Bright Lights Film Journal

Alfred Hitchcock: A Hank of Hair and a Piece of Bone: A Photo Essay on the Master’s Visual Motifs

For almost fifty years, Alfred Hitchcock filled his films with a select group of images, including houses, staircases, women’s hair, the human hand, the human eye, the “uncanny,” and the swirling vortex. He reworked these images over and over again, achieving his greatest triumph in Psycho. This photo essay, a companion to “Here’s Looking at You, Kid! Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho,” will present examples of these images collected from a number of Hitchcock’s films, along with examples of Hitchcock’s camera movement from Notorious and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Houses

The Bates family mansion in Psycho is virtually a parody of a haunted house. But for Hitchcock, all houses were gloomy and oppressive, silent, lonely, threatening presences that usually overwhelm the poor human beings foolish enough to enter them.

The houses of the mismatched strangers Guy Haines and Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train couldn’t be more different, but neither looks inviting.

The houses in Vertigo and Psycho show remarkable similarities, both outside and in. (See the Staircases section below for the interiors). In Vertigo, the McKittrick Hotel, shown below, is the former home of Carlotta Valdez, a dead woman with whom the heroine “Madeleine” (Kim Novak) is supposedly obsessed.

When Jimmy Stewart follows “Madeleine” to the hotel, he sees her disappear inside and then reappear in the room on the far left of the second floor. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) arrives at the Bates Motel, she sees “Mother” in the same window.

Hitchcock returned to the “haunted Victorian” look for a third time in The Birds, coming up with this unusual schoolhouse for the scene of the first major assault of the birds.

Staircases

Staircases in Hitchcock’s films almost always lead to trouble. For Hitchcock, the simple act of going up a staircase seemed to be a disorienting experience, taking you away from safety towards the unknown. Spiral staircases were particularly threatening. In Hitchcock’s films, circular movement – the swirling vortex – implies a loss of control, usually with sexual overtones, and often leading to death.

The staircase in Notorious (1946). Note how the chandelier, the urn, and the column at the bottom of the banister all reinforce the circular imagery.

The staircase in the McKittrick Hotel in Vertigo is a dead ringer for the one in the Bates’ residence in Psycho. (The exteriors are equally similar.) This three-shot sequence shows the first floor, the lighting fixture/banister post, and an anticipation of Mrs. Bates. (However, the old lady here is harmless.)

The second set of stairs in Vertigo, at the old mission, merge the staircase and vortex images completely. These are steps that drive you crazy.

The staircase in Psycho is almost a combination of the two staircases in Vertigo, forming a complete spiral, which we can’t quite see, because the steps that lead down to the basement are concealed beneath the steps going up to the second story.

Hitchcock often used banister slats to suggest prison bars and confinement. This framing shot from Psycho (in the deputy sheriff ‘s house) achieves a remarkably claustrophobic effect.

Women’s Hair

Alfred Hitchcock was obsessed with women’s hair. It was the ultimate symbol of women’s sexual power – a power that Hitchcock found both irresistible and terrifying. Any force so powerful had to be deadly in the end. The famous “Hitchcock blondes” – Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and Tippi Hedren – almost always wore their hair in a compulsively arranged manner, suggesting Hitchcock’s desire to make things perfect and keep them under control.

Kim Novak was not a real Hitchcock blonde (Hitch thought she was vulgar), but he used her in Vertigo, a film that is essentially an examination of his own fascination with feminine appearance. Jimmy Stewart fantasizes about Novak as the perfect woman when he sees her in disguise, more or less, as “Madeleine Elster.”

When he discovers that she is really the “common” Judy Barton, he sets out to remake her.

Some men have a “Madonna/Whore” complex. Hitchcock had a “Mother/Lover” complex. In films like Notorious and The Birds, the lovely heroine is confronted by a suspicious and unlovely mother. A similarity in hairdos suggests an unhealthy relationship. In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman has to deal with a suspicious and ultimately murderous mother-in-law, played by Leopoldine Konstantin.

In The Birds, Tippi Hedren and Jessica Tandy wear almost identical hairdos (and it’s hard to imagine why either chooses such a compulsive do).

Hitchcock generally did not like loose hair on women. He seemed to find it “vulgar” rather than free. However, in his last real Hitchcock film, Marnie, the eponymous heroine, played by Tippi Hedren, lets her hair down when she goes riding, and when she puts her head on the lap of her far-from-classy mother.

Marnie and her mother form another “Mother/Lover” pair, but the grimmest pair of all is Mrs. Bates and Marion Crane. The hair of the living is not very important in Psycho. The blonde allure has fled. All we are left with is Mrs. Bates’ grim iron bun, and Norman’s cheap wig. Hitchcock forces us to confront his own nightmare, the skull beneath the skin.

Hands

In the Jesuit school that Hitchcock attended as a boy, misbehavior was punished by blows to the hand with a sort of rubber truncheon or club. I suspect that this experience helped Hitchcock to think of hands as the symbol of human vulnerability. In his films, people are always extending their hands in hope of assistance, and very seldom getting it. Vertigo begins with a re-creation of Hitchcock’s early schooling: we see a bar, and then a hand smacking into it and grabbing it.

The hand we see at the beginning of Vertigo belongs to a criminal, being pursued over the rooftops of San Francisco by Jimmy Stewart. This leads to one of the many “falling” scenes in Hitchcock, with the hero holding on for dear life.

Stewart has a similar mishap at the end of Rear Window, when murderer Raymond Burr attempts to toss him over the sill. Here we see hands used as symbols of both vulnerability and violence.

The climax of Strangers on a Train shows Farley Granger clinging to an out-of-control merry-go-round while Robert Walker stamps on his foot.

Cary Grant, clinging to a rock on Mt. Rushmore, suffers similar mistreatment from Martin Landau at the end of North by Northwest.

Hitchcock loved to show hands in extreme closeup. A sequence in Strangers on a Train, showing Robert Walker retrieving a lighter from a storm drain, is one of the most agonizing on film.

While hands in Hitchcock’s films usually “tell the truth” – that is, express human vulnerability – they can also lie. In Notorious, Claude Rains reaches out to take the hands of his beloved wife, Ingrid Bergman, not knowing that she is holding the key to the wine cellar, stolen from his key chain and a symbol of her decision to betray him. She opens her right hand but artfully conceals the key in her left and as they embrace transfers it to her right, which allows her to drop it silently to the floor. She then retrieves it and, in a variation of what has just taken place, passes it to Cary Grant. The concluding close-up is probably the tightest shot possible at the time.

In Psycho, Marion Crane’s hands are entirely innocent. In the famous shower scene, we see her, left for dead by “Mother,” reach her hand out to grasp the shower curtain. It collapses beneath her weight and she sprawls lifelessly to the floor. (The breasts you may faintly see in the background do not belong to Janet Leigh, but rather a dancer whose name has been discreetly withheld from posterity.)

Marion Crane reaches out for mercy, but in the world of Psycho, the hands of mercy have been turned to stone, emphasized by the bronzed hands in Mother’s bedroom.

Only in the last shot of Psycho is Marion’s request for help granted. The audience seems to reach into the screen to pull her buried car from the swamp into which Norman had cast it. But this is very little comfort indeed.

Eyes

Alfred Hitchcock was, unsurprisingly, fascinated by eyes. Films are about seeing, after all, and often about seeing what we don’t see, and aren’t allowed to see, in real life. Hitchcock was a compulsive voyeur, and liked to involve the audience in his own obsessions.

Eyes in Hitchcock’s films can represent both innocence and depravity. Vertigo begins with a close-up of Kim Novak’s eyes, which suggest a sort of frightened helplessness. However, as the camera narrows its gaze to one eye, we get the sense of a loss of control (helped along not a little by dramatic lighting and other special effects).

In Stranger on a Train, a close-up of the eyes of small-town, small-time bad girl Miriam Haines (Laura Elliott, aka Kasey Rogers of later Bewitched fame) reveals her vulnerability just before her murder.

Hitchcock later duplicates this shot with Miriam lookalike Barbara Morton (Patricia Hitchcock).

In Rear Window, Hitchcock uses the light reflected from the glasses of murderer Raymond Burr for a more sinister effect.

Psycho begins with the camera eye roving over Phoenix, eventually entering a window so that we can see Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) with her lover. Afterwards, we see other people staring at Marion.

The dead-eyed stare of the cop sets us up for the death’s-head gaze of “Mother,” which we won’t see for another hour.

The dead-eyed stare of the cop sets us up for the death’s-head gaze of “Mother,” which we won’t see for another hour.

She flees the cop as quickly as she can, not realizing that she’s falling into the lair of the ultimate voyeur, Norman Bates.

She flees the cop as quickly as she can, not realizing that she’s falling into the lair of the ultimate voyeur, Norman Bates.

This enormous close-up of Norman’s eye will be followed, all too soon, by Marion’s dead stare. (If you know something about physiology, you know that if Marion/Janet were really dead, her pupil would be fully dilated.)

At the conclusion of the film, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) comes face to face with the ultimate deadhead, Mrs. Bates.

In his next picture, The Birds, Hitchcock used a similar image. It’s shocking, but it doesn’t come as the culmination of the entire film, the way the sight of Mother’s skull does in Psycho.

The Uncanny

Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by inanimate objects that suggested life. His interiors are invariably filled with paintings and sculptures, lifelike objects that, to Hitchcock, implied death rather than life.

In his early film The Lady Vanishes, the hero and heroine, Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, look in the baggage car for clues to discover what happened to Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) and stumble across a cut-out of “Signor Doppo” (Philip Leaver).

Notice how Redgrave’s pose mirrors the cut-out.

In Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, there’s an odd scene where Jimmy Stewart wanders into a taxidermy shop, encountering, among other things, a stuffed tiger. This sequence, of course, looks forward to the stuffed birds of Psycho.

Although dozens of paintings appear in Hitchcock’s films, Psycho in particular, few have much impact. One that does occurs in Strangers on a Train, when the fluttery Mrs. Antony (Marion Lorne) reveals her latest creation to her son Bruno (Robert Walker). The canvas, a portrait of St. Francis, suggests that all is not well among the Antonys.

Hitchcock’s menagerie threatens to overflow in Psycho. There are, first of all, Norman’s birds. (Note the clock as well, which is almost impossible to see in the film.)

Like the tiger in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Norman’s birds seem ready to attack.

In addition to the birds, there is a Cupid that guards the door at the right of the foot of the stairs, a door that is never opened.

Endless surprises await in Mrs. Bates’ room – an ecstatic statue, her carefully maintained clothes, her crossed hands, and her bed, deformed by her unchanging position.

Although Hitchcock used mirrors endlessly in his work, they are rarely used for overt drama. However, he achieves a phenomenal effect in Psycho when Lila Crane (Vera Miles) sees a double reflection of herself in two mirrors. Notice how the gaze of the “second Lila” (the far-right image) takes us deep into the center of the frame, where the gaze of the “third Lila” directs us back out of the frame toward the “first Lila” at the far left, who is turning around to confront who? Us? Someone behind us? Mrs. Bates?

Lila Crane does not scare easily. She soldiers on to investigate Norman’s room. His battered toys and filthy bed exemplify his soiled childishness.

Lila pursues her search to the bitter end, discovering the embalmed corpse of Mrs. Bates in the basement. The swinging overhead light, casting patterns of light and shadow on the skull, suggests movement and life in a dead thing – death reaching out to claim the living.

This horrific image was anticipated in Strangers on a Train when the hero, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), is trapped aboard a runaway merry-go-round. Bruno (Robert Walker) struggles to force Guy’s head beneath the rising and plunging hoof of one of the horses. Hitchcock shows us the horse’s rising and falling head as a symbol of the power of death.

Another image that haunted Hitchcock is the “faceless face,” a backlit face with the features obscured. Psycho is so aggressively noir that virtually every character appears backlit, though the real payoff, of course, occurs during the shower scene. However, Hitchcock had used the effect before, in Rear Window, for example, where an irritated Raymond Burr seeks to settle things with Jimmy Stewart.

Hitchcock used a similar effect at the conclusion of Vertigo, with the mysterious nun seemingly materializing out of the darkness.

Hitchcock returned to the image in Marnie. Here we see Marnie’s unpleasant mother (Louise Latham) paying an unwanted nocturnal visit.

The Vortex

Psycho and Vertigo are the most striking examples of Hitchcock’s fascination with the “vortex,” the swirling spiral that symbolized dizziness, sexual arousal, loss of control, and even death for him. Images of the vortex included spiral staircases, curls in women’s hair, the human eye, drains, and even toilets. (I suppose it all leads back to the vagina – doesn’t everything? – but Hitchcock couldn’t show that.)

The opening credits of Vertigo feature the close-up of a human eye (Kim Novak’s, to be precise). The tint grows garish, and a spiral is superimposed over the iris.

Spiral staircases in Hitchcock’s films pick up the theme of the vortex and offer a special sense of danger, as we see in these examples from Notorious, Vertigo, and Psycho.

Hitchcock surely could have written a book on women’s hair. Women were the vortex personified for Hitchcock, alluring sirens that drew you irresistibly to your doom. A woman’s hair was half her identity, and Hitchcock was fascinated by stylised hairdos that both evoked the vortex and brought it under control, as we see in these near-identical shots of Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie.

The murder of Marion Crane in Psycho features a succession of vortex images. Norman spies on Marion through a peephole that suggests a vortex. We see the peephole, Norman’s eye, the toilet (its water swirling because Marion has flushed it to dispose of the evidence of her crime), the showerhead, Marion’s screaming mouth, the drain, and then Marion’s dead, staring eye. Finally, her body is disposed of in an inky swamp, the final destination of the toilets and drains we have seen before.

The conclusion of Psycho offers another set of vortex images, though not so elaborate as the shower murder. Lila Crane, Marion’s sister, performs a complete spiral as she descends from the second floor of the Bates home to the basement. When she finally discovers Mrs. Bates, we see the vortex image once more in the bun in the old lady’s hair. When the rotation of her chair brings us face to face, her eyeless sockets are a heartless commentary on all the eyes we’ve seen before, Marion’s in particular. These are the eyes of death, and they’re looking at us, and they’re laughing at us. The final touch is the shot of Norman’s wig falling on the floor. The loose, shapeless hair suggests the final confusion – the walls of gender and identity collapsing.

Notorious Sequence

In the conclusion of the famous bathtub murder scene in Psycho, Hitchcock shows a close-up of the water swirling down the tub’s drain, a shot that then is transformed into a close-up of Marion Crane’s eye. As the camera pulls away from her eye, it slowly spirals clockwise, as if to “undo” the counter-clockwise swirl of the water. Having spiraled into the vortex, we must spiral our way out once more.

Fourteen years earlier, in Notorious, Hitchcock showed us a very similar spiral, this time seen from inside. A hung-over Ingrid Bergman gets a slanted view of secret agent Cary Grant.

As Cary comes toward her, he starts to spiral.

Ingrid refocuses as Cary approaches.

Ingrid obligingly rolls over so that she can get the full effect.

Hitchcock often tried to show us what his characters were seeing. Sometimes, the effect is dismayingly literal: a character is hit on the head, so her vision is blurry. Here he uses an elaborately disjointed shot (it’s awfully hard to figure out exactly how Ingrid is supposed to be turning her head) to express both Bergman’s inner confusion and the ambiguous nature of Grant’s presence in her life.

From the universal to the particular: The Man Who Knew Too Much

In his 1953 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock created a “universal to particular” sequence that included two of his particular obsessions, staircases and houses. The sequence occurs late in the film, when distraught parents James Stewart and Doris Day have managed to gain entrance to a baroque embassy (which looks only slightly less imposing than Buckingham Palace) where their son is being held prisoner by kidnappers. While Jimmy and Doris try to develop a plan to search the place, the camera, through a series of jump cuts rather than a single tracking shot, moves silently up a massive staircase and down a hallway, finally focusing on a doorknob. Behind the door, of course, is Stewart’s son. The omniscient camera knows the way, but Jimmy does not. The superhuman/inhuman opulence of the embassy’s interior seems to mock the possibility of a mere mortal being able to impose his will upon it.