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CineAction (1999) - The Spatial World of Hitchcock's Films




If the spatial dimension of film is an essential component of point of view in cinema, then this is particularly so in the case of Hitchcock's films, a fundamental preoccupation of which is the exploration and manipulation of the possibilities and plasticity of narrative space. As I hope to demonstrate by an analysis of The Paradine Case (1947) later on, the global spatial system of a Hitchcock film — how it organizes, segments and presents its narrative world — is crucial in helping to shape our overall attitudinal outlook upon that world. At the other extreme, how a Hitchcock film utilizes the innermost detail of its fictional universe can be equally vital in determining the various ways in which we relate to its narrative subject matter (as my section on objects will also endeavour to show).

Generally, though, such spatial features have tended to be obscured in favour of the more well-trodden territory of the point-of-view shot. This orientation of a highly complex theoretical concept around a single camera technique is indicative of the central weighting traditionally attached to character perspective in point of view and its perceived role in effecting spectator involvement in classical narrative cinema more generally (the latter nowhere more so than in Hitchcock's films where POV shooting is often cited as a key strategy for implicating the spectator in a single character's viewpoint). Yet despite the substantial, somewhat disproportionate critical emphasis placed upon POV shooting, this technique has often suffered from a degree of over-simplification when enlisted in support of various theoretical approaches, its popularity generally stemming from the underlying assumption that, in enabling the spectator to occupy a character's literal viewpoint, it also provides access to that character's subjectivity.

The POV shot's perceived ability to build the spectator into a character's experience was accordingly construed by structuralist and semiotic film theorists as evidence of the way in which mainstream narrative cinema functions hegemonically to inscribe the spectator into a fixed, dominant ideological position. According to suture theory, for example, this strategy of assigning ownership of the camera's field of view to a character within the fiction was a key device for distracting the spectator from an awareness that such a view is, in fact, controlled and authored by a presence outside of the frame ('the absent one'). The POV shot's function was, then, to 'suture' its audience into an illusory sense of oneness with the film world, thereby effacing the very operations and mechanisms by which such effects were achieved (see, for example, Daniel Dayan, 'The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema', in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods: Vol. 1, University of California Press, London, 1976, pp.438-51). As William Rothman proceeded to point out in 'Against "The System of Suture"' (again in Nichols, ed., 1976, pp.451-59), such an approach took no account of the viewer's ability to read the POV shot quite knowingly as a convention (as opposed to being duped into naively accepting the character as the fallacious author of the shot). The possibility that the dominant ideology may, in any case, be subject to critique by the film and/or resistance by the spectator was also ignored, as was the issue of how the POV shot functions within its overall filmic context.

The tenuousness of suture theory's basic premise is evident when one considers a sequence such as that in Notorious where Alicia snoops outside of her bedroom door in an attempt to overhear Alex's altercation with his mother as he tries to obtain the household keys from her. Having employed a conventional POV sequence, whereby the camera cuts repeatedly from a shot of Alicia listening intently to a view of Madame Sebastian's closed door, Hitchcock then confounds this logic on the third such occasion. Hence, Alex is shown emerging from his mother's room from what still appears to be Alicia's point of view (thereby creating a momentary jab of anxiety at the prospect of him discovering her spying), only for it to be revealed that the shot is no longer a POV shot, Alicia having stolen away in the meantime. In Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film (Mouton Publishers, Amsterdam, 1984), Edward Branigan also discusses how this sequence subverts our conventional expectations about the POV structure. Yet his own interpretation of its significance (considering it as designed to convey 'a deeper understanding of Alicia's character and intentions — the state of her awareness', p.109) does tend to overlook some of its more radical implications. For what the sequence enacts, in effect, is a reversal of the suturing process, one whereby the previous assignment of a particular field of view to a character is subsequently prised apart, enabling the character herself to attain a rather surprising independence from the camera.

Laura Mulvey's highly influential theory that the point of view or look constructed for the spectator by mainstream cinema is male (irrespective of the actual gender of real audience members) constituted a particular feminist development of such approaches and one that inevitably invested subjective camera techniques with a newfound significance (see 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods: Vol II, University of California Press, London, 1985). The monolithic, non-contextualized nature of Mulvey's psychoanalytic theory of mainstream cinema as patriarchal has, of course, been subject to much challenge and debate from various theoretical and critical quarters. Concentrating upon the text itself, Robin Wood argues that: 'The construction of identification within a film is a delicate and complex matter that can never be reduced simply to the mechanics of "the look" (the look of characters, of spectator, of the camera)' (Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Faber and Faber, London, 1991, p.305). While acknowledging its role, Wood considers the male gaze to be only one of several factors involved in the construction of identification and demonstrates convincingly how, in Notorious (1946), it is the only one which privileges the male characters, all of the others favouring the Ingrid Bergman character instead. It is possible, I think, to go even further and argue that, in Hitchcock's films (which Mulvey uses in support of her theory), the male gaze itself is often shown to be inherently unstable as well as unconvincing as an identification device.

Such tendencies can be found as early as in the silent film Champagne (1928). There, the inability of the male gaze to control the female image is illustrated quite explicitly during the scene where the Betty Balfour character visits her fiance in his cabin as he lies in bed with sea-sickness. The subjective image of her that ensues from his point of view shows three versions of her head: two swaying from side to side in opposite directions, the middle one lunging towards him. In doing so, it conveys in very vivid terms this male character's sense of the threatening, uncontainable nature of her active sexuality (a clear demonstration of which had already been provided by her earlier gesture of flying out over the Atlantic in her aeroplane to meet up with him on board ship). Another emphatic instance of this occurs in Rich and Strange (1932) when the male protagonist, Fred, is shown unable to hold his wife's image steady within the frame of his camera viewfinder as he tries to take a photograph of her on the deck of a moving ship. Far from simply encouraging identification with the male protagoni...

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(1) For another analysis that questions the assumed relationship between the POV shot and identification, see Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp.156-65.

(2) Charles Barr uses the term 'hypnagogia' to describe what he identifies as a recurring 'hesitation between subjective and objective' in Hitchcock's British period. See Barr, 'Hitchcock's British Films Revisited', in Andrew Higson, ed., Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, Cassell, London, 1996, p.14).