Alfred Hitchcock: Dialogue versus Pure Cinema | Film Analysis


Alfred Hitchcock: “It’s like a lot of films
one sees today – not that I see very many – but to me they are what I call… photographs of people talking – – photographs of people talking – – photographs of people talking – it bears no relation to the art of the cinema”. Alfred Hitchcock believed in pure cinema. Telling the story with only the elements unique to the form: the cinematography, the sound design and the cutting – but not … dialogue. The reason for Hitch’s distaste for dialogue is its tendency to carry the narrative load of a film, an ultimately lazy way of communicating
story information. In this example from the hit 2015 film ‘Jurassic World’, a suspense scene is played entirely through dialogue and the audience is given no visual information
as to the danger. The movement of the camera does little to heighten the intensity and stop it from being a series of photographs of people talking. Hitchcock’s concern was more so that when dialogue is heavily relied upon, the other cinematic elements are ignored. But is there a way to let the audience know what it is going on, without resorting to
have to the characters explaining it? This is what he meant by pure cinema. And Hitchcock was a master of this kind of visual storytelling, even with something a simple as character
introduction. Peter Bogdanovich: “You see in all his films, he’s striving to tell the story visually, so in ‘Rear Window’, I think, you introduce Jimmy Stewart you see his broken leg, you
see a broken camera, you see that he’s a photographer, you see a magazine cover, etc. All done in one continuous shot as I remember, where you are told ‘ok, this is what you’re seeing, this is what he is, and the audience understands it, as a result, very quickly”. Given his affinity for pure cinema, it is surprising to see how talky Hitchcock’s film actually are. The following scene from ‘Rear Window’ is a prime example. Here the dialogue of James Stewarts’ character
seems to be only serving the purpose of reaffirming what the audience has already been told via
the images. Jeff: “I get myself half-killed for you, and reward me by stealing my assignments”. Editor: “I didn’t ask for you stand in the middle of that automobile race-track”. Jeff:
“You asked for something dramatically different … you got it!” But as always, Hitchcock is one step ahead of us using the visuals to establish the next plot points. Upon first viewing, it seems as if this POV shot is underscoring the dialogue of the scene. Jeff: “I’m bored. I’m going to something drastic” Editor: “Like what?” Jeff: “Like what? I’m going to get married. Then I’ll never be able to go anywhere Editor: “It’s about time you got married, before you turn into a lonesome, bitter old man” But as anyone who has seen the film can attest, by the end, one of these two men will be married and the other one will not. As such, this shot lays the foundation on which both the narrative and the themes are built. Hitchcock: “You are telling the audience, giving them some information, but at the time you do, it must appear to be something else In Hitchcock’s films, the dialogue and
images work in conjunction – one presents the text, and the other the subtext. How does this work? Martin Scorsese: “The camera changes position. It’s a two-shot of us right now, this way let’s say, and at a certain point in the dialogue, the camera moves over to
our right, a little bit, favouring me just a little bit. Why, at that point? You see?
You’ll learn that, I tell you, you could do it, you just take, it apart it’s quite interesting Hitchcock – watch the dialogue scenes” So let’s do that. Paying close attention to the
eye-lines, the shot size and the shot duration let’s break down this scene from ‘Strangers
On A Train’. The first thing to note is the eye-lines. Bruno: “You wanna hear the busted
light socket in the bathroom?” In this one shot, we can see three different reactions. This is only a brief cut, but it tells the audience a lot about the character and his conflicted psychology. Especially when contrasted with the eye-line in the reverse which remains still and unwavering, demonstrating the character’s dominance over the other. What is also interesting is when Hitchcock choses to deviate from this pattern. One might expect a close-up on this
line – Bruno: “What’s the life of two guys?! Some people are better off dead!” However, by not using a close-up, the line seems all the more shocking because Hitchcock hasn’t visually preconditioned the audience to expect it. There was no reason for such an aggressive thing to have been said, but now everything has changed because of it, and Hitchcock uses a close-up to show that. Scorsese: “You can see him changing camera positions at certain points in time, and then go back, say ‘why at that line of dialogue?’ Ahh, I see, you
know, it’s a subliminal implication of some sort where he’s intensifying the drama”. And Hitchcock subconsciously tells the audience a lot about the power dynamic through shot duration. Once he cuts to the close-up on Bruno, Hitchcock holds on him. It is not for a conspicuously long time, but it’s invisibility is what makes it masterful. Guy: “That’s a
morbid thought” Bruno: “No, no, no, no, just suppose. Let’s say you had a very good reason” When broken down into pure statistics like this, it is clear who dominates the scene. Bruno: “…it’s a murder. Then there’s nothing to connect them” The effect is not to show that Bruno has all the power but that Guy has next to none. One could ask ‘then why was it necessary to show Guy at all?’ Hitchcock demonstrates how
little power he has, by showing the brief and meagre attempts at gaining it. Guy: “What?” Bruno: “Oh we do talk the same language, don’t we?” Guy: “Sure, Bruno. We talk the same language” This would not have been apparent had he been lost completely. When one first thinks about Hitchcock, they tend to think about the big set-pieces, the audacious camera moves and the silent moments. This is because they are the most obvious way to explain and demonstrate Hitchcock’s pure cinema, and these moments are of course spectacular and justly celebrated, but as this video has shown, even in scenes that are dialogue heavy, Hitchcock still tells us so much – – so much – about character, story and theme through the images.

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