In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Hitchcock: The Industry
  • James Morrison
Kapsis, Robert E. Hitchock: The Making of a Reputation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

After more than twenty years, if we date its inception at the publication of Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films (1965), the Hitchcock industry is still burgeoning. On and on they come in unstoppable waves, these dense treatises on The Master’s high vernacular or low comedy, on films re-released or securely canonized. Even if we dismiss those books that are patently “popular,” like Donald Spoto’s biography, or those that give Hitchcock only a sustained sidelong glance, like Slavoj Zizek’s Looking Awry, we are still left to contend with some two dozen ample volumes—this in the field of film studies that is itself barely twenty years old. The latest spasm of production alone has yielded at least three books, each from a university press: Stefan Sharff’s on Hitchcock’s High Vernacular from Columbia, Thomas Leitch’s Find the Director from Georgia, and now Kapsis’s volume from Chicago. What this largely academic enterprise lacks in the glittery trappings of, say, the mass-market Malcolm-X-drive—no Hitchcock caps as yet, no Hitchcock breakfast cereal—it makes up for with a certain scholarly self-consciousness. One is not surprised, then, to see at last a book about the industry itself.

Kapsis’s thesis is simple: The evolution of Hitchcock’s reputation since the late fifties has been intricately connected to general permutations in film aesthetics during the same period. The first chapter lays the study’s theoretical groundwork by adapting the sociologist Harold Becker’s concept of “art-worlds” to the field of film. Chapters two through five trace Hithcock’s reputation from its initial phases, where Hitchcock is understood as “mere entertainer” or “master of suspense,” through the efforts of Hithcock and his partisans to reshape his reputation into that of a “serious artist,” culminating in the director’s canonization in academe. Final chapters consider the effect of the “Hithcock legacy” on the thriller genre itself as well as on the career of Brian De Palma, then compare the making of Hitchcock’s reputation to that of the reputations of Hawks, Capra, Lang, Clint Eastwood, and, in the “art-world” of music, Vladimir Horowitz. The particular strategies Kapsis’s work values are not close-analysis or theoretical expansiveness (nor the rhetorical flourishes that usually accompany them) but comprehensive scrutiny and empirical doggedness. These last his work achieves, and the attendant clarity of his style would be unimpeachable if clarity were an end in itself, if relentless comprehensiveness guaranteed genuine comprehension. Clearly, the book’s subject has the potential to bring into focus key issues in contemporary film studies, from much-debated ones like the status of the auteur to little- discussed ones like the process of canon formation. But in spite of the value of some of its research, the book misses its most important opportunities.

The first problem is one of methodology. Kapsis negotiates Becker’s conception of the “art-world” with a version of reception theory he traces from Jauss through Wendy Griswold’s work. His first key assumption, then, derived from Becker, is that cultural products “are influenced by or imbedded in the immediate organizational, legal, and economic environments in which they are produced” (5); his second is that “‘meaning’ is produced or ‘fabricated’ by the interaction between reader and text” (8). In spite of the earnest conviction of these observations, neither is likely to strike occupants of the film-studies trenches as urgent news from the battle-front. What may be novel, though, is the sense in which Kapsis intends his inflections. In the first quotation, for example, “immediate” is the operative word, and refers not just to studios or audiences as “environments,” but even more “immediately,” to literal facets of production—e.g., conversations on the set during filming. Moreover, the “meaning” that gets produced, through whatever means, is seen to be a product of films’ embeddedness in these environments. Thus, elements of Hitchcock’s style that other critics have more conventionally seen as modernist gestures or personal insignia are conceived as Hithcock’s “practice of including unusual shots...