Point of View and ‘Intrarealism’ in HitchcockPosted: January 17, 2015
In 1980, in Wide Angle, Daniel Sallitt writes:
Hitchcock’s work has always provided much of the source material for discussions of the nature of point of view and identification in the cinema. The most readily identifiable and frequently used sequence in Hitchcock has the characteristic form of alternation between closeups of a person looking at something and shots from the person’s point of view of what the person is seeing; this kind of sequence, embodying as it does a very pure notion of viewpoint, has always seemed the central instance of subjective cinema. Add to this the undeniable power of Hitchcock’s films to involve the spectator in the narrative in some way which has always seemed more direct than that of other films, and one has the makings of a rudimentary model of identification, with manipulation of visual point of view creating a sense of subjective involvement by proxy in the film universe. The purpose of this paper is to examine and question this model, which seems to me a simplification, albeit a very understandable one, of what is actually going on in the films.
The fact that Hitchcock’s point-of-view sequences often appear at moments of greatest narrative tension and viewer absorption may be part of the reason that we tend to assume a simple cause and effect relationship; it is, however, worth noting and examining the many examples of point-of-view or subjective sequences which don’t operate in the expected way. The particular point which I would dispute most strongly is that Hitchcock’s films are in some way dedicated to a notion of psychological subjectivity, that the films examine reality from an individual’s psychological viewpoint which we are compelled to share. It is necessary to ask exactly how Hitchcock employs subjective techniques, and exactly what their effect is, before deciding on what level subjectivity is operating in the films. In addition, I wish to identify more general aesthetic strategies operating in Hitchcock of which point of view is a specific manifestation.
The first thing to consider on the subject of point of view and subjectivity is the frequency with which Hitchcock switches the visual point of view from character to character within a sequence. A few examples, chosen at random from among many: the switch to the crofter’s point of view as he spies on Donat and Peggy Ashcroft from outside the house in The Thirty-Nine Steps; in the church sequence in the second Man Who Knew Too Much, the pastor’s point-of-view shots of his wife informing him of Stewart and Day’s presence, in a sequence which otherwise works from Stewart and Day’s point of view; the transition from Grant and Bergman’s point of view in the wine cellar in Notorious to Rains’ point of view as he sees them kissing; the seamless alternation between the point of view of Bruno and Miriam in the fairground murder sequence in Strangers on a Train. There is no shortage of such examples; Hitchcock constantly exercises his option of moving from one point of view to another. What is most interesting about these alternations is that they jolt the spectator so little.
There is no more sense of dislocation or of a violation of rules than there is with any shift of emphasis from one aspect of a situation to another. On the basis of this observation, one should question the extent to which the use of a character as the focal point of a point-of-view sequence necessitates an adoption of that character’s psychological perspective on the event. If this were the case, one would expect to be jolted at each switch of point of view, as one were forced to adopt a different psychological orientation. Indeed, if we know anything about a character’s psychology during a point-of-view shot, it consists of stored knowledge from previous scenes or shots rather than information obtained from the shot itself; any inferences we make about the psychological state of our “stand-in” are just that, intellectualized inferences; whereas the direct impact of the shot comes instead from our perception of what one would see from this point in the film universe. Our eyes substitute for the character’s eyes, but we have no force acting on us at that moment to even make us aware of the character’s thoughts, much less to make us share them.
As confirmation of this, note the large number of point-of-view shots in which there is no importance attached to the character’s psychology, or even in which there is no particular character corresponding to the point of view (for instance, when a shot previously established as a character’s point of view is repeated after the character has gone). A few examples: the early shot in Notorious in which we get the point of view of a newsman looking into the courtroom; in the scene in Foreign Correspondent in which the two fake policemen are trapped by an accumulation of hotel workers, the point-of-view shots of McCrea and Day escaping down the corridor as seen by the pseudo-cops; Raymond Burr’s point-of-view shots of the blindness inflicted by Stewart’s flashbulbs in Rear Window; the point-of-view shots through the windows of the stalled dining car in The Lady Vanishes, many of which have no observer of whom to be the point of view. Here there is little or no possibility of the point-of-view shots being intimately bound up with character psychology and still the shots work perfectly well, giving us no sense of being daring or unusual devices.
The effect is very much as if we were simply borrowing a character’s eyes for a moment so that we could use their viewpoint. One concludes that, far from being a device to inflict the character’s psychology on us, the point-of-view shot is somehow rather impersonal and remote from the character whose point of view is being used, as if our direct experience of a viewpoint would always outweigh our intellectualized inference of what the shot would make the character feel. The point-of-view shot seems to be an accurate evocation of a character’s psychological state only when that psychological state resembles the one that the point-of-view shot naturally inflicts on us, the sense of suddenly having visual access to a new, different universe—as in, for example, the scenes of Vera Miles exploring the Bates house in Psycho, or of Fonda being jailed in The Wrong Man. Which is to say that the point-of-view shot is a means of putting the spectator in some relation, not to the character, but to the film universe.
Arguments for Hitchcock being a filmmaker committed to a subjective exploration of psychology are usually bolstered by his occasional tendency to use stories which heavily favor a single character’s experience. But even in these extreme cases, Hitchcock will not hesitate to violate the central character’s perspective if it serves his purpose. On the obvious side, one can point out that Vertigo, probably Hitchcock’s most truly subjective film, abruptly moves outside Stewart’s viewpoint with its revelation of the single identity of Judy and Madeleine, a move which would be unthinkable if Hitchcock were indeed making a film from a single character’s perspective. Rear Window, the other film most often cited in this context, clearly illustrates how little Hitchcock is faithful to the notion of the single viewpoint. True that all the scenes involving the observation of the apartments across the courtyard are shot in point-of-view style–although sometimes the point of view is Stewart’s, sometimes the common point of view of Stewart, Kelly and Ritter and sometimes no particular person’s point of view (i.e., a shot previously established as someone’s point of view is used when no one is looking out the window). But it is worth noting that almost none of the scenes which take place within the apartment are shot to favor the perspective of Stewart or anybody else, neither the Stewart/Kelly discussions nor the multi-character scenes nor, largely, the final Stewart/Burr confrontation. Conclusion: given a situation which invites point-of-view treatment (such as spying on neighbors), Hitchcock resorts to it freely, regardless of character psychology; given a situation which doesn’t invite point-of-view treatment, Hitchcock is liable not to use it even when a subjective viewpoint would be more consistent.
Before a discussion of an alternate explanation of point of view in Hitchcock’s films, one should briefly wonder: if point-of-view strategies don’t create subjective psychological identification, how to account for the remarkable empathy with characters that one is commonly drawn into in Hitchcock? I would tend to look in the realm of narrative structure and acting rather than in the realm of camera viewpoint for solutions to questions of sympathy and endorsement….(read more)
This article was published in Wide Angle, vol. 4, no. 1, 1980.
1. V. F. Perkins, Film as Film (Middlesex, England: Penguin. 1972), pp. 143-44.
Daniel Sallitt has a Master’s Degree in screenwriting from U.C.L.A.
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