Friday, April 15, 2011
Hitchcock was the star and introducer of his long running TV series (1955 - 1966); he was a household name in the United States during this period, and for a considerable period after, due to reruns. He also appeared in the trailers for his films, was a guest on TV talk shows, and in general was a celebrity. Before Hitchcock, Cecil B. De Mille was host and frequent director of the Lux Radio Theater, a high quality series of the 1940's. It also made De Mille famous. Later De Mille hosted many of the trailers for his films, as well as appearing as himself in such films as Sunset Boulevard and Son of Paleface. Both of these men were much better known to the public, than any other directors who were not also actors (such as Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier). One suspects that De Mille was a role model for Hitchcock in these matters.
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.
Spy Films, and Hitchcock's use of genre
From The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) up to Notorious (1946), Hitchcock's tales tend to be espionage films, although Young and Innocent (1937) is an exception, being a crime story without espionage. He also did some romantic dramas, about hero-worshipping women who were involved with men who eventually got them caught up in murderous situations: Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943). From The Paradine Case (1947) through Marnie (1964), Hitchcock converted over to pure crime thrillers, largely without spy elements. His TV show also concentrated on such themes. There is a major change of approach here. Hitchcock did make some major spy films during this later era: the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and North By Northwest (1959).
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 also widely seen as an allegory about the horrors of atomic warfare, an interpretation that Hitchcock neither embraced nor denied. Rear Window (1954) also contains a photograph of an atomic bomb, and much discussion about political "trouble".
Hitchcock himself insisted that he was an abstract filmmaker. His concept of the McGuffin, 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 stoytelling features.
Easy Virtue (1927) takes Hitchcock away from his typical suspense film. It is a kind of film not much made today, but which was hugely popular in the silent era: a romantic melodrama set against a world of upper class wealth. It reminds one in general terms of Lady Windemere's Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925). Hitchcock does surprisingly well with this kind of material. The conflict between a worldly, sophisticated woman with a secret past, and a proper family in British upper-crust Society, is at the center of both works. Both films revel in their depiction of Society amusements. Both films also have a subtlety, and delicacy of playing.
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 Relative Values. This work was made into a delightful film by Eric Styles, in 2000.
In Hitchcock at Work, Bill Krohn reveals the parallels between Easy Virtue, and the personal relationships in The Birds (1963). His detailed discussion is a coup of auteurist criticism, showing how Hitchcock's personal themes evolved, despite a thirty-six year gap. Easy Virtue also anticipates other Hitchcock films. Like Rebecca, it 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. More generally, the contrast between the sophisticated heroine and the stuffy traditional family is a recurrent one in Hitchcock, 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. Similarly, 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 Novack offers a glamorous intruder into James Stewart's conformist world in Vertigo.
There are other seeds in Easy Virtue that flowered in later Hitchcock works. The Riviera settings will recur in To Catch a Thief. The eavesdropping telephone operator perhaps recalls James Stewart's prying photographer in Rear Window. The tennis game here anticipates Strangers on a Train. The hero here is in tennis whites when he meets the heroine. His character is somewhat like Farley Granger's tennis pro in the latter film: glamorous, refined, very attractive to women, but spineless, weak-willed and very easily manipulated by others. Both men suffer from being utterly socially conventional, perhaps epitomized by their upper class looking tennis whites. The men are both appealing and annoying, in their mix of sexual irresistibleness and conventionality and lack of backbone. Hitchcock choose this scene for his least recognizable cameo in his films: he goes by with a walking stick, his back to the audience.
The opening courtroom scenes anticipate other films about a woman on trial, The Paradine Case and, to a lesser degree, Dial M For Murder. The artist incident will soon be echoed in Blackmail. And the jury deliberation will return far more elaborately in Murder. This opening is thus quite seminal in Hitchcock's work. It is somewhat odd that such a trial scene occurs in what is otherwise not a suspense or crime film.
The opening is full of a complex montage. It is quite different from anything else I have ever seen. Hitchcock cuts back and forth between the trial, and flashbacks showing the events being testified about at the trial. The fluid cutting between different periods of time anticipates Resnais, and his time experiments. The flashbacks are not marked by the elaborate use of dissolves, wipes, fades, etc., as flashbacks often are in film. Instead, there is a direct cutting. Hitchcock takes delight in "fooling" the audience about where we are in past or present, that is a bit similar to some of the tricks played by Resnais in L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961). 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).
Young and Innocent
The Grand Hotel sequence of Young and Innocent (1937) is one of Hitchcock's delightful set pieces. It has ties to many other Hitchcock films. The drummer recalls the cymbal player in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): both are percussion players on stage with an orchestra, both are parts of major suspense sequences. The festive, well dressed guests who throng the Grand Hotel recall the resort patrons at the start of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The stage scenes here also recall Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps (1935).
The famous overhead traveling shot picks up rectilinear patterns on the ballroom floor, made up of tables and the arrangements of dancers. It anticipates the overhead geometric abstractions of the cemetery scene in Family Plot. It also anticipates the many shots of the grounds and opposite building and its windows in Rear Window.
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.
Many of the camera movements here 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).
The big crane shot shows us the lobby, from both sides of the row of pillars. This produces a striking geometric effect. There is something very interesting about seeing the camera move over the top of this row of pillars. It anticipates the hotel lobby to come at the start of Torn Curtain, which also features a row of pillars. In both films, the registration desk and its clerks are prominent. Earlier, in Easy Virtue (1927), Hitchcock had offered an similar set-up: a registration desk, opposite a row of pillars marking off the rest of the hotel lobby. All three hotels are extremely lavish; they are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the tacky Bates Motel in Psycho. Still, the reception desk clerk in Psycho, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), plays the biggest role yet of any such character in Hitchcock.
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.
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 band leader here is a caricature that works on many levels. Like most real-life band leaders of his era, he is a well dressed pretty boy who keeps smiling at the audience and oozing charm. Away from the audience, he is a stern taskmaster to his players, and a really odious tyrant. Hitchcock here satirically looks behind the image that band leaders projected - many had reputations in show business of being penny-pinching jerks. He anticipates in a comic but vivid way the horrors of work shown in such films as The Wrong Man and Psycho, where work is dehumanizing and relentlessly grim. He creates great sympathy for the villain, who is a player in the band. 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.
Some shots are set in the alley outside the Grand Hotel's kitchen. We see crates of food arriving and being unpacked. These anticipate Hitchcock's dream project, one built around a day in which raw foodstuffs arrives in a city and are processed. They also anticipate the restaurant kitchen scene in To Catch a Thief. The whole sequence shows many aspects of the running of a hotel, with desk clerks, waiters, cooks, musicians and so on all having continuing roles. This whole vast machine of operating a hotel runs in the background of the sequence. It is not really noticeable till a repeated viewing, but it helps give the sequence its immense complexity. 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.
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.
The mill in the countryside here anticipates the later windmill in Foreign Correspondent. Both also recall the mill in Dreyer's Vampyr (1931).
The heroine's difficulties with her bourgeois family here 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.
Point of View
How do Hitchcock's Point of View sequences fit into his film technique? Hitchcock himself linked this approach to the montage experiments of Pudovkin. One can see several things that they do. First of all, it integrates shots that would be otherwise disconnected with the story line. In Saboteur, Hitchcock could have left the shots of the sunken Normandy as just an element of a montage. Instead, they are the POV of the saboteur in the film. The audience can "understand" the shot: it is something seen by one of the characters. Secondly, it gives a reason for including camera movement in the film. The saboteur is driving by in a cab, so Hitchcock shoots the Normandy with a tracking shot past its hull. One suspects that Hitchcock wanted a tracking shot, anyway, here: it is more visually dramatic. Also, it gives the audience a more detailed look at different sides of the ship. Making the shot a POV gives him an excuse for filming the shot this way, with a moving camera.
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.
Shadow of a Doubt
What is the sexual orientation of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)? The film never specifies explicitly. The film does posit there is some unusual link between Uncle Charlie and his niece, Young Charlie. This is perhaps a clue that Uncle Charlie has female characteristics.
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.
Spellbound (1945) has several features in common with Hitchcock's later films. Like Vertigo (1958), it opens with a beautiful, emotionally intense love story, before any detective elements in the story get underway. This love story is conventionally romantic, and full of passionate feeling. In both films, romance will be associated with walking in outdoor settings, full of trees and vegetation. Later, in both films, the opening love relationship will be modified both by mystery thriller elements, and intimations of abnormal psychology in one of the romantic pair. In both cases, it is the man who is emotionally disturbed. His obsessions and severe emotional problems cast a shadow over the second portion of the film. In both films, the man's problems are triggered by a visual image: heights and a pattern of zoom and tracking in Vertigo, and a series of parallel straight lines against a white background in Spellbound. These are abstract visual patterns in both films. The color red will trigger similar feelings in the heroine of Marnie.
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 scene where the doors open by themselves in Spellbound anticipate the shots in Rear Window (1954) of window blinds opening and closing by themselves. In both cases, these are bits of fantasy imagery integrated into otherwise realistic movies. In both cases, they are seen as figures of style. They reveal intense things about their heroes' psyches.
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.
The bathroom scene in Spellbound shows Gregory Peck's mental problems being triggered by the white fixtures of the bathroom. The scene reminds one strongly of the bathroom scene to come in Psycho (1960). Both films have a similar architecture in their sets. The bathroom is a small, almost claustrophobic room, connected by an open doorway to a darker and impersonal bedroom. People are strangers to the bedroom/bath: it is part of a motel in Psycho, and a guest bedroom in a relative stranger's house in Spellbound. In both films, there is a sense of the protagonists trying to adapt themselves to an alien, impersonal setting, and psychologically failing to do so. This is related to common feelings of alienation and disturbance about staying in a hotel room or other strange location. In both films, the bathroom is well lit, gleamingly white, ultra clean, and very impersonal looking, without any of the homey personal touches people add to their own living spaces. In both it is a scene of mental breakdown for the hero. It triggers a suspense sequence with a razor in Spellbound, and the notorious knife murder in Psycho. In both films, the hero loses his personality, and essentially becomes someone else, a frightening persona with a uncontrollable urge to kill. It is a terrifying sequence in both films.
The dream sequence in Spellbound shows the hero being chased by a winged creature above; we only see the shadows of its giant wings on the ground. Later, Hitchcock will make an entire film about people being chased by The Birds (1963). What was part of a surrealistic dream sequence here becomes a whole fantastic film later in Hitchcock's work. It is hard to say what this means in terms of genre. Does this mean that The Birds is a dream sequence? Or is the dream mechanism in Spellbound an attempt to include personal feelings in a way that would make them acceptable in the realistic conventions of 1945 cinema? In any case, it shows what a deep personal interest Hitchcock had in this imagery, at an early date.
Hitchcock's camera is free to explore anywhere. This freedom is indicated by Hitchcock's camera technique. Often times the camera moves around. The movements are extremely precise, but they often change the view of the architecture. The camera will move in or move back. In the process, the rectangular segment of wall revealed will become continuously larger or smaller. The camera is clearly independent of the architecture. It can choose to look at a larger or smaller segment of it. And the viewer frequently sees that segment change in size and scope.
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.
The opening shot of Rear Window organizes the courtyard set into a series of vertical zones. These strong vertical regions are separated by the vertical bars of the window. Later, shots of the composers studio apartment with be visually organized into different regions by the slanting diagonals of his windows.
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 (1930) (René Clair, 1930), and several horizontal tracking shots in Lubitsch films, such as Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Angel (1937).
I am a little dubious, about the oft-repeated idea of the various windows in the courtyard representing film screens. The concept of Rear Window as a metaphor for the cinema has become a critical truism. But Hitchcock often films events in the courtyard, not just in the windows, and often shows action moving from one window to another. All of this contradicts the "window as metaphor for cinema" concept. The film seems more about "complex staging across an elaborate set, watched by a spectacularly moving aerial camera". This is the same idea that animates the Grand Hotel sequence in Young and Innocent.
Rear Window can be seen as a religious movie. It centers on the Golden Rule: "Love thy neighbor, as thyself". This theme is made explicit in the powerful speech given by the wife who owns the dog. She talks about concern for neighbors, as a central principle of life. The film dramatizes two different approaches: first, James Stewart looks on his neighbors uncaringly, just watching; later, both Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter will get involved, out of genuine concern with their neighbors' well-being.
Influence from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, M and The Blue Gardenia
The huge set in Rear Window recalls the giant architectural sets of Fritz Lang's silent movies, such as the underground city of the workers in Metropolis (1926), and the staircase outside Haghi's office in Spione (1928). The set is especially close in architectural style to the office building in Lang's crime thriller M (1931). The windows in the section containing Thorwald, Miss Lonelyhearts and the fire-escape couple with the dog are especially similar to the building in M. And the building in M has a high section where a sharp 90 degree corner is cut off by a diagonal facet: the high balcony at the far right in Rear Window is a similar diagonal cutoff of a corner. It is not surprising that Hitchcock, who was always deeply influenced by Lang, would want to create a film that was similarly ambitious, in being based on a very large set. The set is also filled with Lang's beloved staircases.
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.
To Catch a Thief
To Catch a Thief (1955) opens with a view outside a Riviera hotel. This shot of the outside of a building recalls the numerous shots of the courtyard in Rear Window. Several similar shots of hotel exteriors follow. 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.
North By Northwest
Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) contains several scenes in the style of his previous film, Vertigo (1958). 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. 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 can also 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 is deliberately absurd and meaningless. It is not just absurd, but Absurd, one reflecting all meaningless fates that can engulf anybody.
North By Northwest recalls such earlier Hitchcock spy films as Foreign Correspondent and Sabotage. All three are comic extravaganzas, involving much traveling to different locations, a series of brilliant set pieces, and a suspense sequence atop a famous high landmark. Before that, Hitchcock included cross-country journeys in such British adventure films as The 39 Steps (1935) and Young and Innocent (1937). 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.
Arthur (1959) is a half hour episode of Hitchcock's TV show. This delightful comic tale has all sorts of relationships with Hitchcock's theatrical films. Arthur is a poultry farmer, and the film opens with a shot of chickens all over the poultry house, an image anticipating The Birds (1963) to come. Arthur is also one of the many gay characters in Hitchcock who commit The Perfect Murder - see Rope, Strangers on a Train, Dial M For Murder (where the Ray Milland character seems gay), perhaps Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, and Psycho. There is also the accused but innocent gay man in The Lodger. I confess I am not happy with this recurring character type in Hitchcock - the whole idea is homophobic. Still, Arthur is the most sympathetic of all of these characters, and clearly a favorite of the director. Whether enthusing about cooking - a hobby of Hitchcock himself - or denouncing heterosexual marriage, Arthur gives it his all. Gay actor Laurence Harvey has a field day with his performance.
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.
Arthur is based on a short story by Arthur Williams, "Being a Murderer Myself" (1948). This is the only known mystery work of the author, the pseudonym of a never-identified South African. The brief tale has been considerably expanded in the film version, partly to make Arthur much more sympathetic, and partly to create a dramatizable story, with characters and events. For obscure reasons, the action has been shifted to New Zealand. Perhaps Hitchcock wanted to avoid any political controversies surrounding South Africa. The setting also recalls Hitchcock's Australian film, Under Capricorn. 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.
The way Arthur directly addresses the audience is unusual in Hitchcock, and film in general. It does recall a bit such stage characters as Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps, who directly talk to their audiences. Direct address of the audience is more common on TV - such characters as Gidget did it regularly - perhaps a sign of radio's influence on TV. The short story is narrated in the first person, and gets much of its charm from this. Probably 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. And 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.
Psycho (1960) draws on imagery found in the ancient Greek myth of Agamemnon. This story was the subject of the greatest of all Greek dramas, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Just as in Agamemnon, the hero's wife stabs him in the bathtub, so does the mother in Psycho stab her victims in the shower. The son in the Greek myth is pursued by the fates, the Eumenides, female spirits who want to avenge his murdered mother; the son in Psycho is mentally "pursued" by his mother, who takes over his personality.
The opening of Psycho includes a series of shots in which the camera approaches a Phoenix hotel from the air, then passes through a hotel window into a room containing the characters. These recall the finale of Foreign Correspondent, in which the camera moves closer and closer to an airplane traveling in mid-air, then through a window into the inside of the plane.
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.
The motel contains four staircases: there are two in the house, leading upstairs and to the basement; there are outdoor steps leading from the motel to the house; and the walkway of the motel itself is a gently sloping series of steps, which gradually move characters from level to level. This outdoor walkway contains a 90 degree turn, like the steps leading from Jimmy Stewart's apartment building in Rear Window. Both of these 90 degree staircases are at the lowest level of their sets. Such use of staircases is both a Hitchcock tradition, and an inheritance from Fritz Lang.
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 (1932).
The pure overhead angles in the upstairs of the house recur in film noir, for example, in Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949). There are signs that Hitchcock was using a film noir approach in Psycho, including black and white photography. 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. The swirling light bulb in the cellar towards the end, recalls a similar figure of style in Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947). The desert drive recalls Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), a film which is also full of motels. The use of psychoanalysis at the end is also a noir tradition. So is the private eye character.
The Horseplayer (1961) is a half-hour episode of Hitchcock's TV show. It stars Claude Rains as the priest in charge of a desperately poor parish, and Ed Gardner as a parishioner involved with gambling. Like Arthur (1959), this is one of Hitchcock's more comic TV shows, and all the better for it. The Horseplayer is not as creative a work as Arthur, however. It starts out strong, and has some nice touches along the way. But its twist ending is easy to predict, and the show has its routine side.
The Horseplayer looks forward to Family Plot (1976). Both are contain scenes of Roman Catholic religious rituals, and in both, the church services are strangely disrupted by bizarre events. The interruptions are distinctly surreal in both cases, and show Hitchcock at his oddest. The scenes both celebrate Hitchcock's Catholic faith, and look at the human side of religion. There is perhaps something Buñuel like here. Both films also show a priest falling prey to human failings - gambling here, romance in Family Plot. Hitchcock's insistence that priests are as human as the rest of us, and with the same feelings, is certainly both truthful and relevant.
The Horseplayer also recalls The Wrong Man (1957). In that film, Henry Fonda prays to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, at his moment of extreme need. This is a Roman Catholic religious devotion. The Horseplayer opens with the priest conducting a prayer service for the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart is a religious devotion, designed to help people get a closer involvement with religion in their most 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.
The Birds (1963) was very widely viewed in its day. It was one of the most discussed films of its time, both in print, and in word of mouth among the general public. It also had extensive television showings after its theatrical run, helping to keep it in public consciousness during those pre-video days. Hitchcock himself was a famous celebrity in this era, due to his hosting of his long running TV show, which began in 1955, and which was still on the air in 1963. Its startling difference from other movies of its day also stirred up audience interest. 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.
Hawkman was a super-hero of the Golden Age of comic books in the 1940's. He was a man who could fly, using a pair of wings he had made. In "Smoke from Nowhere" (Flash Comics #23, November 1941), he becomes the leader of Earth's birds, learning their language, and drawing on the birds as his allies. This became a permanent part of his characterization. Here, and in later tales, the birds mass in large groups, and attack human bad guys. The scenes where birds attack humans here oddly anticipate Alfred Hitchcock's film, The Birds. I have no idea if Hitchcock ever saw any Hawkman comics tales. They do anticipate both The Birds (1963), and such earlier Hitchcock films with sinister bird imagery, such as Spellbound (1945) and Psycho (1960).
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 comics.
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 Birds resembled 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 Birds recalls the strange small talk about the birds in a London park near the beginning of Foreign Correspondent. This seemed like an absurd little comic episode in that film, but it gathers associations from The Birds. There is also the sinister early scene on the beach in Young and Innocent, in which the sea gulls are associated with the discovery of the corpse, and the discussion in the same film about what the rooks might do to the hero if he gets killed. One also notices the birds on top of the ballet dancer's roof in Rear Window. They look so innocent there - but one suspects they are up to no good! The birds are linked to a woman here, as they will be again in The Birds. Rear Window has a second woman with a bird-cage, which she is always moving around - just like the cage of lovebirds being carried around in The Birds. Cary Grant sits next to a woman with a bird cage on the bus in To Catch a Thief. Bird imagery also plays a role in Spellbound and Psycho.
Some of Hitchcock's most personal films were shot in San Francisco, and in regions immediately around it: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, The Birds, parts of Family Plot, and the crop dusting sequence in North By Northwest.
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 pet store scenes feature an elaborate, two story set, as in Rear Window. In both works the action is on an upper story, with the camera frequently looking out and down on a lower area, here the lower floor of the pet store. Complex geometric patterns abound in these aerial views, just as in the earlier film. Hitchcock is seen here, walking two dogs; dogs symbolized love and goodness in Rear Window. Dog licenses are available later at the general store in Bodega Bay, according to a sign.
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 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.
The discussion 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.
Marnie is full of scenes that echo earlier Hitchcock films. As a romantic drama full of deceit and multiple identities, it is in the tradition of Vertigo. The heroine's transformations in appearance also recall that film. So does the way the movie splits into two parts, with a complete change of tone and approach between the two halves. The film also recalls Spellbound, with psychological treatment of a protagonist bringing to light a forgotten murder from their past. In both films, anxiety is triggered by a visual cue from the crime, here the color red. Marnie recalls The Birds, with the heroine making her way into a well-to-do family headed by a young, single businessman, against opposition from the hero's former girlfriend. Marnie recalls Psycho, with the heroine a working class woman who commits theft from her unlikable employer's office.
The rope-skipping rhyme previously appeared in Jules Dassin's The Naked City. Its mention of the alligator purse keeps up the animal motif that runs throughout Marnie, and its doctor-nurse questions anticipates the healing of Marnie in the film. There is also a little girl glimpsed playing hopscotch on the street near the start of Rear Window.
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.
Torn Curtain (1966) recalls Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (1946). Both films are spy stories, with an American physicist going to Germany to be involved in atomic secrets. Both films have a suspense sequence, in which the hero must kill an enemy agent in complete silence, so as not to give away his activities. Both sequences are ferocious and harrowing.
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.