Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hitchcock Goofs Around with Michelangelo

I can't think of too many directors who would think of drawing cartoon glasses over a head shot of the most beautiful actress in the world -- Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound.

If you want to really understand Alfred Hitchcock as an artist, you need to know these four words: Imp of the Perverse. This is the guy who carefully cultivated an image as a stolid British intellectual, only to appear on his TV show in drag, dressed as Ringo Starr and in dozens of other outrageous outfits. Hitch was also the auteur who spent months, even years, laboring over the tiniest details of his movies, only to remind overwrought cast members that it was only a movie.

The man took life and art seriously, while never forgetting that it is all one big joke. The more sacred the subject, the more likely he was to send it up. And what work of art is more sacred than Michelangelo's Pietà?

Others have noted that Hitch used Michelangelo's Pietà as an inspiration for some of his scenes. However, a few writers have confused some of these shots with other works of art. So let's clear things up.

The fact is, Hitch returned to two of Western art's most oft-repeated ideas: the Pietà, which depicts the Virgin Mary cradling her dead son in her lap and the Deposition, which depicts Christ being removed from the Cross. As he told François Truffaut, he identified with Georges Rouault in that he repeatedly returned to the same set of themes and motifs. "Not that I'm comparing myself to him, but old Rouault was content with judges, clowns, a few women, and Christ on the Cross." (Italics mine.)

Turns out, Hitch imitated and at times even mocked these two cherished tropes.

I could have chosen from numerous famous works to illustrate the point, but Michelangelo will do nicely, don't you think?

Michelangelo, La Pietà (1499). Arguably the most revered work of art ever. I imagine Hitch looking at it and chortling, "Mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha." (Note to self: find out if Hitch ever chortled.)

Michelangelo, The Deposition, c. 1550

Let's take a look at Hitch's Pietà and Deposition shots in order.

In The Lodger (1926), a man wrongly accused of being a Jack the Ripper-style murderer and played by Ivor Novello has been hounded by crowds until, in his escape, he hangs himself from a bridge (that scene, with its clamoring, wrong-headed throng, resembles Jesus Christ impaled). In this shot, he's been lowered to safety and lies in arms of Daisy (played by "June").

A drunken couple from the first party scene in Notorious.

Rope's murder victim David Kentley (Dick Hogan) is cradled in what could be called a gay Deposition. Later, dinner will be served on his "coffin", complete with sepulcheral candles and gallows humor -- a reference to cannibalism, or a very bizarre (Black) Mass?

After his fall from the balcony in Rear Window, Grace Kelly takes James Stewart Pietà-like in her arms, signaling their rapprochement.

Here's a Deposition shot, from The Birds (1964):

In shock from her recent bird attack, Melanie (Tippi Hedren) has her wounds hastily dressed and is ushered out the door in the final scene of The Birds (1964). In this scene she carries all the pathos (and blood) of a sacrificial lamb.

Topaz is Hitch's homage to the French, whose critics in recent years had begun championing him as the great auteur. That predominantly Catholic audience would have quickly grasped any religious symbolism, had he used it. And, it turns out, he had. There is, first, what has always struck me as a Deposition shot:

Caught literally in the cross-fire of the Cold War, French reporter Claude Jade (Michel Subor) suffers a relatively minor bullet wound that stains his otherwise crisp, white shirt. He's gotten his newspaper story -- along with the most excitement he will likely find in his privileged first-world status. The irony here is that Jade may be a good man, but he is no Christ.

That shot seems to set up the gruesome Pietà grand guignol here, which appears later in the film.

The most well-known of Hitch's Pietà shots, this scene from Topaz is also the most literal. This Cuban couple has just spent the night in a torture chamber, confessing the details of their crimes against the new state and paying the price for their fellow counter-revolutionaries' "sins." They are, as Shakepseare would say, poor sacrifices of the superpowers' enmity.

I think both scenes above reflect a conscious creative decision by Hitch. This film is concerned with the deadly Cold War gamesmanship that world powers safely engaged in at the expense of the lives of those in their third-world proxy battlefields.

Of course, just because a man falls into woman's welcoming lap, it doesn't automatically mean he's re-enacting a scene from religious art history. There must be a stronger, perhaps thematic, connection. A smoking gun could help too. With Topaz we have just that: the script itself calls this a "Pietà shot." There are dozens of other shots in Hitchcock's oeuvre that could be called Pietàs. (Spellbound, for one, is full of them.) But that's enough for now.

What are we to make of all this? Hitch often imbued his murder scenes with religious fervor. Dial M for Murder begins with Grace Kelly stretched out on a writing desk, which in the fading firelight turns into a sacrificial altar. For a showman whose stock-in-trade was violence and psychopathy, a closer look at his films reveals a deep sense of the meaning and human cost of death and murder, as well as what the consequences are now and, perhaps, in the hereafter.

Taking his films as a whole, if there is an "open-ended pessimism" as Donald Spoto has described it, there is also an open-ended spirituality that could be a manifestation of God, karma, a cosmic will -- or, at the very least, Hitchcock's own potential for hubris. It's a given that, in a Hitchcock film, there's something hidden in the attic or fruit cellar. But, in truth, there's always something out there -- everywhere. Hitch wisely refrains from telling us what, exactly, it is. Yet, such religious symbolism is a reminder that it's probably unwise to become complacent about seeking answers to life's big questions.

I invite you to leave a comment here if you find another similar shot in a Hitchcock movie! If you have time, be sure to explain why you think it qualifies as a Pietà or Deposition.

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7 comments:

Books and an espresso cup... said...

Hi! Joel,
I read (skimmed) this post yesterday, but I wanted to return later in order to read your post indepth.

Joel said,"The man took life and art seriously, while never forgetting that it is all one big joke. The more sacred the subject, the more likely he was to send it up. And what work of art is more sacred than Michelangelo's Pietà?..."

Hitchcock, was a walking contradiction?!?
Wow...What a very detailed post comparing Hitchcock's work and religious work(s) of art.

...I invite you to leave a comment here if you find another similar shot in a Hitchcock movie!
If you have time, be sure to explain why you think it qualifies as a Pietà or Deposition.


Joel, you have thrown down the "gauntlet"
I will try to pick it up!

Thanks, for sharing!
DeeDee ;-D

Joel Gunz said...

Hi Dee Dee,

I'd be very interested to hear see what you might come up with. Good luck!

Coffee Messiah said...

Not sure I could even attempt to come close, but truly enjoyed your visions ; )

Cheers!

Joel Gunz said...

LOL - The thing with Hitch's movies is you always have to keep your eyes open! ;) Have a great day.

Jennythenipper said...

I love this. It's great to see something new said about Hitchcock. It's always a struggle for me, though I love his films. Here are a few of my posts on the man.

http://cinemaocd.blogspot.com/search/label/Alfred%20Hitchcock

Anonymous said...

Hi, in Hitchcock's "Topaz" french actress Claude Jade stars as Michèle Picard, the agent's anxious daughter. Michel Subor stars as Michèle's husband Francois Picard.

Joel Gunz said...

Hi there - Thanks for the correction!