Alfred Hitchcock and the Moving Camera: Authorship, Style, and Declarative Aesthetics

by Kyle Barrowman Volume 27, Issue 1-2 / February 2023 51 minutes (12646 words)

The artist is responsible for everything that happens in [their] work – and not just in the sense that it is done, but in the sense that it is meant. It is a terrible responsibility; very few [artists] have the gift and the patience and the singleness to shoulder it. But it is all the more terrible, when it is shouldered, not to appreciate it, to refuse to understand something meant so well (Cavell [1967] 1976: 236-237).

To begin his groundbreaking 1965 book Hitchcock’s Films, Robin Wood posed the question: “Why take Hitchcock seriously?” (Wood [1965] 2002: 55). It has now been over half a century since Wood originally posed that question, and in that time the serious studies of Alfred Hitchcock that have proliferated, in which countless scholars have provided a multitude of different answers to that question, are virtually innumerable. At this point, having proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hitchcock ought to be seriously studied, it seems worthwhile to pose a different question: Why continue studying Hitchcock? Have we not mined all that there is to mine in the Master of Suspense’s filmography? Is there anything left to discover? Surprisingly, there is an aspect of Hitchcock’s artistry that has not only seldom been addressed but that, on the rare occasions when it has been addressed, has provoked wildly differing opinions regarding Hitchcock’s artistic skill in utilizing it and its significance in Hitchcock’s films. The aspect to which I am referring is camera movement.

In his New York Times review of Hitchcock’s British thriller Secret Agent (1936), B.R. Crisler criticizes Hitchcock’s “inexpert camera technique,” which he identifies as merely one of the film’s many “debits” in addition to its allegedly “incorrect” editing and “uneven” sound design (Crisler 1936). Wood, meanwhile, in an article amusingly written under the Hitchcockian pseudonym George Kaplan, criticizes Hitchcock’s “particular technique” of using camera movement to evoke “a kind of mental and moral somnambulism” as “largely pointless” and, moreover, as a technique that he often used “inappropriately” (Wood 1972). By contrast, in his seminal text Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, William Rothman praises Hitchcock’s use of camera movement in a film as early as The Lodger (1927), in which, in the shot of the Lodger knocking on the Buntings’ front door, Rothman argues that Hitchcock expertly combines character, camera, and author by suggesting that this shadowy figure “has a special bond with the camera” as “an agent of the film’s author: when his hand enters the frame and seizes the knocker, setting in motion the events of the plot, it is as if Hitchcock himself were showing his hand” (Rothman [1982] 2012: 15). Murray Pomerance, meanwhile, echoes Rothman’s praise in An Eye for Hitchcock, though for Pomerance it is not Hitchcock’s use of elaborate or expressionistic camera movements that he singles out for praise but rather “his meticulous, even obsessive, attention to the optical configuration of his screen,” which is manifest in “his economy of camera movement” (Pomerance 2004: 4).

Inexpert or expert? Pointless and inappropriate or meticulous and economical? Critics and scholars could not be in more profound disagreement with respect to Hitchcock’s use of the moving camera. Of course, as Wood himself pointed out as long ago as 1972, “it would be absurd to pretend that there was unanimity of opinion” with respect to all (or any) of the many facets of Hitchcock’s artistry (Wood 1972). This is one way of answering the question “Why continue studying Hitchcock?”: Because scholars still do not agree on a number of important points, and the disagreements have implications that extend far beyond the films of one particular filmmaker. To wit, the fact that there has been so little attention paid, and that there is so little clarity with regard, to camera movement in Hitchcock’s films is relevant beyond the context of this one filmmaker: It is symptomatic of the widespread neglect of camera movement in film studies (cf. Morgan 2011, 2015, 2016, 2021; see also Schonig 2017, 2018, 2022; Barrowman 2020b, 2023). Additionally, investigations into the unique aesthetics of individual films and the unique aesthetic strategies of individual filmmakers invariably open out onto epistemological and ethical questions vis-à-vis authorship and critical practice. 1

Given the vastness of this critical and philosophical terrain, combined with the rather limited scope of a single article, in what follows, I will modestly pursue two related lines of inquiry. First, I intend to elucidate the camera movements that constitute an essential yet overlooked aspect of Hitchcock’s artistry. In line with Rothman’s intuition that Hitchcock is prone to “showing his hand” within his films, I will explicate the nature and the significance of what I will refer to as Hitchcock’s declarative camera movements. Declarative aesthetics are not unique to Hitchcock, but the consistency across his films – silent and sound, British and American – with which he declares his authorial presence via camera movements is. Second, I will challenge current critical practice in film studies vis-à-vis author-based criticism. After demonstrating the conceptual problems that necessarily follow attempts to sidestep or modify intentionalist criticism, I will encourage film scholars to (re)embrace their auteurist roots, many of which significantly sprouted in Hitchcockian soil (cf. Cameron 1972; Hillier 1985). Taken together, these two lines of inquiry will hopefully highlight the utility of metacriticism. In addition to illuminating overlooked or misunderstood aspects of Hitchcock’s artistry, I will also illuminate problematic or fallacious language and arguments vis-à-vis authorship and style with specific reference to, but with general relevance beyond, the films of Alfred Hitchcock. 2

To begin, I must first expound on the concept of declarative aesthetics. In his assiduous analysis of The Lodger, Rothman at one point posits that “The Lodger declares that there is an author who presides over its world” (Rothman [1982] 2012: 55). All throughout Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, Rothman explores the means by which people and ideas are “declared” in films. But this specific claim, that somehow the presence of an author can be declared, provided the basis for my conception of declarative aesthetics generally and declarative camera movement specifically. 3 To provide an initial example of declarative camera movement, consider the museum scene early in Vertigo (1958), in which Scottie (James Stewart), having begun to surveil Madeleine (Kim Novak), follows her to an art museum. While there, he notices a couple of quirks about Madeleine. Of course, he has already been told by Madeleine’s husband, Gavin (Tom Helmore), the man who hired Scottie to surveil his wife, that Madeleine has been behaving strangely. But watching Madeleine seated before a painting – which turns out to be the Portrait of Carlotta, depicting a woman named Carlotta Valdes – Scottie notices, first, that Madeleine’s bouquet is the same as the bouquet that Carlotta is holding in the painting, and second, that Madeleine has a spiral hairdo just like Carlotta does.

What is significant about this scene is not that Scottie notices these things, but rather, how Hitchcock brings his audience into the sleuthing process. Hitchcock does not simply utilize shot/reverse shot editing and static images to show Scottie looking and then what Scottie is looking at, namely, the bouquets and the hairdos. Rather, Hitchcock uses a series of camera movements involving tilts, dollies, and pans designed to draw our attention to the bouquets and the hairdos. First, Hitchcock tilts up from the bouquet on the bench beside the seated Madeleine and then dollies in on the painting, in which Carlotta is holding the very same bouquet. Second, Hitchcock dollies in on Madeleine’s spiral hairdo and then tilts up, pans left, and dollies in on Carlotta’s spiral hairdo in the painting. 4

In an effort to explain what Hitchcock is doing here and why – assuming, of course, that there is something significant about Hitchcock’s camera movements in this scene – we may determine that, given the centrality of Scottie’s acts of looking, Hitchcock’s moving camera is aligned with (and meant to align us with) Scottie’s perspective within the world of the film. To conceptualize the moving camera in this way, as providing a spectatorial surrogate, is the most obvious and intuitive way to think and talk about the moving camera. Hence the classic example of Laura Mulvey adducing Vertigo as a paradigmatic example of “the male gaze,” and indeed going so far as to argue that “the look is central to the plot, oscillating between voyeurism and fetishistic fascination” (Mulvey 1975: 15). Interestingly, in his recent consideration of the vicissitudes of camera movement, Daniel Morgan also interprets Hitchcock’s camera movements here in Vertigo in this way. To Morgan’s mind, corroborating Mulvey’s intuition, “these shots show Scottie’s increasing fascination with Madeleine” (Morgan 2021: 43). But Morgan goes a step further than Mulvey. These shots also, Morgan contends, “make us fascinated,” and not by Madeleine as a visual/sexual object, but by the discoveries of the identical bouquets and hairdos:

[We] feel the dawning of awareness as we are pulled into an ephemeral world in which past and present are coming together. In this sense, [Hitchcock] relies on us as viewers to feel that we are “at” the position of the camera as it moves through the world of this film, that this movement aligns us with the camera’s investigative mood. Scottie is thus not the only one who discerns an affinity between Madeleine and Carlotta; as the camera moves, we feel that we discover for ourselves – along with the camera – the visual affinities that reside in the painting. For a moment, we are within the world of the film, just as surely as Scottie is (Morgan 2021: 43).

Out of respect to Morgan, I want to state for the record that I think that he gets a lot right about this scene. We do feel the dawning of awareness and we do discover salient facts about Madeleine’s fascination with this painting. However, there is more, I think, that Morgan gets wrong about this scene, and what he gets wrong – and the language that he uses in his effort to analyze the scene – is instructive with respect to the types of errors and imprecisions that I will be keen to chronicle, and hopefully correct, in what follows.

For starters, are we, as Morgan contends, “within” the world of the film “just as surely as Scottie is,” and does Hitchcock rely on us to feel that we are “at” the position of the camera? Common sense would require us to deny Morgan’s contention that we are within the world of the film “just as surely as Scottie is.” Scottie is a fictional character. We at no point exist within the fictional world that he inhabits in the same way that he exists within that world. Short of a Last Action Hero (1993) scenario whereby we are allowed to be physically transported into the films that we watch, it is impossible for us to enter a fictional world at all and so it is impossible for us to exist within a fictional world “just as surely” as a fictional character does. Common sense would also require us to deny that we feel that we are “at” the position of the camera. Surely no viewers of Vertigo feel as if they are walking up to Madeleine from behind and essentially burying their faces in her hair, only to then evidently climb over the bench on which she is sitting in order to stare at the Portrait of Carlotta from a few centimeters away from the surface of the painting. Lastly, and most importantly, does it make sense to describe a camera as discovering things or being in an investigative mood – or, indeed, as even being capable of discovering anything or being in any mood? Surely cameras are not conscious and volitional entities, which is to say that they surely do not think things any more than they feel things or do things.

At the risk of appearing pedantic, I highlight the nonsensical nature of Morgan’s language in order to draw attention, on the one hand, to the ease with which we anthropomorphize cameras 5 – which necessarily and problematically entails the exclusion of authors, who are the relevant conscious and volitional agents whose thoughts and moods ought to be foregrounded rather than illicitly anthropomorphized cameras – and, on the other hand, to the power of the unchecked assumption that perspective is paramount in considerations of camera movement and that determining “where we are” and “who we are with” within the world of a film ought to be our top priority in aesthetic analysis. 6 Contrary to these tendencies – and counter to Morgan’s reading of this scene from Vertigo – I offer the concept of declarative aesthetics generally and declarative camera movement specifically in order to give pride of place back to authors and to ground criticism in more sensible language that more accurately reflects the intentions of filmmakers and the perceptual/conceptual activities of viewers.

If we take another pass over the museum scene from Vertigo, this time from an author-based perspective and armed with the concept of declarative aesthetics, we might say that Hitchcock’s camera movements in this scene are examples of him showing his hand and declaring his presence as the author of the film. Rather than interpreting the moving camera here as aligned with, and thus as expressive of, Scottie’s perspective, I submit that we ought to interpret the moving camera as Hitchcock’s means of providing us with important information. Had Hitchcock kept his camera stationary and used a standard shot/reverse shot editing pattern, we still would have been able to glean that Scottie is putting pieces of a puzzle together and being drawn into a mysterious web. However, by shoving it in our faces that the bouquets and the hairdos are the same, Hitchcock makes clear that these camera movements are for our benefit, quite apart from Scottie. In short, Hitchcock’s camera is not (and thus we are not) aligned with Scottie in this scene. To corroborate this claim, notice that Hitchcock shows us Madeleine’s and Carlotta’s spiral hairdos before Scottie notices them. Hitchcock shows us the spiral hairdos and then he shows us Scottie seeing them and reacting to them. If at the start of the scene we were a step behind Scottie, Hitchcock makes sure that by scene’s end we are not merely on the same page as Scottie, we are a step ahead of him.

Clearly, then, we are not (meant to think of ourselves as) aligned with Scottie in this scene. Not only is this plainly not how Hitchcock operates in this film – as we all know, Hitchcock famously reveals the twist to us in the last act well before Scottie learns of it – but Hitchcock rarely operates in such a fashion as to offer us straightforward identification with his protagonists. Recall, for an additional example beyond Vertigo, arguably the most significant camera movement in Rear Window (1954), in which James Stewart plays another one of Hitchcock’s sleuths. In this earlier film, Stewart’s character Jeff, who is confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg and who amuses himself by watching the goings-on in his apartment complex, falls asleep one night while surveilling the mysterious Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr). All through the night, from the moment that he hears what sounds like a woman screaming and then pleading “Don’t!” followed by a glass crashing, Jeff surveils the apartment complex, and he notices Thorwald coming and going through the rainy night. Jeff continually checks his watch and tries to keep track of Thorwald’s movements. However, as night begins to give way to morning, Jeff dozes off. To this point, we may have been able to indulge in the intuitive assumption that we are looking out on the apartment complex with Jeff, that we are (perceptually) seeing from and thus are (conceptually) aligned with his perspective. From this point on, however, we are separated from Jeff, and on Hitchcock’s initiative. Fading in on Jeff sleeping in his wheelchair, Hitchcock moves his camera away from Jeff – effectively disengaging us from him, as if we needed to be told explicitly that we are not seeing this film through Jeff’s eyes and are neither perceptually nor conceptually bound to him – by panning clockwise 180 degrees and allowing us to see Thorwald exit his apartment with a woman. Hitchcock then moves his camera back to Jeff, panning back counterclockwise and showing us Jeff still fast asleep. The message is clear: Jeff did not see this, but we did see it, and the only reason that we saw it is because Hitchcock wanted us to see it – Hitchcock declared his presence in order to sever our connection with Jeff and to literally direct our vision in a manner separate from Jeff’s perceptions.

In these scenes from Vertigo and Rear Window, Hitchcock treats his protagonists and his viewers very differently; he gives each access to (or withholds) information, and he does so disproportionately. This is an aesthetic strategy of his that can be found in films as early as Blackmail (1929) and as late as Frenzy (1972). In fact, these are the two films which I will consider in the greatest detail in what remains. In Blackmail, during the sequence in which Alice White (Anny Ondra) accompanies a lecherous Artist (Cyril Ritchard) up to his apartment, where he attempts to rape her and she kills him in self-defense, there is a disconcerting dolly shot of a painting which depicts a jester pointing and laughing. In Frenzy (1972), when the rapist-murderer Robert “Bob” Rusk (Barry Foster) brings his patsy-friend Richard Ian “Dick” Blaney’s (Jon Finch) girlfriend Barbara Jane “Babs” Milligan (Anna Massey) to his apartment under the pretense of giving her a place to stay while he goes out of town, there is an elaborate and haunting shot that proceeds from inside the apartment building outside of Rusk’s door – on the other side of which he will ultimately rape and murder Babs – down the stairs, out the front door, and onto the street. Though these camera movements from Blackmail and Frenzy function differently than the previously chronicled camera movements from Vertigo and Rear Window, they are all declarative camera movements: In each shot, Hitchcock is showing his hand à la Rothman, he is declaring his presence as the author and directing our vision to, or away from, exactly what he wants us to see, or not to see, in a particular way for a particular purpose.

At this point in my explication of declarative aesthetics, there are two additional points worth making. First, even though I have been focusing on declarative camera movement because of the prevalence of declarative camera movements in Hitchcock’s films, I want to clarify that camera movement is not the only aesthetic device that can be declarative in this way. Second, even though declarative camera movements are an effective aesthetic device utilized by countless filmmakers, not every camera movement is declarative in this way.

To the first point, that camera movement is not the only aesthetic device that can be declarative in this way, editing can also be declarative in this way, as can sound design. For an example of declarative editing, we can think of the way that Ingmar Bergman repeatedly edits in images of Anna’s (Liv Ullmann) letter from her husband and the lines therein about “psychological and physical violence” at emotionally charged moments in The Passion of Anna (1969). These are jarring moments that break our absorption in the story, moments in which Bergman declares his presence and directs our attention to important information about a character in his film, which information he wants us to have at the front of our minds at these specific moments in the unfolding of his mystery narrative. For an example of declarative sound design, meanwhile, we can think of the way that Alan Parker inserts the sound of a heart beating and whispered mentions of the name “Johnny” at various points throughout Angel Heart (1987). These are bizarre moments that seem to exist on a plane separate from the narrative; it is as if Parker is at these moments pulling back the curtain from which he as the Oz-like storyteller is leading us by the nose in order to give us a clue to an enigma that is too horrifying even to fathom. Indeed, just as Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) leads Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) by the nose throughout the film, so Parker leads us by the nose throughout the film, in effect inverting the standard Author-as-God picture of storytelling in favor of an Author-as-Devil picture, hence the sense of authorial malevolence or mischievousness in these moments when Parker declares his presence to nudge us in the direction of the dark truth at the center of his supernatural film noir.

To the second point, that not every camera movement is declarative in this way, it is worth acknowledging that, to some degree, every movement of the camera – as well as, for that matter, every cut, every fade, every sound effect, every music cue – does have something like a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation” effect, inasmuch as every such aesthetic device calls attention to every film’s status as a film. Yet, not every camera movement is evidence of an authorial declaration. To adduce the films of Quentin Tarantino on this latter point, there is no plausible “real life” phenomenological corollary to the revolving camera that encircles the diner table at which the criminals discourse on Madonna, tipping, and K-Billy’s “Super Sounds of the Seventies” in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992). Put bluntly, using camera movement in this way is a strange if not disorienting way to shoot this scene. That said, Tarantino is not declaring his presence as the author of the film by virtue of this aesthetic strategy. Rather, the effect, over and above the sense of phenomenological alienation or strangeness, is one of absorption: Tarantino so deftly and so thoroughly encloses us within this circle of fascinating characters having conversations as hilarious as they are intense that ultimately it does become as if we are there at the table hanging out with this colorful cast of characters. Tarantino’s utilization of the moving camera in Reservoir Dogs, in other words, never breaks our immersion in the story, it does not prompt questions like: Why am I seeing this like this at this moment? What am I being directed to look at? What is the director trying to express via this particular camera movement? In the aforementioned examples from Hitchcock’s films, however, these are precisely the questions that we are invited – by Hitchcock via his declarative camera movements – to ask at these precise moments in the films. To follow the logic of this point through with reference to Tarantino, if the rotating camera that he utilizes in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs is not an example of a declarative camera movement, the dolly away from the monologuing Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the rack focus from Warren to the soon-to-be-compromised coffeepot in The Hateful Eight (2015) is: Tarantino wants us to see something that none of the other characters see, namely, the poisoning of the coffeepot. Moreover, Tarantino declares his presence even more explicitly here in The Hateful Eight than Hitchcock ever did, as this declarative camera movement is accompanied by expository voice-over narration provided by Tarantino himself: Tarantino both shows us and tells us exactly what he wants us to see.

The logic of declarative aesthetics should now be clear: Declarative aesthetics provide filmmakers with the ability to use aesthetic devices to literally direct our attention to or away from that which they want us or do not want us to know. The reason that the identification of this aesthetic strategy in Hitchcock’s films is important is twofold. First, it helps to shed light on moments in films that critics and scholars have historically either passed over as insignificant or misunderstood. (We have already seen an example from Morgan’s work of how easy it is to miss or mischaracterize salient facts about camera movement.) Second, it provides new occasions for meditations on authorship and critical practice. (We have also already seen an example from Morgan’s work of how easy it is to elide authorship in favor of anthropomorphizing the camera.) I will explore the concept of authorship in greater detail when I turn to the declarative camera movement in Frenzy. Before that, I would like to explore the declarative camera movement in Blackmail. More specifically, I want to consider the significance of this declarative camera movement in light of Wood’s analysis of Blackmail, which is instructive inasmuch as he virtually ignores this important camera movement. 7

To be fair, Wood admits that his analytical focus is less on “the construction of [any given] individual shot” or “composition within the individual frame” and more on “narrative structure” (Wood [1989b] 2002: 251). However, he does have occasion to bring up various of Hitchcock’s visual strategies in this sequence, yet this declarative camera movement goes conspicuously unremarked. For Wood, there are “only two obtrusively ‘striking’ shots” in the entire sequence with Alice and the Artist, “striking, that is, in terms of a cinematographic virtuosity that attracts attention to itself.” The first is “the elaborate upward crane shot” that Hitchcock uses to follow Alice as the Artist escorts her up the stairs to his apartment (and which is echoed in Frenzy). The second is “the overhead shot of the [same] stairwell that passively and distantly records Alice’s solitary descent” after she has killed the Artist in self-defense (Wood [1989b] 2002: 265).

To my mind, there are at least two shots that Wood ignores but that are worth mentioning in this sequence, both of which are declarative camera movements. The first is the powerful dolly shot in on the knife that Alice uses to kill the Artist. Beginning as a wide shot of the apartment, the attempted rape is happening offscreen behind a bedroom curtain. With her cries audible behind the curtain, Hitchcock for his part tracks in from the wide shot to a close-up shot of the knife, at which point Alice’s hand, desperately reaching out from behind the curtain, grasps the means to defend herself. In one sense, this camera movement is an empathetic gesture on Hitchcock’s part: He declares his authorial presence and assures his audience that Alice’s salvation is (literally) at hand. In another sense, however, there is something ominous about this shot: Hitchcock is trading on the ambiguity of the ensuing act of violence, which allows Alice to survive but which comes with its own consequences – namely, the Hitchcock hallmark of guilt – hence the powerful impact of this enigmatic declarative camera movement. The second is the previously adduced dolly shot of the painting of the jester. For my purposes here, I will focus on the latter shot.

To Wood’s credit, he correctly identifies the thematic significance of the figure of the jester broadly speaking: He is “the image … [of Alice’s] surrender to moral laxity.” Hence, first, the shot of Alice “nervously misinterpret[ing] him as ridiculing simply the narrowly circumscribed morality she [intends] to flout” – she even laughs and “points her finger, imitating his gesture, momentarily constructing herself as his mirror image” – and, second, the shot of her “tearing the canvas with her fingernails” after she has killed the Artist “in an attempt to destroy the image … which now seems to be ridiculing her in her terrifying predicament” (Wood [1989b] 2002: 268-269). Yet, Wood’s larger analysis of why Hitchcock shows us the jester when and as he does is unable to account for the moral implications of Hitchcock’s visual strategies. With reference to the dolly shot of the painting of the jester, this declarative camera movement occurs within a shot/reverse-shot sequence. Inside the Artist’s apartment, Alice notices a canvas which depicts a jester pointing and laughing. Hitchcock cuts from Alice looking offscreen to a close-up of the jester’s face, which is followed by a declarative camera movement – Hitchcock rapidly dollies out from the close-up of the jester’s face to a long shot of the entire canvas and the easel on which it is displayed, in effect underlining the painting (not unlike the underlining effects of Hitchcock’s declarative camera movements in the museum scene in Vertigo) and foreshadowing its significance – before Hitchcock cuts back to Alice, who innocently laughs at the painting. In this ostentatious shot, Hitchcock is declaring his authorial presence and providing via the image of the jester a moral perspective from which to view what transpires.

This is confirmed by the presence of the painting of the jester in the final scene. In the police station, after having not only escaped police investigation following her self-defense killing of the Artist, and having not only escaped the threats of a blackmailer who sought to cash-in on Alice’s precarious position, but having found that the blackmailer has been identified as the Artist’s killer, Alice sees the painting of the jester being carried out as evidence. Despite what is ostensibly a happy ending – Alice’s boyfriend and another police officer are seen laughing at the end of the film – the presence of the jester is no longer a source of innocent laughter for Alice: She must now carry with her for the rest of her life a moral debt – not only the cost of the stress experienced by her and her boyfriend but of the lives of the Artist and the blackmailer – as a result of her illicit desire for extra-relational excitement, and her acknowledgment of this is indexed in her inability to laugh in the presence of that painting.

In Wood’s analysis of this sequence, he suggestively contrasts the anarchic jester, who signifies “ridicul[ing] authority,” with the policeman walking a beat outside of the Artist’s apartment, who quite literally represents authority and the law. According to Wood, “initially, Alice feels reassured by the policeman and alarmed by the jester,” insofar as the policeman “stands in” for her boyfriend, Frank (John Longden), also a policeman, and for “the security of the patriarchal order” more broadly (Wood [1989b] 2002: 268). Counter to this reading, I would argue that, initially, Alice, in an exhibitionist manner, is spurred on (and turned on) by the presence of a stand-in for the boyfriend whom she intends to defy (and the patriarchal order that he represents and which she intends to defy by extension), while the figure of the jester, in line with Wood’s comments about the way that Alice constructs herself as his mirror image, takes on for her the quality of an ally or spirit guide in her quest to defy patriarchal convention and morality.

More egregious still is Wood’s contention that, in the final scene at the police station, the jester first “laugh[s] at Frank” before ultimately “laughing at the audience” (Wood [1989b] 2002: 269). This is patently false. For one thing, since Alice is the main character, it would not make sense for a film about her and her harrowing ordeal to culminate with Hitchcock pronouncing moral judgment on a secondary character. For another thing, in the context of an analysis in which his primary task was the elucidation of the “obsessively symmetrical” (Wood [1989b] 2002: 251) construction of this film, Wood ironically fails to connect the symmetrical first and last shots of the painting of the jester in relation to Alice’s changed positions between the shots.

If Alice initially misinterprets the jester as signifying the ridiculing of, and thereby encouraging her to ridicule, patriarchal authority then it is of the utmost importance to register the fact that she ultimately correctly interprets the jester according to Hitchcock’s terms as a signifier of chaos, and she learns the painful lesson that chaos does not discriminate; it does not play favorites and it cannot be controlled. What she thought would be an innocent night of playful transgression – of defiant activity for which she would be in the driver’s seat and which would produce no negative consequences for anyone, least of all her – turned into a face-to-face encounter with the unpredictable and uncontrollable darkness of humanity, with that which is implied by the mischievous mockery of Nietzschean figures (like Alice’s imagined jester) who regard themselves as beyond good and evil. And Hitchcock, by virtue of the declarative camera movement with which he first presented Alice and us with the figure of the jester, extended to Alice and to us the opportunity to be forewarned and forearmed. In this way, Hitchcock provides a perfect example of, in Leland Poague’s terms, his “ethics of vision”: Though he will often declare his authorial presence, and often by virtue of declarative camera movements, Hitchcock “do[es] no more than suggest that what [his characters and his audiences] choose to see and how [they/we] choose to see it are matters of ethical consequence” (Poague 1982: 149).

It may be impossible for us, as rational agents, to know the consequences of any given action before we choose to act. But Hitchcock, as the author of this film, has established its moral coordinates. By virtue of this declarative camera movement, he gives Alice and us a chance to see that the consequences of her (unethical) actions will be dire. Moreover, if we fail to see this the first time around, as Alice most certainly did, Hitchcock gives us another chance at the end: Upon encountering the painting of the jester again after choices have been made and consequences have been acknowledged, Hitchcock gives Alice and us a chance to realize the depth of our mistake. Alice most certainly did. Whether we did follows directly from whether we registered the significance of Hitchcock’s declarative aesthetics.

Hopefully, this analysis of Blackmail and Hitchcock’s use of declarative aesthetics therein has clarified at least to some degree the nature and the significance of declarative aesthetics generally and Hitchcock’s use of declarative camera movement specifically. However, the issues that I referred to at the beginning of this article pertaining to authorship and critical practice remain to be discussed. My speaking just now of Hitchcock’s ethics of vision – not the film’s ethics of vision, but Hitchcock’s ethics of vision – is meant to indicate a commitment on my part to author-based criticism. To be sure, I want to stress the importance of registering the presence in films of declarative aesthetics generally and declarative camera movements specifically. But the very notion of declarative aesthetics presupposes a conscious and volitional entity capable of declaring things via aesthetics. To my mind, when it comes to identifying such an entity vis-à-vis Blackmail, the identification is simple: Obviously, Alfred Hitchcock is the author of this film, hence he is the one who is declaring his authorial presence and hence it is his ethics of vision that is manifest in the construction of his film. To many critics and scholars, however, this point is anything but obvious.

Indeed, I submit that Wood’s failure to discern the meaning and the significance of Hitchcock’s declarative camera movement vis-à-vis the painting of the jester in Blackmail is the logical consequence of his failure to maintain a consistent author-based perspective on the film. 8 This is evident in his postulation that the painting can be interpreted as “ridiculing, among other things, the private life of his creator [i.e. the Artist], as is not uncommon with works of art (including many of Hitchcock’s own)” (Wood [1989b] 2002: 268). Strictly speaking, this is nonsense. The painting of the jester is not (capable of) doing anything of its own accord. Nor are any of Hitchcock’s films (capable of) doing anything of their own accord. Artworks do not “do” things. They are not conscious nor are they volitional. To anthropomorphize artworks in this manner is not only silly, it obscures the actual process of discerning the meanings of artworks, namely, via author-based criticism.

With respect to the disciplinary history of film studies, I have argued that the virtually schizophrenic gesture of affirming and denying the concept of authorship in the same breath is the founding gesture of film studies and represents its fundamental impasse (cf. Barrowman 2018). Put simply, if the purpose of criticism is to understand what artworks mean then this necessarily entails discovering the intentions of their authors. Authorship, in other words, is axiomatic: To try to discern the meaning of an artwork is to try to discern the intentions of its author. It is not a matter of taking it to mean that: That is what it means (cf. Knapp and Benn Michaels 1982; see also Michaels 2020; Landy 2020; Abbott 2020). If it is a tragic irony that some critics and scholars act as if they were unaware of this fact, it is all the more tragic when critics and scholars try helplessly to deny this fact.

Robert Pippin, for instance, in prefacing his recent analysis of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, provides what he calls a “statement of principles.” He articulates one such principle as follows:

I am adopting the so-called fictional or as-if narrator position, an implication of which is that the attribution of intentions to such a narrator has nothing to do with what some historical individual, e.g., the director, actually had in mind (Pippin 2017: 4).

And yet, he goes on to characterize the activity of film viewers in the following terms:

We want to know the point of showing us such a story at all, and showing it to us in just this way, with just this selection of shots, from which point of view at what point in the film, with just this selection of detail. In the same way that we could say that we understood perfectly some sentence said to us by someone, but that we cannot understand the point of his saying it now, here, in this context, given what we had been discussing, we could also say that we can understand some complex feature of a movie plot, but wonder what the point might have been in showing us this feature in such a way in that context (Pippin 2017: 4-5).

Respectfully, I am confused as to how Pippin thinks that we can possibly discern “the point” of a film without reference to (the intentions of) its author, or, by the same token, how we can possibly discern “the point” of “some sentence said to us by someone” without reference to (the intentions of) that someone. It is rather telling, though, that Pippin likens the act of trying to discern the meaning of an artwork to trying to discern the meaning of an utterance, for despite claiming to be “in agreement with Stanley Cavell” vis-à-vis aesthetic criticism (Pippin 2017: 4 n.6), Pippin’s position is anathema: Cavell himself states in no uncertain terms that “the first fact of works of art is that they are meant,” and while Cavell explicitly states Pippin’s implicit premise – namely, that an artwork is, “whatever else it is … an utterance” (Cavell [1967] 1976: 228) – the conclusion that Cavell draws runs counter to the position evinced by Pippin:

There must, [in language], be reasons for what you say … if what you say is to be comprehensible. We can understand what the words mean apart from understanding why you say them; but apart from understanding the point of your saying them we cannot understand what you mean … The emphasis is [thus] on the fact that [expressions] are said (or, of course, written) by human beings, to human beings, in definite contexts, in a language they share: hence the obsession with the use of expressions (Cavell 1979: 206).

Relating this to film criticism, Pippin assumes, contra Cavell, that it is not only possible but desirable to try to determine what films mean apart from understanding what their authors mean. But this is impossible. What is more, Pippin knows this, even if he refuses for whatever reason(s) to acknowledge it. 9 Though Pippin proclaims his principled stance against author-based criticism, his actual criticism is author-based. Despite gesturing toward a further abstraction away from individual authorship, even of a fictional variety, to a “collective intelligence we can postulate behind the making of [a] film” (Pippin 2017: 4), when he speaks of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, he speaks of it as “his masterpiece,” not their masterpiece (whoever/whatever they might be) (Pippin 2017: 10). When he describes how in Vertigo there is a discernible similarity invoked “between our susceptibility for, desire for, fantasy and the control of appearances and the movie world,” he says that “Hitchcock invokes” this; it is not “the film itself” or any “collective intelligence” that is doing the invoking (however that would work) (Pippin 2017: 110). Most telling of all, in arguing for the value of classical Hollywood cinema, he decries the false binary of art and entertainment and proclaims that “it is a mark of the geniuses of Hollywood cinema, Ford, Hawks, Sturges, Lubitsch, Ophüls, Welles, Lang, Cukor, Wilder, Hitchcock, and the like, that they found a way to achieve both” (Pippin 2017: 11). “They,” the individual “geniuses,” achieved this, in their films.

Admittedly, I have singled out Pippin because he is a contemporary Hitchcock scholar. But I do not want to harp on him. He is by no means the only film scholar who has gone on the record with a principled rejection of author-based criticism only to immediately thereafter conduct author-based criticism. Tom Gunning has also done this in his otherwise marvelous analyses of the films of D.W. Griffith (Gunning 1991) and Fritz Lang (Gunning 2000). Despite his incisive critique of David Bordwell – who argued that cinematic narration “presupposes a perceiver, but not a sender, of a message” (Bordwell 1985: 62), in response to which Gunning sardonically quipped “one wonders what sort of message this is” and “in what universe a receiver can respond to a message without wondering about a sender” (Gunning 1991: 23) – Gunning tries for his part to execute the exact same nonsensical theoretical two-step.

In the context of his analysis of Griffith’s films, after criticizing Bordwell’s “depersonalization of narrative” as a needless “academic abstraction” inasmuch as “the volitional activities” that Bordwell had “barred at his theoretical door” invariably “slip back in [through his] window of praxis,” not only does Gunning proceed to assert that “it is theoretically important to avoid identifying a narrator with a biological person such as the author,” a needless academic abstraction, he opts for the exact same Bordwellian depersonalization, as evidenced by his preference for “the term narrative discourse rather than narrator in order to stress” the alleged difference between “images and their construction” on the one hand and “a person,” that is, an author, on the other (Gunning 1991: 23-24). To make matters worse, Gunning doubles down on this bizarre author-based-yet-anti-author critical methodology in his analysis of Lang’s films. Though he laments the fact that film scholars unproductively “jettisoned” the concept of authorship and thereby “stunted the growth of a dynamic film criticism” (Gunning 2000: x), his remedy for this critical situation is to effectively theorize authors out of existence: He encourages scholars to conceptualize authorship in the (anything but) “novel manner” according to which some sort of vague Foucauldian/Derridean “play of discourse” ought to take precedence over the (allegedly fallacious) search for authorial “self-expression” (Gunning 2000: 5), for, according to his Barthesian logic, just as “the gods [were] created by man,” so the author of a film is “the creation of the reader” (Gunning 2000: 7).

I respectfully leave it to Gunning to explain the virtue, and the sense, of author-based criticism without authors. 10 The point to be made is that, methodologically speaking, Gunning does not just shift from “author” to “narrator,” which was Pippin’s gambit, he shifts even further to “narrative discourse,” which was Bordwell’s gambit. Yet, with respect to Gunning’s actual critical practice, it can be described exactly as Gunning himself described Bordwell’s critical practice 11 : The brilliance of Gunning’s analyses of Griffith’s and Lang’s films is unencumbered by this theoretical weak spot, because intentionality actually reemerges in his specific analyses (as it always does, and indeed as it always must). 12 In other words, the criticism that these scholars have produced contradicts the theoretical foundation on which their criticism was ostensibly built. Despite their avowed skepticism of author-based criticism, these scholars have all produced author-based criticism. 13 The takeaway from this is that it should not be surprising that even skeptics of author-based criticism cannot help but produce author-based criticism. This is the evidence that authorship is axiomatic. If critics and scholars acknowledge that artworks are made – that is, are intentional – objects then they must postulate some sort of intentionality, they must postulate some sort of creative agency responsible for the meaning of a given artwork. 14 The question is: What are the critical consequences of insisting on postulating an intentional and volitional agent other than an (individual human) author?

To answer this question, I want to pivot from the declarative camera movement in Blackmail to the declarative camera movement in Frenzy during the sequence in which Bob Rusk rapes and murders Babs Milligan in his apartment. More specifically, I want to consider the significance of this declarative camera movement in light of Bruce Isaacs’ recent analysis of Frenzy, which is instructive inasmuch as he falls into the same critical-theoretical abyss as Pippin, Gunning, and Bordwell with his equivocal language vis-à-vis authorship and style. In the case of Wood’s analysis of Blackmail, I singled out particular critical claims made by Wood, critiqued them, and provided alternatives. In the case of Isaacs’ analysis of Frenzy, by contrast, what I want to single out, critique, and provide an alternative to is the set of theoretical presuppositions that subtends his criticism.

Isaacs begins his analysis of Frenzy by claiming that “Frenzy negotiates two overarching modes of cinematic representation,” that of “the emerging social realism in the cinema of the 1970s” versus that of a “reflexive” and experimental style in which is evident “Hitchcock’s self-conscious investigation of film form, with a particular emphasis on visual composition” (Isaacs 2020: 30-31). Clearly, Isaacs begins from an author-based position. The nonsensical language at the start notwithstanding – Frenzy is not doing anything, including negotiating between modes of cinematic representation, Hitchcock is – Isaacs very clearly and coherently establishes his position: In Frenzy, Alfred Hitchcock as the author of the film is intentionally exploring the possibilities of his medium, and with a particular emphasis on visual composition.

From here, Isaacs moves on to “the famous sequence” in which Bob rapes and murders Babs, in which, per Isaacs, Hitchcock’s negotiation of these two modes is “exemplified,” as well as in which there are what Isaacs describes as “a number of expressive ‘cinematic’ movements.” Isaacs means camera movements, but his language is problematic: To Isaacs’ mind, in this sequence, there is a mysterious “registering [of] the presence of the apparatus” (Isaacs 2020: 31). There is nothing mysterious here, however. Isaacs is merely confusing things (and himself) with imprecise language. More accurately, in this sequence, Hitchcock uses “the apparatus” – that is, he uses camera movement – to declare his authorial presence. This is not merely a distinction without a difference, nor is it mere pedantry. The confusion that stems from incoherent language such as Isaacs’ is profound 15 .

Consider Isaacs’ summary and analysis of the sequence from when Bob and Babs enter his apartment building, through their ascent up the stairs to Bob’s apartment à la Blackmail, and up to the previously adduced camera movement back out of the apartment.

The image cuts [how/why?] to the interior of the apartment building, enacting a sudden and jarring reversion to a reflexive cinematic mode [how/why?] … Realist space and movement is [sic] punctured by a two shot on the staircase [how/why?]: it is again an excessive close-up (Isaacs 2020: 34).

There are myriad problems with this brief passage. First, as indicated by my bracketed running commentary, the language is nonsensical. Images do not cut by themselves, as if by magic. There are reasons why one image is preceded by or followed by another, reasons which have to do with the intentions of the author who created and ordered the images, that is to say, which have to do with the meaning of the images and of the film in which they appear when and as they appear. Second, the close-up two-shot of Bob and Babs ascending the staircase is not “excessive.” (Or, if it is excessive, the case for why, according to what standard, and based on what evidence remains to be made, a case which would require that Isaacs determine what Hitchcock was trying to do, why he was trying to do it, and how he exceeded his intended purpose.) On the contrary, I would argue that the compositional motivation for this close-up two-shot is, from an author-based perspective, fairly straightforward.

The purpose of that terrifying close-up two-shot in which Hitchcock uses his camera to track Bob and Babs up the stairs is to allow viewers to register the sinister look that Bob directs at Babs: She innocently looks up to where Bob said his apartment was, while Bob, for his part, stares through Babs. Had Hitchcock used a long(er) shot, or alternated between singles, the effect would not have been as powerful: It had to be an uninterrupted close-up so that viewers could see Bob stare through Babs, so that viewers could see his predatory eyes go cold. From an author-based perspective, this is a characteristic example of the way that Hitchcock creates suspense from discrepancies in knowledge between characters and viewers: Viewers know what is about to happen to Babs – we have already seen the evil in Bob unleashed in an earlier scene in which he raped and murdered his patsy-friend Dick’s ex-wife, Brenda Margaret Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) – but Babs is oblivious, and the long close-up two-shot amplifies the source of suspense (we see Bob stare through Babs) and prolongs our experience of suspense (for the interminable ascent we want desperately for Babs to be able to hear us yelling to her through the screen to turn around and run back down those stairs away from Bob). 16

Unfortunately, Isaacs’ failure to understand this powerful aesthetic choice on Hitchcock’s part, though a relatively minor misstep in and of itself, is merely his first misstep. After misconstruing the long close-up two-shot of Bob and Babs ascending the stairs, Isaacs moves on to a consideration of the previously adduced declarative camera movement out of the apartment. Once Babs enters Bob’s apartment, Hitchcock moves his camera back down the stairs, out the front door, and back out onto the street. Consider Isaacs’ summary and analysis of this camera movement:

As if in frustration at not being permitted entry, the camera decides to move, evidently seeking a better vantage point. It begins a slow pan to the right, and down, searching for an aperture; it moves into the wall briefly, but jars back, discovering no point of access … What is most striking [about this moving camera] is that the origin of this gaze … is the autonomous movement of the camera … This is a camera with agency and purpose that expresses a desire to see the act occurring behind the door … What is the nature of [this] presence of [the] cinematic apparatus? What does it mean to say that a camera – or the cinematic apparatus – can desire? (Isaacs 2020: 35-36).

To answer Isaacs’ last question first, “What does it mean to say that a camera – or the cinematic apparatus – can desire?”: Nothing. This is nonsense. Cameras do not do things. They certainly do not “decide to move” with their own “agency and purpose” based on their “autonomous” “desire to see.” Not only is this nonsense, it annuls Hitchcock’s artistry just as effectively as Pippin’s notions of fictional narrators or collective intelligences, just as effectively as Gunning’s notion of an impersonal narrative discourse, just as effectively as Bordwell’s notion of sender-less messages, etc. By virtue of this portentous camera movement, Hitchcock – who knows that we want to see if Babs will be okay, if she will somehow manage to survive and escape – declares his authorial presence and, just as he did in Blackmail with the push-in close-up of the knife that Alice uses to kill the Artist, trades on the emotional ambivalence of this camera movement. On the one hand, there is an empathetic element to this camera movement on Hitchcock’s part insofar as he is sparing us the horrific sight of yet another woman falling prey to this evil sexual predator. On the other hand, this camera movement allows Hitchcock to compound the suspense of the scene by driving home our helpless position as viewers seeing a world which we know but in which we are nevertheless not present and hence cannot intervene in or alter. 17

Isaacs, however, registers none of this. More accurately than saying that Isaacs has failed in his analysis to correctly understand Hitchcock’s visual strategies vis-à-vis declarative aesthetics – which would imply that this is what he was trying to do – he simply was not paying attention to the meaning of Hitchcock’s film. Instead, he was more concerned with the abstract significance of the sequence vis-à-vis the cinema as a unique medium: “The tracking shot is attentive to the unnatural cinematic space of the apartment interior; the [shot] says less about the diegetic world than about cinema’s capacity to express movement within a tightly choreographed cinematic frame” (Isaacs 2020: 35). Isaacs’ error here is compounded by the fact that his choice to attend to the abstract significance of camera movement “itself” in order to discuss reflexive cinematic practice “as such” causes him to fail to accurately identify the reflexive nature of Hitchcock’s camera movement, which is readily discernible in the context of author-based criticism. 18 In point of fact, Hitchcock’s moving camera is wholly determined by and designed to illuminate what is happening within the diegetic world of Frenzy. It is Isaacs – not “the tracking shot,” which Isaacs has endowed with its own intentionality and volition – who has chosen to devote his attention to “cinematic space” and to “the cinema’s capacity to express movement” rather than attend to what is happening in this scene in the context of this film made by this author.

In sum, to eschew author-based criticism does not merely render nonsensical the notion of declarative aesthetics; it ensures that our ability to understand what films mean, to understand and appreciate why they are as they are – which Cavell identified as “the critical question” and which he maintained ought to animate any activity worthy of the title of criticism (Cavell [1971] 1979: 187; cf. Barrowman 2021) – is forever out of our reach. In Wittgensteinian parlance, this could be called a certain “picture” of criticism (cf. Wittgenstein [1921] 2001: 9-12; see also Mitchell 1994, Genova 1995, Nyíri 2006). For Cavell, per my epigraph, this is a picture of criticism as tragedy; it depicts our inability to understand and appreciate the films that we love. This does not have to be the fate of criticism, however.

Personally, I believe that all film critics and scholars, even the most militantly anti-author critics and scholars out there, begin from a place of love: Love for the art of cinema and for its greatest artists, among whom Alfred Hitchcock must surely be counted. In the words of E.M. Forster, love is “the only [thing] which can establish … a first-class raison d’être for criticism in the arts”; “however cautiously, or with whatever reservations, after whatsoever purifications, we must come back to love,” because it is love alone that “raises us to the cooperation with the artist which is [or should be] the sole reason for our aesthetic pilgrimage” (Forster [1947] 1972: 118). The tragic irony is that the more strenuously that a film scholar rejects author-based criticism on “theoretical” grounds, the more that they actively ensure the critical impossibility of understanding what films mean and why they are as they are, including even the films that they love most.

To remedy this tragic situation, all that is required is that scholars simply acknowledge authors. To be sure, some will feel this to be an anticlimactic note on which to end my case (if not my polemic) for author-based criticism and the corollary concept of declarative aesthetics. Surely, some will no doubt feel, a “problem” as “deep” as “the problem of authorship” is far more complicated than this; it cannot be this simple. The Wittgensteinian response to this would be: It depends on what we mean by “simple.” In his writings, Wittgenstein constantly maintained, in a subtle if not supercilious way, that to the extent that something is a “philosophical” problem, it is precisely to that degree not a (genuine) problem. On the basis of his conception of philosophy as “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (Wittgenstein [1949] 1967: 47e), Wittgenstein’s abiding concern was to implore us (and himself) to be vigilant with respect to the possibility that we are, for whatever reason(s), creating problems where none exist. This is why he believed that philosophical problems are solved “not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known” (Wittgenstein [1949] 1967: 47e), and this is why he analogized the simplicity of remedying philosophical problems with the simple act of taking off a pair of glasses which had been distorting our vision but which we had all but forgotten we were even wearing (Wittgenstein [1949] 2009: 50e). Indeed, this is why, when he forced himself to articulate a prevailing philosophical method, he concluded:

The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be [sensibly] said … and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something [nonsensical], to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a [sensible] meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person – he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy – this method would be the only strictly correct one (Wittgenstein [1921] 2021: 249).

In this Wittgensteinian vein, the preceding has been my attempt to demonstrate to scholars (and myself) that they (and I) have failed at times to give sensible meanings to certain claims in their (and my) criticism, and I submit that far from representing intractable difficulties, the remedy to the critical problems chronicled herein vis-à-vis authorship and style is as simple as taking off the glasses through which the problems have been looked at for decades. On some level, of course, we all know that films have authors. Whether we acknowledge this fact is a separate issue. This, to my mind, is the real issue. Robin Wood knows that paintings do not think or feel or do things just as Daniel Morgan knows that cameras do not think or feel or do things, and David Bordwell knows that messages have senders just as surely as Tom Gunning knows that directors do not only exist in the minds of moviegoers. These are not problems of knowledge, but rather, problems of acknowledgment, and so the solution to these problems is not to give these scholars new information, but rather, to question why they sometimes act as if what they know to be the case is not the case at all.

For my part, I have no new information to give on the subject of authorship. All that I can do, and so all that I have tried to do here, is arrange what we all know. It is up to each of us, each individual scholar, to do (or not do) with our knowledge what we will (or will not), which is to say that it is up to each of us to acknowledge (or deny) what we know. For Cavell, using the concept of acknowledgment in this way was meant “to declare that what there is to be known … remains unknown not through ignorance … but through a refusal of knowledge, a denial or a repression of knowledge, say even a killing of it” (Cavell [1986] 1988: 51). From this perspective, if we love the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and yet at the same time refuse to acknowledge his authorship of those films, then we are doing a lot more than rendering nonsensical the notion of declarative aesthetics and precluding our ability to understand and appreciate an important aspect of his artistry: We are effectively killing the author we love. Thus, the question with which I will conclude – which was inspired equally by Cavell’s conception of acknowledgment and by the fact that one of Hitchcock’s favorite lines, which he was often quoted saying, was Oscar Wilde’s line “each man kills the thing he loves” (Spoto 1984: 486; cf. Rothman 2014) – is an appropriately Hitchcockian and Cavellian question: Must we kill the authors we love?


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Wittgenstein, Ludwig. [1949] 2009. Philosophical Investigations, edited by P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Hacker, and Schulte. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. [1949] 1969. On Certainty, edited by G.E.M Anscombe and G.H. von Wright (eds.), translated by Anscombe and Denis Paul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wollen, Peter. [1969-1972] 2013. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. London: BFI.

Wood, Robin. [1965] 2002. “Hitchcock’s Films,” in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 55-205.

Wood, Robin. 1972. “Alfred Hitchcock: Lost in the Wood,” “Film Comment, Vol 8, Issue 4, 1972. []

Wood, Robin. [1976] 2006. Personal Views. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Wood, Robin. [1989a] 2002. “Introduction (1988),” in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, 1-51.

Wood, Robin. [1989b] 2002. “Symmetry, Closure, Disruption: The Ambiguity of Blackmail,” in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, 249-274.


  1. The present article is a sequel of sorts inasmuch as I will be elaborating on arguments that I have made previously on the concept of authorship and the practice of author-based criticism. See Barrowman (2017, 2018, 2021).
  2. On this point vis-à-vis metacriticism, I am aligning myself with Andrew Klevan, who has argued in a Wittgensteinian/Austinian vein that “linguistic clarification” is the royal road to the dissolution of philosophical problems (Klevan 2014: 148; see also Klevan 2020) and hence that metacriticism is the means by which to elucidate the “methods, concepts, and ideas associated with the language and style of [aesthetic] criticism” (Klevan and Clayton, 2011: 21), for it is in and through specific linguistic choices on the parts of individual critics and scholars that “discriminations are made” and problematic presuppositions, logical fallacies, etc., are discernible (Klevan 2011: 71).
  3. That said, I must admit that I find Rothman’s formulation not merely dissatisfying but dubious insofar as he implies that films can “do” things (like declare the presence of an author). This is a common form of expression in film analysis – as in, “This film argues…,” “The camera shows us…,” “This sound tells us…,” etc. – and indeed in aesthetic analysis more broadly – as in, “This painting demonstrates…,” “This piece of music conveys…,” “This sculpture highlights…,” etc. – yet it is also a nonsensical and hence exceedingly problematic form of expression that confuses more than it clarifies. I will return to this issue often in what follows. For the time being, I merely wish to stress my very different sense of authors doing things rather than artworks doing things, and specifically of authors declaring their own authorial presence within a given film.
  4. Editor’s note: To my eye the first and third shot defined as a “dolly in” by Barrowman are zoom shots. We tried to find a source which would prove one of us categorically wrong but could not. So until then, our differences will remain.
  5. I am including myself in this “we,” and not merely for rhetorical effect or to soften a polemical blow administered to other scholars: For all of my insistence on clarity of expression and for all of my efforts to eliminate nonsense from critical language, I myself have accidentally slipped into this mode of expression. In a recent article on camera movement in the films of Otto Preminger, in advancing the claim that Preminger’s cinema is a resoundingly moral cinema, in which he uses his camera to pronounce judgment on immoral characters from Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura (1944) and David Korvo (José Ferrer) in Whirlpool (1950) to Cécile (Jean Seberg) in Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton) in Advise & Consent (1962), I accidentally shifted from a sensible locution – I argued that “Preminger’s camera is the instrument of the filmmaker’s moral judgment” – to a nonsensical locution – I claimed that “Preminger’s camera pronounces moral sentence” (Barrowman 2020b: 11). I did not even register this until well after the article had been published. Strictly speaking, though, this is nonsense. Cameras do not do things, including pronounce moral sentence on characters in films. What I meant was that Preminger uses his camera to pronounce moral sentence. This is far more than a distinction without a difference; it is quite literally the difference between sense and nonsense.
  6. Ironically, Morgan’s raison d’être in his consideration of camera movement is to argue that questions of expression ought to take precedence over questions of perspective, and his argument on this front takes the form of showing up the fantasy that we are at the position of the camera and move with the camera within the world of the film as a fantasy. That his analysis of Vertigo runs counter to the larger project of which his analysis is a part merely serves to indicate the power of this fantasy. For a more detailed discussion of Morgan’s work on camera movement, see Barrowman (2022a).
  7. Not to be needlessly critical of one of the finest critics to ever write about film, but aesthetic analysis in general seemed to be something of a liability for the supremely literary Wood. I hope that my metacritical investigation of Blackmail with reference to Wood’s analysis will bear this out so that this will not appear ad hominem.
  8. Given that Wood’s original 1965 study of Hitchcock was not only at the time but remains today one of the most renowned works of auteurist criticism, and given that Wood was a brilliant critic of the poststructuralists who sought to facilitate the Barthesian “death of the author” (cf. Wood [1976] 2006, [1989a] 2002), the irony of this claim is not lost on me. Though regrettable, I will demonstrate shortly that critics and scholars contradict their avowed theoretical principles in their critical practice frequently enough to where Wood is not anomalous on this front.
  9. On this point, I am invoking Cavell’s well-known work on the concept of acknowledgment and the epistemological and ethical distinctions between “knowing and acknowledging” (Cavell [1969] 1976; see also Cavell 1979: 329-496, [1986] 1988).
  10. Historically speaking, Gunning’s brand of poststructuralist argumentation against author-based criticism has its disciplinary roots vis-à-vis film studies in Peter Wollen’s foundational Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Wollen [1969-1972] 2013). For more thorough critiques of such anti-author arguments generally and of Wollen’s anti-author arguments specifically, see Barrowman (2017, 2018).
  11. “The brilliance of [Bordwell’s] analysis of the narrative discourse of films in Narration in the Fiction Film seems unencumbered by what I consider his theoretical weak spot, because intentionality actually reemerges in his specific analyses” (Gunning 1991: 30 n.54).
  12. And, just as Pippin did, Gunning also, despite his even more rigorous theoretical rejection of author-based criticism, invariably falls back on author-based criticism. For instance, consider his language in the course of analyzing Griffith’s camera movement in his short film In Old Kentucky (1909): “In In Old Kentucky, Griffith experimented boldly with camera movement, using pans to interrelate actions usually brought together by editing … Most of the pans and reverse pans … are motivated by the movement of the characters. However, at several points the camera moves independently from the characters, revealing suspenseful narrative relations among them … [By virtue of these camera movements,] Griffith achieves effects he usually accomplished through editing” (Gunning 1991: 211-212).
  13. On this point vis-à-vis skepticism, I am reminded of one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thought experiments: “Imagine someone who is supposed to fetch a friend from the railway station and doesn’t simply look the train up in the time-table and go to the station at the right time but says: ‘I have no belief that the train will really arrive, but I will go to the station all the same.’ He does everything that the normal person does, but accompanies it with doubts or with self-annoyance, etc.” (Wittgenstein [1949] 1969: 43e). For more on author-based criticism and skepticism, see Barrowman (2018, 2021).
  14. I say “if” because it has proven to be quite fashionable to refuse to acknowledge that artworks are intentional objects: From the Beardsleyan position that an artwork is like “a pudding or a machine” insofar as it “is, simply is, [hence] we have no excuse for inquiring what [was] intended or meant” (Beardsley and Wimsatt Jr. 1946: 469), to the Barthesian position that an artwork is “like the thread of a stocking” insofar as it can be “followed” or “run” but “beneath” which “there is nothing,” which is to say that every artwork (somehow of its own volition and presumably unintentionally) “posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it” (Barthes [1967] 1977: 147), critics and scholars have tied themselves into all sorts of knots trying for whatever reason(s) to evade this acknowledgment.
  15. Given my investment in ordinary language philosophy (cf. Barrowman 2019, 2020a, 2021, 2022a, 2022b.), I am reminded of J.L. Austin’s observation that “vagueness of terminology is a crippling handicap” (Austin [1946] 1961: 79).
  16. Arguably the most famous example of this technique in the Hitchcock canon, if not also the most effective example, is the scene in The Birds (1963) in which Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) casually smokes a cigarette oblivious to the fact that the vicious birds that have been attacking her and everyone else in Bodega Bay have assembled en masse on the nearby playground. We know that the birds have gathered and represent a clear and present danger, and, while this would be terrifying enough by itself, the fact that Melanie does not know adds to our anxiety.
  17. I have paraphrased the melancholy account of viewing photographs and films memorably provided by Cavell: “A world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity), is a world past” (Cavell [1971] 1979: 23).
  18. In Austin’s terminology, Isaacs is committing “the fallacy of asking about nothing-in-particular” (Austin [1940] 1961: 26).

Kyle Barrowman is a media and cinema studies lecturer in Chicago. He received his PhD from Cardiff University. He has published widely in and between film studies and philosophy, on subjects ranging from authorship, genre theory, and camera movement to skepticism, perfectionism, and ordinary language philosophy. His work is available at the website linked below.

Volume 27, Issue 1-2 / February 2023 Essays   alfred hitchcock   film theory   style