Hitchcock’s cryptonymies.

Tom Cohen,
Hitchcock’s cryptonymies.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

(In two volumes)
Vol. I, Secret Agents, 284pp, ISBN: 0 8166 4206 0 (pb) US$25
Vol. II, War Machines, 300pp, ISBN: 0 8166 4171 4 (pb) US$25
(Review copies supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

“Blinded” or Blinded

It happened in October of 1999 that I was unable to attend a certain session at the Hitchcock Centennial Conference in New York, after which a colleague reported to me with some perceptible fever of excitement, “Slavoj Zizek stood up and said, ‘You know, I think that The birds (US 1963) could have been made . . . withoutany birds.'” Whether or not Zizek really did say this, of course – precisely this – is of little consequence in comparison to the fact that his name, reputation, and scholarly image may so easily, and enchantingly, be associated with a comment of such vivacious ferocity; indeed, that such a comment can be conceived as having been uttered, cogently, by anyone. The birds, after all – Alfred Hitchcock’s The birds – could not have been made any other way than it was made, and it is nothing other than what it is, even if the critical imagination, even the transcendent critical imagination, can tell itself otherwise. What I find amazing, even alarming, about the Zizek story is a premise upon which it relies, to wit, that the scholarly or critical reading of a film, a Hitchcock film, say, has so much potential intrinsic value in itself that it may seem credible and valuable even when it explicitly negates what is visible on the screen quite as though that negation were as much a part of the filmmaker’s intent as anything else. The birds with no birds! Vertigo (US 1958) with no staircase, or no cars! Psycho (US 1960) with no motel! This ability to speak with complete abandon about film, about Hitchcock film at least, comes close to “critical psychosis,” since the speaker seems severed from what can be seen onscreen and locked into the labyrinth of a private, often esoteric, imagination, yet still he is linked to the film by threads and through divagations unrecognizable – an imagination, I should stress, that is very often fabulous and enticing, learned and provocative, stimulating in a thousand ways and therefore very rich, indeed.

Zizek, however, is unmistakably threaded somehow to the screen, and in this way he can be thought, as Tom Cohen thinks him, the “last avatar . . . of the auteurist tradition” (II: 175). It is certainly at least old-fashioned of me, not to say auratic and auteurist, to contend that there is a “film itself.” At the beginning of hisHitchcock’s cryptonymies, Cohen in fact takes it as read that cinema is dead and its ghost is rising, and I take him, in part at least, to mean that the image may no longer be seen in and of itself as having meaning. This abandonment of the filmmaking process, of performance, of the recording by light through a lens, of cutting, of scoring, and so on, doesn’t seem to me to have real merit, any more than making a neo-Iserian claim that an author’s words upon a page are of little significance compared with the elaborate strategies of interpretation that can be overlaid upon them. Once we get to the rising of ghosts, after all, my words here mean utterly nothing against what you are willfully taking them to mean, and it is hardly necessary for me to maintain even the posture of grammatical intent, hardly worthwhile for me to write a sentence that can be parsed, your obligations and inspirations being so unimpeachably dominant over anything that could reasonably be imagined to be emanating from me, whoever I am. For my part, then, I would hesitate to throw out the author at any rate; but to dispense with the filmmaker in the case of Hitchcock, when so many of those who have written about him have in fact not yet seen all there is to see in his films, seems a tragic waste. But what, trapped in the domain of Benjaminian auras, could I know of waste, really, since in attaching myself to the film I must be disattending so much? Read on, then, if you dare.

The Cohen enterprise, let me say outright, is absolutely engaging. I mean two things by this, both in their ways complimentary. We are swept up with interest and affect, and to a very great, indeed limiting, degree. Yet also, the book saps us of the itch to watch. Cryptonymies is the work – in my estimation – of a brilliant mind ravenous to see and to say, in short, a pearl from a genius; written with sharp musical intuition and poetry, even, perhaps, under holy illumination (as Norman O. Brown would have had it); and flamboyantly playful quite beyond Zizek, for instance, and certainly, too, as I think the author would (happily) admit, quite beyond Hitchcock. It is a kind of dream inspired by Hitchcock, if you will, an exposition and an exploration at once, and any reader who loves text, any reader who loves thought, and any reader who loves what cinema can do to the imagination, will want to have this and probably cherish it, since it will certainly become a classic example of this exact effect. It is not, I think, a bad book in any way, and there are moments when Cohen opens doors into gardens very few, if any, readers will have dreamed about themselves. Shall I say he stands with Coleridge, then, or with Borges? But the book may not seem so very familiar to those who have immersed themselves in Hitchcock, since for Cohen Hitchcock – or, HitchCOCK, or HITCHCcock, or HITCHCOCK, or Hitchcock, or Hitchcock (“at least five current ‘Hitchcocks’ can be characterized,” Cohen quotes Clint Burnham as writing [I: 1]) – is not a substance but a springboard into substance, a motive for the critic’s creativity. I will admit (what Cohen never does admit about his subject) that I fear that in writing here I am moving in the same direction as regards Cohen, far, far less lambently and with a relatively pathetic and unagile language.

It is fair to say that this is a book that will be maximally intelligible only to readers thoroughly familiar with the films it discusses, which is to say, people who have seen Hitchcock’s motion pictures many times over, some films more than others, to be sure. One has the feeling, therefore, that the author is in dialogue with a very small audience, because although vast millions know Hitchcock’s work they know it more superficially than Cohen presumes. Vertigo is the movie where the blonde falls from the tower, The man who knew too much (US 1956) is the movie where Doris Day sings “Que Sera, Sera.” For instance, the discussion of the “X” symbol on the flag beneath the seat in the Royal Albert Hall where the Prime Minister sits as intended victim of the assassin in the latter film, will not exactly call up vivid memories for most readers; nor, I suppose, will many be persuaded that the symbol really does suggest that “the target of assassination might be a perpetual reversal and inverting reinscription of sense positioned officially and in the state” (I: 231) in face of the more practical fact that in a long shot of this character sitting in a huge and well-dressed crowd Hitchcock needed some way to “target” him that would work diegetically as well – a problem and a resolution Cohen elides, much as he elides many other technical matters important for the building of a film drama in order to dive into the interpretive possibilities they offer. To cite just one of hundreds: the “rather bizarre” (196) little boy (Christopher Olsen) who is kidnapped in this film (as Cohen calls him, inexplicably) refers to his mother (Day) as “Mommy” throughout the film, but Cohen hears it (in the British fashion) as “Mummy” (202) and makes much of Hitchcock’s fascination with embodied and decayed maternity (here and in other films): “The award-winning song is conveyed by and aurally (de)materializes the disembodied voice of (a) ‘mother’ – or mummy, whatever that (a)metrical atopos designates in the absence of generation or maternity” (237). Earlier in the book, writing about espionage, this matricality emerges:

What passes between these three rooms of the Bates house as if from a metrical imprint through technologies of reproduction, to the underworld of Mother “herself” – khora-like, socketed, perhaps genderless? What did Lila read? How do reading, teletechnics, voice, mnemonics, figure as if in transition between forms of old and new literacy, as if between old and new technicity? (71)

In this arabesque, we are detached completely from the camera’s point of view, even though Cohen meticulously summarizes what Lila finds in Mrs. Bates’s room, Norman’s room, and the fruit cellar, this ultimate lair of maternity. It is as though he has chosen to leap in and actually inhabit the diegetic space, yielding to an impulse I certainly understand and sympathize with, alluring as Hitchcock’s spaces and situations are. He has jumped in and is roaming both around the rooms and around Lila Crane, indeed inside Lila Crane and inside all of the objects as well. He is writing an analysis based on the principle of penetration, while cinema, I fear, must always hold itself back from such an indulgence. Freud said it: “Where id was, there shall ego be.” Where feeling was, there shall observation be. It is always crucial in Hitchcock that we are seeing all this.

It must be insisted that Cohen is relentlessly appealing as he puts his arguments forth, or rather, sails them upon the pond of our receptivity, and that one is simply stymied by his flashing brilliances and implications crowding quickly among one another, murmuring (like the citizens of Morocco, indeed, around the body of Louis Bernard!) and wondering. Is sight easily lost of the films Hitchcock actually made, however? Cohen would say again, cinema has died; or would ask what I could possibly mean by attaching consciousness so deliberately to a blinding mask. If Hank McKenna is calling for “Mommy,” not “Mummy,” who would care, given what we can now cheerfully configure for ourselves? Hank, indeed, for Cohen is suspended morphologically between “hang” and “hand,” that is, “as when, at the restaurant, Ben is frustrated trying to keep one hand at bay with his food, in the end disabling both” (203); further, “Hank, a name suggesting suspension, as in ‘hanging,’ is himself suspended from the narrative, kidnapped. Hank is suspended, ‘suspense’ is suspended” (204). Playful juxtapositions, to be sure, and ones that leave at least my Hitchcock far behind.

The acoustic chamber of pleasures (or horrors) invoked in Hank’s name is only the beginning. Discussing Louis Bernard’s dying words to McKenna, Cohen admonishes that “we must also hear the recurrent phrase ‘pick up,’ or ‘pick up Hank,’ differently – even when distorted, say, by McKenna himself, as pick out (‘Why should he pick me out to tell?’). We can hear in ‘pick up’ the beginning of the word picture, only here linked to the hyperbologic direction, ‘up’: to ‘pick up Hank,’ as though breaking off the command to pic(ture) by the eruption of letteral graphics in the figure of speech itself, as though the logic of such depiction or picturization were interrupting itself when applied to Hank (Norman Bates speaks of making a ‘mental picturization’)” (204). It is truly, and confoundingly, a marvelous experience to hear Hitchcock this way; does the experience transcend music? – a question surely dear to the heart of the man who twice filmed The man who knew too much.

Some, but not all, readers will be interested in Cohen’s self-positioning among the legendary Hitchcockian critics and scholars, this self-positioning – profoundly self-aware – being a central obsession of the text throughout. Early on, in a chapter mischievously entitled “A User’s Guide,” there is a delicious (if unacknowledging) tribute to François Truffaut’s celebrated contribution to Cahiers du cinema, “Le Troisième clé d’Hitchcock,” in which we find a kind of encyclopedia, if not quite a dictionary of received ideas. “Music” is (predictably, I think) missing, but under “M” we find, interestingly – yet also vitiatingly – enough:

Thirteenth letter of the alphabet, it traverses every “Mar-” name, which reinscribes any anthropomorphism of “mother” into a mnemographics of the metrical, or khora-like order. Central letter cipher, returning to the name of Hitchcock’s mother, Emma (evinced in Rich and strange‘s “Emmy” and Shadow of a doubt). Series: music, murder, machine, memory, mountain, mother . . . three triads (like three interlocking Vs or triads); may be juxtaposed graphically to W (The Man Who . . .The Wrong Man, “Mae West,” Montreal, and Winnipeg) (I: 57)

just as under “H” we can meet “Huntley Haverstock, Henrietta, Harry, Henry, Harriet, H.H. Hughson – for that matter, the head domes of the Scottish Assembly Hall, or the Albert Hall: more than autoinscriptions across a network of anti-surrogates (since what is marked is also, or primarily, the fact of marking, the agency of the signature machine itself)” (I: 55). That what is marked is primarily the fact of marking is a foundational postulate of postmodern criticism, which is to say, one which immediately brings us away from a text and into its textualizing, away from a work and into the work of working it: only our journey here is at the hands of an imagination that is configuring to itself what the working process is, that is sketching the impetus without having had the experience. When Hitchcock speaks to Truffaut, for example, about making the films, the stories are certainly a little repetitive and self-serving, yet they say something about a world off the screen that is at least tied to the filmic image by the biography of the filmmaker (even as he himself sees it). Cohen’s critique severs us from biography, all biography, making film and the world itself little more than a piece of flotsam on the surface of a vast ether in which particular interest should have no hold.

At some distance from feeling and experience is abstraction, one intriguing form of which is mathematics – a form that surely fascinates Cohen. He gives an entry in his encyclopedia to “P, ◻” indicating the “3 and 1 combinatoire” and “3 or ’13’ signatures,” “the cancellation of the number 1, or any supposed subject, at the origin of speech” (59). But in his essay on The lodger, called “The avenging fog of media,” a phenomenal side dance into numbering beautifully apotheosizes both the delights and the abysms of this book. Cohen is interested in the fact that triadic logics “proliferate and appear on the Avenger’s calling card” in this film. He begins to think about the number 3, in an exposition I cannot fully capture but that in part runs like this:

In a superb review or autobiography of “the trickster zero,” Robert Kaplan’s The nothing that is: A natural history of zero, zero is secured by John Napier’s revision of the algebraic legacy of the Arab mathematicians, “turning Al-Khowärizimi’s equation into x2 + 10x – 39 = 0.” Here, x is 3, with 13 and 39 in the mix. Hitchcock numbers, performing and marking a logic of canceled origination. Thus Kaplan translates Napier’s revision as “x2 + 10x – 39 is the same as (x – 3) (x + 13). But if (x – 3) (x + 13) = 0, then one of those two factors must be zero: so either x-3 = 0 or x + 13 = 0, and this tells you at once that x = 3 or x = -13.” For Hitchcock the “1” is a trope of the zeroid, and the zero a MacGuffin of and within an always phantom logos – the triage of the triad, the MacGuffinesque core of numbering itself”. (I: 33)

The triad, Cohen resolves, “is a specter, it anchors spectrality.” And 13 is a number that is “not a number, a first that is a third yet connotes the placeholder of a zero, is associated with the advent of cinema – and its avenging force against the violence of the ‘1’” (I: 33-34). This is what Ortega would have called a cubist vision, retreated into the most abstract mental principles in its effort to see what can only be discerned in the deepest inwardness.

How such inwardness is possible for Cohen is a phenomenon itself. The screen, in the end, is about what can be shown, not what can be intuited, even if it mobilizes us to intuit. The inwardness of text is thus, in a way, foreign to cinema, as we see when we are confronted with a picture of a word and see its radical divergence from the normal meaning of that word itself (as in Hitchcock’s use of “DIRECTION” signs at the beginning of I confess [see II: 24]). In the second volume of this set, War machines, we see a dedication to J. Hillis Miller, perhaps a tiny clue to Cohen’s fascination for the overtones and undertones of the literary text and his penchant for indulging this fascination upon Hitchcock; Hitchcock as not only auteur but, indeed, author. Something of culmination is achieved here in a very long, and very rich, elaboration of To catch a thief, “Prosthesis of the Visible,” which dwells, for example (and in a vortical delirium) upon the French travel posters we see in the opening credits shots and their relation not only to the structure of the film but particularly to the insurance man’s comment that John Robie’s aerie in the hills above Nice is a “travel folder heaven”; and also on the deep implications of Francie’s expostulation in the finale, as she embraces Robie, that “mother will love it up here!”

But we also find in this rewarding essay an extended comment about cinema in general, Hitchcock’s film in particular, and the work of Walter Benjamin, a comment I think bears close attention. Cohen emphasizes that the “legibility of a single line” (such as Francie’s or Hughson the insurance man’s) in Hitchcock allows to see how his cinema “exemplifies the deauratic” (II: 171), that is, the lapse of the aura that Benjamin found effusing from works and objects in their “originary presence,” their unreproduced state: Benjamin claimed that “cinema appears with the destruction of aura.” The “legibility” of a line, note, not the line itself. Deauraticization is:

the retraction of personification, of anthropomorphism, of a natural trope of “light,” and indeed of ocularcentrism, and a series of temporal or identity models that have long attended this blinding program. Together with this question there arises the issue of precisely how micrologically (i.e., according to what protocols of marks, puns, rhymes, letters, cross-verbal and ocular affiliations) one can read ‘”Hitchcock,” today, and to what ends. If aura demands that one take the visual as a natural order of perception, to withdraw aura places one in a zone of marks, letteration, graphic figures that is, on its surface, closer to issues of legibility as such, a mnemonic order in keeping with the brute fact of celluloid’s role as memory storage bands.

The “zone of marks” that Cohen cites is the one he makes bold to approximate, render, demarcate, indeed inscribe, in this book. Even calling the Hitchcock that one might struggle to read today “Hitchcock” is a telling signal of the flattening and textualizing in his own – I would claim – “blinding program.” What Cohen is blinding us to in the ineffable acuity of his own “marks, puns, rhymes, letters” is exactly the shimmering radiant constructions it was so necessary for Hitchcock – not “Hitchcock” – to see and show. The house in the French hills, after all, is designed to be magnificent without being ostentatious, a reward for virtue, part of its glory being the crystalline blue sky that lifts over it, apparently always – a sky that in the end, Francie’s blurting notwithstanding, gives Robie something to live for. Hughson’s comment that this is “travel folder heaven” implies something Cohen doesn’t find a way to state, that this place is beyond what is implied in publicity, beyond text, beyond the cultivated imaginary. “Hughson praises the villa,” says Cohen, “in terms that return us to the tricky logic of the travel service window of the credit sequences. ‘Tricky,’ because it inscribes the unwitting viewer as a tourist set up with a bunch of clichés he or she is paying for and, instantly, being robbed through or by” (II: 172), yet it is only the grammatical presence of Hughson’s comment that returns us in such a way; only the words he utters, now printed upon a page. The moment of his uttering them is quite something else, and when we hear what he says we take quite a different, even practical, meaning; indeed, we see the utterer as part of the utterance.

But the single overriding merit of Hitchcock’s cryptonymies is its (filial) devotion to this principle of Paul de Man’s, that “within the confines of a system of transportation – or of language as a system of communication – one can transfer from one vehicle to another,” for surely there confronts, and possibly confounds, us in these pages a myriad of transfers, of hermeneutical jumps, or re-formations, of breaks into the world of utterance (“The Mediterranean doubles as and names a sort of terrestrialized media” [II: 182]; or “The word fold extends its reach to imply total collapse, as well as fall or demise. ‘Travel’ or cinema folds, crashes or turns back” [II: 187]). Cohen listens to every word of Hitchcock a thousand times, the dialogue, the nominal solidifications of pictured forms, the signs, the hidden signs, and so ultimately his many words constitute a muteness, a total transcendence of speech or speechlessness as an act (what Paul Goodman said they were).

“Blindness” has at least a double meaning for Cohen. When we are struck by a vision its very luminosity is paradoxically obscuring, and thus seeing makes us incapable of seeing and the screen image – let us say, the Hitchcockian screen image, which is paramount among screen images – can be thought to be antiocular. This, in a way, is the matrix out of which Hitchcock’s cryptonymies is born. “Hitchcock knows: he has programmed the blind reputation of the film” (II: 184; emphasis in original). But it is also possible for this author to point to failure as blindness, to adduce as “blind” the inability to detect what he has detected, to see what he has seen, so that in at least textual terms there is a privileging of “sight” markedly, perhaps only, when that sight does not involve an image but is literary. For this is a far too literary book, or, invoking what it is that we can imagine Hitchcock to have accomplished, it limns a far too literary field! In this second sense, blindness is to be avoided, but has fallen upon the apparently unwitting head of, say – because Cohen does name him pejoratively – David Sterritt, who apparently doesn’t get the opening of To catch a thief: “The entire montage of a montage, a sort of thieving demontage that Sterritt utterly mistakes for documentary style . . . is a lethal allegory” (201). The film as a whole is missed, we are to believe: “David Sterritt glides typically over this site [To catch a thief], a black hole hiding within the canon” (II: 170), a purported victim of some “anxiety” for whom the film has “set a trap” (II: 171).

Now, with all respect, I take these passages to be just a little more churlish than is necessary for establishing what To catch a thief is (rather than what it is arguably not). David Sterritt is a scholar and critic of impeccable taste and perceptiveness, and he is far from either “blind” or blind, surely not “groping for some contact, or touch” (II: 171). Cohen’s take on Thief is only one conceivable (and undeniably interesting) take, to be sure, hardly requiring to be itself “taken” as definitive. Or: any critic provides illumination that blinds, that is blinding, perhaps, especially to that critic. The minute you start talking about Hitchcock you lose him. Cohen, then, is as blind as Sterritt is, yet, invoking blindness, he doesn’t admit it.

When we dive into the ocean of the glyph, we may be caught short by imagery if only because we must choose a point at which to enter, which is to say, a verb. Text itself may blind. An example: Writing of the celebrated moment when Francie’s mother (Jessie Royce Landis) gets up from the breakfast table and stubs her cigarette into an egg, Cohen arrives at a conclusion that makes plenty of sense verbally: “Mrs. Stevens walks across the room and puts the cigarette out in a sunny-side-up egg. There is a split-second close-up, however, as the ember enters the running yolk. It shows ‘Mother’s’ hand extinguishing the hot poker into an egg, that is, putting out the egg as if before its advent (by Mother). The ocular egg resonates as a putting out simultaneously of theeye. And finally, perhaps most ruthlessly, it registers as a putting out of the sun as origin of light and cognition” (II: 189). Yes, and perhaps a putting out of the past, and a putting out of the universe, not to say roundness and everything that can be linked to it. Yet in this scene there is both more and less to see, and the desire to be punctual in comment obliterates not the egg but the entire shot. Surely a vision might also be in play here about class, the rich woman’s complete disregard of the egg echoing Mrs. Lord’s in The Philadelphia story. Another example: Cohen is fascinated by the homoerotic possibilities of Foussard’s champagne; he returns to it again and again: “the ejaculating excess of Foussard’s champagne bottle on first seeing Grant” (II: 203); “Grant resists the audience’s identification with him or its ejaculation over him – as he waves his finger scoldingly at Foussard (II: 204); “Homoerotic markers saturate and dislocate ‘Grant,’ who seems indifferent to them. He wags a scolding finger at Foussard’s masturbatory champagne froth as at a fan’s excessive hopes” (II: 234); “The trope of pyrotechnics as ejaculation clearloy cites (that is to say, steals) Joyce’s fireworks-and-masturbation passage from Ulysses . . . The masturbatory shot of Foussard’s disseminating champagne confirms the link to Joyce” (II: 238). If the viewer’s simply open regard of Grant is masturbatory, if the admiration is ejaculation, why, are we to suppose, is Grant so “disapproving” as to wag his finger? Is he to be understood – this paragon of movie stars – as saying, “Don’t you look at me that way!”? And how is the invocation of Cary Grant’s sudden presence onscreen – replacing John Robie – at this “ejaculatory” moment a contribution to our appreciation of the film itself? Does Robie, for example, even know Cary Grant? If he does, does he also know a friend of mine who was sitting near Cary Grant once at Dodgers Stadium? I see this invocation as a contribution to our appreciation of the mode of criticism we are enjoying, instead. By and large, indeed, we are indeed enjoying it, froth an all. The language of the book is a delicious adventure!

Back to Slavoj Zizek, that “last avatar” of auteurism. I might suggest that if he is indeed the last – and this is debatable – he is at least an auteurist who is still looking, once in a while, at particular films, while Cohen is actually looking at the screen more generally. Cohen’s Hitchcock is an intimate of his private conceits, a man who made a comprehensive body of work within the borders of which it is conceivable, we must believe, to glide and jump, to link unceasingly points in one film with points in another. For me, this comprehensiveness of Hitchcock is a (pleasing) aesthetic effect available only to those of us who can look at everything, and from a dispassionate distance – and postmortem. As a filmmaker, Hitchcock was unable in staging Cary Grant in To catch a thief, for instance, to anticipate how he would stage him in North by Northwest, so while it is intriguing, even cute, to link Robie with Thornhill, or Jessie Landis as mother-in-law and then mother, it doesn’t help me understand Thief as much as a more historical account would. Read, at any rate, Hitchcock’s cryptonymies. Read it with lavish attention, a nice glass of wine, a pen in hand for doodling in the inspiration that the book will inspire. Read it aloud, read it over and over. The prose is intoxicating, the insights frequently – no, much more than frequently – dazzling, the voice both scholarly and hip. Become exhausted in the reading. The work is in two volumes, Secret agents and War machines, although I do not know why. When the reading is done, one will surely hunger to see a movie that can take one into another world, and I recommend something by Alfred Hitchcock.

Murray Pomerance
Ryerson University, Canada.

About the Author

Murray Pomerance

About the Author

Murray Pomerance

Murray Pomerance is an independent scholar living in Toronto. He is the author of The Film Cheat: Screen Artifice and Viewing Pleasure (Bloomsbury 2020), Grammatical Dreams (Green Integer 2020), Virtuoso: Film Performance and the Actor's Magic (Bloomsbury 2019), A Dream of Hitchcock (SUNY 2019), and Cinema, If You Please: The Memory of Taste, the Taste of Memory (Edinburgh 2018), among many other titles. He edits the "Horizons of Cinema" series at SUNY Press and the "Techniques of the Moving Image" series at Rutgers, as well as co-editing "Screen Decades" and "Star Decades" at Rutgers.View all posts by Murray Pomerance →