Is the Author Gaming Hitchcock? or Is He Getting Gamed by Hitchcock?

by Catherine Ramsdell

21 December 2016

“Often when I watch a Hitchcock film in this too-close manner... I am exhausted by the strain of so much scrutinizing… my task has turned me into a freak!”
 
cover art

Hidden Hitchcock

D.A. Miller

(University of Chicago Press)
US: Aug 2016

Just when some might think there’s nothing new to find about Alfred Hitchcock, a book like D. A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock finds a way to add just a little bit more to the conversation. The text on the jacket notes both the challenge of writing about Hitchcock’s work in 2016 and what Miller ultimately found: “D.A. Miller does what seems impossible: he discovers what has remained unseen in Hitchcock’s movies, a secret style that imbues his films with a radical duplicity.”

While Miller touches on several Hitchcock films in his introduction, the book primarily focuses on Strangers on a Train Rope, and The Wrong Man.

Miller’s strategy is to move beyond the close readings often used to analyze Hitchcock’s work to create something he calls the Too-Close Viewer. Miller and other Too-Close Viewers search for things like hidden pictures or errors that aren’t really errors. More specifically, Miller asks viewers to “Imagine a small continuity error made on purpose, or a Hitchcock cameo fashioned so as not to be seen, or a narrative image secretly doubling for a figure of speech in the manner of a charade.”

At times, Miller does seem a little obsessive, but perhaps to be a Too-Close Viewer a level of obsessiveness (or to use Miller’s term, “eccentricity”) is needed. Miller closes the introduction with almost a warning “Having seen enough to know he [the Too-Close Viewer] will never see enough, or will always be seeing too much, and abruptly seized by a longing to close his overburdened eyes at least, he seems on the verge of going, in Norman Bates’s words, ‘a little bit mad.’”


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Considering the things Miller chooses to examine and the level of detail he incorporates, the Too-Close Viewer’s mental response might not be completely unreasonable. Take, for example, Miller’s discussion of the candles in Rope. This section is called (in traditional mystery fashion) The Case of the Canting Candle and is an examination of two candelabra found on the dining room table in Brandon and Phillip’s apartment as they prepare for a party (and as Phillip wonders if having the party is a mistake). One candle is “drooping”, and this drooping candle (along with attempts to fix it) is the subject of approximately a dozen pages and 13 stills from the film. 

Sometimes these secrets take Miller out of his chair and away from the screen. One of the hidden pictures from Strangers on the Train involves a book that is partially hidden because Bruno is using it as footrest. To completely solve the mystery and unravel the hidden picture, Miller determines what the book is, finds a physical copy of the book, and then is able to conclude “the volume offers not only another Hitchcock signature, but also another iteration of the theme of the double that incessantly patterns the film’s story and images”.

Because of the depth of some of these secrets, it might be odder if Miller didn’t recognize the unique challenges of being a Too-Close Viewer. Perhaps to bring the warning in the introduction full circle, in the last chapter, Miller notes “Often when I watch a Hitchcock film in this too-close manner, my mind misgives me. I am exhausted by the strain of so much scrutinizing… I get even sicker of my isolating condition and of the strange, demented feeling that accompanies it: worse than impossible, my task has turned me into a freak!”

Being the Too-Close Viewer may be exhausting for many reasons; one being that it’s a very active form of viewing and often goes beyond just observing. For Miller (and arguably for others before Miller), Hitchcock didn’t just make movies—he made games. Miller often talks about Hitchcock’s secrets in terms games, riddles, or puzzles—things that need to be solved or perhaps even things that require an audience to participate and play.

Hitchcock has long been regarded as one of the pioneers of the suspense and thriller genres. What Hidden Hitchcock suggests is that Hitchcock might have been a pioneer in other areas ,as well, e.g., gamification and the trend towards a more participatory culture. Miller’s obsession with rooting out secrets in Hitchcock’s films could almost be compared to the mindset of people who participated in The Dark Knight viral marketing campaign and spend time trying to unravel clues that were part of the Why So Serious marketing craze. Some people might have considered participants in this campaign (which involved taking orders from the Joker and taking to the streets in costume) a little obsessed, as well.

Does today’s gamification have the same level of sophistication and thoughtfulness as what Miller finds in Hitchcock’s films? That’s another question. Even though many enjoy (or perhaps even expect) a gamification or participatory element in most entertainment experiences, they may not have Miller’s patience. Let’s face it—Miller doesn’t make the experience of being a Too-Close Viewer sound particularly enjoyable at times, and people who participate in gamification today seem to want a little more fun with their gaming. Still, what Miller offers is a way to rethink the ways we watch and engage with all films, not just the Hitchcockian ones.

Hidden Hitchcock

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