“Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present.” – Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, 1913.
Tear open the trench coat of any cinematic giant, and you’ll find one of two things: a large, very hairy, naked man, or a stack of normal-sized humans standing on each other Yertle the Turtle style. Every filmmaker is the product of so many influences, tracing his lineage feels like jogging with the Energizer Bunny. But, when it comes to Alfred Hitchcock, there was no greater influence than Lev Kuleshov’s work at the Moscow Film School.
Go ahead. Google it. I’ll wait.
Kuleshov saw editing as the one unique attribute of film. He believed cinema’s meaning derived from the juxtaposition of shots cut together. Show a man’s face – a bowl of soup – his face again. We read him as hungry. A running shower – a knife flash – a screaming woman. A murder. Yet the filmmaker has only presented us with raw material, snippets of celluloid. We construct the story in our minds. He called this editing technique montage, from the French word for “assembly”.
Of course, by montage we usually mean a montage sequence. Hitchcock’s most famous is the iconic shower scene from Psycho (1960). Yet his oeuvre is full of others worthy of study – the attic scene in The Birds (1963), the fights at the midpoint of Dial M For Murder (1954) and the end of Strangers On A Train (1951).** Hitchcock uses these set pieces to amp the subjectivity to eleven. How?
The shot is the sentence of film language. Each one represents a new idea. Each cut says Look at this. This matters. A montage sequence is a paragraph of staccato sentences. Fragments, even. Images flit by. We cannot comprehend them individually. We’re left with impressions of the whole. Gestalt. We’re dropped into the middle of the fight, the animal attack, the murder. Plunged into chaos and terror just like the character. Cinematic manipulation at its best.
It’s tempting to call it a day there. Hitchcock = montage, blow the whistle, it’s quitting time. Let’s go golfing. But there’s another ingredient to the Hitchcock style which gets less attention: long takes.
Directors who favor long takes usually do so for two reasons. On the practical side, it’s often faster and cheaper to shoot a scene in one or two shots. In traditional Hollywood “coverage,” each new shot requires a completely different arrangement of lights, camera, sound equipment, and so on. While these jigsaw pieces are being rearranged, actual filming stops; meanwhile everybody is still getting paid. Ka-ching!
The second reason is less practical, more artistic. If each shot is a single sentence in the narrative a film, what happens when the shot does not simply speak its piece and amscray, but stretches into a Faulknerian juggernaut of semicolons and parentheticals?
Rear Window‘s opening consists of four shots, the last of which introduces us to several neighbors from across the courtyard before pulling back into our hero’s apartment, where it reveals several key details about him and his life: his name [L.B. Jefferies], his predicament [broken leg, wheelchair], his profession [action photographer], and his girlfriend, both in a framed photo negative on his desk and on a stack of magazines showing the positive print on the cover [which says quite a bit about her character, as well!]. From the perspective of our first point, we’ve been given all the information we need to set up the story, and in one wordless shot. Imagine how long it would’ve taken to convey all of that in dialogue – and how boring and uncinematic that would be. No wonder folks in the biz call it “exposition dumping.”
From a film language perspective, there’s something else going on here. The camera, our window into this world, shifts constantly, refocusing our attention but never cutting away. It’s a cinematic periodic sentence, with new clauses [images] piling on the previous ones, forcing us to keep revising our understanding of what we’re seeing until it finally becomes clear at the sentence’s conclusion. Looking back, we see that this shot wasn’t about Jefferies’s quirky neighbors, or about Jefferies himself, but about the relationship between the them, which lies at the very heart of the film.***
Hitchcock shot Rope (1948) in a series of ten-minute takes, the length of a film magazine in those days. He then masked half the cuts by blocking the camera with obstructions – a character’s back, the open lid of a trunk – to make the takes appear twice as long. The result: one almost uninterrupted periodic sentence, constantly reframing, drawing us inexorably toward the final, devastating clause. Eat your heart out, Cicero.
One more thing. We’ve already talked about the gestalt of terror created by a well-constructed montage. Now compare the final confrontation from Rear Window with the last shot from the “bourbon scene” in North By Northwest. Quite a difference, right? Rear Window overwhelms us with instinctive fear, like a babble of panicked voices. The scene from North By Northwest imprisons us in a single voice, an implacable declarative sentence. We see what’s coming, and we’re helpless to stop it, trapped in that single narrative moment. Hitchcock said that suspense comes from giving the audience as much information as possible early on, then making them sweat it out. Many of his best long takes accomplish this, and with an elegance that’s hard to ignore.****
Though frequently seen as as a one-trick pony, Alfred Hitchcock’s artistry lay in his ability to use the full range of cinematic expression. As great a tool as it is, you can’t build a house with just a TrifecturaⓇ ReadyBilt™ Claw Hammer. I mean, you could, but that thing’ll collapse after one good fart. And it’s knowing the right tool for the job at hand that differentiates the incompetent amateur from the master craftsman.
When to cut? When to hold long? When to toss your footage into a high-speed blender, then re-assemble the pieces? These films are some of Hitchcock’s best showcases for the techniques of montage and long takes.
- Hitchcock’s Best Montage Sequences: Psycho, Strangers On A Train, The Birds
- Kuleshov Edits Done Right: Rear Window, North By Northwest
- Hitchcock’s Long Takes: Rope, Rear Window, Rebecca
* Interestingly, the Kuleshov edits in NBNW primarily spread misinformation – see previous entry.
** These three are, in my view, superior to the shower scene. But are they, from a technical perspective? Or has Psycho‘s montage simply been analyzed to death?
*** See also the scene in Dial M For Murder when Tony Wendice explains his murder plot to his unwilling accomplice. The walk-through unfolds in a series of long overhead shots, suggesting God at His Drafting Table. Then again, considering the clusterfuck the attempted murder becomes, it could also be taken as a reminder that “Mann tracht, un Gott lacht!”
**** And he’s not the only one – see the opening of Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), or several of the tensest moments in Ari Aster’s recent horror film Hereditary (2018).
Truth In 24 Frames © 2018 Ethan R. Friend.