The Fine Art of Fear

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Step inside room one at the Bates Motel. Janet Leigh's opened suitcase is on the right with white satin lingerie neatly laid on top. The bed on the left has already been turned down for the night. Today's newspaper is on the windowsill. The shower door is open and a pale silhouette is visible through the shower curtain.

This life-size reconstruction, at the Pompidou Center, of one of cinema's most memorable scenes is evidence that Alfred Hitchcock's art has made it into the Western canon. Part Planet Hollywood-style memorabilia collection, part film archive and very much a study of the master of suspense's influences and inspirations, "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences" is the museum's first attempt to establish a filmmaker's oeuvre within the context of the other arts. The show, organized with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is on until Sept. 24. Influential paintings, sculptures, novels, storyboards, stills, film clips and photographs play off each other to reveal the obsession with detail that elevated Hitchcock's movies above the level of mere entertainment.

If the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train is more memorable than the image of Cèzanne's apple, wrote French director Jean-Luc Godard, it's because Hitchcock was "the greatest creator of forms of the 20th century, and it's forms that tell us finally what lies at the bottom of things." Forms were Hitchcock's fetish, and he was a master at etching an image into his audience's memory. Movie fans will immediately recognize the show's small gold lighter with the initials A.G. engraved around a tennis racket as being from Strangers, and the smashed pair of glasses is clearly from The Birds. The gleaming silver scissors standing upright with one blade stabbed into a base of red satin sends shivers down the spine as it conjures up the murder weapon from Dial M for Murder. Each object-a bread knife (Blackmail), a ruby necklace (Vertigo), a glass of milk on a silver tray (Suspicion), a black lace bra (Psycho)-is placed on a square of red satin in a glass case along with a small black-and-white scrapbook-style photo of the object's film role. The room is darkened, Bernard Herrmann's searing scores for Vertigo and Psycho fill the space, and the observers are cast in the role of detectives examining evidence. It doesn't seem to matter that Mrs. Bates' wax head with human teeth and hair, in the Psycho room, is the only original item on display.

Everyday objects took their place alongside the fine arts in Hitchcock's films. Evidence for the influence of well-known paintings and sculptures-many of them on display here-is overwhelming. One look at Willy Schlobach's painting of La Morte, and it's clear Hitchcock directly recreated its image in Vertigo when Kim Novak throws herself into San Francisco Bay. Walking around Rodin's The Kiss gives the same effect as the camera turning around Jimmy Stewart's embrace of Novak later in the movie. The aerial shot of Cary Grant in the cornfield in North by Northwest-with a road cutting straight through the cornrows to the edge of the screen-draws on Lèon Spilliaert's Le Paquebot ou L'Estran, a painting in which alternating strips of sand and ocean blue bands stretch to the edge of the canvas. Add some trees in front of the house in Edward Hopper's Lighthouse Hill, take away the lighthouse, and you have the Bates family's home in Psycho.

The master of cinematic suspense once cited the master of literary suspense, Edgar Allan Poe, as his guru: "I can't help comparing what I've tried to put in my films with what Edgar Allan Poe put in his tales: a completely believable story told to the readers with such a spellbinding logic that you get the impression that the same thing could happen to you tomorrow." In The Man Who Knew Too Much, the murder coincides with a cymbal clash during a night at the symphony; in Rear Window Jimmy Stewart suspects that a murder has taken place across the courtyard from his own home-extraordinary events in ordinary settings.

Art intersects film most lucidly in the dream sequence in Spellbound. Wanting to avoid the clichèd soft-focus approach, Hitchcock sought out Salvador Dalì to help him depict an amnesiac patient's dream as vivid reality. "What I was looking for was the living side of dreams," said Hitchcock. "All of Dalì's work is very large with sharp angles, long views and black shadows." The result of the collaboration was grandiose-five different sets were built involving Dalì's painted decorations and miniature sets-but most of the scene ended up on the cutting-room floor, leaving only a bland three-minute sequence.

The exhibition, though, delves into the art behind the scenes: Dalì's sketches of shots never filmed; eliminated story boards. Huge eyes-one of Hitchcock's fetishes-stare from a curtain recreated from the opening dream scene that stretches across the gallery. Object of Destruction, Man Ray's creation of a metronome with an eye pasted onto the pendulum, is copied four times in the dream scene; the original is on display here.

But Hitchcock wasn't all about seriousness and suspense. His trademark, a cameo in each of his films, shows the director's admiration of a good joke. His role as a casual passerby-as a man reading a newspaper or a passenger on a train-recurs 32 times in one room of the exhibition. The deliberateness of the gag is at its height in the 1944 film Lifeboat: an ad for a weight-loss program printed on the back of a survivor's newspaper features the portly director and his famous gut-in before and after poses.

Hitchcock also sought the balance provided by humor in his personal life-as the show illustrates with family videos and photos. In a publicity picture from 1962, Hitchcock's wife Alma opens the refrigerator to find the director's head sitting on the back of the top shelf. Alma barely hides her laugh as she stares down at the dish. In home movies with his daughter, Patricia, he comes across as a normal dad, playing with baby toys and the dog.

The exhibition closes with a focus on one of Hitchcock's last films, The Birds. The horizontal flight path of one of the birds in Georges Braque's Blackbirds is mirrored in the angle that Philippe Halsman, a still photographer on the film's set, uses in the photo of a bird flying past co-star Tippi Hedren. Despite the apparent tranquility of Renè Magritte's The Deep Waters, the proportionally larger-than-life bird resting next to a clothed statue of a woman is as menacing as the crow perched on Hedren's arm in another Halsman photo. The effect of all these juxtapositions is eerie: instead of lessening the impact of Hitchcock's imagery by dissecting and explaining it, they reinforce the effect he was striving to accomplish. So visitors exiting the museum should beware of the pigeons on Place Georges Pompidou. Just as Hitchcock intended, all of a sudden they look surprisingly threatening.