Perspectives on depth perception as metaphor in film

I took this photo of the hallway outside my hotel room in San Antonio last week.

I loved how the striped carpet and the alternating patterns of light and shadow added to the telescoping effect created by the distance perspective.

Of course, once you’ve viewed The Shining, it’s difficult to see a hallway like this ever again and not think of the Overlook Hotel and Danny’s encounter with the two daughters of a previous caretaker, who whisper, “Come play with us, Danny.”  (warning: this film clip contains flashes of gore)

All this got me thinking about one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, Marnie.  When I teach the film studies class, we examine the principle of perspective drawing (and with it, the “vanishing point”) and how cinematographers use it to compose an image within the frame.  In Marnie, Hitchcock brilliantly marries the technique itself with plot events to move the film’s opening scene to a higher level of art.

Marnie, the title character, is a serial embezzeler who regularly adopts a false identity, moves to a new city, takes an office job, cases the business operation, then burgles the company safe as soon as an opportunity presents itself – whereupon she discards that job’s identity and slips away to her country retreat to lie low for a while before starting the whole process over again.

Take a look at this image from the opening moments of Marnie.

Marnie has just finished robbing her current employer and is making her escape.  At minutes 0:23 – 0:44 into the film, we see her at a train station, on the platform, walking away from us  . . . and INTO  THE  VANISHING  POINT.  Here the literal onscreen image corresponds with, and amplifies, the actual meaning of what the character is doing.  Not only does Marnie walk into the vanishing point in terms of perspective drawing, but she is also about to shed her criminal alias and “vanish” into thin air.

When you see stuff like this, you just know you’re in the hands of a master.  Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for directing, but his work speaks for itself.  It is a reassuring reminder that quality endures and that external validation, although gratifying, is by nature capricious and, therefore, not the best measure.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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