Archive for December, 2011


Dialogue Not Included

David Hemmings in Blow-Up

As I was watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up the other day, I began thinking about a type of movie scene that has always intrigued me. Thomas, the photographer played by David Hemmings in Blow-Up, has furtively shot photographs of a tense scene, involving a man and a woman (called “Jane” on, in a park. Afterward, the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) comes to his studio, attempting to get the film roll from him. After she leaves, Thomas begins to crop and blow-up certain shots on the roll in order to figure out what his eyes have missed but what his camera may have seen. The scene, approximately ten minutes long, is totally devoid of dialogue (directly after a lengthy conversation between Thomas and the woman). The scene relies on shots that show Thomas processing and blowing up the pictures; it’s almost a how-to in the mechanics of photographic development. These shots are intercut with point of view shots and shots of Thomas’ face mentally processing what he sees. Because of this careful mise en scene and editing, the audience can attempt to follow Thomas’ train of thought without him uttering one word.

However, Blow-Up’s mental “connect the dots” isn’t as obvious as the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Without one word of dialogue in this opening sequence, the tracking camera absorbs enough information so that the audience knows everything it needs to know about Jeffries (James Stewart) at that point in the plot: his profession (like Thomas, he’s a photographer who will use his equipment to see beyond surface reality), his risk-loving personality, his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and his accident, which has left him wheelchair-ridden and with his leg in a cast. Over the course of the film, Jeffries’ wildcard personality will be tamed as he silently and verbally processes what he sees across his apartment building’s courtyard, and as he (and Lisa) then become directly involved. In contrast, Thomas can’t ultimately focus his attention long enough to stay on task, become involved, and figure out Blow-Up’s mystery. Preferring fleeting interactions, Thomas also doesn’t have a romantic stake in the crisis as Jeffries does with Lisa.

Another silent scene, which provides needed plot information to the audience, is when Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) cleans up his mother’s murder of Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s Psycho. He’s so fast and mechanical in his cleaning of the motel room and his disposal of the body that it’s obvious to the audience that Norman has done this for his mother before, even if we aren’t told Norman’s true identity until the movie’s end. (Speaking of identity, I just finished a fascinating biography, “Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins” by Charles Winecoff, which explores the actor’s different personas onscreen as well as off.)