In that scene from To Catch a Thief (1955), the amorous pair are Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. But the one who set up that tryst, who first saw it in his mind's eye and then realized that vision, was Alfred Hitchcock1. It's hard to believe he wasn't acting out a fantasy2, using the camera to act on an otherwise suppressed impulse3.
Like most film writers, I'm a wannabe movie director. As a youth, I wanted a career in movies, but my parents were dead-set against it4. But even if that hadn't been the case, I still would have balked. Good filmmaking demands an audacity, a willingness to exploit others, sometimes cruelly. As a young man, I shrank back.The camera can be an invasive instrument, and I think it takes a bit of a sociopath to instruct an actress to repeatedly retake a scene—or to take her clothes off for the camera.
Alfred Hitchcock had no problem with that. He made the career choice he did because he could exert power over actors. Once, when he was directing an episode for his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he was having difficulty getting a child actor to keep from fidgeting during a scene. Hitchcock took the boy aside and threatened to nail his feet to the floor if he didn't stand still. Terrified, the young actor stood stock still during the shooting. Hitchcock got the footage he wanted and the boy was traumatized for life.
Leonard South, Hitch’s cinematographer for many of his greatest movies, including North by Northwest and The Birds, once recalled that "Those [crop-duster and bird] scenes were some of the hardest I've ever been involved in. They called for absolutely perfect timing in situations that were really rather scary."
For the final attack scene in The Birds, bird handlers stood off-camera, hurling crows and seagulls at a screaming, terrorized Tippi Hedren. She told me that the set had been enclosed in an enormous chain-link cage designed to contain the birds and protect the crew, but which left her completely exposed. Finally, after a week of shooting under these conditions, one of the avian actors came too close and she nearly lost an eye. Hedren went into hysterics and had to take time off from the shooting schedule to recuperate5.
Hitchcock saw the camera itself as a sort of weapon, an instrument with diabolical purposes. Almost every time a camera appears in his films, it is cast in an unfavorable light. Check out these examples:
Easy Virtue (1928) opens with an ominous silhouette of a still camera, which foreshadows the means by which Larita Filton's (Isabel Jeans') reputation is finally shattered.
In one of Hitchcock's most heartbreaking scenes, despairing, Filton steps out of the courthouse into a gauntlet of reporters with their cameras poised in the air and says, in the final frames of the film, "Shoot! There's nothing left to kill."6
Not to be missed are the Fascist terrorists in Saboteur (1942), who operate out of a newsreel production truck and plant explosives inside a movie camera in order to bomb a newly launched American battleship.
On the lam as the Merry Widow Murderer in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Uncle Charlie has such loathing for the snooping lens of the camera that he has taken pains to remove every photo of himself ever taken since childhood. For good reason. Detectives on his trail need a photo to positively identify him. In the scene above, he demands that they return the film with his pictures on it.
In Lifeboat (1944), Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) makes her living as a war reporter, producing newsreels for American audiences. From the lifeboat, she takes aim at the wreckage of the sinking ship as it bobs in the water. Spotting a baby bottle, she says, "Look! That's the perfect touch!" John Kovak, (John Hodiak) disgusted, says, "Why don't you just wait for the baby to float by?!" and "accidentally" bumps her camera into the water.
In Notorious (1946) Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) emerges from the trial of her father, a Nazi conspirator, to face a gaggle of media vultures. She steps into the hallway with a blank look on her pale face, to be awakened from her daze by their popping flashbulbs. Though she steels herself and keeps walking, it's the first of many assaults she must endure in the film.
Of course, Hitchcock's most well-known essay on the cruel uses to which cameras can be put was Rear Window (1954). In a back story that hints at a voyeuristic flaw deep in his character, L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) had been a reconnaissance photographer in World War II, decorated for his bravery. After the war, he parleyed his medals and penchant for risk-taking into a lucrative photojournalism career, but at the start of the movie he was stuck home, confined in a wheelchair. 'Jaywalking on the Indianapolis Speedway' had landed him a seat in a wheelchair with a smashed leg--to say nothing of his camera.
At the end of the film, assaulted by the murderer, he used his flashbulb attachment to momentarily blind the attacker. The camera that he had employed to launch a long-distance invasion of the killer's apartment was now used in self-defense. Fellow Hitchcock geek and author of Writing with Hitchcock, Steven DeRosa, notes another detail. In John Michael Hayes' first draft of the screenplay, Thorwald rewarded Jefferies' efforts by smashing his leg with a tripod.
Let's not forget Roger Thornhill's flight as an innocent man on the run in North by Northwest (1959), which was set in motion when a reporter shot a photo of him "wielding" a knife at the United Nations.In Topaz, (1969), Cold Warriors are armed, not with guns, but with cameras. Throughout the movie, cameras are passed from one spy to another and the devices turn out to be as mobile and toxic as a death-dealing virus. Throughout the movie, cameras cause people to kill their own countrymen--not those from the enemy country. For my money, Topaz might be a more impassioned (if also a more free-associative and metaphoric) indictment of Hitchcock's directorial camera than even Rear Window. cameras are arguably the MacGuffin, primary plot device and star of the show.
American freelance agent Phillipe DuBois (Roscoe Lee Brown) uses a camera shoot to create a diversion while the Cuban agent he has bribed, Luis Uribe (Don Randolph) steals a cache of Important Documents.
Afterward, DuBois uses another, better, camera to take pictures of said documents. Regrettably, Uribe is caught and killed for his treason.
Juanita Cordoba's (Karin Dor) doom as a traitor to the Cuban Revolution is sealed when she accepts Andre Devereaux's (Frederick Stafford's) "gift" of a spy camera, which she promptly hands off to her fellow counterrevolutionaries like an airborne disease.
Throwing in his taste for birds as harbingers of evil with his attention to the details of food, Hitch sends the counterrevolutionaries on a spying mission where they conceal their newly acquired surveillance cameras in the cavity of an oversized sandwich. Unfortunately, meddlesome seagulls attack their picnic, leading to their exposure, arrest, torture and death at the hands of the Communists. Their equipment, however, is first hidden in the cavity of a roasting chicken and secreted to their headquarters.
The clinical care with which the counterrevolutionaries pull the camera and lens out of the carcass resembles a grotesque birthing scene and is a macabre reminder of the cost of human life its contents invoked. (Later, the chicken is roasted and fed to the film's primary hero and heroine. As in Rope and the diner scene in The Birds, chicken is the menu item of choice for a Hitchcockian death feast.)
Finally, the discovery of the camera by Cuban loyalists leads to one of the most beautiful of all of Hitch's murders. Conventional wisdom tells one to follow the money. But in Topaz, to stay on the trail of death, follow the cameras.
What makes cameras so dangerous? Perhaps it is their mechanical detachment. They are as uncaring as bureaucrats. Like a state worker who can ruin your life with a flick of his pen, a skilled cameraman can change his subjects' lives with a flick of his wrist. A high school Lothario will say "I love you" to any girl whose pants he wants to get into, but photographers do the same thing when they tell their models, "The camera loves you, baby." In both cases the idea is to get the object of their attention to open up.
To Hitchcock, a rolling camera could even be rapacious. With Rope, he was able to act on his fantasy "that a camera could photograph one complete [eight minute] reel at a time, gobbling up 11 pages of dialogue on each shot, devouring action like a steam shovel."8
Like the all-seeing eyes of Big Brother, Zoroastrianism and dollar-bill conspiracy theorists, cameras exert power from their position as unstoppable machines of detached observation. Few things can make you feel more naked than to be caught unaware on camera9, which is why Alan Funt's famous announcement "Smile, you're on Candid Camera!" was always followed by confusion, panic and nervous laughter. Why? Because the victims of his pranks were stripped and humiliated by the camera. Guns may kill, but cameras are the weapon of choice for character assassination.
The camera doesn't lie. Sometimes, in fact, it's a little too honest. The miracle of photography isn't that a camera exposes the strip of film behind its lens, but that it exposes whatever is in front of its lens. For that reason, merely walking around in most major cities is an act of exhibitionism. Stroll from New York City's Wall Street to Harlem and you can count on remaining under continuous, unblinking scrutiny, courtesy of one surveillance camera or another.
Cameras intrude. They invade. They violate. And so, when I was choosing my career path, I just couldn't do it. Much as I liked the idea of filmmaking, I wasn't confrontational enough10. I was, in fact, well trained to be otherwise11. Naturally, became a writer.
While making movies can be sadistic, writing poses an opposite hazard: it's masochistic. As such, it's much more in line with my character. I have an inverted comfort zone that protects others from embarrassment but leaves me completely exposed. Great for writing. Bad for filmmaking.
Isn't that inverted comfort zone common among writers? Quite often, the protagonist in a novel is an alter ego of the author, more or less. And what do their creators do with him? They put that character through the most humiliating ordeals imaginable. Think of the climax of The Sun also Rises, in which Jake Barnes gets clobbered by the schmuck Harry Cohn.
Everybody loves to watch the first-person narrator go down. Check in on every protagonist from Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe to Will in Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, and you'll see page after page of mashed-in faces, rebuffed sexual overtures and stood-up appointments.
And so I write about film. It enables me to live vicariously through other, more sadistic personalities.
I dream that it could be otherwise. I'd rather be making movies than writing about them. Inside me there is a sadistic fat man with a camera lens dying to come out.
2. As Woody Allen's life demonstrates, an occupational hazard among filmmakers is that they tend to fall for their female stars. Hitchcock seems to have at times fallen into the same trap, though he rarely acted on it.
3. After all, how could a movie director not develop a thing for his actresses? The hours that he spends inspecting them, giving them detailed instructions about their every move onscreen—and often offscreen— effectively sculpting them into an ideal image that he has heretofore only carried around in his head, would make the temptation to seek greater intimacy very strong. Every man fantasizes about creating his "ideal" woman. Film directors get to live out that fantasy. Thus, when Vertigo's Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) remakes Judy (Kim Novak) to resemble his lost Madeleine, he is reenacting on screen what Hitchcock had already done with Novak—and many others— in real life.
4. Here's where I should insert my "I coulda been a contendah" monologue. But I'll spare you. Basically, I succumbed to family pressure to forego a university education. I coulda gotten loads of scholarships, which I shoulda used to go to film school.
5. Leonard J. South, 92; Cinematographer Was Camera Operator on Many Hitchcock Classics
By Dennis McLellan, LA Times
6. In Michael Powell's Hitchcockian Peeping Tom, a psycho killer lures his female victims to his "movie studio" and murders them with a knife that he has concealed in a tripod, all the while filming their final moments of life and their expressions of terror. This is a film that, according to Roger Ebert, "is about the deep psychological process at work when a filmmaker tells his actors to do as he commands, while he stands in the shadows and watches." I'm putting this in a footnote, because Ken Mogg has elaborated on this elsewhere.
8. "My Most Exciting Picture," Popular Photography, November 1948.
9. I think it was the ancient Greeks who believed that we can see because our eyes emit rays that apprehend images of the world around us, like a fishing line that grabs at seaweed and rocks and the occasional Coho salmon. I like that idea, and I think in a metaphoric way it's true. Poets sit in Starbucks and fill reams of diary pages with odes to the hungry, rapaciously consuming eye. If mere looking is a passive act, why do women mind when men stare at their breasts? Why is there a James Bond movie titled For Your Eyes Only ? Mere use of the eyes can lead to an act of theft. Or it can be an assault. Looks can kill.
10. That's also why I knew I could never be a newspaper reporter. Who am I to ask a widow, "What were you thinking when that bullet went through your husband's brain?" I'd love to know the answer, but I'll never ask the question.
11. And then there was that day in seventh grade, when Joe Zirkle, who sat in the rear of Mrs. Seely's Language Arts class, carefully folded a sheet of notebook paper into a thick, surprisingly hard, finger-friendly triangle and patiently waited for Mrs. Seely to turn toward the chalkboard so he could hurl the thing at my head, which—lucky shot for him—bounced off the curve of my skull right about where the 45th parallel would be if I were a globe. The blue-lined white projectile flew straight up into the air and he easily caught it, much to his delight and the mirth of everyone in the last two rows, giving him bragging rights that he exercised for the next week and motivating him to attempt repeating the trick. Failing that, he took to flicking my ears from behind—the hard way, by folding his middle finger into the fleshy crook where his thumb met his palm and then releasing it with a snap of his wrist. And I took it. Because that is what I had been taught to do. Good Christians don't fight, and I was an apt pupil of that philosophy. I had learned to run from fights when I couldn't walk away from them. Keeping your hands up and your head down and never turning your back on your opponent were moot skills, because I was a peaceful young man; yet, when I had finally had enough of Joe, and he had, in any event, challenged me to a fight, I met him on the playground behind the basketball court and steeled myself to end his bullying once and for all by meeting him fair –and square, taking one look at his left eyeball, and then placing my right fist on the bone below it. The strategy worked, as his flesh gave way under my skin-stretched knuckles like an orange peel wrapped around the handle of a baseball bat. Surprised, he ducked and backed off, and one of his friends stepped between us, gave Joe a quick inspection, whistled, and said something like, "Whoa, you got a black eye," which more or less ended the fight. I didn't have too much trouble with him after that, but now what would I tell my step dad if he found out that I had just kicked Joe Zirkle's ass? He—and, worse, my mom—would have been ashamed, and my self-defense plea would have fallen on deaf ears. And so I spent the next week wandering through my sixth grade haze on a cocktail of freshly stirred testosterone and grape Bubble Yum, when suddenly I would slip like a bad transmission into an anxiety attack because Mrs. Aylesworth, whose personality was as Victor Hugoian as her name, could have caught wind of the episode, probably by consulting her magic mirror, or, perhaps, by listening to sound recordings made of the fight by microphones that she had carefully hidden in the pine trees behind the basketball court. She would then have called my parents and told them that I was getting in fights at school. Think of the shame that would have brought on my family! Some kids are taught to be fighters. Other kids are taught simply to defend themselves. And then there are kids who have it pounded into them that fighting is always, always a sin. If nothing else, it's a parenting approach that makes for very obedient children.