Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock –- The Compleat Filmmaker

Alfred Hitchcock often spoke with near-reverence of montage – the assembly of pieces of film – to create emotion in the audience. Montage he often said, “is the whole art of the cinema.” He told Francois Truffaut, “I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that make the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.”

From this, one could easily conclude that Hitch was a formalist, a disciple of Russian film theory pioneers Eisenstein and Kuleshov – that is, that he was more concerned with the form of filmmaking than its content, such as plot, story or dialogue. But that really isn't the case. The record – actual transcripts of his story conferences – reveals that he cared deeply for the content of his films. Also, if he didn't care about content, he never would have given a second thought to the idea of the long take, an approach in which the camera records an entire scene uninterrupted, which was anathema to montagists. But the fact is, he loved using long takes.

One superb example can be found as far back as 1931, with the auction scene in his class conflict fable, The Skin Game. Putting cinema audiences in the privileged spot of auctioneer, they are treated to a view of that event's attendees as if looking out from the platform. Clocking in at two minutes and twenty seconds, that long P.O.V. sequence is covered one continuous take, as the camera scans, darts and whips about the faces in the room, seeking bids. The audience joins the auctioneer in his exasperation as the bidding gets off to a sluggish start, empathizing with his efforts to wheedle a higher price for the land at stake. Excitement mounts as casual bidders drop out of the game, leaving the film's two antagonists to duke it out amongst themselves, jacking the price beyond what either had hoped to pay, the camera anxiously zipping between them.

Who hasn't fantasized about the thrill of standing at an auctioneer's podium? Hitchcock used a long, subjective take to give the audience just such a taste.

The long take can serve several purposes. One of them is to make the audience feel as if it were in the room with the characters. We are like the invisible man, present-but-not-present, walking among the characters. (I'm reminded of Saboteur's Barry Kane, who, as if invisible, sneaks around the blind woodsman, all the time watching him nervously.) With that in mind, sharp readers may recall Hitch's description of the famed love scene in Notorious. “The public, represented by the camera, was the third party to this embrace,” he said. Spectators were “given the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together. It was a kind of temporary menage a trois.” In this case, the unbroken shot of Bergman and Grant fused in an unrelentingly intimate close-up, neck and peck at each other, not even stopping while Grant answers the telephone. This is indeed one of the most intensely erotic scenes of that conservative era of Hollywood censorship. It's as if you were cozying up to the couple yourself.


Longer takes also maintain whatever mood the director has established. Rebecca De Winter's backstory in Hitchcock's eponymous 1940 film is at first a mystery. Though she seems to haunt Manderley estate, we don't know exactly why – until the scene in the seaside cabin when all is revealed. The scene begins with Maxim's flashback (as performed by Lawrence Olivier), his face in profile and illuminated from behind by the window. (A similar longish shot appears in Spellbound, when Gregory Peck recalls his dream from the night before.) As he wraps up his soliloquy, the camera pulls back to allow room for Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine), who, for the first time, gives herself over un-self conscious compassion for Maxim's plight. The camera pulls in closer, giving us a close view of both her virtuoso moment and of Maxim's doubtful reaction (or non-reaction!). Then, strangely, the phone, long disused, rings. The camera pulls back again as the pair stare at it, as surprised as the audience is, then tilts down to a close-up of the cobwebbed device, as if responding to (or prompting) Maxim to answer it. This two-minutes-and-37-second spell would have been broken if Hitch had chopped it up with edits, such as standard action/reaction shots of the two characters.


One of the earliest questions I had about Hitchcock's style (and this is going back to my teen years in the 1980s) was: If Hitchcock was such a devotee of montage, why did he employ so many long takes? Wouldn't that have been a violation of his theoretical code? The short answer is that he had no interest in being bound by any one theory. What follows is a longer answer.

Alfred Hitchcock walks into a bar. The bartender asks, "Why the long take?"

In 1948, Hitch, the most vocal proponent of montage since Eisenstein, departed from his usual aesthetic approach and decided to try filming its diametric opposite, the eight-minute continuous take the longest then technically possible. It was an ambitious move, to be sure. In the magazine L'Ecran Francais, Jean-Charles Tacchela and Roger Thérond declared that, with Rope, Hitch had become "audaciously sure of his audacity." It was such a bold move that you might suppose that its novelty alone, buoyed by James Stewart's star presence, would have been sure to attract a large audience. (It didn't.)

Numerous theories have been proffered to explain why Rope was shot to appear as one take – about as many theories as there are Hitchcock scholars. (Of course, the film was actually constructed from a series of seven-to-nine minute takes, spliced to appear – mostly – as one take.) All right. It's my turn to have a go at it.

First, it's important to mention the context in which the film was made. While Hitchcock kept himself busy making formalist montage-oriented movies, a countervailing theory was emerging that stressed long takes and the inventive use of depth of field (the background in the frame). This idea was put forth most explicitly by French critic André Bazin, co-founder of the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and, arguably, the most important theorist in his day since Eisenstein. While montage directs the viewer to have one response to the film, Bazin believed that a person should have the freedom to choose what to dwell on within the frame. In fact, he opposed editing and montage in the strongest terms. "Editing was the destruction of the cinematic form,” he said. “the destruction of the essence of is the shot, the unedited gaze of the camera onto the world before its lens that constitutes cinemas aesthetic core." He lauded Orson Welles, whose use of background as counterpoint to foreground action is legendary. (My favorite use of this technique by Welles occurs in the long-take opening scene of The Trial (1962), in which K (Anthony Perkins) is rousted out of bed the state police.)

If montage uses bits of film to create an idea or emotion that exists purely in the audience's head, long takes are, in Bazin's view, pure, unambiguous representations of reality. The emphasis in this latter approach is almost entirely on the content of the scene, the camera dollying and swiveling about as it goes about framing a scene.

So along came Hitchcock, always on the alert to try out the latest technologies and tricks of the trade. Though Bazin might be rolling in his grave as I write this, Rope is, in a way, a consummate example of his own philosophy. As one 80-minute length of almost uninterrupted film, it is the granddaddy of all long takes; but remember this too: its ever-present, ever-changing New York skyline – which was a character in itself – along with an elaborately designed sky, delivers an infinitely deep field of vision! As the movie's soiree goes its not-so-merry way and the camera (always a surrogate for both the director and his audience) follows the characters about that swanky Manhattan penthouse, spun-glass clouds scud across the sky, the daylight recedes from bright afternoon to orange sunset to starry night time, and the city lights begin to twinkle as if in concert with the party. Hitchcock's cameo occurs in the form of a flashing red neon replica of his famous profile, punctuating the cityscape like an artist's signature.

Hitch first saw the Patrick Hamilton play at London's Ambassador Theater in 1929, and ever since then had wanted to adapt it for the screen. He'd discussed it with screen writer Peter Viertel during the production of Saboteur in 1942, suggesting, in the words of biographer Patrick McGilligan, “that it might lend itself to being shot in continuous, carefully planned, single-shot takes.” In later discussions with Hitch's business partner, Sidney Bernstein, McGilligan reveals that the producer desired to see West End plays filmed just as they had been staged, so as to preserve these classic dramas for posterity. With that, Hitch didn't need any prompting to trot out his ideas for Rope. And this is an important aspect of the film: the play takes place in real time on a single set: given his vision and Bernstein's convictions, how could he not direct the film adaptation as if in a single take?

And so he went into action. Having satisfied his stipulated desire for long takes, Hitch also set about devising perhaps the most extraordinary background field ever up until then – that scale model of New York City, complete with thousands of tiny lighted windows, which covered three times the floor space of the actual set. (That diorama was an obvious precursor to the Greenwich Village courtyard apartments in Rear Window – as well as, I might go so far to say, the topography of George Lucas' similarly-lit starships in Star Wars.) The film's aforementioned gradual transformation from afternoon sun to full nighttime served to reinforce the illusion that the story was unfolding in real time. But that was just a trick. Realistically speaking, there is no way that the murder, pre-dinner conversation, the dinner service itself and subsequent departure of the guests, culminating in the climactic reveal could have all happened in under an hour and a half. Its actual time is compressed. Aided by the changes in the background scenery and by the long take, which directors had long known seemed to stretch the perception of time, the story only appears to take place in real time. In fact, that elasticizing of perceived time is one of the film's flaws: though shorter in duration than most films, Rope drags, seeming to last far longer than it actually does.

Bazin should have been impressed with Hitchcock's application of his ideas in Rope, but he wasn't. He said:

Each time we are struck by his effectiveness, it is because [Hitchcock] managed, at the cost of a thousand resolved hardships, to create the impression of shot and reverse shot or a close-up where it would have been easy to use a single [edited] take like everyone else. This directing through continuous traveling shots -- which is simply an endless succession of reframings -- is completely different from Wyler's 'stationary shot' or from Welles, who managed to integrate into a single frame many moments of a virtual editing."

Bazin's problem was that, despite the long-take methods Hitchcock nevertheless continued to carefully control audience perception – a result opposite of the democratic looseness that Bazin called for. And Hitch himself admitted as much. Perhaps recalling Bazin's rebuke, he told Truffaut that “the film was, in a sense, precut. The mobility of the camera and the movement of the players closely followed my usual cutting practice.... I maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance.”

As the late Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood put it,

For Hitchcock, the experimentation of Rope is never in the least conceived as in opposition to his already highly developed montage technique, but as a possible alternative to and equivalent for it, another means of exerting total control over the gaze and the emotional response of the viewer."

While it's true that Hitch's long takes follow a different train of thought than that of Wyler or Welles, I can't agree with Bazin, who held that Hitch could more easily have achieved his effects through traditional editing. The long take in Rope gives the camera (again, thus the audience) a visceral, if invisible presence and underscores the claustrophobic, hothouse hermeticism of the two killers. The uninterrupted take is an essential component of the film's overall design.

Keep in mind, though (and Wood goes on to concur), that however constrained the audience might be in its response as a result of the uncut camerawork, it is never reduced to automatons. As in all his films, if he exerted unusual control over the audience, he also dignified its free will by making it privy to an extraordinary abundance of information withheld from the movie's characters. Indeed, that's the basis for his development of suspense – and also the objective of Bazin's brand of realism. The audience responds to Rope by engaging with the film, trying to guess the characters' next move, at times even reacting as if in a debate with what Hitch is saying through his surrogates, the characters.

And so Hitch's camera, in one long take, moves among Brandon, Phillip and their dinner guests, swooping in to examine a broken glass or a stack of books, while discreetly, like a good guest, staying out of the kitchen. If in the stage play audiences watched as dinner was served and consumed, in the film they can almost smell the chicken and taste the toasty fizz of champagne.

I'm not so sure Wood got it quite right in his above comment, either, though. I believe that Hitch wasn't so much looking for an alternative technique as he was searching for a synthesis of Eisenstein's formalist methods and Bazin's mise en scene. Between those two critics, almost all that could be said about film theory up to that point had been said. It would seem that Hitch was searching for a way to add his two cents to the theoretical conversation with the development of a new film grammar that combined the best that both previous methods had to offer. Getting back to Bazin, I also disagree with him somewhat that Rope is overly manipulative with its images. That may true at certain points, but as the clip below shows, there are other times when Hitch magnanimously gave audiences plenty to choose from in the mise-en-scene.


In this scene, Mrs. Wilson (Edith Evanson) clears the dishes from atop David Kentley's makeshift casket. We know his corpse is in there, and the suspense is terrific in this cinematic fugue, which combines offscreen dialogue, dramatic use of depth of field and, of course, Swiss flywheel timing to heighten the audience's awareness of all that is going on and to keep it guessing about what will happen next. My experience of this scene is that at times I feel I must choose between listening to the dialogue and worrying about whether the chest's lid is going to be opened all the way. (Although the resolution in this clip isn't the best, later on in the sequence you can s
ee Hitch's flashing red profile in the skyline.)

There are many reasons to praise Hitchcock's filmmaking ability: his technical virtuosity; his adeptness in any setting from the writing phase and into the cutting room; his survival skills in an industry that believes backs were made for stabbing. As I've hopefully demonstrated here, Hitch excelled at integrating all that film had to offer as a communications medium, seeking to resolve apparent contradictions in opposing methods and approaches. All of which is to say, Alfred Hitchcock was a compleat filmmaker.

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