Point of View and “Intrarealism” in Hitchcock 

by Daniel Sallitt

This article was published in Wide Angle, vol. 4, no. 1, 1980.  It is reproduced here as it was published, to my slight discomfort.

Hitchcock’s work has always provided much of the source material for discussions of the nature of point of view and identification in the cinema. The most readily identifiable and frequently used sequence in Hitchcock has the characteristic form of alternation between closeups of a person looking at something and shots from the person’s point of view of what the person is seeing; this kind of sequence, embodying as it does a very pure notion of viewpoint, has always seemed the central instance of subjective cinema. Add to this the undeniable power of Hitchcock’s films to involve the spectator in the narrative in some way which has always seemed more direct than that of other films, and one has the makings of a rudimentary model of identification, with manipulation of visual point of view creating a sense of subjective involvement by proxy in the film universe. The purpose of this paper is to examine and question this model, which seems to me a simplification, albeit a very understandable one, of what is actually going on in the films. The fact that Hitchcock’s point-of-view sequences often appear at moments of greatest narrative tension and viewer absorption may be part of the reason that we tend to assume a simple cause and effect relationship; it is, however, worth noting and examining the many examples of point-of-view or subjective sequences which don’t operate in the expected way. The particular point which I would dispute most strongly is that Hitchcock’s films are in some way dedicated to a notion of psychological subjectivity, that the films examine reality from an individual’s psychological viewpoint which we are compelled to share. It is necessary to ask exactly how Hitchcock employs subjective techniques, and exactly what their effect is, before deciding on what level subjectivity is operating in the films. In addition, I wish to identify more general aesthetic strategies operating in Hitchcock of which point of view is a specific manifestation.

The first thing to consider on the subject of point of view and subjectivity is the frequency with which Hitchcock switches the visual point of view from character to character within a sequence. A few examples, chosen at random from among many: the switch to the crofter’s point of view as he spies on Donat and Peggy Ashcroft from outside the house in The Thirty-Nine Steps; in the church sequence in the second Man Who Knew Too Much, the pastor’s point-of-view shots of his wife informing him of Stewart and Day’s presence, in a sequence which otherwise works from Stewart and Day’s point of view; the transition from Grant and Bergman’s point of view in the wine cellar in Notorious to Rains’ point of view as he sees them kissing; the seamless alternation between the point of view of Bruno and Miriam in the fairground murder sequence in Strangers on a Train. There is no shortage of such examples; Hitchcock constantly exercises his option of moving from one point of view to another. What is most interesting about these alternations is that they jolt the spectator so little. There is no more sense of dislocation or of a violation of rules than there is with any shift of emphasis from one aspect of a situation to another. On the basis of this observation, one should question the extent to which the use of a character as the focal point of a point-of-view sequence necessitates an adoption of that character’s psychological perspective on the event. If this were the case, one would expect to be jolted at each switch of point of view, as one were forced to adopt a different psychological orientation. Indeed, if we know anything about a character’s psychology during a point-of-view shot, it consists of stored knowledge from previous scenes or shots rather than information obtained from the shot itself; any inferences we make about the psychological state of our “stand-in” are just that, intellectualized inferences; whereas the direct impact of the shot comes instead from our perception of what one would see from this point in the film universe. Our eyes substitute for the character’s eyes, but we have no force acting on us at that moment to even make us aware of the character’s thoughts, much less to make us share them.

As confirmation of this, note the large number of point-of-view shots in which there is no importance attached to the character’s psychology, or even in which there is no particular character corresponding to the point of view (for instance, when a shot previously established as a character’s point of view is repeated after the character has gone). A few examples: the early shot in Notorious in which we get the point of view of a newsman looking into the courtroom; in the scene in Foreign Correspondent in which the two fake policemen are trapped by an accumulation of hotel workers, the point-of-view shots of McCrea and Day escaping down the corridor as seen by the pseudo-cops; Raymond Burr’s point-of-view shots of the blindness inflicted by Stewart’s flashbulbs in Rear Window; the point-of-view shots through the windows of the stalled dining car in The Lady Vanishes, many of which have no observer of whom to be the point of view. Here there is little or no possibility of the point-of-view shots being intimately bound up with character psychology and still the shots work perfectly well, giving us no sense of being daring or unusual devices. The effect is very much as if we were simply borrowing a character’s eyes for a moment so that we could use their viewpoint. One concludes that, far from being a device to inflict the character’s psychology on us, the point-of-view shot is somehow rather impersonal and remote from the character whose point of view is being used, as if our direct experience of a viewpoint would always outweigh our intellectualized inference of what the shot would make the character feel. The point-of-view shot seems to be an accurate evocation of a character’s psychological state only when that psychological state resembles the one that the point-of-view shot naturally inflicts on us, the sense of suddenly having visual access to a new, different universe—as in, for example, the scenes of Vera Miles exploring the Bates house in Psycho, or of Fonda being jailed in The Wrong Man. Which is to say that the point-of-view shot is a means of putting the spectator in some relation, not to the character, but to the film universe.

Arguments for Hitchcock being a filmmaker committed to a subjective exploration of psychology are usually bolstered by his occasional tendency to use stories which heavily favor a single character’s experience. But even in these extreme cases, Hitchcock will not hesitate to violate the central character’s perspective if it serves his purpose. On the obvious side, one can point out that Vertigo, probably Hitchcock’s most truly subjective film, abruptly moves outside Stewart’s viewpoint with its revelation of the single identity of Judy and Madeleine, a move which would be unthinkable if Hitchcock were indeed making a film from a single character’s perspective. Rear Window, the other film most often cited in this context, clearly illustrates how little Hitchcock is faithful to the notion of the single viewpoint. True that all the scenes involving the observation of the apartments across the courtyard are shot in point-of-view style--although sometimes the point of view is Stewart’s, sometimes the common point of view of Stewart, Kelly and Ritter and sometimes no particular person’s point of view (i.e., a shot previously established as someone’s point of view is used when no one is looking out the window). But it is worth noting that almost none of the scenes which take place within the apartment are shot to favor the perspective of Stewart or anybody else, neither the Stewart/Kelly discussions nor the multi-character scenes nor, largely, the final Stewart/Burr confrontation. Conclusion: given a situation which invites point-of-view treatment (such as spying on neighbors), Hitchcock resorts to it freely, regardless of character psychology; given a situation which doesn’t invite point-of-view treatment, Hitchcock is liable not to use it even when a subjective viewpoint would be more consistent.

Before a discussion of an alternate explanation of point of view in Hitchcock’s films, one should briefly wonder: if point-of-view strategies don’t create subjective psychological identification, how to account for the remarkable empathy with characters that one is commonly drawn into in Hitchcock? I would tend to look in the realm of narrative structure and acting rather than in the realm of camera viewpoint for solutions to questions of sympathy and endorsement. Worth considering here are the scenes in which Anthony Perkins is interrogated by Martin Balsam and John Gavin, respectively, in Psycho. In the first scene, Balsam is trying to uncover hidden information (the whereabouts of Janet Leigh); in the second, Gavin has decided to try to bully Perkins into confession. As V. F. Perkins would say, the first scene is about investigation, the second is about intimidation.1 In neither scene does the camera employ very subjective techniques, mostly staying in two-shot. Yet, because of the principles on which the narrative is constructed, Perkins’ obstruction of justice renders him unsympathetic in the first, and his vulnerability renders him sympathetic in the second. Had the narrative been such that the first scene were placed in the context of concealment instead of investigation, our reaction would have been very different. The overall point, which I won’t pursue, is that Hitchcock’s structuring of narrative, which is just as unusual as his camera style, could be profitably examined if one is looking for the sources of our sympathy for and endorsement of characters.

Hitchcock’s taste for point-of-view sequences reveals itself on reflection to be based on a broader interest in a visual exploration of the film universe. The word “visual” in its broad meaning is of course worthless here, since in some sense it is rather difficult for a filmmaker not to visually explore the film universe. What Hitchcock wishes to evoke is the sense of a pair of eyes within the film universe, in some way subject to the laws of the film universe as opposed to the laws of the film. (By the “film universe” I mean that universe, equivalent to but causally separate from ours, in which the film makes us believe. The film may employ many diverse and eccentric techniques in showing us this universe, but such techniques are understood as the artistic options of the filmmaker and do not undermine our belief in the operation of the laws of reality in the film universe. A cut or an ellipsis is not a part of the film universe; a tree or a rock is.) Thus, the word “visual” in this context refers not to the visual aspect of the film experience for the spectator (which is the way the word is always used in film parlance), but to the operation of the function of vision within the film universe, The kind of effect Hitchcock uses, for which I am going to coin the term “intrarealistic effect,” is recognized by the way that the visual viewpoint of the camera is felt to be, as I mentioned above, in some way subject to the laws of the film universe as would be the viewpoint of a presence in that universe. The meaning of this should become clearer as I cite other Hitchcockian tendencies besides the point-of-view sequence which can be termed intrarealistic.

A visual motif in Hitchcock’s films which is similar in some ways to the point-of-view sequence is the use of physical proximity to the camera as expressive of the concept of proximity within the film universe—not nearly as natural or as common as it sounds. An example: when Peggy Ashcroft in The Thirty-Nine Steps tries to hear what her husband is saying to the police, she moves closer to the camera, which is in a position nearer to her husband’s conversation. The rationale for proximity to the camera is the movement of the character into proximity to the conversation. Other examples: Homolka, coming around the table towards Sylvia Sidney in the climactic scene of Sabotage, nears the camera alarmingly as he nears Sidney; in the early newspaper office scene of Foreign Correspondent, Harry Davenport, having moved right next to the camera as Joel McCrea asks, “What crisis?,” cracks a delighted smile, a private expression which the camera’s nearness expresses the privacy of; in Notorious, Bergman’s introduction to the Nazis, frightening because of her sudden proximity to them, is shot in such a way that each Nazi crowds the camera as he kisses her hand. We are accustomed to the camera being able to get close to characters without any sense of proximity within the film universe being suggested; Hitchcock chooses to recreate a sense of our viewpoint being within the film universe by imposing the rule that visual proximity implies physical proximity (a law of the film universe for entities in the film universe) on the camera. Just as the point-of-view sequence suggests a pair of eyes within the film universe by imposing on the camera limitations of physical viewpoint, this type of shot suggests the same by uniting visibility and proximity.

A third Hitchcockian strategy is rather more difficult to perceive as intrarealistic, but becomes extremely interesting once the link is made. Consider a certain kind of shot for which Hitchcock is famous, in which the camera tracks in from a long shot characterized by a sense of the normal or everyday to a closeup of some object or event which yields to us by inference some larger conclusion or piece of information. Examples: the shot in Lifeboat which reveals Slezak’s duplicity by showing him discreetly checking his compass; the track-in to Janet Leigh’s money-filled purse on the bed as she prepares to leave Phoenix in Psycho; Teresa Wright’s stairway descent in Shadow of a Doubt with Joseph Cotten’s ring on her finger. The rationale behind these shots is the revelation of information using only a single visual viewpoint (albeit a very mobile viewpoint), which information one would ordinarily expect to receive in already-conceptualized form. All of these examples involve data having been concealed from us up to this point and it is precisely this fact that makes the device intrarealistic. Had the camera been present at the moments when the data had been directly revealed (for instance, when Leigh decides to steal the money), we would have been profiting from the filmmaker’s omnipotent knowledge of where the important events are happening in his film universe. As it stands, the law of the film universe to which the camera viewpoint is subject is that it sees only a certain amount of what happens and has to reconstruct meaning from a limited perceptual capacity. The notion of intrarealism convincingly explains Hitchcock’s obsession with objects, which in his films become the perceptual signifiers of more general concepts. Were it not for Hitchcock’s desire to arrange the narrative in such a way that simple perception is forced to reconstruct meanings and situations, the objects in his films would lose their significance. If we had known of Slezak’s duplicity, the compass could not have served the function that it does.

There are perhaps other intrarealistic strategies in Hitchcock, but these seem the most prominent. The concept of intrarealism operates on the level of perception; thus it may be reasonable to talk about both visual and aural intrarealism and profitable to inquire whether Hitchcock employs the latter as well as the former. Another interesting area of inquiry with regard to Hitchcock would be the connection between intrarealism and the dichotomy between the everyday and the unusual which runs through Hitchcock’s films. Certainly Hitchcock needs to use narrative structures in which the true nature of the situation is not apparent in order to employ the intrarealistic tracking shots which have been discussed; perhaps the element of the everyday in Hitchcock serves primarily to provide a reality that does not disclose its own nature, thus justifying an intrarealistic exploration of the film universe. I believe that the concept of intrarealism will be a useful springboard to investigation of many aspects of Hitchcock’s art, and that indeed it may prove central to our notion of why a Hitchcock film always feels somewhat different from any other.


1. V. F. Perkins, Film as Film (Middlesex, England: Penguin. 1972), pp. 143-44. 

Daniel Sallitt has a Master’s Degree in screenwriting from U.C.L.A.