The literature I read on Alfred Hitchcock, in particular in critic Robin Wood’s “Hitchcock Revisited” and Daniel Spoto’s “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock”, can be summarized by what is predominantly discussed in the famous interview “Hitchcock/Truffaut”: absurdism, suspense, obsession, and the love of film. My sources’s arguments extend off these elements to understand the power of Hitchcock’s films and how it is exemplified in his movies. This is where some of the sources differ. However, not one source questions the adequacy of Hitchcock’s predominant style, that is montage, because it was applied confidently. Robin Wood, for example, explains that Hitchcock’s films were terrific entertainment but were cut in a way to expose his films’ dark and complex undertones. Wood claims this analysis alludes to discovering Hitchcockian pure cinema. My sources interpret, explicitly or not, this definition. They investigate how Hitchcock immerses spectators into a beguiling story, while simultaneously making them realize they are witnessing a movie.
Spoto claims that Hitchcock’s films capture the characters’s and audiences’s fears and dreams – and maybe Hitchcock’s too. His films are fantasies, representing why people go to the movies: they want to escape reality, look for adventure, and be actively engaged in situations. The audience is seduced because they observe Hitchcock’s films through, what John Belton calls, the “Reciprocated Glance”: a shot designed to make the audience’s thoughts synonymous to the main character’s – in my analysis this term is reiterated as “projection”. By constructing Hitchcock’s films in this way, the characters were merely observing, what Laura Mulvey saw as, “the central image to the drama” (Mulvey 352). In Hitchcock films, this is referred to as “voyeurism”, which demonstrates the compulsion of looking – since we “are a race of Peeping Toms” (Pomerance 2003, quoted from Rear Window).
The sources explain that voyeurism creates projections of the characters’ thoughts, suggesting the emotional power of cinema and the audience’s ability to relate even to the most absurd situations. Critics Spoto, Wood, Sidney Gottlieb (“The Dangers of Looking”), and Raymond Durgnat (“The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock”) claim voyeurism is a tool of cutting back and forth from the observer to the observed to capture the obsession to pry. Therefore, it is observing events that reveal the ability of montage to convey the obsessions of the characters. This important distinction, explained by Mulvey, is important in understanding the difference between character and audience: The character is in the story and the spectator is in the theater, which consists of the “screen illusion” (Mulvey 352).
A contrast to the argument on obsession involves such sources as Elise Lemire’s “Voyeurism and the Post-War Crisis in Rear Window”, Lawrence Russell’s “Vertigo”, and Stanley Cavell’s “North By Northwest” arguing that obsession does not rightly define Hitchcock’s films. The more precise term is passion, which, said by Hitchcock in “Hitchcock/Truffaut” “is the key to suspense” (Truffaut 50). Passion explains why we go to the movies and implies the motives of Hitchcock’s characters – why they are voyeurs, killers, or heroes.
In Hitchcock’s narrative passion overcomes the “MacGuffin”. The MacGuffin, as defined by George Wilson (“The Maddest MacGuffin”), is “the gimmick ... it does not matter what it is ... there is no truth ... it is nothing” (Wilson 1162). The MacGuffin sets the characters on a mission that is irrelevant to the spectator’s interests. Hitchcock does not want the audience to focus on plot or a shocking twist, as that would tarnish the film’s emotional core (Truffaut 50). By the end a Hitchcock film, the MacGuffin is immaterial and a strong emphasis on passion is developed, to suggest “film as an art is beautiful” (Cavell 774).
The pieces of literature I collected make points that are not erroneous or incontestable. They simply strive to understand what makes Hitchcock’s films ‘pure cinema’. The analysis that follows does not reject or side directly with any of these sources. It elaborates off how they interpret Hitchcock’s so-called ‘power’, by understanding that passion, obsession, and absurdism has a self-reflexive nature in his films. My sources scrutinize Hitchcock’s voyeurism, projection, and narratives and it is these elements that make his films fervent experiences that, my sources would agree, contain little movies within themselves.
Hitchcockian pure cinema is equivocal since there are various arguments on how Hitchcock manages to entertain in the most meticulous way. But it cannot be defined off a story, a character, or a twist – yet maybe perhaps how those things are communicated. Pure cinema relates to cutting, how a director arranges his shots to get the strongest emotional response from his audience. This cutting technique is called montage and is where Hitchcock’s films’s power resonates and epitomizes pure cinema. Hitchcock uses montage, in particular in Rear Window, Vertigo, and North By Northwest, to embody a self-reflexive world that challenges the fears, dreams, and desires of his characters and audience – and perhaps himself too. These feelings convey a cinematic world that is engaging and willing to admit it is in a movie. Hitchcock’s self-reflexivity, vis-á-vis montage, is incorporated in voyeurism, which involves shots of characters looking and what they are looking at. Voyeurism makes his films little movies within themselves. The voyeuristic lens, as an example, creates projections, which act as trajectories into the lives of these characters, implying their obsessions and vulnerabilities. Lastly, Hitchcock’s ability to manipulate narrative conventions proves that his goal was always to transform the audience’s expectations, not satisfy them. His penchant for self-reflexivity persuades the audience, like Hitchcock’s characters, to confront their obsessions and vulnerabilities.
Voyeurism in Hitchcock is shown through a point of view shot representing little movies within a movie – that is Hitchcock’s. It involves characters staring out at a world – looking, interpreting, figuring things out, and maybe feeling a little self-satisfied about these activities. This is how an audience feels when watching a movie: looking at a lens, analyzing what they witness, and congratulating themselves when they solve the story. In Rear Window, the invalid photo-journalist L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is a voyeur who controls what the audience sees. Like most of Hitchcock’s voyeurs, Jeffries is given the position of a film director: he is a professional who dictates the story and the audience’s reactions. Hitchcock usually makes a character a ‘director’ in his movies whose gaze (point of view shots) reminds the audience that they are in a movie theater and the director still has control over what them. The voyeur inspires a perversity within the audience, the ardent obsession of finding the truth through the point of view shot that is given. It is that inquisitiveness that reflects Jeffries’s and the audience’s nature: he is a journalist and it is his purpose to observe and report, just how it is an audience’s purpose to observe and react.
Scottie (James Stewart), in Vertigo, spies on Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), the wife of Scottie’s old friend, Gavin (Tom Helmore). Scottie becomes obsessed but for different reasons than Jeffries. Scottie is forced to pry not because he wants to (he is retired now) but because his friend Gavin is curious about the behaviour of his wife. Scottie pries because of Madeleine’s distance from him, her silence, her beauty, his inability to understand her (which gives Scottie the role as director since it was Hitchcock’s goal to overcome his fears and understand women through Vertigo). Hitchcock makes Madeleine an enigma, a spectacle, and the personification of cinema as she compels Scottie to fantasize. Where Rear Window uses voyeurism to imply the temptations of spying and interpreting others from afar, Vertigo defines voyeurism as a fetish, the addiction to watching and the fear of beauty.
Moreover, in North By Northwest, Roger Thornhill is a passive character. His reason to pry is not complex or sexual, but because it explains his transformation into the stealthy spy. Thornhill becomes a voyeur in the climax of North By Northwest. When Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and Leonard (Martin Landau) discover that Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) is a double agent, Thornhill only distantly observes this. He watches helplessly as Eve is unexpectedly trapped (like, in Rear Window, how Lisa was cornered in Thorwald’s apartment when he returned). Thornhill overcomes this conflict by taking action. Voyeurism in North By Northwest is much different than in any other Hitchcock film: It galvanizes the character but not for sexual or inquisitive purposes. It asserts that Thornhill must take action, making the audience want to yell: “Do something! Do something!” 1
Voyeurism proves that by looking at a character and what fascinates him (‘him’ because Hitchcock’s voyeurs tended to be male) is manipulating images to spark the audience’s curiosity and make them Peeping Toms too.2 Rear Window, Vertigo, and North By Northwest epitomize the love for film: they focus on characters who are merely staring at little movies in itself. These three films allow its audience to identify with what the characters gradually observe and know. Voyeurism in Hitchcock incorporates montage on a purely cinematic level as it makes the spectator and character equally guilty for being sexually charged, inquiring, and infectiously curious voyeurs.
Hitchcock’s use of projection influences not just the characters within his films, but the audience’s emotional vulnerability to the moving image. Projection is a commentary on the audience’s and character’s personal problems, giving it a self-reflexive purpose. Rear Window is cut in a way to make Jeffries’s observations parallel to the audience’s. What Jeffries watches are little movies within themselves. The point of view shots do not explicitly convey emotion because his telephoto lens is a long shot, creating a remote relationship between Jeffries and his observations. In Rear Window, the long shots still convey emotion because the action projects Jeffries’s intimate and professional problems. For example, Miss Lonelyhearts suggests the pathos of living alone, loveless. The struggling piano player shows the agony of a boring and unexciting life, one that produces little success professionally. The murder of Mrs. Thorwald projects a darker side to Jeffries and Lisa’s relationship: the trepidation of murder through marital strife and that Jeffries’s galling, one-sided relationship with Lisa (Grace Kelly) is just as subject to violence as the Thorwald’s. Projection in Rear Window puts Jeffries in a state of emotional vulnerability, like a movie goer: he is sitting down, bored, and hoping to be entertained. Jeffries’s world is what cinema is to the audience: it has the ability to identify with his personal life in uncanny ways.
With Vertigo, Hitchcock epitomizes the obsession of lust and the fascination of the dream. Scottie’s projections from observing Madeleine expose his fears. For the audience, Vertigo reveals their explicit sexual nature when watching movies. Movies are meant for personal pleasure and gain, and have this masturbatory purpose. With Vertigo, Scottie’s observations of Madeleine produce a similar meaning. What he views and controls, the beautiful Madeleine, defines his narcissism.
Hitchcock is not concerned with ‘romance’ in Vertigo, but something alienating and perhaps narcissistic. When Scottie observes Madeleine he is aroused by his detachment to her – that triggers his curiosity (like it did with Jeffries when he spied on his neighbors). It is not until Madeleine ‘falls’ into the San Francisco Bay that she becomes something real and no longer an object of Scottie’s desire. He thus has obtained and now must protect her.
Vertigo is self-reflexive in the sense that it is about falling in love with movies. How Scottie watches Madeleine suggests the intimate power of cinema. Like Madeleine, cinema is elegant, manipulatory, and fascinating. Scottie is the spectator whose pleasure for watching Madeleine turns into madness and strands him in reality. Madeleine’s beauty is so potent, it requires distance that is only effective through fantasy (and the long shot). Vertigo emphasizes the audience’s obsession with wanting to control their own fantasies and engaging in cinema as a self-absorbing reverie.
In North By Northwest, projection has less of a predominance since the film is more focused on the absurdity of its story and its vigorous pace. However, it is still present and used to prove the exuberance of cinema and its ability to rouse the audience. North By Northwest is about a character who personifies a mainstream movie goer: passive and exploited. The whole point of the film is transforming Thornhill into an active character who can solve his problems incisively. Projection in North By Northwest is found in the ‘action’ scenes to communicate that Thornhill must adapt quickly to perilous situations. For example, in the famous crop dusting scene, there is a continuous shot of a plane coming closer and closer towards Thornhill. He runs, trying to evade it, only to dive on the ground as the plane swoops downwards. What the shot shows is a character running away from the action while it moves towards the audience. This shot has a resemblance to the one-shot film of a steam train in the Lumière Brothers’s 1896 L'arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat. That film was the introduction to cinema; never had anyone seen an object come vigorously towards a screen. Audiences, unaware of cinema’s potential, actually thought that was a real train moving towards them. In North By Northwest, Hitchcock emulates this shot to remind his audience of cinema’s immersive capabilities. When that plane flies towards the audience, their immediate reaction is to yell: “Run Thorwald! Wait, duck!”. Simultaneously, they are fearing for their lives too (as long as they have suspended their disbelief).
Projection in Hitchcock’s films is concomitant with pure cinema because it allows the audience, like the characters, to be active participants. It is through projection that Hitchcock manipulates montage (or just one continuous shot) to convey an emotional response from the spectator that identifies with the main character. Just like Hitchcock’s protagonists, movie goers engage and react to what occurs on screen. The moving image, apropos Hitchcock, is a personal experience that challenges the spectator’s and main character’s desires, expectations, and problems.
Hitchcock manipulates narrative conventions to make his audience question their expectations, obsessions, vulnerabilities, and to understand that cinema does not follow any particular pattern. Hitchcock’s films are never predictable in the traditional sense; he does not believe in surprise, but suspense. His films imply to the audience who the culprit or killer is. But his films do not always tie up every loose end, as most are told through the speculation and intrigue of the protagonist. This suspense corresponds to montage in that Hitchcock manipulates it to imply one thing and really suggest another. In Rear Window, the ironic twist is that Jeffries observes many happenings but the film barely adds up. There is no conclusion if the piano player will be successful, if Miss Loneyhearts will find true love, or if the couple will get a new dog. Rear Window is shot to direct the viewer away from the action. The murder only sparks the audience’s interest because it is suspenseful, where all the other happenings are undramatic and patternless. It is through putting Jeffries’s point of view in long shots and few closeups that Hitchcock creates no emphasis on any event; the suspected murder could lead to nowhere like the events of the other apartment dwellers. This possibility poses why Rear Window is not simply a murder story: Hitchcock does not want the audience to participate in a ‘whodunit’ but a film that transforms their expectations and forces them, despite feeling convinced, if one character is the killer or not. Like Jeffries, it is like they must know.
In Vertigo, there is one great contrivance that signifies the beauty of cinema and the psychology of Hitchcock’s characters. Scottie, the acrophobic, loses Madeleine because he could not make it up the church’s spiraling stairs. As he climbs and peers down them, Hitchcock creates a dolly zoom.3 Through this shot, Hitchcock manifests the power of cinema and its ability to encapsulate the fear of a character. His vulnerability to heights soon infects the audience, as the point of view shot (the dolly zoom) makes the spectator afraid too. It is both Scottie’s and the audience’s fault that Madeleine ‘dies’. It is not until the end of the film that Scottie effortlessly makes it up the church stairs with Judy and it seems he has overcome his vertigo. But that contrivance is impertinent to the film because Scottie’s fearlessness by the end states his ability to confront his apprehensions and vulnerabilities – like the audience does. He does so by overcoming the manipulatory power of the moving image and creating his own ending – one of tragedy.
North By Northwest employs montage to produce an absurd and exciting action film. Hitchcock, throughout the whole film, convinces the audience this is a spy story. Perhaps it is: there is a double agent named George Kaplan, a brazen love interest, a prestigious villain, and microfilm containing government “secrets”. The audience’s expectations is that all these leads will reveal a shocking twist. But Hitchcock makes this “spy movie” add up to very little: neither Kaplan nor the government intel exist – two of the main plot mechanisms. 4
Hitchcock instead enjoyed concluding his films with sexual undertones, to emphasize the passion and personal connection to cinema (Norman Bates’ oedipal final lines about his mother in Psycho and Devlin rescuing Alicia from Alexander Sebastian and his Nazi cohorts in Notorious). In North By Northwest, just when the audience thinks Thornhill will plummet from Mount Rushmore, he gets up (where Jeffries fell from his apartment and Scottie was saved by a police officer). Soon after, he reaches for Eve’s hand (in marriage) and pulls her up from the cliff. Hitchcock, after cutting back and forth between the frightened reactions of Thornhill and Eve, there is a transition to Thornhill pulling Eve up onto his lap in a train, that soon speeds into a tunnel. Hitchcock declared this final shot “a phallic symbol ... [and] one of the most impudent shots [he] ever made” (Truffaut 189), suggesting that despite all the madness and frenetic action in North By Northwest, it was a film about passion – perhaps for film itself.
Hitchcock’s twisting of narrative conventions is demonstrated through his adroit cutting. It influences the audience on who they are to root for (like in Psycho with the point of view shots of Bates disposing of Crane’s car), how they challenge their vulnerabilities to the moving image, and predict whether Hitchcock’s films will conclude with logic, absurdity, or even love. Hitchcock’s films are pure cinema because their narratives are ridden under the suspense of second guessing and constantly questioning the audience’s sympathies.
Pure cinema with Hitchcock is a technique that relies on the camera to motivate the action. Hitchcock splices his shots in a montage, which is designed to immerse the viewer emotionally and feel a part of Hitchcock’s cinematic universe. It is this recognition of cinema’s power that Hitchcock’s films are self-reflexive and apply montage to focus on the passion of observing, obsessing, and reacting. Voyeurism is a primary example of self-reflexivity in Hitchcock as it represents little movies within his own. Projection is a personal response from the observer of the action and connotes the main character’s or audience’s compulsions. Furthermore, Hitchcock turns narrative conventions on its head to force the audience to turn their eyes inward and understand how cinema exposes their vulnerabilities. It is in Hitchcock’s best interest to remind the audience of their involvement in what is only a movie. It makes them realize that what engages them so very deeply is indeed pure cinema itself.
1 In North By Northwest, Thornhill may be a voyeur but does not embody the ‘director’ role. He seems to be more of a follower of the story, where the Professor dictates it – and is the director. He reveals that the clandestine microfilm George Kaplan are fictitious. The voyeur’s role as director does not belong to the main character because he does not control the outcome.
2 This technique is referred to as Kulyeshov’s classic experiment. It was often used by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein and today by such directors like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. This experiment involves rearranging the elements of reality (captured by the camera) in another order. Typically, Kulyeshov’s classic experiment requires one character staring impassively at something and then another cut of what that character is looking at. The character’s unemotional countenance forces the audience to vicariously participate and create their own emotional responses to what is shown. This explains why James Stewart’s gestures, in Rear Window, are so deadpan when he stares out that window.
3 The dolly zoom or “Vertigo Effect” requires moving the camera in the opposite direction of the zoom.
4 The “secrets” in North By Northwest is Hitchcock’s greatest MacGuffin, which is fitting since this film is, arguably, Hitchcock’s most absurd.
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