The Quarterly Review of Film and Video - The Power of Art: Hitchcock's Disturbing Use of the Portrait in His Films
The International Journal of the Image - "The 'Art' of Alfred Hitchcock: How Hitchcock Lampoons Modern Art in 'The Trouble with Harry'"
The Power of Art: Hitchcock ‘s Disturbing Use of the Portrait in His Films
By John A. Calabrese
The Master of Suspense was truly a master of compositional perfection, a classical
formalist in the highest sense. Not only the overall structure of the film, but the least detail demanded his attention, one such area being his references to the visual arts and use of fine arts objects. His interest in art stemmed from World War I when he enrolled in art courses at Goldsmith College, a branch of London University where he studied illustration and composition. As a result of his courses he “first began to pay attention to the history and principles of art: composition, depth of field, the uses of color, shadow, and light. He began to frequent art galleries and museums, especially entranced by the French moderns.” (McGilligan 27). This interest in art expanded and found expression within his films (Strauss, 53).
We are well aware of the artistic qualities of the films themselves. We are also aware that nothing in them is accidental or without purpose. The fact that he uses so many art objects draws one’s attention to them. Close inspection reveals that specific art works may function in significant ways: as direct comments upon characters, their motives or predicaments in specific scenes; upon the structure of the film’s plot; and simply as comic relief or black humor. This essay will address Hitchcock’s wide use of the portrait as a disturbing and sometimes even sinister comment upon a major character’s conflicted dilemma by undermining that character’s stability within the film’s plot.
Our first meeting of the simple unnamed girl who will become the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca (1940), is as a landscape sketch artist with a large pad under her arm. She stumbles upon Maxim at the cliff, distracting him possibly from jumping. She proceeds to make a simple portrait of him, commenting that he is difficult to sketch since his expression keeps changing, a reference perhaps to the complex conflicted emotional state we see in his facial close-ups.
We have, with Major Lacy, an example of a character who scoffs at or misunderstands art. When Mrs. Danvers’ name pops up, he mischievously says, “She’s not exactly an oil painting,” referring to her frightening expression and stiff posture. Yet there is irony here since she is always presented unsmilingly in the frame frontally, stiffly and statically in her grim black funereal dress as if she actually were a moving oil portrait.
As Mrs. DeWinter designs her costume for the ball, there is an odd angled cut to her hard at work when Mrs. Danvers enters with more discarded sketches and suggests she find a costume from among the family portraits. She shows her a full-length portrait of Lady Caroline in white gown and hat, explaining this is Maxim’s favorite. The innocent girl obeys and we next see her designing the gown, thus becoming the first of numerous Hitchcock characters emulating a work of art or referring to a work of art of someone from the past. This of course has disastrous consequences for the innocent girl who to her shock finds out that Rebecca had worn the same gown. As if by the help of the witchlike Mrs. Danvers the ghost of Rebecca, whom we never see in any form in the film, wrecks her havoc on Maxim through the unfortunate duped girl who dares to take her place through the medium of a portrait. The girl without an identity stands embarrassed in the beautiful gown worn by Rebecca while the sinister Danvers in black becomes “an objective correlative of the corrupt deadly core of Rebecca that is concealed beneath a façade of timeless beauty.” (Allen, 138).
In Suspicion (1941) Hitchcock underscores the fact that the power of a portrait will directly impact upon characters’ attitudes. Lena and Johnnie are professing their love in the room where the life-sized portrait of her father, General McLaidlaw hovers behind them. They kiss and she relates how happy she is in her home and in her favorite room. Johnnie looks around and sees the portrait glowering down at him. He talks to both Lena and the portrait admitting honestly and candidly things he would never say in his presence. “Well, well, I say old boy, isn’t that going a bit too far? He doesn’t like me. He doesn’t trust me from here to there. Do you?” They both stare at the portrait and he continues, “Well you’re right to stop it before it’s too late. Tell her everything you’re thinking. I’m no good to her. I can only bring her unhappiness. Warn her. Speak up man. Last chance. Hear him?” “Very distinctly,” Lena responds forlornly. Now they are on either side of the portrait looking up at him and gazing back and forth. Johnnie then adds: “He’s not exaggerating a thing dear. It’s all true. Every word he isn’t saying.” Lena faces the portrait and confesses: “I love him father.” “Did you see him jump?” “I did.” They get closer to each other and both stare up at the general. Johnnie continues: “Well, watch this one.” The camera closes in on the backs of their heads and the general’s scowling face. “Sir, I have the honor of asking for your daughter’s hand in marriage. Well, what do you say to that?” He raps the picture with his fist and it comes down from the wall. Johnnie laughs and replaces it: “You heard him that time, didn’t you?” Lena: “It doesn’t matter.” They kiss in profile, the portrait off to the right and they dance way from it. Johnnie’s whimsical yet honest confession before the portrait of the authority figure, General McLaidlaw, in essence predicts Lena’s doom-laden future as if in a flash-forward.
At the reading of the general’s will, Johnnie expects a handsome inheritance for Lena. To his surprise, the general leaves them his portrait, “painted by the distinguished Sir Johsua Nettlewood” (which recalls Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famed English portrait painter). Johnnie excuses himself from the reading, goes into the room with the portrait, pours a drink, and toasts the general: “You win, old boy.” He acknowledges that through the portrait, the dead man’s presence will continue to have a direct bearing on him.
As Lena reads Beaky’s obituary, her father’s portrait is visible in the right of the frame. Lena confronts her father’s portrait as if to counter his condemnation of Johnnie, defending him adamantly: “He didn’t go to Paris, I tell you.” A traditional portrait of a dead man continues to exert its power over its owner. It is almost as if he knows Lena is lying to herself and he admonishes her for believing Johnnie in the first place.
The Paradine Case (1947) begins with Maddalena Paradine at the piano. She looks up at a full length portrait of Colonel Paradine, her recently deceased husband. When the police come to arrest her for his murder, she asks them: “Do you like the picture? It was finished a week or two before he died. I think the artist has caught the blind man’s look quite wonderfully.” Cut to the portrait which the police ignore. Isn’t it odd that she would commission a portrait of a blind man? Her ambiguous comment is ironic since a blind man cannot look at anything. Antony Keane, the lawyer who falls for her uses a reference to sight in her defense. “She made such a sacrifice for him” and later, “He’s never seen you, as I see you.”
Gay, Antony’s wife, senses they are growing apart and he has fallen for the mysterious Maddalena. She reminds him of a forgotten trip he promised them and he recalls it as he rises from the couch on which she is lying. Above them is a portrait of a young Gay in the country. He does not look at the portrait. Yet he goes into the country estate of the colonel for more information on the case and is captivated by an oddly placed painting. As he enters Maddalena’s room there is a low-lying vividly stark portrait of her on the headboard above the bed. The eerie image is staring directly at the camera with a curious knowing expression. She has extremely dark hair and dark dress, similar to what she was wearing when we first see her at the piano. This picture gratifies her vanity since her husband could never see her as Antony confessed he sees her. The camera zooms into it from Antony’s point of view. The music builds as he falls more deeply for her in this romantically charged atmosphere of her bedroom.
We have a portrait of a blind man who could not see it nor the woman who murdered him, and a portrait of a woman commissioned for her own vanity gazed upon by a man who is blind to the truth about her – two men who could not see her as she really is! Gay could see clearly yet Antony ignores her and her portrait. We see the blond Gay beneath her own portrait yet we see the contrasting dark Maddalena with the portrait of her husband whom she murdered. Antony is connected to all three portraits. The more he looks intently at Maddalena’s picture, the more he is blinded by his own feelings to the truth, paralleling him to the blind colonel. The casting of the likeable Gregory Peck as Antony underscores Hitchcock’s insistence that such an appealing character falls prey to his own worst illusion (Spoto, 164).
The use of a portrait in Strangers on a Train (1951) reveals the darker sides of personalities. This occurs in Bruno’s home where he expresses anger at his father in front of his mother who admonishes him not to lose control and come see her latest painting. She wishes he would take up painting. They stand before her easel and we see Bruno with hands behind his back rocking on his heels as if he were an art critic when suddenly he bursts out in derisive laughter that shocks his bewildered mother. “That’s the old boy, that’s father.” “Really? I was trying to paint St. Francis.” Cut to the painting, a monstrously distorted head in thick slashing brushstrokes, German Expressionistic in style. In Richard Allen’s terse description we see: “Two beady eyes stare from a skull-like head that appears severed from its body as if in a platter. The subject of the painting appears to hold a third eye in the form of a glass sphere or ring in its hand. At the same time, this death’s head also has attributes of the clown or harlequin costume.” (Allen, 136) We laugh with Bruno and see Hitchcock’s dark comic relief but let’s take a closer look at how art is handled. Mrs. Antony’s creative effort is as bizarre as her son’s deranged schemes. Really, St. Francis? Abstract modern art is used to comment on psychotic behavior and confused ideas to be laughed at by Bruno and us. Although it is a soothing past time for Mrs. Antony, the tortured head tells us she appears to be out of touch with reality and that mother may very well be the source of her son’s behavior. It is also an indictment of the apparent meaninglessness of modern art when two people see drastically different things in the same painting. This in turn reveals more about the viewers than the work of art itself!
Hitchcock stands logic on its head in The Trouble With Harry (1955) as a whimsical artist and an altered portrait are at the heart of this disturbing black comedy. Throughout the film Sam Marlowe is presented as the artistic genius whose abstract works baffle all his skeptical friends. Sam may not be overtly a con artist in the sense that many uninitiated people believe modern artists to be because the meaning of their art is elusive and therefore their integrity is called into question. He may be far worse. We are presented with his artistic license as a subversive cover for criminal activities: Abetting a conspiracy to cover up a possible crime; destruction of evidence; obstruction of justice. Not to mention humiliation and embarrassment of policeman friend Calvin Wiggs to whom he is a bold calculating liar. Ironically that man’s mother is the biggest supporter of Sam’s art!
If we examine Calvin Wiggs’ confrontation with Sam over Harry’s portrait, we see Hitchcock convey what amounts to aesthetic double talk. In this case, the simple uneducated yet honest cop is far more sympathetic than the calculating manipulative intellectual artist. Calvin notices the sketchpad on the floor with the partially exposed portrait of Harry. His mother asks him if he is suddenly interested in art because he is showing so much attention to the portrait. They proceed with the sketchpad to confront Sam about the portrait when Sam disdainfully berates Calvin: “I left that portrait with your mother. What right do you have to carry it around? It might be damaged.” His mother chimes in, “It could be priceless and Sam could lose a sale.” Here Calvin shoots back sarcastically, “Oh I’ll send him a box of blueberries the first of every month,” referring both to Sam’s lack of business sense and the worthlessness of his art. He refers several times to the portrait as a painting and is strongly rebuked for his ignorance. However, Calvin is quick to realize the sketch is a remarkably accurate likeness of the dead man. He had showed it to the tramp who was incarcerated as a suspect in Harry’s murder and relates that the tramp almost fainted from the accuracy of the work. This is when we see the devious side of Sam and the darker side of the man as artist. When Calvin asks where he made it, Sam lies: “It just came out of the blue.” Calvin does not believe him and Sam continues that “it emerged from my vast subconscious.” Sam becomes indignant when humble Calvin dares to challenge the veracity of the artist. “What I mean, Sam, I ain’t educated in fancy art, but I do know the face of a dead man when I see one and this is it.” Sam then embarks upon a lengthy expose on the creative process for Calvin’s edification, which turns rather into a slick job of obfuscation, while he proceeds to alter the portrait of Harry right under Calvin’s nose! We now see the face with eyes open, completely transformed. An accurate rendition is destroyed and replaced with a lie. Calvin interjects: “Sam do you… do you know what you just did?” “Certainly. I just showed you how you clearly misinterpreted my art.” Calvin: “You just destroyed evidence.” “Calvin, it appears to me you still don’t understand.” “I understand you made kind of a fool me,” Calvin responds dejectedly.
When analyzing the profound masterpiece Vertigo (1958), it becomes apparent how the portrait is inextricably woven into the plot and characters. The uses of art reveal the Romantic nature of the film setting up the dichotomy of many polar opposites: Past-present; obsession-dedication; madness-sanity; irrationality-practicality. The first halves apply to Scottie and Madeleine/Judy, while the second halves aptly describe Midge. In the second scene we enter Midge’s studio apartment. She is the embodiment of the artist on two levels—illustrator by profession and fine artist as hobby. She is absorbed at her tilted drafting desk, sketching the revolutionary cantilever bra designed by an engineer in his spare time. She is pragmatically grounded in the present, involved in a futuristic idea and refuses an offer for a drink by the retired “wandering” Scottie because she has to work. Midge is surrounded by glamorous fashion sketches, some on the wall, some on the floor, more on the windowsill, her painting and drawing supplies strewn about the room. Behind her to the left is a prominently displayed watercolor of a model wearing elegant long black gloves. Later we see Madeleine wearing a strikingly similar pair, which sets up the contrast between a practical person making art as a career and a romantic who strives to become art. Twice Judy allows herself to become Madeleine who attempts to become like Carlotta who is seen only from an oil portrait.
Scottie tails Madeleine to the Art Gallery in the Palace of the Legion of Honor. So as not to be conspicuous he casually inspects several traditional pieces before he reaches her seated transfixed before the portrait of Carlotta. Scottie stares at her in the same manner that she stares at the portrait when he discovers that she is imitating the woman in the painting through hairstyle and nosegay. We later discover this Madeleine to be a construction. Here the surrogate imitates a work of art. A false imitation imitates an artwork, which is itself an imitation of reality. This theme of imitation is thrust home when Midge intrudes into Scottie’s affair. They are seated in his car when she proclaims, “I think I’ll take a look at that portrait” and gets out the car. Scottie then takes out the gallery catalog and looks at the reproduction of Carlotta. Superimposed upon it we see what he is thinking, the profile of the beautiful Madeleine.
It is night when we see Midge at work behind her easel. Midge announces she has returned to her first love, painting. When the romantic Scottie approves by saying she was wasting her time in the underwear department she counters with “It’s a living. But I’m excited about this . . . I thought I’d give it to you.” There is the famous cut to the double image of Midge seated on the left in the same position as her rendition of Carlotta on the right with her own spectacled face and hair. Her joke was intended to jolt Scottie back to reality as if to tell him how ridiculous it is for someone to imitate a person from the past. To the obsessed romantic Scottie the image appears “offensive or even obscene.” (Allen, 140). He sadly shakes his head and walks out while a distraught Midge disfigures the face of her portrait with what seems to be the gestures of a hastily slashed goatee and flings the brush at the darkened window.
At the onset of Scottie’s madness his animated dream sequence incorporates key elements from Madeleine’s trance (Auiler, 147-52). At the start of this dream the bouquet breaks apart like fluttering leaves into colored shapes followed by his fevered version of the real Carlotta in the dress and pose of the portrait near a window. We then see Scottie’s head (portrait?) in the mirrored corridor described by Madeleine and finally it is his black silhouette that falls from the tower, not hers.
At the climax Scottie is at last jolted into harsh reality when he is asked to clasp Carlotta’s necklace onto Judy/Madeleine. In the mirror he sees Carlotta’s portrait for the last time. Thus the painting functions to draw us in and allow us to exit this labyrinth. Elster and Scottie’s attempts to remake the ordinary Judy into the glamorous artifact Madeleine have failed on every tragic level. The fact that Judy allows this to take place leads us to believe she too aspires to become the equivalent of a work of art inspired by a woman of the past only seen through her portrait.
The last instance of a significant use of portraits to inform us of the characters’ states of mind occurs in The Birds (1963). When Melanie visits Annie Hayworth we see many works of modern art on her living room walls, some figurative, others near abstract, and two abstractions all of moderate or small sizes. There is a significant vertical painting of a slightly distorted woman’s face. As the two women talk of Mitch, Annie’s past relationship with him and especially Lydia and her influence over Mitch, the painting with the distorted woman’s head becomes prominent behind Annie and dominates the frame. This could signify Lydia’s controlling presence looming over any relationship her son has with a woman. It could also refer to Annie’s distorted relationship to Mitch and her doomed fate. She hopelessly clings to him in the face of Melanie, his new love interest. Ultimately she not only loses out to Melanie but is killed by birds in her heroic effort to save Mitch’s sister.
On the left wall of he Brenner house’s living room is a portrait of who we can assume is Frank, Lydia’s deceased husband. After one of the bird attacks we see her attempting to straighten this painting. Toward the end of the film as members of the Brenner family gather in silence, we see Lydia sit to one side of the portrait and Mitch sit directly in front, Frank’s head above his. Earlier Lydia recalled how strong Frank was and how well he understood the children. Here Mitch is shown taking Frank’s place as the rightful head of the unified family which now includes Melanie who sits off to the right comforting Cathy.
It becomes clear that Hitchcock’s genius is strengthened when he uses portraits, a great number of them of dead people who intrude menacingly into the present, to comment on specific characters’ disturbed motives and at times perverse states of mind, as they contribute vitally to specific situations and even plot outcomes. They support his penchant as a formalist who takes great care in compositional details.
Allen, Richard. 2007. Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony. New York: Columbia University Press.
Auiler, Dan. 1998. Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Hitchcock, Alfred. Director. 1963. The Birds. DVD. Universal Pictures, 2012.
_______. 1947.The Paradine Case. DVD. United Artists/Vanguard, 2007.
_______. 1940. Rebecca. DVD. Selznick International, 2012.
_______. 1951. Strangers on a Train. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2004.
_______. 1941. Suspicion. DVD. RKO Radio Pictures, 2009.
_______. 1955. The Trouble with Harry. DVD. Paramount Pictures, 2006.
_______. 1958. Vertigo. DVD. Paramount Pictures, 2012.
McGilligan, Patrick. 2003. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. NY: Regan Books.
Spoto, Donald. 1992. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. 2nd ed. New York: Doubleday.
Strauss, Marc. 2007. “The Painted Jester: Notes on the Visual Arts in Hitchcock’s Films.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 35 (2): 52-56.
Dr. John Calabrese is professor of art history at Texas Woman’s University. He also teaches film and studies abroad courses and is a practicing artist.
P.O. Box 425469, Department of Visual Arts, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, TX 76204 (940) 898-2535 email@example.com
Home: 2525 Hillview Court, Denton, TX, 76209-7933 (940) 387-5695 firstname.lastname@example.org
The “Art” of Alfred Hitchcock:
How Hitchcock Lampoons Modern Art in
The Trouble with Harry
John A. Calabrese, Texas Woman’s University, USA
Abstract: In Alfred Hitchcock’s films, specific works of art function in significant ways: as direct comments upon characters, their motives, or predicaments in specific scenes; upon the structure of the film’s plot; as simply comic relief. He stands logic on its head in “The Trouble with Harry” and manages to make all characters look ridiculous in this disturbing black comedy. An artwork, the nature of modern art, the artist, and his confrontation with a policeman are central to its plot. Furthermore, the film pokes fun at the establishment and art patrons, both enlightened and uninformed.
Keywords: Hitchcock, Artwork, Modern, Film
Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, was truly a master of compositional perfection, a classical formalist in the highest sense. Not only the overall structure of the film but also the least detail demanded his attention, one such area being his references to the visual arts and use of fine arts objects. His interest in art stemmed from World War I when he enrolled in art courses at Goldsmith College, a branch of London University, where he studied illustration and composition. As a result of his courses, he “first began to pay attention to the history and principles of art: composition, depth of field, the uses of color, shadow, and light. He began to frequent art galleries and museums, especially entranced by the French moderns” (McGilligan 2003, 27). This interest in art expanded and found expression within his films (Strauss 2007, 53). A cursory look at the décor of any interior in any of his films reveals a bewildering array of paintings, prints, drawings, figurines, photographs, and vases. Although they cue us into Hitchcock’s knowledge of art, many function as tasteful decorative furnishings that usually comment superficially upon the social and financial status and personal preferences of the occupiers of these spaces.
We are well aware of the artistic qualities of the films themselves. We are also aware that nothing in them is accidental or without purpose. The fact that he uses so many art objects draws one’s attention to them. Close inspection reveals that specific artworks may function in significant ways: as direct comments upon characters, their motives, or predicaments in specific scenes; upon the structure of the film’s plot; and simply as comic relief or black humor.
Hitchcock stands logic on its head in The Trouble with Harry (1955) and manages to make all characters look ridiculous in this whimsical yet disturbing black comedy. An artwork, the nature of modern art, the artist, and his confrontation with a policeman are central to its plot. Furthermore, the film pokes fun at the art establishment and art patrons, both enlightened and uninformed. The central character is Sam Marlowe (played by John Forsythe), the stereotypical starving, undiscovered artist—impractical, spontaneous, carefree. When he returns from a painting excursion to Mrs. Wiggs’ roadside cider stand, we see some of his paintings on display for sale. They are bold, colorful, varied, simple abstractions, some of which bear resemblance to current significant abstract expressionist work such as those by Philip Guston but were actually painted by Guston’s contemporary and friend of Hitchcock, John Ferren (Schoen 1998). Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) carefully holds and examines his latest effort and says, “Marvelous” when he takes it from her and turns it right side up and responds, “I’ve been in a tortured mood lately.” He makes no reply when she asks what it is. “I don’t understand your work,” she continues, “but I think it is beautiful. So does Mrs. Rogers” (Hitchcock 1955). Of all the characters in the film, she shows the most sincere interest in his works.
The two proceed to her general store where many more of his abstractions are displayed. They are all totally different with no discernable stylistic continuity except that they are abstractions. Another admirer in the store, Miss Gravely (played by Mildred Natwick), adds her skewed observations. To her advice to sell them and make a lot of money, Sam’s absentminded and quite ridiculous response is, “I never thought of that,” a reference to the superior spirit of the artist beyond material concerns. He is more interested in how she knew they were his, and she comments by the signatures. When he protests they are not meant to be readable, she absurdly agrees, “Oh but they aren’t readable. Very professional” (Hitchcock 1955). He thanks her for her encouragement while Wiggs injects sober realism, “All I know is that nobody buys them.” Sam ignores a distinguished man who gets out of a limousine to inspect the paintings at the stand. Instead, he is inspired to transform Miss Gravely’s appearance into a thing of beauty. However, when he sees Mrs. Rogers (played by Shirley MacLaine), he is so taken by her beauty he wants to paint her portrait but quickly changes this to a nude. She dismisses this as a mere come-on.
The other characters all assume that Sam has a special insight into human nature simply because of his artistic proclivities, and the film appears to emphasize this. When we see Sam sketching a landscape and he nonchalantly notices Harry’s body in the way, he simply changes from landscapist to portraitist and begins a larger-than-life frontal pastel drawing of Harry’s face. Captain Wiles (played by Edmund Gwenn), who is more interested in dealing with the inconvenient corpse, discusses the situation with Sam who offhandedly suggests foul play, not looking up from his work. To this the captain deduces: “If you as an artist suspect something, what will the police suspect?” (Hitchcock 1955). He even allows that Sam should finish the artwork before they bury Harry! Later when Mrs. Rogers muses to herself that nobody would understand Harry, she immediately brightens and turns to Sam: “But you, you’ve got an artistic mind. You can see the finer things” (Hitchcock 1955). When Sam suggests Miss Gravely could have had something to do with Harry’s death since she wasn’t at all surprised at finding him, the captain dismisses this as preposterous: “You artists have no idea of etiquette” (Hitchcock 1955). Sam becomes the art critic when he examines a figurine on a shelf in Mrs. Rogers’ house and silently dismisses its artistic worth by the expression on his face.
Hitchcock then proceeds to lampoon modern art, its apparent meaninglessness, and the entire art establishment. After Sam, Wiles, Mrs. Rogers, and Miss Gravely come down from burying Harry, they are met by an excited Mrs. Wiggs: “He’s a millionaire and wants to buy all your paintings. You are a genius” (Hitchcock 1955). Sam finds it hard to believe that this person wants to buy all his works but agrees to talk to him. When Wiles asks how much he is willing to pay, Wiggs responds: “Well I asked seven dollars for the one that looks like a lot of blobs of color in a thunderstorm. He said they were priceless” (Hitchcock 1955). Wiles adds, “Priceless? Sounds like something I painted in kindergarten” (Hitchcock 1955). Sam attempts a profound insight into the meaning of his work that falls on deaf ears. “I’ll have you know that picture is symbolic of the beginning of the world,” to which Wiles upstages him with a chuckle: “That is where I first heard of the world, at kindergarten” (Hitchcock 1955).
In Wiggs’ store we find the millionaire accompanied by an art critic from the (unnamed) Modern Museum. Sam emphatically states it doesn’t matter what a critic says since he knows his paintings are good, an illogical proclamation by the self-validating Romantic nature of the artist himself. We are presented with the cliché of the superior modern artist fawned over by critic and patron both ultimately being devalued. Neither give any indication why they state Sam is a genius. It is taken for granted. Sam presses the millionaire, valuing his views more than those of the critic. “I think they are works of genius and I want to buy them all.” “That’s too bad. Just decided I can’t sell them. Besides you couldn’t afford them” (Hitchcock 1955). The Romantic temperament seems to be proclaiming that art is spiritual and beyond material compensation. Yet Sam’s friends express more practical views. Wiles: “Don’t be a fool. Make him pay through the nose.” Wiggs: “Be reasonable.” Whereas the millionaire adds: “Be unreasonable if you like.” A mildly confused Sam turns to Mrs. Rogers who retorts, “It’s your genius” (Hitchcock 1955). Finally Sam settles this dilemma by asking each person what he wants in compensation for his paintings. The list amounts to little more than children’s birthday presents. The millionaire agrees to all of their preposterous wishes: a box of strawberries, the first of every month; a cash register with a bell; a beauty parlor quickly changed to a hope chest; a smelly chemical set; a double bed; a hunting outfit. When the transaction is complete to everyone’s satisfaction, Sam tells the millionaire he’ll have more work in six months, to which the man responds, “And you will have a steady customer in me, even if you raise your prices” (Hitchcock 1955). Thus about halfway through the film, Hitchcock inserts a happy fairy tale ending for Sam, his future as an artist, and all concerned. So much for the value of modern art. Now for the darker side of this happy-go-lucky artist.
Sam may not be overtly a con artist in the sense that many uninitiated people believe modern artists to be because the meaning of their art is elusive and therefore their integrity is called into question. He may be far worse! We are now presented with his artistic license as a subversive cover for criminal activities: abetting a conspiracy to cover up a possible crime; destruction of evidence; obstruction of justice. Not to mention humiliation and embarrassment of policeman friend Calvin Wiggs (played by Royal Dano) to whom he is a bold calculating liar. Ironically that man’s mother is the biggest supporter of Sam’s art!
If we examine Calvin Wiggs’ confrontation with Sam over Harry’s portrait, we see Hitchcock convey what amounts to aesthetic double talk. In this case, the simple uneducated yet honest cop is far more sympathetic than the calculating manipulative intellectual artist who appears to be playing fast and loose with aesthetic truths.
When Mrs. Wiggs informs her son Calvin that Sam sold all his paintings but received no money, he remarks, “I always knew they weren’t worth the space” (Hitchcock 1955). This is when he notices the sketchpad on the floor with the partially exposed portrait of Harry. His mother asks him if he is suddenly interested in art because he is showing so much attention to the portrait. They proceed with the sketchpad to confront Sam about the portrait when Sam disdainfully berates Calvin: “I left that portrait with your mother. What right do you have to carry it around? It might be damaged.” His mother chimes in, “It could be priceless and Sam could lose a sale.” Here Calvin shoots back sarcastically, “Oh I’ll send him a box of blueberries the first of every month,” referring both to Sam’s lack of business sense and the worthlessness of his art (Hitchcock 1955). He refers several times to the chalk portrait as a painting (as many uninitiated people do) and is strongly rebuked for his ignorance. However, Calvin is quick to realize the finished sketch is a remarkably accurate likeness of the dead man. He had showed it to the tramp who was incarcerated as a suspect in Harry’s murder and relates that the tramp almost fainted from the accuracy of the work. This is when we see the devious side of Sam and the darker side of the man as artist. When Calvin asks where he made it, Sam lies outright: “It just came out of the blue.” Calvin does not believe him and Sam continues that “it emerged from my vast subconscious” (Hitchcock 1955). Sam becomes indignant when humble Calvin dares to challenge the veracity of the artist. “What I mean, Sam, I ain’t educated in fancy art, but I do know the face of a dead man when I see one and this is it” (Hitchcock 1955). Sam then embarks upon a lengthy expose on the creative process for Calvin’s edification, which turns rather into a slick job of obfuscation. As we listen to Sam’s condescending words, we realize they are better suited to his abstract paintings than to a realistic portrait. In the following quote he intermittently expresses ideas of an abstract expressionist, a surrealist, and the self-absorbed ruminations of a Romanticist:
Calvin, perhaps I can educate you to, um, “fancy art.” [Sam grabs the pad from him.] See this? Portrait of a sleeping face. A man relaxed, far removed from earthly cares. It was conceived out of memory and half forgotten impulse and it emerged from the shadows of abstract emotions [cut to Calvin’s bewildered face] until it was born full-grown from the mechanical reality of my fingertips. [“Oh, now Sam, don’t,” Calvin protests defensively.] I don’t have to have a model to draw from. Instead of creating a sleeping face, I could have, um, chosen an entirely different set of artistic stimuli. My subconscious is peopled with enough faces to cover the earth [he takes a crayon from his pocket]. And the construction of the human anatomy alone is so infinitely variable as to lie beyond the wildest power of calculation [begins to draw]. Now a raised eyelid, perhaps, [cut to Calvin’s astonished helpless face], a line of fullness to the cheek. [It dawns on Calvin what is happening.] A lip that bends with expression. There. (Hitchcock 1955)
We now see the face with eyes open and completely transformed into a distorted face reminiscent of a head by Georges Rouault, an early twentieth-century modern expressionist (Spoto 1992). However, in terms of the plot, an accurate rendition of a dead man is destroyed and replaced with a lie. Calvin interjects: “Sam do you…do you know what you just did?” Sam: “Certainly. I just showed you how you clearly misinterpreted my art.” Calvin: “You just destroyed evidence.” “Calvin, it appears to me you still don’t understand.” “I understand you made kind of a fool me,” Calvin responds dejectedly (Hitchcock 1955).
The film “provides a self-conscious commentary on the relationship between representation and the thing represented” (Allen 2007, 131). Sam’s explanation upon the relationship of the actual artwork and what it represents is symptomatic of the “chaos world” (Wood 2002, 84), a darkened distorted level beneath everyday existence. Sam distorts realistic and factually truthful art, and hence reality, into a distorted image typical of modern expressionistic art to suit his immediate subjective purpose for the moment.
In conclusion, Hitchcock manages to poke fun of the contemporary modern artist, art patrons, both the wealthy intelligentsia and the modest laymen, policemen, and modern art itself which appears to be meaningless. He jabs at the art establishment that sees genius when it seems obvious that there is no clear evidence that Sam is an artistic genius. It is merely taken for granted that he must be a genius since his work can’t be understood. In the final analysis it is clear, however, that Sam is in truth a fine accurate realist as his portrait of Harry testifies. Hitchcock’s final irony lies in the fact that the least educated in fancy art, the humble policeman, and the common tramp attest to his ability and his reproductive skills in reporting the truth of nature. Perhaps Hitchcock is suggesting, with a sly wink, that realism triumphs over the muddle of modern art!
Allen, Richard. 2007. Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hitchcock, Alfred, dir. 1955. The Trouble with Harry. DVD. Universal Pictures, 2006.
McGilligan, Patrick. 2003. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Regan Books.
Schoen, Robert. 1998. Hitch and Alma. Bloomington: Xlibris Corp.
Spoto, Donald. 1992. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 2nd ed. New York: Anchor Doubleday.
Strauss, Marc. 2007. “The Painted Jester: Notes on the Visual Arts in Hitchcock’s Films.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 35 (2): 52–56.
Wood, Robin. 2002. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. John A. Calabrese: Professor of Art History, Department of Visual Arts, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas, USA
 Corresponding Author: John A. Calabrese, PO Box 425469, Department of Visual Arts, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas, 76204-5469, USA. email: email@example.com.