One of the most important film directors of the 20th century is unmistakably Alfred Hitchcock, who was a genuine innovator and an impeccable master of suspense. The entire opus of this notable cinematic figure is filled with various cultural references, where each narrative is meticulous and multilayered.
A great number of studies were written about his practice and individual films, yet there are only few focusing on the fascinating presence of modern art in his work. As a matter of fact, the scenes in which paintings or sculptures are featured, or sequences in which a certain artwork is in the spotlight, tell much about how the director was inspired by the traditional artistic practices.
Before we come to our examples, it is important to underline that Hitch was very much inclined to a painterly approach in his films, meaning that everything from settings, costumes, actors and lights, to framing, coloring, and editing, had to be in harmony. This highly aestheticized perspective was enhanced by an astonishing soundtracks released by composer Bernard Herrmann, who worked with Alfred Hitchcock on the majority of his motion pictures.
It can be said that the movies made by this genius are practically based on the idea of gesamtkunstwerk - or total work of art, the one which encompasses all the others in a single enterprise. Therefore, it is not unusual at all that Hitchcock embraced, or rather insisted on, referring to or including (modern) art in his movies. The best proof for this claim is the fact that he was a collector of paintings and owned works by Rouault, Picasso, Vlaminck, Soutine, and Klee, who was among his favorite artists. Hitchcock often collaborated with artists - notable are his collaborations with Salvador Dalí on the movie Spellbound, and John Ferren, an active member of the New York School who did artworks for Trouble with Harry, as well as animated nightmare sequence in Vertigo.
One of Hitchcock’s best-known movies, The Birds, features Tippi Hedren who is like a Christian Martyr from a baroque painting chased by a Cross-shaped flock of birds. On the other hand, the scene in which birds patiently surround the schoolyard just by sitting on the climbers seems like any other modern sculpture. Finally, this movie was often compared with the paintings of Magritte, Munch and even Andrew Wyeth.
There is also a painting of a former wife which practically haunts Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, while in North by Northwest Phillip Vandamm played by James Mason smuggles a microfilm hidden inside of a Colombian ceramic figure he buys at auction. On the other hand, in Suspicion there is a scene of a visiting police detective who is distracted by a Cubist painting in the entrance hall.
Aside from featuring or referring to certain artworks, Hitchcock shot some of the iconic scenes against the monumental backgrounds of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, both sculptural sights done by artists. Those backdrops were intentionally used to underline symbolically the moral chaos typical for the majority of his characters.
Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock showing the set of Psycho. Image via rlterryreelview.files.wordpress.com
The first on the list is a silent film called The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog shot in 1927. It was the third Hitchcock feature and the plot was based on a story of a young man who appears mysteriously and rents a room in a moment when blond girls are being killed in the London fog. He holds a photograph of a blonde while entering the house and he stares at three female portraits with blonde hair, so that motive is visually repeated as a subject of the mystery.
The film culminates with the accused hero hanging from handcuffs caught in an iron fence as an angry crowd looks down on him - reminiscing much of a Caravaggio painting.
Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock - The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, 1927. Image via silentfilm.org
The following one is the iconic Psycho from 1960. The central object of the narrative is certainly Motel Bates; along with the Bates family house, it functions as some sort of a private gallery, or a cabinet of curiosities, since a number of strange objects including stuffed animals and paintings are present there.
In one scene, a biblical theme of Suzana and the Old Man is accentuated, while Norman Bates lifts off the painting to find a peephole into Janet Leigh's bathroom. On the other hand, the Bates Mansion is quite similar to the House on a Hill painted by Edward Hopper.
Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock – Psycho, still. Image via samanthatbell.files.wordpress.com
The 1955 Trouble with Harry movie is centered around the story of a freaked-out painter Sam Marlow, who finds a dead body, Harry, along with other people on a nearby meadow. The painter's reaction is natural, and he starts sketching the body; his works then become subjected to a police investigation.
The most apparent reference to this portrait is the theme of the Resurrection, which bears a resemblance to Roualt’s Portrait of Christ. Marlowe’s roadside paintings were produced by the aforementioned John Ferren.
Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock - Trouble with Harry, 1955. Image via thehitchcockreport.files.wordpress.com
The following movie is Rope which was produced in 1948. It has quite a simple narrative focusing on a crime taking place in one single interior. It was shot in real time and edited as a single continuous shot through the use of long takes.
The plot follows a gay couple trying to get away with the murder of their friend and colleague, so they are throwing a dinner party in a flat full of paintings and sculptures. During the movie, there are several references to visual art in dialog between the characters. A good example is a scene in which the fiancee of the murdered man asks Brandon, one of the murderers: Oh, is not that painting new?, and he replies: Yes it is. Do you like it?; the conversation concludes with the explanation that it is by New Young American primitives.
Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock - Rope, 1948. Image via simbasible.com
Next up is Spellbound, a film from 1945 which had quite a success upon its release. Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were eager to engage their own experts in the process, so Selznick hired Dr. May Romm, his therapist, as the film’s technical adviser. On the other hand, Hitchcock was not that interested in technicalities like Romm, so he hired Salvador Dalí to construct a dream sequence for the film. Finally, the produced said yes to Dalí because of the potential publicity.
This particular part of the film was to depict the dream of the main character so that the doctors could recover his memories. Dalí and Hitchcock prepared an elaborate and surreal twenty-minute-long sequence conducted of scenes taking place in a gambling house, on a rooftop in a forest-like setting, etc. Selznick thought that the section is too complex to be included, so the footage was cut down to two minutes. In regards to this situation, Hitchcock stated:
What I was after was the vividness of dreams. As you know, all Dalí’s work is very solid, very sharp, with very long perspectives, black shadows. This was again the avoidance of the cliché: all dreams in movies are blurred. It isn’t true – Dalí was the best man to do the dreams because that’s what dreams should be.
Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock – Spellbound, 1945. Image via anotherimg-dazedgroup.netdna-ssl.com
The last on a list is Rear Window from 1954, which is yet another feature film which proofs the enticing tie of Hitchcock and art.
A professional photographer is recuperating from a broken leg and is confined to a wheelchair while observing the lively neighborhood through the rear window of his Greenwich Village apartment. He sees various artistic characters, and among of them is a sculptress who is represented as an artist of a very odd and strange art. Her abstract works are very similar to those by Henry Moore, and like other art figures in Hitchcock's movies, she does not belong to a traditional art expression, but rather to the modern one.
Furthermore, in the scene when detective Doyle talks to the photographer, he stands in front of a well-known still life by Henry Matisse, hanging over the fireplace, and he observes it for quite a period of time.
Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock with James Stewart and Grace Kelly on a filmset. Image via flashback.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.