As you work through Hitchcock’s body of work a common visual language starts to emerge. Certain ways he frames people in a screen. Use of light and shadows. Repeated use of particular props. Below I have listed a sampling of common gestures that re-occur in Hitchcock’s catalog of film. – Matthew Hundley
Bar motif/Vertical line motif/”llll”
The bar motif can be seen as Hitchcock’s signature as it crops up in nearly all of his films. An example from Blackmail occurs when the wrongly accuse Tracy has just escaped through a window in the parlor at Alice’s house. The police are chasing him and he stops in front of the British Museum where a fence gives us the “llll” and then he stops again on the steps of the museum where giant pillars produce the “iii” effect. The bar motif tends to imply eminent doom, in this case entrapment by both the police and by the world of the film.
Curtain Raising Effect
The curtain raising effect is a theatrical remnant that reoccurs in Hitchcock’s films. An example in Vertigo is when James Steward has tracked Kim Novack (Madeline) to a back alley where she enters through a door. He enters via steps into a room which resembles the backstage area of a theatre. He proceeds to open another door to reveal a shop full of flowers, a set if you will, upon which he watches a play in which Kim Novack is the star. This is a case of private theatre, where his opening the door represents the raising of a curtain for the show.
Documentary Film Style
At the beginning of The Lodger we find a reporter telephoning the Avenger story in to his office. This provides a transition into a documentary account by which newspapers, The Evening Standard, is produced and distributed. The main point of this is that the newspaper wets London’s appetite for violence by invoking scenes. Londoners desire to view yet dread viewing the actual crime. Hitchocock shows us that what draws newspaper readers to stories about murder is not dissimilar to what draws audiences to films about murder stories.
A good example of the eclipsing effect occurs in Shadow of a Doubt when the detectives are searching Charles’ room and he returns up the back stairs. After they take a picture of him he demands the return to the film. Charlie watches as if she doesn’t recognize her uncle or his manner. She looks down at his hands, troubled. Charles walks into the frame, completely blocking Charlie from our view. He obliterates her on the screen as if in revenge for her failure to keep her promise. Ultimately he fails to keep the young detective, Graham, from coming between them.
Frame Within A Frame
Another oft used Hitchcock gesture. One example of frame-within-a-frame occurs in Murder when sir John is visiting Diane at the prison. The two of them sit at a table. One guard is inside. Another paces in and out of the window in the door producing a frame-within-a-frame. The view presented is one that Sir John does not see. For Diana this guard moving back and forth within the windows frame represents her entrapment in the prison (in the film as well). For Sir John the guard represents the one who will free him from the confines of the (film) cell.
We find an example of Hitchcock using hair as a filmic gesture in Marnie. Throughout the film we find Marnie in new hair colors and styles. The first transition is one we actually witness as she washes black dye from her hair and bleaches it blond. This hair transformation also symbolizes mystery in her identity. This can also be seen to represent the act of washing away the black (darkness, sins) to renew her purity, signified by the lighter blond hair.
Let us say here that handbags conjure up the ideal of female sexuality in Hitchcock. Again from Marnie, we see of Tippy Hedron, back to the camera, hair dyed black, carrying a purse within which she carries money (which represents manhood). She has, following this metaphor, just castrated her former employer by robbing him of his cash (his manhood). We see a similar situation arise in Psycho when Marian Crane has slipped of with a tidy sum from her place of employment. Hitchcock shows us her bag on the bed at the Bates motel, loaded with the masculinity of one wealthy Texan.
In Psycho, after Marian Crane has arrived at the Bates Motel, she is signing the register and Norman picks out a key for her. At the moment Marian speaks the name of the city, the camera shows us Norman’s hesitation as he decides which room to give her. Marion’s hesitation and revelation, “Los Angeles,” (a lie which) acts as a catalyst from Norman’s decision to hand her the key to cabin number 1. Thus Marian’s own lie (moment of guilt/hesitation) weighs on this moment which ultimately seals her fate.
We’ll draw an example from the conclusion of The Lodger in which the lodger attempts to climb over the fence, his handcuffs caught on a spike. What we get is graphic sexual symbolism of this mans impotence, his anguish Unable to move/release, the lodger hangs suspended, hands tearing at him from all sides as he is mobbed by irate citizens.
We turn now to 39 Steps for an example of improvisation in the Hitchock film. After Hannay has left the professors house and after he eludes the police, who would not believe his story, he stumbles through a door to be welcomed, mistakenly, as a speaker of honor. When placed before a group of people expecting a guest speaker he improvises his speech and wallows through a question and answer session as well. A characteristic Hitchcock uses in later films featuring Cary Grant.
Lamps lend to the theatricality of a scene casting light upon its chosen victims. In Notorious, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman sit at a table, the first glimpse we get of Grant’s face, after she’s dismissed her other party guests. The lamp on the table reveals this face of Cary Grant for the audience to examine for the first time. We get this again with Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The library scene in which Vandamm mentions Grant’s acting.
An early example of a Hitchock mirror sequence occurs in Blackmail. Alice has just returned home after killing the artist. She sits at her dressing table staring into the mirror where she finds a changed likeness. The face she sees now is that of a murderess, wrought with guilt. This realization causes her change in manner towards family and friends.
The significance of birds in Hitchcock is partly derived from the idea that birds, with their softness, warmth and passivity–but also with knifelike talons and beaks—combine stereotypical feminine and masculine traits in a dizzying way. There is a scene in Psycho that occurs in the parlor of the motel. Stuffed birds line the walls. In conversation Norman mentions how Marian eats like a bird—the irony here being that his hobby is stuffing them (birds).
A profile shot occurs in Shadows of a Doubt as the family and Uncle Charles are sitting at the dinner table. This scene occurs after the detectives have visited the house and Charlie is growing suspicious of her uncle. The profile shot is of Uncle Charles is from the point of view of Charlie. This profile gives her a chance to examine her uncle from afar. This shot precedes his turn to gaze directly at the camera/Charlie.
White flashes in Hitchcock’s films always have a natural explanation. An example occurs in Rear Window, near the end of the film, where James Stewart is setting off flashes to blind Thornwall. The whole frame flashes white making the audience subject to the treatment of the intruder as well. That the white flash blinds both subject and viewer reflects the depth and ambiguity of the camera as symbol. Who or that the camera’s target is remains in question.