The Epistemological Tightrope
Alfred Hitchcock's importance remains, and it rests on what we can only call a cinematic intelligence, quite distinct from a literary or an artistic intelligence. There are some filmmakers who bring to their films a literary mindset (like Eric Rohmer) and others who bring to their work an astonishing pictorial acuity (like Tarkovsky), but Hitchcock brings to his films a cinematic mindset that in another art form would have seemed obvious, conformist and populist. Indeed many initially saw Hitchcock as little more than an entertainer, something Hitchcock was inclined to encourage rather than counter. As David Shipman says in The Story of Cinema, suggesting he agrees with Hitchcock rather than his fans, "he did not take himself as seriously as his admirers do. He could be very entertaining...but given that he had more freedom of choice than most Hollywood directors it is sad that all the expertise was not expended on something more worthwhile." But as Hitchcock would say as if in response: "I have never made a subtle, psychological drama on Blue Angel lines, not because I dislike this type of film, but for the very simple reason that my mind does not work in this way." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock)
Hitchcock made this remark in 1938, and some would say that Vertigo made twenty years later is as subtle a study of psychology as The Blue Angel. However, no doubt some would look at Hitchcock's freedom and compare it to Orson Welles' constant constraint working within the same system, but we might claim without insisting that Hitchcock is a better filmmaker than Welles that he understood much better the nature of the medium than his renaissance-minded contemporary. And we feel it is the understanding of this nature that has allowed Hitchcock to remain a director of immense significance and influence. Something of this importance can be explained when we recall what Hitchcock said in an essay 'Why Thrillers Thrive'. Here he talks about good and bad shock, cinematic and non-cinematic surprise. In the first instance, he discusses the film Hell's Angels where a pilot crashes his plane into the envelope of the Zeppelin: a wound inflicted on the enemy that will lead to the brave pilot's death. Hitchcock describes it thus: "We see his face - grim, tense, even horror-stricken - as he swoops down. Then we are transferred to the pilot's seat, and it is we who are hurtling to death at ninety miles an hour; and at the moment of impact - and blackout - a palpable shuddering runs through the audience." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) He then contrasts this with an incident from an exhibition sideshow. He talks about how people were invited in to sit facing a curtain between two columns. Instead of the curtains being drawn the customers heard a loud cracking sound as one of the pillars began to fall in their direction. A moment before reaching them the fall was arrested and it remained suspended in mid-air. "That provided a thrill, certainly, but not the kind to please the public. There were so many complaints that the sideshow was closed down - because the public's basic feeling of security was undermined." Hitchcock goes on to talk about both the audience's basic sense of safety within fear in the cinema, that was absent from the crude shock of the theatre, and the manifest ways in which fear can be generated both when and when there isn't any diegetic danger.
Hitchcock was not by anybody's reckoning a realist, but cinema itself possessed an ontological dimension of realism that Hitchcock could utilise all the better for his own artifice. On the stage a gun remains a prop partly because everything on the stage is a prop. But a gun in a film possesses a reality no matter if it is the same gun: the surrounding space possesses a verisimilitude that makes everything much closer to an object. Even if a film is set on a soundstage, even if it is classic Hollywood versus the much more realist-inflected New Hollywood, the nature of cinema in the world and of the world means it imitates reality without replicating it. Hitchcock's anecdote about the column manages to generate real fear and reveal shoddy artifice. One might complain not only that we have been 'really' scared, but also that the object of that fear, once it has revealed itself, is of such hopeless artificiality. Cinema can balance these two opposing aspects. Hitchcock says that when you see someone endangered by crocodiles the filmmaker can point up the fear involved even if the hero is in actual danger. You can emphasize the terrible height between the castle ramparts that the hero stands on and the moat below with the crocodiles sliding around in it. "You see him fall, you see him hit the water, you watch him swimming desperately from the crocodiles - and you must believe the evidence of your own eyes. Your hero must be in grave peril...for the camera, as we know, cannot lie!" (Hitchcock on Hitchcock)
This is what Hitchcock understood: that cinema could suspend disbelief better than the other arts and yet he didn't want this suspension so that we would see the world in the neo-realist sense of observing life in its minutiae, but instead to demand of film the necessary level of plausibility to illustrate how Hitchcock's mind worked. Now various writers have been intrigued by this question of not so much how Hitchcock's mind worked, but what allows us to see a certain type of thinking at play in Hitchcock's cinema, with Gilles Deleuze opening up the problem in Cinema 1 The Movement Image, and rather more anecodotally James Mason in his autobiography Before I Forget. Others, like David Thomson, have seen the way Hitchcock's mind works as evidence of timidity towards the real, saying: "I think he also flourished because the American climate was so indifferent to daily realities." (Movie Man)
may however say that Hitchcock's resistance to realities while accepting that cinema is a medium of reality, led to what we now call the Hitchcockian. The notion of reality is only as good as the services to which it can be applied. Though Cary Grant's Roger O Thornhill in North by Northwest says at one moment "I don't deduce. I observe", we can say that Hitchcock is interested much more in deduction than observation. He is not Rossellini just as readily as he isn't von Sternberg. Deleuze says "Hitchcock introduces the mental image into the cinema. That is, he makes relation itself the object of an image, which is not merely added to the perception, action and affection images, but framed and transforms them. With Hitchcock, new kinds of 'figures' appear which are figures of thoughts." James Mason who had a major role in North by Northwest might concur with Deleuze on this point when he says "it is typical of the Hitchcock classic that the form is everything, the content non-existent." They would both be in agreement that the film is not about 'meaning' but about the relations between things that create it. Deleuze says "what matters is not who did the action - what Hitchcock calls with contempt the whodunit - but neither is it the action itself: it is the act of relations in which the action and the one who did it are caught." He is interested in how a Hitchcockian mind works: deduction rather than observation. While discussing working with Hitchcock Mason mentions Montgomery Clift in I Confess and how different an actor he was from those Hitchcock would usually deploy. Clift was Method actor who needed to work from justifiable and complex feeling; Hitchcock wanted often no more from him than a technical effectiveness that would allow the shots to be properly linked. Mason says that Hitchcock wanted to make "clear to the audience that the room where the action was taking place was the same square as did the city hall but at right angles to it...in the course of the action Clift was to lean out of the window and look down supposedly into the square...Clift was being asked to assist Hitch on a purely technical level. But it was no good. Certain actors are liable to dig in their heels and respond only to the dictates of the Method." (Before I Forget) Hitchcock was concerned with external relation; Clift with interior feeling.
This doesn't mean that Hitchcock has no interest in affect, in strong emotional responses, as we find for example in Bernard Hermann's lush music in Vertigo and in moments in North by Northwest, but that these come from the relational dimension of a mind at work. Part of the fascination the men have for the women in Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest comes from either trying to work them out or seeing them in a new relational context. In Rear Window Jefferies (James Stewart) realizes how important his girlfriend is to him when she is endangered across the way as she ventures into the killer's apartment while Jefferies, who has worked things out, remains with his leg on plaster across the way. In Vertigo, Scottie (Stewart) tries to work out why Madeline visits certain places as he follows her around San Francisco. His desire builds as the mystery develops. In North by Northwest Roger wonders why this woman seems so keen to help after he is wanted for murder: why is she so trusting? These are all men whose minds are at work as readily as their hearts are torn. It isn't that they have no feelings; the feelings they have are very inextricably connected to the thoughts that they generate.
This is partly why John Orr can talk of the "mental relations of non identity". "the train scenes [in North by Northwest] actually define Kendall/Saint for us more clearly when we know not who she is, than do the final scenes where she reveals herself working for CIA boss Leo G. Carroll. Viscerally she is who she is not, just as circumstantially Thornhill-as-Kaplan, is also who he is not." (Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema) Orr sees an erotic frisson between two people who aren't quite what they seem, but is this not what is vital to all romance? This is usually not because people are lying but that people when becoming romantically involved project their fantasies on to the other person as they idealize them. What is interesting in North by Northwest as Kendall and Thornhill sit in the dining car is chiefly Thornhill's narcissism: that here he believes this beautiful woman twenty years his junior happens to want instantly to protect him and to sleep with him. The less he knows about the woman opposite, the more he can project his own delusions on to the situation. Of course we shouldn't exaggerate this delusional nature. Thornhill is an older man who has retained a spring in his step, a full head of hair and a gift for flirtatious conversation that needn't sound sleazy or corny. What Thornhill does though is utilize the signs that suit his needs and this seems a central aspect to Hitchcock's work: that the McGuffin he would frequently talk about needn't only be the object that sets the plot in motion, but also the feelings that are symptomatic of a character's personality. What we do we mean by this? The McGuffin, of course, is the object that gets t film going but the content of it is of little or no importance except as a device: thus the microfilm that the baddies are trying to sneak out of the US in North by Northwest. We don't know what is on it and it isn't very important for us; just for the characters smuggling it out or those trying to prevent the villains from doing so. But what do we mean by an emotional McGuffin? This would be the degree to which a character projects upon a situation and extracts feelings from it that aren't about really understanding another person, but misunderstanding them. Hitchcock is the opposite of Ingmar Bergman who strips characters bare to reveal an essence, or to show a hollowing out: what interests him is the capacity for character to invest meaning into the potentially meaningless.
Here he coincides with Proust, suggesting that we needn't only see the French master at work in his most Proustian film Vertigo, with the nod evident in the central female character called Madeleine. It is there in Rear Window, North by Northwest, Marnie,Notorious and others too. As Deleuze says in Proust and Signs, "there exists an intoxication, afforded by rudimentary natures and substances because they are rich in signs. With the beloved mediocre woman, we return to the origins of humanity, that, to the moments when signs prevailed over explicit content, and hieroglaphs over letters: this woman "communicates" nothing to us, but increasingly produces signs which must be deciphered." This is a fair assessment of much of Hitchcock's work while it attends to Proust's. The difference is that Hitchcock pushes his signs into plot, while Proust moves towards ever subtler crystallisations of thought and feeling. In North by NorthwestHitchcock does not inquire too far into Thornhill's narcissism, just as he only wants enough psychology in Marnie to utilize the titular character's kleptomania as a useful plot device. Yet we say this not at all to dismiss Hitchcock as a light entertainer, but to insist on how vital he is to cinema. It returns us to Hitchcock's own remarks about the cinematic. Just as he could see that the cheap shock device of a falling pillar failed because it made the audience believe that their lives were really endangered, so at the other extreme he could see the limit of making films devoid of tension altogether. "But suppose we could make really artistic films for the artistically minded minority. Could we not then make as beautiful a film about rain as Debussy did a tone poem in his "jardins sous le pluie". (Hitchcock on Hitchcock)
Hitchcock isn't at all dismissive of the possibility, and we might wonder what he would have made of video art and film as installation with one of its masterpieces Douglas Gordon's elongation of the director own work: 24 Hour Psycho. But the point of Gordon's piece is to remove it from the cinematic dispositif, from cinema's combinatory apparatus that Hitchcock knew so well. When speaking to Francois Truffaut he says that "many directors are conscious of the over-all atmosphere on the set, whereas they should be concerned only with what's going to come up on the screen." (Hitchcock) Atmosphere for Hitchcock is not an organic ambience but an inorganic organization: hence his love for storyboards. There is nothing intrinsic to a Hitchcock film as there is to Herzog's cinema or to Rivette's and this why Deleuze and by extension Orr are correct in emphasizing the importance of relations in Hitchcock's work. As Deleuze says "I attempt to grasp the importance of Hitchcock, one of England's greatest filmmakers simply because he seems to have invented an extraordinary type of image: the image of mental relations. Relation, as exterior to their terms, have always occupied the English philosophers..." (Two Regimes of Madness) Orr notes, "as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out, in Hume relations are always exterior to their terms: human communication thus takes place through external relations and through the mediation of objects." (Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema) The importance of the mediation of objects may be consistent with the British philosophical tradition as both Deleuze and Orr observe, but it is cinema that allows for the full exploration of this as a problem. Thus when Sigfried Kracauer discusses cinema's ability to show things we haven't easily seen before, he mentions objects very small and very large. "The small is conveyed in the form of close-ups. D. W. Griffith was among the first to realize that they are indispensable for cinematic narration." (Theory of Film) The close up can give objects a magnified importance that needn't have very much to do with realism, but can emphasize the drama of relations. This is why Deleuze talks about certain demarks in Hitchcock's films: the glass of milk in Suspicion, the key in Dial M for Murder, the wedding ring of Rear Window. Deleuze doesn't see the demark evident only in the close-up, but what partly makes Hitchcock's films cinematic is the drama he can give to the object in closeup that would be difficult to achieve in theatre or the novel. Whether it is moving in on the cash on the bed in Psycho, or the key placed down the grate in Marnie, Hitchcock generates menace and suspense with his close-ups: they help him tell his stories in what he would see as cinematic terms but that we can also see are based on relational possibilities. The camera can scrutinise the relations as theatre cannot and that the novel might reduce to narration or exposition. Hitchcock offers it as illustration not narration, most evidently in Rear Window. After Truffaut asks him about the early scene in the apartment, Hitchcock says "that's simply using cinematic means to relate a story. It's a great deal more interesting than if we had someone asking Stewart "How did you happen to break your leg? And Stewart answering."
If we compare Hitchcock at all to Proust we can only do so with the proviso that Proust is a great writer and Hitchcock a great filmmaker: if Hitchcock were a writer he would be no Proust and not least because of Orr's point about the mediation of objects. In Proust objects are not mediated, they are transfigured: they pass through the prism of the subtlest of minds. As the French novelist says in The Captive, "the infinitude of love, or its egoism, brings it about that the people whom we love are those whose intellectual and moral physiognomy is least objectively defined in our eyes; we alter them incessantly to suit our desires and fears, we do not separate them from ourselves, they are simply a vast, vague arena in which to exteriorise our emotions." The object of his love Albertine is not the subject of a plot as Madeline is in Vertigo; she is instead a constant creator of signs that affect feelings, that create them, which in turn creates thought, which in turn create feelings and so on. This is interiority, not exteriority: we do not at all have a Humean problematic but a set of new perceptual possibilities. As Deleuze says, "beyond the sign and the meaning, there is Essence, like the sufficient reason for the other two terms and for their relation." (Proust and Signs) In Hitchcock's work, we do not have essences but relations, and we might say this is Hitchcock's debt to English philosophy but also insist it is vital to how he sees what cinema can do. If literature is an art form of essences that Proust pushed to extremes as if aware that cinema could easily outstrip the novel's capacity for surfaces, Hitchcock wondered what could be done with these surfaces. What sort of thinking would best reflect what cinema was able to capture, and found it in the relationship between things.
We find a typically Hitchcockian thought in Notorious when Ingrid Bergman knows there is something amiss while dining with Claude Rains and his Nazi cohorts in his home in Latin America. One of them notices that the bottle of wine on the sideboard shouldn't be there and we watch as Rains and his friend discuss the problem while Bergman looks on. As the film shows Bergman looking to her left so the film then cuts to Rains and his colleague talking in conspiratorial whispers as the film gives us a close up of the bottle of wine before returning to Bergman clearly aware that there is something to do with the wine bottle that is an issue: we later find out it contains Uranium ore. Nothing is stated but everything is clear as Hitchcock edits the shots together to leave us in no doubt Bergman knows she is on to something. Sometimes he will show us the absence of a character's thinking all the better to show the film thinking ahead of the character. We can think of the camera moving in on the money inPsycho, or the crop duster plane flying low even though there are no crops to spray. We have the sense of the untoward before Grant does, but again it is consistent with relation, with how Hitchcock's mind works.
Yet Hitchcock's mind could only work like this once cinema was evolved enough to allow for the expression of such thinking. When we look at early films like the Lumiere brothers Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat(1995), R.W. Paul's Chess Dispute (1903) or even the more advanced The Great Train Robbery (1903) we see that this is cinema, but not quite how Hitchcock would take advantage of its developments. The first three films are shot in one take; the latter which is a much longer film works with short scenes. But none of them utilises the Hitchcockian: the relational possibilities in putting shots together. Noel Burch in Life to Those Shadows usefully refers to early cinema within the context of the Primitive Mode of Representation, in contrast to the Institutional Mode of Representation that he sees becoming normalized around 1914. By this moment film had removed most of its staginess and we, of course, see in Griffith films like The Birth of a Nation and Intoleranceplenty of close-ups and crosscutting that allows the possibilities of relations to be developed. But no filmmaker more than Hitchcock pursued this question. While Eisenstein was the master of a dialectical approach to editing, as if trying to find an ideological means to express the political clash at its most fundamental, Hitchcock wanted to explore how minds make sense of relations rather than clashes. This is partly why we wouldn't be inclined to call Hitchcock an action director even if his films are famous for their set-pieces. The relations matter more than the collision, and we can think here of the use of close up in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Hitchcock's description of its use in his own work. In the Russian's film the close-up works more as an exclamation mark as we see cutaways to various people either in awe or shock without always quite knowing where the people in the scene are in relation to each other. By contrast, Hitchcock, describing his use of the reaction shot, says, "by the reaction shot I mean any close up which illustrates an event by showing instantly the reaction to it of a person or group." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) So far so similar, but he adds "the door opens for someone to come in, and before showing who it is you cut to the expressions of the persons already in the room, Or, while one person is talking, you keep your camera on someone else who is listening." Eisenstein asks for hyperbolised reactions; Hitchcock often asks for understated reactions.
We offer no value judgement on this: we just want to differentiate two very great filmmakers and move towards understanding Hitchcock's work especially. Whether it is James Stewart realizing that the two former students have killed someone in Rope, the aforementioned reaction by Bergman in Notorious, or Stewart observing Kim Novak in the restaurant near the beginning of Vertigo, Hitchcock's work is full of understated reaction shots. This isn't subtlety per se: it is a by-product of narrative necessity that is based on people often in difficult or surreptitious situations trying to make sense of events through thinking through their implications: through their relations. A Hitchcockian cinema that had no access to the close-up or the reaction shot wouldn't be Hitchcockian at all. Even the long take Rope often moves in on objects.
Few people mastered the Institutional Mode of Representation better than Hitchcock, and many of his innovations, scene choices and narrative ploys remain pertinent and practised. We cannot easily think of a woman going into a bathroom in cinema without thinking of Psycho, and thus many films that have one acknowledge Hitchcock in the process: from De Palma's Dressed to Kill and Body Double, to Wes Craven's Deadly Blessings and Nightmare on Elm Street, to William Lustig's Maniac. The idea of a film based chiefly on a man looking across the way is vital to Body Double, A Short Film About Love and Monsieur Hire. Could any of them not have Rear Window in mind during their making? David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive all seem to be ever more complex reworkings of the Vertigo theme, with the latter two also expanding the broken-backed structure of Vertigo that became even more pronounced in Psycho. The idea of breaking the story in two out of Psycho isn't only found in Lynch's films, but also in Nowhere, From Dusk till Dawn, The Place Beyond the Pines. Could we even claim Hitchcock as an influence on the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul as he too often uses broken-backed structures?
This is quite a range but the reason why Hitchcock can influence so many rests on his understanding of cinema, knowing what it is capable of rather than what it fails to achieve. In this sense he is the opposite of Peter Greenaway: a director who insists that cinema hasn't yet been born: that it is more or less illustrated script. "Everything begins with the text and this is a source of great anguish to me. So please let cinema get on with doing what it does best, which is expressing ideas in visual terms." (Guardian) Yet as John Orr noted "if he [Greenaway] cannot take his narratives seriously, why should anyone else? We put the same question more cynically. If Persona has had such a powerful influence on filmmakers, why has Greenaway so little." (Contemporary Cinema) Our answer would rest on cinema's first principles: that Hitchcock understood film could be a popular medium which wasn't quite the same thing as saying it could be a simple-minded one. In Hitchcock's hands, it became both popular and complex-minded. He could show that by joining shots together he was creating in the viewer's mind the capacity for deductive reasoning, and thus more than most taking further some of the experiments practised by Soviet directors in the twenties, from V. I. Pudovkin's insistence on working with montage to create sensation, to Lev Kuleshov's capacity to suggest correlation. As Pudovkin says, "the expression that the film is "shot" is entirely false, and should disappear from the language. The film is not shot it is built." (Film Technique and Film Acting) David Bordwell notes for example "that film scholars call the Kuleshov effect any series of shots that in the absence of an establishing shot prompts the spectator to infer a spatial whole on the basis of seeing only portions of the screen space." (Film Art) Here one partly makes the film in one's head, but then it is a question of how one makes it in one's head. Hitchcock namechecks both Pudovkin and Kuleshov in the interview with Truffaut, mentioning another of Kuleshov's experiments. "You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. this is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry. Yet in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor, his face was exactly the same." (Hitchcock) Here we see the images are not shot, they are built, in Pudovkin's formula. Hitchcock then discusses Stewart in Rear Window. "In the same way, let's take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that's being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of that little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he's seen as a dirty old man!" Thus we see how the Kuleshov effect and more generally Russian montage coincide with Hitchcock's English empiricism without quite arriving at the same place.
Both make clear that is is not essence that matters but relations and that we understand relations out of customs, out of habit. It is not the essence of the thing that we entertain, but how we comprehend the thing within the context of the habit of our thought processes. Thus David Hume says "custom is that principle, by which this correspondence has been effected; so necessary to the subsistence of our species, and the regulation of our conduct, in every circumstance and occurrence of human life." (Enquiries Concerning Human understanding and Concerning the Principle of Morals) In Hitchcock's work this custom is threefold: social custom, the custom of thought and the custom of images. To understand an aspect of his importance is to understand an element of these three dimensions of existence. In terms of social custom, Hitchcock isn't interested in conventional notions of realism (otherwise how could he not tell us how Stewart gets off the roof at the beginning of Vertigo and Grant and Saint escape their inevitable death at Mt Rushmore in North by Northwest?), but he is interested in appropriateness, in how a deviation from a norm can change the perception of an event. We see it in the plane scene in North by Northwest, we notice it in the behaviour of the man over the wine in Notorious, in the wife no longer present for dinner in Rear Window and so on. A change in habit announces a mystery and sets in motion the habit of thinking which is no longer habitually observational, but deductively habitual. In other words, we start to muse over the nature of the rupture. Stewart will start to notice all sorts of anomalies in the murderer's life in Rear Window as he pieces together what has happened to the murderer's spouse. He can no longer observe; he must deduce. Bergman cannot just observe the scene with the bottle of wine in Notorious, she must deduce from the various pieces of information what plot is at play. Thus far our world isn't too far from Agatha Christie's, with the Poirot minding his own business until something untoward happens and he starts piecing everything together. Yet Hitchcock had little time for the whodunit, saying to Truffaut "I don't really approve of whodunits because they're rather like a jigsaw or a crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder." (Hitchcock)
Hitchcock however consistently puts us in the emotional situation of the characters; an aspect not only Hitchcock but the literary theorist Tstisvan Todorov has noticed is absent when discussing Christie's work and other early novels based on the whodunit. Todorov however then notices that in post-war thrillers there was curiosity and suspense, saying "this type of interest was inconceivable in the whodunit, for its chief characters (the detective and his friend the narrator) were, by definition, immunized, nothing could happen to them. The situation is reversed in the thriller: everything is possible, and the detective risks his health if not his life." (The Poetics of Prose) Hitchcock's films are more post-war thriller than pre-war whodunit, but he also creates through his understanding of cinema. "People think, for example, that pace is fast action, quick cutting, people running around, or whatever you will, and it is not really that at all. I think that pace in a film is made entirely by keeping the mind of the spectator occupied...You need the changing of one situation to another so that all the time the audience's mind is occupied." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) Hitchcock does this, cinematically, by taking full advantage of the Institutional Mode of Representation, by using the cinematic means to make the banal engaging. If we suggested initially that Rohmer offers the literary and Tarkovsky the painterly, within the cinematic, we acknowledge the importance of the feeling another art form can create through cinema without at all replicating literature or painting, or believing that cinema is an inferior art form. As Mikhail Romadin who worked on Tarkovsky's Solaris says, Tarkovsky "avoided drawing parallels between art forms and attempted to isolate the language of film. He didn't believe that this language was somehow secondary to that of either literature or painting." (Creative Review) Yet he woudl, of course,e absorb the influences. "For Solaris he suggested creating an atmosphere which would be similar to that which we see in the works of the early Italian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio. The picture is of the embankment of Venice, sailboats. There are many people in the foreground. But the most important thing is that all these figures seem to be wrapped up in themselves." (Creative Review) Rohmer says "there is certainly literary material in my tales, a preestablished novelistic plot that could be developed in writing and that is, in fact, sometimes developed in the form of a commentary." (The Taste for Beauty) There is obviously much more to them than that: but these are essential.
In contrast, we have the following three remarks by Hitchcock. In the first he talks about the difference between standing close to a train and watching it from a distance: in the latter you don't feel anything at all. By the same reckoning, he says to Truffaut: "if you're going to show two men fighting with each other, you're not going to get very much by simply photographing that fight." He also says, "dialogue should simply be a sound amongst other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms." (Hitchcock) Speaking of the shower sequence in Psycho, the director said, "it took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage. I used a live girl instead, a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh's hands, shoulders, and head." (Hitchcock) While we feel Tarkovsky and Rohmer utilize the painterly and the literary to comprehend or question essences, Hitchcock uses the cinematic to deny them. Think how often mistaken or mistaking identity is important to Hitchcock's work: North by Northwest, Psycho, Notorious, The 39 Steps, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Seeing cinema as a medium of interrelations, of exploring it as a question of how his mind works, Hitchcock puts shot together that are building blocks not of observation as we find in the most complex manner in Tarkovsky, or contemplation, as we find in Rohmer, but of deduction. In Hitchcock we usually observe or think for the purposes of working something out.
Yet why this is so much more than a whodunit rests on the director's capacity to frighten us by cinematic means and make us think through camera movements and editing. In a Hitchcock Sight and Sound special pamphlet, various filmmakers were asked about the director's most definitive scene or moment, and the replies help us understand aspects of his influence, and the means by which he would deploy the cinematic. John Carpenter mentions the 360 degree dolly shot in Vertigo: "the shot expresses Stewart's emotional state visually, which is, of course, the point of all Hitchcock's movies." Norman Jewison says "when studying filmmaking, I was watchingPsycho and trying to analyze the motivation of each camera set-up, when I got lost with Marty Balsam going up the stairs. There was a shot close on the back of his legs. Why was that? Then a few seconds later I was screaming with fright." Harold Becker notes the scene in Shadow of a Doubt: "Teresa Wright is in the library looking for a missing newspaper story. Hitchcock cuts to a high, wide-angle shot of her from behind, exposing her vulnerability and putting the chill through us."
Thus the way Hitchcock's mind works is to generate fear by formal means, which is part of the 'safety' he feels is missing from the crude theatrics of a fake column falling towards an audience in a real-life scenerio. But we also have his interest in either putting shots together, or generating camera movements that are like thoughts: as we find in the moment quoted from Notorious, or the moment he mentions in the context of Kuleshov from Rear Window. His capacity to make us think is partly why Deleuze suggests Hitchcock introduced to cinema the possibility of its limitations, saying "what Hitchcock had wanted to avoid, a crisis of the traditional image of the cinema, would nevertheless happen in his wake, and in part as a result of his innovations." (Cinema 1: The Movement Image) By insisting that meaning isn't given in the thing but in the relation between things, what would happen when the hypothesis about the content based on the relational becomes void? What would happen if instead of Stewart working out what happens in the apartment across the way in Rear Window the film wouldn't show his astuteness but his madness: that nothing happened across the way? What would happen if there was no husband manipulating his wife towards her death in Vertigo but only Stewart's own obsession pushing her towards her demise? What if Roger O Thornhill could never quite find out what he was on the run from in North by Northwest? Hitchcock would introduce the idea of a McGuffin that merely had to set the story in motion, but its final irrelevance is because of relevance elsewhere. We want Thornhill to save his and Saint's life at the end of North by Northwest and escape the categorical baddies; we don't care exactly what is on the microfilm. But what if he really did want to know what was on it, and that he and Saint die in the process of trying to find out, and never do? This would be to push the image into the abyss (hinted at in Vertigo) and evident in numerous films since that have not been devoid of the Hitchcockian. From Polanski's The Tenant to Lynch's Lost Highway, from Chantal Akerman's Proust adaptation La Captive to Atom Egoyan's Exotica, such films have wanted to emphasise the void out of which the work comes, while Hitchcock utilised devices like McGuffins, red herrings and cod psychology (Spellbound, Psycho, Marnie) to cover it up. He is finally less the master of suspense than an epistemological tight-rope walker who used the tensions available in the philosophy of relations to keep his films from falling into the abyss that was threatening them. Hitchcock knew this well, and central to his technique was to protect the audience from it. Talking of Sabotage he would mention the scene of a sympathetic boy carrying around a can of film that has a bomb in it. "Because the audience knew the film can contained a bomb and the boy did not, to permit the bomb to explode was a violation of the rule forbidding a direct combination of suspense and terror, of forewarning or surprise." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock) Hitchcock thought he could blow the boy up if we didn't have advance knowledge or let the boy survive if he did, but not offer the former with the latter. The audience was outraged, Hitchcock noted, as if feeling he had failed as the show with the falling column had failed. But we might be more inclined to say this was less Hitchcock's failure than a comprehension of the model of cinema to which he fitted, and the less secure cinema his work anticipated. Many directors have learned that they can create a very unsafe space indeed without relying on the gimmicks of a sideshow, and in this knowledge anyone from Lynch, to Kieslowski, Akerman to Polanski, have learned how to show that the tightrope is never secure and the safety net often absent.
© Tony McKibbin