With the first reissue from the BFI's Genius of Hitchcock season in cinemas, Ivan Radford celebrates the technical mastery of the director's early silent classic.
The director’s third film is held up by many, including himself, as the first true 'Hitchcock movie', introducing many of the tropes he would later become famous for. But while the plot, themes, director cameo and now, thanks to composer Nitin Sawhney, music are full of The Master’s trademarks, it’s the pictures that really catch the eye.
Hitchcock, as he so keenly demonstrates in his silent films, was an avid lover of visual storytelling. When Ivor Novello’s Lodger first appears on Daisy's (June Tripp) doorstep, Hitch cuts during their conversation to a shot of the 'Room to Let' sign. It’s a simple indication of what they’re talking about – so simple that we take it for granted. That inserted image could be anything: a train. A banana. A stuffed giraffe. Whatever it is, we fill in the gaps to make the most logical connection.
He does the same thing when moving the camera to adopt his characters' POV. They look, we see what they’re looking at, then we see their reaction – or at least, that’s how we interpret it. It’s basic montage 101, but Hitchcock knew how to use it better than anyone. Watch him explain it using, fittingly, a scantily clad woman.
Just a few years after The Lodger cemented his technique, Hitch started to subvert it in Blackmail. As Alice (Anny Ondra) relives her gruesome crime, the painting of a jester repeatedly appears to mock her. At first, it’s a joke between Alice and the audience, alluding to how haunted she is by what happened.
Then, Hitch reveals that she hasn’t imagined the portrait at all; two men just happen to be walking past carrying it. The joke is now firmly on the viewer. But Hitch isn’t happy just pulling the prank once. Oh no, he has a laugh about it several times.
Hitchcock relied on this screen logic, honed through his silent films, for his whole career. Rear Window is a film that consists almost entirely of the person-POV-reaction cycle. The overt theme of voyeurism aside, it’s a superb example of how the judicious use of one technique can create a gripping cinematic experience. The tense rhythm of off-screen surprise/on-screen reveal is fiendishly effective.
Or take the shower scene in Psycho. We never actually see the knife go into Janet Leigh’s body. We see a knife, then we see her screaming. Our brain imagines the rest. Amazingly, even if you’re already aware of it, the trick works every time.
Not all filmmakers have that same knack. During the filming of Psycho, Hitchcock phoned in sick (reputedly the only sick day he took in his whole career). He left the crew instructions to shoot some storyboards devised by the inimitable Saul Bass of when detective Arbogast enters Norman Bates' house. He returned the next day and famously threw them all out. Why? Because the visuals were wrong: Bass' positioning of the camera and the order of the shots made Arbogast seem like a sinister character, rather than an innocent soon-to-be victim.
That sequence, with the camera lingering above Arbogast as he reaches the top landing, is dominated by what happens next: the fall, which saw Arbogast flailing wildly in front of a camera as it dollies down the stairs. It’s that kind of exaggerated flourish that Hitchcock loved to throw in, a hangover from the German cinema he saw when starting out behind the camera. And his silent movies were full of them.
The most well known shot in The Lodger sees Ivor Novello’s guest pacing up and down in his room. Without sound to convey his frustration, Hitch came up with another idea: a glass floor, which he filmed from below as Novello strutted on top of the camera – an absurdly extravagant moment that still wows today.
Thirty one years later, Hitchcock was equally adventurous in Vertigo. How to convey James Stewart's titular phobia? He turned to the dolly zoom to generate that queasy fear of heights – a shot that was so effective in his hands that it soon became known as a 'Hitchcock zoom'.
Even when not lobbing cameras down stairwells or zooming off the edge of buildings, Hitch's shots remained quietly grand. His use of POV in Rear Window plunged viewers headfirst into James Stewart and Grace Kelly’s romance, as Kelly’s face slowly approached the camera lens. But we’d seen that kiss before. Where? You guessed it: The Lodger.
Daisy and The Lodger, caught up in their fling, have a quiet moment in his room upstairs. But as they pucker up, Hitch doesn’t adopt Novello’s gaze; he steals Daisy’s eyes, gazing at the well-known face of the handsome musical star as he leans in for a smooch. You can almost hear the women swooning in the audience.
The Lodger, then, helped Hitch develop some of his most recognised shots and style, but it’s more than the editing and the expressionist angles. The Lodger shows something far more surprising: Hitchcock’s use of colour.
Though shot in black-and-white, Hitchcock used tinting and toning to paint a vivid London on monochrome stock. Living up to the film’s full title, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, Hitch captured the mystery of the capital’s murky streets by toning his nighttime scenes a deep blue. Interiors, meanwhile, were tinted amber, to depict, for example, the light in Daisy’s house.
It may not sound impressive, but when combined the effect is staggering: in one scene, the Lodger and Daisy meet on a bench in a lamp-lit courtyard late at night. Hitchcock tints the negatives blue at first. Then, as we near the bench, amber filters over the top, lighting up the lovers. The result is something that looks astonishingly close to full Technicolor, bringing the location and emotions to life.
Fast forward to Vertigo and we see the filmmaker's fetish unleashed across a full palette. When Scottie (James Stewart) first sees Madeleine (Kim Novak), the woman he’s hired to spy on, in a restaurant, she stands out in a bright green dress against the intense red decor. As she walks past the camera, the screen brightens for a few seconds – a rush of colour that overwhelms the senses. Poor James Stewart. His retinas never really recover.
As his obsession with Madeleine spirals out of control, the saturation intensifies, tingeing everything with desire. Roses adorn his room; a bright red door fronts his house; then, when his obsession reaches a peak, his nightmares flash crimson as he replays her death, falling from the bell tower – a moment that colour-coordinates his love with his fear.
Two years on, Hitchcock continued to show his awareness of colour by moving away from it altogether: Psycho, that gritty, low-budget horror, went back to the black-and-white of his earlier films, a decision partly made for financial reasons, but also because he thought that the blood in the shower scene would be too shocking for audiences. Hitch had no such qualms in 1964, returning to red with a passion for Marnie.
In the psychological drama, Tippi Hedren plays a thief with a fear of all things fuchsia. Roses, blood, a riding jacket – anything sends her into a spin, prompting a filter to flood the screen in bright red. Is it subtle? No. It’s as clunky as it gets, but Marnie makes you appreciate when he gets his colours right.
Rope, Hitchcock’s first foray into Technicolor, sits at the other end of the spectrum. It’s known for its clever editing in creating the one-shot effect, but Hitch’s technical display is also a way to show off his box of crayons. The 1948 set remains subdued, right until the final 30 minutes, when the New York skyline slowly lights up with neon signs.
One green sign adds a sickly tone to the city. The other, a garish red, sees Hitchcock’s grand profile cheekily crop up as a mid-air cameo. Eventually, the lights enter the apartment, bathing the men inside.
"Did you think you were God, Brandon?" shouts James Stewart, surrounded by nightmarish alternating colours. A live-action precursor to his rainbow-coloured nightmare 10 years later? It’s surely a step towards it. It’s also a dry run for Vertigo’s equally bold use of signage.
Besotted with his dead lover, Scottie falls for lookalike Judy and forces her to dress in Madeleine’s grey clothes. When Judy’s transformation into Madeleine’s mirror image is complete, she walks towards the camera. As she approaches, Hitch turns up the green on the hotel sign outside the window, bathing Scottie’s POV in a supernatural light. It harks right back to Madeleine’s first scene in the restaurant – a flawless demonstration of Hitch’s mastery of editing, camera positioning and colour.
Whether Vertigo is Hitchcock’s best film is debatable, but it’s certainly one of his most visually striking. And now, thanks to Deluxe 124’s painstaking restoration of its blue and yellow print, The Lodger can claim exactly the same thing. It may be a black-and-white film but in Hitch’s hands, it’s the colour of magic.