Saturday, February 13, 2010
Alfred Hitchcock and the Carefully Considered Close-up
Every shot in a film has meaning. That doesn’t mean that every shot has one universally understood meaning. Nor does it mean that every shot’s ultimate meaning matches up with a filmmaker’s intent. It simply means that every shot counts. Every shot “tells” us something. Obviously, some shots tell us more than others, either because in and of themselves they are full of information – think of a Wes Anderson interior – or because of the way they are juxtaposed with other shots – think of what we learn about Daniel Plainview’s determination, self-sufficiency and greed when Paul Thomas Anderson cuts from a shot of the broken-legged Plainview’s desert isolation to one of him lying on the floor of an assayer’s office in There Will Be Blood. You would think that since every shot counts, filmmakers would give every shot careful consideration, but sometimes that doesn’t happen.
As the years go by and the stories I encounter at the cinema begin to feel painfully familiar, I find myself responding most to those directors who give me an overwhelming sensation that every shot has been carefully considered. That’s only half the battle, of course; Tom Ford’s A Single Man is painstakingly considered to the point that it feels over-directed. But I digress. The point is that I get a special rush when I detect that the filmmaker isn’t just using a shot but actually believes in it and has pondered why to present it this way and not another one. Alfred Hitchcock was one of those filmmakers, and the other day, when I was pulling a few quotes from a 1970 interview he gave at the American Film Institute, I stumbled across this bit that I wanted to share. It’s Hitchcock talking about the power of the close-up, using a famous scene from Psycho as an example.
Here’s Professor Hitchcock:
“Sometimes you see films cut such that the close-up comes in early, and by the time you really need it, it has lost effect because you’ve already used it. It’s like music – the brass sounding loud before you need it. Now, I’ll give you an example where a juxtaposition of the image size is very important.
“One of the biggest effects in Psycho was where the detective enters the house and goes up the stairs. The shots were storyboarded to make sure there was enough contrast of sizes within the cuts. ....
“Here is the shot of the detective, a simple shot going up the stairs.
“He reaches the top stairs, the next cut is the camera as high as it can go, it was on the ceiling. …
“You see the figure run out, raised knife ...
"It comes down …
“Bang! – the biggest head you can put on the screen. ...
"But the big head has no impact unless the previous shot had been so far away. So don’t go putting a close-up where you don’t need it, because later on you will need it.”
Hitchcock’s description of that scene can be found in Conversations With The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute. The book is a collection of interviewers, and it didn’t escape Hitchcock’s interviewer that the above scene isn’t the only time that Psycho’s Milton Arbogast gets a close-up. In fact, Arbogast is introduced with one. Asked why, Hitchcock explained: “You bring him in like that because you are bringing in a new possible menace.”
That’s all Hitchcock says, and I had to review Psycho to be reminded of just how true that is. Let’s look at the scene in detail.
First, to fully appreciate the scene you have to remember what comes directly before it: Norman Bates, captured in a shadowy close-up, smiling as Marion Crane’s car disappears into the bog.
From there the film cuts to a seemingly safe image: Sam writing a letter to Marion. Except …
As the camera pulls back ...
Hitchcock prods the audience with visuals of threatening tools. Like these …
And these …
And these …
Eventually the camera pulls back to reveal a little old lady – a little old lady holding poison.
“They tell you what its ingredients are and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world. But they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.” Classic sinister humor from Hitch.
From here, Lila Crane arrives. Notice that her arrival isn’t greeted with a close-up.
She meets with Sam.
As they begin to discuss Marion, they feel as if they are being watched. The little old lady is treated with suspicion as she passes by. She’s not a threat. But someone is. Look at the shadow on Sam's shirt.
When the old lady is gone, the threat seems over.
Ah, close-up! Here is “a new possible menace.”
Sam and Lila are oblivious to the threat.
Then, Sam can feel himself being watched …
But by Bob at the desk.
Bob leaves and Sam and Lila believe they are alone. They are thus vulnerable to the possible menace outside ...
The man steps in. And by "in," I mean all the way in – as tight as the close-up can get and still hold his face.
Sam and Lila are still oblivious to the man in the hat ...
Until he speaks. Classic horror reaction shot!
The man in the hat steps closer.
Uncomfortably close. Out of focus.
Hitchcock cuts to a predatory view over his shoulder. Is he a menace?
Sam is fearful until Arbogast introduces himself as a private investigator.
With that, the man in the hat is eliminated as a menace and the tension is released.
Before we go, let’s look at one more scene from Psycho involving Arbogast in which Hitchcock uses his close-ups carefully. In the scene below, Arbogast shows up at the Bates Motel.
Initially, Norman and Arbogast are shown in a rather distant two-shot, with Arbogast lower than Bates, a subservient position.
Inside the hotel office, as Arbogast begins his questioning, they’re now on equal footing.
Norman is holding his own until Arbogast asks to look at the registry …
Knowing Marion’s name is in the book, now Norman feels threatened and Hitchcock goes to a close-up.
Arbogast smells blood in the water and gets his own close-up. He’s on to something.
Now even the picture of Marion gets a close-up.
And so it goes ...
Until Norman worms his way out of the conversation and Arbogast backs off.
Hitchcock was a firm believer in storyboarding. Then again, so is George Lucas. Careful planning alone can’t make for a great film. Still, there’s something about purposefulness that I’ll always find rewarding.