Trouble with Harry | Widewalls

November 11, 2018

Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

One of the most important film directors of the 20th century is unmistakably Alfred Hitchcock, who was a genuine innovator and an impeccable master of suspense. The entire opus of this notable cinematic figure is filled with various cultural references, where each narrative is meticulous and multilayered.

A great number of studies were written about his practice and individual movies, yet there are only few focusing on the fascinating presence of modern art in his work. As a matter of fact, the scenes in which paintings or sculptures are featured, or sequences in which a certain artwork is in the spotlight, tell much about how the director was inspired by the traditional artistic practices.

Hitchcock and Art

Before we come to our examples, it is important to underline that Hitch was very much inclined to a painterly approach in motion pictures, meaning that everything from settings, costumes, actors and lights, to framing, coloring, and editing, had to be in harmony. This highly aestheticized perspective was enhanced by an astonishing soundtrack released by composer Bernard Herrmann, who worked with Alfred Hitchcock on the majority of his motion pictures.

It can be said that the movies made by this genius are practically based on the idea of gesamtkunstwerk – or total work of art, the one which encompasses all the others in a single enterprise. Therefore, it is not unusual at all that Hitchcock embraced, or rather insisted on, referring to or including (modern) art in his movies. The best proof for this claim is the fact that he was a collector of paintings and owned works by Rouault, Picasso, Vlaminck, Soutine, and Klee, who was among his favorite artists. Hitchcock often collaborated with artists – notable are his collaborations with Salvador Dalí on the movie Spellbound, and John Ferren, an active member of the New York School who did artworks for Trouble with Harry, as well as animated nightmare sequence in Vertigo.

The Famous Vertigo Dream Sequence

The Examples

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known movies, The Birds, features Tippi Hedren who is like a Christian Martyr from a baroque painting chased by a Cross-shaped flock of birds. On the other hand, the scene in which birds patiently surround the schoolyard just by sitting on the climbers seems like any other modern sculpture. Finally, this movie was often compared with the paintings of Magritte, Munch and even Andrew Wyeth.

There is also a painting of a former wife which practically haunts Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, while in North by Northwest Phillip Vandamm played by James Mason smuggles a microfilm hidden inside of a Colombian ceramic figure he buys at auction. On the other hand, in Suspicion there is a scene of a visiting police detective who is distracted by a Cubist painting in the entrance hall.

Aside from featuring or referring to certain artworks, Hitchcock shot some of the iconic scenes against the monumental backgrounds of the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, both sculptural sights done by artists. Those backdrops were intentionally used to underline symbolically the moral chaos typical for the majority of his characters.

There are many examples, yet we decided to analyze the role of art Alfred Hitchcock oeuvre by selecting seven feature films.

Featured image: Alfred Hitchcock showing the set of Psycho. Image via

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