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.

Great scene!

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.


Craig said...

For Christmas I got an Alfred Hitchcock collection of his very early works -- from Hitch's silent films to The 39 Steps. You can really see the evolution of his style in this era, as well as how working in silent pictures enhanced his sense of visual storytelling. It's a more revealing lesson than his later classics, when Hitchcock's genius was fully formed rather than developing, when his command of the medium became so assured he needed to devise challenges for himself to keep from growing stagnant. (An entire movie set in a man's apartment, an entire movie on a lifeboat, an entire movie shot with one camera, etc.)

Most movies these days are so cinematically inept it's hard to think of a film that I would call "overdirected." Snow Falling on Cedars, a desperate piece of Scott Hicks Oscar bait, comes to mind; or anything by Jean-Paul Jeunet. The Coens sometimes go overboard for me, though your stills of the threatening tools in Psycho reminded me of the famous scene in No Country for Old Men where Chigurh menaces the gas-station attendant while the camera pulls back slowly to reveal electrical cords shaped like nooses dangling behind the poor guy.

I agree that there's something very pleasing about "purposefulness." Yet if there's a filmmaker whom I've come to admire more with each year, it's Altman, whose radically different sense of purpose, oft-misunderstood as "improvising," concealed a surer command than he's usually given credit for. His mastery of the pan-and-zoom, for example (or reverse-pan-and-zoom), created an exhilarating illusion of freedom, a sense of life in flux.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice post. I've always found Arbogast's first appearance oddly fleshy and grotesque, his overly close face like more meat ripe for slaughter. It's also impressive how you found all of those screen shots. I like the way one can do a shot by shot analysis of Psycho and seemingly never run out of new observations about Hitchcock's technique.

Richard Bellamy said...

"You would think that since every shot counts, filmmakers would give every shot careful consideration ... " You would think they would. You would hope they would. But they don't and it's sad. That's why seeing a film like Inglourious Basterds is such a substantial visual feast. Yes, every shot provides information, and this great post shows how Hitchcock was a master of the informative shot. Also - I love his gimmicks: the shots including the sharp tools. And what an unusual but brilliant shot from under Norman's twisted neck.

Vuk Radic said...

Great breakdown of some scenes. I got to the Hitch quotes, and that got me thinking on the state of cinema. We are seeing less and less of these carefully set up shots. Even when we do see them like with Tarantino and P.T. Anderson, they are usually (and maybe incorrectly so) attributed as homages to their favorite directors, genres or cinematographers. There may be a handful of original (maybe a wrong use of word here) directors like von Trier and Haneke (the opening shot of Cache springs to mind as a thought out shot) that still emphasize their shot setup without compromising their originality or style.

Which is kind of funny, considering how much of todays films rely on pre-visualisation and careful planing of shots in order to aid post production of special effects. I was wickedly disappointed with Avatar for exactly this reason (among many others). There was absolutely no imagination or play with the shot. Look at how crazy complex some of Hitchcock's shots were, and compare them to what's being done on green screen today. Could we see such a crazy angle today? I seriously doubt it. And we have all Which i find absurd, because filmmakers are finally free from the physical restrictions of camera placement and can literally construct the most beautiful shots they can imagine.


P.S. i just thought of von Trier's Dogville. That opening (or was it at the end, i forgot) overhead zoom was part digital, part film. So a prime example of what a beautiful shot can be today. But i guess it's not the physical limitations keeping the filmmakers at bay. It's the limit of talent.

Jason Bellamy said...

Terrific thoughts, all. Thanks!

Craig: I thought of the scene from No Country as well. Does that make it a direct allusion, or, as Vuk suggests, perhaps the Coens simply have similar instincts. Or maybe both. Interesting that you bring up Altman. The next edition of The Conversations is on Nashville. I suspect it will post sometime next week. In that convo, Ed and I touch on the issue of purposefulness, but not quite using that word. You'll want to weigh in on that one.

FilmDr: Indeed, it's amazing what you find. I didn't notice Arbogast's shadow on Sam's shirt ... not anytime I've watched the movie before or even as I was doing screen captures. It was only in adding captions that I spotted it. I love how it arrives before Arbogast does.

Hokahey: I love that neck shot, too. I'd forgotten about it. But it's not a shot that I feel like I've seen anywhere else, though I'm sure some filmmaker must have borrowed it. (Anyone?) Perhaps it's just all the more striking in black-and-white ... and in a film worthy of its evil vulture-esque beauty.

Vuk: I still need to see The White Ribbon and then I'd like to go back to Cache, a film that I admired (mostly for its technique) but wasn't crazy about. I feel like I missed something. Anyway, point is, I know what you mean.

Good point about Avatar. Emerson has a recent Scanners post in which he rips Cameron for not using deep focus. I don't agree with him there (why must 3-D have deep focus and not all 2-D?). But I agree that Avatar's direction is underwhelming in many respects.

Joel Bocko said...

Great post - with this and your previous entry you've nailed a few things on my mind. One, the the dearth of cinematic storytelling in contemporary features, mainstream and independent alike (especially with the increasing focus on blurry close-ups fast-cut together in action films, pretty pictures which don't quite add up in "indies", and grotesque CGI in blockbusters). Two, the hazards of adaptation which I'm hoping to pen a series on soon - the choices that the specific words on a page can lead to. And three, Peter Jackson's dire "style" - in which a lot of stuff flashes at you but it is delivered with much discipline or taste.

I haven't seen The Lovely Bones but everything I've read leads me to believe it exacerbates the problems Jackson presented in King Kong and even the much-praised Lord of the Rings trilogy (in which so much of what he was actually praised for being slavishly loyal to Tokien's text - as Bob Clark mused on Wonders in the Dark recently, does Jackson have his own vision?).

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