Following Hitchcock Down the Pure Film Rabbit Hole - Part 1

Like many film geeks, I fell down the Hitchcock rabbit hole at the impressionable age of 12 or so. I was initially attracted to his reputation as the master of the macabre, a genre custom-tailored to pubescent boys. But if those thrills were all I had been looking for, I would have been disappointed and to be honest, I was—at first. What grabbed me then and still hasn't let me go, was his mastery as a film maker. In interviews and articles, he often spoke of his work in “pure film,” a phrase he occasionally alternated with the more majestic phrase “pure cinema.” 30 years after first hearing those words, I'm still exploring what he meant by that. My next two posts will explore some of the filmmaking techniques Hitch employed in his pursuit of the grail of “pure cinema.”

At first glance, Hitch seemed to have been talking only about the unique visual power of film, as when he told Peter Bogdanovich in 1962: “'Pure cinema' is complementary pieces of film put together, like notes of music make a melody.” He even once claimed that Rear Window was the finest example of "pure film," because the camera adhered to a rigorous scheme that insisted on telling the story from the viewpoint of a single individual—photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart)—thus placing the audience inside his head and keeping it there throughout the entire film.i From this, it might be easy to conclude that, for Hitch, the idea of “pure film” has to do only with what happens in the cutting room. But I would say that he had much more in mind and that his use of Rear Window as an example might have made for a good sound bite, but it sidestepped his deeper intentions.

As I see it, for Hitchcock, “pure cinema” was the art of using cinematic techniques—both visual and aural—to create an experience for audiences that would take them out of their daily lives to inhabit a dreamscape constructed by the director. Of course, even the most basic entertainment does that: I don't know about you, but three minutes into the most banal soap opera and I'm hooked. The quantum difference is that Hitchcock's films take cinema's innate quality and create a heightened reality that's the result of deliberate, masterful and intentional control over all aspects of their creation.

In Hitch's comments to Bogdanovich above, he drew a comparison between individual pieces of film that make up a scene and individual music notes that make up a melody. This wasn't the only time he used a musical analogy to describe film making as an art form. For instance, he often compared bright colors and extreme close-ups to the loud notes in a symphonic passage. He compared himself to an orchestra conductor. I'm going to come back to that, but first notice how, a year later, he expanded on his idea of "pure film" in his interview with Francois Truffaut. This time he tipped his hand regarding his grander ambitions to use film to engage his audience in profound ways:
“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.... [In the case of Psycho,] it wasn't a message that stirred audiences, nor was it a great performance or the enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.”
Hitch's aim was to bring his audience into the world of his movies, to feel emotions alongside his characters; better yet, to feel what Hitch himself felt. Using the camera as an audience surrogate, you could say that he wanted the audience to actually be a character in the film—not just as a silent observer, but as an active participant, asking questions that the film would go on to either answer or deflect. Last night I was watching Lifeboat with Amanda. At one point she turned to me and said, “Am I supposed to like Willi” the Nazi U-Boat captain? My answer was, “Yes. And you're supposed to feel guilty about it.” She did.

With Psycho, the film's drama and terror derived as much from Bernard Herrmann's musical score as it did from Hitch's vaunted montage techniques. While Hitch himself privately acknowledged that Herrmann's score contributed to 30 percent of the film's emotional impact, the composer himself claimed it accounted for 70 percent. (I say we find the mean between their two egos and call it 50-50.) Whatever the case, music was a large part of that movie's “pure film” impact. As Hitch indicated in his Truffaut interview, pure film is the sum of all its parts, including editing, camera movement, background noise and, of course, music—both diegetic and non.ii

Dialogue held a special place in Hitch's "pure film" aesthetic, because, for him, it wasn't so much the words that mattered, but the sound they make: recall that Rope's Brandon accused Rupert of choosing “choose words more for their sound than their meaning.” Also recall that Hitch told Truffaut, “Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”

Thus, pure cinema is a combination of all the individual elements that go into a movie, working together to serve this single purpose: to draw the audience mentally, psychologically and emotionally into the world of the film.

Like Hitchcock, Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) had a lot on his mind.

The way I see it, film in the 20th century was the summit of achievement toward which all art had been aspiring for the previous three centuries. By the end of the 16th century, composers were writing works that marshaled the talents of a variety of performance artists. By calling it opera—plural of the Latin opus—meaning “works” or “labors”— they thus declared their intention to offer audiences a combination of many art forms, including solo and choral singing, acting and dance. Later, elaborate sets and costumes were added to the spectacle, offering up a total art experience. By the middle of the 19th century, Richard Wagner had taken this holistic notion of opera to a new level, referring to his operas as Gesamtkunstwerks, or, “total works of art.” His aim was not merely to combine music, lyrics, vocals, theater and dance into one performance, but to actually unify them into a single, synthesized whole. In 1849, he wrote about his objective to create a “consummate artwork of the future” that would result in “the integrated drama” that would liberate popular stories from their nationalist moorings to become a universal humanist fable.iii

By then, opera had become quite an elaborate production, supported by ticket sales priced for the wealthy. Viewed in that light, it seems almost like a destiny of zeitgeist that film came along right on time, to offer up an operatic experience, available at a price the masses could afford.iv

As a pure cinema practitioner, Hitchcock was the leader of that charge.

I think it's entirely possible, if not probable, that Hitch, who was keenly aware of his genius as a film maker, saw himself as a modern-day Wagner. Though he never publicly articulated it as such—he was shrewd enough to avoid such grandiosity—his practice of pure cinema is analogous to Wagner's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk.

In an online discussion, Hitchcock author Dan Auiler observed that Bernard Herrmann's work makes the films he worked on “operatic.”(He cited the composer's work on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and Hitchcock's Vertigo specifically, though many more titles could be added.)v Dan feels that Herrmann's film music can be said to be “operatic in the sense of the music speaking for the character. But even that falls short of what Herrmann does, as the music speaks for the character and the director in ways that respond to the image we are seeing.” (Italics added.) As Hitch told Truffaut above, he practiced "pure cinema" in the service of eliciting a profound audience reaction. In Herrmann, he found a talent as great as his own for bringing that about.

Bernard Herrmann's star turn in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

While Vertigo might be the most profound collaboration between composer and director of any film ever undertaken, the Hitchcock/Herrmann alliance in The Man Who Knew Too Much is the most transparent example of the heights they could achieve working in concert (pun fully, shamelessly, intended). By showing him conducting the London Symphony Orchestra during the Royal Albert Hall sequence, Hitchcock awarded a cameo appearance to Herrmann—the only time he shared the screen with a member of his non-actor team. And what an exquisite example of "pure film" that scene is! Arthur Benjamin's Storm Cloud Cantata provides the perfect underscore for dramatic tension as Jo McKenna (Doris Day) agonizes over her choice between saving her son from his kidnappers and averting an assassination. It's 10 minutes of wordless suspense, in which the audience shares subjectively in Jo's predicament. A tour de force of editing that serves the music, the story and a maternally ferocious performance by Day, it's a textbook example of "pure film" in which the audience is literally put through the same feelings as the characters on

Hitchcock pursued the art of "pure film" as a Platonic ideal. The notion took hold during his silent years and it was a grail that he pursued all of his life. I believe that every single choice he made was in service to that ideal, for, in his mind, only pure film could arouse audiences sufficiently to 'wake them as from a nightmare.' Sometimes music served that purpose, but at other times, it could be an obstacle. Initially, Hitch envisioned Psycho's murder in the shower without music, but he was persuaded to change his mind when he heard Herrmann's iconic musical accompaniment. The entire length of The Birds contains not a single note of non-diegetic music—though Herrmann was brought in to help orchestrate the squawks and screeches of that film's star chorus. Still, As William Rothman wrote in his essay "The Universal Hitchcock," "pure cinema"
"was not the art to which Herrmann was dedicated. Herrmann swore allegiance to the art he called "melodram,"... which restored to music what he felt was its rightful primacy. In the case of [the shower scene in] Psycho, Hitchcock allowed Herrmann to prevail, but the incident must have opened his eyes to the fact that he and his friend, whose genius was as undeniable as his own, did not ultimately share the same artistic vision."
Music was a useful tool in Hitch's pursuit of "pure film," but it was only a tool. Some of his most sublime and impactful scenes contain no music whatsoever. In fact, he even dispensed with editing at times, delivering his "pure film" experience in a single, seemingly endless, take. Check back and I'll tell you how.

Thanks for reading this whole damn post. Want more?  Read Part 2!

i That point is slightly overstated, as there are moments when the camera continues to roll while Jefferies sleeps.
ii Diegetic music is what you hear from a source within the story, as when Vertigo's Midge plays Mozart records for Scottie. Non-diegetic music is the musical score that is overlayed on top of the movie, such as the orchestral music that accompanies Scottie's wandering around San Francisco.
iii Similarly, Hitchcock reveled in his films' ability to reach across all cultures, bragging that Psycho shocked audiences in Japan in the same way they did America.
iv In another fascinating burp of destiny, just as realistic painting reached its zenith in the 19th century, photography came along to put those realist painters out of work, especially in the portrait business.
v Herrmann's contributions to Hitchcock's films include The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964) and Torn Curtain (regrettably unused, 1966).
vi Herrmann was given the choice of composing new music for the sequence—Hitch used the same material in his 1934 version of the film—but declined when he saw that Benjamin's music was still an ideal fit 22 years after the first film had come out.


Caftan Woman said…
I enjoyed reading your article which gave me some new angles in my approach to the genius that was/is Hitch.
Dan Auiler said…
Outstanding, Joel. Some of the best work you've done.
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
Brilliant article.