Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Art Gallery

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Blackmail-blogging, essay 4 of 6 blog entries
The Art Gallery

Detail of the jester painting that figures prominently
in Blackmail (1929), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Introduction:  The Setup

The thought of young Alfred Hitchcock as a bright and eager assistant on the set of The White Shadow (1924) reminded me of Michael Powell’s apprenticeship on Hitchcock movies like Blackmail (1929).  Michael Powell eventually became a major film director himself, responsible for such classics as Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Peeping Tom.  With each of these blog entries, I’m opening with a fantasy dialogue between Hitchcock and Powell, circa 1929, as they meet at the nearest pub after a full day of shooting.

Part One, The Fourth Fantasy Dialogue

Anny Ondra as Alice in Blackmail.

Fade in on Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell quaffing beers at a London pub following a busy day of shooting Blackmail (1929):

Hitchcock:  “Did you get enough stills of Miss Ondra today, Mr. Powell? Some women are made for viewing through a lens.  Unfortunately for our lovely Miss Ondra, she was designed for a silent movie lens.”

Powell:  “I always endeavor to be professional, Mr. Hitchcock.”

Hitchcock:  “Endeavor away, my boy, but our work is legalized voyeurism and often little more than that.  Everyone gets a charge out of watching a pretty woman in a state of undress.  In America, they think the movie camera was invented to film horses but we know better than that.  It was invented for filming lingerie.”

Powell:  “I prefer to think that movies have progressed beyond the peep show stage.  What you are describing has a technical term and it’s not a nice one:  it’s called scroptophilia, the morbid urge to gaze.”

Hitchcock:  “Yes, our audiences are eager scroptophiliacs— that is a lovely word.  We filmmakers drill the hole in the wall that the audience looks through.  The audience may not admit it, but they hope the hole will look into the bedroom.”

Powell:  “You’re talking about pandering.  As a director, I would hang a beautiful picture over that hole.”

Hitchcock:  “And I would have my hero take that picture down and peer through the hole at the undressing heroine in the next room.”

Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Powell:  “Your hero sounds like a very sick man to me.  I would advise the heroine to exercise great caution around him.”

Hitchcock:  “She is wearing white lingerie and is very attractive in it.  I think you would enjoy filming her very much with your tripod, camera, and lens, Michael.  You must learn to become comfortable with the dark side of your desired profession.  Voyeurism is the sport of the invalid and all cinema-goers are temporary invalids.  Place me alone in a flat and I’ll stare out the window at the rooms across the way, imagining scenarios for each of my neighbors. Every room I see looks like a movie set—it’s the curse of the movie director. You may not see it yet, Mr. Powell, but wait until you direct a movie.  You may turn out to be the greatest voyeur of them all!”

Open on an eye:  Title credit to Vertigo (1958),
directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Open on an eye:  Opening shot of Powell's Peeping Tom.

Open on an eye:  Opening shot of The Thief of Bagdad (1940),
co-directed by Michael Powell, who conceived this image for the movie.

Part Two, The Art Gallery

One of my favorite haunts is the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  In their collection, there is a remarkable oil painting of a jester by William Merritt Chase.  Titled Keyed Up - The Court Jester, it is the painting that launched Chase’s very successful artistic career.  He painted it in Munich and brought it back to America where it proceeded to win a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.  Chase capitalized on its popularity by reproducing it as a popular etching.  It became a very well-known image.

Keyed Up -- The Court Jester (1876) by
William Merritt Chase, American, 1849-1916,
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
While there is no known link between Chase’s jester and Hitchcock’s, I can’t help myself from associating Keyed Up with Blackmail and its taunting jester.

The jester painting in Blackmail.
The jester painting by the artist-villain Crewe becomes a recurrent theme in Blackmail (1929), offering a dark and sardonic commentary on every scene in which it appears.  It appears in three scenes:  1) the scene between Alice and Crewe in his studio apartment, 2) the scene of the police investigation, and 3) the movie’s final scene where the painting is brought into the police station.

The first jester scene:  Our heroine Alice and the artist Crewe enter his apartment.  Curiously looking around, Alice wanders over to a window and appears reassured when she sees policemen on the street outside.  She turns around and sees the painting.  Shock cut to a close-up of the jester.

Alice laughs at the picture, delighted.  “I say,” she says to Crewe, “that’s good, isn’t it?”

Alice’s initial response is only to the painting’s surface quality—it is technically accomplished.  But thanks to Hitchcock’s shock cut and rapid backward dolly, the audience is instantly clued into the disorienting nature of the picture.  The jester’s finger brazenly points outward—depending upon the camera’s placement, it appears either that his finger is pointed at the film’s characters or directly at the audience.  Like a traditional jester, he stands apart, laughing at the film’s denizens and perhaps even suggestively breaking the fourth wall to laugh at the audience itself.

The ghosts of bygone days:
Rebecca's portrait in Hitchcock's
Rebecca (1940).
The painting reappears in this scene after the murder has been committed.  Still in shock, Alice retrieves her dress from where it dangles across the painting.  Once again, the grotesque painting is abruptly revealed as the dress is swept off it.  But this time Alice appears to be revolted by it.  She impulsively slashes a large gash in it with her hand.  Unlike the murder which took place behind a discreet curtain, the viewer is allowed to witness Alice’s violence this time. The torn and ruined picture will return later to taunt her again.
The ghosts of bygone days:
Paintings on the walls of the palace
in Powell and Pressburger's
Black Narcissus (1947).

The second jester scene:  Alice’s boyfriend Frank, a police detective, encounters the jester next.  While investigating the crime scene, he absent-mindedly fingers the torn canvas, not showing any reaction to the painting.  Then Frank discovers the incriminating glove left behind by Alice, and Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of the jester, now appearing to point and laugh at Frank.

The third jester scene:  And, last of all, the jester returns to close the movie on a very ironic note.  Frank and another police officer enjoy a good laugh at the supposedly comic idea that Alice knows who committed the murder.  At this moment, the jester painting is carried through the room.  Alice stands uncomfortably between the laughing men as the jester turns his mocking laughter toward her for the last time.  We can assume that it is an image that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

That elusive object of desire:  Painting from The Age of Consent (1969),
directed by Michael Powell.

That elusive object of desire:  Painting from The Age of Consent.

That elusive object of desire:  Painting from The Age of Consent.

That elusive object of desire:  Portrait of Carlotta Valdes
in Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Reference Sources
A Life in Movies by Michael Powell
Million Dollar Movie by Michael Powell
Michael Powell: Interviews by David Lazar
Hitchcock's Films Revisited by Robin Wood
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto
Arrows of Desire by Ian Christie
Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut
The Hitchcock Romance by Lesley Brill
A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague

A special thank you to Joe Marcincuk for tracking down and delivering a copy of A Life in Movies to me in the nick of time.

© 2012 Lee Price


  1. Another beautiful post--the visual links you have been making are really extraordinary!

    Seeing that still from "Rebecca" and on the general theme of paintings/portraits, rewatched "Suspicion" last night and it features another striking use of portraiture to evoke presence in absence. Poor Joan Fontaine always seems to be dominated by paintings in her Hitchcock films!


  2. Well done! I'll be looking for paintings all over Hitchcock's films from now on.