There’s a lot to talk about in the work of Alfred Hitchcock. His style has become lauded and influential. Even his silhouette is instantly recognizable. The themes and characters in his films have given psychoanalysts at least as much to mull over as decades of therapy sessions. I was pleased to see this video at the Nerdwriter’s YouTube channel inspecting something in Vertigo we don’t often hear about when talking about movies: ensemble staging.
The scene in question is early in the film, and its significance isn’t immediately apparent on a first viewing. Even so, Hitch subtly foreshadows later twists in the film’s central mystery through his position of the actors and the camera.
Towards the end of the video, its creator, Evan Puschak, asks, “How many other directors could choreograph this conversation in such a way so it works like a dance?” Given the way studio films like Vertigo were made in the late 1950s, I would say, “Quite a few.”
Don’t get me wrong- Hitchcock is a great director, and his staging in scenes like this is very well done. Staging like this is more common than you might think. Here’s a scene from my favorite of his movies, North by Northwest, where Cary Grant, James Mason and a young Martin Landau dance around the room together.[ref] Note the recurring themes of deception, crafting identity through narrative, and theatrics: “With such expert play acting, you make this very room a theater.”[/ref]
A director like Hitch is certainly worth looking at closely, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of only studying masterpieces. If we look at other movies from the same time period, you’ll see ensemble staging everywhere. Long takes with dancing actors were hallmarks of both screwball comedies and film noir dramas of the 1940s and 50s.
Citizen Kane (1941) is often credited with bringing this emphasis on deep focus and ensemble staging really into fashion. But if we go back further, to the days of silent movies, especially in the 1910s, it’s still there. In fact, when most scenes were covered from one or two camera set ups, and dialogue had to be kept to a minimum, ensemble staging was really the only game in town.
I’ve talked about this a few times, including just a few months ago with Tony Zhou’s video on Memories of Murder. I’ll also plug film theorist David Bordwell who wrote a book on ensemble staging called Figures Traced in Light.
DB has a great blog post dissecting one recurring move, which he calls The Cross. In essence, the characters are given some excuse to switch places on the left and right sides of the frame. Sometimes one person moves, sometimes they both do.
You can see The Cross at the very end of this scene from Vertigo, when Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) steps up to Scotty (James Stewart) by the door of his office. Until this last beat, Scotty has always been on frame left, and Elster on frame right. It’s not as explicit as in this segment from His Girl Friday, or in some of DB’s other examples, but it’s there.
The Cross, was just one more tool in the director’s toolbox. DB says, “Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) contains many offhand instances of the Cross, indicating how taken for granted the technique was in studio films.”
In the hands of another director, Vertigo would be a lesser movie. But if it were given to another director from the same place and time, we would still have ensemble staging. It’s almost a lost art, a shame for a medium barely a century old. [ref]The reasons it's fallen out of fashion are varied: Anamorphic widescreen liked extremely tight closeups (See ouvre of Leone, Sergio). Smaller television screens encouraged faster editing, which encouraged tighter shots. Art house hot shots worked on cramped locations, rather than in spacious studio sets, which didn’t have the room or the lighting necessary to show the whole scene Etc.[/ref] But when we watch people like Hitch, we can see how it was used back in the day. Our movies today can certainly use it again.