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October (1999) - Hitchcock, or the Pleasures of Metaskepticism




Each time they kissed, there was the thrill of love... 
The threat of murder!
    --Poster for Suspicion (1941)

The Anatomy of Metaskepticism

The ironic interpretation of artifice is central to the prevailing view of Hitchcock's oeuvre that is likely to be amplified in the course of the celebrations marking the centennial of his birth. In a significant revisionist work of recent years that runs decidedly counter to the dominant stream of Hitchcock scholarship, Lesley Brill has argued that Hitchcock's stylistic serf-consciousness contributes to rather than subverts the romance narratives that are his central preoccupation. For Brill, Hitchcock's insistence on artifice, surface, and masquerade are part and parcel of the fairy-tale romance "where the ordinary constraints of rational law are loosened" in plots characterized by "lucky co-incidence," a "high degree of conventionality," and "artificiality.1 Hitchcock's male characters are flawed and his female characters may be duplicitous or deceiving, but this fallen condition of human beings is precisely what defines and makes possible the miracle of romance, emblematized, for Brill, by the magical match on action at the end of North by Northwest (1959) that allows Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) to pull Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) from the face of Mount Rushmore and extinction into the nuptial bed as the comically phallic Twentieth Century Limited rattles into a tunnel. To be sure, Brill argues, Hitchcock made some deeply pessimistic works, such as Blackmail (1929), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960), but their significance has been grossly overstated, and as a result, the body of Hitchcock's work has been largely misunderstood.

Brill offers a valuable corrective to those critics who conceive of Hitchcock primarily as an ironist, not simply because he identifies the centrality of the romance narrative in Hitchcock's works, but because he offers an account of the place of irony within them through the category of the mixed romance. Brill's analysis of the mixed romance is developed from the literary theory of Northrop Frye, where romance and irony are conceived as contrasting narrative archetypes that can conjoin in any text. In romance, the formation of the heterosexual couple is emplotted within a narrative universe where time cycles and rejuvenates; in irony, the possibility of romance is blocked by deceit, deception, and evil, and narrative time is entropic; in the mixed romance, the two processes are uneasily juxtaposed, producing "perfusive formal tension.2 Searching for a way to exemplify how romance and irony can combine in Hitchcock, Brill points to an early moment in Rear Window (1954) where the spectator views a negative close-up of the image of a female model in Jeffries' (James Stewart's) apartment and then a positive image of the same photograph on the cover of a fashion magazine. Jeffries can obviously become the stay-at-home fashion photographer that Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) wants him to become and thereby acknowledge, so to speak, her positive image, yet this is something he resists. In a way he cannot fully acknowledge, he also wants to efface her presence in his life. Brill writes:

These images are at once identical and opposite to each other. Irreconcilably different, they reflect the same reality and are also, in a way, mutually defining .... For Hitchcock's ironic films in general, this pair of images serves as a pattern for the way in which opposites refuse to stay in unequivocal opposition but implicate each other and complicate audience responses.3

Brill's insight here is fundamental to my own argument, yet, in the context of a book that insists on the significance of romance over irony in Hitchcock's films, it is an insight that fails to be redeemed. Brill privileges the romance narrative in Hitchcock in a manner that ultimately distorts his overall understanding of Hitchcock's work and, as we shall see, his interpretation of individual films. It is not the romance narrative per se that is the defining feature of Hitchcock's work, but rather the admixture of romance and irony in a double aspect that Hitchcock bestows upon appearances, or upon what the audience perceives (like the positive and negative of the photograph). I call this double aspect "metaskepticism" in order to evoke the sense in which Hitchcock at once affirms the reality of appearances and the romance narrative that appearances serve to sustain, and yet, at the same time, calls into question the reality of appearances, and by doing so undermines the romance narrative by exposing its fictiveness, its illusory quality. The metaskeptical character of Hitchcock's romance narrative is crafted in relationship to the figuration of a duplicitous masculinity within the romance narrative, a masculinity at once threatening and alluring. This duplicitous masculinity is embodied in Hitchcock's dandies and rogues whose ambivalent allure lies in the way that their identity is constituted by their potentially deceptive, ...

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It is my pleasure to acknowledge the many people who have contributed to this paper and made it better than it would otherwise have been. Sam Ishii-Gonzales commented upon many drafts with wisdom and good humor, Annette Michelson and Malcolm Turvey provided sound editorial advice, and Roland Chambers gave me the term "metaskepticism." A version of this paper was delivered as the Critical Inquiry lecture at the University of Chicago, where I received invaluable suggestions from James Chandler, Tom Gunning, and Miriam Hansen.


  1. Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 6.
  2. See Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957)), pp. 186-205, 223-39; Brill, The Hitchcock Romance, pp. 71-74.
  3. Brill, The Hitchcock Romance, pp. 73-74.
  4. This scene quotes a moment from Weine's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) when the heroine of the film visits the mysterious Dr. Caligari and first spies the uncanny, phallic, monstrous body of his "assistant," Cesare. Overall, though, the main influence on The Lodger is undoubtedly Murnau's film Nosferatu (1922).
  5. William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).
  6. Rothman writes: "It is characteristic of Hitchcock to frame a figure in profile at the moment of his or her most complete abstraction and absorption in an imagined scene to which we have no access. In such a profile shot, the camera frames its subject in a way that does not allow that figure's interiority to be penetrated" (ibid., p. 22).
  7. Brill, The Hitchcock Romance, p. 88.
  8. Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, p. 24. Rothman also notes in a footnote that the sequence of shots leading to the framing of the poker against Daisy's head suggests a kind of zoom (or tracking shot) in to Daisy's golden curls. This underscores their significance as a privileged object or lure in the narrative world that Slavoj Žižek has called the Hitchcockian Blot.
  9. Mark Crispin Miller, "Hitchcock's Suspicions and Suspicion," in Boxed In (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 242.
  10. Ibid., p. 270.
  11. In Francis Isles's Before the Fact, from which Suspicion is adapted, Johnnie's need for money leads him to murder the General in the hope of an inheritance; to concoct a business scheme using the money of his friend, Beaky Thwaite, only to do away with him; and finally to plan to murder Lina for her life insurance. As Miller argues, in Hitchcock's version of events Johnnie is not literally but symbolically responsible for the General's death. Lina unconsciously feels responsible for her father's death by marrying Johnnie and projects that responsibility onto Johnnie, whom she then suspects of murderous intentions toward her (ibid., pp. 266-67).
  12. On Grant's star persona, see David Thompson's fine appreciation in A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975), pp. 236-38; and Graham McCann's Cary Grant: A Class Apart (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
  13. The relationship between romance and skepticism that is articulated in Hitchcock's work has affinities with, but also differences from, the relationship between romance and skepticism that Stanley Cavell discovers in the cinema, for example, in Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). I hope to explore the relationship between Hitchcock and Cavell on another occasion.
  14. This is the aspect of Hitchcock's work that has lent it so readily to Lacanian analysis and which Slavoj Zizek and other Lacanians have in turn illuminated. See, for example, the essays in Everything You Wanted to Know about Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, ed. Slavoj Zizek (New York: Verso, 1992).
  15. Paula Marantz Cohen, Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1995).
  16. I owe a great debt to James Chandler, who first suggested to me the significance of Keats for Hitchcock.
  17. It should be noted that by centering the narrative on Madeline's fantasy, Keats's poem is not typical of his work, which is more usually narrated from the standpoint of a male hero who idealizes, and is correlatively deceived by women, such as the hero of Lamia. But the division in Keats's work corresponds to the division in Hitchcock's oeuvre between male-centered romance narratives such as The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959) and female-centered romance narratives such as Suspicion.
  18. Jack Stillinger, "The Hoodwinking of Madeline: Skepticism in the Eve of St. Agnes," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Eve of St. Agnes, ed. Allan Danzig (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), p. 65.
  19. Hitchcock evokes the sense that Grant suddenly "materializes" like a predatory vampire by having the actor step into the frame in close proxmity to Lina with his back to the camera. Male characters "pop up' from off-screen space in this fashion in many Hitchcock films, including Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt and Rusk in Frenzy.
  20. Stillinger, "The Hoodwinking of Madeline," p. 62.
  21. For a detailed examination of this aspect of Keats's psychology, see Christopher Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).
  22. James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 404.
  23. Hitchcock's formation as an individual and artist receives a detailed and thoughtful treatment in Donald Spoto's biography The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), pp. 5-44.
  24. Brian Moore, writer of the ill-fated Torn Curtain (1966), provides an extreme statement of this: "he had absolutely no conception of character — even of two-dimensional figures in a story" (quoted in ibid., p. 488).
  25. Ellen Moers, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm (New York: The Viking Press, 1960), p. 31.
  26. Fraser's Magazine, founded in 1830 as the mouthpiece of the new middle class, sought to challenge the political irresponsibility, and the social and literary exclusivism, of Regency aristocracy. It was the first to publish the text of Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus.
  27. Quoted in Moers, The Dandy, p. 174.
  28. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, in The Collected Works of Thomas Carlyle (New York: Greystone Press, n.d.), pp. 139-47.
  29. James Eli Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), p. 32.
  30. Carlyle, Collected Works, p. 108. See also Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 28-29.
  31. Adams appropriately enough calls his study a "genealogy of the closet" after the pioneering work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. See her Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).
  32. Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints, p. 195.
  33. Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Donald L. Hill (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 97, 93. Quoted in Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints, p. 195.
  34. Thomas Elsaesser, "Hitchcock: The Dandy," The McGuffin 14 (November 1994).
  35. Martin Green, Children of the Sun (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 14.
  36. Ibid., p. 12.
  37. See Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), pp. 336-57.
  38. Examples of such actors include Ivor Novello (The Lodger); Farley Granger (who plays a homosexual in Rope and the ultra-straight Guy in Strangers on a Train); Montgomery Clift (I Confess — Hitchcock also wanted him in Rope); Anthony Perkins (Psycho); and even Cary Grant himself, who was rumored to be homosexual, although this rumor is hotly contested.
  39. The best analysis of the ludic intent underlying Hitchcock's work is Thomas Leitch, Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (Athens; University of Georgia Press, 1991).