New England Review (2007) - Hitchcock and the Picture in the Frame
- article: Hitchcock and the Picture in the Frame
- author(s): Tom Gunning
- journal: New England Review (01/Jan/2007)
- issue: volume 28, issue 3, pages 14-31
- journal ISSN: 1053-1297
- publisher: Middlebury College Publications
- keywords: 24 Hour Psycho (1993), Alfred Hitchcock, André Bazin, Anny Ondra, Anthony Perkins, Barbara Bel Geddes, Brigitte Peucker, Cary Grant, Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, Cyril Ritchard, Douglas Gordon, Edgar Allan Poe, Filming, Franz Waxman, Grace Kelly, Henry Fonda, Ivor Novello, Jack the Ripper, James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Joan Fontaine, John Forsythe, John Gavin, Judith Anderson, Kim Novak, Laura Mulvey, Laurence Olivier, Marie Ault, Marion Lorne, Motion picture directors & producers, Motion pictures, Painting, Paramount Pictures, Psycho (1960), Raymond Burr, Rear Window (1954), Rebecca (1940), Robert Walker, Ross Bagdasarian, Royal Dano, San Francisco, California, Sidney Bernstein, Strangers on a Train (1951), Suspicion (1941), The Birds (1963), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Ring (1927), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), Video equipment, Wendell Corey
Hitchcock's mastery of cinematic framing beckons to us from nearly every shot of his films. His visual style turns on careful consideration of where to place characters and objects within the filmic frame, the precise accent given by lighting, the shaping of space through his selection of lenses, the use of color as a means of attracting attention and creating visual relations, and a dynamic sense of how frames interact through editing or become transformed through movement within the frame — or the movement of the camera itself. Careful attention to Hitchcock's use of sketches and storyboards for the preparation of his filming reveals his system of plotting his shots as the act of framing and the staging of action within a frame. But beyond regulating the components of his visual style, the frame also plays an important thematic role in his films, especially when he uses an interior compositional frame, such as a window or a doorway, within the larger film frame. Although the meaning and use of such a frame varies from film to film, certain patterns are recurrent — derived often from his use of the thriller genre — such as the entrapment of characters. Other uses of such frames within frames relate to Hitchcock's stylistic use of point of view, underscoring the act of looking, as in the many views through the window or camera lenses central to one of his masterpieces, Rear Window (1954).
In addition to his use of windows and doorways, Hitchcock also used compositional frames to invoke the other arts, especially theater and painting. From his earliest films Hitchcock used stage prosceniums and paintings as ways of framing significant elements, endowing them with additional importance or ambiguity. Theater and painting also represent for Hitchcock concentrations of the gaze, and therefore make reference to such themes as voyeurism, masquerade, desire, and deception. In the pages that follow, I will trace the interrelation between paintings (or their reproductions), their frames (or edges), and the frame of Hitchcock's camera. This is not precisely virgin territory. Hitchcock's relation to the arts has been the subject of two exhibition catalogues and of an elegant and insightful essay by Brigitte Peucker, included in her book The Material Image (Stanford University Press, 2007). My treatment certainly overlaps with those earlier considerations, especially with Peucker's. However, my focus (or my frame) is a bit narrower. I am looking at precisely the way the formal aspects of painting, the differentiation between the space of representation and the space of the world of the observer, are both kept apart and interrelated. Paintings in Hitchcock rarely play a merely decorative role. Instead, through their dynamic relation to the act of framing, they project an influence into the world of the character as conduits of guilt and desire.
1. warm and real, or cold and lonely? works of art in hitchcock
Let's begin at some apparent distance from our theme, with a song overheard in one of Hitchcock's greatest films, Rear Window. Like The Birds (1963), Rear Window lacks a conventional musical score, but instead features a carefully arranged aural accompaniment composed from the sounds that drift into L. B. Jefferies's (James Stewart) Greenwich Village apartment during a pre –air conditioning summer, when windows were left open and the street, back courtyard, and even fire escapes buzzed with noise and activity. This urban cacophony includes snatches of music (an eclectic mix of Leonard Bernstein, Béla Bartók, Rodgers and Hart, and hits from recent Paramount films, such as Dean Martin's "That's Amore"). Although this sound tapestry supposedly derives from contingent neighborhood activities, Hitchcock carefully matches it to events of the film, providing accompaniment as well as counterpoint. Central to these musical fragments, and behaving very much like a soundtrack theme song, is the tune "Lisa" (not so coincidentally named for the leading lady of the film, played by Grace Kelly), which is composed by one of Jefferies's neighbors, the songwriter (played by Ross Bagdasarian). Following Hitchcock's interest in portraying processes that develop parallel to the plot of his films, this song progresses from rough and halting improvisation on a piano, to a chamber music version (counterpointing Lisa's adventurous foray into Thorwald's apartment), to the final demo recording complete with lyrics that we hear over the film's denouement.
But there is another musical ode to Lisa tucked away in Rear Window, like so many trouvées in this film, as Hitchcock stuffs potential significance into every cranny of the courtyard beyond Jefferies's rear window. Detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) has just left Jeff's apartment, deflating Lisa and Jeff's theories that cross-courtyard neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. Somberly, the couple look out their window at the apartment of the neighbor Jeff has dubbed "Miss Lonelyhearts" (Judith Evelyn). This unmarried, middle-aged woman has brought home a young man, who proceeds to put the moves on her quite aggressively. This rather unromantic scene becomes aurally counterpointed as the guests at a party taking place in the songwriter's apartment on the other side of the courtyard begin singing another hit song from a recent Paramount film (Captain Carey, U.S.A.), "Mona Lisa," which had won the Academy Award in 1950 with a version sung by Nat King Cole. The sad and tawdry tryst reaches its abrupt ending as we hear the lyrics drifting across the courtyard:
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there, and they die there
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?
The song echoes and anticipates the film's theme song, "Lisa" (although Hitchcock indicated his own dissatisfaction with Franz Waxman's song and it certainly never gained the Academy Award or the popularity of "Mona Lisa"). The question these lyrics pose to the painting echoes Jefferies's own sense that his Lisa remains somehow too aesthetic and remote ("that rarefied atmosphere of Park Avenue"), too lovely and cold....