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5 - Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail and the Problem of Moral Agency

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2024

Gary McCarron
Affiliation:
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia
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Summary

I’d prefer to build a film around a situation rather than a plot.

– Alfred Hitchcock

It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation.

– Walter Benjamin

Introduction

In this chapter I examine the problem of moral agency in the work of Alfred Hitchcock by focusing on a representative moment in one of his early British films, Blackmail (1929), his first sound production. Approaching Hitchcock's work in this way enables me to present a view of his films that is consistent with some of the literature extolling his continuing relevance to film studies, feminism, the field of communication, and even philosophy. It further allows me to take the discussion of moral and ethical themes in Hitchcock's work beyond conventional ethical precepts that are occasionally presented as being central to understanding his moral position, such as the theory of retributive justice. This is not to argue that justice, retribution, and punishment are unimportant motifs in Hitchcock's films. This is plainly untrue. But in the present chapter I want to resist the temptation to bifurcate Hitchcock's moral world into good and evil, or guilty and innocent, in order that I might highlight an over-looked element of moral thinking represented in his work. This is the view that Hitchcock's films frequently present moral agency in the context of concepts like indeterminacy, undecidability, and anti-foundationalism. Moral agency, I want to suggest, is a more complex problem – and a more ambiguous state – than is ordinarily recognized in the more conventional “redemptive” readings of Hitchcock's work. Conceptions of justice and punishment, whether these are presented as being meted out by the law or by fate, introduce a teleological scheme to the evaluation of the moral conundrums with which Hitchcock deals, a scheme that can often be a rather negligible aspect of his narratives. I believe it is important to recognize Hitchcock's tendency to privilege the inherent appeal of moral obligation at the expense of unreflective fidelity to ethical rules. To move the analysis of Hitchcock's moral theorizing beyond the hegemony of ethical certitude is one of the goals of this chapter.

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Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2023

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