Alfred Hitchcock, the filmmaker that is considered by many as one of the best – if not the number one- masters of suspense, is the director of the movie Secret Agent, voted fifth best British film of 1936. In this post, we are going to analyze the camera work, framing and sound of the minutes 21:03 to 24:36.
As it has been mentioned before, Hitchcock is a major figure in the thriller genre. He introduced innovative cinematographic techniques and created new worlds within each of his films. In this case, we face a new situation: First World War, a soldier goes back home to discover that he is dead. Wait, what? Yes, that is right, he has been assigned to a secret mission: to identify and eliminate a German agent on his way to Arabia. This unexpected mission leads our protagonist to Switzerland, where he finds out that he is “married” to a woman named Elsa Carrington, and he is going to be assisted by a killer known as “the General”. On top of all this new information and change of events, our main character also has a new identity: “Ashenden”.
After being set in place, the viewer is aware of the situation – and so are we-, and now Ashenden is going to do some field work with his partner, the General. This is where our analysis starts. The reason why this passage has been chosen is simple, the scene at the church is full of compelling features, which are worth mentioning. Also, the scene has some particularly interesting camera work. These brief 4 minutes of the film are charged with striking attributes that help to define the thriller genre.
At this point, the person they were going to interview inside the church is already dead – although, we do not know that, yet. In this scene (21:31) the camera starts closing-up upon Ashenden and his partner, and we have three “layers” in front of it, first we have the candle lights, which are between “us” (the camera) and the characters, then we have Ashenden and the General, and finally the church at the back. The atmosphere here is very tense, they are looking around, the sound of the piano is unsettling, it is like something is oppressing the keys, producing a horrible sound (“suspense” – is whispered to our senses). Our characters discover soon after that the person playing had been strangled and his hands were still over the piano keys. They find an object that belongs to the person who killed this man, and then they hear someone coming to the church.
What we are shown through the frame is just a set of legs moving towards a gate (23:25), this gives a sense of uncertainty and the suspense starts boiling up in the mind of the viewer. Ashenden and the General hide in the bell tower. Here we find a clear example of German Expressionism, the lighting comes through a window and it is fragmented by bars, which filtrate the light (this particular lighting style is going to be characteristic of a film genre called Film Noir in the US during the 40’s and 50’s). Under this uncertain lighting our protagonists are observing through a hole what is happening downstairs (23:45), this high-angle shot gives a sense of objectivity, we become the “unseen observer” alongside the protagonists. We see a figure finding the corpse alongside the piano bench, and following this scene, a close-up to a pair of hands pulling a rope appear. The viewer, as well as the characters, is struck with the absorbing sound of the bell (24:00). They try to speak to each other, but not even the audience is able to listen to anything else than this abrupt sound.
In the minute 24:17 a close-up to Ashenden’s lips gives way to a murmur, they start talking to each other, even with the sound of the bell at the back. The audience is still not able to elucidate their words, but they are able to communicate to each other (24:30). Hitchcock plays with the close-ups in this scene to portray a sense of intimacy and confidentiality, but at the same time to increase the intrigue in the viewers.
There were four major close-ups in this fragment, and the four of them with different meanings: first we have the close-up to the object found in the hands of the dead man (22:57), this was made to concentrate people’s attention in the important object found in the crime scene. Secondly, Hitchcock uses a close-up to boil up uncertainty and suspense, as we do not know who is walking into the church (23:25), and even when we see the person from above (23:45), we still do not know to whom the hands ringing the bell belong to (23:56). And finally (24:17), the confidential moment between our protagonists, that the audience is not able to tell what is it that they are talking about (the scene is kind of “letting the audience out” – the stressful situation is not over yet). The scene ends with a long-distance shot of the clock tower and the bell still sounding.
Although, this film was produced before Hitchcock was addressed as the “master of suspense”, he experiments with the visuals – which in future films are going to be improved and highlighted- to convey a sense of thrill and suspense in the audience.
The viewer has been submerged into the mood of the film, and even though the narration is quite linear, the camera work is marvelous, we get stuck within its suspense. The rollercoaster is preparing to go upwards and we are all ready for the fall.
Giannetti, L. (2005). Understanding movies. 10th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.