Costume design in Dial M for Murder

Today I have a very short example of cinematic storytelling. Nevertheless, it comes from the master of cinematic storytelling himself, hope you’ll like it.

During his conversation with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock mentioned an interesting example of using costume design as a storytelling device.

We did an interesting color experiment with Grace Kelly’s clothing. I dressed her in very gay and bright color at the beginning  of the picture, and as the plot thickened, her clothes became gradually more somber.

The plot of the movie is quite simple: Tony tries to murder his wife Margot, however, things don’t go as planned, so he has to think of plan B. And everything is reflected in Margot’s costume design, which changes from bright colors to more somber, as the story unfolds. Judge by yourself:

Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)

(This the only exception, when she is in her underwear.)

Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)

 

I would probably never notice this without reading the Hitchcock book, but again, this is the beauty of cinematic storytelling!


Alfred Hitchcock likes to appear in his movies at various places and in various forms, and this one is especially great! 🙂

Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Dial M for Murder (1954)

 

Cinematic introduction of the main character in Rear Window

Always show, don’t tell! (Unless you are Alan Ball, remember? 🙂 ) Today, I’ll show you a perfect example of that “always show, don’t tell” rule. The movie was written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock – the ultimate master of cinematic storytelling.

Quite early, we are introduced to the main character played by James Stewart. What is interesting though, is that the introduction happens through one single camera movement. Nice!

On imsdb.com, there is a script to Rear Window. I don’t know whether it is the original screenplay or just a transcript. Nevertheless, the opening scene is described there very nicely. So the following words are not mine, but the words found in Rear Window script.


Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera starts in the backyard, then pulls back swiftly and retreats through the open window back into Jefferies’ apartment. We now see more of the sleeping man. The camera goes in far enough to show a head and shoulders of him. He is sitting in a wheelchair.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves along his left leg. It is encased in a plaster from his waistline to the base of his toes. Along the white cast someone has written “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.”

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves to a nearby table on which rests a shattered and twisted Speed Graphic Camera, the kind used by fast-action news photographers.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

On the same table, the camera moves to an eight by ten glossy photo print. It shows a dirt track auto racing speedway,  taken from a point dangerously near the center of the track. A racing car is skidding toward the camera, out of control, spewing a cloud of dust behind it. A rear wheel has come off the car, and the wheel is bounding at top speed directly into the camera lens.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves up to a framed photograph on the wall. It is a fourteen by ten print, an essay in violence, having caught on film the exploding semi-second when a heavy artillery shell arches into a front-line Korean battle outpost. Men and equipment erupt into the air suspended in a solution of blasted rock, dust and screeching shrapnel. That the photographer was not a casualty is evident, but surprising when the short distance between the camera and the explosion is estimated.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves to another framed picture, this one a beautiful and awesome shot of an atomic explosion at Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada. It is the cul-de-sac of violence. The picture taken at a distant observation point, shows some spectators in the foreground watching the explosion through binoculars.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves on to a shelf containing a number of cameras, photographic film, etc.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

It then pan across a large viewer on which is resting a negative of a woman’s head.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

From this, the camera moves on to a magazine cover, and although we do not see the name of the magazine, we can see the head on the cover is the positive of the negative we have just passed.

From this, the camera moves on to a magazine cover, and although we do not see the name of the magazine, we can see the head on the cover is the positive of the negative we have just passed.


So through that one single camera movement, we know:

  • where we are
  • who is the main character
  • his name
  • his profession
  • all about his work
  • what caused the accident

Now, that is a very cinematic introduction of the main character through one single camera movement, not a single frame was wasted. And here is what Alfred Hitchcock said himself about this opening scene:

That’s simply using cinematic means to tell a story. It’s a great deal more interesting than if we had someone asking Stewart: “How did you happen to break your leg?” And Stewart answering: “As taking a picture of a motorcar race, a wheel fell off from one of the speeding cars and smashed into me.” That would be the average scene. To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say: “We can cover that by a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

The paragraph above comes from a book called simply Hitchcock. It’s a collection of interviews between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut and I have to tell you, this is such a beautiful book!

It’s a journey into the world and history of cinema, Hitchcock’s personal life and first of all, a unique look at his films. Can’t wait to read that book again, and again, and then again!

Vertigo shot

We can define Vertigo shot (also known as dolly zoom) as a movement of camera on dolly while changing the focal length of the lens. In other words, moving the camera physically away or towards the subject (“dollying”) while zooming in or out (changing the focal length of lens).

I made a short animation, which hopefully clearly shows the difference between:

  • Change in focal length (zooming in)
  • moving the camera physically away from the subject (“dollying out”) and
  • what happens, when these two techniques are combined (=dolly zoom).

When “dollying out” and zooming in, the size of red figure stays relatively the same, but the background changes dramatically. This is very unsettling, because our eyes are not used to this. The reason for that is that with our eyes, we can perform only the dolly part of the move, that is, physically moving away or towards the subject, but we can’t zoom with our eyes (wished we could 🙂 ).

Anyway, this technique was firstly used, I believe, by Alfred Hitchcock in his film Vertigo. And it was used in such a way, that it helps to tell the story. The movie starts by a chase on roof tops, and it is here, when we learn, that one of the main characters, detective Ferguson (James Stewart), suffers from acrophobia (fear of heights). Here is the scene:

He jumps from one roof to another,

Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)

but slippers and almost falls down.

Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)

When he looks down, he gets dizzy/vertigo. Here uses Alfred Hitchcock the dolly zoom technique for the first time in the movie – he shows detective Ferguson’s fear of heights and how he feels.

Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)

The foreground stays relatively the same (top and bottom of the frame), but the background (middle of the frame – ground) changes dramatically.

The dolly zoom technique gets used again in a scene, where detective Ferguson is chasing Madeleine (Kim Novak) on old wood staircase.

Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)

In the middle of the staircase, he looks down an gets dizzy/vertigo again.

Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo (1958)

Again, the foreground (his hands) stays relatively the same in size, while the background (floor of the tower) changes dramatically in size.

When I saw the movie for the first time, I didn’t know anything about zooming, or “dollying”, but I remember, that I could feel his (detective Ferguson’s) fear of heights in this scene. Watch the whole scene in the video below:

Vertigo is, to my knowledge, the first movie where this technique was used (as a storytelling device), but it is certainly not the only one. As I became aware of this technique, I started noticing it in other movies as well. It is usually used to:

  • show character’s physical/mental condition
  • depict change in her life, or
  • when she realizes something
  • when she finds herself in danger

Do you know about any other examples? Let me know down in the comments. 😉

Useful links:

The “Vertigo shot” and the oneiric narrative