Scene in Stills is an extension of the work on scenes in my book Reflections, 21 Cinematographers at Work, published by the ASC Press.
I start with a scene from one of the most perfect films ever made, Rear Window (1962) by Alfred Hitchcock, starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter, with cinematography by Robert Burks, ASC. Burks collaborated on 12 films with the legendary director, using his friend Leonard J. South, ASC, as camera operator.
Robert Burks was nominated for an Oscar for the wonderful Technicolor cinematography of Rear Window.
How do you introduce an important character? Every story has to. In Rear Window, it goes like this, about 15 minutes into the movie:
The camera moves across the courtyard buildings at dusk, a singer is doing scales, windows light up, the camera moves into our hero’s darkened apartment, he is asleep, a shadow crosses his face…
A brief shadow that indicates danger…
We cut to
a point of view (POV) of a beautiful woman moving towards camera in the silence of the room. Our shadowed hero opens his eyes, seems briefly concerned, then smiles. We cut back to his POV as the woman approaches, getting very close to camera.
We cut to a side shot of 2 close-up profiles. She moves in and kisses him. Then comes a whispered dialogue between the two close faces, punctuated by a final short kiss:
LISA: How’s your leg?
JEFF: Hurts a little.
LISA: Your stomach?
JEFF: Empty as a football.
LISA: And your love life?
JEFF: Not too active.
LISA: Anything else bothering you?
JEFF: Uh-huh, who are you?
This intimate shot lasts 30 seconds, an eternity, then she moves out of frame and the camera pulls back to a looser shot of him.
We cut to follow her as she turns on one, two, three lamps to light up the room, and we see more and more of her, ending with a full figure shot of her in an elegant dress.
LISA: Reading from top to bottom…
Grace Kelly’s character, Lisa, has been introduced in a sequence that has taken all of 1 minute 20 seconds, full of the Hitchcockian motif of shadows and light.
The audience has already heard of Lisa Freemont before meeting her. In the sequence just before this one, Jeff has admitted to his nurse, played by Thelma Ritter, that he does not want to marry Lisa, that she is too perfect.
So Hitchcock has already succeeded in building up a certain anticipation. The audience would like to meet this Lisa who is "too perfect". This kind of foreshadowing is pure Hitchcock, another form of suspense. Looking at moments of the scene is detail, it becomes clear that this scene also prefigures both the form and the content of the film’s ending.
Burks’ first POV portrait of Lisa is beautifully moody. Lisa is keyed from the right with a strong frontal fill to soften the face shadows. Bright panes on the dark wall motivate the lighting in the room, evoking a streetlamp outside. The image feels quite modern except for the hairlight which gives the portrait a touch of glamour. Lisa’s sudden approach is heightened by an eerie silence: the courtyard singer has stopped her scales.
POV is essential to the voyeur theme of Rear Window — almost every shot of the courtyard is shot from the hero’s point of view. However the POV is rarely used inside Jeff’s apartment. The two notable instances of POV interiors are this scene and the climax at the end when the murderer comes into the apartment to kill Jeff. This is one of the ways in which this love scene foreshadows the attempted murder at the end.
Love and murder
Director François Truffaut once said: "Hitchcock filmed murders like love scenes, and love scenes like murders." Our first encounter with Lisa illustrates this perfectly, combining a sense of surprise and danger, with excitement, and a flicker of fear on James Stewart’s darkened face.
In the third act climax, Jeff’s only weapon will be light, the flash of his photographic bulbs to blind his assailant in the dark. This theme of light and shadow is present here too.
The dark kiss
During a recent round table session, Peter Weir mentioned in passing that he had studied Hitchcock’s kisses. I would love to find out what he discovered. In any case, in this scene it is Lisa who is the instigator, while Jeff is passive.
The kiss also continues the motif of Lisa’s ominous shadow. Once again she obscures his face, putting his eyes in shadow, and then completely darkening him when she moves in to kiss him. The audio track is quiet enough to hear the final contact of her departing lips.
Burks’ lighting is elegant. A rim light accents Lisa’s profile, with a hot spot on her lips. A hard light on the left creates her shadow on his face. A fill lights her face, while his stays dark. A band of bright streelight in the background draws attention to their lips, as the lovers kiss and speak softly. When Lisa moves in, there is some light on her face, but Jeff’s face is swallowed by her shadow.
From darkness to light
When Lisa pulls away from Jeff and states her name, Hitchcock offers a third round of the darkness and light motif. This time it is Lisa who is in the shadows and gradually emerges into the light, by turning on three practicals to reveal herself.
The darkness before the first lamp feels real, with some backlight to delineate Lisa’s silhouette, and the faintest fill to bring out her teeth and pearls. The final full figure image has lost all trace of the earlier ominous motif. Lisa is finally revealed as a charming, elegant woman in an ordinary night interior, any trace of the threat has vanished.
In a minute and a half Hitchcock has introduced us to Lisa, but he has also foreshadowed the ending when the murderer will come to attack Jeff in his darkened apartment.
Truffaut was right, in Rear Window, Hitchcock films the love scene of a woman waking her lover with a kiss, as if it were a murder. We will see another time whether he films one of his murders as a love scene.