Friday, February 8, 2013

A Review of "Darkness Visible: Hitchcock's Greatest Film"

With Darkness Visible: Hitchcock's Greatest Film, author Brian Hannan attempts the daunting task of selecting and justifying Alfred Hitchcock's greatest motion picture.The inherent challenges in this endeavor are obvious: Hitchcock made more than 50 films over six decades, to include many of American cinema's most acclaimed works. How can one anoint a single film above all the others? The second challenge is coming up with a standard definition of "greatest." Most influential? Most enduring? Most representative of his recurring themes?

Author Hannan tackles the first challenge by reducing the number of films in the running for the "greatest" title.  He explains his methodology:

"In arriving at a shortlist, I have had to be ruthless and so I have first of all removed from the equation the early silents because of their technical limitations and also the later films, from Marnie onwards because, although many of the films have fine moments and certain Hitchcock touches, they do not hang so well together. With some regret, I have also omitted the 1940s Hollywood films like Rebecca and Spellbound because of the influence of producer David Selznick on the finished article (it is his name above the title not Hitchcock’s) and also his British films of the 1930s because they lack the moral dimension that was a hallmark of his later films."

While I can't argue with Hannan's six remaining "finalists," his explanation contains some pot holes. Hitchcock's 1930s films are ripe with moral dilemmas: the hero's involvement in the murder of an innocent man in Secret Agent; the heroine shielding an accused murderer in Young and Innocent; and Hitchcock's own decision to explode the bomb in the bus in Sabotage. Likewise, it's hard to dismiss Hitch's 1940s filmography because of Selznick's involvement. Thematically and in terms of overall impact, any discussion of Hitchcock's greatest films must include Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious.

After narrowing the finalists, Hannan devotes a chapter each to: Strangers on a Train; Rear Window; North By NorthwestVertigo; Psycho; and The Birds. To his credit, the author avoids plot summary and focuses on providing an analysis of each film. There are some interesting insights (i.e., in Rear Window, "a full seventeen minutes, spread over several scenes, are silent apart from incidental music playing from different apartments"). However, there has been so much written and discussed about these films that it'd be hard to come up with anything new. 

Hannan waits until his three-page conclusion to state his case for which of the six finalists is Hitch's greatest film. Then, he dismisses Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, and North By Northwest in a single paragraph because "despite lingering undertones, they are not dark enough." When did "darkness" because a criterion for "greatness"? And how can Strangers on a Train not be considered "dark" when it features one of the most disturbing characters in the Hitchcock canon?

I won't reveal Hannan's pick for Hitchcock's greatest film, but admit that it intrigued me--I just wanted more in-depth justification for his selection. While scholars may scoff at the premise of Darkness Visible: Hitchcock's Greatest Film, I have no issue with it. I'm always game for a good discussion, even it requires a great deal of subjectivity--that's part of the fun of being a film buff. However, at a little over 50 pages, Darkness Visible: Hitchcock's Greatest Film kicks off the discussion, but cannot sustain it en route to a fully-supported conclusion.

The Cafe received a review copy of this e-book published by Endeavour Press.


  1. Rick, it was interesting reading your review of Hannan's e-book. It is indeed hard to define the criteria that define "greatness." It seems as if the early films, works of the '30s and '40s and later movies were dismissed by the author a bit too easily. But it is always good to hear of another fan of Hitchcock.


  3. This sounds like a terrific read! Have added it to my reading list. Thanks for the review. :)

  4. I show films for my neighbors every Saturday night; this evening I exhibited I CONFESS- and I confess I found it to be an under-rated film. Hitch's direction here is superlative; I CONFESS is a little neglected masterpiece.

    1. What a delightful way to spend your Saturday nights!