Alfred Hitchcock | Genre in Hitchcock | Easy Virtue | Champagne | Young and Innocent | The Lady Vanishes | Saboteur | Shadow of a Doubt | Spellbound | Strangers on a Train | Rear Window | To Catch a Thief | North by Northwest | Arthur | Psycho | The Horseplayer | I Saw the Whole Thing | The Birds | Marnie | Torn Curtain | Family Plot
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Hitchcock's cameo appearances in his films are the visual equivalent of a signature. Hitchcock is a deeply visual director. These appearances perhaps constitute the real signing by Hitchcock of his films, rather than the verbal "directed by Alfred Hitchcock" that appears in the credits.
During his earlier period, Hitchcock was a member, perhaps the leading member, of a group of British directors who also frequently made espionage films: Michael Powell, Carol Reed, Tim Whelan (Q Planes). As in Hitchcock, these directors' works mixed spy thrills with comedy. The comic elements are usually comedy of manners, as Andrew Sarris has pointed out.
The espionage background of these films gave all of these directors a ready made genre. Spy stories were common in prose fiction, especially those of British writers. They typically featured thrills and suspense, and avoided the puzzle plots of the Golden Age mystery writers who were their contemporaries. Hitchcock had filmed a Golden Age whodunit, as Murder (1930), early in his career, but such films would never be his forte. Hitchcock in fact satirizes whodunit mysteries in Shadow of a Doubt.
In the late 1960's, Hitchcock reverted back to the spy film in full force, with Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969). Both of these films, like the earlier Notorious (1946), are deeply concerned with avoiding nuclear war. Topaz is about the most frightening event of modern times, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, where the world was nearly plunged into war. Hitchcock is often seen as an abstract filmmaker, one with little to say about social issues. But these films are full of social commentary about the dangers of atomic warfare. The Birds (1963) was widely seen as an allegory about the horrors of atomic warfare, an interpretation that Hitchcock neither embraced nor denied. Rear Window (1954) contains a photograph of an atomic bomb, and much discussion about political "trouble", a vague but ominous reference to current world conflicts.
Hitchcock himself insisted that he was an abstract filmmaker. His concept of the MacGuffin, a meaningless item around which a suspense film is built, contributed strongly to this idea. Supposedly, the atomic sands in Notorious are nothing more than an insignificant gimmick, around which a suspense plot is constructed. Allegedly, they could just as easily have been a bag of smuggled jewels, or a contact list for the Mob, and Notorious would have been just the same film. At the risk of contradicting Hitchcock himself, I beg to differ. If Hitchcock was unconcerned about the meaning of the atomic weapons here, why did he recur to them in his last major films, and with such ferocious insistence?
During the 1960's, Hitchcock branched out into the horror film, with Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). The horror film was one of the major genres of 1960's and early 1970's film making, attracting much of the top talent of the era. Peter Bogdanovich, William Castle, Roger Corman, Curtis Harrington, Seth Holt and Roman Polanski made horror films, as did Robert Aldrich with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and Byron Haskin with The Power (1967), a film greatly influenced by Hitchcock's style. The Outer Limits (with its several Gerd Oswald episodes) and Twilight Zone TV shows also often fell into this category. The 1960's was the last period when most major Hollywood figures made genre movies. Such genre filmmaking had served Hollywood well for decades, at least since the 1910's. But from The Godfather (1972) and Deliverance (1972) on, Hollywood would turn instead to violence as an audience drawing card, ignoring all other storytelling features.
Hitchcock's television films are entirely restricted to the suspense genre. One would think that Hitchcock could easily have gotten assignments to direct Westerns or science fiction, if he had so chosen. He might also have wangled assignments to direct "serious dramas", or comedies, though this would have been more of a stretch.
Lady Windemere's Fan is based on a play by Oscar Wilde; Easy Virtue on a play by Wilde's successor, Noël Coward. Coward would later return in a more comic way to similar material, in his play Relative Values. This work was made into a delightful film by Eric Styles, in 2000.
Hitchcock's Champagne (1928) will also be in the Lubitsch mold.
This opening of Easy Virtue is a trial scene - shades of Hitchcock to come. It occurs in what is otherwise not a suspense or crime film.
The contrast between the sophisticated heroine and the stuffy traditional family is a recurrent one in Hitchcock.
Like Rebecca, Easy Virtue starts out with an idyllic romance abroad at a resort, then deals with the difficulty the bride has fitting in with family traditions back home, at the hero's stately (and highly isolated) manor.
The year before, in The Lodger (1926), Hitchcock had contrasted the worldly, and very gay acting, lodger, with the terminally dull family with which he boards. This collision is both comic and tragic, with the stupifyingly conformist family unable to adjust to the delightful Bird of Paradise in their midst.
Uncle Charlie offers another colorful (but much more sinister) challenge to the heroine's bourgeois family in Shadow of a Doubt.
Hitchcock's fifties films offer a series of sophisticated women trying to adjust to a conformist man played by Jimmy Stewart. Grace Kelly's sympathetic sophisticate has to prove she can fit in with James Stewart's narrow (and nasty) definition of a help-mate wife in Rear Window, Doris Day has to give up her singing career to meet husband James Stewart's expectations in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the exotic Kim Novak offers a glamorous intruder into James Stewart's conformist world in Vertigo.
Hitchcock choose the tennis scene for his least recognizable cameo in his films: he goes by with a walking stick, his back to the audience.
Past and present are often linked through showing objects, such as a decanter or letter. This structure somewhat recalls the associational montage found in some of Fritz Lang's early films, although this peaks in such Lang works as Spione (1928) and M (1931), made after Easy Virtue (1927). Lang's montage does NOT cut between numerous different points in time, unlike Hitchcock's here.
The opening of Champagne (1928) has imagery that anticipates Hitchcock's later films:
The unpleasant hoaxers in both Champagne and North By Northwest are powerful, upper class people in New York City. The villains in Saboteur are also upper class New Yorkers, as are the over-sophisticated killers in Rope. New York City is often depicted as the ultimate wonderful place in Hollywood films. Hitchcock's Rear Window is more-or-less in this tradition. But many other references to New York City in Hitchcock are more negative. The city is the arena of tragedy in The Wrong Man.
There are signs in Champagne that Hitchcock might have been watching Lubitsch's So This Is Paris (1926). The Lubitsch has a spectacular Artist's Ball scene, in which superimpositions are used to emphasize the frenetic dancing of the crowds at the ball. Champagne includes triple superimpositions, in the shots that show the hero's view of the heroine on the storm-tossed ship. And the whole later scene in the nightclub has a relentless kinetic quality in its dancers that recalls the Lubitsch. Still, the Hitchcock has an ostinato quality that is seemingly unique. In general, Champagne is in the same genre as the "sexy comedies of high life" made by De Mille, Lubitsch and others in the silent era.
The long nightclub scene in the second half of Champagne is one of the great set pieces in Hitchcock. Indeed, one can recall nothing like it in the rest of his films. It is shot in a spectacularly complex night club set. The set has two levels of arcades running around its edges. This is a bit like the hero's home near the start of Fritz Lang's The Spiders (1919). The pillars of the arcade serve as a strong rectilinear framework for most of the shots. But some of the pillars have complex curving abstract designs on them, which form a contrast in the compositions.
Hitchcock keeps crowds in constant motion in the background of the night club. Often times, the crowds are in full rhythmic dance mode.
The big night club set piece in Champagne is mainly a visual-kinetic experience. It is a huge engine that pulses rhythm and visual patterns. It has to be seen and experienced. It almost overwhelms the viewer with rhythmic energy and visual flow. I have never seen anything much like it on screen.
The sequence does have some formal similarities to Rear Window. In Rear Window, we are always seeing groups of people in the distance in the shots, in the courtyard or their apartments. In Champagne, we keep seeing groups in the nightclub in the background, usually dancing or somehow keeping time with the music. The many different groups are almost as varied and well-portrayed as the apartment residents in Rear Window. The dancers also tend to be separated by the many pillars of the complex arcade set in Champagne, a bit like the various apartment windows in Rear Window.
Rear Window has a man watching his neighbors, who often tend to be female and sexy. Champagne has a female lead, and the people in the background can be quite male. The orchestra men she talks to have the most phallic looking bunch of instruments in film history - just like the female sculptor and her symbolic Hunger with a hole female symbolism in Rear Window. The whole dance number suggests sexuality running out of control and about to explode.
The hero is always dressed in the most proper and most glamorous upper class British clothes. He is as well-tailored as Cary Grant will later be in Hitchcock. He also seems as bit as clueless and easily overtaken by events as Grant will be in North by Northwest. While the heroine and her father seem to be Americans, the hero's clothes suggest he is English. He is actually played by a French actor - something not uncommon in the silent cinema, where stars played roles of every nationality. After all, no one could hear their voices or national accents. Between the French leading man and Paris setting of much of the film, one wonders if Hitchcock were trying to appeal to the French film market.
In the first half of the film, on board ship, the hero's clothes just make him seem glamorous. His outfits include such party-friendly items as tuxedos and glamorous overcoats. But once in Paris, the hero upbraids the heroine for not wearing clothes in simple good taste. From this point on, the hero's correct garb seems like a rebuke to the heroine for not following the restrictive norms of proper English behavior, both in dress and sexually. The hero is in tasteful but severe suits from this point forward. He still looks good, but he has become a spokesman for social restrictions. The conflict here between dull stultifying convention and dangerous freedom and risky behavior will be a theme of much later Hitchcock, including Shadow of a Doubt. Champagne is unusual in that the heroine's rebellion against conformity seems so explicitly sexual. She is neither a demure young woman, like Young Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, nor one of the icy blondes in later Hitchcock who mask their sexuality behind a haughty frozen exterior.
The sequence is full of splendid camera movements. Most of these are synchronized to music - if the thriller genre had not existed, Hitchcock could still have had a great career creating music videos! The band leader / singer disappears from the great crane shot at the precise moment his vocal solo ends, and the instrumental music takes over.
Earlier, the "Drummer Man" song starts near the beginning of the fascinating tracking shot where the heroine and Will move behind the pillars. The music seems to emerge out of the tracking shot somehow. It is hardly noticeable at first, seeming to be just atmospheric music, but eventually it plays a key role in the plot.
High level crane shots gradually moving on down to a ground floor level exist in films before Hitchcock's: Sous les toits de Paris (René Clair, 1930) offers a famous example. As in Hitchcock, Clair's crane gets closer and closer to a group of musicians. Clair's sound recording makes the musicians' singing grow louder and louder as his camera converges on the singers.
Many of the camera movements in Young and Innocent have a strong forward propulsion. One sees similar forward tracking shots earlier in Murnau, and later in such Otto Preminger movies as Fallen Angel (1945) and the opening of In Harm's Way (1965).
There is a second, retreating crane shot, moving back from the musicians to give an overall view of the ballroom. Both here, and in the earlier forward crane shot, we often see the musicians on stage from a considerable distance. These shots remind one of the figures seen through windows in Rear Window: they are small figures seen in long shot, yet tremendously vivid in their pantomimed activities.
The opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) has a shot closing in on the cymbal player in an orchestra, that resembles a small scale version of the "Drummer Man" movement.
Many shots peer through windows, leading from the lobby into the ballroom. These anticipate the window shots in Rear Window. The windows here tend to have elaborate pane effects, with sloping lines and a diagonal central pane. Hitchcock uses these for his compositions, as he later will use the sloping lines of the studio window in Rear Window.
Such themes also occurred in Hitchcock's TV series. Perhaps the best of all of the TV shows directed by Hitchcock is Breakdown, in which a similar tyrannical boss is put through an ordeal that forces him to become human. In Breakdown, there is a direct attack on the code of macho behavior for men. On a more comic note, perhaps the funniest introduction to any Hitchcock TV show opens with Hitchcock seated in a director's chair on a film set. He is unaware that the camera is turning - he has his back to it - and he is chewing out his crew, just like the band leader here. He is just dreadful, and says things in classic mean boss mode. Then he notices that the camera is turning and that the audience at home can see him. He becomes all phony smiles, and says that the audience can see that he and his crew are just one big happy family. I will not spoil what comes next...
Linked to the work aspects are the class ideas. Helping the heroine is a Cockney who is now dressed in a parody of upper class clothes. He is hounded by the police, simply for being a lower class man who is stepping over the line into an upper class preserve. Although these scenes are played for comedy, they have real satirical bite. The familiar Hitchcock theme of "fear of the police" is now linked to the enforcement of the British class system.
Young and Innocent and Rear Window are full of vivid religious ideas. In Young and Innocent, it is only when the heroine insists on helping the sick man that the mystery is solved. Her act of concern for a fellow human being changes everything. Similarly, in Rear Window Thelma Ritter and Grace Kelly are genuinely concerned with helping their neighbors, whereas James Stewart only wants to watch them. Their intervention brings a genuinely religious dimension to these films.
Young and Innocent also has a dog, like Rear Window, once again associated with a woman who cares about people. The early shot of the blinds being raised in the police interrogation room anticipate the opening credits of the later film.
Earlier scenes in the film are also meal-set: the family scenes in the heroine's home, the pub in which the characters first learn about old Will.
The heroine's difficulties with her bourgeois family anticipate Shadow of a Doubt. In both films, the heroine has a cozy family, but wants to break away and lead a more exciting life. But she ultimately gets more than she has bargained for.
One also suspects that the heroine is doubted because she is a woman. Caldicott and Charters act bored and contemptuous of Miss Froy and her conversation, at the dinner scene where they first meet her. It is played for laughs. But it is also a scene where men express contempt for women as people. It anticipates the dinner scene in Shadow of a Doubt, where Uncle Charlie denies the humanity of frivolous women, and says they have no right to live.
Caldicott and Charters are obsessed with sports. They don't just see the cricket match as the Key Event of Our Times. Caldicott turns out to be an expert marksman, in an era when hunting and shooting was an upper class obsession. While sports are viewed satirically in the Caldicott and Charters characters, one has to point out that sports were the only upper class interest of the day that was wholesome or healthy. While the mania of the rich for sport was excessive, it was in fact one of their few positive interests. While Caldicott and Charters are serious moral failures through much of the film, lying to the authorities and failing to help Miss Froy, they eventually reform and become good guys. This is reflected in their mania for sports, rather than some vice: they are trivial, superficial, passive, but ultimately they convert to decency. Similarly sports are an often trivial upper class pursuit, but they are one of the few morally decent activities of the rich.
The judge who is on an adulterous tryst gives a devastating view of the upper classes of the era. He is a judge, supposedly a man guarding British justice. But he is engaging in corrupt activities, and he is willing to become fully corrupt to protect his reputation: lying about a woman in trouble, collaborating with Nazi swine. It is an appalling picture of the hidden life of Britain's elite.
But as Caldicott and Charters point out at dinner, this place full of "people like happy children" has some very ugly politics.
At the end, doors are opened in the ministry, and the camera moves through them to reveal Miss Froy. Now she is the one playing the song.
Miss Froy is linked twice with the same imagery. Opening doors and hearing things are symbolic expressions of truth being revealed, and new ideas being heard.
Both the hotel dining room, and the train dining car, are also favorite Hitchcock settings: respectable, wholesome restaurants, just a bit upscale.
The way Caldicott and Charters and others try to force their way into the dining room booth, anticipates the opening of North by Northwest. In that film, we see people, but not Hitchcock, forcing their way on to a bus. And dubious "hero" Cary Grant forcing his way unfairly into a taxi.
One possible reason why Hitchcock adopts POV so much is that it is one of the few types of montage permitted by Hollywood conventions. It allows him to integrate a very different type of camera image into his films, making them more technically complex. It adds a huge new range of shot construction possibilities to Hitchcock's visual grammar.
Another reason: the POV has a mind behind it. In an ordinary shot, the viewer is perhaps encouraged just to sit back and let the images wash over him, as if he were a passive spectator. In a POV, the audience is conscious that everything they see is also seen by a character in the movie. This makes them scrutinize every detail in the shot, for its impact on the character. Will he discover something new about the plot? Will he find the location of the hero, or the sinister clue the hero has been trying to conceal? This encourages the audience to take an active role, scrutinizing everything in the POV shot for interpretation and significance. The audience role in such scenes can be seen as "critical": they take on an active interpretive and analytic function. Hitchcock presumably prefers people in such a state. One suspects that he himself saw things with extraordinary acuity and intensity, and wanted his audiences in such a state as well, to understand and appreciate his visual creativity.
One might point out the similar "critical" role performed by readers of a puzzle plot mystery. They scan everything in the book for possible clues, hidden meanings, and different interpretations of events, different from their surface meanings. Detective tradition also encourages them to constantly critique the author for logic, admiring the author when the logic is good, condemning the author when the logic fails or is shoddy. Mystery books are written for such "active readers". It is part of the cultural tradition of the detective story. Similarly, Hitchcock apparently wants active, thinking viewers, and POV sequences help encourage the viewer to assume such as critical role.
The mansion in Saboteur resembles these government residences. It too is ornate, upper class, and with a formal staircase. It is not part of any official government - yet. But it is the home of wealthy American Nazi sympathizers, who explicitly want to be part of a Nazi regime that has conquered the United States. This gives it a "center of political power" feel. These people are radicals with a violent agenda, also like the embassy radicals in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Much of the film concerns suspicions from his family about Uncle Charlie's deep, dark secret. In real life, such family suspicions often center on a family's wondering if someone is gay. Other films about family members with a secret, such as Leo McCarey's My Son John (1952), are widely read as gay allegories. Such a reading can easily apply to Shadow of a Doubt, as well. Even in the surface reading of the film, Uncle Charlie's secret can be interpreted as a "failure of heterosexuality": Uncle Charlie pretends to be in love with rich widows, only to kill them and take their money. This pretense of heterosexual romance, faking relationships with women, was an unfortunately common aspect of some gay men's behavior in that era.
Yet he is the one who rescues Young Charlie from the garage. It is his concern for his neighbor that saves a life, and makes a huge difference in the world. His sticking to fundamental principles, concern for other people, makes a profound impact.
Throughout the film, the mother is always doing housework. Shadow of a Doubt shows some examples of women's work:
Years ago, when cynicism about Hollywood romance was at its height in the 1970's, there was a tendency to pooh pooh the opening romances of Hitchcock's films. The later sections showing the romance overshadowed by mystery and obsession were taken as "deconstructions" of romance, an expose of its serious problems. Today however, with romance so often missing in today's films, the romances that open Hitchcock's films seem precious and awe inspiringly beautiful. Audiences tend more to feel grateful for these scenes, and resent the interruption of them by thriller material later.
The many psychiatrists and patients in Spellbound each have their own small, personal story, which contributes to the overall mosaic of the plot. Hitchcock will achieve a more elaborate version of this in with all the apartment dwellers and their tales in Rear Window. Even the two policemen we meet in the professor's house in Spellbound have their own psychological tale, here played for comic relief.
Hitchcock was not the first storyteller to show mental problems being triggered by recurrent imagery. Cornell Woolrich wrote a number of prose mystery short stories in which seemingly normal people respond to triggers that turn them into homicidal maniacs: see "The Case of the Killer-Diller" (1939) and "The Death Rose" (1943), in his collection Night and Fear.
Calling Dr. Gillespie (Harold S. Bucquet, 1942) is an early Hollywood use of this device, with its mild-mannered looking young college student transforming into a killer whenever he hears a train whistle. This killer encounters that Woolrich favorite character, a taxi-dancer in a dance hall, and she refers to him as "Killer-Diller", suggesting that the film's creators might possibly have been familiar with Woolrich's work. Then again, maybe not: the film's story is credited to screenwriter Kubec Glasmon, who died in 1938. Calling Dr. Gillespie is an eerie suspense film; it is set in a hospital, and has as its hero a young doctor in training to be a psychiatrist: features that somewhat anticipate Spellbound. It is far less Freudian than Spellbound, however.
Spellbound differs from all of these in that the trigger is an actual visual pattern (black parallel lines on a white background). Hitchcock, with his mastery of visual style, and visual thinking, has come up with a purely visual structure to represent his trigger.
The skiing tracks that eventually exemplify the pattern, anticipate the criss-crossing train tracks near the start of Strangers on a Train.
The wife goes out with two men, at the amusement park. This suggests, as much as the censorship of the era allowed, that she was sleeping with both men simultaneously. She is immediately killed.
I find this idea morally doubtful. They are all consenting adults - and it is nobody's business if they sleep together.
Selwyn Jepson's mystery novel I Met Murder (1930) deals with a serial killer targeting people he considers "evil". Some of these victims are evil by any standard, including a war profiteer. Others are merely sexually active. One victim is a promiscuous woman whose most notable act was getting drunk at a party and sleeping with three men at once. She anticipates the wife in Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock would film Jepson's short story "Man Running" (1947) as Stage Fright (1950).
The other most prominent aircraft in Hitchcock, the attacked plane at the end of Foreign Correspondent, the crop duster in North by Northwest, are also scenes of frightening suspense. The crop duster can be seen as evil.
Hollywood had just made its first "modern" science fiction film, Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950), about a rocket to the moon. Hollywood would make countless more sf films in the next twenty years. However, Hitchcock was not part of the science fiction film movement.
The brief discussion of calculus from the drunken professor brings mathematics into the film. There is a bit of mathematical discussion in Torn Curtain.
At the fairground, villain Bruno is frequently photographed against whirling attractions. We see him against the ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl and merry-go-round. These are all elaborate machinery, all have bright lights, all have circular motion. This too links the villain with technology.
Bruno watches as the three sing a song. The hero of Rear Window watches the musical activity in the composer's apartment.
Characters in Strangers on a Train are very young. They and the film might be designed to interest and appeal to a youth audience.
Both Farley Granger and his screen wife look extremely youthful. So do the young men the wife dates at the amusement park. The heroine's kid sister gets a prominent, even scene-stealing role (played by 22 year old Patricia Hitchcock). Both Granger and the amusement park men are dressed in sports clothes: clothes associated with young men who are not quite old enough to wear suits, the mark of the adult male. Granger also wears a lot of sports coats, also a more casual-looking substitute for suits. Farley Granger was 25 when Strangers on a Train was shot, but his clothes make him look even younger. Kasey Rogers who played his wife was also 25.
Robert Walker is distinctly a bit older looking (he was 32, and alcoholic). But Walker himself had spent the last decade playing extremely young heroes, in roles that seemed oriented to youth audiences.
Surrounding the youthful leads, are conspicuously adult, older characters, notably parents, police, sports officials and the music shop owner. These all have social authority roles. These men are usually in suits, and pretty official looking suits.
But celebrity worship is also the means where the older villain Bruno gets close to and exploits the hero. As a whole, Strangers on a Train suggests that being a celebrity and taking fame seriously, can harm a person.
Hitchcock told Truffaut, that Hitchcock made bad career moves in the late 1940's, because they led to celebrity attention being paid to Hitchcock. Hitchcock said he became more concerned with newspaper publicity about him, than his filmmaking. Perhaps the negative view in this 1951 film Strangers on a Train about celebrity is a rueful reaction on Hitchcock's part.
Even when Hitchcock is not using a moving camera, his camera technique emphasizes his freedom. Hitchcock can cut to a view of the wall opposite. His camera can frame any section of that wall at will. Often times, there are no boundaries on the wall corresponding to the frame of the screen. For example, Hitchcock might show Burr's apartment. The apartment windows are contained within the camera's frame. The edges of the frame are just "meaningless" parts of the brick wall. They are just where Hitchcock put his camera, because he wanted to look there. Hitchcock's framing has plenty of meaning: the frame and the lens are exactly positioned to reveal just what Hitchcock wants to see in the opposite apartment. They are controlled by Hitchcock's sight. But they are not linked to or determined by the architecture of the building. Hitchcock's camera can and does land anywhere on the wall opposite. Whatever he wants to see, he simply picks out. It has no boundaries, and can explore anywhere in the building.
This is all so different from Fritz Lang. Lang's camera placement is closely tied to the architecture. The camera frame and the architecture are designed together, so that they reveal a meaningful architectural whole on screen. The two gain meaning when combined with one another. They are designed to be viewed as one unit.
Hitchcock works with his set designers ahead of time too. The point is not a method of work - both Hitchcock and Lang plan ahead - but rather the way the two directors view architecture.
In Hitchcock, the camera and the architecture are contrapuntal. They are two independent voices that weave together in interesting ways. In Lang, they are more chordal, designed to reinforce one common architectural effect.
Rope resembles Rear Window, in that its camera is constantly on the move, taking in any view of the set it pleases. It too has a "free" camera. Rope stays within an apartment however, instead of exploring an aerial view (except for its opening shot).
Hitchcock's films are full of amazing set-pieces in which his camera soars through the air. One thinks of the Drummer Man sequence in Young and Innocent, and the shot with the key in Notorious. Both of these shots start with grand overviews, and gradually converge on tight close-ups. Similarly, some of the early camera moves through the courtyard wind up on close-ups of Jimmy Stewart's face. Here we have a whole film, in which Hitchcock's camera explores everything from the air. Such aerial camera movements seem like the visual heart of Rear Window.
In Psycho, we see a multi-roomed apartment building through the window behind John Gavin. Hitchcock has a fondness for such shots, such as the apartment complex in Rear Window, and the Riviera hotel at the beginning of To Catch a Thief. We do not see any boundary or edges on this building; it just fills the view one can see through the window. This framing also reminds one of Rear Window.
Other filmmakers occasionally included shots in their works, of cameras traveling across the facades of apartments, looking into the rooms. There is the vertical crane shot near the beginning of Sous les toits de Paris (René Clair, 1930), and several horizontal tracking shots in Lubitsch films, such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Angel (1937). Clair's huge building is also full of balconies, and roof tops, as in Hitchcock. A song plays a recurrent role in the lives of Clair's apartment dwellers; Hitchcock works a song into Rear Window more realistically, showing its composition throughout the film.
Very occasionally there are flashes of yellow, such as the taxicab, or yellow wrapping on the flash bulbs at the end.
Jimmy Stewart is dressed in blue throughout much of the film, making him stand out. At the end, Burr is also in a blue suit. It perhaps suggests that Burr and Stewart are doubles. (Each character in Rope also wears clothes in one strong color.)
Kelly enters in a white and black dress. Later, she is in a white dress with gold trim. Such neutral tones are striking, and form an exception to the general color schemes. The light gray suits and white tuxedo of Wendell Corey also stand out.
The set also reminds one of the backyard set that opens Lang's House by the River (1950). This giant set shows two backyards, and as well as the houses behind them. There is a space between the two houses, forming a corridor that leads to the front street - in exactly the same position a similar corridor appears in Rear Window.
Hitchcock is glimpsed winding up a clock here - surely a piece of Langian imagery. In a miniature way, it recalls the workers and the hero adjusting the giant clock dials in Metropolis. Clocks are a recurring subject in Lang films.
M gives a cross section of life in a modern city. In a somewhat similar way, Rear Window gives a cross section of life in Greenwich Village, an intellectual and artistic center in New York.
Telephone conversations are a significant part of the narration in Rear Window, just as they are in M.
Rear Window centers on that Lang subject, the ever tightening manhunt for a murderer. In this it recalls such Lang films as M, and Lang's most recent work before the making of Hitchcock's film, The Blue Gardenia (1953). The Blue Gardenia was released March 28, 1953; Hitchcock's involvement with Rear Window was announced in July 1953, with the first treatment coming in September, according to Bill Krohn's Hitchcock at Work.
The Miss Lonelyhearts subplot is not in Cornell Woolrich's original story. Instead, parts of it resemble events in Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia. In that film, Anne Baxter has dinner for two with an imaginary companion: in her case, it is to celebrate her connection with her boyfriend who is off fighting in Korea. Later, she will have a terrible struggle with a date, having to fight his advances off in an apartment, just as Miss Lonelyhearts does. The vicious date in Gardenia is played by Raymond Burr, who in Rear Window is not the date, but who is rather playing the main villain of the movie.
The heroes of both films are globe-trotting journalists - Lang's is a columnist, Hitchcock's is a photographer. Lang sends his hero off to cover a H-bomb test; Hitchcock has a photo taken by the hero of a bomb explosion. Both Lang and Hitchcock were deeply concerned about the atomic age. The dialogue of Rear Window keeps talking about "trouble coming", and suggests that it might be political. This underlying anxiety about the atomic age is a disturbing background to Rear Window. So is all the talk about war. Hitchcock makes a cameo as a photographer in Young and Innocent, so this is part of his persona.
The film continues with a series of exterior long shots of the Riviera, which continue right up until the restaurant sequence. These are of real locations - not studio sets, unlike Rear Window. But they otherwise have much in common, with Hitchcock's camera exploring multi-story locations in long shot. Sometimes the camera is at a high level, looking horizontally out at Riviera locales spread out on hills before it. Sometimes Hitchcock is on high, looking down, as in the car chase scene. In both cases, the camera explores a series of complex architectural panoramas, just like the courtyard in Rear Window. Hitchcock had earlier included similar Riviera panoramas in the background of shots in Easy Virtue (1927).
The intricate floor plan of the terraces outside Cary Grant's house, anticipate the complex cemetery in Family Plot. Both are geometrized outdoor mini-landscapes, through which are threaded complex paths. The overhead shot in which Grant and Kelly drive to a loop on the hills above the city, then beyond, is also a geometric landscape.
Several scenes in Vertigo show monumental buildings, most memorably the rooming house, an old gingerbread gothic mansion that anticipates the house in Psycho. Hitchcock's photography of the UN building in North follows in this tradition.
The scene in Kaplan's hotel room is shot in a similar style to the introductory scene in Madge's studio in Vertigo. Both are scenes that would be static and talky in other directors: expository scenes full of dialogue, shot in a single room. Hitchcock's camera follows the characters in both, including camera movements and changes of shot. He manages to add visual interest in both scenes. The changes in camera setup mirror subtle changes in the characters' emotional states in both works, as well.
The restaurant scenes in the first film recall the dining car scene in the second, shot in similar styles.
A fourth pair of similar scenes are the love scenes in the forest. Each involves sensitive emotional interaction between the characters. Each has a similar visual style, dominated by the many verticals of the tree trunks. Both are in clear forests, with little undergrowth or brush, and much room between the trees for the characters to walk around in. In both, there are simply limitless paths for the lovers to pursue between any of the tree trunks. There is no one clear direction to follow. The scene in North is much less intense than the one in Vertigo, however. The trees in South Dakota have much smaller and thinner trunks than the California redwoods in Vertigo. The dialogue in Vertigo emphasizes that they will survive the humans by thousands of years, underlining that film's themes of survival after death, either through reincarnation, as in the first half of Vertigo, or resurrection, as in its second.
This decrease in intensity is a common feature throughout North by Northwest. It is a film comedy, of course. But it also seems to be functioning in part as almost a parody of Vertigo, in some ways. Scenes and images that have an intense emotional charge in the first film, return in the second in much more light hearted forms. It is as if Hitchcock were making a psychological recovery from the tragic emotions of the first film to the comedy of the second.
The plot of North by Northwest can be seen as a spoof of the plot of Vertigo. In the earlier film, the Kim Novak character has her personality taken over by that of a dead woman, with tragic results. Here, the Cary Grant character has his identity taken over by an imaginary spy, Kaplan. While the early film grinds away relentlessly and logically towards its tragic conclusion, the plot of North is a shaggy dog story, merely a gigantic meaningless accident that has unfortunately happened to the hero. He spends much of the film trying to track down the "real" Kaplan, a character whom the audience knows to be fictitious and nonexistent. So the plot of North by Northwest is deliberately absurd and meaningless. It is not just absurd, but Absurd, one reflecting all meaningless fates that can engulf anybody.
The shots of the hero scrambling down the rocky cliff to discover the body near the start of Young and Innocent anticipate the Mount Rushmore finale of North by Northwest. And the scenes in which the heroine dangles from the mine shaft, held by the hero's hand, are the paradigm for the Statue of Liberty scene in Sabotage and the Rushmore scene in North By Northwest.
Cary Grant being hidden on the train, recalls Dame May Whitty's disappearance on a train in The Lady Vanishes. Here the audience is "in" on the secrets of how the vanishing is done, unlike the earlier film, where it is a mystery.
The woman agent in Carroll's spy agency also recalls Whitty in The Lady Vanishes. Both are middle-aged women spies of high intelligence. She develops into another of Hitchcock's characters who try to persuade others of the value of human life. These characters are typically of lower social status (this one is female) trying to persuade someone more charismatic and much better at public speaking, that killing is always wrong (here agency head Leo G. Carroll, who is highly articulate). Similar conversations took place in Shadow of a Doubt and Rope.
The photographer, who is white, is snapping pictures of a group of black diplomats, in the background. In 1959, a white man showing deference to a group of black men was highly atypical, especially in the movies. The diplomats are well-dressed in business suits. They look "important": also quite unusual for blacks in 1959 Hollywood. There is an implication that the United Nations was one of the few places where such a scene could take place. The UN reversed the roles of black and white people. The white man is also well-groomed: he is not a low-life, but a man who has middle class status, as least as good as most of the audience. This underscores his deference and gratitude to the black diplomats, who are allowing him to take their picture. Soon, we also see a group of East Asian diplomats. The UN is presented in racial terms, a place where race relations are completely different.
The photographer is in a bright gray suit that almost exactly matches the carpeting. He really stands out. He also sets off an enormous circular blaze of light, when he uses a flash bulb. This recalls Rear Window.
Soon, the opening shots of the cornfield will also provide a strikingly geometric landscape.
Each train window seems tinted or lit to a different color. Inside, we see little tableaux of people on the train. The multiple windows remind one of the windows in the courtyard in Rear Window.
Arthur is a strangler - like Bruno in Strangers on a Train. Arthur also has Bruno's sly humor. However, Arthur is much less snobbish than Bruno, or the killers in Rope, and he is a middle class man who earns who own living through honest work. He is also one of Hitchcock's most civilized characters. Arthur's opposition to marriage recalls Uncle Charlie, and the way he served as a means for his sister to escape temporarily from a stifling bourgeois marriage in Shadow of a Doubt. Arthur can be himself, just as the sister learned how to be, due to Uncle Charlie's presence in the house.
Arthur runs a complex institution in the countryside (his poultry farm) all by himself - just like Norman and the Bates Motel in Psycho. The way Helen shows up at his farm, and the subsequent history of the crime and the investigation, offers some parallels to Janet Leigh in Psycho. Even the geography of the farm recalls a little bit the various buildings in Psycho.
Williams' tale has roots in the Realist School tradition in prose mystery fiction of R. Austin Freeman, being an inverted mystery about a Perfect Crime, and also deeply concerned with "disposing of the body". The same could be said about Patrick Hamilton's play Rope, and much of Patricia Highsmith's fiction. Fritz Lang also had strong ties to the Realist School, producing many works about manhunts, such as M, The Woman in the Window, The Blue Gardenia, While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.
Direct address of the audience is more common on TV - such characters as Dobie Gillis and Gidget did it regularly - perhaps a sign of radio's influence on TV.
At davekehr.com on December 11, 2009, I suggested that "The Dobie Gillis pilot (1959) has direct address and non-realistic staging techniques. My guess is that they were modeled on Thornton Wilder's experimental stage play Our Town (1938). The pilot (1958) of Gene Barry's popular TV Western of the late 1950's Bat Masterson, also uses techniques modeled on experimental literature," such as Barry talking to the audience. Barry Putterman immediately replied: "The fulcrum point between Our Town and Dobie Gillis was George Burns. Burns publicly said that he used Our Town as his model for transferring The Burns and Allen Show from radio to television using the direct addresses and non-realistic staging that you mention. Dobie Gillis producer Rod Amateau worked on The Burns and Allen Show as well as The Bob Cummings Show which came from Burns' production company and had Dwayne Hickman in the cast."
The short story "Being a Murderer Myself" is narrated in the first person, and gets much of its charm from this. Perhaps the adaptation is trying to preserve this. The heroine's narration at the beginning of Rebecca is another example of such narration preserved from prose fiction.
Hitchcock's introductions to his TV shows are another case of such address - Arthur has the same relationship with the audience as Hitch himself, another example of some autobiographical aspects of the character. The technique also emphasizes what a solitary person Arthur is.
Please see Film Studies For Free for many links on direct address.
Psycho contains some of Hitchcock's bravura aerial camera movements. The shot going up the staircase in the house, which turns into a straight overhead angle, is especially complex.
Also Lang-like here is the use of mirrors. There is a mirror at the reception desk, and a complex set of infinitely reflecting mirrors in the mother's bedroom.
The asylum at the end, with its mad super-criminal, recalls Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). The shot of Perkins, alone against a blank wall in the asylum, echoes a shot of Death standing against a huge wall in Lang's Destiny.
The house looks much like the Victorian house in Lang's House by the River (1950). That film also includes a shot of water swirling down a bathtub drain, and another shot of a curtain being pulled off the rings that connect it to a rod, by a dying man grasping and pulling it loose. This curtain is not a shower curtain - but it is still a close visual echo. Lang's film has a number of quick images flash by. This perhaps anticipates some of the subliminal images in Psycho.
The opening sequence of the film is full of noir features: a crime involving money and financial corruption, the prominence of police, especially uniformed police, the mixture of night and rain on the drive, a look at the problems and dark side of middle class life. Most of the features center on the desert drive, and recall Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), a desert drive film which is also full of motels - and a motel shower. Both Detour and Psycho include a scene where a tired driver pulls off the road to sleep, only to encounter an ominous policeman later.
One can argue that The Horseplayer is not a suspense film at all. There are no crime elements, no violence or danger. The audience is in suspense over the outcome of the final horse race: the only suspense in the film.
By contrast, the bishop is in a wealthy-looking office. He is not a sympathetic character, even though there is nothing explicit in the dialogue against him.
The Sacred Heart is a religious devotion, designed to help people get a closer involvement with religion in their daily lives. It is especially designed to help men. Many Roman Catholic religious activities are centered around women, at least in their de facto practice. This was a conscious attempt to create a devotion that would involve men, and bring them more closely into their religion.
Here Hitchcock is making two films about it, suggesting that he himself was involved. Certainly, it is closely tied to Henry Fonda's character in The Wrong Man, and brings Ed Gardner's character into church in The Horseplayer. Both are regular guy, middle-aged men, who might not otherwise be closely involved with their religion - exactly the sort of people who take part in this devotion in real life. Hitchcock shows both the church services associated with the devotion here, and the pictures in the home in The Wrong Man. The depiction in the latter film is deeply realistic, showing the devotion's emphasis on the inner side of personal life. It is one of Hitchcock's most powerful and touching scenes.
Some Hitchcock films are about "seeing", notably Rear Window. I Saw the Whole Thing expresses skepticism about eye-witnesses, and their reliability concerning what they think they have seen.
The arched entrance to the flower garden gives a three-dimensional aspect to the otherwise two-dimensional street layout. The curved top of the arch recalls a bit the round fairground attractions in Strangers on a Train. The arch serves as a gateway to the garden, like the bigger gateway to the fairground in Strangers on a Train.
A street corner is shown in downtown Santa Rosa in Shadow of a Doubt. This corner is organized by a policeman. Heroine "Young Charlie" tries to cross it: another young woman linked to a street corner, like the teenage witness in I Saw the Whole Thing.
The courtroom diagram of the street corner is an abstract map, showing the same location as in the geometric overhead view. This map recalls the map Bruno gives Guy in Strangers on a Train, showing the floor plan of the house. Both maps have arrows, showing the route the protagonist is supposed to take (Strangers on a Train) or actually took (I Saw the Whole Thing). Such arrows and routes bring movement and narrative events to the diagram.
The street corner imagery returns, often transformed, in Family Plot:
The hero's home looks upper middle class. He is clearly a successful person, in the financial sense. Actor John Forsythe played a successful lawyer on his TV series Bachelor Father (1957-1962), a well-to-do man with a house in Beverly Hills. He would embody the idea of an upper middle class man for TV viewers of the era. This gives the character in I Saw the Whole Thing a certain hidden clout: he is of higher social standing than many of the people he encounters. His lawyer character on Bachelor Father was highly effective at solving problems, and suave in negotiating with people in all walks of life.
The chair at his desk is sleek, and made of black leather. Black leather chairs in 1962 were associated with President John F. Kennedy, and were symbols of power. Both the priest hero and the bishop in Hitchcock's The Horseplayer had leather chairs; the bishop's is fancier. The hero of The Rifleman TV series had a black leather chair.
Both groups of police are neatly dressed. The uniformed cops are trim and well-groomed, without being sharp or in dressy militaristic police uniforms. Their clothes suggest the police are responsible middle class men. So does their behavior and conversation.
In both North by Northwest and I Saw the Whole Thing, the police view the hero as having dangerously violated driving laws. Among other things, driving crimes are a plausible way for an otherwise respectable upper middle class man to get in trouble with the police and the law. In I Saw the Whole Thing, the hero's lawyer friend (Kent Smith) at first laughs and makes jokes about the idea that the hero could be in trouble with the police. The hero's life is remote from most crime. But after the lawyer hears about the driving crimes of which the hero is accused, the lawyer drastically changes his mind, and starts taking the charges seriously and becomes frightened.
The heroes of both North by Northwest and I Saw the Whole Thing are successful upper middle class men. They unexpectedly wind up in the hands of the police, who have middle class attributes. In most situations, upper middle class men are outside of the control or power of the middle class, and don't have to answer to them. These films instead show upper class men being judged negatively by "responsible" acting members of the middle class.
The heroes of both North by Northwest and I Saw the Whole Thing are both "creative" types: an ad man and a successful crime novelist. These are professions seen as outside of the norms of middle class organizations, such as the police forces in both films.
Vertigo contrasts Gavin Elster, a well-to-do upper middle class businessman with a lavish office, and the ex-policeman he hires (hero James Stewart). Stewart's ex-cop is noticeably middle class, wearing modestly priced suits and looking like a "normal" middle class American. This contrast between upper middle class men and middle class cops anticipates North by Northwest and I Saw the Whole Thing.
Jacques Tourneur repeatedly contrasted middle class and upper middle class men. Please see the linked article for details.
Hitchcock told interviewers how afraid he was of the police, and police scenes in Hitchcock films are often interpreted as expressions of this fear. Certainly, the scenes in North by Northwest and I Saw the Whole Thing show an innocent hero in the hands of the police, and might be seen as expressions of "fear of the police". However, it might also be well past time for other meanings police scenes might have in Hitchcock to be explored.
The hero of Strangers on a Train is also an upper middle class man, who has to report to polite but deeply skeptical police.
The second woman witness is thoughtful and intelligent. As a woman who thinks, and who expresses herself articulately and thoughtfully, she anticipates Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) in The Birds, Hitchcock's next film.
According to Bill Krohn's Hitchcock at Work, early versions of the script had many explanations and suggestions of possible meanings for the birds' conduct. Hitchcock took most of these out of the final shooting script. But reviewers and the general public immediately filled the gap, raising many of these same ideas as suggestions for the film's meaning! This suggests that the ideas were already so clear as possible readings of the film, that there was no need to make them explicit.
The Birds resembles somewhat the Theater of the Absurd, at its cultural height during the 1960's. These were plays, which had strikingly vivid, but often logically unexplained, fantastic situations and plots.
The discussion of the bird attacks and their causes in the seaside restaurant, echoes earlier discussions of the Nazi horror in The Lady Vanishes. In both films, there are many people who deny that a menace exists. They prefer comfortable illusions to facing up to sinister realities. Hitchcock severely criticizes such people. One might add that the birds are indeed Nazi-like, in their sudden, unprovoked attack on civilian populations.
Bill Krohn's Hitchcock at Work (1999-2000) documents interest in comics by Hitchcock's collaborators during the making of Strangers on a Train. These included Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, and Charles Addams. It would not be surprising if Hitchcock liked Charles Addams: both men mixed the macabre with sly humor. One also wonders if Patricia Hitchcock read comic books while growing up, and if she ever shared them with her parents. Other directors, such as Fritz Lang, Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais are on record as loving comic strips.
Hawkman was revived as a character during a 1961 - 1962 tryout period, then got his own permanent magazine again in 1964. This Hawkman revival was available at many US newsstands and drug stores. One would not have to actually read comics, to see their brilliantly colored covers in grocery stores and pharmacies. The 1961-1962 tryout was available during the time when Hitchcock was preparing and shooting The Birds. The first Hawkman revival story appeared in February-March 1961; the first draft script of The Birds was finished late in 1961, according to Krohn's book. Shooting on the film was finished by mid-1962, while the Hawkman tryout was still running. However, there was no Hawkman magazine being published in 1963 when The Birds was released in theaters, and it would not have been prominent in the minds of most viewers in 1963. While The Birds led to extensive critical and public discussion of its possible meanings on its first release, I do not recall any comparisons at that time to Hawkman.
The opening of the film evokes several different previous Hitchcock works. The brief shots of downtown San Francisco recall Vertigo, with elegant Tippie Hendren recalling Kim Novak in that film, wandering around the city. The shot of the birds flying over San Francisco landmarks, recalls earlier shots of London in The Lodger.
The romantic scene in which Mitch and Melanie wander among the dunes recalls the opening love scenes of Spellbound. Both sequences involve lovers getting to know one another, while in isolated, beautiful romantic settings outdoors. And the children's birthday party which follows recalls the similar party in Young and Innocent.
All of these earlier films are much less horror driven than The Birds. Structurally, these evocations of earlier Hitchcock films have the role of "light-hearted introductions to serious horror". This is somewhat of an odd perspective.
When the action shifts to the countryside around Bodega Bay, we get aerial landscapes showing the highway embedded in complex landscape views. These recall the shots of Riviera roads, around 15 minutes into To Catch a Thief. We also get an overall view of the town from the water, recalling similar townscapes on hills in the earlier film.
The introduction to the Brenner house also recalls Rear Window. The house, barn and the grounds form an elaborate, multi-level complex, like the courtyard in Rear Window. The grounds are laid out into a series of regions, by the use of white fences, just like the differing regions of the courtyard in the earlier movie. Just as James Stewart stared at the courtyard from afar, here Melanie watches the Brenner house and grounds from the boat. Hitchcock's camera constantly picks out different views and framings of the Brenner house - his vision is "free" to pick any angle or sectional view here, just like the free camerawork in the earlier film. Melanie eventually penetrates the landscape she is watching, just as Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter do in Rear Window. And people inside in turn discover Melanie: Mitch discovers and watches her, just as Raymond Burr watches Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.
There are some complex pans which explore elaborate landscapes. These include early shots of Melanie in the dock area, and the shot which follows Jessica Tandy as she enters the farm house. Both involve characters moving through 90 degree turns onto new paths. The farmhouse scene reveals an elaborate set of paths and fences in the farmhouse courtyard. These invoke both the Brenner house, with lots of white fencing, and Hitchcock's love of geometric sets, such as the cemetery in Family Plot.
The white fencing also recalls the Western house in Saboteur. It has a similar wholesome looking architecture as the Bremer house here, although sinister events eventually take over both places.
The neutral tones that frame these bright colors are distinctive in The Birds, too. They are unusually warm. The heroine's light fur coat is nearly honey colored. The hero wears an off-white sweater, light gray suits, and later a white shirt. Woodwork throughout is light and cheerful. This makes the neutral tones in The Birds much lighter and brighter than in many films.
The hero sometimes wears green pants. This echoes the heroine's light green suit. this underscores a unity between the hero and heroine.
The suspense shot of Marnie and the cleaning woman recalls Ozu. The very low angle of the shot is Ozu's favorite camera position. Its frontal approach, so that the frame is parallel to the walls of the building, also seems Ozu-like; so do the deep corridors and perspectives revealed in the shot.
The panic at the theater in Torn Curtain recalls the earlier theater disturbance in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), and the big fight at the pub in Young and Innocent (1937). In both cases, civilized order breaks down into frightening chaos.
The sympathetic man who accompanies and watches the hero, recalls the sympathetic police tails assigned to accompany the hero in Strangers on a Train.
The discussions of Hitchcock TV episodes The Horseplayer and I Saw the Whole Thing, detail how imagery from these shows was transformed and re-used in Family Plot.
The place where the helicopter lands, looking for the kidnap victim, evokes the park in Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966). Both are green spaces, full of mystery. Both have a woman wandering around. Both eventually include a body, stretched out on the ground.
The basement garage rooms are full of the bright colors Hitchcock liked: red brick, a green hose, brightly colored plastic bottles.
This garage environment looks a little like the general store in The Birds, although the colors are different. Both are full of handyman type supplies.
Bruce Dern's cabman outfit is full of black and gray.