Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Two - Hitchcock's mise-en-scene

The Birds
I have long since concluded that whatever he worked at, Hitchcock’s imprint through his mise-en-scene was unique and unmistakable: one aspect of his style alone, his subjective camera alternating subjective forward-moving tracking shots with objective audience perspective, constantly draws attention to film as a voyeuristic medium. Rear Window (1954) remains the most explicit examination of voyeurism in his work, but his camera either directly or indirectly follows characters on journeys of discovery and revelation. The beginning of Marnie (1964); Janet Leigh’s drive into the night in Psycho (1960); Tippi Hedren’s drive into Bodega Bay in The Birds (1963); and of course, three quarters of Vertigo (1958) are all striking examples. Hitch forces his audiences into becoming complicit in this voyeuristic process-while watching many Hitchcock films there’s a distinct sense of unease imposed on the viewer by forcing them to feel they are intruding on something either very private or very secret. Characters in the films are frequently eavesdropping or spying, and the spectator shares in the process. In Hitchcock, there is no such thing as an innocent observer. The act of watching a film in itself invites the voyeur in all of us. In his greatest films, Hitchcock shamelessly manipulates in his audiences the guilt feelings and anxieties aroused by the voyeuristic process.

Hitchcock also exploits the oneiric properties of the medium to the hilt. Some films themselves resemble nightmares of of innocent victimization (The Wrong Man (1957), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest (1959), or of disturbed states of mind (Psycho). The most dreamlike of all Hitchcock films, Vertigo, is like watching a life in a state of suspended animation, and just as the James Stewart character has worked his way through one nightmare, he plunges into another which finally results in similar consequences. Hitchcock often shows characters about to fall to their likely deaths (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Saboteur) but doesn’t show them being rescued-a deliberate omission which in itself reinforces the dreamlike properties of film.

The 39 Steps
Hitchcock's work falls into quite a few stages; the silent films already indicate his engineering and architectural/visual genius albeit in embryo; the apprentice British thrillers are all lightweight works, but not without traces of rich psychological (The 39 Steps, 1935) and visual (Young and Innocent, 1937) detail, and full of delicious black humour (the presentation of police as buffoons and incompetents in Young and Innocent, for example, is an early manifestation of a Hitchcock motif). The banter between Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps or between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes (1938) clearly looks forward to the erotic/tense/humorous exchanges between male/female protagonists more fully developed in the later works. In spite of his many budgetary limitations, Hitchcock also developed some of the narrative/suspenseful set-pieces that foreshadow the assurance of the triumphs of later years (the bomb death of Sabotage (1936) involving the boy may have been miscalculated in final audience effect, but the sequence leading up to it is thrillingly staged; and there are numerous sequences in The 39 Steps that could be singled out for comment.).Young and Innocent contains many of the kinds of visual jokes one associates with later Hitchcock, such as his framing along children’s party hats and his likening of Nova Pilbeam’s aunt Mary Clare to a witch in the same sequence. Hitchcock is also capable of bravura camera effects despite the monetary constraints: the revelation of the murderer, the man with the nervous eye twitch, in Young and Innocent, comes at the end of a traveling shot which begins on a crane at one end of a dance hall and ends at the bandstand
on a close-up of his eyes.

When David O Selznick brought Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1940, he at last found the fertile ground in which his genius was able to flower. Larger budgets meant the kind of production values Hitchcock’s visual talent thrived on; his first Hollywood film, Rebecca (1940), might on the face of it seemed like material better suited to the talents of someone like William Wyler but, in spite of considerable interference from Selznick, Hitchcock managed to bring a great deal to Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romance through his formidable mise-en-scene. He transformed the conventions of the heroine in distress into something far darker and more sinister. Joan Fontaine as the gauche and affectingly insecure heroine becomes under Hitchcock’s confident guidance her own worst enemy and victim of a sinister plan to drive her out of her mind. Laurence Olivier invests his character of Maxim De Winter with a marvelous brooding melancholy and ambiguity in his intentions towards Fontaine; but it is Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in a dominant, virtuoso role who steals the film. An openly lesbian character who has been in love with the first Mrs De Winter, she becomes one of the most concrete and literal centres of oppression in Hitchcock’s work but the overwhelming atmosphere of threat was soon to become one of  Hitchcock’s most characteristic trademarks.

Suspicion (1941), the Joan Fontaine companion piece, is even better at delineating that atmosphere. The whole film is built around the protagonist’s (and the audience’s) uncertainty about the real feelings and intentions of the Cary Grant character. Hitchcock, using Grant in the first of four outstanding characterizations in his films, exploits the actor’s dualities (his natural charm and his moral ambiguity) to this end. Grant was one of the few Hollywood performers who was equally adept at projecting the lighter and darker sides of his screen persona. The film as a result is able in quite barefaced terms to play an elaborate cat and mouse game with the Joan Fontaine character and its audience. Fontaine’s demure erotic romanticism is another key to the film’s believability. Despite her growing paranoia (Hitchcock’s clever lighting and textures suggest a spider’s web which insistently traps Fontaine amidst familiar surroundings), she wants to believe that Grant still loves her. This kind of romantic obsession became common to many of Hitchcock’s subsequent films and received its most eloquent, and dare I say, personal expression in the character of Scotty so perfectly realized by James Stewart’s intensely interior performance in Vertigo.

Foreign Correspondent
In between Rebecca and Suspicion, Hitchcock chose to mount a film for independent producer Walter Wanger called Foreign Correspondent (1940) about a ring of Nazi spies in pre-World War Two Europe. It’s an interesting forerunner to the kind of picaresque chase thrillers he would later excel at-in fact, as early as 1942 he used the form effectively in Saboteur  (1942) but it had reached its pinnacle by North by Northwest in 1959. Joel McCrea and Laraine Day were very personable as the lovers and spy hunters; they fitted well into the Hitchcock milieu and were lent sterling support from a great character cast including the eminent European actor Albert Bassermann as well as George Sanders (who had already appeared to advantage for Hitchcock in Rebecca), Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn. Hitchcock “showed off” his growing mastery of his medium in some flamboyant visual set pieces like the scene with all the umbrellas, the mid-ocean plane crash and most spectacularly, in the long sequence in Holland with the windmills. This was a great warm-up for things to come. 

To be continued tomorrow.... The first instalment of this series can be found if you click here 

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