In an earlier post, I touched on, without mentioning explicitly, the concept of cinematic language. I suggested that Woody Allen creates a tension between his dialogue and his shots in Manhattan, between his literary and cinematic methods of storytelling. He reveals that words often hover on the surface while the actions of the characters, the movements of the camera and the composition of the frame all reveal a different story. 

For a pair of very shaky definitions: literary storytelling is what is said; cinematic storytelling is what is shown. The components of the former are dialogue, voice-over and (especially pre-1926, pre-sound) title cards; camera placement and movement, editing, lighting and composition within the frame are some of the factors that help to tell the story cinematically. 

Alfred Hitchcock believed that, “with the arrival of sound, the motion picture, overnight, assumed a theatrical form.” He continues: “In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema”. Films may seem “theatrical” when there is a lack of cinematic storytelling, when the director develops the narrative through words alone. These devices – words – are borrowed from literature: they are not internal and essential to the cinematic image or the cinematic process. Cinema, for Hitchcock, seems to be equated with an emphasis on cinematic storytelling.

Cinematic language – the various visual codes used in cinematic storytelling – is an extremely potent and subtle way of conveying meaning because the origins of its power often lie in broader conventions of society and of life. The layout of the image within the frame serves as example enough to illustrate this point. Consider various movements from the centre of the screen towards the edge of the picture. To move from left to right is easy for Western eyes because this is how we read. The reverse seems uncomfortable. Equally, to move downwards is inevitable because we all suffer from gravity. The ascent towards the top of the screen is more arduous. Diagonals are composites of these rules: descending from left to right is easiest; ascending from right to left is hardest. This language, of which these movements are just one part, affects the viewer almost always subconsciously. 

In Hitchcock’s 1951 film Strangers on a Train, for example, the viewer understands who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist before a word is uttered. The opening scene is a shot, from the knees down, of a man exiting a taxi cab outside a train station. The film cuts to another taxi cab from which a second man exits. One pair of shoes are two-tone and flamboyant; the other pair are plain dark coloured brogues. The two-tone shoes walk from right to left, the more difficult direction, while the plain shoes move from left to right. Implicit in the choice of shoes – the wardrobe – and their respective movements is the suggestion that the man wearing the two-tones is the bad guy and the man in the dark coloured brogues is the good one. 

Putting aside the question of the role of sound in cinema for now, even Hitchcock accepts that words are here to stay. An admission that literary storytelling is needed in some form is implicit when he admits that: “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialog only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Sometimes, it says between the lines, it is impossible not to use words.

But, when converting a film from one language to another, is translating these words enough to carry out the process fully? Imagine, for a hypothetical example, Strangers on a Train being shown to an audience that only spoke Hebrew. The language is written from right to left. Hitchcock’s cinematic storytelling could convey the opposite message to such an audience, then, as the man in the two-tones moves from right to left, the more comfortable horizontal movement for such a group. How much is left unsaid, we can ask ourselves, when watching foreign films, before the first words begin?