Among the outstanding filmmakers of the twentieth century, Alfred Hitchcock is notable for his talent for creating an atmosphere of suspense and developing the plot through a range of complicated psychological turns. As any talented director, Hitchcock makes wide use of cinematographic techniques that help to create certain effects and contribute to the development of the plot and the mood.
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An example demonstrating Hitchcock’s handling of cinematographic techniques is his Rear Window. The atmosphere of overall excitement and the message of people turning into curious observers of the others are rendered from the very beginning of Rear Window via such techniques as lens, shooting angle, framing, camera movement, editing, and mise en scene.
Using a normal lens for the opening scene of Rear Window, Hitchcock allows the viewers to see everything that is going on as if through their own eyes. Nothing is distorted or exaggerated, the images of the inner yard, the apartments, and the dwellers are very realistic and so sharp and clear, as though one is perceiving them through naked eye.
The focus is sharp, nothing is overly augmented or diminished, and every object and person is depicted in natural size as seen by a person with normal eyesight. The key technique of working with the lens in Rear Window is zooming in and out to accentuate the significance of certain images. For example, the camera zooms in on the inscription upon the plaster cast. Through this zoom in, the significance of the main character’s physical immobilization is emphasized.
On the other hands, the words ‘Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies’ reflect the bitter irony of the situation when a normally mobile and inquisitive photographer is bound to his chair by a physical failure. The use of the lens allows Hitchcock to create a realistic perception of the setting by the viewers, emphasizing the restrictions on physical movements of the main character who involves into active observation of his backyard neighbors instead.
An extremely efficient technique for rendering the natural process of intent observation in Rear Window is the cinematographic technique of applying various shooting angles.
Initially, the viewers observe the backyard and its inhabitants from the viewpoint of the main character, whose window is located several floors above the ground. Thus, the viewers perceive everything that is going on from the photographer’s observation post, first following his gaze straight out of the window and then suddenly dropping down to the bottom of the yard.
This effect of shooting straight down from a great height takes the viewers’ breath away, so abrupt it is, and is quite characteristic of Hitchcock’s movies. However, the sudden dip of view is only a foreshadowing of the approaching horrors and leaves the viewers pondering over the significance of a black cat running up the stairs.
In addition to the effect of shooting straight down from a great height, Hitchcock applies yet another cinematographic technique connected with shooting angle. When the camera returns from the exterior of the backyard to the inside of the photographer’s room, there emerges a close-up on the most significant objects in the interior.
Apart from the sweaty face and the plastered leg of the photographer himself, the viewers can observe such items as a shattered photo camera, several photo prints depicting a race car accident, an atomic explosion, and other extreme events, in addition to a portrait of a beautiful young woman published in a large pressrun of a magazine.
A close-up on all those objects helps the viewers to discover the photographer’s dynamic and risk-seeking personality, as well as to suggest that the woman on the cover is more than a simple model for him.
The use of the cinematographic technique of framing is yet another method through which Hitchcock renders the position of the photographer as a distant yet attentive observer of the world around him. The way the objects are juxtaposed in scale is significant for understanding the attitude of the photographer as an objective surveyor of the whole scene. The images of his broken photo camera and his photo prints depicting extreme and unusual events take the whole screen, dominate it and thus assert their importance in the photographer’s life. On the contrary, the images of people waking up in their apartments are quite small and thus present them as nothing more than objects of overall scenery. Such juxtaposition of an atomic explosion and daily human routine in terms of cinematographic scale helps Hitchcock impart the message of insignificance and vanity of everyday life as perceived by the photographer.
Apart from scale opposition, Hitchcock employs the technique of off-screen images to evoke the sense of suspense in the viewers. When the camera’s eye moves to the photographer’s apartment and starts exploring the interior in search of significant details, the viewers cannot help but wonder who the real observer behind the camera is.
Could it be another mysterious character who wishes to remain unseen until a certain dramatic moment? Are those the viewers themselves who direct the camera’s eye? Or has the camera become an independently functioning object that determines the ways we see the world around us? Those are the ultimate questions emerging in the viewers’ minds and further explored in Rear Window.
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A very expressive cinematographic technique used in Rear Window is camera movement. Hitchcock prefers to keep the camera mostly stationary and panning. Slow continuous movement across the scenery of the backyard allows the viewers to watch various apartments and their dwellers at ease, as if shifting the gaze from one scene to another. Hitchcock conducts a round-trip through the inner life of the backyard, leading his viewers in a panoramic observance of the scene from the right to the left side.
This placid movement of the camera’s gaze is interrupted only by tilting it to show the lower floors of the dwelling houses and to return back to the photographer’s apartment. Such treatment of camera movement creates an atmosphere of calm observance of a given reality, uninterrupted by personal emotion or interest – just the way the camera fixes the events on a video tape.
As one of the significant cinematographic techniques, editing plays a considerable role in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It is remarkable that the director does not apply much cutting through the whole scene: on the contrary, most of the scene progresses in an almost uninterrupted continuity.
The scene is cut only three times: first, when the camera view drops down to a running cat, to attract the viewers’ attention; second, when there is a close-up of a thermometer showing extremely high temperature, to emphasize the heated and tense atmosphere; and third, when the camera focuses on a couple sleeping on a balcony, to accentuate the general act of waking-up carried out by the whole neighborhood.
Such nonuse of cutting is demonstrative of Hitchcock’s objective to create an impression of a continuous inseparable image of a crowded neighborhood where the dwellers are different and yet united by the same routine issues.
Apart from the cutting technique, the sound serves as a method of uniting and dividing the scene into logical fragments as well. Overall, an excited pattern of music prevails, symbolizing the bustle of the awaking neighborhood. However, in this general pattern it is possible to discern certain individual motives that accentuate significant details.
For example, both fragments depicting the dancing girl are accompanied by a more plastic and graceful sound than the rest of the scene. Another instance of musical expressiveness is the shot when the camera view is inside the photographer’s apartment. The music disappears into the background to set off the sound of the radio inquiring whether the listeners wake up tired and hostile.
The absence of music at this moment lets Hitchcock highlight the significance of the radio message that reflects the overall atmosphere of the neighborhood. The music fades when the camera returns to the photographer’s apartment for the second time, to let the viewers perceive a new, more excited melody symbolic of the photographer’s inquiring and ever-present personality.
Finally, the mis en scene plays one of the key roles in developing the opening scene and the whole subsequent action in Rear Window. The setting of a large dwelling complex chosen by Hitchcock allows to demonstrate this world as a unity of tiny communities, slightly different from each other but still united by common problems and concerns.
The contrast between the high-key lightning of the backyard and the low-key lightning of the photographer’s apartment suggests the idea of opposition between the photographer and the simple mundane world. Opposing light and shadow, Hitchcock brings forward the eternal juxtaposition of the collective and the individual.
Rear Window demonstrates a vivid example of how mastery in cinematographic techniques helps the film director communicate the personality of the main character and the key issues discussed in the movie. Since the very first scene, such techniques as lens, shooting angle, framing, camera movement, editing, and mise en scene streamline the viewers’ attention towards the movie’s message.