Hitchcock's Romantic Irony (Film and Culture Series)

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9780231135740: Hitchcock's Romantic Irony (Film and Culture Series)

Is Hitchcock a superficial, though brilliant, entertainer or a moralist? Do his films celebrate the ideal of romantic love or subvert it? In a new interpretation of the director's work, Richard Allen argues that Hitchcock orchestrates the narrative and stylistic idioms of popular cinema to at once celebrate and subvert the ideal of romance and to forge a distinctive worldview-the amoral outlook of the romantic ironist or aesthete. He describes in detail how Hitchcock's characteristic tone is achieved through a titillating combination of suspense and black humor that subverts the moral framework of the romantic thriller, and a meticulous approach to visual style that articulates the lure of human perversity even as the ideal of romance is being deliriously affirmed. Discussing more than thirty films from the director's English and American periods, Allen explores the filmmaker's adoption of the idioms of late romanticism, his orchestration of narrative point of view and suspense, and his distinctive visual strategies of aestheticism and expressionism and surrealism.

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About the Author:

Richard Allen is professor and chair of cinema studies at New York University. He is the author of numerous essays on Hitchcock, coeditor of two anthologies, Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays and Hitchcock: Past and Future, and with Sidney Gottlieb he edits the Hitchcock Annual for Wallflower Press.
Richard Allen is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is the author of Projecting Illusion (Cambridge, 1995) and co-editor of four anthologies Film Theory and Philosophy (Oxford, 1997), Hitchcock: Centenary Essays (BFI 1999), Wittgenstein, Theory and The Arts (Routledge, 2001), Camera Obscura/Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson (Amsterdam, 2003). He is also editor (with Sid Gottlieb) of the Hitchcock Annual, a journal of Hitchcock Studies.

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Excerpt from Chapter 1, "Romantic Irony"

The concept of romantic irony serves both to define and unify Hitchcock's otherwise diverse body of work, which ranges from a romantic thriller like North by Northwest, a black comedy like The Trouble with Harry (1955), to a horror film like Psycho (1960). The romantic ideal in Hitchcock's work is articulated through the value placed upon the realization of love between a man and a woman as a narrative goal. Of course, the story of the formation of the couple is a commonplace convention of popular fiction, and it is a fallacy simply to equate romanticism and the romantic quest for the ideal or for transcendence with romantic love. Yet among romantic writers like Byron, Shelley, and Keats, not to mention Schlegel himself in his unfi nished novella Lucinde, the romantic ideal is expressed in terms of romantic love. Heterosexual romantic love provides an image at once of opposites uniting in a third term, the couple, that is greater than the sum of its parts, and of an ecstatic transcendence that is at once spatial (it goes beyond the world of the ordinary and the everyday) and temporal (it cleaves toward a future of romantic enchantment). Hitchcock's films articulate and emphasize roman-tic love as an ideal in a manner that is emblematized by his staging of the kiss: Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) kissing John Ballantine (Gregory Peck) in Spellbound (1945) as doorways fly open behind them to infinity, John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) kissing Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in Vertigo as the camera pans around them 360 degrees, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in North by Northwest kissing in a moving train while turning in the manner of a waltz, to give but three examples.

Yet what defines Hitchcock's presentation of heterosexual romance as an ideal is the manner in which it is entwined with its opposite—human perversity. It is as if, in a very Freudian way, sexuality is a source of profound anxiety for Hitchcock. We may speculate about Hitchcock's personal bio-graphy, but my concern in this book is the way that the form taken by Hitchcock's work arises from his preoccupation with human perversity. In a literal sense, perversity is associated in Hitchcock's work with the fact of human sexuality itself, considered as the uninhibited expression of impulse that is free of any moral or social restraint, as in Freud's phrase "polymorphous perversity." Human perversity is therefore associated with death—that is, with the potential at once for the annihilation of the other and for self-dissolution. Often in Hitchcock's films, lurking within the gentleman-hero, lies a sexual predator or a murderer of women, like Cary Grant's character, John Aysgarth ("Johnnie"), in Suspicion, who seems intent on murdering his wife. And beneath the ostensibly pure or virginal heroine lies the sexually promiscuous woman or the "whore" that is suggested by Ingrid Bergman's character in Notorious (1946) or by Grace Kelly's character in To Catch a Thief (1955). Both these heroines are cool Hitchcock blondes who harbor incipient promiscuity beneath their ladylike exterior. The formation of the couple and the portrayal of the kiss are haunted by a sense of perversity and incipient deadliness that is captured in the advertising tagline for Suspicion: "Each time they kissed, there was the thrill of love... The threat of murder!" The logic that unites romantic love and human perver-sity or life and death in Hitchcock's works is the both/and logic of romantic irony in which romantic love and human perversity are at once utterly opposed to one another and yet also, paradoxically, closely identified.

In general, Hitchcock, the narrator, self-consciously draws attention to the force of perversity by suggesting rather than by showing it. Hitchcock is an aesthete in the very precise sense that the extraordinary formal realization of his works functions as a displaced expression of human sexuality. Raymond Durgnat has spoken of Hitchcock as a democratic rather than aristocratic aesthete. In Hitchcock's cinema, all human sexuality carries the aura of perversity; its secret pleasures are not condemned but are made available to all; and they are not cordoned off for the subtle delectation of a knowing few. Hitchcock's aestheticism may collude in the articulation of the romantic ideal, as in the frenzied fireworks' montage of the deliriously romantic To Catch a Thief; it may ambiguously connote romance as an ideal or as an idealization that harbors destruction, as in the romantic/vampiric kiss in The Lodger (1926); or it may evoke the frenzy of annihilation, as in the tour de force shower scene montage in Psycho.

These possibilities encapsulate the way in which the three kinds of romantic irony I have already outlined inform Hitchcock's work. The first kind of romantic irony, romantic irony as romantic renewal (or romantic irony), is represented by his comic thrillers like The 39 Steps, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest. In these works Hitchcock, the godlike narrator, orchestrates a self-evidently fictive universe to yield blessings upon its hero and heroine, come what may, and the anarchic force of human sexuality serves only to fuel rather than to undermine romantic renewal. The second form of romantic irony, romantic irony as ironic ambivalence (or romantic irony simpliciter), comprises the majority of his works ranging from the The Lodger and Murder! (1930), from his British period, to Strangers on a Train (1951) and Rear Window from his American period. In these films, which are ambivalent in tone, Hitchcock, the narrator, hovers in suspended judgment between asserting the romantic ideal and undermining that ideal from within. These competing perspectives are sustained by exploiting the distinc-tion between character point of view and the point of view of the narration. In this mode of romantic irony the lure of human perversity is a competing source of attraction that often seems blunted and contained by the romance rather than serving to inspire it. The third form of romantic irony (romantic irony) I shall call narratives of ironic inversion. These works form a minority of Hitchcock's fiction and comprise only a handful of films, beginning with his fourth, the aptly entitled Downhill (1927). In these films, the romantic ideal is infected or undermined by the forces of human perversity, and the narrative either borders on the tragic, as in Vertigo, or becomes darkly comic, as in Psycho. Here play-acting and masquerade takes on a demonic and often deadly quality, and often the narrator fundamentally deceives the spectator.

The Style of Hitchcock's Romantic Irony

Before I outline in more detail the different forms taken by Hitchcock's romantic irony in the concluding part of this chapter, I will fi rst describe the different rhetorical and stylistic characteristics that serve to unify Hitchcock's cinema.

Orchestration of Character Identification and Narrative Point of View

Hitchcock manipulates the viewer's identification with character by aligning us with the point of view of the villain, such as Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho, or with a character who experiences the ambiguous allure of perverse desire, such as the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) in Rebecca. Or else Hitchcock will employ dramatic irony, and orchestrate narrative point of view to endow the audience with superior knowledge to the character about the nature of the circumstances they are in. This is the situation of suspense that Hitchcock described to French director Francois Truffaut in the extended interview he conducted with him in the 1960s. In a suspense situation, Hitchcock argues, the audience is placed in a superior position of knowledge to characters, knowing something that they do not—for example, that there is a bomb about to explode under the table where they are sitting. This may create a sense of vicarious identification with character, but it also yields a sense of distance from their fate, with the spectator sharing with the narrator a sense of toying with and controlling the destiny of his characters. Hitchcock will also sometimes align the spectator with the situation of his characters, but because of his overall orchestration of narrative point of view, this alignment itself sustains a sense of authorial presence and control. I shall explore these macro-structures of narration in chapter 2.

Hitchcock's manipulation of narrative point of view is equally present within micro-structures of editing through the manner in which, as John Belton points out, Hitchcock combines the representation of character per-ception and emotional response through point-of-view editing with a "constructivist" approach to the creation of meaning through editing that many writers, including Belton himself, impute to the influence of Soviet montage. The case for the direct Soviet influence on Hitchcock is mixed. It is unlikely he saw Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) until the British ban was lifted on the film and it was screened at the London Film Society in 1929. Also, the first English translation of Pudovkin, which tells of filmmaker Lev Kuleshov's experiments with the creation of meaning through editing, did not occur until 1929. However, Ivor Montagu, a friend of Eisenstein, may well have watched the film before he recut The Lodger, in which traces of Eisenstein's influence are discernable, and he undoubtedly talked to Hitchcock about the practices of Soviet filmmakers. Furthermore, much later in his career Hitchcock attributed his own practice of what he termed "pure cinema" to the influence of the Russians, although filmmakers' reminiscences must always be treated with cauti...

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