ART AND HITCHCOCK
"Does a painter of still lifes really care if the apples he’s painting taste sweet or not?"
Alfred Hitchcock often used this comment to dismiss the significance of his films’ thematic content. This simple remark was typically used by Hitch to defend his adherence to the "thriller" genre.
But he also used this seemingly innocuous observation to put the lid on any further discussion of the more profound psychological themes he constantly explored.
Perhaps he should have asked,
"Did Eve really care if theapple she was biting into tasted sweet or not?"
But once, after he made this analogy to painting, Hitchcock added this further observation:
"Of course if I really were a painter, I could never imagine myself creating a painting that had nothing to say."
While Hitchcock may have kept his silence on the deeper levels of his film’s meanings, he made it clear in this off-hand remark that he considered what he was doing in cinema to be just as much an art form as painting or sculpture.
Hitch&Almaexplores some of the relations of fine art to Hitchcock; showing how certain scenes and compositions he used were inspired by famous works of art. Think of the revolving shots embracing couples in both Vertigo and North by Northwest, then take at look at the swirling composition of Rodin’s famous sculpture the Kiss.
Many people have pointed out the similarity of the Bates Mansion in Psycho to a house on a hill painted by Edward Hopper. A lesser known art reference in this film occurs during the basement finale, with the swinging light bulb, the skull-like mother’s face, and Lyla’s open scream, are all very reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica.
In the finale of The Birds, Tippi Hedren is mauled like a Christian Martyr from a baroque painting, as Cross-shaped birds fly directly toward her. Her undulating body becomes reminscent of Cimabue's Christ on the Cross, offering compelling weight to the arguement that this Hitchcock classic is really a metaphor for the Last Judgement. This is not the first time Hitch has used religious iconography in his films. The climatic chase of his silent era film, The Lodger culminates with the tortured accused hero hanging from handcuffs caught of an iron fence as an angry crowd looks down on him, just like in a Caravaggio. The tortured Cuban couple seen near the end of Topaz looks exactly like a painting of Mary holding Christ, by the seventeenth century Spanish artist Zubaran.
Perhaps Hitchcock put so much art in his work because he knew the end product would be his own work of art It is no surprise then, that Hitchcock was also a collector of paintings, owning works by Klee, Vlaminck, Soutine, Roault, and Picasso. Klee was among his favorite artists, and it’s easy to see why this Swiss artist’s childlike and inner world would appeal to such a private man with his own a rich secret interior life.
In one of his most poetic movies, The Birds, one can see allusions to artists like the surrealist Magritte, the Norwegian expressionist Munch, and even Andrew Wyeth. The montaged black silhouettes of birds against the sky in the Preview short for The Birds are stunningly reminiscent of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. In fact, the schoolyard’s bird laden jungle gym would fit perfectly into any modern sculpture exhibit. Many examples like these can be found in practically every one of his films.
Art is also frequently used in his films as a way of defining his characters. Think of Bruno’s quirky mother in Strangers on a Train. When the audience first hears her casual banter with Bruno about his aborted plan to blow up the White House, we suspect she might be a little off. But when we see her "mad portrait" of St. Francis, her painting confirms that she is completely crazy.
In one of Hitchcock’s most personal (and one could also say most painterly) films, The Trouble with Harry, the implied theme of the Resurrection is reinforced by Sam Marlowe’s charcoal portrait of the deceased Harry, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Roualt’s Portrait of Christ. When Sam quickly redraws the "dead" face of Harry into a vibrant living one in front of Deputy Calvin Wiggs, the drawing itself becomes an icon of resurrection. Marlowe’s roadside paintings were executed by Hitchcock friend, the artist John Ferren. Ferren later went on to compose the animated nightmare sequence in Vertigo, itself a striking work of art.
The first instance in which Hitchcock commissioned an artist to create such an important visual art set piece occured in Spellbound. In that film he commissioned the noted surrealist Salvador Dali to create the pivotal dream sequence. This remarkable commission in many ways follows the theatrical tradition of embracing great artists, as when Picasso designed ballet sets for Diagalev. It's also consistent with a Hitchcock adage that served him well throughout his long career as a director: namely, that being just because he could envision the need for a certain component in one of his films, it didn't follow through that Hitchcock himself was the most qualified to do it. By learning to delegate, Hitchcock provided a showcase for such talents as Saul Bass, Henry Bumstead, cinematographer Robert Burkes, and many others.
Portraits serve as powerful metaphors in many Hitchcock films. The portrait of Carlotta Valdez(painted by John Ferren)seemingly casts a spell over Madeline, while serving as the model for a love incantation icon, painted by the frustrated Midge. In Suspicion, Cary Grant almost causes the disapproving portrait of Lina's wealthy father to jump off the wall when he asks for its daughter's hand in marriage. The pompous chromo later gets it revenge, when the financially desperate Grant finds out the portrait is the only thing the angry father leaves him and Lina in his will.
The evil Miss Danvers plots her revenge against Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, by suggesting a period dress worn by an ancestor in the family portrait gallery. Norman Bates mimics the lecherous Elders spying on Suzanna's Bath, when he lifts off the painting depicting this biblical scene to find a peephole into Janet Leigh's bathroom. Dead husbands continue to preside over the lives of their widows in both The Paradine Case and The Birds. The implication in all these instances is that the paintings themselves manifest some lingering human spirit, which becomes a silent participant in the cinematic drama.
Villains in Hitchcock’s films are often linked to art. The apartment of the gay couple in Rope is filled with tasteful paintings. North by Northwest’s suave Phillip Vandamm smuggles microfilm hidden inside of a Colombian ceramic figure he buys at auction. And who can forget the painter in Murder, one of Hitchcock’s most blatant and shocking linkages of art and evil.
But art also appears as a test of human nature within Hitchcock films. In both Rear Window and Suspicion, dull-witted Detectives do smirking double takes at paintings they can't, or don't want, to understand.
Besides serving as a test to some his character's I.Q., art in Hitchcock's films can also become a monumental background, on which the protagonist must do or die. Both Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty stand as monuments to order, perfect backdrops for the moral chaos defining Hitchcock’s world. These giant sculptures become serene gods, staring down on the foibles of tormented little men before them.
These and other aspects of how paintings and fine art have influenced Hitchcock’s work are discussed inHitch&Alma, during a scene where the Hitchcocks walk through an Art Museum, commenting on how the paintings relate to themes found in Hitchcock’s films.
"(Illustrations: Cezanne's Still Life with Apples, Picasso's Guernica, Munch's The Scream, Klee's Head, and a scene from the finale of North by Northwest. About the music on this site: These sound clips are selections fromBernard Herrmann's great film music. This page plays the Main Title Theme from Obsession.)"
A reading sample from Hitch&Alma:
An interview with author of Hitch&Alma, Robert Schoen
Did Hitch have a secret collection of Outtakes? Some Photos and Posters:
Alma, the woman behind a very large man:
Hitchcock's Other Leading Ladies:
The Mother in Hitchcock's films:
Hitch & Herrmann, artists with the same obsessive vision:
Hitch at Work:
The Perfect English Couple:
Reader’s and Web Site Visitor’s Comments:
Book description and how to order a copy of Hitch&Alma:
1999, Events Celebrating the Hitchcock centennial:
Links to other Great Hitchcock Web Sites: