The Hitchcock Signature
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III
Everyone knows that all Alfred Hitchcock films have a lot in common, all that is Alfred Hitchcock. The mark he left on each of his movies is indelible and undeniable, comparable to the mark any of history’s greatest painters left on their art. As a result, finding a common theme or plot running through each of his films was not a difficult thing to do. What was difficult was finding one element, a thread that runs through each, to focus on in considering a Hitchcock-themed piece. So I left it up to my eyes, my senses, to decide what that one thread would be that connects a few of his films into one cohesive essay. I must say it didn’t take long for the most obvious thread to become apparent, his visual signature. This is an attempt to discuss that in the simplest way possible – a near impossible task given the wealth and quality of films from which to choose. But here goes and I warn that spoilers lay ahead.
Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of Pure Cinema. Pure Cinema is the telling of a story via film by using strong visuals, as opposed to lengthy dialogue, to process/further the narrative. That is the way Hitchcock directed his films, emphasizing the visual, something that makes perfect sense given he started his career as a director in silent films where visuals were the most important element in the telling of a story. Subsequently, he would retain the visual elements in the forefront of all his films and his use of them would become, in my opinion, his greatest achievement, his most recognizable signature, and what would truly define his genius.
It must be mentioned that aside from the visual, Alfred Hitchcock’s films also have a strong thematic connection as they all feature varying degrees of intrigue, suspense, murder, romance, sexuality and dark humor. Or, they center around a wrongly accused man, many deal with patriotism, or international espionage, and most tell stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. When I watch a Hitchcock movie, however, what I find most compelling isn’t the story he tells, but the way he shows it to me. Several of his films, for instance, feature extensive chases where the protagonist has to go to great lengths to avoid capture. The important element in these cases is the running, the encounters, the avoidance – it is never the why. The why is rarely fully explained in any of his films and Hitchcock himself thought the why didn’t matter to audiences. He called this why the McGuffin and explained it as a nonsensical device used to motivate the action and suspense. Simply, this small somewhat confusing, inconsequential thing in many of Hitchcock’s films is one of the reasons he was such a genius in storytelling because he made his films so visually compelling that nobody cared why the suspicious situation arose in the first place. What mattered was the action that ensued as a result of the McGuffin, but the McGuffin could be anything at all.
In The 39 Steps the McGuffin takes the form of some missing papers that in the end turn out to be Mr. Memory’s recollection of some government’s secrets. Which government the secrets pertain to is never stated and it turns out to be of no consequence as what drives this film is all that Richard Hannay goes through to clear his name. In The Lady Vanishes the McGuffin is a tune that’s a pact between two European countries. Again here, the fact that the lady vanishes and that the others search for her is the film. The audience doesn’t care one bit about the tune or what it represents. In Notorious the McGuffin is uranium ore in the form of black sand hidden in wine bottles by German agents. However, in the scene where Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman discover the sand what’s compelling is the suspense that results from the possibility that these will be discovered in the wine cellar. The sand is simply what gets them in that predicament in the first place. In North by Northwest the McGuffin is given the least amount of attention of all the films. It is described in two words, “government secrets.” Nothing more is ever mentioned about the why Richard Thornhill (Cary Grant’s character) has to make a cross-country run for his life – and honestly, who cares why. The fun is in watching Cary Grant getting in and out of one dangerous situation after another.
Locations and settings used by Alfred Hitchcock in his films say a lot about the importance of everything visual. In a Hitchcock film a location is not background but an integral part of the story and scene. This is as important and recognizable a visual an element in his films as any other because in many cases these settings have become part of the Hitchcockian visual signature. If you are a fan of Hitchcock’s films you can name any number of memorable, famous scenes that feature very familiar, often iconic locations and symbols – the Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, the United Nations, and the Golden Gate Bridge, to name a few. All of these are American symbols that are normally pure and/or welcoming. Yet he chooses to film them in a way where they become dangerous and menacing. While most directors would use sites such as these as backdrops to whatever the action is, Hitchcock uses them as characters, as important as the one who clings for dear life from their rafters.
Alfred Hitchcock carefully dictated through his camera what we should think and feel while watching his films. Yes, that’s what directors do. But the extent to which Hitchcock controls his audience is unequaled. He was a master manipulator – direct and purposeful in every shot so as to leave absolutely nothing to chance. There are two great examples to illustrate techniques he uses to emphasize things and/or emotion in his films – the manipulation. The first is the deliberate ways in which he shows us props that are central to particular scenes or plots in his films. He often uses a slow panning into objects, extreme close-ups or an in-your-face freezing of an item. Examples of this “special” presentation of props are numerous. The newspaper the husband in the shack hands over to Hannay so we are able to read the headlines in The 39 Steps, the close-ups of the poisoned brandy glass in the dining car in The Lady Vanishes, the close-up of the ring Charlie is wearing as she descends the stairs in her house in Shadow of a Doubt, the close-ups of Bruno’s tie in Strangers on a Train, the matchbook with the initials R.O.T. in North by Northwest shown in a freeze frame to emphasize its importance, and the best, most famous example, the crane shot that starts from high above in Notorious, which ends in an extreme close-up of Ingrid Bergman’s hand holding the key to the wine cellar. All of these are seconds long, they all move the story along and all tell volumes about the narrative power of Alfred Hitchcock. Each item mentioned here plays an integral part in the plot of each film and the way he filmed them ensured that each is recognizable to the audience later in the story.
Another “manipulation” tool is the way his actors are required to show their emotions and reactions only on their faces. This is present in all of his films, it’s a pattern, a signature. The acting in his films is nearly always excellent and very effective. But it is also very deliberate, and oftentimes exaggerated. In some way it can be argued that the actor was just another prop to him as he uses them, in so many instances, for reaction shots only – sudden, brief. In his films we can see countless shifting eyes to enhance suspicion, countless shots of wide eyes to promote fear and many scenes of people posing – all one expression at a time. We are told when fear, anxiety, guilt or suspicion is appropriate and this rings true in every single one of the films mentioned below.
In an interview associated with the promotion of the Vertigo DVD years back, Kim Novak said that while shooting that film Hitchcock told her that she had a lot of expression on her face and that he wanted none of it! He only wanted her to show (on her face) to the audience what she was thinking at that particular moment. That sums it up perfectly. In each and every performance from each of these films we are always privy to the exact thoughts of the characters. The reaction shots help us identify with these people up on the big screen. But to cement the identification Hitchcock goes a step further, he often shows us the action from their perspective. So, aside from knowing what characters think, we see what they see. In nearly all of these films there are shots of people moving straight toward the camera, toward the protagonist, ultimately toward us. Because of these images we become a part of the film, active participants, as what happens to them seems to happen to us. There is no greater way for a filmmaker to manipulate us as an audience member than to grab us by the throat and bring us into the film. In Saboteur we see Fry lunge at us while at the top of the Statue of Liberty, in Strangers on a Train we see Bruno kicking at us as if we were his adversary on the merry-go-round in that film’s climax. Also in that film Hitchcock twists this technique a bit while Bruno is strangling Miriam (Casey Rogers). Bruno steps in front of the camera so that he takes our place, in short we are the ones choking her (and we are strangers like they). In Notorious we are introduced to Sebastian’s colleagues just as Alicia is (Ingrid Bergman’s character). We take her place in the sequence and become the camera’s lens, completely in her perspective so as she shakes each man’s hand, so do we. We are in the action and none of it is by chance.
These are but a few examples of the visual elements and techniques that are easily recognizable in all films by this great director but in reality his true signature is seen throughout each film in every shot in every scene. His use of odd, skewed angles, wide sweeping shots that often end in tight close-ups, long sequences with no dialogue, his spectacular use of color (1950s films) and equally spectacular use of shadows, the ever popular Hitchcock cameo, the look and style of his leading ladies, his use of dark humor, and the circular shots that pan around the actors, particularly in romantic scenes. Of this last technique I have to give two examples because they’re memorable and worthy of special mention (they are also two of my favorites). The first is in Notorious (1946). While Devlin and Alicia (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman) are in the balcony of her hotel room they embrace and kiss. Hitchcock pans around them so we see all angles of these amazing-looking people (and no doubt he felt they looked amazing too) but he does so in a long, uncut sequence that seems to last forever. It has a very sensual effect and what he creates is an uncomfortable feeling that we shouldn’t be watching these two people for this long a time sharing this moment (but it’s spectacular).
In North by Northwest (1959) he used a similar shot to get the same effect. We see the couple (Grant and Eva Marie Saint) embrace and kiss but this time the camera stays steady as they roll along against the wall.
Since I can’t seem to stop gushing about this astounding talent, following are a few specifics on a number of Alfred Hitchcock films. These are mere examples of his legacy and vision. And whenever I manage to stop gawking, oohing and aahing, I try to focus on his visual signature and theme as relates to each.
The 39 Steps (1935) is about an ordinary, innocent, man who is somehow framed for murder by circumstantial evidence and thrust into extraordinary situations. Add some common (but exciting) Hitchcock elements – international espionage, mystery, multiple identities, a blonde girl who’s his adversary but who happens to be attached to him (literally in this case as they are handcuffed together) and you have a very enjoyable movie.
The Hitchcock signature is clear throughout The 39 Steps. The killing of the girl by the knife and the way she is found – reminiscent of countless other murder scenes in countless other Hitchcock films. The landlady who finds the body screams in horror but her screams are replaced by the whistle of a train as that scene fades to the next. That train then takes on the familiar setting for several scenes in the film. It is where Hannay (Robert Donat) first meets Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and where he is able to read newspaper stories of the murder that occurred in his apartment the day before. (Newspapers are another familiar item in many Hitchcock films as he uses headlines and stories to aid in the narrative). And the use of a newspaper is again seen in the best visual scene in this film. The scene when Hannay goes to the shack where he finds the married couple, the kind wife and not so kind husband. This scene has a really nice exchange between Hannay and the wife that is just another example of the power of the visual versus the vocal in that the entire exchange is done with looks and glances.
In the end, Hannay and Pamela rid themselves of their physical attachments (the handcuffs) but by that time they are emotionally attached. They find their freedom, Hannay is able to clear his name and Mr. Memory dies with the McGuffin in his head.
This is a great movie that has a similar plot to North by Northwest, which Hitchcock directed more than twenty years later. The fact that he was to remake his own film (and it’s not the only time he did so during his career) shows that he was not all that interested in the stories but in finding innovative ways to show us the details and emotions. Even if his innovative way was simply a new camera angle or the addition of color, the effects would be as profound and enjoyable.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) is the last film Alfred Hitchcock would make in England before his move to Hollywood. The plot of The Lady Vanishes is quite simple. While traveling on a train a nice, innocent-looking old lady vanishes after she is befriended by a younger woman traveling on the same train. Though several people had witnessed the lady’s presence on the train it is questionable whether she was a figment of the younger woman’s imagination because no clues can be found as to her existence. Much tension, frustration and suspicion ensue before the old woman reappears. And surprise, she turns out to be not an innocent old lady but a spy with knowledge of international secrets. As with other Hitchcock films the plot here is fun as we try to figure out what happened to Ms. Froy, which rhymes with joy. But the really entertaining part of this film is watching it unfold.
From the very beginning of The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock has our undivided attention and the tension begins to build as a singer (who sounds like he’s moaning) is strangled. This scene is fairly creepy and sets a dire tone right off the bat. Hitchcock also used a train whistle throughout the journey depicted here that sounded eerily like a woman’s shriek. It startles me every single time I watch this movie.
Ms. Froy (Dame May Whitty) has a nice meal with her new friend, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), in the dining car of the train. She writes her name on the window to make sure Iris understands it. Later, we see the name again accompanied by the scary train whistle/shriek and we know something sinister is afoot. When Iris awakes the next day to find Ms. Froy is missing we see the process and her realization through her eyes (perspective) as the camera slowly pans from face to face of the people in her compartment. There’s a lot of action and intrigue as Iris and her male companion, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), who becomes her love interest, search for the missing woman. Much of the suspense in this film comes from the setting in the train, its close quarters, the shifting eyes of all the passengers (he purposely makes them all seem guilty), odd sounds, a villainous doctor and, as is the true test of a Hitchcock film, from the chase, rather than the outcome. Ms. Froy is saved in the end and she is seen fleeing from the train taking the McGuffin with her.
In Saboteur (1942) we see the typical Hitchcock protagonist in the character of Barry Kane, played by a very young Robert Cummings. Kane crosses the country looking for a Saboteur who was responsible for his best friend’s death and for whose crime he is being wrongly accused. Kane goes from pursuer to pursued and encounters many different and distinct characters and situations along his journey, including the requisite girl who suspects him and then falls for him becoming his biggest ally in the end.
Much of the scenery and backgrounds used in this film look like sets, rather than authentic sites along roads, etc., however, none of that has any impact on the outcome or the action throughout the film. The suspense and the main character’s paranoia build beautifully as even signs along the road point to Kane’s guilt or impending peril. One even reads “you’re being followed” and there’s nothing subtle about that. The sign is but another example of how, if given the choice, Hitchcock would choose a picture over a word every time.
Signature Hitchcockian visual elements are evident in Saboteur from start to finish. We see the close-ups of the letter in the beginning that lead Kane to find Tobin (Otto Kruger), the evil mastermind in the film, and a close-up of another letter in Tobin’s house later in the story. The use of a train as a setting – it is where Kane and Pat (Priscilla Lane, the girl) meet the circus performers (which incidentally have some similarities to a few of the peripheral characters in The Lady Vanishes), and the most famous moment in the film, the Statue of Liberty scene where the film climaxes. Aside from the obvious mentioned above about Hitchcock and his use of famous/familiar symbols, this scene has two great and typical Hitchcock shots in it that are worth mentioning. The first is the way Hitchcock shot Fry’s (Norman Lloyd) jacket breaking apart stitch by stitch as the thread is the only thing keeping him from falling to his death. The other is the way Hitchcock chose to use only the sound of roaring wind as what we hear as Fry hangs there. The fact that we hear nothing but the wind enhances the suspense and terror as Fry hangs on for his life. As much as I love film music, the fact it is often overused make music-less scenes memorable.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is said to be Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite of his films because of the characterization and the setting, which is a small, typical, quiet American town. Ted Haimes’ 1999 documentary, Dial “H” for Hitchcock mentions how he hated filming on location because he liked everything set up exactly as he wanted in the comfort of a soundstage. However, he chose to film this movie on location and, as usual, his instincts were right. The small town feeling of wholesomeness and neighborly affection is ever-present and adds a lot to the contrast between the town and its sinister visitor. The other films discussed prior to this one entailed stories of travel where the menace is somewhere else or something hidden and foreign. Here, the menace comes to you and it is familiar, admired and loved. This film feels different and I attribute that to the fact that it doesn’t chase, it creeps.
Shadow of a Doubt is about a typical family whose strongest member is a teenage girl. This girl is bored with her life because she lives in a town where “nothing ever happens.” This changes when her favorite uncle comes for a visit. She and this uncle share a name (Charlie) and a strong bond. The uncle is a charming, handsome man who also happens to be a serial murderer. Uncle Charlie brings with him gifts for the entire family, impending doom, a literal black cloud, which Hitchcock shows beautifully as the train pulls to a stop and thick, black smoke permeates the otherwise clear sky. Uncle Charlie also brings with him a realization that even those closest to us, those we love and admire most may be capable of very horrible things.
This film has the most mainstream plot of all those discussed here in that the subjects, as mentioned above, are in the “comfort” of home, which somehow makes the villain seem a lot more sinister and intrusive than in the other films. And he is. Hitchcock builds the suspense slowly and masterfully throughout this film by his use of camera angles, shadows and extreme close-ups, the most effective of which is the one of Uncle Charlie at the dinner table talking about the rich, fat, good-for-nothing widows he so despises. The camera pans in very slowly so that as he gets more and more disgusted we get closer and closer to this man’s true nature. Chilling!
Shadow of a Doubt is also perfectly cast – Joseph Cotton (Uncle Charlie) is a great villain and encompasses many of the attributes I’d ascribe to a serial murderer (or what I’ve heard about them, in any case) – he’s charming, attractive, worldly, and evil. Cotten also has a great, powerful voice that demands attention. When he speaks you want to believe him so it’s easy to see why Charlie (the niece) so admires him. Theresa Wright is also great in her Charlie role – a worthy adversary for the evil uncle.
Other Hitchcockian filming techniques present throughout this film are the close-ups of significant objects like the step on the stairs leading to the second floor of the house, the step that Uncle Charlie has so meticulously cut through so Charlie falls and breaks her neck. We see the slow manner in which Hitchcock shows us the newspaper article Charlie is reading in the library about the Merry Widow Murderer. We learn all the facts as she does. There are plenty of the “point-of-view” shots that show us the action from the perspective of the characters in the film. Hitchcock’s use of shadows in this film is particularly effective – typical (and great) noir.
The climactic scene in Shadow of a Doubt, when one Charlie tries to kill the other, is also typical Hitchcock. It takes place on a train, the intended crime is up close and personal (strangulation), and the villain’s death is a fall to his death.
As for the dark humor Hitchcock rarely leaves out of his films it is done in a very enjoyable way here in the characters of the father (Henry Travers) and his friend, Herbie (Hume Cronyn).
These two friends have a most appropriate (and macabre) hobby, which is to collect and compare methods of murder. They spend the entire film trying to outwit each other in planning and executing the perfect murder but it is done so innocently that again, it becomes a great contrast to the real-life darkness that surrounds them.
A stunner! The great Notorious (1946)! There is absolutely nothing about this film not to love. The obvious is its three great stars making this the first of the films discussed that feature bonafide Hollywood superstars with all their glorious screen presence and magnificence. Claude Raines is great as Sebastian, the German agent and main villain in the story. Ingrid Bergman is Alicia, the daughter of a traitor who turns against the Germans. She marries Sebastian in order to spy on him for the U.S. Then there’s Cary Grant. As Devlin, Grant plays a U.S. agent who’s Alicia’s contact with the agency when she is under cover. He also falls head over heals in love with her (lucky!). The scenes between Bergman and Grant need only a rolling camera to keep our attention. However, Mr. Hitchcock and his camera do a lot more here than simply roll. All their scenes together, or apart, are sublime – suspiciously so.
Hitchcock introduces the character of Devlin in this film with yet another inspired moment on film. For several minutes we see only the back of his head, there’s no mistaking it’s Cary Grant’s head and I am tempted during these several minutes to peek around to see that face. But Hitchcock shows it to us when he is good and ready.
There is a gorgeous shot later of Devlin standing in the bedroom doorway as Alicia wakes up with a hangover. He is shown at a severe angle and from her point of view. As she turns so does our view of him until we all literally go head over heels looking at this.
This film also features what is perhaps the best example of how Hitchcock maintains the tension (visually) and how he builds the anxiety in us slowly, deliberately. For instance, throughout the entire magnificent party sequence in Sebastian’s mansion the director constantly reminds us of how the champagne is running low. We see a close-up of a waiter’s tray as someone picks up one of the last glasses on it, we see another man pouring the last of the champagne in one of the bottles, we see intermittent shots of both Devlin and Alicia checking the status of the champagne, and we see, again and again, shots of the table showing us the diminishing bottles. All this builds us up so that when the sequence culminates in the wine cellar we are at the edge of our seats – expecting that at any moment someone will come down and catch them. That’s great stuff! And a sequence not unique to Notorious but this is my favorite (although the climactic scene in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is wonderful as well – same type of edit-to-repeat shots to build the suspense used in that one).
The plot in Notorious centers around espionage, suspense and romance. The writing is superb. The sets vary from Miami to Rio, from a grand mansion to a racetrack – all believable, all compelling but again, all take a back seat to how we are shown this story, rather than told. Had these people been photographed by Alfred Hitchcock throughout the entire film in a barn, I believe the impact would have been the same. Or…you get the point.
Strangers on a Train (1951) is quite scary. An eerie film. This one has some of the home town quality of Shadow of a Doubt but also includes a not-so-subtle cat and mouse game of wit and daring. The real, deep down creepiness of this movie, however, comes from the fact that it all starts with a chance meeting, which of course means it can all happen to us (an entirely different premise than we see in Shadow of a Doubt but the familiarity component is repeated). The premise is a simple, murderous quid-pro-quo – you commit my murder and I’ll commit yours.
Guy Aimes (Farley Granger) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) casually meet on a train after one’s foot brushes up against the other’s. The brilliant opening sequence that leads up to this casual meeting is a montage of shots of both men’s feet as they walk through the terminal and approach the train and find seats. (Did I mention it is brilliant?)
The two men start a casual conversation that ends in a deal that changes their lives forever. Bruno, whose idea it is to swap murders is a spoiled, rich, brat who also happens to be quite deranged. (It must be noted that Bruno exemplifies the Hitchcockian villain we’ve already seen in Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious and who we’ll see again later. A villain who’s very menacing and scary but who also has many sympathetic, charming qualities). After their conversation on the train about criss-crossing crimes, Bruno goes out and keeps his end of the bargain by killing Guy’s wife. The scene of the murder touches upon yet another Hitchcockian element, turning a seemingly innocent place, in this case a carnival, into a dangerous, dark, murderous surrounding. And indeed, there is nothing innocent about the way Miriam’s murder is shown to us, through the reflection of the murdered woman’s glasses, which fall off as she is strangled. No one but Alfred Hitchcock would have done this and it is quite effective as the reflection distorts the murder from evil to macabre. Pure genius.
Bruno expects a swift and precise repayment from Guy but when Guy refuses to kill Bruno’s father, Bruno haunts him. He appears everywhere and anywhere at any given moment – even sitting in the audience of a tennis match where we see a masterful shot of all the heads following the ball, left and right, left and right. All the heads that is, except Bruno’s who’s looking straight at Guy – in a spine-tingling shot! This is how intimately Hitchcock knew his audience. Only he would have trusted that one small head in a crowd of hundreds, filmed from afar, would affect us so deeply. By this time even we see Bruno everywhere we look!
In the end Bruno gets his when he returns to the scene of the crime to implicate Guy in his murder. From beginning to end this film is deliberate and torturous and by the time the story ends our nerves are frayed, our nails bitten. A great movie.
The masterpiece! For my money this one is it – Rear Window (1954). This film is the purest and greatest example of his gift as the visual cinematic master. I know many would disagree but I’ll fight for this one. To begin with the premise of this film, voyeurism, lends itself perfectly to telling a visual story. As audience members we are voyeurs, as Stella (the great Thelma Ritter) says in the film, “a race of peeping toms,” and we are watching in Rear Window a mirror image of ourselves in the character of L. B. Jefferies (Jeff, played by James Stewart). The audience is completely a part of all that happens in this film as we are complicit to all that Jeff sees. We literally see what he sees from his perspective and then we see his reaction. We see what he sees again then we get his reaction again. That is almost the entire film and the fact that it is made in such a compelling way is a cinematic wonder. A miracle.
As a result of this film’s premise, Jimmy Stewart’s acting in this film is almost completely shown in extremely close reaction shots. He needs ask absolutely nothing from the rest of his body. And he is wonderful. The best example of how good he is in this is in the scene when his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) ventures into Thorwald’s apartment. The sheer panic and fear on Jeff’s face are palpable. Again, the classic Hitchcock film acting requirement.
The opening shot of this film is executed by way of a beautiful, slow scan across the courtyard to the windows and lives we will spend nearly two hours enthralled by. Hitchcock then pans back across to do a slow scan of Jeff himself, showing he is confined to a wheelchair, then he does a thorough run-through of Jeff’s apartment whereby we learn he is a professional photographer and world traveler. Within a few minutes we have met nearly all the characters in this film and not a word has been uttered. And then there’s the fact that through a window and across a courtyard, we see all stages of relationships – a lonely woman, a woman who is dating, a newly married couple, a nagging wife – it’s pure genius.
When we first meet Lisa it is in a familiar way, a straight toward the camera, perspective shot as she bends down ever closer to kiss Jeff hello. You can tell Hitchcock loved the look of her and this may well be one of the most beautiful screen introductions ever done.
The central theme in this film, voyeurism, is not only dealt with on a superficial level as mentioned above where the character goes into other’s lives and we go into his, by watching. Voyeurism is also judged. Is it ok to a certain point to look into other people’s lives? Or do people have a right to privacy that should never be violated? Due to his physical predicament, Jeff exists to watch other’s lives play out in front of his eyes and then one day he sees one across the courtyard, Ms. Lonelyhearts being manhandled and crying in despair. His reaction is to draw back immediately and to question whether what he’s doing is ethical. Further then, is proving a murder worth crossing that line? Therein lies the dilemma – for him and for us. At the very end of the film when Thorwald (villain, Raymond Burr) comes in to Jeff’s apartment we know he is a killer but for an instant he’s the more sympathetic of the two. We know Jeff should not have been watching other people – and in fact, Jeff has nothing to say to Thorwald when he asks why he did it.
There are a number of great sub-plots in this film. One is the relationship between Jeff and Lisa and how he seems disinterested in her until she does something dangerous by going across the courtyard and into the suspected evil he’s witnessed. In essence, she becomes his fantasy (although in a much more subtle way than what we later see from James Stewart in Vertigo). Then there is the importance of each little story we are privy to across that courtyard. With rarely a close-up, each is told as if it were a little film unto itself, each with humor, drama and tragedy.
Rear Window features several long, silent sequences where we get (loaded) glimpses into the lives of the people across the courtyard. We see a lot more than a glimpse of Hitchcock’s wonderful use of color in the way he seems to splatter bright, primary colors into each scene, often calling our attention exactly to where he wants it. With very few exceptions the camera never leaves Jeff’s apartment during this entire film. Just as Jeff is confined to a wheelchair so does Hitchcock confine himself to rather limited filming choices and the result is an astounding film. I am forever fascinated by this one.
If Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock’s visual masterpiece then Vertigo (1958) is his visual feast. Vertigo is not one of my favorites in this list of films by any means. However, there is much in this film that takes my breath away and I acknowledge it’s a standout. Just not the standout for me. The story here is about a retired detective with a severe fear of heights (vertigo) whose college buddy asks him to follow his wife because he’s afraid she might hurt herself. It turns out she might be possessed by a dead ancestor. The detective, Scottie (James Stewart), reluctantly agrees. Sure enough Scottie is forced to save her when she jumps into the river and he falls for her. The husband then uses Scottie’s vertigo as a way to ensure he gets away with killing his wife by pushing her off a tower. However, the wife was already dead and the woman Scottie falls for is an imposter. Then comes part two. A casual meeting, or maybe not – along a city street, a lost love remembered and the obsession really begins to heat up.
From the title sequence, which features an extreme close-up of a dark, sinister eye and very creepy music I do much eye shifting myself. This film is one of the most troubling, anxiety-ridden film I’ve ever seen, every time I watch it. This is probably due to the fact that it goes deep in our psyche and the fact that the usually stalwart, steady, everyman, Jimmy Stewart, loses touch with reality and becomes obsessed to a degree that is very disturbing.
Until now we’ve seen Hitchcock visually enhance feelings of anxiety, fear, and suspicion but with this film he goes into the truly psychological world of melancholy, guilt, phobia and obsession. As always, Hitchcock is slow and deliberate in building the action here, which in this case leads to two different climaxes. His signature techniques are seen in many sequences as Scottie follows Madeleine (Kim Novak). The first time he does so there is a long, steady, visual story told, through his perspective as she goes to a church, to a courtyard, stands by the tomb of Carlotta Valdes, in her car, and to the museum where we see the hair bun and flowers Carlotta and Madeleine have in common. The entire sequence has the feel of a ballet. Vertigo also features many trick shots to illustrate the vertigo Scottie suffers from and there’s even an animated sequence illustrating one of his nightmares. The extreme emotion Hitchcock intends for us to feel throughout this film is felt. And how! We’ve no choice in the matter.
I have to take the time to discuss another gorgeous Hitchcock blonde introduction in this film. Another by way of a steady camera and the actor moves ever-closer into an extreme close-up. This time in profile. This one has magnificent color, the actor poses deliberate in a close-up so the shot is familiar again later in the film and it all simply takes your breath away. I am referring to the first time we see Kim Novak as Madeleine. The camera follows her from afar as she walks toward us in a beautiful gown of emerald green. As she approaches the camera she stops in a complete close-up, in profile, against a bright, scarlet background. It’s an absolutely gorgeous shot, which makes us understand Scottie’s subsequent obsession as who wouldn’t be twisted in the gut when seeing this vision (and I’m not referring to Kim Novak – just the entire picture that is set before our eyes). So deliberate and planned is this one shot that much later in the film we see Novak (as Judy) in her room – again in profile as a dark silhouette against a backdrop of emerald green, caused by a neon sign outside the window – “…cuz I remind you of her?” The obsession is now in full tilt, it’s all manipulative and it’s all brilliant.
I call this film a feast because it is overwhelming to the senses, a gorging. Vertigo has been called Hitchcock’s most personal work. If that is really the case then genius really is a hair away from madness. I’ll add that James Stewart as a sick svengali is somewhat upsetting to me. Maybe I just don’t “get” this one.
North by Northwest (1959) is pure, exciting, sexy fun. It tells a typical Hitchcock story of mistaken identity and a cross-country chase. However here we have the added attraction of Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s glorious color, a stupendous Eva Marie Saint as his love interest and a very “healthy” sexual chemistry between them (a nice change after Vertigo). The intrigue in this story is more confusing, at least to me, than in the other films, which makes it that much more entertaining. Just when I think I know what’s going on, there’s a new twist. George Kaplan, the man Thornhill (Grant) is mistaken for turns out to be a fictitious person, a decoy created by the U.S. government in order to catch the real bad guys. When we find out he’s pursuing a fictitious man we also find that Eve Kendall (Saint) is in cahoots with Vandamm (James Mason) the villain. Although in reality she’s an agent with the U.S. government we don’t know it at this time.
There is a lot to look at in this film besides Grant and Saint. The sets are spectacular – New York’s Plaza Hotel, the United Nations and of course Mt. Rushmore, in the film’s very famous climax, just to name a few. There are several of the lunging-at-the-camera shots that by now are very familiar, the best being in the also quite famous crop field scene. This sequence starts off with several minutes of silence as we see a wide open, desolate field from high above and a bus driving along the road, which Thornhill eventually gets off of. The silence is deafening and goes on for quite a few minutes. The suspense builds beautifully. We wait to see who is coming to meet with Thornhill at this most unlikely meeting place. All of a sudden we hear the sounds of a crop dusting plane off the horizon. Slowly, yet suddenly (figure that one out) it becomes clear the plane is there in pursuit of Thornhill – there is no subtlety here as Hitchcock uses shots of the man and the chasing plane going straight toward the camera, which is then repeated again with a truck at the end of the sequence. Hitchcock takes his time in this scene, as he does with so many other thrilling, suspenseful moments in his films. He always opts for the drawn-out palpitation-inducing suspense over the quick jolt of an explosion. And, of course, he was the best at it. The share-crop plane sequence is also particularly memorable in that Hitchcock uses a wide, sweeping open space with no structures, which contrasts with the much more confined spaces he used in so many other films.
Beginning with Saboteur Hitchcock’s name would appear above the title of all his films. That name would come to demand our attention and was enough in itself to sell movie tickets. The recognition of his signature would indeed become more famous than even those of the Hollywood stars he made huge for us up on the big screen. But the signature would be recognizable in more ways than merely by reading the name; it would be evident in every frame of every scene in every film he ever made. From the opening credits of his films through to the end he never disappears. I would say he lurks so that his presence is always felt. However, lurks seems too soft a word. The truth is he lunges – an action so often repeated in his films – and goes straight for our ocular nerve.
This post is my contribution to the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, hosted by the Self Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films, and This Island Rod, which raises funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). There are many bloggers from around the world participating in this event with entries featuring the work of the master, Alfred Hitchcock. You can access posts by going to any of the host pages. More importantly, you can make a donation, for any amount, by clicking on the “Donate” button that begins and ends this post, or by going to the NFPS site directly. Play your part in ensuring classic films survive for future generations.