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Hitchcock as Philosopher by Robert J Yanal

Mark Huston looks at Robert Yanal looking at Hitchcock directing philosophy.

Robert J. Yanal is a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University, with a specialty in philosophy of art. In the interest of full disclosure, he is also a former teacher of mine. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge how much this biases the review.

How should we categorise his new book, Hitchcock as Philosopher? There has been a recent avalanche of Philosophy of Film/Television books, including for example books on The Matrix, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc ad nauseam. [See also the film column in this issue – Ed.] These might incline one to place Yanal’s book within their realm. They tend to use the film/TV program of choice as a mere launching pad to discuss some general philosophical problem, but they rarely help to illuminate the film itself.

Thankfully Yanal’s book is not of this sort. From an academic Film Studies perspective, Hitchcock is better thought of as falling into the category of post-theory – a category described by David Bordwell and Noel Carroll in their 1996 book shockingly titled Post-Theory. On my reading, post-theory is a kind of hodge-podge (in a good way) approach to film, which incorporates various criticisms and brings to bear a variety of evidence, while avoiding an overarching theory such as for example, ‘psychoanalytic film theory’. However, works of post-theory tend to be aimed almost exclusively at academics. Hitchcock as Philosopher, mercifully, is not. The book is aimed at a general intelligent readership interested in a relatively new way of reading some of the director’s more famous films. (Along with the movies mentioned in this review, Yanal has essays in the book on: Suspicion, North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Birds.)

Previous philosophical knowledge is not at all essential for understanding the essays in this book. Yanal provides the reader with all the philosophical background needed. He sticks to classic philosophers to drive his analysis, with a special emphasis on Descartes, but also with a healthy dose of Plato, Wittgenstein, and a few others. He also tends to focus on epistemological problems, with some ethical analysis on occasion. (Epistemology is the study of knowledge and problems that arise in relation to knowledge.) Because Yanal’s philosophical focus is primarily epistemological, we get the following breakdown: Part I deals primarily with deception, both of others and of one’s self (trying to know what’s really going on, and knowing oneself); Part II’s concern is how much or little we know the minds of others; and Part III is on what Yanal calls ‘problematic knowledge,’ for example, knowledge that from an ethical standpoint one possibly should not attempt to gain.

If Yanal’s analysis of his chosen films relied only on the mentioned philosophers and issues, then this book would likely not appeal to a very wide readership. Fortunately, this is not the case. Yanal does not show himself obligated to stick just to the philosophical issues in analyzing the various movies, which is the main reason that I suggest the book falls into the category of post-theory. I’ll discuss a couple of the essays in order to illustrate this point.

I find the essays in Part I to be consistently the strongest, with the piece on one of Hitchcock’s masterworks Vertigo a particular standout. Apart from analysing the obvious issues of deception and self-deception in this film about mistaken identity, Yanel provides an extra level of analysis which shines a refreshing light on Vertigo: an in-depth discussion of how the love/obsession which drives Vertigo is modelled on the Tristan and Isolde myth. This combination provides a very rich understanding of the film.

The essay on Strangers on a Train presents another good example of Yanal’s ability to integrate a variety of devices to illuminate a film. In Hitchcock scholarship there are traditionally thought to be at least three clear examples of films containing homosexual overtones: Rope, Rebecca and Strangers on a Train. Yanal does not discuss Rope because he does not think it has ‘philosophical implications’ – which I find a bit puzzling given the clear issues of nihilism/existentialism present in the movie – but to each his own.

The character of Bruno, the antagonist in Strangers on a Train, is pretty obviously gay. Yanal’s examples of how Bruno speaks in italics – “I’ve had a strenuous evening” – are illuminating and quite funny. Guy, the protagonist, is less obviously gay, but Yanal presents plenty of evidence to leave the question open, including Guy’s own italics speak – “I could strangle her”. Yanal does a very good job of incorporating and taking to task some famous Hitchcock scholars over this, such as Robin Wood. Rebecca also has an excellent essay in the book, where Yanal overtly discusses the lesbian overtones of Mrs. Danvers’ clear attraction to Rebecca.

This is not to imply that I find all the essays to be perfect. For example, the chapters on Marnie and Spellbound are a bit underdeveloped (this is possibly due to the fact that neither of these movies are particularly good). I find the chapter on Rear Window also to be unconvincing; but the attempt is worth reading…

These however are only minor quibbles. Hitchcock as Philosopher is a well written book that appeals to an intelligent but wide readership. Yanal’s writing style is nicely straightforward: it avoids the pretensions of academic jargon and contains significant dashes of humor and cleverness. If you are looking for a refreshing take on some of Hitchcock’s more famous movies, then check out Hitchcock as Philosopher.

© Mark R Huston 2006

Mark Huston received his PhD in Philosophy in 2004 from Wayne State University, and is currently Instructor of Philosophy and Sociology at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan.

Hitchcock as Philosopher by Robert J Yanal, [McFarland Press, 2005 ISBN 0-7864-2281-5 sb 216pps $35.]

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