Alfred Hitchcock and the Art of the Long Shot

Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock in their famed interview, with interpreter Helen Scott. Photo by Philippe Halsman.

Alfred Hitchcock spoke reverently of the emotional power of montage. “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.” This, he often said, “is the whole art of the cinema.” 

In that sense, Hitch was a formalist, a disciple of Russian film theory pioneers Eisenstein and Kuleshov, preoccupied with the form of filmmaking over its content, such as plot, story or dialogue. As he said elsewhere, "Content is quite secondary to me.”

Story conference transcripts reveal that he cared deeply for the content of his films. What he pursued was purely cinematic means to bring that content to life. That passion shines through in the way he employed the long take.

One superb example can be found at least as far back as 1931, in The Skin Game. Putting cinema audiences in the privileged point of view of an auctioneer. Clocking in at two minutes and twenty seconds, it's covered in one continuous take, as the camera scans, darts and whips about the faces in the room, seeking bids. The audience feels the auctioneer's exasperation as the bidding gets off to a sluggish start, while he strains to wheedle a higher price for the land that's on the block. 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. Shots from The Skin Game.

Getting all up in that.

A long take can make the audience feel as if it's in the room with the characters, invisible, present-but-not-present, wandering among the characters. (I'm reminded of Saboteur's 's Barry Kane, who sneaks around the blind woodsman, all the time watching him nervously.) It recalls Hitch's description of the famed love scene in Notorious: “The public, represented by the camera, was the third party to this embrace” as spectators were “given the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together. It was a kind of temporary ménage à trois.” The pair fuse in an intimate close-up, necking and pecking at each other—two minutes and forty-one seconds of uncut love.

Keep the feeling alive. 

Longer takes also maintain the mood of the scene. In Hitchcock's 1940 film, Rebecca De Winter is a mystery. She seems to haunt Manderley estate—but why? The answer is revealed in the seaside cabin. 

The scene opens on the tortured face of Maxim (Lawrence Olivier), alone, illuminated from behind, his face in profile as he reveals his dark secret. As he finishes his monologue, the camera pulls back to allow his bride (Joan Fontaine) to rush in in a fever of compassion. The camera then pulls in closer, foregrounding her hitherto unseen  strength and resourcefulness, as Maxim's customary self-possession dissolves. Then, strangely, a telephone rings. As if prompted by this alien noise, the camera pulls back and tilts down to gaze at it, sharing in the  surprise of the audience and the couple onscreen. That jangling bell could have broken the spell, but this two-minutes-and-thirty-seven-second take preserves the mood of mystery and suspense. 

Back in the 1980s, when I was in my teens, one of the  questions I had about Hitchcock's style was: If he 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?

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 style to create a entire film as if shot in one take. (The film was actually constructed from a series of seven-to-nine minute continuously filmes scenes and spliced to appear mostly as one take.) That, of course, was Rope. It was an ambitious move, to be sure. In the magazine L'Ecran Francais, Jean-Charles Tacchela and Roger Thérond pronounced Hitch “audaciously sure of his audacity.” 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.) Why the long take? 

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 in the 1950s by French critic André Bazin, co-founder of the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. 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 cinema's 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 about 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 one single motion?

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—maybe even the topography of George Lucas' similarly-lit space cruisers 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 its events 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 longer than it actually does.

Hitchcock's long take is a unique form, neither montage nor long shot.

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.

In other words, Hitchcock's long take is a unique tool, neither montage nor Bazinian long take.

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 single motion, weaves a path 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. At the theater, audiences watched (hungrily?) as dinner was served and consumed; at the cinema, they can almost smell the chicken and taste the toasty fizz of champagne.

However, in response to Wood's comments above, 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 see 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. Hitch excelled at integrating all that film had to offer as a communications medium, seeking to resolve apparent contradictions in opposing methods and approaches. It's a big task. I'd say he was Master of the Long Shot.