click to buy 'Hitchcock's Films Revisited' at Amazon.com(New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)

Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films (London/New York: Tantivy Press in association with Zwemmer/Barnes) has occupied a privileged position within Hitchcock studies since the book’s initial appearance in 1965. Its passionate defense of Hitchcock and insistence upon the integrity of his moral and aesthetic vision, while not new within French critical studies of the director, had a decidedly provocative and polemical edge at the time. Wood’s book has undergone some additions and revisions since its initial publication, most notably as Hitchcock’s Film Revisited (Columbia University Press) in 1989, while 2002 brings us yet another updating. In terms of quantity, the most recent additions are not significant: the book opens with a new preface and closes with an essay on Marnie (1964), an earlier version of the latter having already appeared in CineAction! in 1999. As far as I know, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited has consistently been in print since 1989 and given the small amount of new material Wood offers this time around the need for a “revised edition” is not, perhaps, of the utmost urgency. (I would have preferred to see a revised and expanded edition of his long out-of-print Personal Views [The Gordon Fraser Gallery, London, 1976] instead.) At the same time, any opportunity for Hitchcock scholars to revisit Wood should be welcomed and reading this book again immediately clarifies Wood’s central role within Hitchcock studies and film studies in general.

Wood’s writing here is marked by virtues consistent across his entire body of work: the clarity and fluidity of the prose, the attention to detail in terms of visual style and narrative structure, and the ability to distill complex issues with the utmost economy. For this reason I have found Wood to be an ideal critic for introducing undergraduates to major issues in film studies. For many of them, reading Wood is a revelation (as he was for me in my early student days). In a recent course I taught on the musical, I screened Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Hole (1998) and assigned them Wood’s essay on the film. One student told me later that she found the film enormously difficult and did not understand it at all until she read Wood’s essay afterwards, which caused her to do an about face. Never mind that she was supposed to read the essay before seeing the film and not after. And never mind that my evidently dull lecture on The Hole preceding the screening failed to convince her of the film’s interest. She now loves Tsai Ming-Liang’s film and has seen it several times. For things like this, Wood is indispensable.

Apart from his enormous skills as a critic, though, one of the great values of Wood’s writings on Hitchcock, and which this new edition helps to clarify, is his longevity: He published his first essay on Hitchcock (a piece on Psycho, expanded and reworked for Hitchcock’s Films) in 1960 for Cahiers du Cinéma. The revised Marnie essay dates from last year. We have, then, a critic who has been writing and thinking about Hitchcock for over 40 years, a commitment which, as far as I know, no other academic has matched. Moreover, Wood has tried to adjust to the various changes taking place within the field so that the book offers the possibility for examining some of these transformations as well. The 1965 edition was published at the height of auteurism and, as Wood has often acknowledged, the book shows the influence of the two major sources on his writings at the time: Cahiers du Cinéma and the literary critic and scholar F.R. Leavis, his teacher at Cambridge. But by the time that Hitchcock’s Films Revisited was published in 1989 film studies had undergone some major upheavals, principally through the influence of semiotics, structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalysis and feminist theory while auteurism had become almost completely discredited. In contrast with the more broadly humanist concerns of the earlier text, the 1989 edition attempted to acknowledge and incorporate these changes (sometimes skeptically, as in the case of semiotics and structuralism with their anti-authorship approach, one which Wood never completely abandoned). Furthermore, between 1965 and 1989 Wood ended his marriage and became openly homosexual, a significant personal change that informed his writings which to this day remain devoted to looking at the cinema through the possibility of radical sexual politics. For Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Wood opted not to revise any of the original chapters from the 1965 edition. Whatever limitations those earlier essays might have had for Wood, his criticism of them would emerge either directly through a new introductory chapter or indirectly through the methodology employed in his more recent work. For the 2002 edition, however, Wood does not perform a similar updating in terms of methodology. He takes no cultural studies approach, for example, nor does he acknowledge the work of someone like Slavoj Zizek, in spite of the central role that Zizek has assumed within Hitchcock studies over the last decade. Instead, Wood offers something else.

That something else is the preface for this revised edition, which is quite fascinating: 33 pages of autobiography. Wood explains that what prompted such a move was his desire to undertake “an examination (and exposure) of the various factors (historical, cultural, personal) that underlie and determine the kind of criticism that one writes.” (p.ix) In distinction to the form of academic writing that semiotics gave rise to, in which “the personal voice is drowned out by the methodology” and which is “always unreadable and now forgotten,” Wood’s preface is bluntly personal and could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered unreadable. It is compelling from beginning to end. I do wish, though, that the 1989 introduction had been moved to the second section of the book, just preceding all of the later pieces. As it stands now, we have the preface and the 1989 and 1965 introductions laid end to end so that the book proper does not begin until the reader has gone well past the 100-page mark. It is as though a giant stonewall has been constructed in front of the book, endlessly postponing entry.

Wood is not the first film critic or academic to apply autobiographical elements to his work. Jonathan Rosenbaum (in Moving Places: A Life at the Movies and portions of Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism) has also drawn upon it and Sam Rohdie, apparently a Wood nemesis who once accused Wood of being “anti-intellectual,” (p.xx) also made use of it in his recent Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism. Even before the appearance of this preface, Wood would sometimes insert personal elements into his later work. In Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, for example, his analysis of class and sexuality in Blackmail (1929) contains a brief section in which he describes his own repressive English middle-class upbringing in order to more fully characterize the kind of milieu and cultural attitudes towards sex that Blackmail is dealing with, attitudes which contemporary spectators may otherwise find difficult to comprehend. What is unique about the new preface, then, is simply its scale and the range of personal details that Wood offers. Not simply a provocation, the preface also asks us to read much of Wood’s work on Hitchcock in relation to the personal. Seen in this light, the slightly puritanical tone to some of Wood’s early writings on Hitchcock and what Wood saw as its insistence on “the existence of evil impulses in all of us” or “the impurity of our own desires” (p. 67) emerges with a newfound clarity. For the Wood of the1965 edition, still married but agonizing over of his repressed homosexuality, Strangers on a Train (1951) deals with “the essence of Hitchcock: that ordered life depends on the rigorous and unnatural suppression of a powerfully seductive underworld of desire…” (p. 94) For the Wood of the 1989 edition and after, it is this “underworld” that comes above ground and assumes center stage.

In some detail, Wood tells us of his troubled relations with his wife, his first sexual experience with a man which left him “bleeding, trembling violently from head to foot,” (p. xvii) the nature of his non-monogamous relationship with his lover, Richard Lippe, and his various difficulties and insecurities as an academic. The last of these was the biggest surprise for me since I had always presumed that Wood enjoyed a certain Zeus-like status within the field. Instead, Wood (now retired from teaching) always felt himself to be something of an outsider within his own discipline, much as he had earlier seen Leavis working under the same conditions. I am not convinced that Wood is as much of an outsider as he maintains nor that he is as unorthodox an academic as he imagines himself to be. Just how academic and professorial he is was amusingly brought home at the Hitchcock Centennial Conference in New York in 1999 during a Q & A session with Marnie‘s screenwriter, Jay Presson Allen. In the midst of a parenthetical remark that Wood made as a preface to his question, Allen suddenly interrupted Wood with: “Do you teach?” To this Wood replied: “Yes, I do. I plead guilty. But I’ve been told I am not an intellectual, that I’m an anti-intellectual.” (Richard Allen, “An Interview with Jay Presson Allen,” Hitchcock Annual, 2000-2001, p. 19.) Wood assumes this role of the academic outsider with a good deal of defensive pride, in a field which he regards as having largely disintegrated.

Nevertheless, the preface does seem designed to challenge certain prevailing orthodoxies within the field. (One cannot imagine David Bordwell writing such a thing and I shudder to think that Wood might set off a string of copycat film studies exhibitionists far less gifted than Wood who, in the midst of analyzing Citizen Kane or Die Nibelungen, will suddenly break off to tell us all about their private lives.) Wood acknowledges that certain readers “will react with some embarrassment” to the preface but he justifies this approach by arguing that the very strategy of embarrassing the reader may eventually lead to “greater openness.” Wood feels that we would all get along better with one another if we would be more open about and discuss our imperfections, leading to a world in which “we were as honest as possible, with ourselves and with each other.” (p.xxxix) I must say that this does sound rather uncomfortably like Dame Edna Everage engaged in one of her outbursts of brutal “honesty” towards guests and audience members, an honesty which only makes them feel agonizingly embarrassed while the powerful matriarch herself sails away on a cloud of her own self-importance: “Oh, I feel so much better now that I’ve said that.” To his credit, Wood is not oblivious to the possibility of ulterior motives here, his honesty serving as “another subterfuge for inviting people to like me.” (p. xxxix)

The touching but somewhat naive sentiment expressed by Wood here is only a more extreme example of a utopian strain that runs throughout the post-1989 writings. In the preface he writes:

I now see the practice of film criticism not only as a means of elucidating films but as a means of encouraging—indeed, demanding—political and social change: of insisting on the necessity, today, for the most extreme leftist radicalism short of physical violence. The means to this end is the uncovering of the radicalism contained within the films. (p.xxxiii)

Explicitly stated in the 1989 introduction is his new and obviously still-held political position, based on “a Marxism informed by feminism and the revelations of psychoanalytic theory” (p.6) to be contrasted with his earlier work in which the viewpoint is largely that of a “somewhat confused and despairing liberal humanist.” (p. 4) While this later work does contain certain levels of insight and complexity that his earlier writings do not possess the tendency towards generality still holds in some ways. Wood does not pretend that what he is offering is an orthodox version of Marxism. But what he does offer never quite (for me, at any rate) emerges with sharp outlines. How is Wood’s vision of radical social change supposed to take place? And while “the uncovering of radicalism within the films” is not a completely unimportant act, the connection between this approach and the path to radical social change is hazy. Marx himself is barely cited by Wood (in contrast to over a dozen citations of Andrew Britton) and such terms as “consumer capitalism” and “bourgeois ideology” are givens, resulting in a text that seldom concretely addresses complex questions of economics and social structure. While the later Wood does show some attention to the image and, influenced by Stephen Heath and Raymond Bellour, performs occasional close textual analysis, he never systematically engages in larger questions of the ethics of the image itself, in the manner of someone like Serge Daney. Instead, the book across all periods remains somewhat content-oriented and may be more profitably understood as a reading of Hitchcock in relation to issues of sexuality and gender, written from the personal perspective of a man who discovered his own “true” sexuality relatively late in life. While I am generally sympathetic with this manner of reading Hitchcock, Wood’s approach (for all of its considerable insight) has at least two possible limitations.

The first is that Wood’s wholehearted belief in the oppressiveness of dominant capitalistic culture and its conception of marriage and family causes him to sometimes speak from a position of unshakable moral security, as though preaching from a pulpit: “If the soul could blossom freely, it would fear death no more than the perfect rose fears the dropping of its petals.” (p. 15) I was unable to attend Wood’s presentation at the Hitchcock Centennial Conference and when I asked a very prominent film academic (and longtime veteran of the field) what the presentation was like she dismissed it all with a wave of her hand: “Oh, Robin Wood just got up on his moral high-horse. I had no idea what he was talking about.” Furthermore, the sparsity of Wood’s citations serves to contribute to the somewhat lofty tone of the book which, for all its strengths, would have gained from being opened up a bit more in terms of its references. Wood has elsewhere expressed his disapproval of academic texts containing copious footnotes and endless citations of other writers. While it is true that such an approach often gets out of hand (and can serve as a cover for a writer who has nothing to say), at its best the process of citation shows a willingness to do research and engage in a dialogue with others in the field. Reading Wood, however stimulating it always is, one sometimes has the feeling that the text has just floated down from Mount Olympus.

The second problem is that the type of analysis Wood claims he is offering here is not always borne out by the results. Wood is critical of his earlier approach to Hitchcock and its “failure to perceive Hitchcock’s work as the site of an ideological battleground.” (p. 358) For the Robin Wood of 1965, it was coherence rather than contradiction that was operative as distinct from what he feels that he offers now. But if we turn to the essay from which the above quote was taken, “The Men Who Knew Too Much (and the Women Who Knew Much Better),” we find something a bit more complicated. Here Wood offers a superb analysis of how the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much explores the tensions between the husband and wife in that film. But the ways in which Wood frames his arguments suggest that the contradictions exist primarily within the dominant culture. Hitchcock’s film, by contrast, coherently and systematically offers a critique of the oppressive nature of bourgeois marriage and women’s role within it. In other words, Wood’s basic drives as a critic (at least in relation Hitchcock) are still largely geared towards stressing the coherence and unity of the work rather than its contradictions. (The one major exception to this tendency would be “Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia,” which does fully live up to Wood’s larger claims for it.)


This suggests that the differences between 1960s Wood and his later work are not always as substantial as Wood would have us believe. I was surprised, for example, in reading the new Marnie essay in how little Wood’s basic approach to the film had changed. As in the 1965 edition, there is still the need to “sell” the film and convince the reader of its greatness, necessary in 1965 when the film was so poorly received but less urgent now. The new chapter contains references to “this remarkable film” (p. 401) which “even after repeated viewings, reduces me to sobs at two climactic points” and in which everyone is “flawless” (right down to the waitress in the Howard Johnson’s). (p. 390) There is still a concern with the film’s “universal meaning” in which Marnie is not so much an extreme case “as an exaggeration of all of us” (p. 392) suggesting a tie back to Wood’s earlier broad humanism: In 1965 he wrote that Marnie “represents an extreme of something relevant to all of us: the grip of the past on the present. If few of as are Marnies, there is something of Marnie in all of us.” (p. 182) The nature of the “rape” scene is still being debated and while the influence of feminism has undoubtedly sharpened Wood’s insight into this controversial moment, his conclusions are remarkably similar. In 1965, he argues: “To the man it is an expression of tenderness, solicitude, responsibility; to the woman, an experience so desolating that after it she attempts suicide.” In 2002, we find this: “So, does Mark rape Marnie? My own answer is that Marnie may experience it as rape, but Mark does not know—and cannot know—that he is raping her.” (p. 395) This “cannot know” relates to Wood’s more careful reading, influenced by feminist discourse, of a character he had earlier approached in terms of his healthy and therapeutic function. Wood now sees more contradictions within Mark than he was able to see earlier. But the therapeutic aspect to his earlier reading of Mark is not substantially different here and the contradictions within Mark are seen as a conscious strategy on Hitchcock’s part which Wood finds “very satisfying, the twin aspects of the ambivalence very precisely realized.” (p. 392) The “inner tension, contradiction, and ambivalence” rather than “achieved coherence” that Wood once claimed had so interested him in Marnie (in a 1989 footnote to the original chapter on the film, p. 236) fade in 2002 as Wood’s enthusiasm for the film takes over and he once again situates the film within a framework that stresses unity and perfection.

At the same time, I can think of almost no other Hitchcock critic who manages this kind of elucidation with such elegance or insight. Hitchcock’s Films, whether revisited, revised or in its original “innocent” state, remains among the half dozen or so most important studies of Hitchcock and will no doubt always be a source of ongoing discussion, debate and, most of all, inspiration.

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About The Author

Joe McElhaney is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York. His book At the Breaking Point: Lang, Hitchcock, Minnelli and the Decline of Classical Cinema will be published in 2004 by Temple University Press.

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