Alfred Hitchcock, Designer

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In 1977, Print featured a piece on Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) by renowned biographer Donald Spoto. In it, Spoto takes a look at what happens when someone with a design eye becomes a director—and how he successfully used design skills to translate his genius onto celluloid. (For more on Hitchcock, see “When Saul Bass Met Hitchcock.”)

Hitchcock the Designerby Donald SpotoPrint XXXI:IV, July/August 1977

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the world’s instantly recognizable personalities—probably because, in his 53 feature films since 1925, and a decade of television shows, he has entertained more people than any other director. Books and articles have testified to his genius; slick magazines have carried anecdotal interviews (at which he is also a master) and scholarly journals have analyzed the structure and contents of his best work. University curricula, usually the last to admit the value of anything which has broad popular appeal, have acknowledged that he is an artist worthy of serious consideration.


An important aspect of Hitchcock’s method, his total involvement in every aspect of a film, is traceable to the steps in his own early career. His first employment was in the advertising department of the Henley Telegraph Company in his native London, where he designed ads for cables. In 1921, shortly after the American company Famous Players-Lasky opened an English branch, Hitchcock (then 22) submitted a portfolio of drawings and designs to accompany the title cards. At that time, dialogue and narrative cards of silent films had apposite, occasionally amusing and often highly artistic designs above, around or beneath the words. The quiet, intense young Hitchcock was hired at once to provide such designs, and he continued to do so for five films. In 1922, the newly formed Gainsborough Pictures engaged him as scriptwriter and set designer for six films.

Hitchcock’s keen eye for detail, his understanding of the components of a powerful visual image and his strong sense of composition and design were instantly recognized, and sharpened his desire to direct his own feature. That chance came in 1925, when Michael Balcon, executive producer at Gainsborough, sent Hitchcock and a small crew to the splendid facilities of the UFA studios near Munich. The Pleasure Garden was a critical and popular success when it was released later that year.

Hitchcock’s promotion from illustrator to writer to designer to director is in fact a progressive pattern which has been maintained in his method of production for all his feature films since that time. Long before shooting begins (and usually before casting has been completed), Hitchcock and his writer work together on the script. Then an illustrator is summoned, whose task is to render a working storyboard—a detailed sketch of each shot of the film. This storyboard is a constant guide for the director and his cinematographer in setting up each camera angle before they ever arrive on the set. Technical problems are thus usually forestalled, time and energy saved.

This is why Hitchcock has said that his films are “finished before shooting begins,” and his actors have the impression that he has already seen the whole film in his head. The storyboard sketches analyzed here, from Family Plot (1976), were executed by Thomas J. Wright. They are good examples of the step-by-step process by which Hitchcock builds his films.

When shooting script and storyboard are complete and casting concluded, Hitchcock begins conferences with costume and set designer, art director and set dresser, composer and credit designer. “It’s all in the script, dear Edith,” he remarked to Edith Head, who has designed costumes for many of his films. The shooting script for Vertigo (1958)—arguably his masterpiece—specifically states that Kim Novak is to be dressed in a pale gray suit so that, with her blonde hair, “she looks as if she just stepped out of the San Francisco fog.” It is just right for the elusive character she portrays, a woman of remoteness and illusion (Fig. 1).


Examples of this total control over a film’s design could be multiplied from any Hitchcock film. In the dense and taut Sabotage (1936), the characters play crucial scenes against backgrounds which provide counterpoints. In Fig. 2, the roundness of Oscar Homolka’s profile is strategically positioned beneath a round portrait of a small child: the scene immediately follows the death of a child, a death which is his responsibility! In the same image, birds are placed between him and Sylvia Sidney; they are the film’s key image of death and destruction, and Hitchcock’s thematic correlative, throughout his works, for the eruption of chaos.


The single set for Rope (Fig. 3) described a New York penthouse. Its linear patterns and paneled windows alternately divide, frame and locate the players. The lowkeyed suspense, deriving from the dialogue and a series of sinuous tracking shots (the film was shot, in 1948, entirely in 10-minute takes!), is heightened by the pattern of skyscrapers in the background.


In formal interviews and casual conversation, Hitchcock often refers to “filling the screen with meaning.” On the set with his cast, he frequently draws a rectangle in the air, indicating precisely what will be seen on the screen. In Fig. 4, he indicates for Tippi Hedren the contents of an image in Mamie (1964); in Fig. 5, he shows cinematographer Robert Burks the precise requirements of a shot’s dimensions. On the set of Psycho (1960), Hitchcock carefully positioned Janet Leigh’s head so that, when shot in profile, it would be “sliced in two” by the tapes on the window blind (Fig. 6).


Consider, too, the opening of his 1941 thriller, Suspicion (Fig. 7). A prim, tightlipped Joan Fontaine, gloved and bespectacled, reads Child Psychology. The story which follows in fact examines the sealed fantasy life of a woman who sees the world through the eyeglasses of an amateur psychologist—always calling her husband a child, and chiding his buddy for
not acting the grown-up. The crucial shot at the opening thus establishes the film’s major concern. The casual viewer may not be aware of such rigorous structure on first viewing, but the creative artist has foreseen all, and there it is.


The effect can be chilling, too. Notorious (1946) stars a beleaguered Ingrid Bergman poisoned by mother and son, Leopoldine Konstantin and Claude Rains (Fig. 8). Their profiles, shot so they appear to press down beside her on the pillow, reinforce the feeling of entrapment and the corruption of love. In the grossly underrated remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Doris Day’s hysterical reaction to the news of her son’s kidnapping has been calmed by a sedative administered by her doctor/husband (James Stewart). The image is that of a living but narcotized woman whose vacation has become a nightmare which may yet end in death: thus the suitcase as coffin (Fig. 9).


The design of a Hitchcock film, then, is really a series of interconnecting designs—the careful locking together of various parts: sets, props, dialogue, costumes, characters, plot and above all theme, that deepest area of ideas and concerns for which there is no verbal equivalent, and to which the visual image most clearly points.

In composing the scene of the death of the Frenchman-disguised-as-Arab in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock practically filled the frame with the faces of the two men. But in the background, just above the dying man’s head and deliberately out of focus, stand the couple who, we learn later, are involved in the death of the Frenchman and the plot against the child (Fig. 10). The Paradine Case (1947) is remarkable, on the other hand, for its sense of chiaroscuro, a skillfull use of light and shadow in which Valli’s hair blends into dark backgrounds, her aristocratic features protruding, masklike. Her self-styled savior (Gregory Peck), however, remains in the light (Fig. 11 ). One of the major themes in Vertigo is the precarious verticality of human existence itself. How right, then, to divide the two main characters by a dizzying San Francisco street, whose unexpected rises and falls are themselves the perfect metaphor for the physical and metaphysical falls which this poetic film describes (Fig. 12).


Sometimes, of course, the best thing is to allow expressive faces to fill the screen, as in the poignant hospital sequence in the same film (Fig. 13). Barbara Bel Geddes tries in vain to comfort Stewart. Her plea—Try, Johnny-O. Please try, for my sake—is answered only by his long, sad, distant gaze. In Psycho, Janet Leigh plays an essentially good woman who, in a moment of desperation, steals $40,000—a schizophrenia the film expresses by the frequency of images split in mirrors (Fig. 14). The Hitchcock frame is indeed always charged with meaning and emotion. (Occasionally props simply provide a beautifully balanced frame for a face. Candles are a Hitchcock favorite, as the scenes from Sabotage, Fig. 15, and 1949’s Under Capricorn, Fig. 16, illustrate.)


A close examination of the beautiful cemetery sequence in Family Plot suggests the careful preproduction design of a Hitchcock movie. The storyboard shown here is remarkable in detail. The master illustration (Fig. 17) does not represent a shot in the film: it serves as a general guide for the entire sequence, and is especially helpful for cinematographer, camera operator, lighting and sound technicians.


At the top of the illustration is the “caretaker’s shack” and, surrounding the cemetery, the location of hearse and cars of the funeral cortege. The arrows indicate the path of the ensuing action, which is substantially that of Lumley’s pursuit of Mrs. Maloney from graveside to the Shoe bridge headstone and then away toward cemetery exit. In the center is marked the position of a “high camera”—i.e., it is positioned atop a high scaffolding or parallel bars for the shot of the pursuit.

Shot 327 (Fig. 18) is marked “Exterior. Barlow Creek Cemetery. Pan. Day.” The camera opens close on two headstones, then pans to the right. We see cars, hearse, mourners, then continue panning to head and shoulders of Lumley. This is a typically Hitchcockian method of opening a sequence.

Without a cut, shot 327 actually becomes what is designated here as shot 328; the new number simply indicates the different contents of the image due to the panning of the camera. Shot 328 (Fig. 19) shows the group around the grave. The parson’s voice is heard. The camera moves through the mourners to Mrs. Maloney, who is staring off into the distance. An arrow at Mrs. Maloney indicates the direction of her gaze.

The camera continues to pan right. The leisurely pace will reach its climax in the overhead shot to come, and will then be reversed in the final quick shots. Shot 329 (Fig. 20) is a point-of-view shot. We see what Mrs. Maloney sees: Lumley watching her. The frame is admirably composed—Lumley, on the cemetery path, is framed between two pairs of tall trees.

The foreground contains two closeups: on the right is the parson; on the left, the bowed head of a mourner. The image of what is seen is then firmly defined by identifying who sees: shot 330 (Fig. 21) is a closeup of Mrs. Maloney. This shot and the two preceding shots are classic examples of the Eisenstein montage principle: the sum total of the two shots (329 and 330) is greater than the simple conjunction of the two—i.e., since the two shots of Mrs. Maloney are divided by a long shot of Lumley, and the second shot of Mrs. Maloney is clearly a “reaction shot,” the film idea is that a woman looks, she sees, she reacts. In reality, o
f course, Katherine Helmond (the actress playing Mrs. Maloney) may never have seen Bruce Dern (the actor playing Lumley). The film sense is artificially constructed through the principles of montage—a meaningful arrangement or editing of separate pieces of film. This is a simple example, to be sure, but is the very foundation upon which rests any film’s succession of shots to build film sense.


Shot 331 (Fig. 22) continues Mrs. Maloney’s point-of-view (subjective) shot of Lumley, as he steps closer to the camera. Shot 332 (Fig. 23) is a waist shot of Mrs. Maloney, as she glances around and starts to ease away from the group. Note the white arrow in the sketch, illustrating the direction of her progress.

For shot 333 (Fig. 24), Hitchcock indicates a cut to a startling overhead view—a very high shot, originally intended to be photographed through the branches of a tree. Since the storyboard sketches are a guide, there are often changes which are made on the set to allow for a material exigency or the realization that there is a better or easier way to realize the director’s intention. The actual filmed sequence in this case omitted the branches of a tree because the filming occurred in natural light on a drizzly, overcast day at the small Pioneer Cemetery in Sierra Madre. Apparently Hitchcock wanted nothing to interfere with the beauty of the overhead shot, nor with the viewer’s perception of the pursuit around the paths of the cemetery. Mrs. Maloney is seen moving away from the group left, then Lumley starts, also moving left. Simultaneously, the mourners move away, toward their cars on the road. The camera starts to pan left with Mrs. Maloney and Lumley.


This shot, perhaps the single most beautiful one in the film, has a visual poetry as Hitchcock planned it: the sudden shift away from medium and tight shots to an open overhead shot, as two figures are seen in a silent chesslike pursuit in the stillness of the cemetery. Leonard South’s expert color photography takes full advantage of the haze of light rain and the natural, washed-out colors of the untended cemetery. The only problem is that it is over so quickly there is scarcely time to absorb the beauty.

The camera continues (Fig. 25) to pan left in the high shot. The arrows mark the paths followed by Mrs. Maloney and Lumley. (Hitchcock has called the shot “an animated Mondrian.”) A shot of extraordinary beauty, it also has a thematic function within the whole film. Family Plot is in fact a series of chases and pursuits—some slow, some frenetic—and all of them are in some way concerned with (real or fictitious) death. This dreamlike, silent pursuit among the tombstones of a village cemetery perfectly synthesizes and summarizes the rest of the story. It also adds an ironic significance to the film’s multileveled title.

Hitchcock now indicates (Fig. 26) a cut to a full figure shot of Mrs. Maloney. The camera is shooting on her back as she walks away from Lumley. She stops; we hear the sound of Lumley’s footsteps. The reverse angle of shot 335 (Fig. 27) indicates in fact a point-of-view shot (Mrs. Maloney’s). As Lumley quickly looks off, the camera starts to pan left following his gaze. In Fig. 28, Lumley walks toward Mrs. Maloney, the camera panning left as he approaches her. They are finally together within the frame. The storyboard indicates the dialogue at this point. Mrs. Maloney: “Can’t you leave me alone?” etc., etc. And Lumley’s response: “Not so, Mrs. Maloney. You’ve got it all wrong …” etc., etc. She turns to face him and there is a cut to Shot 336 (Fig. 29), a waist shot of the pair. Mrs. Maloney starts to walk closer to Lumley, whose back is to the camera. The camera starts to dolly back, allowing them room to walk toward it. At this point, the dominance of Lumley in the sequence is reversed, or at least threatened. He has been the pursuer, but now Mrs. Maloney begins to assert herself. Thus camera direction is reversed, and she begins to fill the frame as her voice increases in volume.


The next sketch (Fig. 30) is a continuation of the previous shot. As Mrs. Maloney approaches Lumley and camera, she stops abruptly, the camera stopping with her. She turns to Lumley. They are now two big heads in profile as the dialogue continues. Lumley: “But wait a minute …” etc., etc.


She hurries away from him, the camera pulls back (thus the arrows at the rectangle’s corners) and the shot continues. The camera continues to pull back (Fig. 31), holding at the two Shoebridge headstones on the left. Mrs. Maloney approaches the headstones, kicks Eddie Shoebridge’s stone, crying, “Fake! Fake!” The stone topples slightly to one side, but doesn’t fall over. In the actual film, there is an insert shot of Mrs. Maloney’s shoe hitting the face of the gravestone. The effect of this shot is an alarming combination of amusement and horror.

A flash close-up of Lumley (Fig. 32), his face filling the frame in bewilderment, as he watches her. Then the quick cut to Fig. 33, Lumley’s point-of-view: Mrs. Maloney is seen hurrying away. The sequence ends as (Fig. 34) we see a waist shot of Lumley looking after her, stunned and confused.


“He knows what he wants” is the remark, constantly heard from Hitchcock’s actors and associates. From the very beginning of a production, through design and shooting, this great, innovative, quiet genius is aware of every detail, of every effect which will have its rightful place in the picture. “What he wants” seems to be an engagement of the viewer that is as total as the director’s own engagement in the creative process.

Perhaps he has engaged more viewers because he has, from the start of a film idea, taken more care, done more homework, planned more lovingly. The result, astonishingly often, has been great art.

Donald Spoto is the author of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, recently published by Hopkinson & Blake.