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The Sinister Chandelier

 | Review |

  BY Anuj Malhotra

"we have forgotten why Joan Fontaine
leans over the edge of the cliff

and what it was that Joel Mc Crea
went to do in Holland

we have forgotten for what reason
Montgomery Clift kept an eternal silence

and Janet Leigh stopped at the Bates Motel
and why Theresa Wright is still devoted to Uncle Charlie
we have forgotten that Henry Fonda is not completely guilty

and why exactly did the American government
employ Ingrid Bergman…"

                -Jean-Luc Godard, Histoires du Cinema, Episode 4a[1]

The central story of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal (though not his best film) Psycho begins with an aerial, all-encompassing, sweeping shot of the city-scape of Phoenix, Arizona (the title card judiciously announces this; a crucial strategy for a film about crime that will exist, that must exist outside this urban sprawl) and it ends, effectively, under the oscillating illumination from a single hanging lamp inside a certain cellar of a certain house behind a certain motel – one may view the entire film, therefore, as a long journey from the outdoors to the indoors – from the grand exterior location to the suffocating interior; thereby, spending its entire state of existence going in. In this, Hitchcock’s approach as a filmmaker is entirely the opposite of Fritz Lang, whose villainy would originate inside the mind of a single criminal seated on a single chair in a single building, but would then because of his actions radiate outwards into the world, altering its molecular nature and causing mass disruption – the sinister element in a Hitchcock, on the other hand, would generate somewhere outside, in an identifiable but not specific place, in some spectacular vague arena where phantoms are heard to gather, and then, as the film would unfold, a single household would begin to absorb all the nastiness outside, becoming the reservoir of all that is wrong with the world. If Lang’s approach was to spread, Hitchcock’s was to deposit; if Lang’s was to travel from the specific to the universal, Hitchcock’s was to move from the vague to the particular. If Lang was a director of mass-malaises, worker-revolutions, lynch mobs, kangaroo courts and pop-culture hysteria, Hitchcock directed, in essence, family dramas.

There were flourishes in most of the his films preceding the one in question presently, but it is with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog that Hitchcock’s artist-manifesto (‘home as the site of all drama’) began to ripen into a definite whole. This production from 1927 is undeniably[2] accorded some of its ingenuity by the fact of Ivor Novello’s (the titular lodger) status as a crowd-attraction, which meant that the film could not, in any certain terms, declare him as the murderer. While The Lodger is in and by itself, a great demonstration of Hitchcock’s immense fund of cinematic technique and its application in the service of concentrated terror, the lingering ambivalence in regards to the Novello character is really the tail of the comet – it ensures that the effect of the film lasts beyond its running time. The final image from the film is perhaps the definitive Hitchcock image (which is, needless to say, saying a lot considering the man worked in two continents over five decades): the lodger and his new wife stand looking longingly at each other in front of a glass window in their new house. They occupy the foreground of the frame, while in the distant background, the sinister neon-sign employed throughout the film as a leitmotif to murder, blinks ceaselessly atop a building in London. This is to propel the classic sense of foreboding resident in a lot of Hitchcock: even as a couple gets together to start a new life, there is a traumatic past that may never leave them.

The sign in the background: One of the most definitive of all Hitchcock images

Hitchcock takes a real-life literary account which describes the public fascination with Jack the Ripper and places its effects on a working-class household in the city. This premise, as it turns out, was ideal for Hitchcock, then in his mid-20s (and born around the same time as ol’ Jack and Sherlock Holmes) who would throughout his career, place a long-standing distrust in all that is commonplace. 

What would you say was the theme of this film? 
If you like it you can make it the theme of too much complacency in the world: that people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all  [3]

The above quote is a from a critical interview Hitchcock did for The Birds, a latter-day film (made around 36 years after The Lodger) where the first evidence of a horror (the discovery of the dead farmer’s body), the protagonist’s first brush with terror (a dead bird falls from the chimney even as everyone lies in wait) and the final attack (inside the attic, on the female lead) all happen, integrally, within the walls of a home (or in the case of this film, a house). If anything, Hitchcock’s style as a director was one that functioned entirely through evocation or gentle hint – this may also explain his fondness for the classical Soviet montage (apart from the theory’s obvious contribution to the specificity of the medium), which was a strategy built entirely around the power of the medium to suggest or imply through establishing perceptible connections and linkages between concrete objects, intangible ideas or visible images. As such, his style succeeded the most when he would empty a prop and then feel it with a new liquid of meaning; usually, it was a sinister connotation, but sometimes, as in the case of the bracelet in The Ring which suggests adultery (the title stands not only for the sporting-enclosure, but also the wedding ring or even more abstractly, the ring of a marital alliance, where one must fight continuously to survive) – in fact, the film uses jewelry to indicate the direction of the heroine’s allegiance; the bracelet evokes the lover, the ring evokes the husband[4]. Similarly, there are other objects in his films that become vessels of oblique feelings: guilt felt via-the time-portal decanter in Easy Virtue, the radiant glass of milk in Suspicion that evokes murder or the sexiness inherent in the fluorescent yellow bag in the opening scene of Marnie. Hitchcock’s style-engine would therefore work through ordinary objects that would assume significant meaning as the film went along. The focus on objects didn’t mean he was a fetishist though (as say, Seijun Suzuki could be), it only pointed to a grander idea: that a man’s psychological condition is a sum of the objects he owns.

It was only invariable that cinema, the industrial artform of the 20th century and definitely the best to shoot objects, would choose one of its practicers to create a personal expression built entirely of an interest in objects, items and well, things. As a medium whose ideal of communication is built entirely on the notion of building abstract ideas and notions through the very real act of joining, sticking and sewing physical, actual material together, cinema holds within itself the fundamental capability to flatten hierarchies, to let all matter that registers on the plastic surface of film (or a sensor) exist at the same ontological level of merely, at best, being there when the camera happened to be switched on. In that, for cinema and those who manufacture it, non-living objects and living beings are one and the same: one isn’t more sacred or essential than the other, they are all either speckles of dust on the film strip or visions of God captured on it. Therefore, cinema can infuse non-living matter with breath, with blood and with colour and let people or animals exist as mere material. Keaton becomes one of the rocks in a long shot in Seven Chances, where his body becomes part of a dangerous downhill avalanche; or in that regard, the shot of the tree falling when the IED billiards ball hits it in Sherlock Jr. is funnier than anything else in that film. Cinema, through a cut or a composition, can posit that humans don’t exist severed from the objects around them, but in an essential harmony with them, even so much as extensions of one another: the gun as an extension of the hand, the street-lamp as an extension of the detective’s figure, the lightsaber as an extension of the jedi or the make-up as an extension of the face.

'In an older style of acting Sylvia would have had to show the audience what was passing in her mind by exaggerated facial expression. But people today in real life often don't show their feelings in their faces: so the film treatment showed the audience her mind through her hand, through its unconscious grasp on the knife. Now the camera moves again to Verloc -- back to the knife-back again to his face. You see him seeing the knife, realising its implication. The tension between the two is built up with the knife as its focus.'[2

In the 1960s, Teshigahara’s cinema would postulate that human beings that surround themselves with materials (sand, coal, dough, plastic) ultimately take on their characteristics and become replenshible, malleable or permanent; but it really was Hitchcock’s early films (even more so than Man Ray’s experiments) that would exhibit cinema’s first successful efforts in anthropomorphizing casual non-living matter. If one were to accept the standard-issue notion of why the early men began to settle down, it was to to be able to defeat the effects of nomadic life that disabled them from indulging in either cultivation, or education, or the establishment of a familial unit or simple-minded pursuit of culture; all activities that would contribute to the establishment of a community, a generational legacy-via-folklore or myth and as a result of this, civilization. With this settlement-based existence, individuals within a community began to build structures to shelter themselves from the wrath of the climate as also from wild animals, but also as storehouses to acquire, deposit and then accumulate personal possessions – both tangible (natural resources that would then enable individuals to ply trade, institute markets, trade routes etc.) and intangible (family legends, myths, rumours, ghosts etc.).  As George Carlin, the late stand-up comedian pointed our poignantly, why else do we need homes but to store stuff, and in a capitalist world, more and more stuff? It wasn’t by chance, therefore, that for Hitchcock, residential structures which house objects is where the sinister could and would most often erupt (literally, in the case of say, Sabotage). 

‘Television brings back murder where it belongs, inside the house’ [6]

As such, when the Novello character enters the house in the The Lodger, he doesn’t merely bring with himself his clothes, his luggage, his scary expression or his presence, but instead, a heightened awareness of objects that were already placed in the house before his entry, but whose presence was usually taken for granted. The eye-level framing strategy up till the point of his entry in the film suddenly shifts to a melee of high and low-angles, expressive compositions and lighting-based trickery to reveal a topography that was hitherto amiss from the film: with the entry of his character, we are made aware of the existence of the first floor of the house and subsequently, of the staircase that leads to it, the ceiling to the kitchen that serves as the floor of the room of the new entrant and of the chandelier that hangs onto it. Needless to say, the London of the film is heartily engulfed by the fear of the serial-killer who roams around the town murdering blonde women and evading captivity due to the thick London fog. Hitchcock uses the Novello character as a terror-sponge, using his entrance into the household as means to concentrate and focus the city-wide anxiety into this single household. Someone knocks on the door and the mother walks to take it, as soon as she opens, she sees Novello standing at the door, face half-covered with a muffler[7], eyes underlined with kohl and dressed in black; she recoils in horror and thus begins a film-long ordeal. Suddenly, everyone in the happy home becomes suspicious; the mother throws sideway glances at objects, the policeman-suitor is laden with insecurity resulting from the entry of a competitor for his girlfriend’s attention and the father becomes generally cautious. But of course, no one in the film has more than a sparing contact with the lodger, who stays upstairs, while his landlord’s family resides downstairs – as a result, they are forced to direct their newfound unease towards things that are indicative of/can be associated with/are affected by this new presence amidst them.

Ordinary objects in the home assume a sinister air and are filled by Hitchcock’s skill with a curious feeling, an anxiety and even more crucially, with a meaning. In a sequence that is the first real depiction of their fear of this new man in the house, the mother, the daughter and the policeman character all stop mid-conversation to stare up at the chandelier that swings mildly because of the lodger who treads directly above it.        

How did you achieve the shot of Novello pacing back and forth above their heads?
I had a floor made of one-inch thick plate-glass, about six feet square.[8]

Similarly, in a sequence that plays out later, the film announces that it is the night of a murder via-recursion/repetition – Hitchcock ensures that each sequence of murder (barring the opening) is preceded by the same frontal composition of a seedy underlit location of London, marked by a nondescript street lamp. This, he shoots through a tunnelway. Th scene in question begins with this composition, and therefore, the film declares an upcoming scandal (here, the composition itself becomes an object through repetition). We cut back to our primary location – where we see the lodger quietly exit his room and walk downstairs. Is it for a pleasant walk? A night-time excursion? A date? A murder? We don’t know. Inside one of the other rooms in the house, we see the mother wake up due to the noise made by his movement and tip-toe quietly to the door of her room to see what’s up. It is a silent film, so we can only make an assumption as to what she hears, but it is made evident through the expression on her face that listening to her lodger make a secret expedition at that time of the night only enhances her suspicion and convinces her further, to the point of guarantee, that her tenant is infact, the infamous serial-killer. In this sequence, the mother’s feeling of dread amplifies, we can safely presume, with each contact the lodger’s shoe-sole makes with every successive step on the staircase – to hear him rat-a-tat away is what is making her all worked up.

I had built for when the lodger went out late at night--almost to the ceiling of the studio, showing four flights of stairs and a handrail. And all you see is a hand going down. That was, of course, from the point of view of the mother listening. Today we would substitute sound for that.[9]

The film plays, therefore, as a series of very material horrors – characters recoil not directly at invisible deductions or sudden perceptions, but at things they can see, maybe touch, or as in the case of the sequence above, that they can hear. The lodger gets the landlady to remove pictures of all the blonde women in his room, the killer himself murders women with a certain hair colour and the lodger is supposedly (and as we discover, wrongly) found by the police close to the end because of the discovery of items in his mysterious leather bag. The reason he is nabbed is, again, because this inventory is indicative of the tastes of a serial killer; these items include: a gun, a map with sketch-pen markings of the murder-sites, newspaper cuttings of all Avenger (the mass-murderer) crimes and finally, a photograph of a blonde-woman, who the policeman looks at and asks the lodger, ‘Your first victim, eh?’

Hitchcock’s interest in objects, furniture, belongings, personal possessions and in their ability to take on a role beyond their stated use in daily life is akin to that of a design-student[10], who is asked often in examinations to convert each item available to him into a multi-purpose Swiss knife, i.e., list all possibly imaginable uses of the item. As his career moved on along, of course, he extended this artist-objective into a more fulsome memorandum, one that didn’t just state a plan-of-action, but also its eventual aim. In that, he decided that he would devote cinema’s nature as a medium of materialism, of visible things and therefore, of symbols, to the cause of fear-generation – that if an object could be used beyond its originally intended purpose, it would have to be for murder. It is not just incidental, then, that a lot of his films are named after /derived from/imply routine things that can swiftly devolve into modes of  transgressions: Topaz, Dial M for Murder, Rope, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train or The Ring.

The escape from terror in a Hitchcock film is invariably an escape from the captivity of objects (this isn’t a political ideal at all), which are, inevitably, placed safely in a house: is it a co-incidence then that in Rebecca, to mark a liberation from the past, the mansion itself must burn; in The Birds, the family must abandon their home; Psycho, of course, offers the most literal expression of a Hitchcock house – gothic and nightmarish. Or conversely, the viewer’s appointment with crime will begin only when one will enter a household, such as through the window-shutters in Rope or a pair of binoculars in Rear Window?

       "…but we remember
a handbag

but we remember a bus
in the desert

but, we remember a glass of milk

a windmill's blades
a hairbrush

but we remember a row of bottles
a pair of glasses
a musical score
a bunch of keys"

-Jean-Luc Godard, Histoires du Cinema, Episode 4a [11]


1.The full text has been helpfully transcribed here: http://jdcopp.blogspot.in/2006/12/jean-luc-godard-hitchcock.html The references to Hitchcock’s films are respectively, Suspicion (Joan Fontaine), Foreign Correspondent (Joel McRea), I Confess (Montgomery Clift), Psycho (Janet Leigh), Shadow of a Doubt (Theresa Wright), The Wrong Man (Henry Fonda) and Notorious (Ingrid Bergman).

2. Hitchcock later complained about that it was precisely Ivor Novello’s star power that prevented the film from definitively identifying him as the culprit. zakka.dk/euroscreenwriters/interviews/alfred_hitchcock.htm "Did you want the audience to believe without doubt that Novello was the murderer? That was one of the commercial drawbacks one encountered. Of course, strictly speaking, he should have been the ripper and gone on his way. That's how Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes wrote the book. But Ivor Novello was the matinee idol of the period and could not be the murderer. The same thing was true of Cary Grant in Suspicion many years later. So, obviously, putting that kind of actor into this sort of film is a mistake because you just have to compromise."


4.Rear Window (1954) repeats this association of rings.The film’s subplot deals with the photographer’s (James Stewart) relationship with his wealthy girlfriend (Grace Kelly), and the former’s anxieties of settling down. This is finally connected to the main murder story when Grace Kelly finds the crucial piece of evidence of the dead woman’s wedding band and signals its discovery by placing it on her ring finger for her boyfriend to see across the courtyard.

5.http://www.crosscut.net/film/murder/Hitchcock.html The film discussed in this excerpt is Sabotage (1936), which stars Sylvia Sidney as Winnie Verloc, the wife of a terrorist.

6.A rather famous quote from Hitchcock’s eponymous TV-show.

7. Novello’s introduction was so iconic that Lindsay Anderson recreated it in If… (1968) where Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) makes his first appearance with his face wrapped in a muffler.

8. Ibid, 3. 9.Ibid, 3. 10. Hitchcock indeed studied design and draughtmanship at the London Council School of Engineering and Navigation. His first vocation was as a draftmsan and designer for Henley’s, a cable company. It was in this capacity that he found work at Islington Studios, where he was employed as an intertitle designer in 1920, five years before he directed his first credited film, The Pleasure Garden. (cf, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan, Regan Books 2003).

11. See 1.