TORN CURTAIN: Deconstruction of a scene (the killing of Gromek)

Torn Curtain may be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most problematic and frustrating films.  It is a film of moments, a few of them quite good, and perhaps the greatest moment is the Gromek murder sequence.   Here is Hitchcock to set the scene:

In doing that long killing scene, my first thought again was to avoid the cliche.  In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly.  They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not.  And I though it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time to kill a man.

This sequence runs around 8 minutes and 8 seconds in length, and is made up of 138 pieces of film, which averages out to an editorial cut every 3.5 seconds.   I have seen this sequence many times, and thought I knew it very well, but it was only upon studying it frame by frame that I realized how much Hitchcock relies on quick cutting and montage here.  This sequence is similar in that regard to the shower scene in Psycho and the attic attack in The Birds, although this sequence runs much longer.

Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) enters the small house, looking very happy that he has caught Professor Armstrong (Paul Newman), who is looking for another way out.

There is some standard back and forth cutting here, as Gromek begins to question Anderson.  Then Anderson and the woman (Carolyn Conwell) move to the center of the room, with the supporting beam between them.    

There is some more back and forth cutting, then Gromek calls Anderson to the door.  Gromek shows him the pi symbol drawn in the dirt.  Hitchcock does something very interesting with the cutting here.  As Gromek is interrogating Anderson, trying to provoke him, he reaches out his hand and pokes at Anderson’s midriff.   This is shown in a couple of very fast (< 1 second) insert shots, almost like blows.

Gromek closes the door, and Newman moves back to the center of the room.  As Gromek moves to the phone  to call in and report there is more back and forth cutting here, with the shots averaging 3 seconds or so.  After Gromek dials the phone, the pot of soup is hurled, landing just above the phone.  Hitchcock here inserts an extremely fast, almost subliminal close up of the the pot passing Gromek’s head.  I had to slow the image down to 1/8 speed to be sure it was an editorial cut and not a zoom.  It is a seamlessly inserted cut on movement, which then returns to the medium shot of the pots contents all over the phone and the wall.  

Then Hitchcock gives us this interesting image, the only such image in the sequence.  Why does he pull back like this, besides the fact that the composition of the shot is beautiful, almost like a painting?  I think it is to show us the lay of the land, before the confrontation begins in earnest.

Gromek goes for his gun, which flies across the room as Anderson grapples for it.  The woman grabs it.  Unfortunately she cannot use it, because the taxi driver outside the window would certainly hear.  Anderson has Gromek in a chokehold, which we observe from a high angle.

Hitchcock employs his subjective point of view, as he often did, by giving us shots from the woman’s POV.  She observes the taxi driver out the window, then searches for a quiet weapon.   She sees the knife in the kitchen drawer.

Then Hitchcock places the camera in front of her, and slowly tracks as she crosses the room, holding the knife out.

There is more cutting back and forth here between the woman and the struggling men.  She is hesitant, not wanting to injure Anderson.  Gromek continues to talk (“She’s gonna cut your fingers off”).

Finally she stabs Gromek.  Just at the instant of the blade landing, it snaps off.  And here Hitchcock inserts another one of those very fast, almost subliminal close ups before returning to the medium shot.

Gromek continues to stuggle with the tip of the blade embedded in his neck.  Now Hitchcock returns to the subjective point of view as the woman looks around for another weapon.  She sees the shovel, and grabs it.

The next series of shots are done in montage, about 8 shots in less than 10 seconds.   First a close up of the shovel hitting Gromek’s knee, then a close up of his face in pain.  This repeats four times.  Until Gromek finally slumps to the floor.

Gromek just won’t quit.  He smiles as he begins to rise again.  Once again the woman scans the room, and her eyes stop on the oven.  We get a close up of her hands  turning on the gas jets, then she and Anderson begin to grapple with Gromek.

Then comes a fascinating sequence of shots, from mostly from Gromek’s point of view.   As the other two are sliding Gromek across the floor towards the stove, we get a close-up of Anderson’s face, then Gromek’s head on the ground, the a close-up of the woman, and finally a shot of the open oven.  This same four-shot sequence repeats two more times, with the oven getting closer each time it repeats.  We see a total of 12 shots in 28 seconds.  

We next get a one-second shot of Gromek’s head going in the oven.  Then we cut to an overhead shot of Gromek in the oven.  After all the rapid cutting, Hitchcock holds this shot for 41 seconds without a cut.  We see Gromek’s hands flailing, then finally falling limply to his side, indicating his death.

The final cut of the sequence begins with a close up of the gas jets being turned off.  But Hitchcock does not cut away from this.  Instead he keeps one continuous take, as the two survivors move away from the stove, recovering from their ordeal.  This shot is the longest in the sequence, at around 50 seconds.  Why does Hitchcock end with this long take?  It allows both the characters and the audience to catch their breath.

As in many of Hitchcock’s signature scenes, he employed all three of his favorite camera techniques here:  montage, the long take, and the subjective point of view.   The sequence was carefully storyboarded before shooting, and when you break it down, you can see how each individual piece of film is integral to the story that Hitchcock is telling.

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SPELLBOUND: Deconstruction of a scene (Gregory Peck sees white)

While constructing the movie Spellbound Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely bursting with ideas.  In this piece I would like to take a look at one sequence that is full of ideas, and also incorporates many of Hitchcock’s favorite visual motifs in one sequence:  montage, the long take, and the subjective point of view.

This sequence takes place at the house of Dr. Brulov.  It lasts around 5 minutes and 3 seconds, with 22 pieces of film.

We begin with a fade-in from black.  Gregory Peck’s character wakes up at the foot of the bed, gets up, walks to the bathroom and turns on the light.  This  runs around 55 seconds with no cuts.

The first cut is a very nice reverse as Peck flicks on the light;  from being outside the bathroom, in shadows, we are now inside the bathroom in bright light.  Peck walks to the sink, in a dreamlike state, drinks water, looks and touches his face, sees shaving apparatus and begins to lather up to shave.  This all takes about 53 seconds with no cut.

At this point, after two long takes that run about 108 seconds combined, the cutting increases dramatically.  There will be 12 editorial cuts in the next 30 seconds.  As the cutting shifts into high gear, the point of view changes as well.  Hitchcock now employs his subjective POV.  Our first subjective shot is a close-up of the white shaving cup.

Hitchcock then cuts to Peck hastily putting the cup down.  Then we get a quick series of images and reaction shots, as Peak swivels his head around the room, overwhelmed by the bright white surfaces everywhere.

First he looks at the white sink.

Then he looks at the white chair to the left of the sink.

Next he whirls around and notices the white counter top, upon which even the jars are white.

And finally he turns to the white bathtub.

He walks out the bathroom door, and we cut again on a reverse.  Peck is back in shadows, only now he is holding the razor blade in his hand.

At this point the cutting slows down, heightening the tension.  Hitchcock returns to the subjective POV as Peck looks at the white bedspread, following it up to the sleeping face of Ingrid Bergman.

Peck slowly walks into the room, moving close to Ingrid Bergman, the threat of the knife still visible in his hand.  Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Bergman, highlighting her vulnerability.  Will the sleepwalking Peck kill her?

 

Instead Peck walks out the door to the landing.  Then Hitchcock employs a fantastic shot, in which Peck walks downstairs, razor in hand, and walks into a closeup on the razor.  This lasts around 35 seconds without a cut.

Then begins the longest shot of the sequence, running around 75 seconds without an editorial cut. We start with a subjective POV shot of actor Michael Chevhok, as Dr. Brulov, at his desk.  Chekhov walks up to Peck, the visible threat of the knife gleaming.

The camera turns to follow Chekhov as he walks into the kitchen and out of frame, although we can still hear him talking.  He then walks back into frame.  This entire time, the razor is prominently displayed.

The camera then turns to follow Chekhov back to the desk, returning to a subjective point of view without cutting.  Chekhov has his back to the camera as he pours the milk (to disguise the fact that he is drugging it, as we will learn later).  He then walks back and hands the glass to Peck.  All of this happens with no editorial cutting.

Finally we cut to a reverse of Peck as he prepares to drink the milk.

The sequence ends with this very clever shot, a POV shot seen through the glass of milk!  As the glass tips up, the frame turns to white.  And as the sequence began on a fade-in from black, it ends on a fade-out to white.  A fitting end, since white is the color that triggers Peck’s episodes.

In a span of only five minutes, Hitchcock heightens the tension of the scene by employing several techniques.  First of all in the cutting, which begins with long takes, then moves to a short montage of quick cutting as Peck reacts to all the white objects in the bathroom, and finally stretching out again to longer takes at the end.   He also creates tension through the prominent placement of the razor in the frame.  It is never used (or even held) in a threatening manner, but it feels menacing because of how it is shot, and lit.  And finally tension is heightened through the use of clever subjective POV shots.

I will close with some comments Hitchcock made about this sequence in an article he penned in 1946:

Here is one way of making drama out of camera angles.  In Spellbound you’ll remember the scene where Gregory Peck comes down a curving flight of stairs with an open razor in his hand…Now, in that scene I hardly move the camera at all.  It is placed facing the stairs and Gregory walks right into the camera — right into the audience.  As he gets closer his face and shoulders fade from the lens until all you can see is the razor in his hand.  Then the camera moves.  

But there’s no dialogue and really very little movement.  The whole scene depends on suspense and the use of camera.  We pan to the doctor and hold him while he talks to Gregory…The doctor moves off to give him a glass of milk –which, incidentally, he dopes — and the camera stays with Gregory.  Back comes the doctor and hands him the glass of milk.

The camera moves to a back shot, so that the audience is behind his eyes as he drinks.  You get the impression of the white liquid obscuring his sight as he tilts the glass.  This is doubly effective because in the film white is the color which affects his mind. 

The secret of good directing is to remember that you are telling a story visually.  Your medium is that of sound and sight.  The screen should tell this story as much as possible — not the dialogue.

THE BIRDS: Deconstruction of a scene – The death of a farmer

The Birds is full of scenes that are worthy of being broken down and analyzed.  Rather than the schoolhouse attack, or Melanie’s attack in the room at the end of the film, I wanted to take a look at one short but memorable sequence:  Lydia Brenner’s visit to Dan Fawcett’s farm.

I first became interested in Hitchcock at about the age of 10.  One of the local TV affiliates in Los Angeles used to air an “Alfred Hitchcock film festival” every year, with a different movie televised every night for a week.  I saw The Birds on television that week.  When it aired the next year, I watched again, and this is the sequence I was waiting to see.  At the time, I was fascinated by the image of the man with his eyes pecked out.  Later on, I realized how well structured the entire scene is, just like the rest of the film.

This sequence lasts around 2 minutes and 40 seconds, and features 21 editorial cuts, which means an average of 7.6 seconds per shot.  When you break it down to the individual shots, there is nothing average about it.

I call this a palindromic, or nesting doll sequence.  There is a series of shots that is later repeated, in reverse order, for a different dramatic purpose.

The scene opens on a dissolve from Melanie, into a long shot of Lydia’s green pick up truck approaching Dan Fawcett’s farm.  The camera remains static, forcing the viewer to follow the truck.  This shot lasts around 14 seconds.

Next the camera is set up in the driveway.  The truck passes in front of the camera, makes a counterclockwise half circle, and parks.  This shot lasts around 13 seconds.

Then Hitchcock cuts to a medium shot of Lydia exiting the truck.  The camera then pans left as she approaches George, a farmhand in front of a tractor.  They briefly converse in a perfectly framed two shot, then she walks up the path to the front door of the house.  This is all done in one shot with no cuts, in a shot lasting about 28 seconds.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a medium shot of Lydia on the porch where she knocks, looks in the window, and then enters the house.  This shot lasts around 10 seconds.

Next Hitchcock cuts to the home’s interior, as Lydia enters the front door.  She calls out for Dan, looks around, and then notices the broken teacups, which the camera zooms in on.  We see her reaction, then the camera pans left as she moves towards the hallway.  This scene lasts around 21 seconds.  Hitchcock described it this way:

Another improvisation is the mother driving up to the farm, going into the house and calling the farmer before noticing the wrecked room and discovering the farmer’s body.  While we were shooting that, I said to myself, “This doesn’t make sense.”  She calls the farmer and he doesn’t answer.  Well, a woman in that position wouldn’t push it any farther; she’d walk out of the house.  So that’s how I got the idea to keep her there by having her notice the five broken teacups hanging from the hooks.

Next the camera holds on Lydia as she walks down the hallway.  There is complete silence as she slowly walks to the end of the hall and looks left.  This shot last around 18 seconds.

Next the camera is inside the bedroom.  It cuts to a medium shot of Lydia moving her head into the room.  Now Hitchcock switches to the subjective point of view, as he so frequently did in his career.  We get a series of shots of Lydia looking, then we get a shot of what she is looking at.   The first shot of Lydia lasts maybe three seconds.  First she looks at the broken window, with a dead gull hanging in glass, for about two seconds.  Then we cut back to Lydia continuing to sweep her gaze from left to right.  After another three seconds, we cut to what she is seeing.  The general disheveled state of the room, with another dead bird on the bed.

After holding this shot for two seconds, we return to Lydia again.  The camera stays on her for about 4 seconds as she continues looking left to right, finally looking down.   We then cut to a pair of bloody feet, and torn and bloody pajama legs almost up to the knee.  The cuts continue to quicken;  this shot lasts only about a second.  Then we get the fourth shot of Lydia at the door, as she looks around it to see who is lying there.  This shot lasts maybe two seconds.  And then, we get the shot of Dan Fawcett propped against the wall, clearly dead, with his eyes pecked out.  Rather than zooming in here, Hitchcock does three quick cuts, taking us ever closer, until the last image is a close up of the bloody blinded face.  The three shots in total last around two seconds, with the last being the shortest.

Hitchcock calls this triple shot:

a staccato movement…I wanted a change from the zooming in…And another interesting thing about that moment, I never show the woman’s reaction to it.  I cut to the shoulder.  I never show her face.  I knew I couldn’t.  I knew very well I could never get an expression strong enough.

Next we get the series of reverse shots, mirroring the opening.  Just as the camera held on Lydia walking down the corridor, we now see her running from the room towards the camera, in a shot lasting five seconds.

Just as we saw Lydia approach George and walk up the path in one shot, we now get the reverse.  The shot opens standing just outside the gate to the house, with a little bit of George’s pant leg visible on the right.  Lydia comes out of the house, runs into a close-up two-shot with George, tries to scream but is inarticulate, then runs on.  This shot lasts around 11 seconds.

I would like to quote extensively from Hitchcock here, as he talks about the importance of both the sound and the visual, before we see our last mirror shot of the truck driving away rapidly in a long shot, leaving a trail of dust.

The soundtrack was vital just there; we had the sound of her footsteps running down the passage, with almost an echo.  The interesting thing in the sound is the difference between the footsteps inside the house and on the outside.  Did you notice that I had her run from the distance and then went to a close-up when she’s paralyzed with fear and inarticulate?  There’s silence at that point.  Then, as she goes off again, the sound of the steps will match the size of the image.  It grows louder right up to the moment she gets into the truck, and then the screech of the truck engine starting off conveys her anguish.  We were really experimenting there by taking real sounds and then stylizing them so that we derived more drama from them than we normally would. 

For the arrival of the truck, I had the road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away.  The reason we went to all that trouble is that the truck, seen from a distance like that, moving at a tremendous speed, expresses the frantic nature of the mother’s moves.  In the previous scene we had shown that the woman was going through a violent emotion, and when she gets into the truck, we showed that this was an emotional truck.  Not only by the image, but also through the sound that sustains the emotion.  It’s not only the sound of the engine you hear, but something that’s like a cry.  It’s as though the truck were shrieking.  

In a film full of technically challenging scenes, this sequence is fairly standard.   But Hitchcock devoted a significant amount of time to this sequence, and that devotion is reflected in the final project.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH: Deconstruction of a Scene – Royal Albert Hall (1934 vs. 1956)

Alfred Hitchcock was asked once about the differences between his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  He replied that the first was the work of a talented amateur, and the second was the work of a professional.   I would argue that he’s being a bit modest calling himself an amateur.  By 1934, Hitchcock had been in the movie industry for over a decade, and had directed a dozen movies.  I think that qualifies for slightly better than amateur status.

While both versions of this movie are good, sometimes for very different reasons, when watching them back-to-back I find the original to be much more engaging and fresh.  Both versions feature a penultimate scene that takes place in the Royal Albert Hall. (As far as the final scene is concerned, the original movie wins by a mile, in my opinion.  Would you rather watch Edna Best take a rifle from a policeman and shoot the villain off the roof, or would you rather hear Doris Day sing “Que Sera Sera”?  That’s an easy choice for me.)  I thought it would be interesting to compare the two Albert Hall sequences.  The set-up of both scenes is the same:  The heroine arrives at the Albert Hall as her child is being held hostage.  She knows that an assassination is planned at the Hall, and will attempt to stop it, with no clear idea how to do so without risking her child.

In the earlier version, the sequence runs around 6 minutes and 10 seconds, with approximately 91 editorial cuts, which averages one cut every 4.1 seconds.

In the remake, the sequence is much longer, running around 14 minutes and 20 seconds, with approximately 193 editorial cuts.  This averages out to one cut every 4.5 seconds.  So even though the scene is considerably longer, Hitchcock’s cutting overall is very similar.  So let’s look at where the scenes are similar, and where they differ.  (The reason for the difference in frame size is because the first film was shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which was the standard at the time, and the remake was shot in VistaVision and shown in a 1.85:1 ratio).

Both scenes begin with an establishing shot of the Royal Albert Hall exterior, advertising the concert about to take place.

 

 

We now have similar shots of Edna Best and Doris Day in the Albert Hall lobby, not quite sure what they are looking for.

 

 

Next, we get subjective POV shots, as they both recognize the assassin.

 

 

At this point in both films, after the heroine speaks to the assassin, she makes her way into the Hall.  One difference is that Edna Best actually takes a seat, whereas Doris Day stands in an aisle way.

 

 

The later movie begins to stretch out just a little bit here, taking more time to set the scene before the music begins.

We get these POV shots, as Doris Day locates both the dignitaries’ box, and the assassin’s box.  So the geography of the scene is already established for the viewer.

 

 

Next, the music begins, with a series of similar establishing shots.

 

 

The remake again takes a little more time here, with a greater variety of shots, from a variety of angles.  The older, more established Hitchcock does a better job of building suspense, even making sure to point out both the cymbalist and his instruments early in the sequence.

 

 

In the remake, Alfred Hitchcock has a VistaVision camera and he intends to make the most of it, giving us almost every conceivable camera angle of the musicians in the Albert Hall.  From the left:

 

From the right:

 

Even from above, in strange angles like this one:

 

After this both films follow a similar pattern.  We see our heroine looking, then we see what she is looking at.  This is textbook subjective POV.

 

Now the original film does something clever, out of necessity.  The camera pans along a wire, stopping on a radio transmitter.  Hitchcock uses this as a means to cut to the conspirators’ hideout, so we can see their reactions as they listen on the radio.  This is important because this is where both father and daughter are still being held captive.

 

 

Just as this sequence is unique to the original, the remake has a new sequence here.   Whereas the male lead was still a prisoner in the first film, in the remake Jimmy Stewart has broken free and comes to the Albert Hall.  So the camera breaks away from Doris Day to show his arrival.

 

Next, Jimmy Stewart finds Doris Day and they exchange information.  Hitchcock made the wise decision to play this scene without dialogue.  It is rather like a scene in a silent movie.  We see their mouths moving, we see their arms gesticulating, but we hear only the sweeping music.  Of course, we don’t need to hear the dialogue, because we know as much as the characters do.

 

So the second movie’s sequence will find much of its greater length here, as Hitchcock cuts away to Jimmy Stewart several times while he rushes upstairs in an attempt to find the assassin.

 

But in the first movie, Edna Best has no assistance.  She is all alone.  The cutting increases as she continues to look from assassin to target.  Edna Best gives such a heartfelt performance here.  Another brilliant Hitchcock touch:  we see Edna Best crying, then we see a “blurred vision” POV shot, as if we are seeing through her tears.

 

As the cymbal crash approaches, the cutting comes even faster, with many shots averaging less than a second.    In the second film, Hitchcock really relishes the buildup, with many more shots in the sequence.  Both films have the nearly-identical  iconic shot of the gun slowly coming around the curtain.

 

 

Again, the build-up is much lengthier in the remake.  Hitchcock has many shots of conductor Bernard Herrmann, even cutting to extreme close-ups of the musical notes that indicate the moment when the shot will come.

 

We even get this bizarre shot, just before the climax, taken from the point-of-view of the cymbalist!  This seems to break Hitchcock’s rule of “camera logic”, and yet as part of the montage, it adds to the emotional tension.  As a shot that is onscreen for less than a second, it registers emotionally before the mind can question it.  (If you look closely, you can see there are no hands holding the cymbals.  They seem to float in the air!)

 

When the moment for the assassination arrives, we get the scream of Edna Best and Doris Day.  The original film shows Edna stand to scream, then cuts to the hideout, where we hear the scream over the radio.   This adds to the suspense of the moment.  Was the assassin successful?  (We learn over the radio that he was not).

 

In the later film, Hitchcock gives Doris Day a close-up for her scream, which registers much more powerfully (and effectively) on the soundtrack.

 

In this case, Hitchcock stays at the Albert Hall.  We see firsthand that the assassin’s bullet causes only a flesh wound, and we see the dramatic moment of Jimmy Stewart bursting in his box, and the assassin’s fall, presumably to his death.

 

So, the final analysis:

The original film has a much shorter sequence, but still does an excellent job of building suspense.  Hitchcock employed many clever moments (the “blurred vision” POV, the cut from the radio transmitter to the actual radio in the conspirators’ hideaway) to tell the story.

When he did the remake, the changes in story structure (Jimmy Stewart’s arrival at the Albert Hall) necessitated changes in shot composition.   But more importantly, Hitchcock used many more shots, from many different angles, to increase the suspense of the moment.  While he was no amateur in the early film, it is clear that his mastery of the film medium had increased by the time of the remake, and he used that mastery to make a more powerful, and memorable sequence.

REAR WINDOW: Deconstruction of a scene – The death of a dog

Perhaps Rear Window doesn’t have an iconic scene, in the way that North by Northwest and Psycho do, but it does have several scenes that are worth taking a closer look at.  The one I chose is the scene in which the little dog is discovered dead.  This is an important scene for many reasons.  It is the most heartfelt moment in the movie;  we feel more sorrow for the dog than we ever did for Mrs. Thorwald.   It is also important for advancing the plot, for we learn that Thorwald doesn’t react to the commotion in the courtyard.  And finally, from a technical standpoint, it is shot in different manner than the rest of the film.

This sequence, from fade-in at 1:22:30 to fade-out at 1:25:03, has 40 editorial cuts.  This averages out to one cut approximately every 3.8 seconds.  Many of the clips are much shorter than that.  Hitchcock explained in an interview that the cutting gets faster as the film progresses and the tension increases.  This scene has the fastest cutting we have seen up to this point in the movie.

The scene fades in on Jeff, sipping the last of his brandy.

Lisa exits the bathroom, and walks over to the window, without any cutting.  Look at the way Jeff and Lisa are staged here;  they are seen in a long shot, with a considerable distance between them.

They then hear a scream, and Lisa opens up the center blind.  Notice the nice framing here, as you can see the woman on her balcony.

Next we cut to a mid-range shot of the woman, in distress, and we learn she is reacting to her dog, lying prone in the courtyard below.

We then get a series of shots in rapid succession, very quick cuts of many of the residents of the courtyard reacting to the drama.  These shots last an average of 2 seconds each.  We see the composer’s apartment first.

Then we get, in rapid succession, the newlyweds, Miss Torso, the sculptress, Miss Lonelyhearts, and even the couple on the high upper right balcony, who do not have a “story” in the movie but can be observed in a few scenes.  Finally Miss Lonelyhearts leans over the dog, and observes that it is dead, its neck broken.

Up to this point, all of the camera angles have been the ones we are used to.   Everything is from Jeff’s apartment, or rather Jeff’s point of view.  We see what he sees, as we have for the entire movie.  Now, for just one moment, Hitchcock will do something entirely different.  He will break with his own “camera logic” and give us a few brief shots that can’t be from Jeff’s point of view.   As the dog owner is addressing the courtyard “Which one of you did it?” we get this long shot.

This could still be Jeff’s point of view, but look how much of the courtyard we are taking in.   The dog owner continues to berate the neighbors as she cries.  “You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors'”.  But look at this camera angle, this can’t possibly be from Jeff’s apartment.

What a fantastic framing, looking up as the dog owner says “you don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors.”  We can also see both Miss Torso and the head of the sculptress.  This shot lasts less than three seconds.  Miss Lonelyhearts puts the dog in the basket.

The lady continues her very moving speech.  “He was the only thing in this whole neighborhood that liked anybody.”

We see the newlyweds, looking out of their window, very concerned.  Next we get this wonderful shot.

What a beautiful, expressive image of Miss Torso!  And whose point of view is this supposed to be?  Finally the basket has nearly reached the top.

Her heartfelt remarks are coming to a close, as she continues to accuse everyone in the courtyard.  “Did you kill him because he liked you?”  When we next see Lisa and Jeff, it is a mid-range shot, and they have drawn closer together.

From this we cut to another beautiful, expressive shot, this time of Miss Lonelyhearts.

Finally, the man takes the dog from the basket, and they go inside.

Then, just as we saw everyone react to the scream, now we see them all, in quick cuts, return to their routine.  And we are back in familiar territory visually, with every shot from Jeff’s point of view.  The party goers disperse at the composers.

We then see the newlyweds put their heads in, and close the blind.  The couple on the far upper right balcony get another shot.  Miss Torso goes inside and closes her door.  The sculptress does the same.

When we next see Lisa and Jeff, they are even closer together.

Then Jeff tells Lisa that there was only one person in the whole courtyard that didn’t come to the window to look, and we get this wonderful shot, of Thorwald’s cigarette glowing in the dark like a malevolent eye.

The scene ends on Lisa and Jeff, and they are yet again even closer, as close as they can be.

So what did Hitchcock accomplish in this mere two and a half minutes of film?  He told us that Thorwald is a dog killer, and he told us in a strikingly visual way.  He gave us a very emotional scene, in which the dog owner berates everyone for not being good enough neighbors.  Why does Hitchcock break his own rule, and give us a few very brief shots that are not from Jeff’s point of view.  Because this is the most emotional scene in the film, and those images heighten the emotion.  The viewer will most likely be too caught up in the story to notice or question “camera logic” as Hitchcock called it.  It is powerful and effective filmmaking, and does not break with the concept of montage that he uses throughout.

And finally, we see a strengthening of the bond between Jeff and Lisa.  At the beginning, there is a gulf between them.  This little tragedy, the death of a dog, and the knowledge of its killer, and what that may mean, bring them as close together as they could possibly be.

Here we see how the power of cutting, and artfully framing actors, are tools that can advance the story,  and enhance the emotional response of the audience.  This is the master at his best.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: Deconstruction of a Scene (The crop duster sequence)

The crop duster sequence in North by Northwest is not only one of the most memorable scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work (second only to the shower sequence in Psycho);  it is arguably one of the most iconic sequences in all of American film.  Even people who have not seen the film recognize the image of Cary Grant sprinting across a dusty field with the plane closing in from behind.download (1)What is it that makes this scene so memorable?  It is edited in a way that is not typical for Hitchcock, with many short, quick cuts.  But more about that in a minute.  First, lets let Hitchcock himself set the scene, explaining why he chose this particular setting to shoot the scene:

“Now in movies…the cliche of the man being put on the spot is usually a place of assignation and it takes the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street with the rain-washed cobbles shining in the night…this is the cliche atmosphere in which you put a man who has been deliberately placed in danger.  Somebody is going to come along and bump him off.  Well of course, this is such a cliche thing, you see, that one has to fight shy of it and run as far away from it as one possibly can because it’s all predictable.  Now I decide to do something quite different…therefore, I take the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide.”

This sequence is 9 minutes and 45 seconds long, and contains 133 editorial cuts, which means the average shot length is only 4.4 seconds.  This is very atypical for Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini, who often employed long takes, and avoided standard cutting whenever possible.  (It is worth noting that  Tomasini edited nine films for Alfred Hitchcock, including the classics Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.  Tomasini edited 23 feature films in total, inexplicably never winning an Academy Award, before his life was cut short prematurely at the age of 55, by a massive heart attack.  His only Oscar nomination was for this movie, North by Northwest.)

This sequence opens with a dissolve, from a close-up of Eva Marie Saint’s concerned face, to an overhead shot of  a desolate, empty field, flat to the horizon.  A bus approaches and discharges one person, then continues on its way.

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This opening establishing shot lasts about 56 seconds.  Here is Hitchcock again:

“Now we get him off the bus and we stand him, a little tiny figure, showing, establishing very clearly the complete wasteland everywhere…the mind of the audience says ‘Well.  This is a strange place to put a man.’  Now we go down and we go close on him, and this is where the design comes in.”

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Now Hitchcock begins a series of shots that establish a POV style of shooting and editing.  First, we see Cary Grant looking at something, as in the above shot.

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Next, we see what Cary Grant sees, from his point of view.   The next shot returns to Cary Grant.

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This pattern of cutting from Cary Grant looking, to a point-of-view shot, back to him reacting to what he sees, continues for the first 34 shots, which take just over two and a half minutes.  This puts  the viewer in Cary Grants place.  We have seen what he sees.   And the bright, flat expanse fills us with dread.  Every passing car could be a potential killer.  Hitchcock continues to ratchet up the tension.  He explains:

“Motion picture mood is often thought of as almost exclusively a matter of lighting, dark lighting.  It isn’t.  Mood is apprehension.  That’s what you’ve got in that crop duster scene.”

“…he looks around him and cars go by.  So now we start a train of thought in the audience.  ‘Ah, he’s going to be shot at from a car.’  And even deliberately, with tongue in cheek, I let a black limousine go by…Now, the car.  We’ve dispensed with the menace of possible cars or automobiles.”

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“Now a jalopy comes from another direction, stops across the roadway, deposits a man, the jalopy turns and goes back.  Now he’s left alone with the man.  this is the second phase of the design.  Is this going to be the man?  Well, they stand looking at each other across the roadway.”

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This is a fantastic shot composition, breaking the back and forth between Cary Grant and his point of view.   This is the 49th shot of the sequence, occurring about three and a half minutes in.

Here is Hitchcock again:

“Grant, our hero, decides to investigate, and casually walks across and talks to the man.”

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Up to this point in the sequence, the camera has remained static.  But now, as Grant walks across the road to the man in the brown suit, the camera tracks towards him, again in the form of a point of view shot.  The tension has continued to escalate, all this time.

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When Grant first addresses the man (played by veteran character actor Malcolm Atterbury, who appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows) the sequence has gone on for 4 minutes and 10 seconds with no music and no dialogue.  But it feels like much less time, because of the manner in which the sequence has been edited together.  When is the last time you saw a movie that had no dialogue or music for over 4 minutes?  Let’s hear from Hitchcock again:

“…obviously nothing is going to emerge from this man…Now the local bus comes and just as it pulls up – and this is a matter of timing – just before it gets to the stop, the man says to Grant ‘That’s funny.’  And Grant says ‘What’s funny?’  He says ‘That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.’  Before this can be gone into in any way at all he’s on the bus and gone.  So now you’ve got the third phase.  The audience says ‘Ah, the airplane.'”

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Again the sequence returns to the earlier format of showing Cary Grant, showing us what he sees from his point of view, then showing us Grant again as he reacts to what he sees, which in this case is the crop duster plane running him down and shooting at him.  Up to this point in the sequence, everything has been shot on location.  In the movie, it is an Indiana highway, but in reality the sequence was shot on California Highway 155, near the town of Delano (north of Bakersfield.)North-By-Northwest-on-Google-Maps

This is what it looks like today, according to Google Maps.  As you can see, it really hasn’t changed much at all.  The scene is improved by being shot on location.  There is no question that you are really seeing Cary Grant, running at full speed, sweat on his brow, his tailored suit getting dusty and his tie flapping over his shoulder.  There are a few inserts though, that were shot in the studio.   These occur when Cary Grant dives to the ground and the plane passes, and shoots at him.  The first of these is the 73rd shot of the sequence.

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So this is a process shot, filmed back at MGM studios.   There is a screen behind Cary Grant, projecting footage of the plane passing.

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You can see how this was achieved in this rare behind-the-scenes photo taken during filming at MGM.  Watching this sequence on blu ray, these basic process shots hold up very well.  One of the keys to this is again in the quick cutting.   The cutting between the studio shots and the location shots is fluid and seamless.  The back-and-forth cutting between Cary and his point of view continues, but now the shot length is getting shorter; many of the shots now are averaging less than 3 seconds in length.  He ends up in a field of dried cornhusks, and again the close-ups of Cary in the corn were shot in the studio.

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“There is no cover until he gets into the cornfield.  Now, you do in the design a very important thing.  You smoke him out with the very instrument that you’re using, a crop duster.  Theory being, don’t have a crop duster without your using it, otherwise you could have any airplane…It must be used according to its function.  All backgrounds must function.”

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After Cary Grant gets smoked out of the corn he runs towards the road, and there is a shot of him from behind, running.  This shot breaks the point of view pattern that has been established up to this point.  Grant runs into the road and tries to flag down a truck.  Again we return to the previous pattern, cutting from Grant waving his hands, to the truck getting closer and closer, until the truck is right on the camera, and the viewer.

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The truck stops, almost running Grant over in the process, and the plane, out of control, crashes into the truck.  There is a quick sequence here of the plane striking the truck and bursting into flames which appears to be a model shot.  These two model shots last literally less than a second, almost subliminal, and then Hitchcock cuts back to location, and the full-size plane already engulfed in flames.  Again this section works because of the rapid and seamless cutting.

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As soon as the plane crashes, a Bernard Herrmann musical cue begins.  This is the first music to appear in almost nine minutes of screen time.  The sequence ends with Cary Grant stealing the pick-up truck of an onlooker, and finishes as it began with another dissolve, this time to the abandoned truck on the streets of Chicago.

So what Alfred Hitchcock (and George Tomasini) have managed to do in this sequence is build tension and menace first and foremost by confounding the viewers’ expectations, putting us in a bright, shiny place where nobody could hide; then shifting our focus from one element to another.  This was accomplished using almost no dialogue and even less music, all through the brilliant and seamless editing.  Let’s let the master have the final word:

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Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant on location, shooting the famous crop duster sequence.

“Oh, well a cut is nothing.  One cut of film is like a piece of mosaic.  To me, pure film, pure cinema is pieces of film assembled.  Any individual piece is nothing.  But a combination of them creates an idea.”

DIAL M FOR MURDER: Deconstruction of a scene – Wendice and Swan

  As promised in my previous coverage of Dial M for Murder, here is a more detailed look at one specific sequence in the film.  This is the sequence involving Tony Wendice’s conversation with Swann.  This portion of the film corresponds to Act I, Scene ii in Frederick Knott’s original play.  In Hitchcock’s movie, it is just over 22 minutes in length, comprising slightly more than 20% of the film’s total running time.  So how does Alfred Hitchcock manage to sustain interest and suspense,  for such a long period of time, with only 2 actors in one room?  There are approximately 121 editorial cuts in this 22 minute sequence, averaging one cut every 11 seconds.  This seems like a lot of editing for Alfred Hitchcock, but the specifics are much more interesting than mere mathematics.  Of course, there is more to it than just the editing.  Of equal importance in this scene is the set design.  This is one of the most perfectly designed and decorated sets in any Hitchcock film, and we will see how important that is to the scene.

First off, Tony Wendice (played by Ray Milland) opens the door for Swan (Anthony Dawson), and they engage in introductory remarks.  Wendice pours Swan a drink.  This happens in one unbroken two-shot, lasting just under a minute.  Both actors then take a seat, facing each other.  Then Hitchcock goes into a very “standard” back and forth as Wendice and Swan converse.  The camera is on Wendice, then Swan, then back to Wendice, etc.  This back-and-forth cutting happens over 20 times in a couple of minutes.  The camera is usually trained on the actor who is speaking, but not always.  Occasionally the camera will cut to the listener, so we can read his reaction to what the other person is saying.  This is one way of breaking the monotony of the standard “two-shot conversation” sequence.   Then, just as the conversation is starting to take a turn, Hitchcock does something unique with the camera:

As Wendice joins Swan on the sofa, the camera pans left so that we are behind the sofa, and the actors, with a lamp in between the two.  The camera has moved almost 90 degrees clockwise, and rather than cut to the new set-up, we observe the camera movement.  This is slightly off-putting.  Every time the viewer might start to get complacent, Hitchcock quickly changes the setup, keeping us off guard, and hopefully ensuring that we are paying attention to the very important dialogue.  This camera angle puts the viewer in the role of a spy of sorts, peeking over the back of the sofa.   After this dramatic camera movement, the scene continues in one uninterrupted take for about a 1 minute and 45 seconds.  During this time, Tony Wendice will get up and sit down twice, all without cutting.

 

Wendice ends up where he began, opposite Swan, and after an establishing two-shot Hitchcock goes back to the standard “back-and-forth”, cutting between the two men as Wendice slowly reels in Swan.   It is worth noting the Japanese porcelain figurine behind Tony Wendice in this photo.   The figurine appears in various camera angles, and in a couple of instances appears to be staring directly at the camera, almost as if he is listening in on the conversation.   This is not a random choice, in the figurine or its position.  It is used as a framing object. (This is not the first time Hitchcock used a figurine as a participant in a scene.  In The 39 Steps there is a statue pointing towards an open window,  making the viewer aware of trouble to come.)   After almost 3 minutes of  rather standard back-and-forth cutting, Tony gets up and moves to the desk.

 

Look at him sitting on the edge of the desk, arms crossed, both confident and comfortable.  He exudes power.  By this time he knows that he has Swan, and he is charming as ever.  Now the camera has moved to the opposite side of the room, near the fireplace.  Our view has moved 180 degrees from where we were when the two men sat on the sofa together, with the lamp between them.  Now the lamp is to the left of the frame, providing counterbalance to the figure of Wendice.  Tony Wendice will move back to the other side of the room, sitting now in the deep chair to the right of the one he sat in previously.

This is an interesting camera angle;  before we were looking at eye level, more or less.  But now the camera is in a lower position, looking up at Wendice, whose body fills the frame.  His position of strength has grown.  His tennis trophies can be seen just above his head on the mantel.  Now Tony stands up, and we are presented with an entirely new camera angle:

Now we can see bookshelves behind Tony.  These shelves are opposite the door.  Once again the camera has swung around the room.  We are seeing furnishings that we haven’t seen before.   But there is our familiar anchor, that green lamp, more or less dead center in the room.  We’ve seen it center frame, left of frame, and now it is right of frame, providing balance in the scene’s composition.   Tony walks back to the desk, to get Swan’s “carrot”, his money.  As he walks, we see the only part of the living room that we have not yet seen:

 

 

There behind Tony’s head is a framed work of art, in between two bookshelves.  As he walks to the right, we see the second bookshelf, as well as some sort of china cabinet in the corner of the room.   Now we see the smaller, more ornate yellow lamp on the desk.  It enters this scene frame right.  Just as the Japanese figurine and the green lamp have been important elements of framing before, now the yellow lamp will fill the same role.  Tony tosses the money across the room to Swan.  This is as far apart physically as they will ever get in this 22 minute sequence.  There is a gulf between them, as Swan appears to hesitate.

 

We can now see another ornate piece of furniture, and another art print on the wall.   Note also the brandy bottle, perfectly centered in the frame. Alfred Hitchcock has made a complete circuit of the room, in a span of about 15 minutes, showing us every wall, every door, every unique furnishing.  Most viewers will make no notice of this, because they will be focused on the dialogue between Wendice and Swan, but it is the constantly changing camera angles, and decor, that enhance the dialogue.   One could say that the green lamp is the “fixed point” at center stage, around which the actors turn.   But it is not just the actors, but the camera as well (and therefore the viewer) that have rotated around the room.

And Hitchcock is not done yet.

Swan moves to join Wendice at the desk, and at this point is is clear that they have reached an agreement.

 

Look at the perfect framing of this shot.  The two men are not directly facing one another, but look at each other at a slightly oblique angle.  The telephone, which is to be the instrument of murder, is dead center frame, and directly between the men.  And the “new” lamp, which appears to be of Asian design as well, is now frame left.

Alfred Hitchcock leaves his best camera work for the end of the sequence.  All of a sudden, as Wendice begins to give the specifics of the murder to Swan, the camera cuts to a high overhead angle.

 

I call this Hitchcock’s “God’s-eye view” shot.  He employed it in a majority of his films, usually only for a matter of seconds, and usually at a moment of extremely heightened tension.  (In Shadow of a Doubt, the camera pulls upward at the moment when niece Charlie discovers that her uncle’s gift of a ring came from a murdered woman.  In the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the camera moves overhead when the McKennas are talking to their kidnapped child on the phone.)  Removing the viewer from the action in this way is startling, because unexpected.  It also makes the characters, and the viewers as well, feel more helpless.   Hitchcock uses this angle a little differently here.  We stay in this overhead shot for two-and-a-half minutes, as we observe the plotting of a murder.   So why did Hitchcock employ this high angle here?   Could it be as simple as the fact that he had already shown us the room from every other conceivable angle?  I think there is a very specific reason that Hitchcock saved this camera angle for the end.   It  serves to ensure that the viewer is aware of the layout of the room, and exactly where everything is, so that when the murder comes we know exactly what is supposed to happen.

After this the camera returns to an eye-level two shot, and finally we fade to black over 22 minutes after the sequence began.  The success of the film hangs on this sequence;  not only is Wendice hooking Swan, but Hitchcock is hooking the audience, and the innovative camera movements, combined with the exquisite set design make this sequence wonderful, and a prime example of his masterful directorial eye.