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7 - Hitchcock's Deferred Dénouement and the Problem of Rhetorical Form

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2024

Gary McCarron
Affiliation:
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia
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Summary

Introduction: Rhetoric of Form and Narrative

Things don't always go as expected, though this fact probably owes less to the nature of things than it does to the power of our expectations. We are anticipatory by nature, innately hermeneutical creatures projecting our imaginations into the future to speculate about possible outcomes and lines of action. Indeed, our ability to speculate is contingent upon our sense of expectancy, an aspect of consciousness that phenomenology sees as essential to the nature of awareness itself. Hence it would be an error to imagine that our tendency to speculate is an idle, pointless practice. Though we often get things wrong, our efforts to discern form and pattern by way of anticipation are fundamental to our sense-making practices and abilities. It is with the anticipation of form that we take the initial step toward semantic completion.

I see this as an aspect of our rhetoricality because expectations are deeply influenced by the allure of structure and the seductions of form. In trying to anticipate particular outcomes we discern patterns that inscribe the shape of our expectations on otherwise shapeless events. And in seeking forms and patterns in the world, we can take comfort in the established conventions of the familiar, the expected, and what passes for common sense. So, when things don't turn out as expected, the disruption can come as something of a visceral shock. Because we establish, follow, and rely on forms so steadily that when those forms go unfulfilled, confusion and even disappointment may overtake us.

In this chapter I take up the issue of things not turning out as expected. My focus, however, is not with events in our everyday lives, but with occurrences in the world of film where form is usually understood as conventions and genres, and where expectations derive from audience familiarity with those same conventions and genres. There are certainly many films that surprise us with unexpected twists and turns, but my focus in this chapter concerns a narrative strategy that Hitchcock used in several of his films. My particular interest is in the way that Hitchcock would occasionally disrupt or destabilize his film's narrative form by deviating from the customary happy ending, a phenomenon that I refer to as the deferred dénouement.

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Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2023

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