Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew His Lamps*

Alfred Hitchcock

When you think of the films of Alfred Hitchcock many things likely come to mind: murder, intrigue, and blondes–but what about lamps? Yes, lamps! Hitchcock’s light sources are not only ingenious compositional framing devices, but also vital visual clues that someone or something significant is about to be revealed.

A lamp in the foreground is blurred, yet sheds some revealing light in the final scene of Notorious (1946). When Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) fails to meet Devlin (Cary Grant) for their secret rendezvous, Devlin goes to check on her at Sebastian’s (Claude Rains) Brazilian home. As he enters Alicia’s bedroom, a large lit ceramic lamp on the bedside table takes up a third of the frame. The shot occurs just moments before he discovers that Alicia is being poisoned and he confesses his love for her. 
Anthony Dawson,Ray Milland, Dial M For Murder 

In the 1954, 3-D thriller, Dial M For Murder, you can see Hitchcock’s love affair with lamps (and Grace Kelly)! That said, if you don’t get to see the 3-D version, even in two dimensions it’s obvious that Hitchcock is using lamps in a very deliberate way. In a London flat (where almost the entire film is shot) Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) blackmails his former schoolmate (Anthony Dawson) into committing the “perfect murder.” The celadon lamps (one of which is awkwardly placed at the end of a sofa table in the middle of the room) bisect, anchor and illuminate the actors as this sinister and layered plot unfolds.

In Rear Window (1954), mere seconds after we meet Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) in an unforgettable close-up of her kiss with Jeff (Jimmy Stewart), he playfully asks her “Who are you?”  She elegantly yet methodically sashays from pendant lamp to table lamp to table lamp, and coolly responds as she turns each one on “Lisa, Carol, Freemont”.   Here begins the unveiling of a girl, who at first appears to be the polar opposite of Jeff, someone he tries to push away because of their differences, until he ultimately discovers she is much more than meets the eye, and realizes his love for her.
Grace Kelly, Rear Window
Cary Grant, To Catch a Thief

In To Catch a Thief (1955), a desk lamp is nearly as visually prominent as Cary Grant’s character, John Robie, as he seeks refuge from the police in the office of Bertani’s restaurant. The dark green and brass double adjustable desk lamp is almost impossible to ignore, as Robie’s checkered past is unveiled. The lamp makes its way into almost every shot with Cary Grant, getting nearly equal screen time.

Jimmy Steward, The Man who Knew too Much

In the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew too Much, Dr. Ben McKenna (Jimmy Stewart) goes to London to find Ambrose Chappell, whom he believes knows the whereabouts of his kidnapped son. At the very moment that he realizes he has the wrong Ambrose Chappell (and is about to be beaten up for the accusation) a hanging lamp is at the very center of the frame.

You can find lamps (or various types of light source) illuminating and enhancing the drama in almost every Hitchcock classic. Clockwise from top left: Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), Dial M For Murder (1954), The Birds (1963), Torn Curtain (1966), The Birds, Frenzy (1972), and Rebecca (1940).
Martin Landau, James Mason, North by Northwest
In North by Northwest (1959), Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has been kidnapped (seemingly for no reason) and brought at gunpoint to a library of a country estate where he awaits his fate. The striking Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) enters and interrogates Roger (whom he thinks is George Caplan) as he turns on not one but two oversized Chinese lamps as the film’s plot is revealed, that this is a case of mistaken identity. These brightened lamps are also used to frame the actors, as are the ones in the later scenes, namely in Eve Kendall’s (Eva Marie Saint) Chicago hotel room, and in the North Dakota cliff house, as more and more is brought to light, so to speak.

Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart, Vertigo

While technically not a lamp, in Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock uses a green neon sign outside the Empire Hotel where Judy (Kim Novak) lives. As if it were a magician’s cabinet, the neon’s eerie glow creates a blurry green shroud for Judy to emerge from as Madeleine. It is the big visual reveal in the film, as Bernard Hermann’s music swells to its most memorable crescendo and we see just how far Judy will go to please the man she loves. 


Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho (1960), keeps us in the dark for much of the movie (further emphasized by being filmed in black and white). Hitchcock holds us in suspense partly by keeping the light-bulb moment (pardon the expression) a secret, until the chilling and climactic scene where Lila Crane (Vera Miles) enters the fruit cellar of the Bates House. Here it is a hanging single bare light bulb that illuminates Anthony Perkins’ dark secret. As Lila descends the stairs into the basement, the exposed bulb (at times) takes up a fifth of the shot, illuminating an old woman in a rocker facing away from view. Spoiler alert! Lila approaches the old woman and slowly turns the chair toward us, as the cold, harsh light, leaving nothing to the imagination, shines upon the dried up corpse of Mrs. Bates. In horror, Lila reels back, hitting the light with her hand, causing it swing like a pendulum, creating moving, creepy shadows over the shriveled carcass.

Grace Kelly,  John Williams, “a lamp,” Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant
As with Jimmy Stewart, national monuments, and Bernard Hermann, when Hitchcock liked something he wasn’t afraid to use it again and again, and lamps it seems were a true fascination for the master filmmaker. Maybe next time when you’re watching a Hitchcock flick you’ll find yourself ogling the lamps instead of Cary Grant or Grace Kelly (though I doubt it).
–Glenn David Bassett

*Not to be confused with Robert Hitchcock’s kerosene lamps first designed in the 1860’s.

Glenn David Bassett is a musical theatre lyricist as well as an artist and set designer. He is a graduate of Parsons School of Design and a proud member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Advanced Workshop. At The Players Theatre in NYC, Glenn recently directed and co-wrote with composer Adam Cohen, The Blue Aspic, a musical based on Edward Gorey’s story of the same name. He and Mr. Cohen are currently writing an original musical with playwright Suzanne Bradbeer.  Glenn is also currently designing a set for an upcoming production of Six Women with Brain Death for The Little Village Playhouse in Pleasantville, NY.


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