed is not real but a piece of theater or a dream" (55).
  19. Yacowar notes that the jury is shown to "commit itself to the prosecutor's case on circumstantial evidence and the bias or envy of a matronly puritan on the jury" (54); in "Kissing and Telling," Gottlieb discusses the way the multiplicity of perspectives in the courtroom sequence fixes Larita "as an object," disrupting her "integrity and independence" (24, 25).
  20. Rohmer and Chabrol write of the "ambiguity" of the film's ending (13). In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Spoto sees the film's psychological maturity as its "refusal to smooth things out ... the implication is that emotions are tentative, shifting and basically superficial" (12).
  21. Girard argued that in the western novelistic tradition beginning with Cervantes, what appeared to be "normal" two-party desire was in fact "triangular." By this he meant that the value of the desired object was not intrinsic to it, but instead conferred by some third agency — by another character (as in traditional love triangles) but perhaps also by some image of the desired object created by a work of art. Sedgewick argues that the value bestowed upon women by rival males reflects a complex repression of bisexuality.
  22. Gunning's argument is that early silent film created an active, participatory, and engaged audience similar to those of vaudeville and variety shows; however, with the ascendency of narrative film, this critical audience was gradually replaced by one comprised of passive, isolated consumers. Of course, as a narrative film, The Ring is complicit with the trend Gunning deplores. However, to the extent the pugilistic spectacle may be read reflexively, as an allegory of cinematic reading, Hitchcock's depiction of credulous, uncritical audiences (at the carnival and at the championship bouts) may be said to anticipate and challenge Gunning's thesis.
  23. The title may refer to Philip Christian, the guilty deemster, whose familial roots on the Isle of Man are emphasized, whereas the apparent native Peter Quilliam, a seaman who briefly emigrates, seems less tied to the island. On the other hand, Peter, seemingly wronged by his fiancee and best friend, seems at first glance to be the more sympathetic of the two men. Inasmuch as these are characters who bear the names of Apostles, met as boys, "grew up as brothers," and love the same woman, the title's undecidability may prompt viewers to consider them doubles.
  24. Yacowar finds the epigraph inapplicable to either principal character; his careful discussion of the only other possibility — that the title may refer to the minor character Caesar, Kate's father — shows just how vexed the problem of reference can be (94-96).
  25. In The Ethics of Reading, J. Hillis Miller examines the difficulty of Kant's project. For a discussion of visual art's capacity to illustrate ideas, see his Illustration.

Works Cited