Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012

Hitchcock and Issues of Point of View

James Zborowski, James MacDowell, Lucy Fife Donaldson


This panel will seek to further understanding of the multi-faceted phenomenon of point of view by offering new ways of engaging with three of Hitchcock's 1950s films. The topics covered will be: the ways a film may encourage inferences about characters' knowledge and beliefs; the expressive potential of elided story material; and the affective dimension of textures for characters and viewers.


Paper 1, James Zborowski: Hitchcock’s Theory of Mind: Dial M for Murder as false belief test

 In a famous ‘false belief test’ of experimental psychology, we begin with two puppets and a concealed object whose location is known to both.  Puppet A leaves the room.  While she is gone, Puppet B conceals the object in a new location.  The human observer is then asked, ‘When Puppet A returns, where will she think the object is?’  If the observer answers ‘Puppet A will think the object is in its original location’, many psychologists would say s/he possesses a ‘theory of mind’ (ToM).  Cognitivism has informed Film Studies for several decades, but despite some work on the topic (Currie 1995), ToM’s implications for film viewing remain underexplored.

This paper takes as its case study Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock, 1954), which can be seen as a highly elaborate false belief test.  It will argue that:

i) the appeal and achievements of the movie need to be accounted for not only via reference to ‘the cutting, the rhythm and the direction of the players’ (Truffaut 1985), but also to the sustained complexity of the inferences about multiple characters’ beliefs that the viewer must hold simultaneously.

ii) there are advantages for Hitchcock scholarship and Film Studies in exploring the fact that very many movies oblige the viewer to consider not only what a character thinks, believes, etc, but also what one character thinks/believes about that which another  thinks/believes, and so on.

iii) ToM is a powerful tool but also a limited one.  Intriguingly, criticisms of ToM from a phenomenological perspective (eg Ratcliffe 2007) use the same term of abuse that has been levelled against Dial M: ‘mechanistic’ (see Hall 2004).  This theory and case study therefore represent a particularly appropriate pairing, each shedding light upon the brilliance and the limitations of the other.


Works cited in abstract

Currie, Gregory. Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hall, Sheldon. ‘Dial M for Murder.’ Film History 16.3 (2004): 243-55.

Ratcliffe, Matthew. Rethinking Commonsense Psychology: A Critique of Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind and Simulation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. Revised edition. London: Simon & Schuster, 1985.


Paper 2, James MacDowell: Looking at the unseen: Ellipsis, occlusion, and our access to Hitchcock’s worlds

 At a famous moment in Rear Window, Lisa instructs Jeff to “tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means.” Several scholars have employed this line as a metaphor for the interpretative activities involved in watching narrative films.[1] To do so, however, risks overlooking the fact that what we don’t see in a film also plays a vital role in what we “think it means.” Indeed, given that (a) most narrative films elide a majority of their fiction’s diegetic time, and (b) each shot excludes all other possible views of a film’s world, what goes unseen in a film will regularly assume at least as large an interpretive role as the seen. In few directors’ oeuvres is the importance of the unseen made more explicit than in Hitchcock’s, and for even fewer films is it more significant than it is for Rear Window.

That the unseen could be sidelined via a metaphor drawn from a film in which it commands such undeniable importance is indicative of the concept’s relative sidelining in film studies generally. My paper will explore how our understanding of this subject may be illuminated by three related concerns: cinematic ellipsis, cinematic occlusion (a form of ‘visual elision’ – essentially, a moment of obscuration), and the concept of fictional worlds. By examining the significance of these devices and concepts for Hitchcock’s characteristic handling of point of view (in Rear Window and elsewhere), I shall suggest some new ways in which we might conceptualize the expressive possibilities of the unseen for narrative filmmaking.


Paper 3, Lucy Fife Donaldson: Sensing Space: The Texture of Suppression and Revelation in Vertigo

 This paper will explore how the sensory qualities of Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958), the film’s texture, contributes to the complexities of point of view, with particular attention to the affective relationships between bodies and the space they inhabit through moments. Bodies in Vertigo are responsive to the textures of the places they inhabit, as film viewers are responsive to the textures of the spaces presented to them. Examination of how texture is felt both within a film and from outside has potential to illuminate the shaping of the cognitive and evaluative perspectives of both characters and audience.

When Vertigo is watched for the first time the realisation of many sequences contributes to the enigmatic nature of Madeleine – a woman apparently obsessed with a ghost - supporting Scottie’s (and our) sense of her as troubled and vulnerable, and the discordant registers of the spaces these characters inhabit further the sense of mystery and increasing disorientation felt by Scottie and Madeline as they fall in love. In contrast, on a second viewing the realisation of space makes us acutely aware of how Scottie is being placed to believe such things, how much he is subject to a plot which relies upon his desire for and emotional involvement with Madeleine.

[1] E.g.: David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 42; Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema, second edition (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 452; George Wilson, Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 1.

Only abstracts are available on this site

About the Presenter

James Zborowski
University of Hull
United Kingdom

 James Zborowski is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Hull, where he teaches modules on a range of aspects of television, media, film and other forms of popular culture.  His doctoral research focused on the issue of point of view in film, and this research has generated articles on The Wire (HBO, 2002-8) and Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958).  He has recently completed an article about aesthetics and detail in The Royle Family (BBC/ITV, 1998-2000), and co-authored articles about the issue of artistic intention in relation to ‘badfilm’, and the rhetoric of storytelling in the songs of country musician Townes Van Zandt.

James MacDowell

United Kingdom

 Dr. James MacDowell was recently awarded his PhD from the University of Warwick, where he completed his thesis ‘The Final Couple: Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema’. He is a member of the editorial board of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, and the author of several articles published in journals such as The New Review of Film and Television Studies, The Hitchcock Annual and CineAction. His research focuses on the conventions of American filmmaking, and issues of aesthetic interpretation.

Lucy Fife Donaldson
University of St Andrews<br />
United Kingdom

Lucy Fife Donaldson is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. She has published on the materiality of performance in post-studio horror and its relationship to elements of film style in CineAction and Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism. Her research interests include the staging and presence of performance in cinema and TV, the relationship between bodily affect, agency and effort. She is currently writing a book, Texture in Film, due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.