Bachelor Thesis, 2014
24 Pages, Grade: A
The principle objective of this essay will be to explore and explicate the relationship between art and death within two films by Alfred Hitchcock: Rope (1948) and Vertigo (1958). Discussing Hitchcock’s filmography in ‘Saying it With Pictures’, Erik S. Lunde and Douglas A. Noverr credit the influence of art to be of paramount importance to the director’s visual form, remarking that ‘a great interest in the fine arts strengthened the cinematic vision displayed in countless brilliantly conceived photographic images in his films’ (Loukides and Fuller 1993, p.97). Both critics trace an admiration for the classical arts to have flourished in the director’s youth as he immersed himself in painting classes during his time at the University of London (Ibid). Later in life, art would assume a strong place within both Hitchcock’s personal and professional personas; within his private sphere Hitchcock accumulated interest in original works of art, collecting pieces by artists such as Paul Klee, Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dali.1 Professionally, a fascination with the visual arts would infiltrate his body of work, with portraits, paintings and sculptures featuring predominantly within the majority of his films. Although the vitality of art upon Hitchcock’s unique visual form propels the narrative of this essay, it is by no means unchartered territory within the wider field of Hitchcock studies. As part of centenary celebrations of the filmmaker’s work, a unique visual exhibition was unveiled to commemorate the intimate relationship between art and Hitchcock films. Opening in 2000, an exhibition titled ‘Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences’ opened in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Captioned as a ‘celebration of Hitchcock’s personal creative expression’ (Moral 2002, p.171), ‘Fatal Coincidences’ was designed by Guy Cogeval and Dominique Paini to feature over two hundred artworks spanning across the previous two centuries, depicting familiar scenes of art echoed within Hitchcock’s own body of work. Whilst the exhibition has excelled in establishing the painterly parallels present between the real world of art and the surreal world of Hitchcock, the ambition of this work will be to open up discussion of Hitchcock’s artistic influences further. It proposes that art serves not merely as a background prop which accompanies the favoured theme of death quintessential to Hitchcockian narrative, but rather that art becomes embalmed with macabre properties which subconsciously enrich the audience’s perception of the director’s intentions.
The aim of the first chapter will be to explore in greater detail the underlying links present between art and death lurking within Hitchcock’s 1948 film, Rope. Based upon Patrick Hamilton‘s 1929 play depicting the infamous and unsettling Leopold/Loeb murder case, Rope exhibits Hitchcock’s most ambitious attempt in technical excellency as he portrays the story of two homosexual lovers who kill a former friend for the sake of an intellectual experiment. As an experiment in the art of film-making itself, ‘ Rope, ‘ writes William Rothman in Murderous Gaze, ‘presents what is usually taken for granted in a film, continuity, as its signal achievement’ (Rothman 1982, p.247). However, studies concerning Hitchcock’s impressive technical triumph often overshadow the film’s dark subject matter; one I believe art to play a pivotal role within. Erik S. Lunde and Douglas A. Noverr concur with this notion and draw attention to the backdrop of visual arts within the film, stating that the paintings on the walls of the apartment effectively reinforce the themes of life and death so central to the story (Loukides and Fuller 1993, p. 97). My own interpretation of paintwork within Rope will pay less attention to the theme of life and predominantly focus upon its macabre subtext as widowhood casts a shadow behind the story’s murder centerpiece. The chapter will then seek to examine the broader scope of art studies within the film by engaging with both its literary and audio branches. The conclusion of this particular chapter’s research will be less concerned with illuminating the influence of external artworks upon Rope. Instead, it will concentrate upon assessing Hitchcock’s personal manipulation of art forms in order to stabilize a deathly subtext within the piece.
The second chapter will then focus on one of Hitchcock’s later creations, Vertigo (1958). Francois Truffaut introduces this film in the preface to his 1987 book as ‘a work of maturity and lyrical commentary on the relation between love and death’ (Truffaut 1986, p.14). Whilst the purpose of this chapter will not be to dispute Truffaut’s assertion that love and death form an inextricable bond within Hitchcock’s product, it will explore an alternative relationship present between art and death in order to appropriately align with the essay’s ambitions. This portion of the discussion will draw considerable influence from Brigitte Peucker’s field of study within The Material Image (2007), in which an emphasis upon the visual arts is utilized in order to strengthen the film’s deathly undercurrents. Peucker notes that Hitchcock’s films ‘mask a continuous preoccupation with the stasis of sculpture and painting, suggestive of and displaced by the death around which every Hitchcock plot inevitably turns’ (Peucker, p.68). By delving deeper into these ‘masked preoccupations’, the chapter will explore several key scenes within Vertigo which utilize the visual arts in order to cement Hitchcock’s perpetual fixation with death.
Chapter 1: Tying up loose ends in Hitchcock’s Rope
Writing in The Aesthetics of Murder, Joel Black asserts that ‘if any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime, certainly it is the act of murder’ (Black 1991, p.14). Noting that if the act of murder is to be overlooked morally and instead understood within a purely aesthetic context, Black continues to suggest that the individual who commits it could in fact be credited as a type of artist, as opposed to a criminal (Ibid.). His ideas surrounding the aesthetic components of murder draw influence from Thomas De Quincey’s collection of essays, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,’ which similarly point to a ‘colossal sublimity’ linked to the act of killing (De Quincey, last accessed 08/02/14). Murder stories possessing oblique motivations have been noted to present hallmarks of the ‘typical Hitchcock product’ (Pichel 1948, p.418) and within Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, the aesthetic value of killing is explored in its purest form. Inspired by Nietzschean philosophies concerning the superiority of an elite class of beings, Brandon Shaw and Philip Morgan commit ‘an immaculate murder’ on a late afternoon in the tasteful surroundings of their New York apartment. Having strangled a former college friend named David Kentley to death for no purpose other than to engage in an intellectual experiment of superiority, the homosexual couple2 stow the body away in a chest before proceeding to organize the evening’s events. Rather than concealing the crime by disposing of the body, the killers instead choose to throw a dinner party for the family, friends and fiancée of the recently deceased. Alongside these guests they invite their former teacher, Rupert Cadell, whose nihilistic teachings concerning superior and inferior beings have been tragically misconstrued and twisted into ‘a cold and logical excuse for an ugly murder’. Rupert’s invitation to the party unnerves Philip but exhilarates Brandon, as he assures his partner that Rupert may be the one person to appreciate the murder from their angle; ‘the artistic one’. As the majority past critical discussion has chosen to engage with the film from a purely technical perspective, Rope ’s ‘artistic angle’ has become somewhat lost. The purpose of this chapter will be to re-examine the role of art (in a variety of guises) within the film and its close ties with the predominant theme of death.
As briefly aforementioned in the introduction, the backdrop of artwork within Rope helps effectively stabilize themes of life and death central to the story. Steven Jacobs appoints the murderers’ penthouse apartment to present an extension of their own decadent personas, describing it as ‘a temple of the fine arts’ (Jacobs 2007, p.270). Following the murder of David, Brandon remarks that he has ‘always wished for more artistic talent’. Perhaps this desire fuels an appreciation for the fine arts, as the apartment is adorned with an impressive array of modern post-cubist paintings. Whilst some of the smaller tasteful works are indiscernible to the viewer, Joel Gunz observes that almost all of them feature lone women as their subject (Gunz 2005, accessed online 08/02/14). One particular piece which attracts the gaze of viewer is situated in the set’s dining room; within the large frame, it is possible to identify an abstract depiction of a woman. Dressed in a white dress, she appears to be holding an open book in her right hand, whilst her left is raised to her face, almost as though she were weeping. To the right of the hallway, a smaller portrait reveals a woman turning her left profile toward the frame. Gazing out of the picture frame, she too bears an expression which could be construed as melancholy. Whilst these visual fragments may present nothing more than tasteful tokens to suggest the dinner hosts’ supposed intellectual superiority, an alternative possibility can be suggested for weaving these sorrowful women into Rope ’s narrative fabric. As Francois Truffaut notes in the preface to his extensive interview with the director, Hitchcock ‘chooses to express everything by purely visual means’ (Truffaut 1986, p.8), in order to appropriately engage the subject matter. It would appear unlikely then, that the artworks within the film would be selected at random with no concept to communicate. Therefore, an idea I wish to place forth is that the single female subjects within Rope ’s artwork represent widows that reinforce Hitchcock’s ‘permanent consciousness of death’ (Stam, p.122).
As the painted ladies haunt the apartment décor, the single female guests present themselves for the evening’s peculiar party. Janet, a writer who has recently become engaged to David prior to his unnecessary and premature demise, has in a sense become widowed. As David’s decomposing body rests within the chest in the living room, Janet’s lonely figure occupies the frame of the film, running parallel with the women within the paintings. Mrs Atwater, the aunt of the deceased boy, accompanies David’s father to the party as his own wife is in ill health and cannot attend. She speaks briefly of her deceased husband, indicating her own widowhood to the audience also. Whilst the sickly Mrs Kentley is unable to attend the evening’s ‘entertainment’, her place within the filmic space of the apartment is cemented when she calls to enquire about David’s whereabouts. Although not widowed in the same manner as Janet and Mrs Atwater, it could be suggested that Mrs Kentley’s visual absence from the story frame and her separation from her husband leave her in a temporary state of widowhood; thus corresponding with the position of the other female guests. It is no accident that Philip remarks not having the party would be like ‘painting a picture and not hanging it’. By inviting the widowed guests of David to the party, a picture of loss and death is painted before the viewer’s eyes. Just as the painted females in the background are framed in melancholy attitudes, Hitchcock’s camera captures the real women of the film into a similar position.
Although the backdrop of melancholy artworks help to strengthen the morbid atmosphere of the film, Dave Kehr suggests another branch of the arts to reside more prominently in Rope ’s foreground. To the left of the living room, an abundance of literary works reside behind the grand piano. Similarly to the admirable collection of paintings, it appears the villains are attempting to portray their superior intellect to their ‘dull’ guests through these emblems of intelligence. As a result, Kehr suggests that the primary art within Rope can be found within literature and notes the important role it plays in the lives of several major characters; Janet, for instance, is a writer for ‘an untidy little magazine called Allure. ’ Following discussion of Rupert Cadell, the audience is able to deduce that he too has a literary background, as a publisher of philosophy. Rupert’s past occupation as a prep school teacher to the killers is similarly immersed in literary study. Whilst David’s father’s profession is not made known to the audience or guests of the party, he expresses a deep interest in literature as a collector of rare volumes of books. In fact, the ‘true’ purpose for the party as far as the guests are aware is for Mr. Kentley to examine some rare editions of literature that prior to his arrival were stored in the very space where the body of his dead son resides. The morbid ties between literature and murder are both figuratively and literally strengthened when Brandon applies one of his ‘neat little touches’ to the crime scene by presenting Mr. Kentley with books bound together with the murder weapon used to kill his son. As the film’s title suggests, the murder weapon is a central object, and is the focus of much critical attention. Juan and McDevitt note that the rope must possess some form of symbolic significance as the villains could have certainly choked their victim to death with their bare hands should they have desired; a fact which is transmitted to the audience within a distasteful discussion of Philip’s talent in strangling chickens. As the rope appears to be an ornamental accompaniment to murder, one possible explanation offered as to why this ‘ordinary household article’ is used has been noted by Joel Gunz to be suggestive of the sexual aggression of the murder itself3. Whilst the suggestion that the rope holds sexual connotations in Hitchcock’s film is certainly a feasible option, another purpose for its use can be sourced within the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Writing in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1885), Nietzsche remarks that ‘Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman - a rope over an abyss’ (quoted in Spoto 1992, p. 165). For Brandon, the ‘abyss’ of which Nietzsche writes is normality; something which he will let neither Philip or himself succumb to as he perceives their supposedly superior intellect to situate them outwith the normal conduct of moral behaviour. The rope thereby acts as a visual metaphor that links the actions of the killers with the philosophy which inspires the murder. This macabre touch helps to support the notion that literature and death are inextricably bound together in Hitchcock’s creation, both in a figurative and literal sense.
Despite previous discussion within this chapter concerning Rope ’s visual motifs that help align art with the predominant theme of death, it is interesting to also consider Hitchcock’s use of the audio arts within the film. Thomas Leitch makes an interesting point within his ‘Twelve Fallacies in Adaptation’ essay that the art of good film-making is not simply achieved by constructing an aesthetically pleasing product; instead, Leitch notes that a careful balance of visual features alongside audio signifiers are required in order to fully engage cinema audiences (Leitch, 2003, p.153). Hitchcock was well aware of the ‘engaging’ properties of music and frequently exploited its power to manipulate his audience’s emotions. Although Rope presents one of Hitchcock’s least ‘musical’ creations, the power of the artistic medium is still explored. In a change to Patrick Hamilton’s original stage play, Philip is a concert pianist; an occupation which provides Hitchcock a vehicle to incorporate diegetic sounds of music into the film. Resurrecting the sound of Francis Poulenc’s ‘Mouvement Perpetual Number 1’ played during the opening credits of the film, Philip weaves the French composer’s sheet music into the film by reciting it on the piano. Donald Spoto notes that this musical motif not only runs parallel to the perpetual camera motion throughout Rope, but also effectively mirrors the ‘spiritual stasis’ of its protagonists (Spoto 1992, p.172). However, Philip’s nervous behaviour surrounding the anticipated exposure of David’s murder produces blunders which disrupt the perpetual flow of Poulenc’s piece. In a climatic interrogation scene between Rupert and Philip, Rupert sets a metronome at increasing speed upon the piano to ensure a constant ticking noise steadily sounds as Philip practices. The quickening pace of the metronome soon disturbs the nervous murderer who insists he cannot play alongside ‘that thing’, and the flow of music is disrupted.4 As the repetitious cycle of Philip’s playing could be suggested to represent the cycle of life, his errors produce a discontinuity which disrupts this flow; just as pursuing his murderous ambitions disrupted the flow of David’s life and ended it. In the final scene of the film, another disturbance to Poulenc’s music occurs. Upon discovering David’s body in the chest, a horrified Rupert tells Brandon and Philip that society will kill them for their cold actions. To alert the authorities, Rupert fires gunshots from the apartment window before taking a seat behind the newly discovered coffin-chest of David Kentley. As the three await the arrival of the police, Philip sits down to play his favoured piece once more. However, the growing sound of approaching sirens mask the melody and again disrupt its flow. As death is suggested by Rupert to await Brandon and Philip, the final performance of Poulenc’s piece creates an appropriately sinister mood which stabilizes an intimate relationship between art and death within the film.
Prior to this dramatic climax, another scene in Rope explores links between music and murder. In the palm-reading scene, Mrs Atwater assures Philip that he possesses ‘good fingers; strong, artistic’, before advising him his hands will bring him ‘great fame’. A wonderful close-up of Philip’s hands followed by the camera’s pan upward to his distressed expression effectively portrays his frightful remorse for his actions. Neil Sinyard remarks that whilst Mrs Atwater’s comment seemingly alludes to his talents as a musician within the context of the scene, in reality, it alludes to the grisly murder he has committed earlier the same day (Sinyard 2013, p.181). A further morbid pun is supplied not long after Philip sits down to play when Rupert Cadell enters the party. Speaking of his musical abilities, Rupert remarks ‘your touch has improved Philip’.
1 Brigitte Peucker notes in The Material Image that among the first paintings Hitchcock and his wife Alma acquired were L ’ oeil and Chevalier of Death produced by Salvador Dali during his work on Hitchcock’s 1944 film, Spellbound. Impressed by Dali’s previous collaboration with Luis Buñuel in the surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou (1929), Hitchcock commissioned Dali to construct the famous dream sequence of the film (Peucker 2007, p.68).
2 Although Hitchcock verifies in his interview with Francois Truffaut that both of the film’s villains are gay, this fact is never explicitly stated or visually displayed within Rope due to ‘the famously hard-ass Production Code’ in place at the time of the film’s making (Miller 1990, p.118).
3 Gunz explains that ‘with sexual asphyxia, mild strangulation, often with a rope, is used to enhance the orgasm. Sometimes people die from it. Hitch, an expert on all things squeamish, violent and sexual, was surely aware of all this’ (Juan and McDevitt 2013, p.68).
4 Rupert only suspects at this point, but the audience are aware that the ‘thing’ to which Philip refers is not simply the metronome placed before him. As the quickening beat of the instrument mimics the sound of an accelerating heartbeat, the separation between music and David’s murder becomes more problematic.
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