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Mise-en-scene, shots and sound: Hitchcock’s spare use of cinematic repertoire in Sabotage’s murder sequence Essay

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2019

Alfred Hitchcock’s innovative and seminal contributions to cinema are visible all through his films, as evidenced by the fact that his name is associated with at least one zoom technique. The murder sequence in Sabotage is a clear example of this creativity. This segment of the film, which could be merely sensational, nonetheless reveals several profound characteristics of the relationship between Sylvia and her husband Verloc, and with her dead brother.

Hitchcock accomplishes this using a simple vocabulary of shots and angles, a few crucial sound effects, and no special effects. In addition to masterful acting by the protagonists, Hitchcock uses the objects in the scene almost as characters. To allow the actors to communicate the maximum content with the least amount of dialogue and overt violence, Hitchcock targets his application of the modest range of shot types in this section of the film.

At the outset of this sequence, Hitchcock uses an element in the environment; Disney cartoon; to demonstrate that, in spite of her apparent equanimity, Sylvia is catastrophically devastated by her brother’s death. On the movie screen, the innocent and charming Cock Robin bird, shot dead senselessly by an unidentified assailant, comes all too close to her brother’s death by explosion through no fault of his own. She telegraphs her inner distress as her facial expression collapses.

If she had simply broken down and cried, it would not have led the audience along with her. The audience is led with her to her own realization of her loss and her growing uncertainties about her husband.

Another element of the environment, the dinner set up with cutlery by the cook, serves to signal Sylvia’s increasing distress with her husband and recent events.

Verloc’s complete obliviousness to the effect of Stevie’s murder is signaled by his interaction with the table setting. He demonstrates his unconcern over her loss through his self-centered attention to fiddling with the covered dishes. He samples the food and complains about the greens; reminding both of them of Stevie’s death by suggesting that fresh greens be sent for. This task was allocated to Stevie in life, and the camera shot on the chair draws the viewer’s attention to his absence.

Near the end of the segment, Hitchcock assigns to another element in the mise-en-scene a crucial part. The caged birds chirp and hop with apparent unconcern. They remain bonded in a way that Sylvia and Verloc are no more, and perhaps never were.

Hitchcock uses a relatively restrained repertoire of shots to telegraph the interior processes of his characters. Hitchcock focuses the camera closely on the knife, and then her face, and then shows us how disturbing Sylvia’s own thoughts are to her by drawing the focus back into a more distant shot, to let us see her push the knife away from her in horror. We see the train of thoughts as clearly as if she had mused on murder aloud.

Verloc’s gaze, captured in close-up, fixes on the same cutlery, and his expression almost makes the viewer forget that the cutlery itself is not what can kill, but the bereaved and betrayed sister. When she takes up the knife too swiftly for him to get it, Sylvia has taken yet another step in her journey of preparing herself to avenge her brother. Thus, when, close to the end of this clip, after Sylvia has, apparently without completely intending to at that moment, plunged the knife into Verloc’s innards, we are not entirely surprised.

The segment is also characterized by a paucity of notable sounds. After Sylvia is out of range of the theatre, there is near silence. Hitchcock combines the few sounds he does use with careful camera use to further emphasize the internal thought processes of the characters. The viewer hears Verloc’s petulant and critical complaints, the clatter of cutlery as Sylvia thrusts it from her, the creaking of shoes and the expostulations of both Verloc and his wife as he comes to grips with her.

However, the camera cuts between Sylvia’s face, Verloc’s face, and the knife to draw the eye first to the knife cutting meat, then impaling the potato, then pushed away with a rare burst of sound, then, finally, Sylvia’s hands. Hitchcock gives the viewer Verloc’s point of view at this point, focusing on her folded hands, her wedding ring prominently visible right across the table from him.

As the viewer sees realization of his risk of reprisal dawning on Verloc, the camera follows him as he rises and circles the table. This demonstrates the deliberateness of Hitchcock’s austere choices elsewhere in this segment. Verloc’s murder is up close, but his death is shot from a greater distance, allowing us to infer Sylvia’s almost immediate abandonment of resuscitation. The bizarre floor-level final angle reprises Verloc’s point of view.

Hitchcock’s use of mise-en-scene and sparing use of special angles, shots, and sound all work together. They help us to understand Sylvia’s gradual approach to her murder of her husband.

SHOT #
Starts at:
DURATION SCALE ANGLE CAMERA MOV. TRANSIT-
ION(S)
SOUND ADD’L
COMMENTS
1: 0 12 sec Long shot Level None Cut Synchronous diegetic Audience is appreciative
2: 12 3 sec Close-up Level None Cut Asynchronous
diegetic
Reaction shot; Sylvia appears happy
3:15 13 Long shot level None Cut Synchronous diegetic Audience is appreciative
4:28 3 Close-up level None Cut Asynchronous
diegetic
Reaction shot: Sylvia appears shocked
5:31 2 Long shot level None Cut Synchronous diegetic Audience is appreciative
6:33 2 Close-up level None Cut Asynchronous
diegetic
Reaction shot: Sylvia’s face crumples
7:35 12 Two-shot then a panning and tracking shot Slightly high angle Camera follows her as she rises and walks down aisle to exit Cut Asynchronous
Diegetic
And Synchronous diegetic (dialogue)
Sylvia appears stricken. Housekeeper stops by to announce that dinner is dished up, & she is leaving, nearly indistinguishably. Sylvia rises, walks towards exit
8:56 3 Medium shot Tiny elevation in angle Camera tracks her as she comes to door and opens it Cut Asynchronous
diegetic
Sylvia exits the theatre and enters the adjoining living quarters: appears distressed but walks purposefully
9:59 7 Medium shot Slightly below level angle – at level of table or waist Camera follows her as she enters, approaches the table and lifts the covers Cut Appears to be silent Sylvia opens door, closes it, approaches table, lifts covers and begins serving food for the seated Verloc hastily
10:1.06 6 Medium shot Level with Verloc’s upper torso None Cut Verloc speaks Verloc tells Sylvia to pull herself together, and nods approvingly
11: 1.12 3 Medium shot Level with Sylvia’s waist None Cut silence Sylvia scowls while serving
12: 1.15 9 Medium shot Level with the Verloc’s upper torso None Cut Initial silence followed by Verloc’s complaint about cabbage He lifts the covers, tastes the food, scowls at the cabbage
13: 1.24 2 Medium shot Level with Sylvia’s waist None Cut Asynchronous
Diegetic
Verloc complaining about the cabbage
Sylvia looks at him with apparent incredulity or irritation
14: 1.26 5 Medium shot Level with the Verloc’s upper torso None Cut Synchronous diegetic: Verloc complaining about overcooked cabbage Verloc continues to complain about the cooks’ inability to properly cook greens
15: 1.31 3 Medium shot Level with Sylvia’s waist None Cut silence She serves food, cutting meat and dishing up potatoes
16: 1.34 11 close-up Slightly elevated angle Tracks her gaze down to her hands and the cutlery Cut silence Camera focuses on meat knife impaling potato
17: 1.45 4 Close–up Level but slightly elevated None cut silence She raises her eyes
18: 1.49 7 Medium shot Level with her shoulders Synchronous diegetic Clatter of cutlery She almost throws knife away from her
19: 1.56 4 Medium shot Level None Cut Synchronous diegetic Verloc eschewing cabbage He scrunches up his face, and asks whether they could not send out for lettuce, a task usually assigned to the exploded Stevie.
20: 2.0 4 Medium shot Slightly below level None Cut Sudden silence Sylvia appears appalled
21: 2.04 1 Medium shot Level None Cut Silence He scowls and looks at her
22: 2:05 1 Medium shot Level None cut Silence She looks to her right and down.
23: 2.06 2 Medium shot Slightly elevated angle None Cut Silence The brother’s empty chair
24: 2.08 5 Medium shot Slightly depressed angle None Cut Silence Sylvia looks at chair and then at food
25: 2.13 4 Close-up High angle None Cute Silence Serving plate with meat on it
26: 2.17 11 Medium shot – slightly pulled back, then coming in for more of a close-up at 2.27 of this clip Level None Cut Silence until 2.22 of this clip, when the cutlery clatter on the plate Sylvia continues serving food, lingering over the knife stuck in the potato, suggesting uncertainty about what to do with her cutlery and her hands, which she finally clasps. As the camera focuses on her comes in close, she looks at Verloc with a trembling lip.
27: 2.28 4 Close-up Level None Cut Silence Verloc scowls, tilts his head, looks towards the cutlery
28: 2.32 4 Close-up Level None cut Silence Sylvia’s hands at waist level clasped with her wedding ring showing
29: 2.36 6 Close-up Level Cut Silence Verloc’s eyebrows suggest realization
30: 2.42 3 Medium shot Level None Cut Silence Sylvia appears agitated
31: 2.45 5 Close-up Level None Cut Silence Verloc appears apprehensive- makes premonitory motions to get up, almost rising out of the frame
32: 2.50 19 Medium shot Slightly elevated Camera tracks him as he rises and moves around table, pulling in close at end of shot Cut Synchronous diegetic: creak of chair Verloc continues rising and moving around table
33: 3.09 5 Medium shot Level Focus pulls in on Sylvia Cut Asynchronous diegetic: creaking of Verloc’s shoes Sylvia appears worried, agitated, uncertain what to do or think or feel.
34: 3.14 20 Two shot Level, then following both their gazes down to the knife and then up again Pulling in closer to the two heads Cut Asynchronous diegetic: creaking of Verloc’s shoes
Then Synchronous diegetic: Verloc utters something indistinguishable and Sylvia cries out
Sylvia appears terrified. Verloc approaches close, makes an indistinguishable utterance, and then they both nearly simultaneously cry out.
35: 3.34 2 Close-up two shot at chest level level none Cut Silence Knife in Verloc’s midsection
36: 3.36 6 Long-to-medium 2-shot level None Cut Synchronous diegetic – Sound of falling body Verloc collapses in her arms and she lets him fall
37: 3.42 8 Close-up Level None Cut Silence, then Asynchronous diegetic: bird chirps Reaction to the dying body, then looking across room
38: 3.50 1 Close-up High angle None Cut Synchronous diegetic: chirps Lovebirds in cage, chirping and hopping
39: 3.51 12 Close-up Level None Cut Synchronous diegetic: Sylvia whispers She looks around in distress while saying “Stevie, Stevie.”
40: 4.03 23 Long interior shot Foot level None Fade to black Synchronous diegetic: Sylvia’s footsteps She steps unsteadily around the body, steadies herself on a side table, and sits down in the far hallway with her forehead in her hand
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IvyPanda. "Mise-en-scene, shots and sound: Hitchcock’s spare use of cinematic repertoire in Sabotage’s murder sequence." April 30, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mise-en-scene-shots-and-sound-hitchcocks-spare-use-of-cinematic-repertoire-in-sabotages-murder-sequence-essay/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Mise-en-scene, shots and sound: Hitchcock’s spare use of cinematic repertoire in Sabotage’s murder sequence'. 30 April.

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