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Camera Obscura 19.1 (2004) 76-111
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Beyond the Gaze:
Visual Fascination and the Feminine Image in Silent Hitchcock
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| Figure 1 |
The Lodger (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1926)
Are not the traits which I indicated (the make-up, the whiteness, the wig, etc.) just like the blunting of a meaning too clear, too violent? Do they not give the obvious signified a kind of difficultly prehensible roundness, cause my reading to slip? An obtuse angle is greater than a right angle ... ; the third meaning also seems to me greater than the pure, upright, secant, legal perpendicular of the narrative, it seems to open up the field of meaning totally, that is infinitely.
Like the famous shot in Young and Innocent (UK, 1939), in which the camera engages in "a kind of staring contest" with the murderer until he reveals his guilty twitch,1 the Hitchcockian voyeuristic gaze knows at every point how to bring about narrative progression and denouement. Carefully controlling just what and how much to show us, this investigative eye knows how to search [End Page 77] out and eventually expose the inner essence of each subject, forcefully bringing its guilt or innocence to light. And whether viewed through the idealized lens of"pure cinema" or the critical ones of sadism, fetishism, and voyeurism, it is of course this visual power that has been understood as the essence of Hitchcock's style. But while the omniscient gaze undoubtedly emerges as the dominant aesthetic of Hitchcock's films, by reproducing that all-controlling point of view in the criticism, we may overlook an alternative visuality that informs his work, particularly during his silent period, when his style is less definitively developed than in the later Hollywood productions. Silent film has recently become the subject of much critical attention, particularly among feminist theorists interested in the cinema preceding the consolidation of the classical Hollywood system, but as of yet, these findings have not been applied to Hitchcock's early films, which are still typically viewed as mere forerunners for his later style. This article will instead focus on the formal and historical peculiarities of his silent films, exploring an optical dialectic that will take us beyond the gaze.
Ironically, a close look at Hitchcock's own commentary on his films reveals that it was the putative master himself who opened up the possibility for an alternative visuality. In the FrançoisTruffaut interviews, for example, Hitchcock repeatedly evades Truffaut's attempts to establish Hitchcock's mastery, particularly when they speak of the recurring crisscross pattern in Strangers on a Train (US, 1951). Truffaut emphasizes the symbolic design of the opening sequence: "One of the best things ... is the exposition, with the follow shots on feet going one way and then the other. There are also the crisscrossing rails. There's a sort of symbolic effect in the way they meet and separate. ... That accidental collision of the two men's feet is the point of departure for their whole relationship. ... In the same light, the separating rails suggest the idea of divergent courses—two different ways of life." 2 Hitchcock, however, doesn't pick up the interpretive ball, but instead offers only the elusive response: "Isn't it a fascinating design? One could study it forever" (195). Resisting Truffaut's urge to read the symbol, Hitchcock keeps his reply on the surface, as it were, and implies that the real source of fascination—for himself and his viewers—lies not in articulating the meanings of the crisscross, [End Page 78] which are ultimately banal and finite, but in the visual "study" of the design itself. In this scenario, study does not signify masterful omniscience over an object, but an infinitely suspended state of captivation. In place of the investigative gaze that directs perspective and, facilitating narrative progression, affirms the viewer's sense of coherent subjectivity, this visual experience may produce a terrifying yet pleasurable dissolution of identity, resulting in passive abandonment to...