Hitchcock's Ireland:
The Performance of Irish Identity in
Juno and the Paycock and Under Capricorn


James Morrison

North Carolina State University

Copyright © 1999 by James Morrison, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S.Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.

  1. Alfred Hitchcock’s work, by many accounts, is famously a-political. Given Hitchcock’s avowals of allegiance to "pure" cinema, it has always been easier for critics to view his work in the context of formalist-aestheticism than to examine the political ramifications his work may substantiate even despite those avowals. Moreover, when Hitchcock’s work has been treated in terms of political or social issues, it has usually been conformed to a traditional modernist template that aligns experimental form with "progressive" ideologies, even in the face of apparently reactionary content. To be sure, if Hitchcock’s work has been treated politically at all, it has been seen as either a manifestation of the modernist self-reflexivity that evidently, in these accounts, exceeds politics as such (as in work by Robin Wood, William Rothman, Lesley Brill, or the many other examples of humanist-modernism Hitchcock’s work has attracted); or else, on the one hand, as a reinforcement of British imperialism or, on the other, as complicit with the institutions of post World War II America’s national security state (as in, for instance, Robert J. Corber’s In the Name of National Security [1996]).
  2. For a filmmaker allegedly committed to shoring up the British or American Empires, however, Hitchcock is notably attentive, in his films, to issues of xenophobia, nationalist insularity, and colonialist domination. Indeed, at times when the prevalent portrayal of Ireland in British cinema typically fostered the legitimacy of British domination, Hitchcock’s work repeatedly appeared sympathetic to the self-determination of nations under British dominion. The treatment of the Canadian Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps is a striking example, but the only two of Hitchcock’s films to treat Irish themes explicitly in a sustained way challenge most suggestively the accepted paradigms for understanding socio-political representation in Hitchcock’s films. One of these films is the 1930 adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, the other is the 1949 film version of Helen Simpson’s novel Under Capricorn. Both films reflect interestingly on Hitchcock’s relation to British Empire, showing an unusually complex response to national and colonial discourses.
  3. More specifically, both films present nationality as a form of identity linked to performance. Though the trope of performance is associated in both films with other facets of identity as well, such as race or gender, it takes on particular resonance in relation to concepts of national identity. These films come at times in Hitchcock’s work when his relation to the national cinemas in which he worked – British and American – was embattled. Juno and the Paycock appeared around the time John Grierson declared Hitchcock "the world’s best unimportant director," a claim, especially considering Grierson’s institutional power, that suggests Hitchcock’s distance from the dominant social-realist aesthetic of British cinema, while Under Capricorn was one of the few films produced by Hitchcock’s own production company, the suggestively named "Transatlantic Films," nominally outside the Hollywood studio system (and, indeed, shot in England). To be sure, Juno and the Paycock is one of the few Hitchcock films that can reasonably be discussed in a social-realist context, even if its undercurrents of stylization ultimately dominate. Grierson’s paradoxically celebratory expression of hostility foreshadows Hitchcock’s departure for Hollywood, while Hitchcock’s nominally "experimental" work with "Transatlantic Pictures" follows an often troubled relation during his early years in Hollywood to the producer David O. Selznick, and shows his effort to move toward greater independence as the Hollywood studio system entered its period of post-war decline. Given these complex relations to particular national cinemas, the ways in which these films challenge traditional notions of nationality as "essentialist," or of patriotism as instinctual, are particularly relevant to the socio-political as well as to the aestheticist strains of Hitchcock’s work, and can even be said to reveal something of the relation between these strains.
  4. Though my use of the idea of the "performative" is intended to be evocative rather than definitive, I do mean to employ the concept with a full range of its theoretical implications. Indeed, the relation here between performance, theatricality, and figuration may seem to require a certain slippage; but the notion of the "performative" has, after all, followed a highly adaptable intellectual trajectory in its movement from speech-act theory (in the work of J. L. Austin) to deconstruction (in the work of De Man and Derrida) to feminist theory (in the work of Judith Butler). In its initial formulations,the relation of language and matter – the speech that was also an act – found its fullest shape in figuration, because the symbolic referents named in a trope, Austin thought, inevitably implied an act – the comparison of tenor and vehicle (Austin, 103, 120-21). At the same time, the speech-act itself necessitated a more literal kind of performance, to the extent that the legitimation of speech-acts often depended on forms of authority certified in or conferred by ritual and artifice – those of the state (as in a christening, "I name thee…") or, which may come to much the same thing, those of the law ("I condemn you…") (Goffman, 145). As Eve Sedgwick and Andrew Parker point out, "the stretch between theatrical and deconstructive meanings of `performative’ seems to span the polarities of, at either extreme, the extroversion of the actor, the introversion of the signifier"(Parker and Sedgwick, 2). By the time feminism adopted the term "performative" to name "the ways identities are constructed iteratively through complex citational processes"(Parker and Sedgwick, 2), it had fully subsumed these multiple senses, positing an alienated subjectivity to be projected as provisionally whole through the performance of given texts and conventions, or the figural subversion of refused or re-appropriated discourses. My understanding of the specifically nationalist valences of the performative, relying on each of the senses outlined here, may analogize self and country – the split self performed as coherent, the splintered nation reconstituted as "whole." However, it is because I do not want to insist on an insuperable correlation between performative subject and performative nation that I prefer, on the whole, to allow the implications of the concept, with all of its apparent slip-knots, to emerge inductively in the course of the analysis.
  5. The metaphor of theatricality looms large in Hitchcock’s work as a whole, as has frequently been noted in the scholarship, but the connection of theatricality to issues of national identity is especially significant in the two films under consideration here that reflect on Irish national identity. Juno and the Paycock and Under Capricorn are distinctive among Hitchcock’s films in elaborating the theme of theatricality at the level of form, through the process of adaptation of the theatrical or literary works that are the films’ sources. In both cases, instead of transposing the material into traditionally "cinematic" terms, Hitchcock draws attention to the theatrical or artificial nature of the source material itself. Indeed, both films employ stylized settings, mannered performances, exaggerated visual styles that emphasize their theatrical origins, or narrative structures that self-consciously foreground the explicitly dramatic heritage of the narratives. Their emotional registers distinguish them from nearly all of Hitchcock’s other films, and their generic lineage – the naturalist drama of O’Casey or the historical-romance of Simpson’s novel – place them apart from the "suspense-thriller" genre with which Hitchcock was so closely identified. The genre differences of these two films may itself account for their special place in Hitchcock’s work: If the "suspense-thriller" allows Hitchcock to employ a high degree of artifice in a manner congruent with the "willing suspension of disbelief" that genre typically enables or demands, these films may testify to the result when Hitchcock brings such characteristic artifice to genres that do not so readily assimilate it. Certainly the most striking feature of these films is their definitive anti-illusionism; incorporating elements of the modernist/expressionist artifice Hitchcock has traditionally been noted for, these films also use such techniques to reflect on national identity as a form of performance that undermines essentialist notions of nationality and thereby – whether "consciously" or "unconsciously" – implicitly, I argue, subjects the colonial discourses of British imperialism to critique.
  6. Juno and the Paycock ends with the most direct expression of grief in Hitchcock’s work. Having just learned that her daughter is pregnant out of wedlock, Juno (Sara Allgood) has returned to her home in working-class Dublin to find that her family’s creditors have taken their furniture. Fast upon these set-backs, she discovers the crowning horror: Her son has been murdered as an informant by the Irish Republican Army. Alone in the empty room, beseeching the statue of the Virgin Mary that is all that is left her, she wails in purest grief. The moment is unmatched in Hitchcock’s work, at least until the scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) when Jo McKenna (Doris Day) learns of her son’s abduction and breaks down in an agony of distress. Both these scenes of maternal grief at the loss of a son are granted an emotional weight through what can only be seen, especially in the context of Hitchcock’s work as a whole, as the nearly unique recourse of the relaxation of performative inhibition. Indeed, so forthrightly do the actors express this grief in both scenes, so boldly do they lay bare the characters’ suffering, that the scenes achieve an emotional rawness that presses the bounds of performance. By contrast to Hitchcock’s usual demand for underplaying among his actors, the scenes are especially striking instances of an excess of emotional expression, an abdication of performative self-control.
  7. An important difference separates the two scenes, however. Juno’s expression of grief repeats line for line the grief-stricken litany, earlier in the film, of the mother of the murdered boy Juno’s son has informed on: "O Sacred Heart of Jesus, take away these hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh…Take away this murdering hate and give us thine own eternal love!" The pseudo-Shakespearean oratory of the lines contributes to the sense that this final speech is, precisely, a soliloquy, a repeated performance of a prior, given text, rather than the natural, spontaneous outpouring of feeling the scene’s emotional register would seem to imply. Juno herself comments on the fact that the words are not her own; it is, as she puts it, merely her "turn" to recite them. Even at this most desolate moment of the drama, and despite a soaring emotion that appears to break out of the simulation of performance into a transcendent realm of true, pure feeling, the text continues to insist on the performative dimension of the drama.
  8. An important theme of Sean O’Casey’s play, Hitchcock’s source, is that of national identity as a species of performance. In its Synge-like exhibition of an array of Irish types, the play parades a variety of brogues and slangs, and in its election of apolitical but nominally "patriotic" characters, it points up an imaginary basis of national affiliation. Both these points place the play in a lineage of Irish drama running from Yeats and Synge to O’Casey and Denis Johnston, and on to such contemporary Irish playwrights as Brian Friel and Martin McDonagh. In O’Casey, despite the characters’ pledged indifference to the national "troubles" that surround them, they perform their own Irishness exuberantly; but because of their removal from political strife, this allegiance defines itself, not around political action, but around slogans and sayings, popular mythologies, folk tales, songs, and other types of shared national discourse that may be viewed as ideologically "neutral" by those who recite them. O’Casey’s work shows the process by which the characters seek refuge in such mythologies of nation, only to find that, however remote they think the tumultuous politics of nation are from their own lives, they cannot escape their own implication in them. (History is a nightmare, in other words, from which one cannot wake.) Indeed, it is because O’Casey seems inclined to locate an essential "Irishness" in his characters that the theme of performance emerges so prominently in his work, or in that of the tradition he joins. The point is not that the complex, irresolvable stratifications of Irish identity – Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist and Unionist, to cite only the dominant matrices – refute the possibility of a common essence around which Irish nationality might cohere; rather, it seems to be that because of the prevalence of a common folk culture, the strife between Nationalists and Britons (to name only one obstacle to Irish "unity") must ultimately be seen as local squabbling or regional bloodbaths, without answerability to the "real" identities of the people or the real needs of the working-class.
  9. Each of O’Casey’s earliest plays takes shape around one of the major crises of Irish nationalism of the early twentieth-century: The Easter Uprising in The Shadow and the Gunman, the Civil War in The Plough and the Stars, and the war for independence in Juno and the Paycock. In each case, O’Casey laments the deferral of class politics to nationalist politics. In Juno and the Paycock, O’Casey portrays an Irish-Catholic family unjoined by Irish nationalism. This disalliance functions not only to refute the notion that all Catholics are or were Irish nationalists – the feature that may well have attracted Hitchcock to this material – but to illustrate the competing affiliations that complicate the politics of self-interest. In treating the theme of evasion in O’Casey’s work, Raymond Williams connects the problem of self-interest to performance: "Through all the early plays, it is the fact of evasion, and the verbal inflation that covers it, that O’Casey at once creates and criticizes"(Williams, 150). The "true nature of the endless fantasy of Irish talk" in O’Casey’s plays, according to Williams, inheres in a "formally rhetorical Communism"(153) that vilifies nationalist political identity as a betrayal of the self-interests of the working-class. Yet the plays can hardly be said to celebrate apolitical dispositions, since the effort to escape politics fails as tragically as does the impulse to engage politics. For Williams, it appears that there may well be some "true nature" of national identity that O’Casey’s characters miss: the types of performance Williams finds in the characters’ endless bombast, puffery and showing-off – stereotypical attributes of Irish national identity, of course – enable them only to "evade" the real circumstances of their material histories. In Hitchcock’s film, these circumstances are conceived in far less stable or unitary terms. [1]
  10. The metaphor of O’Casey’s title laminates performance on identity, but Hitchcock literalizes the metaphor rather emphatically. In O’Casey, the image of the peacock evokes a prideful exhibitionism linked to Irish identity by the colloquial transcription of the title, which also condenses the metaphor’s equilibration of money with nation. An insistent visual metaphor in the film presents as peacock-like the baroque megaphone of the phonograph the family acquires when Captain Boyle wrongly believes they have inherited a bequest, and the metaphor is played out in a crisp, mercurial dissolve that graphically matches the image with the terrified face of the son. The shell-shaped megaphone with its crescent of sinuous grooves suggests the erect feathers of the peacock’s tail, and the gramophone’s function in the plot bears out some of the image’s association with vanity or aggression to the extent that it represents Captain Boyle’s newfound sense of power. The delusory aspect of that power is manifested in the image as well, as it is in the directness of the dissolve that graphically matches the megaphone with Johnny’s face. In this superimposition, Hitchcock visually underlines an irony already apparent in the play’s text, that of the family’s obliviousness of Johnny’s impending fate, but in presenting it with such overdetermined force, Hitchcock juxtaposes two distinct national attitudes. Johnny’s nationalism is rooted in traditional notions of patriotism, of a valued tradition to be preserved: "Haven’t I done enough for Ireland?" he wails, and the plaint brings with it a set of assumptions about Ireland-as-motherland, about the myths of the Gaelic pastoral to be defended against the onslaught of British imperialism.
  11. In the superficially good-natured whimsy of its folk attitudes, on the other hand, the family’s nationalism bears no traces of any such reactionism. The performative community they achieve as they sing along with the record on the gramophone is explicitly nationalist and exclusionary – "If you’re Irish, come into the parlor…So long as you’re from Ireland there’s a welcome on the mat" – but if O’Casey’s point is the incommensurability of folk nationalism and political nationalism, Hitchcock’s seems to be the inextricability of the two attitudes. Assuming that Irish resistance to British rule sought, among other things, to protect a rural, traditional heritage (Gaelic myth) from an encroaching modernity (British imperialism), the most striking function of the gramophone is to wed the metaphorics of rural poesy (the image of the "paycock") to the rise of industrial commerce. Despite the military past signified in his title, Captain Boyle eagerly accepts the imperatives of an ascendant consumer culture that allies power with purchase, and with it, accepts the commodification of folk traditions through mechanical reproduction. The play’s setting in an industrial slum has already revealed the anachronism of the pastoral in the wake of the modern, an effect Hitchcock emphasizes in "opening up" the play, through shots of the desolate city. Especially considering the inevitability of severe regulation of production, import and export levied by the colonizer upon the colonized – and the consequent likelihood that the gramophone would have to have been a product of England – the pleasure the family takes in the commodity is shown as the evidence of their own complicity in imperial domination or their failure to recognize their own self-interests. [2]
  12. The insinuating quality of the dissolve suggests the workings, rhetorically speaking, of both the comparison of metaphor and the obliteration of displacement. Figurally, the two images of the dissolve invite comparison through their superimposition; literally, in any dissolve, one image displaces another. The graphic match of the gramophone and Johnny’s face emblematizes both the powerful claims of Irishness that hold Johnny in thrall – the father’s strutting "paycock"-like posturing before which he is powerless, the folk culture that signifies what is to be preserved – and the imperial authority that swallows him. The boldness of the technique links the scene to the film’s other metaphor, also rendered in a severe, extended dissolve that leads into the final scene. This dissolve superimposes the statue of the Virgin Mary over the image of Juno, and combines the apparent didacticism of its rhetoric with an ambiguity of meaning that suggests a strongly parallel example from Hitchcock’s later work. In The Wrong Man (1957), the unjustly accused Manny heeds his mother’s injunction to pray, and a high-lit shot of a crucifix dissolves into a close-up of Manny, which is then painstakingly matched in an elaborate dissolve to the face of the actual robber. The didactic meaning is clear: Manny’s prayer is answered, the real criminal exposed. The figural meaning, however, cannot so readily resolve the doubleness the trope necessitates. The visual trope suggests not a culminating redemption but the image of a split self – two faces interlinked – fulfilling an earlier metaphor in the film, a fractured mirror reflecting Manny’s face. In Juno and the Paycock, the iconographic figurine is readable, like the gramophone, as an emblem of commodification, but it does not lend itself to the same didactic clarity since the stark, tragic elevation of the final scene overwhelms what might have appeared as its most immediate available meaning – the admonition that Juno take solace in her faith. Especially considering the emphatically heightened register of Allgood’s performance at this moment in the film, the icon seems to be presented more as a gauge of tragic destiny than as a source of potential redemption.
  13. The final soliloquy is, quite literally, a speech-act: It performs an act which it nominates only through imitation, neither fully connotatively nor strictly denotatively. In her re-iteration of another mother’s grief, Juno takes on the burden of the troubles that surround her. She is what she does, and the final scene is notable for the starkness of its execution. The camera retreats with solemn deliberation, as we watch Juno trudge heavily across an empty room. Despite the pseudo-inspirational image of the figurine, it is the sense of emptiness that this last shot punctuates, both through the distance of scale and the stifling of sound: The recording appears to be direct sound, and Hitchcock achieves an effect worthy of early Renoir by allowing the room’s emptiness to appear to swallow the actor’s lines. It is not just, then, the quality of performance that makes the moment so decisively performative: rather, the scene returns us to the origin of performativity in speech-act theory, where act is seen to be determined not by prior, essential being, but by an identification with an objectified Other, in imitation of external convention rather than obedience to inner edict. Judith Butler’s influential adaptation of speech-act to gender theory effectively evokes the tenor of this scene (and reminds us as well of its gender specificity): "an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts"(Butler, 140). On this image, with a desolate flourish, the picture fades. [3]
  14. Like Juno and the Paycock, Under Capricorn occupies an unusual place in Hitchcock’s work. In the recently published Hitchcock’s Notebooks, the editor reflects tradition by referring to Under Capricorn as a "disappointment" (Auiler, 154), but other critics, Chabrol and Rohmer among them, have found in its highly charged, distinctive atmosphere something like the "key" to Hitchcock’s work. Given the film’s reputation as a rather static, talky costume-drama, it is surprising that the critics of Cahiers du cinéma could have so championed it, considering their surpassing disdain for the genteel tradition-of-quality historical melodrama it at least superficially resembles. However, the film makes sustained use of two crucial means, with an equivocal but entrenched significance in cinematic representation, metonymy and theatricality. Indeed, the film proposes an unusual relation between these modes of operation with important implications for the treatment of theme, particularly, in this case, the representation of ideologies of nation.
  15. The opening shots of the film reveal the most pertinent terms of this relation. Under the credits, we see a map of Australia, and in the first several shots a series of sites representing the space of Australia while an archly authoritative voice narrates significant details in the history of Britain’s colonization of New South Wales, from Captain Cook’s "discovery" of Australia in 1770, to the imposition of a policy of penal importation, to King William’s appointment of a new governor in 1831. "And," intones the orotund voice, invoking the authority of narrative convention to mask the gaps in history, "here our story begins!" The notably broad and somewhat fanciful version of this history provided by the grandiloquently disembodied voice has its analogue in the images that accompany it. The map stands in contrast to other well-known maps in the lore of film nation, such as the one that introduces Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). Similarly accompanied by a god-like voice-over, that map is charted, contextualized, and stratified. It presents a more holistic geographical framework in which to locate the space of "Casablanca," representing it in relation to surrounding countries, and it is graphically circumscribed by explanatory markings that appear on the screen without visible human intervention. Given such tactics, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a territorial version of nationhood, dependent on given zones that foster and dictate colonial discourses, is being blithely universalized across a site – "Africa" – that need not, of course, have been subject to such conceptions. The map functions, in other words, as an index of spatial stratification whose simultaneous function as a guarantor of colonial dominion is thereby denied. The map in Under Capricorn is de-stratified and de-contextualized. It is not shown in relation to other points of geographical reference, and aside from the assignment of random names of coastal cities, no inland settlements or territories on the map are charted. In thus projecting Australia as an unsettled "dark continent," the map exposes a contradiction on which colonial discourse is predicated, which it is typically at pains to conceal. The map erases any signs of aboriginal habitation and signifies "Australia" as an open, unmarked, unoccupied territory, standing in presumed readiness to be colonized, but it also reveals that the boundaries of the colonial enterprise are not timeless frontiers that have always really been there, just waiting to be fulfilled by the manifest destinies of dominion and the progressive ideals of history itself. Rather, they are revealed as constructed territories, lines on a map, to be drawn by the violent interventions of colonial power.
  16. Unlike the map of Casablanca, the map of Under Capricorn foregrounds its status as a "sign." It is quite obviously a page in a book, as evidenced by an unhidden wrinkle running through it, and a printed page-border enclosing it. By contrast to the pristine graphic emblem of Casablanca, that of Under Capricorn presents itself not as an incorporeal symbol, free of material, worldly influences, but as a mundane object, rife with them; and the insistent artifice of the first shots of Australia realizes the anti-illusionist impulse of the presentation of the map. In one of these shots, an obvious miniature with a windmill’s mechanical wheel spinning wanly at the left of the frame, the only other motion is that of a British flag waving at the right, and while the monochromatic coloration of the shot – a luminous, irreal blue dominating the composition – emphasizes the flag by its color contrast, it also draws attention to the general artifice of the film’s opening. The flag is a sign of colonial presence, to be sure, but its metonymic status is evidenced by its segregation in the shot, and the voice-over immediately articulates a crisis of colonial power: "The colony exported raw materials. It imported materials even more raw: Prisoners – many of them not guilty – who were to be shaped into the pioneers of a great dominion." Accompanying this spoken text is the closest shot of the sequence, a canted low-angle of a group of convicts being herded ashore (a shot that will recur significantly in a different context at the end of the film). Here the shot and the narration both archly call into question the agency of the colonizer. Far from the familiar mythic figures of imperialist vigor, glorified explorers forging an uncharted terrain theirs by the assumptions of Manifest Destiny, these "pioneers" are themselves figures of abjection, whose conquest of the new world is seen not in light of idealist determination but of anterior servility. The colonists are not already "pioneers," any more than the map asserts the idealist priority of imperial territory. Rather, they are to be "shaped" into "pioneers"; that is to say, these colonists are themselves subject to colonial force, their role as colonizer itself an edict decreed, to be performed by sovereign will. Thus, the revealed artifice of the film’s opening visuals is fulfilled by this thematic emphasis in the plot.
  17. Without wishing to suggest any essential affinity between the rhetoric of cinematic representation and the ideology of nationhood, I do want to propose that both rely for certain forms of their power on tropes of metonymy or synecdoche. [4] To the extent that these figures underlie any act of representation, and to the extent that the ideology of nation depends on representations to sustain itself, the link may be a purely formal one. Given the importance of cinema in establishing and defining many twentieth-century nationalities, however, the connection appears to go beyond the strictly formal. In the development of cinema, the discovery of synecdoche in the variability of shot scales displaced a prior holism – the nearly exclusive reliance on the long shot in the first decade of film. Even that holism was figurative, of course, requiring that the large-scale, unedited image stand in for an absent whole, the "world" looming beyond it, rhetorically implied by the image’s very existence, only the acceptance of which could make the image compelling to a viewer. The invention of editing and variation of shot scale presaged the loss of a "whole," then, but in acknowledging the synecdochic or metonymic basis of cinematic representation, it promised a new, virtual, imaginary one. Fragmenting the primitive "whole" into a complex order of diachronic parts – the hand or the face that was to be taken for the real presence of a whole body, for instance – the cinema gradually developed a language that compelled the accumulation of fragments into an embracing plenitude, whether it be the unities of classical editing, the syntheses of Eisensteinian montage, or some other theoretical alternative.
  18. Discourses of nationalism also work to generalize part to whole, and whether this process is violently upheld or only zealously pledged, it typically requires that the whole, to achieve or to usurp its imaginary unity, be thought apprehensible through its parts – the individual citizens collocated into group identities, the "states" (or other local district) subsumed into the "union" (or other metonymic totality), or the national symbol – the map, the flag, the armband – that seizes its narrative authority or its auratic sanctity through its supernal reference to the teeming yet still unreduced "whole." A doctrine of imperialism, such as Britain’s, will often have to address its own implicit challenges to national holism: Does the need for expansion imply prior incompletion? Of course not: it fulfills an ideal unity always already in place – and the violence of colonialism is, among other things, the violence of rampant metonymy, its formal trajectory reversed so that the part no longer appears to gesture toward an absent or conceptually inconceivable whole, but the whole swallows the constituent parts that will serve to shore it up, and have been abiding through primitive epochs of regression and benightedness in anticipation of their culmination within the empire as it always was and ever shall be.
  19. Three images in Under Capricorn take on a particularly bristling significance in this context – a shrunken head, a wooden placard, and an unseen horse. Each animates multiple meanings, associations both metonymic and diachronic. The shrunken head, presented in strikingly emphatic close-up at three points in the film, carries associations of ritual, monstrousness, aboriginal violence, a blackness practically equivalent (if the theoretical excess of the sign did not refute the easy correspondence) to the "primitive." "There is a traffic in such things here," mutters Sam Flusky, an Irish convict deported to Australia, accosted in the street by a seller of heads. Flusky’s crime is at issue in the plot: he is said to be a murderer, and lives with mysteriously acquired wealth on a remote estate, with a withdrawn, alcoholic wife, Hattie. The plot twins Hattie’s rehabilitation with the rejuvenation of their marriage through the equivocal agency of Charles Adair, a visiting Irish "gentleman," nephew to the governor. The shrunken head conjures a "black market" and thus signifies the legislation of a primordial nativism by the allegedly civilizing encroachments of the colonizers. But the transaction is complex: The seller approaches Flusky with an air of furtive conspiracy, stealthily revealing the swaddled head as if he were exposing or offering a sexual opportunity, and when Flusky rebuffs him violently, the seller shouts recrimination, accusing Flusky of being a murderer. As evocations of the primitive often will, the encounter carries strong suggestions of the unspeakable and the illicit, and these are given reign by the curious refusal to specify – as if the colonizer could readily comprehend the primitive instinct – why the head might be a desired commodity (talismanic power? aphrodisiac potency?). Thus, its real function is to serve as a gauge between colonizer and colonized, even as the whole plot resists the schematism of the binary opposition. The seller deems Flusky a suitable customer because of his troubled relation to the Empire – he has been "a guest of Her Majesty" in prison, he is known to have been a criminal, and he is affiliated with the colonial dominion of Ireland – but Flusky lashes out because of his identification with the colonizer, an instinctive disgust at the primitive ritual of the colonized, which is called upon to justify their subordination.
  20. On his first visit to the Flusky mansion, Adair notes a signboard with the name of the house: "Minyago Yugilla." Not recognizing the language, he asks the driver what it means. The driver curtly translates: "Why weepest thou?" The words, not surprisingly in the Hitchcock movie perhaps most deeply invested in the thematics of rebirth and renewal, connote the Christian contexts of resurrection. They refer to the New Testament story of Christ’s resurrection, wherein an angel appears at Christ’s tomb and asks Mary Magdalen, "Woman, why weepest thou?" (John 20: 12-13). The thematic resonance of these words in the film, with their associations of insufficient but ultimately restored faith, is less important here than the generalized signifier of Christianity that couches the allusion in an unknown language. The signboard functions, in part, as a generic marker, evocative of the Romanticist Gothic convention of the named house (as in Rebecca – "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again…" – but with closer associations to Wuthering Heights). But its perhaps less insinuating function is also its more suggestive. If the shrunken head, a grotesquely literalized synecdoche, figures the demonic primitivism that vindicates the rationalizing forces of colonialism, the sign disables a clear distinction between "primitive" and "civilized," pagan and Christian, pre-colonized and colonized Australia. David Cairns and Shaun Richards examine the construction of linguistic difference in English imperial ideology, concluding as follows:
  21. The Welsh, Scots and Irish must…be seen to speak English as evidence of their incorporation within the greater might of England, but they must speak it with enough deviations from the standard form to make their subordinate status in the union manifestly obvious. What cannot be acknowledged is their possession of an alternative language and culture… (Cairns and Richards, 11)

  22. Hitchcock’s film distinguishes not at all (except in the stylized accents of Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman) between British "English" and Irish "English," but this reference to aboriginal language even further undermines any sense of polarization by alluding to the triadic structure of the relation between British, Irish, and aboriginal people. Named by the colonized, the house is inhabited by the colonizers, but they have been colonized too. Shown in effulgent close-up, the placard may merely suggest the missionary intervention that so often strove to bring enlightenment to backward peoples so that they could learn to welcome their enslavement as another phase in their advancement, but it also implies a certain theoretical compatibility –or at least refuses to assert incommensurability – between the "native" languages of the land, the habitation of the colonists, and the overarching spiritual codes of the colonizers. [5]
  23. The final image in this triad, that of the horse, is all the more suggestive in remaining unseen. To that extent, it is a clear marker of the film’s highly "theatrical" climate. The action involving the horse could easily have been exploited to introduce decisively cinematic momentum, but by consigning the action with a great show of deliberation to the space off-screen, Hitchcock courts a willed "staginess" in the treatment of the material; films, after all, typically work to deflect the viewer’s attention from the fact that there is any space, theoretically speaking, that may remain beyond the camera’s purview. If the previous two images operate as synecdochic or metonymic emblems of the colonized territory’s aboriginal people – themselves all but invisible in the film – the horse signifies the lost past of a bucolic Ireland. Flusky was the stableboy in Ireland with whom the formerly aristocratic Hattie fell in love (another variation on Wuthering Heights), and the first flush of their love is imbricated with the national pastime of "riding," the image of the horse bound up, in turn, with the nostalgic lyricism of the pastoral homeland. Imperial ideology, as has often been argued (Childs and Williams, 70), demands simultaneous polarization and identification of colonizer and colonized; in Under Capricorn, the polarization dissolves into shared political power while the identification disappears into just such poetic nostalgia, and both are subsumed under the rubrics of fabrication and averment. If the Irish are themselves colonized people, they share political power with the colonizer (the governor is Irish); the aboriginal people are colonized people, but they are identified with the Irish as sharing a position of subordination. As the "pioneers" of this "great dominion," then, the Irish identify across colonial lines, refuting both the polarization and the stable identity imperial ideology requires, and emerging as the very term, in the relation between British Empire and Australian colony, that disrupts the magisterial certainty of the colonial imaginary.
  24. In the plot’s turning point, Adair leaves after a conflict and fails to make a jump on the horse, causing the animal to break its leg; in a struggle with Flusky over who will put the horse out of its misery, the gun goes off and wounds Adair. It is significant that a later Hitchcock film similarly imbued with an ardent atmosphere of emotional stasis, anxious lyricism, and romanticized redemption, also features a plot that turns on the shooting of a horse. In Marnie (1964), closest among Hitchcock’s films to the emotional climate of Under Capricorn, the main character’s love for her horse Forio symbolizes a primal, unitary state of pleasure that, the film suggests, must be put aside as narcissistic caprice in favor of a healthy maturation, and Marnie’s shooting of the horse (very much present on-screen) is presented as both trauma and release. The figure of the horse in that film even takes on a certain uncanny nationalist valence, as a scene at a hunt strongly suggests a British context (with heavy visual associations to the British-set, Hollywood-shot Suspicion [1941]), despite the film’s nominally American setting. To read Marnie back upon Under Capricorn, however, is only to enrich an already fraught symbol. If the horse in Marnie signifies an imaginary (and quasi-maternal) wholeness that must be renounced to make way for the union of the heterosexual couple, the horse in Under Capricorn signifies an imaginary national past that must be given up to make way for the diminishing colonial future.
  25. The dominant formal maneuver in the structure of Under Capricorn is the long-take, and the domination of this technique by contrast makes the few close-ups in which the first two of these metonymic/synecdochic images are presented, and the off-screen space occupied by the third, all the more weighted with significance. The development of the mobile long-take in the work of directors like Murnau, Renoir, Ophuls, Dreyer, Wyler and Welles typically precluded the preponderance of the close-up – though in most cases, the preclusion was sometimes called upon, as in Under Capricorn, to cast a nimbus of significance upon the rare close-ups (think, for instance, of the ending of Dreyer’s Ordet [1955]). For Andre Bazin, of course, this development toward the long-take culminated the evolution of the language of cinema in a triumphant comprehension of real time, apprehension of real space, and mobilization of long shot scales in the name of the spectator’s greater freedom of observation. What Bazin celebrated in the long-take, clearly, was a new rhetoric of holism, especially as against the very literal fragmentations of time and space of classical decoupage. In this light, the long-take should certainly emerge as the favored prosthetic of the colonial gaze – just as the grandiosity of CinemaScope might well be seen to realize the noumenal idealism of its vast embrace. [6]
  26. Yet Hitchcock’s highly specialized uses of the long-take in Under Capricorn paradoxically work against the holistic rhetoric the technique might be supposed to herald. At times, some of the long-takes provide a sense of the unobstructed, unfettered access to space that could support such a supposition. In the shot of Adair’s first visit to the house, a shot that lasts nearly ten minutes and ends with the emphatic cut that announces Hattie’s first entrance, the camera tracks, pans, and pirouettes with effortless agility from room to room, suggesting its successful conquest of intricate interior space, from the infernal kitchen where the domineering maid cracks a whip to keep her underlings in line, to the cavernous foyer where more genteel social manners obtain. Distinctions of color and visual texture in the mise-en-scène give such contrasts dominating force within the shot, undermining any rhetorical unity that the refusal of editing might be supposed to introduce, and the long range of the camera’s dizzying movement, far from guaranteeing optimum access in the penetration of the house’s space, introduces spatial disorientation by exceeding the standard reference points typical of shots more restricted in their temporal range and motion. The unconcealed theatricality of the set-design, the emphatic artificiality of the housefront, is worth noting here as well, since the penetrating gaze of the camera draws attention, by contrast, to its seeming flatness.
  27. Another telling example occurs in a long-take after the dinner scene where the camera follows Sam and Adair as they talk about Hattie, but then breaks from them suddenly and scales to a second floor balcony, where Hattie languishes. Once again the agility and the breathless virtuosity of the shot assert the camera’s mastery, but once again its outcome is ambiguous. Sound cues, for instance, do not let us know whether Hattie hears what the men are saying, and her separateness and solitude are heightened by the fact that she is shown in the same shot as, and in such apparent proximity to, their conversation. If an ordinary function of the long-take is to show characters in relation to one another, associated by social context within integrated space (as in Renoir pace Bazin), Hitchcock uses it here, on the contrary, to suggest disconnection and disorientation, to emphasize characters’ isolation.
  28. For Bazin, the absence of editing in the long-take gave it a theoretically holistic character that produced "an image of the world on its own terms." Hitchcock’s reliance on the extremes of the close-up and the long-take, however, results in a certain rift in representation, an incommensurability, precisely, between the isolated object of the close-up and the integrated field of its self-presence – or, to put it in the terms most significant to the argument here, between figure and meaning. If the close-up works to delimit objects in a metonymic relation to an imagined or projected whole – one that might only, theoretically, be fulfilled in the ascendancy of the long-take – the point in Under Carpicorn would seem to be how little integrated these close-ups are into the dominant formal framework of the film. The first close-up of the head is especially striking in this regard, because it breaks the narrative illusion so decisively: the camera glides in for the close-up, and the actor holding the head folds back its covering in a very deliberate, theatrical gesture, clearly intended to assist the camera’s gaze.
  29. The use of the long-take in the film, far from appearing to fulfill an imaginary unity in its rejection of editing, makes the viewer constantly aware of absence, especially through the repression of the reverse-field editing so necessary to achieving classical continuity. In the scene after Sam’s arrest where Hattie resolves to go to town to intervene on his behalf, a reverse-shot, looking away from the housefront, shows a dense wood. The effect is strikingly dissociative, because not only does the wood look substantially more "real" than any other location in the film, but the shot is one of the few reverse-shots in the film. Like the use of the long-take, the practice of reverse-field editing is typically understood as working to construct a virtual, holistic reality through the integrated relation of shots. Here, however, Hitchcock "lays bare the device" by juxtaposing a clearly artificial set, the house, against a putatively "real" space, the wood, and in the collision of shots, remarking the rhetorical incommensurability of artifice and reality.
  30. A related example from an approximately contemporary film, The Pirate (1948), may clarify the point. In Vincente Minnelli’s Caribbean fantasia, the longings of Manuela, the main character, are figured in the plot in her constant gaze out to sea, past the camera. Initially, no reverse-shot allows the spectator to see what she sees. Later in the film, however, a reverse-shot of the sea is abruptly cut in, and the disjunctive relation of the stage sets to the shot of a "real" sea (on a film stock that differs clearly from that of the rest of the film) creates a rift, a frisson of the improbable, similar to the effect in Under Capricorn. Like Hitchcock’s film, Minnelli’s makes heavy use of long-takes, obviously artificial sets, and an exoticized pseudo-location. The differing genres of the films cause such effects to register quite differently, however. The musical, of course, embraces heightened artifice, and because Minnelli’s film, moreover, takes the relation of fantasy and delusion as its subject, such moments, whether one sees them as technical deficiencies or self-reflexive auteurist gestures, fit more readily into the overall framework of the film. In its status as a melodrama, Under Capricorn may well show emotional affinities with the musical. Unlike Hitchcock’s previous experiment with the long-take, Rope (1948), Under Capricorn has been widely charged with oppressive "staginess," as a talky, static melodrama. Rope typically escapes this charge despite its one-room setting and actual theatrical source, perhaps because of its more sustained use of the "cinematic" long-take, while Under Capricorn suffers by comparison because of entrenched assumptions about the imperative realism of the historical costume-drama. But that is exactly the point: Under Capricorn joins a small group of Hollywood movies (including Max Ophuls’s The Exile [1947] and Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet [1955]) in challenging these assumptions, replacing the sweep and spectacle of the genre with emotional stasis and self-conscious theatricality. By manipulating the evidently holistic long-take into a figure of ellipsis, placing important action like the horse’s fall off-screen, and otherwise emphasizing off-screen space as a structuring-absence, Hitchcock severs the assurance of connection between part and whole, sign and signifier. Metonymy still dominates, but the failure of part to stand in for whole exposes as false the systems – of representation, of political ideology – that would have it do so. In its prevalence of defamiliarized artifice, Under Capricorn raises a pressing question: If history itself is a construct, what can the colonizer’s idealism be but delusion?
  31. Hitchcock’s "spy thrillers" figure nation-as-MacGuffin: they bid for a certain safety of apolitical status through a universalizing appeal to the needs of narrative pleasure. The spectator agrees, ostensibly, to accept national identities as given, archetypal, universal, rather than as local, distinctive, ideological, to enter the illusionist atmosphere of a popular, crowd-pleasing genre. However, it is this very attitude, routinely promoted by Hitchcock himself, that enabled his films to comment quite specifically, and at least covertly politically, over and over again in the course of his career, on historical crises of nationality: the international anxieties of pre-World War II Europe (in the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes), the insular landscapes of Cold War America (in Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest), or the yet-again international context of late-Cold War, neo-colonial intrigues (in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much or Topaz). The treatment of the IRA in Juno and the Paycock, significantly, is the closest Hitchcock comes to the "spy thriller" template in either of the films treated here; it seems, strikingly, almost like a dry run for the scene of the stalking of "Annabella Smith" in The Thirty-Nine Steps. In many of these cases, it is hard to say whether the conception of nationality as a formalist, generic convenience or as an ideological, political construct is the determining factor or the final dominant effect, but the illusionist basis of the "spy thriller," welcoming a version of nationality as theatrical conceit, could always be seen, in any case, to render the question moot.
  32. Though the atypical examples of the two films considered here reflect quite directly upon the more typical ones, and thereby call for rethinking of the political valences of Hitchcock’s films more generally, the question must remain bracingly moot in relation to Juno and the Paycock and Under Capricorn too, at least to the extent that, however important it is to unravel the implications of national and political representation in Hitchcock’s films, the complexity of their imbrications is likely to prevent easy final analyses of the political ethics – critical of the evil, or complicit with the good? of the devil’s party, or harbingers of failed or actual virtue? – that these films ultimately express. (The traditional and tiresomely binary divisions in such ethics, of the type Nietszche was not alone in hoping to get beyond, itself calls for further thought on the matter.) These two films are distinguished from Hitchcock’s more characteristic work not least in their decidedly less punitive atmosphere: neither the IRA nor the unionists are finally called to account in Juno, since there is enough suffering to go around, and Under Capricorn shares with Marnie the lone distinction in Hitchcock’s work of achieving closure through such means as acceptance, understanding and forgiveness. The "transference of guilt" (Hitchcock’s time-honored theme) may simply be understood to be so general in colonial conflict that there is little point in assigning individual blame; that idea, to be sure, has surfaced often enough in twentieth-century international culture to exculpate colonial violence, and certainly, in both these films, if "performance" never quite succeeds in conferring liberation, it is also what sometimes enables individual subjects not to comply fully with the entrapment that accompanies the regimes of any politics these films are able to project.
  33. In point of fact, that haunting image of Juno crossing the empty room, for all its rhetorical power, is not the final image the viewer of Juno and the Paycock sees on screen. That honor goes to a picture of a cartoon planet with a cartoon goddess-figure astride it, accompanied by a standardized jingle, the logo of "British International Pictures." Especially after the tragic heights achieved at the end of the film – an Irish narrative, after all, about terrible injustices attendant upon nationalist conflicts, with the question of British internationalism a very pertinent one to the context – this image registers as notably discordant. British International was one of several companies that appeared in the late 1920s following a parliamentary decree of minimal quotas upon British film production, to prevent the British cinema from becoming merely an arm of the Hollywood film industry. Thus, despite the pledge of "international" interest in the company’s name, and despite Scottish collaboration in its formation, it took shape around a somewhat panic-stricken anxiety about national integrity. The production through this outfit of films like Hitchcock’s about Irish experience may have fulfilled (or even defined) the company’s stated "international" aspirations, but it also reflected (and, possibly, enforced) the lack of a "native" cinematic tradition in Ireland itself. It would be heartening indeed to believe that the crushing insensitivity of this last fade – a very direct transport from the sublime to the ridiculous – and of this final symbolic assertion of proprietary rights, enacted a speech-act parallel to Juno’s in the film proper: to nominate, to expose, the murderous frivolity, in the face of Juno’s tragedy, of such puerile gestures of ownership – to speak from the position of colonial power both the brute oppression and the overwhelming sterility of that power, in the hope to hurry its decay.


  1. It is certainly significant that Hitchcock found himself drawn to this work by a playwright with so ambivalent a response to Irish nationality, but it is equally striking that, despite O'Casey's move to England shortly before the film's production, O'Casey can hardly be thought to be, in any simple way, a "Briton." Many Irish playwrights wrote far more critically of Irish nationalism, and O'Casey is equally critical of Irish unionism, both in Juno and the Paycock and elsewhere. (The opening speech of the play contains what appears to be the most clearly endorsed political sentiment, a call for an Irish identity that circumvents the nationalist/unionist binarism.) It is worth noting, though, that despite the complexity of its treatment of such issues, the film was burnt in protest on the streets of Limerick by Irish nationalists shortly after its release (Bloom, 177). Back
  2. It is worth remembering here that the politics of importing and exporting goods were crucial in the relation of Ireland to the United Kingdom. The two famines of the 1800s took place in large part because of the export by nonresidential landowners of quantities of food that would have been more than sufficient, if retained, to end starvation, a fact that would surely have been known to both O'Casey and Hitchcock. Back
  3. This ending departs from the play, where Joxer and Boyle return after Juno's last soliloquy for one last round of expansively Irish colloquy; the departure from O'Casey's text further punctuates the performative aspect of Juno's own last words in Hitchcock's film.
  4. This signifier may also be read as specifically Catholic, since the Protestant Bible usually translates the phrase in question less grandiloquently, as "Woman, why are you weeping?" Back

  5. In the ensuing discussion, the reader may find the terms "metonymy" and "synecdoche" conflated. Even in classical rhetoric, the tropes have often been treated as very closely congruent, and in discussion of cinematic figuration, they have both been linked routinely with the same formal procedures, such as the close-up, the dissolve, superimposition, editing in general, and so on. In what remains the most systematic treatment of cinematic figuration, discussing the interrelations of metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche, Christian Metz remarks as follows: "The important thing is not to wish [types of cinematic figuration] would coincide, but to work on the ways in which they intersect"(Metz, 194). Back
  6. See Roland Barthes, "On CinemaScope," trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum; and my own commentary, "On Barthes On CinemaScope," both in Jouvert 3.3 (Spring 1999). Back
  7. For discussion of Hitchcock and British International, see Ryall, 45-51. For discussion of development of Irish cinema, especially in a colonial or post-colonial context, see Hill McLoone, and Hainsworth, 112-17. Back

Works Cited

Auiler, Dan. Hitchcock's Notebooks. New York: Avon, 1999.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Sean O'Casey. New York: Chelsea, 1987.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cairns, David and Shaun Richards. Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Childs, Peter and R. J. Patrick Williams. An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1997.

Goffman, Erving. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Hill, John, Martin McLoone, and Paul Hainsworth, eds. Border Crossing: Film in Ireland, Britain and Europe. Ulster and Belfast: British Film Institute, 1994.

Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Parker, Andrew and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, eds. Performativity and Performance. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Ryall, Tom. Alfred Hitchcock and the British Cinema. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

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