Monday, August 15, 2011

Hitchcock Close-Ups

Hitchcock worked with Hollywood's most glamorous stars and created many of their most iconic moments, often casting A-list players such as Cary Grant and James Stewart against type to reveal the darker underside of their star personas.  His mastery of the subjective camera crystallized in the 1950's and seduced us into absolute kinship with his leads, alternating between an objective and subjective camera in movies like Rear Window, Strangers on a Train and Vertigo among many others.

In Rear Window, we see Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, looking out the window onto his apartment complex.  These objective camera angles are then matched to Stewart's subjective point-of-view, looking through the window at his neighbors.  This subjective angle puts us in his shoes and also implicates us in his act of voyeurism; a technique that is repeated throughout Hitchcock's work.  We see an actor and then we see what he sees.  This becomes a structure by which we are trained to identify with the Hitchcock protagonist.  Apart from creating this identification, the Hitchcock style also makes it possible for us to comfortably observe people trapped in particularly queasy situations, guilt-free.

Occasionally however, Hitchcock also uses the objective-subjective camera to disrupt our voyeuristic comfort by cutting away from the protagonist to train our eyes on a new character, usually a stranger, observing a central character from outside his or her current situation.  We see this in To Catch A Thief when Cary Grant is lounging on the beach and suddenly we are made aware that a bodybuilder whom we've never met is watching him from a chin-up bar.  We also see it in The Man Who Knew Too Much, when Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day de-board after their flight and a woman in the crowd (with an alarming pair of wire-rimmed glasses) observes them from afar.  Perhaps the most audacious example is Psycho, which sets up Janet Leigh as the protagonist with whom we identify for the first 45 minutes of the film until she is stabbed to death in the shower.  This shocking break in continuity then forces us into identification with Norman Bates, as he proceeds to clean up his "mother's" mess.

Abrupt perspective changes are a classic Hitchcockian device that implicate us as voyeurs by introducing sinister characters who are watching the hero, just as we have been.  They also give us outside information which may be critical to the hero's survival and this knowledge generates suspense, as we wonder if the hero will clue into this hidden information and be able to make use of it before it's too late.  In memory of Hitchcock's birthday on August 13, 1899 it is fun to reflect on his sly entertainments.  He made it possible to walk a mile in Cary Grant's shoes and then he pulled out the red carpet from under them.

Some lesser-known Hitchcock films that are worth a look: Sabotage, Shadow of a Doubt, I Confess, The Trouble With Harry, The Wrong Man, Marnie, Topaz, Torn Curtain, Frenzy.