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I watched Kathryn Bigalow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Tim Hetherington’s and Sebastian Junger’s Restrepo (2010) in quick succession last week. Placed so close, each film provides a useful counterpoint to the other. Both handle similar themes: THL is set in Iraq, while Hetherington and Junger follow a US Army platoon in Afghanistan. Restrepo’s tag line is startling to consider: ‘One Platoon, One Valley, One Year’ makes us pause and consider the achievement and bravery of the directors (along with – but separate from – that of the servicemen). A friend in the US Navy pointed me towards the picture and it was with sadness that I heard he had attended Hetherington’s funeral. The photographer died in Libya earlier this year.
In a sense, the camerawork in Restrepo is dictated by the action: often jolty and cramped whenever stable, Hetherington and Junger have to move and film however they could. In contrast, THL – shot on location in Jordan – has the luxury of artistic choice. We can hold up Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (1953) as an example of shooting war steadily: I’m thinking specifically of the scene where the camera glides above a solider who has gone over the top and is struggling to progress.
THL’s presentation is close – but not identical to – that in Restrepo. Both cameras are restless. Restrepo’s picture is constantly adjusted because of necessity (shook by a nearby explosion – jolted through fear of bullets). The movement is understandably forced. THL relies also on adjustments to the zoom (as well as the camera position) to achieve a similarly anxious tone. By jolting forwards and back, it adjusts the focal length and, as a result, the relationships between the various visual planes. The background is nudged slightly closer to the foreground, before being flung slightly back.
It is the size of these adjustments and how they are handled that creates the atmosphere. THL ‘s camera movement is not the assertive and emphatic lurch forward that characterises Hitchcock’s use of a zoom lens. But neither is it the smoothly orchestrated movement of an Ophulsian tracking shot. In other words, the camera neither guides the viewer to important figures or objects nor follows the principal characters around their environment. Instead, it is not so certain. As if suffering from terror induced ADHD, THL’s camera cannot decide where to position itself.
In the apartment of Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), when she is first unnerved by the bang of a shoe hitting the floor, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) hugs her borrowed copy of Althea Bruce all the tighter. After all, she is only lured to the building in the first place by an appealing narrative of a different sort. When she meets Dix, she is made to feel ‘real important’ and the attraction of being able to tell Aunt Cora that ‘I told the story to the screenwriter’ is simply too strong to resist. As she begins to question why Dix has brought her back to his house (and the truthfulness of his design becomes flimsily suspect), she literally clings to the solidarity of Althea Bruce, to the firmness of the form of the book. She fears trickery, as Dix’s suggestion of (a small piece of) screen fame threatens to fall to the floor as quickly as his shoes. Mildred worries, for a moment, that her newfound ability to tell a tale is a sham and that Dix only offers her this opportunity to get her into bed. The craft of story telling is at stake here, as well as the agency that comes from such narrating.
Of course, this scene in In A Lonely Place (1950) is uniquely poised in Nicholas Ray’s own retelling of Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 novel with the same title: for the other characters, all the ambiguity that surrounds the part Dix played in Mildred’s death stems from this meeting, from the undeniable fact that the pair go home together. Only two scenes later, the audience hears suspicion in Captain Lochner’s (Carl Benton Reid) voice: he thinks the decision to bring Mildred back home is a ‘rather eccentric thing to do’; throughout the film, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) suffers attrition from doubt, finally announcing to Sylvia Nicolai (Jeff Donnell) her belief that ‘There is something strange about Dix’, demanding to be convinced by her absent lover that Lochner’s intuition is wrong.
It is perhaps fair to suggest that most audience members do not suspect Dix as the murderer: they notice, for example, the lack of enthusiasm in his voice, as he changes the subject – raised by Mildred – as to whether he is ‘going steady’ with anyone. Though she cannot see his face, he nonetheless reveals that he is trying to make her leave with the nervousness of his eyes. It is as if he cannot even keep eye contact with a woman out of sight: his gaze moves briefly from pointing towards frame right to frame left before ducking down to his shoes (which he perhaps wishes he had kept on) and back up to its original position. He only looks up to her face when his suggestion of parting company is accepted with an enthusiastic (though slightly disappointed) ‘That’s alright’.
As Dix cheekily gestures her out of the door as quickly as possible, again without her seeing, he makes clear his desire to be separate from this woman. The non-diegetic strings also seem to will Mildred out of the house: her steps fall in time to the staccato notes, played at an allegro tempo. And yet the more relaxed and lulling wind instruments create a tone that suggests she is content. Furthermore, as she is stepping back into the courtyard, the instruments combine at a slightly slower tempo to produce a major keyed mellifluous tune that leads the audience to believe that, while the evening did not quite go to any plan, both characters are happy. The fade-out that ends the scene marks Dix’s retiring to bed and gives no indication that a crucial moment in the narrative occurs. It is the behaviour of Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), rather than Dix, that brings the serenity of suggested sleep to an end: the replacement of non-diegetic with exclusively diegetic sound begins with the harsh buzz of a doorbell.
While the viewer may believe that the saxophone-heavy jazz band that begins with the fade-in is part of the non-diegetic soundtrack, she soon sees that it exists within the filmic world when Dix brings it to an end by switching off his record player. Ray, here, may intend to trick the viewer, making her expect a sound to be non-diegetic before revealing it to be the opposite. This play with the soundscape allows a broader comment to be made with subtlety: the suspicion of Dix having committed the murder comes only from the characters within the film itself. The tone of the scene before (accompanied and generated by a harmonious soundtrack), is punctured by unseen actions – between the fade-out and fade-in – that take place within the film. With the seriousness of suspicion as the source of the scene (there is no other reason why Brub would visit Dix so early), it feels only fitting that the pragmatic question ‘who killed Mildred?’ does not allow room for non-essential elements. This particular morning is no time for music that sits outside the reality of murder.
The switch to a solely diegetic soundtrack comes to enact, at this moment, the different possibilities of interpretation afforded to the characters within the film and the audience watching it. While the viewer sees plainly that, in this instance, Dix cannot get away from Mildred fast enough, Brub is allowed no such luxury. Similarly, Lochner only has a hefty file of past offences and a suspicious set of circumstances from which to begin. Even Laurel gets nothing more than a fragment: the audience can only be sure that she hears Mildred’s dramatic ‘Help! Help!’ Ray employs a form of dramatic irony (as the audience does not see the murder itself, though they do see the last moment of interaction between Dix and Mildred) which produces related though not identical questions from characters and viewers. While Brub wonders whether Dix killed Mildred, the audience, unconvinced that he did, asks a slightly different question: they are left wondering, especially when watching the film again, whether or not he could have done so. Ray’s (and Edmund North’s) treatment of Hughes’s novel transforms a relatively simple detective story, in which Dix does commit a murder, into a subtle psychological study and an investigation of possibility. The scene in Dix’s apartment with Mildred becomes crucial, then, not as a fertile ground for clues that help to make sense of an answer already given, but instead because it allows the viewer to probe whether there is a method in Dix’s madness.
What an ending. I was shocked and then delighted to see In A Lonely Place (1950) finish the way it does. Nicholas Ray silences the suggestion that the pictures produced in Hollywood’s Golden Age are unashamedly neat and formulaic by refusing to end the picture with a happy resolution (with the couple united) or, as Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel does, with an emphatically tragic one – with the murder of Laurel (Gloria Grahame). Indeed, the poster used for the original release advertises ‘the Bogart suspense picture with the surprise finish’ and the surprise may just be that the film just sort of stops. As ‘THE END’ appears and the frame fades to black, Dix (Humphrey Bogart), thoughtful and alone, wanders away from Laurel, his apartment and the camera (looking down at him from the first floor). He begins the film as a large pair of eyes in a car mirror, looking in the direction of the viewer (though not at her); by the end, he is like an ant, dwarfed by darkness and hiding his face.
We may perhaps infer that Laurel’s last view of Dix is this one (it’s certainly ours anyway). As he walks away, Dix is faceless. As I look again at the poster above, I notice that Bogart’s face is used as a selling point. It dwarfs Laurel and overwhelms the viewer. This face, Ray commented, is ‘an image of our condition’ and stands with an idiosyncratic and weathered appeal. That which first drew Laurel’s attention – she tells the police inspector (Carl Benton Reid) that she found Dix’s face ‘interesting’ – is now withheld. As the poster shows, Bogart achieves a level of tenderness in his gaze that challenges Dix’s dangerous aggression. As he walks away, the painful thing, perhaps, is that Laurel is left only with an outline: she sees only the form of a man that she suspects is capable of murder and it is left unbalanced – unaccompanied – by Dix’s face and eyes. As he is consumed by the shadows and his boundaries break down, the specifics of his character are engulfed for Laurel by a general fear of his overwhelming psychosis.
Who is to blame for the way things turned out? It’s difficult to say and, in the end, I’m not sure it matters.
I start with Rambo only because I’m sure he’d feel right at home messing stuff up on the titular bridge. David Lean’s film often almost slides into First Blood (1982) style melodrama and sentimentality. I’m thinking, for example, of the delayed exchange of a single word, ‘lovely’, between a local woman and an English soldier. At first misunderstood, the word becomes the last thing said to the officer before he begins his destruction of the bridge. Equally, we see quickly that the English officers are wonderfully English, often armed with cups of tea and always demonstrating the bravery that comes from stiff upper lips.
If, though, Sly Stallone every so often threatens to run out of the jungle and singlehandedly destroy The Bridge, he, equipped with his black-and-white (and it must be said entertaining) moral code, is never more than a shadowy figure in the background: Lean’s picture more consistently problematises a conception of war as simply the good guys verses the bad. As the film crescendos, we find ourselves identifying with both the builders and the destroyers. Seemingly clear distinctions in the opening section disintegrate in a mix of parallel shots and scenes. Yes, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is ruthless, threatening to make the sick and the dying help in the construction of the bridge; but we also see him crying in a private moment of weakness and emotion; and, furthermore, we later witness Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) actually sending his own injured men back to work. The bridge becomes not only an act of English defiance but also a point for Nicholson’s life: as he leans over its edge, looking in the river below, he admits that ‘you ask yourself what the sum total of your life represents? What difference your being there at any time made to anything?’
And if, even in the specifics of the ending, such fortuitous and almost heavy-handed symbolism appears again (‘What have I done?’ Nicholson asks), it is kept in check by more ambiguous and moving motifs that recur throughout the film. For example, the diegetic whistling of the Colonel Bogey March, often combined with Malcolm Arnold’s non-diegetic counter-melody of The River Kwai March, is a charged reference point that bookends the picture. As a general emblem of the soldiers’ fortitude, the music looks forward to the whistling of the Mickey Mouse Club Marching Song that brings Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) to a close; taken as a specific melody, Colonel Bogey looks back to British defiance against Hitler (who, we’re led to believe, only had one ball).
But even if the picture is loaded with the potential for broader social and martial comment, much of its power lies in the specifics of two individuals: Colonel Nichelson and Colonel Saito. To witness the partial expression of the motivation that drives their actions is both moving and engaging. (Complete revelation is stilted by Japanese notions of ‘honour’ or British conceptions of ‘military behaviour’.) To return to the moment when Nichelson is hanging over bridge, trying to reveal to a silent Saito his feelings at having finished the job, we see this gesture cut short. Just as he approaches a moment of real expression, he drops his stick into the Kwai, leaving Saito and the viewer with just a single word that is almost comic in its retrospective dramatic irony: ‘Blast!’, he says simply.
Very quickly into Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987) came to mind. Both films seem to hinge on their leading pair’s drug-induced fancies, producing narratives driven by associations rather than obvious causation. The excitement is initiated by some sort of journey (a trip to Las Vegas or a weekend in the country) but the aims become quickly clouded (if they were ever clear at all).
Both pictures are also rooted in a specific time period. Withnail rests at the end of ‘the greatest decade of mankind’; Fear and Loathing, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, presents ‘the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, 1971’. This specificity is more important that it may seem at first: yes, plenty of films demonstrate a temporal unity but, in vague terms, as I was watching Fear and Loathing, I began to feel that the film’s setting influences its aesthetic beyond simply providing a period backdrop for a potentially universal story. Instead, the broader feelings generated by the social climate of California in the early 1970s affect the way the narrative is told. It’s less about a story that is specific to the seventies than about Gilliam’s attempt, in the late 1990s, to tell it using an aesthetic design that is apt for the subject matter.
An important scene for defining this aesthetic comes about halfway though the picture. Over stock footage of San Francisco from 1965, Duke (Johnny Depp) tells us that: ‘There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.’ He tries to describe the belief in ‘that inevitable sense of victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail.’ (My emphasis) Film noir lingers here but only in a transformed state. In a short attempt to define a notoriously slippery term, noir is used here to refer to American films from (say) the 1940s and 1950s that present the sleazy side of life: sleazy in the sense that they move away from an everything-is-OK postcard aesthetic and attempt to show an anti-America (which is, it should be noted in passing, no more real, no less stylized, than the other extreme). Often populated by individuals that feel separated from society for some reason, the films present an alternative and more challenging moral system that competes with simple right and wrong. These complexities are reflected in cinematographic choices that involve low-key and high-contrast lighting setups shot on black-and-white film. Within such a varying genre, it’s useful to lean on specific examples of film noir to illustrate points of comparison with Gilliam’s picture.
So, in Fear and Loathing, the pair are, in a sense, victims of their circumstances, as is Bigelow (Eadmond O’Brien) in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950), but we notice that they don’t feel much dread: instead, any urgency is swapped for a trippy ride on universal energy. The Las Vegas that Gilliam presents places no emphasis on guns or firepower and the corruption that comes with them (‘We didn’t need that’): instead we witness the psychedelic degradation of a pair of minds that are emblematic of the society in which they play. I limited the use of film noir to American films above because I think there is a larger and specifically American story here: the alternative moral system generated during the Depression is replaced in Fear and Loathing by no morals at all.
But the diffracted half-similarities of plot are only preamble to what is, for me, the strongest link between film noir and Fear and Loathing: the lighting. I believe the cinematographic choices of Gilliam’s picture reveal a desire to load the lighting with significance, an importance reminiscent of that given to the set-ups in, say, Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955). In both films the lighting is stylized and noticeably low-key and high-contrast. But the startling black-and-white chiaroscuro that suits the violence and danger of The Big Combo becomes instead the psychedelic rainfall of always-changing always-blinking Las Vegas advertisements.
The emphasis shifts from tone to colour but black and darkness still linger behind it all. Furthermore, as the sights, sounds and opportunities of Las Vegas infect Duke and Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), we see the disintegration of personal boundaries played out visually: there is, for example, a beautiful and loaded scene where the bright lights of the city are refracted in the the pair’s car window. What we see is an underworld in which universal vibrations are temporarily on show in glorious saccharine technicolor. As I (Paul McGann) wonders in Withnail: ‘The purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?’
Recently, as I was watching Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night came to mind. Both spectacles generate much of their comedy from the cross-dressing of their protagonists. Equally, both are initiated by a more serious note: while the play (almost) opens with a shipwreck, Some Like it Hot‘s Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) must don dresses because they accidently witness (what looks like) the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre.
But with hindsight, the specifics of Joe’s cross-dressing feel closer to those of As You Like It. Joe, dressed as Josephine, discovers that Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) wants to meet a millionaire with a yacht, a railroad car and his own toothpaste. (S)he then dresses as a man, posing as a millionaire, in an attempt to woo the unsuspecting Sugar. In As You Like It, when she flees her uncle Frederick’s court, Rosalind must dress as a boy (Ganymede) to survive. (S)he, then, to help Orlando court Rosalind, pretends to be a woman and allows him to practise. In other words, in the film, a man dresses as a woman, who then dresses as a man; in the play, a woman dresses as a man, who then pretends to be a woman. It’s all less confusing on screen or stage.
It is from such multi-layered cross-dressing that the picture derives its structure as well as its laughs. It begins loosely when the dresses go on and ends when identities are revealed. Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) provides an unexpected reaction to such identity shifting in the famous final exchange: to Jerry’s revelation “I’m a man!”, Osgood calmly acknowledges that “Nobody’s perfect.” The line was coined the night before shooting finished by producer I.A.L. ‘Iz’ Diamond.
The tone of Osgood’s reaction is at once extremely funny and subtly philosophical. Much of the success (and comedy) of the film stems from such (only slightly but nonetheless) muted psychological and aesthetic choices. The main source for the picture was the German farce Fanfaren der Liebe (1951) in which two unemployed musicians are emphatically camp. Joe and Jerry, though, are clearly heterosexual: they need an extremely good reason to masquerade as women and, while being broke is not enough, being chased by mobsters convinces them to shave their legs. The scene on the train, with the two men surrounded by beautiful women, does not reach the pitch of a camp farce but instead becomes comically excruciating. Joe must remind Jerry: “Steady, boy. Just keep telling yourself you’re a girl.”
Wilder overrode arguments against filming in black and white, not only to enhance the 1920s period setting but also to mute the makeup. If rendered in colour, the men’s transformation would slide from amusing to grotesque. Thankfully, it is not: the result is, for the American Film Institute at least, the Best Comedy of All Time.
My brother and I had tickets to see Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 film Tokyo Story at the B.F.I. over the weekend. The screening was part of their retrospective of his work, which continues throughout January and February. Despite being hailed as a master filmmaker, as Ian Buruma points out, “many Japanese still think Ozu is too “Japanese” to be properly understood abroad.” There’s a belief that westerners cannot appreciate either his style or Japan’s culture.
He certainly has a unique personal style. When he is presenting an interior, the viewer is often low to the ground, at sitting height. His camera remains still and detached: there are no sweeping pans or extreme close-ups in Tokyo Story; his takes are long and sometimes linger for a few seconds after everyone has left a scene. Dialogue is predominantly shot in one of two ways: either as a two-shot, which includes both the speaker and the listener within one frame, or, breaking ‘the line’ of cross-cutting, as a series of exchanges in which the speakers look directly into the camera.
His main methods for shooting conversations reveal his aesthetic to be one of inclusion. His two-shots are either balanced, by placing one individual at frame left and one at frame right, or over-the-shoulder shots, in which the back of the listener’s head is visible as well as the speaker. By allowing his characters to look and talk into the camera, Ozu affords the viewer a more active role in the speaking process: we, in a way, are being spoken to, rather than just viewing and hearing, from the outside. In larger groups, the viewer remains an addressee instead of becoming merely one that overhears. Take, for example, a three-way conversation between the elderly Shukichi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu), his wife Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) and their widowed daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), in which each person is positioned at the point of a triangle. The conventional way to shoot such an arrangement is to break the group down into its component dialogues and to film each of these pairs, obeying their respective cross-cutting lines. Ozu instead places his camera between the two listeners, say Shukichi and Tomi, allowing Noriko’s eyes to flick between camera left and camera right, depending upon who she is addressing. He maintains the group as a unified whole and also includes the viewer, for a time, in the gaze of the speaker.
Subverting, as his films do, the conventions of shooting dialogue that have been established in western cinema for some time, standing on ‘the line’ between characters that shouldn’t even be crossed, Ozu’s pictures may also jar with viewers that expect films to be driven by their narrative progression: he, instead, focuses on characters. His presentation of the everyday events that make up a normal life must quickly shed its Japanese clothing and strike a universal note, though, because most of us share lives closer to Shukichi than the samurai warlord in Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). Presumably Ozu is too “Japanese” for foreigners just as John Updike is too “American” in much of his work: they both focus on the quotidian, as Buruma says, “revealing beauty where we don’t usually look for it.” In Couples (1968), Updike presents the repetition of “long newspaper-coloured ice-cream evenings”; Tokyo Story revels in the drinking of green tea and alcohol. Both expose the processes of making do and getting by.
Ozu’s still and detached but subtly inclusive style of shooting is apt for his choice of subject matter because “[he] never sought to improve the world; he simply expressed life in Japan as he saw it.” Updike, too, intends only to document middle America because, as he knows, “life hates being analysed.” Both artists allow the world to stand and, in so doing, give it the chance to speak. The sadness of the situation in Tokyo Story, the reluctance of the children to spend time with their parents, despite a dying mother, reverberates in the moments when everyone has left and the camera presents an empty room. The viewer is allowed time to think and to hear what Updike calls the “monologue” of “the quivering rattle of the [basketball] rim”: standing as an icon for youthful ability and hope now passed, the noise of a missed shot is a specific example of the inevitability of loss and disappointment that accompany life.
Buruma tells us that the Japanese have “an aesthetic expression” for this melancholy: “mono no aware, the tears we shed over the transience of things” . He believes, while it is difficult to translate precisely into English, “it is something all of us can feel.” He is undoubtedly correct. What better way to describe the effect on the reader of the Old English poem The Ruin than to say it makes her find both beauty and sadness in such transience? Part of it is translated by S. J. Bradley as follows: “Wondrously ornate is the stone of this wall, shattered by fate; […] An earthly grasp holds the lordly builders, decayed and gone, the cruel grip of the ground, while a hundred generations of humanity have passed away.” There is a brief exchange between Noriko and Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), the youngest daughter of Shukichi and Tomi, in which the latter asks: “Isn’t life disappointing?”, to which Noriko replies: “Yes, it is.” Perhaps it is Noriko’s realisation that any life – even hers – is, in one sense, “[w]ondrously ornate”, as well as awaiting decay, that makes her smile before answering.
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?