As Hitchcock’s films continue to fascinate audiences and critics alike, this volume explores the quality, the ‘magic’, that makes them available to seemingly endless interpretations. It is their openness, argues Neil Badmington, which makes these films so compelling and which has spawned generations of different readings, many of them contradictory. Badmington outlines how critics have, over the decades, identified Hitchcock as ‘profoundly misogynist, critical of patriarchy’; heteronormative and ‘playfully sceptical about heteronormativity’; ‘distinctly English, notably American’, and so on.
Distancing himself from his self-confessed fan status, Badmington examines his beloved Hitchcock from a critical distance (the author is an English lecturer at Cardiff University). But this is no psychoanalytical reading of the director, as is often favoured by film academics; nor is it another biographical reading, which dominates the popular market for books on Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Magic positions itself clearly as a textual analysis of the auteur’s works. In other words, films are viewed and analysed as texts – and solely as texts. In his task, the author invokes two giants of post-structuralism – Barthes and Derrida – to provide the critical toolkit for deconstructing films such as Rear Window, Rebecca and the still-notorious Psycho.
While Badmington’s focus is commendable, his tendency to view a film purely in terms of its structure can be problematic. While structure is of course central, film – a highly visual, aural and performative medium – is always more than structure alone. The grainy, ‘low budget’ black and white of Psycho, for instance, in contrast to the lush Technicolor of Rear Window, is part of the text. The trademark shrieking chords of Psycho, which so clearly signal horror and alarm and are, in the minds of millions, synonymous with the film, are also text; as is the gallery of stars – Janet Leigh, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman and so on – all of whom are integral to the Hitchcock ‘brand’. There is also little in the way of analysis of intertextuality and adaptation. While the author references Daphne Du Maurier’s (high-status) novel as the source text for Rebecca, for example, there is no mention of the popular Robert Bloch ‘pulp’ fiction Psycho as the source text for the film of that name. Badmington’s emphasis on structure, at the expense of film’s other textual and intertextual elements, functions as a kind of X-ray able only to see the skeleton, and not the flesh and sinews.
Whatever the academic imperative, choice of research methods is ultimately a matter of personal taste; and Badmington’s choice of textual analysis is useful in that it examines Hitchcock from a fresh and interesting perspective. His astute analysis does much to demystify Barthes and Derrida, even if it means they are sometimes privileged over the films themselves.
Despite these quibbles, this is an engagingly written and insightful addition to Hitchcock criticism. Perhaps of more interest to the academic market than the general reader, Hitchcock’s Magic reminds us of the pleasure and playfulness, the horror and suspense to be enjoyed in almost any Hitchcock film. This is a volume which will make the reader long to revisit (or visit) these films and to engage with them on a number of levels – and that can only be a good thing.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgment should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddio'r adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.
Introduction – Hitchcock’s Magic; or, How I Starred in Saboteur
Chapter 1 – Ps/zycho
Chapter 2 – Frame Tale: Rear Window and the Promise of Vision
Chapter 3 – SpectRebecca
Chapter 4 – Stories of ‘O’: North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much
Chapter 5 – The Animals Who Knew Too Much: The Zoopoetics of The Birds
Postscript: Into the Mystery
Appendix: The films of Alfred Hitchcock
Neil Badmington is Reader in English Literature at Cardiff University.
TWe keep revisiting the stories of Alfred Hitchcock, because there is always something left to see and know. This book combines detailed textual analysis of a number of Hitchcock’s most famous films – Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Birds – with more general discussion of the director’s complete body of work. Drawing upon the poststructuralist theories of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, it takes issue with the biographical and psychoanalytic approaches that have dominated studies of Hitchcock’s films to argue instead for the significance of textuality.
Hitchcock’s Magic is an innovative, lively, and readable book which challenges critical orthodoxy and breaks new ground in the field.