Darkness Visible: Hitchcock’s Greatest Film (Book Review)


Darkness Visible: Hitchcock’s Greatest Film

By Brian Hannan

Book review by Minoo Allen

With over 50 directorial credits to his name, Alfred Hitchcock’s legacy in the realm of both film and pop-culture is of almost mythic proportions. His films and practices have been studied, analyzed, dissected, and gossiped about more times than can possibly be tallied. So, with that mind, how could one possibly justify picking the definitive greatest Hitchcock film? And how does one quantify a term as subjective as “greatest.” Well, that is exactly what Brian Hannan attempts to do with his new book Darkness Visible: Hitchcock’s Greatest Film.

In a daring and, in his own words, ruthless move, Hannan immediately slashes from the list of possible “greatest” films from more than 50 to a mere chosen few. He omits Hitchcock’s early silent films due to their technical limitations as well as any film made after The Birds because, “although many of the films have fine moments and certain Hitchcock touches, they do not hang so well together.” Also omitted, regretfully the author admits, are the Hitchcock films of the 1940’s, such as Rebecca and Spellbound due to the apparent influence of producer David O. Selznick along with his British films of the 1930’s  because they supposedly “lack the moral dimension that was a hallmark of his later films.”

Although I can understand the need to omit a portion of the Hitchcock lexicon when tasked with the awesome responsibly presenting “the greatest,” I must admit I am a bit disappointed with just how extreme Hannan’s cuts were. Any discussion revolving around the moral thematics, technical skill, and cultural impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography would surely include  the 1940’s era Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt, a film which David O. Selznick had no part in making. But, with that being said, I don’t think anyone could really argue the six films Hannan deemed worthy of advancing to the next round.

Of the over 50 films vying for the coveted title of Hitchcock’s “greatest,” Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds remain as Hannan’s chosen finalists. Each film receives its own chapter offering analytical insights, basic critical theory, and chronicles any major developments and setbacks that occurred during the film’s production. Although much of the information conveyed demonstrates a good grasp of Hitchcock on a theoretical and commercial level, the author limits himself by only including the six films. For example, in regards to Strangers on a Train, Hannan states:

   “Strangers On A Train was the most important film in Hitchcock’s development as an artist, the first sign that there was a genius lurking  under the macabre mask. It was his boldest experiment for, although in previous films he had peeked into dark corners, in Strangers On A Train he took a full left turn, and his heroes became more complex.”

While no one could argue the impact Strangers on a Train had on Hitchcock’s artistic development, it can be very easily argued that it was not the first film to show the “genius lurking under the macabre mask.” If anything I would argue Shadow of a Doubt was the first film to display the breadth of his dark genius.

Joseph cotton, shadow of a doubt, classic movie actor, alfred hitchcockTeresa Wright and Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)

Hannan gives his final conclusion, his insight on the greatest, following his chapters on the six finalists. Although I have no desire to spoil the ending, I will say that I am a bit disappointed in his immediate dismissal of three films due to their perceived lack of darkness. What could have been a six-film analytical fight to the death became a three-way dance of Hitchcockian proportions. And though I found his reasoning for his greatest pick intriguing, I do wish he would have dedicated a few more pages to his conclusion. I want to know more!

Coming in at about 50 pages, this book is not meant for those with a background in film theory or those who have already studied the films of Hitchcock in depth. Even if the book were 500 or 5,000 pages, it’s difficult to bring new insight to a director who is so recognized in style, theme, and form that a word exists to describe modern films he clearly influenced. (It’s Hitchcockian, by the way.) However, if you’re new to Hitchcock or film theory in general, then this book is perfect for you. You won’t be bogged down by dense academic language or (much) industry film jargon beyond the everyday film audience. All the basics of Hitchcock’s reoccurring themes and cultural impact are laid out for the reader in an easily digestible, while still informative, manner. Think of it as good “Hitchock 101,” a simple way to introduce yourself to an ever increasing topic.  And who knows, maybe after you’ve read the book, you may even be able to decide for yourself what is Hitchcock’s greatest.

Is Vertigo the greatest? Read the book and find out! (1958, Alfred Hitchcock, director)


Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub

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