Off-screen Mise en Scene: Acousmatic Sound and Suspended Mise en Scene in The Birds

Michel Chion, in his work Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, claims of sound that, “…through the phenomenon of added value, it interprets the meaning of the image and makes us see in the image what we would not otherwise see, or would see differently.”

 Here, Chion states explicitly the way in which mise en scene can incorporate sound into its definition. On a basic level, mise en scene is the way in which a film is constructed visually to present the onscreen narrative space to an audience. In this way it is relegated to support of the narrative. Yet, there is another key level at which mise en scene operates.

The second level, is the definition of mise en scene Chion utilizes. This is the level of the analytical on which the mise en scene may be constructed to produce meaning for the viewer. With this meaning mise en scene is capable of rising above its point of relegation to the story. Victor Perkins references these two levels in Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies: “Initially, then, the decor derives its meaning from the character and action. But once its relationship to them has been established, it begins to make its own contribution to the film.”

 Perkins hierarchizes these two levels through the concept of credibility, wherein a film must maintain a certain consistency of its mise en scene before it may rise to a meaning beyond the story. A film that maintains this consistency will have more credibility than that which hierarchizes the second level of mise on scene over the first. 

Perkins carries this view over to sound: 

The primary function of the sound-track is to let us hear, to fill out the illusion by recording for our ears just as the image records for our eyes. The sound-track is sufficiently justified when it tells us what the characters are saying and how they say it.


In Alfred Hitchcock’s case, he would agree, but only to an extent: “Well, the silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises. But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in.”

 Hitchcock, however, only makes this statement in defense of what he calls “the technique of the pure motion picture.”

 He is simply mourning the loss of the focus on a visual perfection that resulted when sound had been introduced. 

This is not to say that Hitchcock would disagree necessarily with Chion’s statement of sound’s function, as his work may illustrate Chion’s point perfectly. Of his films, none coincide better with both Chion’s claim along with his own opinions, than The Birds (1963). Here, Hitchcock forgoes the use of any nondiegetic sound by excluding a music score. Indeed, Hitchcock was meticulous of the function of sound, and adamant about the lack of musical accompaniment. This diegetic sound, though, differs between natural and electronically produced noises.

In relation to sound, off-screen space plays a key roll in the film. In any filmmaker’s construction of the diegesis, offscreen space must necessarily be accounted for. Mise en scene does not only illustrate what is visually presented, but must also allude to what is not framed in the screen. Mise en scene is a director’s way of showing one aspect of the diegetic world, while not ignoring other spaces in its composition. In the case of The Birds Hitchcock constructs an elaborate mise en scene wherein offscreen space plays a vital role, for this is precisely where the birds come from. Every attack is an invasion from the offscreen space on the visible mise en scene. Much like sound, the recognition of this offscreen space becomes a part of the mise en scene as it forces it to incorporate and acknowledge this space.

Of offscreen space, Chion claims it is “entirely a product of the visual and aural. It is really a relation of what one hears to what one sees, and exists only in this relation.”

 When offscreen space becomes prominent in a film, then, the mise en scene is bound to be affected audibly and visually. Throughout key scenes of The Birds, “acousmatic sound,”

 as it represents offscreen space, is incorporated in the mise en scene’s derived meaning and construction by Hitchcock. Prior to each massive bird attack, and culminating in the birds’ unseen attack on the house, the mise en scene is put into individual moments of suspense: some long and some only momentary. By suspense, it is meant that the mise en scene’s credibility is momentarily disregarded, in order to generate a visceral reaction in the viewer. In these moments the offscreen space the birds are coming from is made prominent, thus overtaking the narrative. Hitchcock’s use of acousmatic sound, through both its revelation and suppression operates as a part of the mise en scene’s creation of this new definition of suspense.

In his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock explains, briefly, the film’s establishing scene: “The opening of The Birds is an attempt to suggest the normal, complacent, everyday life in San Francisco.”

 Indeed, the first shot of the film shows, through a basic set up, a typical busy city. Yet, what is quiet but unmistakable are the sounds of birds amongst the bustling city noises. Melanie is used to the city, as visualized by her confident gate and lack of notice or care for those around her. She is unaware, however, of the extra-diegetic title of the film or the opening credits which fade into the establishing shot, featuring the birds and their sounds which seamlessly blend in with the city, being drowned out (though never vanishing) by the cars and people of San Francisco. Immediately, with the continuation of the birds’ sounds the audience has a moment of suspense, built on mise en scene, with acousmatic sound being the cornerstone. With its focus on the audience’s visceral reaction, the mise en scene is placed above the story, yet both are subservient to the feeling of suspense.

The initial panning shot remains unbroken until her attention is directed offscreen. Only after her point of attention is broken will she take notice of offscreen space, as she has cause for this distraction. The long, panning shot presents a control, by her, of narrative agency. Without ever meeting Melanie, the mise en scene reveals her to have a necessary control over the narrative as she is in the center of the frame, followed by the camera. Despite this, there remains an opposition with the viewer as Melanie remains oblivious to the birds. Thus, the mise en scene Hitchcock presents to the audience during this take is different than the reality experienced by Melanie.

It is not until this long take is broken that the relationship between the audience and Melanie is rectified. The audience is made aware of the acousmatic sounds of the birds, while Melanie is not. Hitchcock, here, plays with the function of passive and active offscreen sounds. In his notes on dubbing of the film, he points out, “After the Main Titles the bird sounds should fade away – they should slowly diminish all the time, and be almost lost, until Melanie goes into the Pet Shop.”

 Hitchcock intended to make the cries seem passive, as they blend with the environment, yet the initial cries in the opening credits work to prevent such a reading. Out of context, the cries would, at the most, simply act as an index of the location as being seaside.

The camera halts with Melanie as she is drawn from her task by a young boy, whistling at her. She turns to look, as he leaves the shot, directing Melanie’s gaze offscreen. Melanie becomes distracted, her eyes glancing up. The subsequent cut, the first of the film, breaks the long take with a long shot of the sky, swarming with birds. This simple shot takes on a great deal of meaning. As long as the initial take continued, the sounds of the birds would have remained acousmatic, and the spectator would be in a position completely separate of Melanie. Likewise, any elements of suspense for the audience would awkwardly fade and be lost. With this cut, Melanie’s experience and the audience’s are realigned. 

Hitchcock’s definition of suspense is vital to both this scene and the subsequent bird attacks, as it is this very feeling with which he intends to imbed in the mise en scene during the moments of suspension. Hitchcock gives his definition of suspense to Truffaut through the story of a bomb under a table:

The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene… The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.


For Hitchcock, suspense is built upon his audience’s knowledge of coming events through mise en scene while the characters often remain incognizant. From the onset of the film, the audience knows of the birds’ importance. Likewise, the high pitched wailing and electronic noises of the birds dashing and biting away at the opening credits blending in with the fade to the initial shot of San Francisco gives the audience further information: the birds are active creatures, they are present in the city, and they will probably act in this violent manner at some point in the film. All of this is information the audience, not Melanie, is made aware of. Whether the audience has a visceral reaction to the sounds or not, the construction still fits unmistakably within Hitchcock’s definition of suspense.

Without the sound of the birds there would have been no reason to break the initial shot, as it is enough to establish Melanie’s agency over the narrative. Any interpretation of the mise en scene would not differ from Melanie’s as the camera tags along with her. Similarly, without a reason for Melanie to catch the birds out of the corner of her eye, she would not have seen anything, the initial take would have continued, and the catharsis of a point of view shot of the sky full of birds, foreboding their danger, would have been lost, leaving any feelings of suspense incomplete.

This also, however, brings in the second notion of suspense: that of the mise en scene, wherein the story is put in to a subservient role to that of mise en scene as it suspends its own credibility. The birds, obviously, do not attack here, but are merely accumulating. Nonetheless, their presence offscreen breaks the continuity of the mise en scene that was established for the story. What was once relegated as being offscreen, passive noise, fills the screen, and what was once onscreen now takes the passive role. The acousmatic sound has been revealed suspending the mise en scene already constructed. The suspension has given both the audience and Melanie a chance to witness the offscreen space. As the birds are not attacking, the narrative is affected in a positive way, allowing Melanie to gain further narrative agency. This, however, is a precursor and the suspension will vary and increase once the attacks begin. 

It is important that this be the first scene, as it establishes the relationship between mise en scene and acousmatic sound. When the camera shares Melanie’s point of view and the birds appear, finally, in the view of the lens, the intended suspicions are confirmed that something is indeed occurring with these creatures. Likewise, the break in the long take occurring as Melanie looks up signs that this is a shot from her point of view. Both her and the audience know something is going on with these birds, but what this is and to what extent, neither could be aware of: there could only be hunches.

 Furthermore this sequence provides a preamble for mise en scene’s suspension when the birds attack. 

A large attack of the birds does not occur until much later. While individual attacks occur twice, little is done to place emphasis on them. They only serve to remind of what is to come. In the initial attack’s establishing scene, Melanie, having traveled to Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of love birds to Cathy Brenner for her birthday, is convinced by her brother Mitch Brenner to stay for the party. At the party Melanie speaks with Mitch on the nearby dunes, after which the children are attacked by a swarm of gulls. The initial attack, while not a suspenseful occurrence for the audience per se, sets up the mise en scene’s moments of suspension in subsequent attacks through the establishment of a significant relationship with the offscreen space.

Chion states that “…in the cinema there is a spatial magnetization of sound by image. When we perceive sound as being offscreen or located at screen right this is a psychological phenomenon…”

 This is vital to the development of offscreen space as a part of the diegetic world. The offscreen space is constructed in two ways. Either an aspect of onscreen space becomes offscreen due to a cut or character and/or camera movement, or offscreen sound uses this phenomenon of spatial magnetization to inform the audience of what is there. It is necessary to construct multiple onscreen and offscreen spaces in order to have a holistic view of the diegetic world. 

The initial shot of Mitch and Melanie defines where they are in the scene. The subsequent pan from them relates their spatial relation to Annie Hayworth, who is helping the children play blind man’s bluff in the Brenner’s yard. As she releases Cathy, the offscreen space of the children, which is seen only in the scene’s opening shot, is now defined by their laughter and the direction that Cathy leaves the frame. Mitch and Melanie, it is known, are walking toward the location of the current shot, and it is known the children are offscreen right of the camera. In this way, the offscreen laughter of the children functions identically to the pan from Mitch and Melanie in keeping continuity over the scene, relating one space to another.

The first bird to attack, then enters from an offscreen space that has yet to be established in the scene: presumably the sky. Unlike the film’s opening shots, the birds’ sounds are not present to establish their presence in that space. This moment of suspension, wherein the setup of an entire diegetic space is momentarily disrupted by the intrusion of offscreen sound (the child shouting “Look, look!,”) and offscreen space, is the moment that leads to the subsequent montage of bird attacks. The bird swooping down cuts to the first shot of the children, as Cathy is attacked. The following shots show the bird swooping back up, another child being attacked, Annie running toward the children, and Mitch and Melanie reacting. The invasion of the bird from this unestablished offscreen space combines itself with the already established spaces into the montage attack.

The previous two analyses are simply preambles, setting up the moments that occur prior to each bird attack. These moments take mise en scene’s suspension to a further degree, wherein the intrusion of offscreen space suspends mise en scene’s credibility and subjection to the diegesis in favor of the audience’s feelings of suspense. These moments of the invasion of offscreen space completely alter the presentation and function of the mise en scene. In this way, offscreen space and sound enter into mise en scene’s definition. 

The first of these occurs directly after the party sequence. Melanie chooses to stay with the Brenners and they are about to sit down for dinner. The shot begins in the kitchen with Lydia and Mitch preparing food while the caged lovebirds, far left, chirp away. As Cathy enters, she eyes the lovebirds questioning their noise. Here, Lydia, categorizing them with all other birds, covers the cage with a blanket, muffling their noises. As they cross towards the screen, into the living room, the camera dollies back to reveal Melanie sitting, now joined by the Brenners. Suddenly the lovebirds pick up volume once more. As Cathy points this out, the film cuts to Melanie at a downward angle, her eyes raising slowly. All sounds fade out as fear envelopes her face. The next shot is of the fireplace with a single bird chirping. A reverse shot of Melanie intercuts quickly as she tries to warn Mitch, barely getting his name out before a swarm of birds enters the room making a noise that Hitchcock describes as “…something like the effect of the screech that you get if you scrape two pieces of metal together.”


What was lacking in the party scene had been a previous bird attack. Now that it is established that the attacks are beginning, the audience’s suspense can coincide with the mise en scene’s. This suspension does not occur without warning, though, as Lydia’s action of covering the birdcage, an act of awareness that the birds belong offscreen, places the lovebirds in an awkward position. They are still a part of the onscreen mise en scene, yet hidden in the space. As the camera then pulls back, the cage disappears offscreen. It is soon after this that their volume picks up again. The mise en scene established the presence of the lovebirds, and so, unlike the attackers, their location is known in the offscreen space. This knowledge leads to the mise en scene’s suspension. The birds volume quickly raises as the cut to Melanie takes place. This happens quickly and naturally, as their chirping never completely vanished, and so in case the viewer had not realized the increasing volume, Cathy’s dialogue serves as a reminder of why the cut takes place.

In his work Almost Silent, Paul Theberge claims, 

It is important to note, however, that diegetic silences – silences that are then filled by music or other nondiegetic sounds – are used not only to represent the inner life of characters, their dreams, fantasies, or moments of mental anguish, but also occasionally, in a somewhat different fashion, to represent any moment in which reality exceeds our expectations, when the real becomes the surreal.


The cut to Melanie leads into a diegetic silence, yet unaccompanied by nondiegetic music. Rather, the silence represents this moment wherein reality and credibility are subverted by excess. Hitchcock’s film, thus far has bordered between realistic events and utter fantasy. Inside the house, it seems implausible that the offscreen domain of the birds can interfere. And so immediately this silence acts as an index of the coming events. Yet the unnatural drop in diegetic sound also signifies a drop in the mise en scene’s credibility in maintaining spatial and temporal relations. Thus, this moment of suspension interferes with the synchronization of sound and image. The shot of the bird synchs its noises and actions, but Melanie’s line, “Mitch” occurs before a cut back to Melanie. Subsequently, the sound of the birds’ sudden storm out of the fireplace begins precisely before the cut away from Melanie where the birds are shown first coming through the chimney. 

The image’s lack of synchronization with sound affects temporal linearization of the film. Again, there is a moment between the mise en scene’s construction of a space literally walled in from the offscreen space, and the birds’ invasion of it. It is difficult to say, however, how long exactly the moment lasts. Visually it lasts only a few seconds, however the lovebirds fade out is highly unnatural, signifying a suspension in time for Melanie, the already established wielder of narrative agency, as she realizes the bird’s presence. The sound’s desynchronization afterwards further signifies a gap between diegetic time and image. Therefore the mise en scene no longer serves the story, but calls upon itself and its own suspension to produce a visceral moment of suspense for the audience immediately before the birds storm in.

The following attack, that of crows on the school children, reverses this conversation between time/sound/image. This time, offscreen sound will be used to keep temporal linearization of the diegetic world with images that, temporalized in this way, do not work. Likewise, the scene reverses the previous on/offscreen relations, as the victims are offscreen while the viewer watches the birds amalgamate. The constf

ruction of this entire scene is the moment of mise en scene’s suspension.

Melanie has been sent by Lydia to the Bodega Bay school to pick up Cathy, out of fear of an attack. As Melanie pulls up to the school, the faint noise of children singing is heard. Melanie enters the school and is asked to wait outside. She exits, sitting on a nearby bench in front of a playground, as crows gather on a jungle gym behind her. Soon Melanie sees the birds, warns the children, and the attack begins.

As with the moment before the attack on the house, diegetic sound is dropped as soon as Melanie exits the school, however, the children, now offscreen, continue their repetitious song. This song acts as the basis for the scene’s temporal linearization of the diegesis. This influence that the music has over the mise en scene is illustrated by Chion: 

…for sound to influence the image’s temporality, a minimum number of conditions are necessary. First, the image must lend itself either by being static and passively receptive or by having a particular movement of its own. …In the second case, the image should contain a minimum of structural elements – either elements of agreement, engagement, and sympathy, or of active antipathy – with the flow of sound.


In this case the mise en scene, through its rhythm and continuity works against the diegetic sounds. The song signifies the scene as having continuity between shots, yet the birds’ gathering behind Melanie antagonizes this linearization of sound. Chion points out in Film, a Sound Art that “the visual scene construction could possibly give us the impression of a jump in time… But that must not happen here. The suspense depends on the impression that the accumulation of birds has taken… no longer than ninety-five seconds…”

 Indeed, the length of the shots and the rhythm of the birds’ entrance does not line up with the amount of time taken. Their relation can be measured by the the children’s song. When Melanie first sits, the jungle gym is placed in the middle, between the foreground of Melanie and the background of the school. A single crow lands before a cut to Melanie at 3/4 angle with the school in the background and the playground out of frame. The children get through one verse of the song before a cut back to the jungle gym with now three more birds. A cut back to Melanie for only one half of a verse occurs before another shot of the jungle gym with one more bird landing. Another chorus and half verse with a shot of Melanie again precedes a shot of the gym with two more birds landing, suddenly bringing the total to nine. The next take of Melanie, the longest, incorporates the ending of a chorus, the next verse and chorus, and the beginning of another verse. Melanie then glances up to find a single crow swooping down. As she turns in a series of shot/reverse shots, the camera follows the bird until it lands in the playground, suddenly covered in, what Hitchcock intended to be at least 200 crows.


Further emphasizing this is the lack of diegetic sounds other than the children. Revisiting Theberge’s view on diegetic silence’s effects, yet now accompanied by music that forces temporal continuity, the mise en scene signifies another break in reality. Each shot of Melanie, between the crows landing is not only longer, but closer. The closer the shots of Melanie get, the larger the amount of offscreen space becomes. Likewise, the length of time the shots remain on Melanie increases the suspense of the viewer according to Hitchcock’s definition, as the audience is aware of the birds accumulating offscreen. The shrinking onscreen space and lengthening of shots becomes a symbolic, not diegetic, way to allow for the birds to secretly increase in number. The scene’s climax occurs when Melanie turns to see the mass of birds that, diegetically according to rhythm of shots, should not have been able to land so quickly. Without the accompanying singing, it could be assumed that time was simply compressed. However, the continuity of the children singing reveals that the mise en scene was suspended, and the narrative subverted, for the suspense of the audience. The suspense then leads to catharsis when the birds do attack the children.

The following scene is of the attack of the birds on the town after a meeting between Mitch, Melanie, and some townsfolk at The Tide’s Restaurant. The moment before the attack begins in a way not dissimilar to the attack on the children. Inside the restaurant Mitch and a sailor discuss the situation while the camera stays on Melanie in a medium shot. Her eyes begin to wander offscreen when an unseen bird caws. Her attention focuses towards this as she turns to the window. In two following long shots of a gas station, from Melanie’s perspective, gulls swoop down at the attendant after which a single gull knocking him over, spilling gas on the road. The gulls’ screams grow quiet as they retreat offscreen.

The choice of shots following this event is dictated by the sound of the running gas presented on and off of the screen. The shot/reverse shot sequence depicts Melanie and the others watching from the restaurant as Mitch and two men help the attendant. Again, the events of the narrative thus far are subservient to the mise en scene’s depiction of suspense. The only sound outside of the restaurant in these shots is the running of the gas. Unlike the singing children, who’s chorus and verses vary enough to establish continuity between shots, the gas running is one continuous sound, forcing no continuous temporality of moments. The shots here reverse from Melanie to the gas station, but not from her point of view, as the gas running is always at the frame’s bottom. The camera then begins to deviate from her perspective entirely in downward shots of the gas running, which, if Melanie’s agency were kept, would have remained acousmatic sound. Despite Melanie’s concerns, the camera follows the sound of the gas.

Temporal continuity is in no way assisted by the lack movement from the men who kneel, surrounding the attendant, immobile in every shot. Still, there has been no reason to doubt the continuity of shots until the gas finally reaches a destination: the tire of a car that is below the station, but with a distance that has yet to be spatially related in the mise en scene. Now that the car has been reached, Melanie notices and draws the attention of all of the onlookers as a man at the car lights a match. They scream to stop him, but to no avail as he drops the lit match, blowing up the parked cars.

Again, here the diegetic sound fades unnaturally, leaving only the explosion heard. The explosion does not cover up their screaming, however, as it is not until after the fire begins running up the gas stream that the voices are lost. The next shot/reverse shot of Melanie and the fire further disrupts the continuity. In each of the four shots of her she remains immobile, her head being turned at each cut to signify the traveling flame. The only sound, here, is the fire, which increases volume each time it is shown cutting across the frame, before finally reaching the gas station, at which point the men have just now left. The final shot from above the town now shows the stream of fire having travelled much farther than the mise en scene had depicted in the series of shots. The feeling of suspense derived from mise en scene’s own suspension of credibility takes precedence over the continuity of the narrative in order to prepare for the final shot from the sky as the birds make their way onscreen and begin to attack.

It is important to note, here, the birds’ appearance throughout these moments. Despite their continual presence in unestablished offscreen spaces, the constant invasion of offscreen space has grown over the course of the film. In the first attacks on the party and the house, the invasions come suddenly with no establishment whatsoever of the birds’ physical presence or location in relation to the onscreen space. The attack on the school, though, presents the birds’ initial amalgamation onscreen. Although they mass outside the camera’s view, where this occurs is clear. The attack on the town constitutes the first time the birds’ perspective is taken, as the shot preceding the attack is situated in the sky, as the birds float onto the screen. After this attack, shots of birds massing, sitting and waiting, are placed consistently throughout following scenes. Likewise, attention is being placed, by characters on the sky through point of view shots. Slowly, the offscreen space where the birds’ lofty domain exists unseen, closes in on both onscreen and offscreen spaces established by mise en scene.

This culminates in the film’s climax of the unseen attack, wherein the only onscreen space is inside the boarded up house. This attack sequence is both a moment of mise en scene suspension in and of itself and the precursor to the final attack on Melanie. The reason being is that the attack comes entirely from offscreen, expressed by the acousmatic sounds of the birds. Despite the lack of revelation of the attack, the audience is never lead to question what these sounds are. The reasons for this are the obvious association these electronic noises have had with the birds throughout the film, and the differentiation between natural sounds and the electronic sounds Hitchcock used to create the birds’ screeching.


Hitchcock, himself, notes the way in which his mise en scene is suspended against the story in his interview with Truffaut:

…I gave the mother and child searching for shelter. There is no shelter. But I gave movement. Darting movements, like scurrying animals. Now the girl I deliberately photographed from a distance because I wanted to show that she was recoiling from nothing.


Hitchcock acknowledges, here, the force of the acousmatic sound on the mise en scene. It no longer works toward the narrative, but to increase suspense. This quote also alludes to the fact that the characters are presented in separate shots. At the onset of the attack, the shots suddenly separate from one establishing shot of the four characters, to Cathy and Lydia, Mitch, and Melanie all in distinct separate spaces; all of these being either medium shots or close ups. Chion claims of the scene, “It is as though the sound were attacking the image.”

 Indeed, all one need see is that as soon as the sound commences, the images break apart.

The framing of shots, as Hitchcock noted, and the movement of the camera with Cathy and Lydia emphasize the claustrophobia of the onscreen space. The diegetic world established throughout the film is relegated to being offscreen, as the birds, who have taken the offscreen space as their domain, have enclosed around the house. The close shots and darting movements of the girls, and Melanie’s movement toward the wall signify the complete lack of space that can be made onscreen. No matter how much they move, they get nowhere.

The only one who differs is Mitch, who interacts with the invading force as he fights a bird crashing through the window. Those who do not interact with birds are relegated to immobility as there is a significant lack of possible spaces to traverse to. Hence why the only shots that combine characters’ spaces are mobile shots of Mitch. Likewise, any diegetic sound aside from the birds is attributed only to Mitch. Shots of the women, who are recoiling from the acousmatic sound, drop diegetic sound: an action which has been the constant signifier of mise en scene’s creation of suspense over story.

The scene climaxes when a loud shrill sounds as the power goes out. Assuming a bird struck a power line, this is a moment when acousmatic sound literally changes the mise en scene of a singular shot. The only light in the shot becomes the eerie yellow glow of the fireplace, stressing the situation’s horror and the amount of power over mise en scene that the sound’s representation of offscreen space has. Subsequently the sounds begin to fade as the birds leave. As the attack ends, three static shots of the ceiling show Mitch, Melanie, and Lydia entering frame in three close-ups, with Mitch speaking the first audible words: “They’re going.” The final shot of Lydia then dollies back, putting her and Cathy in the background, revealing Melanie in the middle, and Mitch in the foreground. As the attack of sound ends, the mise en scene begins to stabilize itself with all three securely in the frame, as it had prior to the attack, though still distinctly separated. The shot fades to the fireplace crackling where, once again, onscreen diegetic sound is heard.

The significance of this moment is derived from the culminating conflict of the onscreen and offscreen spaces as they are presented through mise en scene. The offscreen space has finally encompassed the onscreen space’s structure. The role of the mise en scene establishing offscreen space has ceased as the question of what could be offscreen is gone. The answer is known. Anything that could possibly be in the frame of the camera will either be one of the people in the house, or the birds outside. Only if the offscreen space invades the image could this change, hence why shots of Mitch, who tries to keep the birds out, are the only shots wherein the mise en scene is not suspended. While shots of the others exist solely for the audience, shots of Mitch exist to maintain the literal division between spaces, prolonging the suspense until the attack stops.

This scene is the tipping point where an attack and its preceding suspension are one in the same. Now that the birds’ location is no longer a space estranged from the mise en scene, the attack is reversed. Each moment of mise en scene’s suspension of credibility brings offscreen space physically closer to the mise en scene. Now that the mise en scene’s construction illustrates the unseen locale of the birds in relation to the onscreen space, there can be no more invasions from unfamiliar spaces. Instead, Melanie traverses to the attic where it is revealed that there is a hole, allowing the birds to claim that space as well. The offscreen space becomes the space traveled to instead of the space invading. It becomes the onscreen space where the birds’ final attack on Melanie occurs. The point of view shots where the birds fly directly into the camera, along with the close ups of Melanie during this sequence signify visually what the previous attack had audibly: that this space, which Melanie now traverses to, is littered with birds. This reversal is finalized in the film’s closing shot, where the entirety of the frame is covered in birds, leaving little to the imagination of what lies offscreen.

Clearly, mise en scene constructing a visualization of onscreen space alone is not enough for this film, or others. It must also bear the labor of presenting the surrounding diegetic world. It is in this way that mise en scene goes beyond the visual and, in the case of The Birds, beyond the narrative. As sound is vital to the establishment and continuity of offscreen spaces, it also plays a key roll in the sudden emergence of unestablished spaces and their incorporation into the mise en scene. Yet in each subsequent attack, the space of the birds grows as the space that can be placed onscreen shrinks. As this occurs, the mise en scene constantly suspends its initial meaning, temporarily creating a new type of space free of diegetic constraints, which builds up over time. The attacks become bigger throughout the film, and so the more the birds attack, the more intense each attack becomes. Finally, this allows for the build up, through the moments of credibility’s suspension, of the visceral reaction Hitchcock aims for: suspense.














Works Cited

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. (1990) Print.


Chion, Michel. Film, A Sound Art. Trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. (2003) Print.


Hitchcock, Alfred. Interview by Francois Truffaut. Hitchcock/Truffaut: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1983. Print.


Mr. Hithcock’s  Notes on Dubbing. Jan 10, 1962. Margaret Herrick Library.


Perkins, Victor F. Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993. Print.


Shot list for “Crow Sequence”. Jan 30, 1962. Margaret Herrick Library.


Theberge, Paul. “Almost Silent: The Interplay of Sound and Silence in Contemporary Cinema and Television.” Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound. Beck, Jay, and Grajeda, Tony, eds. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Print.


Transcription of the Hitchcock – Truffaut Interview. 1962. Margaret Herrick Library.




The Clown and the Inkwell: Character Perception and the First Fleischer Cartoon


“There was no characterization in that series. On that fella. Disney’s the guy who brought that into animation. In a situation, Koko did what anybody else would do.”



So says Dick Huemer. [pause] Animator for Mickey Mouse. [pause] Story director on Fantasia (1940). [pause] And the very man who gave the clown his name. Indeed, there is a reason that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny would remain famous in the lexicon of cartoon heroes leaving Koko to fade into obscurity. Yet, few postulate that the creators of Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and the first Superman serials, started with a pen, an inkwell, and a clown.

In a medium framed by the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny and the abstract films of Norman McLaren, Koko lingers in the middle. His cartoons revolutionized the animated film through their fluidity and technical innovations. These characteristics make Koko the most significant, yet overlooked character in animation history. Most literature surrounding Koko, indeed speaks of him as a popular character. They acknowledge the importance of the techniques he is associated with, but only in the context of the history of animation or his creators. The clown’s own history remains marginal. Koko would be present during the most substantial moments in film and animation, and yet it is his very ability to do so that sends him into two early retirements and forces him to play back-up for other characters. Advertisements and reviews, along with the cartoons themselves, reflect his purpose for the animators and influence the way he would be perceived. To his audience, Koko was presented as an index of the brothers’ Fleischer and their animation techniques. 

Koko was created in 1915 by the Fleischer brothers: Max, Joe, and Dave. The clown existed before, though not as Koko. In fact, he remained “the clown” until Dick Huemer would name him in 1923. Dave worked as a clown at Coney Island. He “made a clown [suit] with three big wide buttons and a pointed hat…”

 Max, a science enthusiast and one time editor of Popular Science Magazine, had put together a device called Rotoscope (S.2): A revolutionary machine that would later be used to animate films like Snow White (1937) and Fantasia (1940). Dave, with his suit, was filmed and the Rotoscope would project each frame to be drawn over. Says Huemer, it was “A simple process, but it gave astonishingly life-like action.”

 It took a year for the Fleischers to complete their experiment, but when they were done, they knew they had something to sell.

(S.3) Koko’s birth is an appropriate first step in his lifetime. The Rotoscope was meant to be innovative. He is a clown simply because Dave’s black and white suit was easy to trace. Nobody knew if he would actually be entertaining. Max said he wanted to sell because he “thought it was something, that’s all.”

 After being rejected, Max worked out a faster mode of rotoscoping 100ft of film in four weeks. Soon the brothers were hired to Pathé, but the clown’s career was already in jeopardy. Max and Dave fought over their next cartoon. Max wanted to do a political piece on Teddy Roosevelt. Dave disagreed: “And I told him, well, why should we do that? We’ve got the clown that they like; let’s continue the clown. Well, he and I argued. We were always partners, but he was my older brother, so we went his way. Well, it was bad. They didn’t like it, so they fired us.”


Soon, Dave convinced Max to use the clown again.

 They kept trying to sell, when fate struck, at Paramount’s New York Office. Before getting to President Zukor [literally, outside of his office], Max ran into John Bray, a friend from his days as a cartoonist for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Bray had an exclusive contract with Paramount producing film shorts. “Serendipitous,” Max’s son, Richard says, “is a poor and meager word to describe this meeting. Earth-stopping comes a little closer.”


[Slowly] By 1919 they had begun producing Out of the Inkwell [for lack of a better title

] through “Bray Pictographs.” Bray did much to popularize this new series. An advertisement lists Inkwell as “the classic of animated cartoons,” containing “humor” and “surprises.” 

 Indeed, they wanted to make the clown seem entertaining and popular. But this is only one part of the ad.  It also calls Inkwell a “super-animated cartoon…inspired by the genius of his creator…” with “accuracy of action, nothing has ever approached this feature.” With a picture of the clown popping out of his inkwell (as he does at the beginning of each cartoon), he was being associated with both of these sets of qualities. He may have entertained, but that was not enough.

In the clown’s few years at Bray and through the Fleischer’s formation of their own production company, Out of the Inkwell, Inc. (1921), the main attraction of the shorts were the clown’s interactions with Max. (S.4) The brothers had developed a method of putting the clown into real life settings. Max Fleischer became the producer of the series, as well as the star, with Dave directing. Koko’s role in these remains unclear. It is hard to call him the protagonist. It is his face in the advertisements, yet he always causes trouble for Max. Huemer puts it: “Here is Max, a live person that they got to like after a while. …if you saw a few of them, you got to know him, and you were sympathetic to his troubles.”


These shorts all begin with Koko emerging from the inkwell, whether voluntarily, or drawn by Max, before coming to life [Each cartoon does this differently. Examples]. Their interactions typically include Koko, unsatisfied with life on the drawing board, finding a way to leave his animated realm, enter the real world, and disrupt Max’s activities. (S.5) In Fishing, Max draws Koko a fishing pole to occupy the clown while he is out doing the same. (S.6) The lonesome clown goes on an undersea adventure before going off to find Max and make mischief. (S.7) Koko lassoes a fish to drag away Max’s boat and fish basket, compelling Max to swim to mainland. (S.8) After being caught by Max, Koko is poured back into the Inkwell.

Every cartoon short is a series of gags strung by a basic plot. This plot always takes place in the paradigm of: clown is drawn; clown leaves easel; clown causes trouble; clown goes back to the inkwell. The New York Times published an article on the clown in February 1920, titled “The Inkwell Man” [Max or Koko?] claiming that, “many persons have been delighted by the little black and white clown.”

 The compliments, however, are two sided: 

This little Inkwell clown has attracted favorable attention because of a number of distinguishing characteristics. His motions, for one thing, are smooth and graceful. He does not jerk himself from one position to another, nor does he move an arm or leg while the remainder of his body remains unnaturally still as if it were fixed in the inklines of the paper.


In other words, the article is not about the clown at all! It goes on to describe the Fleischers and their unique animation methods. The article ends saying, “…the Bray studios feel that he is worthwhile in more ways than one, and they promise that he or some credible successor will continue to appear from time to time.”

 The clown was disposable. The method was not.

This association, however, was enough for the clown to continue his role. In 1923, Dick Huemer, already a well established cartoonist, was hired by the Fleischers. (S.9) Huemer redesigned the clown, giving him a more detailed, finished look. He also named the clown Koko, and gave him a tiny companion: the dog Fitz, introduced in Big Chief Koko. (S.10) This also marks the end of the Rotoscope’s wide usage. Typically, it would be used during one short scene, with the rest being drawn by Huemer and the other animators.

 Now with a partner, Koko’s cartoons focused on the gags, spending less time in the real world [Though this would remain in every cartoon]. Soon, Koko and Fitz would become known as the Inkwell Imps

But Koko’s new form would not change his purpose. In 1925, Motion Picture News would call the short Ko-Ko Packs ‘Em In “one of the funniest and cleverest yet seen by this reviewer.”

 Yet, the same magazine says of Ko-Ko Nuts, “…the devices by which the artist combines cartoons with actual photography continue to amaze and astonish the spectator because of the mechanical ingenuity involved in the process.”

 The public loved Koko, but for more than just his gags. He was entertaining because he was innovative. This shows him to be the perfect vehicle for the Fleischer’s new sing-a-long series, Ko-Ko’s Song Car-Tunes (S.11) in 1924, and their newest innovation: “The Famous Bouncing Ball.”

(S.12) This is the ball that bounces over the words of sing-a-long songs, projected in theaters between pictures. The Fleischers invented this. In these, Koko appears, acting as the conductor of his “Ko-Ko Kwartet” to introduce the song. Huemer and the Fleischers went to an early screening of Oh Mabel, the first of these, at New York’s Columbus Theatre and the reaction was massive. The projectionist had to play it again.

 Koko would now be attached to these improved sing-a-longs. While this is what Ko-Ko’s Song Car-Tunes are most famous for, they would soon accomplish something far more revolutionary.

The Song Car-Tunes, produced in silent and sound versions, are the first to use synchronized music. Conductor Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld had backed the Fleischers since they first formed Out of the Inkwell Inc. He was friends with Dr. Lee DeForest, who had developed the soon to be widely used method of syncing sound and film. Max and Deforest met and began putting synchronized music on Ko-Ko’s Song Car-Tunes. The first of these, My Old Kentucky Home is not only the first cartoon to use synchronized music, but, in 1926, it predates both The Jazz Singer (1927) and Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) [Often known to be the first sound cartoon]. My Old Kentucky Home was the first cartoon talkie. (S.13) The dog with the muffled voice introducing the bouncing ball speaks the first animated words on film.

Leslie Cabarga, in, The Fleischer Story, says of the Car-Tunes: “We know that the Fleischers were the first to make sound cartoons. But if timing is everything, Disney had it.”

 He is referring to Steamboat Willie. (S.14) Released after the success of The Jazz Singer, it was believed for many years to be the first sound cartoon. He claims, “…Disney took over the lead in popular recognition and his domination of the animated cartoon began.”

 By the 1930s everyone was using sound, including the Fleischers. Koko, however, did not make this transition easily. Despite being the source of the first talking cartoon, Koko and Fitz never spoke a word. It only makes sense that Koko would be retired: his name was associated with the Fleischer’s silent animation techniques. Koko, himself, was popular because he was an index of better, more lifelike animation. His entertainment value came from his ability to traverse into the real world, which he had been doing for a decade while other characters were following different paths. Characters had been staying in their own realm and rotoscoping became a novelty, as cartoons continued gaining fluidity.

Huemer says on the Inkwell series, “…the novelty carried it. The business got into trouble when the novelty wore off, and the people expected to see gags, and better animation and better ideas. Which, of course, Disney eventually succeeded in doing.”

 The Fleischer’s Talkartoon series was their solution. Koko was “…put out to pasture,”

  leaving the Fleischer’s in need of a new character, free of the clown’s connotations. Even the revised Song Car-Tunes, now known as Screen Songs ditched the clown. The answer to Mickey comes as early as the fifth Talkartoon, Hot Dog (1930). Leaving Koko out, they instead chose to revive Fitz, redesigning and renaming him. Thus, Bimbo was born. (S.15)

From the onset, Bimbo had the one thing Huemer claims Koko lacks: characterization. Bimbo is the Fleischer’s attempt at producing a cartoon with a personality of its own, without relying on the medium itself to deliver. The source of many of his gags are derived from Bimbo’s lecherous behavior. Later described by Richard Fleischer, “This was a much tougher, cigar-chewing, somewhat lecherous, piano-playing jazz hound…meant to be Mickey’s competition and complete opposite.”

 From the start, Bimbo was a womanizer through and through. His attempts to hit on women in Hot Dog land him in court. Later, in Accordion Joe (1930), Motion Picture News would report that Bimbo makes “violent and reciprocated love to an Indian maid” while turning the tribe into “jazz steppers.”


Bimbo’s popularity grew quickly, both surpassing and replacing Koko. In December of 1930, The New York Times put out an article entitled “Complicated Work of Making Film Cartoons,” following up their 1920 Koko article. Back at the Fleischer’s New York studio the article discusses the creation of these cartoons. This time Koko’s name is left unmentioned. Instead the article prefaces itself with a story of a small child, visiting the studio, hoping to find Bimbo, refusing to believe his fictional nature–a story that would never have been told of the clown who was famous for being animated. Yet, with the article’s main focus on their techniques, clearly Koko’s influence had been left on the studio. Even after retirement, Koko’s cross between revolutionary techniques and simple gags would remain a staple in the Fleischer’s name. Their history is tied to Koko, even in this attempt to leave him. 

Bimbo had his own problems. His design was inconsistent, changing color, shape, and size until 1932, finally in no way resembling the original [much less Fitz]. This inconsistency proved problematic, as a Film Daily review of the eighth talkartoon, Dizzy Dishes (1930) refers to Bimbo as a mouse. Despite also having “ a generous quota of laughs,”

  and being said by Variety to be “sufficiently amusing,”

 confusion that comes with this character [the dog was called a mouse] would in no way be enough to stand up to the Mickeys of the cartoon world. He couldn’t if he was barely even recognizable as a single character.

About the only consistent parts of Bimbo are his raging hormones. Fortunately for the Fleischers, who were adept at creating heavier, darker cartoons

, this was reason enough for a love interest. In Dizzy Dishes Bimbo plays the waiter of a restaurant/nightclub who becomes entranced by the performance of the voluptuous, half dog/half human singer who, in the course of her performance first unleashes that most famous of cartoon lines: “Boop-oop-a-doop.” (S.16)

Richard Fleischer asks, “Who would have thought that the sassy, ugly mutt from Dizzy Dishes would metamorphose into America’s sweetheart…?”

 Betty Boop’s take-off was not a sudden event, but she was a suitable love interest for Bimbo. Betty appears again with Bimbo in the next Talkartoon, Barnacle Bill (1930), taking on a larger role as the skipper’s wife, whom Bill, played by Bimbo, again “…makes violent love to.”

 [Notice the pattern?] Still, it was not until August 1931, with Bimbo’s Express, that Betty and Bimbo would be known to star together.

 (S.17) From this talkartoon, through the end of the year, Betty’s name gets bigger as she becomes more human. “Boop” was added to her name in Minding the Baby (1931) and the Talkartoons became the Betty Boop series.


Something significant happened on January 2, 1932, when the year’s first Talkartoon, Any Rags came out. Motion Picture Herald previewed it in December, calling it “Amusing” and “Good for light spot anywhere.”

 What this review does not mention, however, is the film’s title card, listing Betty as the star, supported by Bimbo and, none other than Koko the Clown. (S.18) Though only appearing in a small scene, Koko is featured in the short: his first appearance since 1929 with Inkwell’s “Chemical Ko-Ko.” Later in January, Film Daily reviewed the short mentioning Koko, but only in passing. The clown had come back, and it garnered little attention. It is hard to say why he was brought back [Perhaps they needed another character], but this was the beginning of a series of cartoons starring Betty Boop, assisted by Bimbo and Koko. Many of these, like Boop-Oop-A-Doop (1932), Betty Boop M.D. (1932) and Betty Boop’s Penthouse (1933), feature Koko and Bimbo pining after Betty [Bimbo usually got the girl], or acting as Betty’s entourage. The clown had returned, only to play back-up to Betty and Bimbo.

Likewise, Koko was no longer in the same realm as before. He was in cartoons of a totally different style. He was no longer jumping in or out of the inkwell. He no longer caused problems for Max, and his own dog had surpassed him. But Koko’s roots were not lost. His biggest moment in these shorts puts him in the exact type of role he had previously enacted. Once again, he would be an index of the the talent and innovation of the Fleischers. Three of Betty Boop’s Talkartoons feature jazz great Cab Calloway (S.19) performing his famous song and dance moves. The Fleischers again used the Rotoscope [which they would still use occasionally] to record Calloway’s unique dance movements. The most famous of these

, Betty Boop’s Snow White, features Koko, himself, performing Calloway’s “St. James Infirmary Blues.” [Introduce clip] (S.20/Clip) (S.21) Calloway is the perfect vehicle for Koko to perform in shorts where he does not interact with the real world. At his best, Koko shows off the fluid movements and talents of real world figures.

Koko’s role in the Talkartoons lasted two years. His final appearance [an appropriate one] is in 1934’s Ha! Ha! Ha!. (S.22) This film brings Koko and Betty back to the drawing board with Max. He draws Betty on the easel, and goes to bed. Suddenly, Koko emerges from the Inkwell to devour Max’s leftover candy bar. Developing a tooth-ache, Koko is assisted by Betty. She administers laughing gas, sending him into a fit. Soon the gas loses control sending the objects in Max’s room, then the whole world into a laughing apocalypse. The final moments show Koko and Betty, still hysterical, jumping into the inkwell, which turns to life, laughing itself to death.

A fitting end. The black and white clown who had once jumped out of Max’s Inkwell laughs the world to death, before descending into the well for good. By now, Betty was the star and Popeye the Sailor was on the rise [made debut in BB cartoon]. The clown was old. He had served his purpose: The Fleischers were on the map, and were the frontrunners of New York animation. Koko had mainstreamed lifelike animation with his association with the Rotoscope, and his Song Car-Tunes provided the vehicle for animation’s first entrance into sound. This final cartoon [and the subsequent Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934) featuring Max and Betty interacting] proves that neither the clown, nor the company could escape the original Inkwell format.

Many years later, Hal Seeger [President of Hal Seeger Prod.] asked Max to bring back the Inkwell series. Fleischer was old, but agreed, and the two began producing Out of the Inkwell (S.23) for syndication. One hundred episodes were made, featuring a new, color clown, and his friends and family, including a girlfriend, Kokette. Yet, Koko’s original purpose had been fulfilled. With new characters starring along side the clown, this shows an attempt at giving Koko the characterization he lacked. An advertisement in Variety described the cartoons: “…all delightful creations, animated with real photographic backgrounds for the delight of the audience.”

 With advertisements like this, the series was bound to end. Animation with real life backgrounds had been possible for forty years, now. The innovative nature of this novelty had worn off. The series premiered in 1963. In 1964, Out of the Inkwell, Inc. was gone.

From his first Rotoscoped appearance, through his revival in the 60s, Koko served a specific purpose beyond entertainment. His presence, though seemingly replaceable, consistently emphasized the innovation and techniques that made the Fleischers known. The clown would never escape these connotations and neither would the Fleischers. But this was not enough to give the clown fame. Koko was presented to the audience as an index of the novelty. As soon as the novelty became the mainstream, Koko was sent back into the Inkwell, to sit and wait for the pen to draw him again. (S.24)



(Cited & Uncited Sources)


“Alfred Weiss New Head of Red Seal and Inkwell.” Motion Picture News 27 Nov. 1926: 2035. Print.


Bige. “Short Subjects.” Rev. of Dizzy Dishes, by Max Fleischer. Variety 30 July 1930. Print.


Bradley, Edwin. The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-1931. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005. Print.


Bray Pictographs. Advertisement. Motion Picture News 30 Aug. 1919: 179. Print.


Cabarga, Leslie. The Fleischer Story. 2nd ed. New York City: DaCapo Press, 1988. Print.


Film Daily Yearbook., 1927. 63. Print.


 Flavin, Harold. “Opinions on Current Short Subjects.” Rev. of Ko-Ko Packs ‘Em In, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 14 Nov. 1925: 2364. Print.


Fleischer, Dave, “Recollections of Dave fleischer,” interview by Joe Adamson, Oral History of the Motion Picture in America. 25 July 1968.


Fleischer, Richard. Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2005. Print.


Huemer, Richard, “Recollections of Richard Huemer,” interview by Joe Adamson, Oral History of the Motion Picture in America. 8 Oct 1968.


Inkwell Imps Cartoons. Advertisement. Motion Picture News 5 May 1928. Print.


Inkwell Imps Cartoons. Advertisement. Motion Picture News 20 Oct. 1928. Print.


Kennedy, T.C. “Opinions on Current Short Subjects.” Rev. of Ko-Ko Nuts, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News Sept. 1925: 1660. Print.


“Latest Reviews of New Short Subjects.” Rev. of Dizzy Dishes, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 27 July 1930: 12. Print.


Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Print.


Max Fleischer’s Famous Out of the Inkwel. 2000. Inkwell Images Ink. DVD.


Max Fleischer’s Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes. 2003. Inkwell Images Ink. DVD.


Out of the Inkwell. Advertisement. Exhibitor’s Herald 25 Nov. 1922: 63. Print.


“Out of the Inkwell Films, Inc., in Receivership.” Motion Picture News 16 Oct. 1925: 1481. Print.


Pilling, Jayne. A Reader in Animation Studies. London: J. Libbey, 1997. Print.


“Read’Em and Reap, Here’s the Lowdown on the Dessert for your Feature Menu.” Rev. of Firebugs, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 19 Apr. 1930: 61. Print.


“Red Seal Pictures Show Big Increase.” Motion Picture News 26 Dec. 1925: 3200. Print. Seven Arts. Advertisement. Variety 23 Oct. 1963: 23. Print.


Richard Fleischer Papers. Margaret Herrick Library.


Shan. “Short Subjects.” Rev. of Bimbo’s Express, by Max Fleischer. Variety 1 Sept. 1931. Print.


“Shorts.” Rev. of Any Rags, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture Herald 26 Dec. 1931: 31. Print.


“Short Subjects.” Rev. of Accordion Joe, by David Fleischer. Motion Picture News 13 Dec. 1925: 34. Print.


“Short Subjects.” Rev. of Barnacle BIll, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 2 Aug. 1930: 89. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of Betty Co-ed, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 19 April. 1931: 11. Print.


“Shorts.” Rev. of Bimbo’s Express, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture Herald 12 Sep. 1931: 27. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of Boop-Oop-A-Doop, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 27 Dec. 1931: 11. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of The Bum Bandit, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 10 May. 1931: 11. Print.


“Short Subjects.” Rev. of Swing You Sinners, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 11 Oct. 1930. Print.


“Short Subject Reviews-Sound and Silent.” Rev. of Sidewalks of New York, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 21 Oct. 1928. Print.


Smith, Chester J. “Sound Picture Reviews.” Rev. of Sidewalks of New York, by Max Fleischer. Motion Picture News 20 Oct. 1928: 1212. Print.


“Sound Shorts.” Rev. of Barnacle Bill, by Max Fleischer. The Film Daily 3 Aug. 1930: 9. Print.


“The Inkwell Man.” Rev. of Out of the Inkwell, by Max Fleischer. New York Times 22 Feb. 1920. Print.


*The Reviews here represent only those scanned and copied for possible use in the paper’s citations. This bibliography does not represent every article and review of content relating to the Fleischers I viewed, as many were immediately recognized as being irrelevant to my research.

A Lonely Place: Gender Relations and Hybridization of In a Lonely Place


By Michael Potterton


Keywords: gender relations, hybrid, noir, psychoanalysis, screwball, theory



Film noir and screwball comedies form opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to style, themes, and mood within classical-era cinema. Noir films exhibit dark themes and disturbing violence. Characters are often cold, malicious, and duplicitous. Screwballs, on the other hand, possess a much more light-hearted tone. Filled with humor, bizarre situations, and clever innuendo, screwballs bring us characters that are warm, endearing, and vociferous.

Recognizing this situation, what might we learn if we were to examine a film marketed and historicized as a film noir as genre hybrid instead? The film I suggest for such a study is Nicholas Ray’s film noir adaptation of In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950).

 Seemingly a typical noir, the film’s use of some of the main features of noir seem peculiar, often to the point where they become blatantly humorous. 

Referencing common tropes within film noir and screwball, I will attempt to plot out how In a Lonely Place ends up in such a “lonely place” among genre films. Building upon points initially made by Dana Polan, I will examine how the film draws from the tropes of both genres to form a genre hybrid that complicates classical Hollywood representations of gender hierarchies and offers up new forms of desire for the spectator by challenging the classical “male gaze” that is at the heart of both film noir and screwball.

While typically seen as noir, this film has a history of genre hybridity and confusion. In his British Film Institute reader, Polan gives a detailed analysis of In a Lonely Place, acknowledging the elements of the screwball genre present. Polan observes, “While not ignoring the bleakness of its unhappy ending or the downbeat tone of its concern for murder, one could, without too much perversity or too much distortion of the facts, argue that In a Lonely Place bears as much connection to screwball comedy as to film noir.”

 The textual portion of Polan’s analysis focuses upon the love relationship between the two main characters, leading him to ask, “…is it a love story or a thriller?”

 The way in which the two central characters approach their love with caution and wit, claims Polan, is reminiscent of the screwball. Even the ultimate loss of their love is not entirely unlike a screwball. He points out that when two characters finally fall for each other in these comedies, it is always through some miraculous ending coming about when all hope is lost.

 True love, then, is not invulnerable, and much of what prevents In a Lonely Place from being a true screwball is the lack of the miraculous ending.

With the genre hybridity that Polan examines, there must then be a way in which the elements of film noir and screwball comedy interact. If these polarized genres can come together in a way that confuses so many, some feature common to the two, yet operating differently in each, would have to work paradigmatically throughout the film. Indeed, if one accepts that In a Lonely Place is a genre hybrid, the question then becomes: How does one examine the interaction and functionality of the genres in this film?

The answer, it seems, lies in the two genres’ common investment in challenging (and normalizing) gender roles. Each genre includes female characters that take over and direct narrative development, putting the male protagonists into gender peril. In a film noir, the dangerous femme fatale typically attempts to steal narrative agency from the male protagonist through seductive means. In Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Teresa De Lauretis comments on women’s role in films noir by claiming “…she may resist confinement in that symbolic space by disturbing it, perverting it, making trouble, seeking to exceed the boundary – visually as well as narratively – as in film noir.”

 De Lauretis acknowledges that in a noir, the main female character sets herself against the protagonist’s gaze, and therefore the structure of her role in the film. She “exceeds her boundaries” by trying to become the active character pushing the narrative forward. Yet, the calm and collected noir protagonist must inevitably contain the femme fatale often by killing her, as in Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), or imprisoning her such as Sam Spade does to Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941).

  On the other hand, in a screwball comedy like Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938), the lead girl gains narrative agency through her own heterosexual desires. David Shumway, in “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage” argues: “What distinguishes screwball comedies from dyadic narrative forms is that the woman is never merely an item of exchange between two men; she is also presented as a desiring subject.”

 In screwball, the heroines are not immediately recognized by their male counterparts as worthy of the desirable quality of the femme fatale. Rather, the women of screwball exert a certain amount of control in attempting to gain this quality. The screwball heroine will not simply flaunt her femininity, but take on an active role in gaining the qualities required for her to be loved by her man. Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby initially comes off as annoying in her attempts to draw the gaze of David Huxley. Only when she is in physical danger of being attacked by a leopard or falling from museum rafters will the passive Huxley take up narrative agency and contain the renegade female: this time through marriage.

Gender functionality typically found in a screwball leaks into In a Lonely Place and affects it in a way beyond creating witty romance. But this leaking creates a problem: gender hierarchies that are challenged and resolved through classic noir techniques such as introducing and punishing the femme fatale can no longer be resolved through such generic techniques. Instead, characters of In a Lonely Place must engage in screwball techniques to address and resolve gender hierarchies. 

In his work, Polan points out that while the narrative is focalized on Dix, it often diverges from him, providing shots of others talking about him, or reacting to his actions. To further this point, Polan references the opening shot of Dix driving, his face seen in the rearview mirror: “…we have here a point of view that is simultaneously first and third person. But as the credits run, cuts intercede and the camera moves back away from the car … The film has quickly become even less his point of view…”

 From the opening shot, the film diverges from other noirs of its kind. Double Indemnity is told completely through the protagonist Walter Neff’s own narration. In The Maltese Falcon, only one short segment in which an unknown assailant kills his partner is not shown from Spade’s perspective. The establishing shot of In a Lonely Place immediately signs to the audience that they will be looking through Dix’s eyes, while concurrently deviating and observing his actions. 

At the start, this sets Dix up as being susceptible to a loss of narrative agency. This third-person perspective combined with his point-of-view shot shows from the onset that Dix is not the only character whose activity can control the narrative. Unlike Dix’s fellow noir protagonists, just as the camera pulls away, Dix will slip towards the objectivity and observation. This is the same objectification inevitable to that of a screwball hero like Huxley, whose narrative agency is constantly stolen by the persistent Susan.

The film’s incorporation of screwball is evident in an early scene when Dix invites a young waitress and aspiring actress, Mildred Atkinson, to his house so that she can relate to him the narrative of a novel that he does not want to read but has been asked by his agent to adapt for the screen. Initially, Mildred is depicted exactly as Laura Mulvey suggests women in classical Hollywood films typically are: as the object of a male gaze. Mulvey claims in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 


“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”


The spectator is made to take Dix’s perspective through over-the-shoulder and point-of-view shots, as he stares at Mildred, who rambles on about a book that neither Dix nor the spectator is made to care about. The nature of Mildred’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” is heightened in a point-of-view shot where Mildred stares directly into the camera (Dix’s eyes). This is the scene’s ultimate establishment of the spectator/subject/object relationship. Dix becomes the surrogate of the spectator’s gaze, which is directed at Mildred. To further emphasize her as an object to be looked at rather than subject to be engaged, none of what she says is registered as significant to the scene development. All of her thoughts are rendered as trivial.

However, the male subject/female object dynamic comes to a screeching halt immediately after the shot. Dix tells Mildred to keep talking while he walks into his room to escape her rambling. He then comments on Mildred’s poor grammar, reminding the audience that she has just mispronounced three words and names from the book she is describing. Dix then looks out his bedroom window and sees – in a similar fashion to Neff’s first vision of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity – Laurel Gray, standing upon a balcony opposite from Dix’s apartment. He gazes upon her for a moment before moving back to the living room to quieten Mildred. Once Dix reenters the living room, no more over-the-shoulder or point-of-view shots allow the audience to experience surrogate spectatorship with Mildred as the object of his gaze. Rather, he signals to her that he no longer cares about the book or her summary of it and he forces her to leave. At this point, it is made evident to the audience that Mildred’s constant talking has turned Dix off, causing him to discontinue any erotic fantasy towards her.

Here, the film evokes the Huxley character from Bringing Up Baby. In Huxley’s early encounters with Susan, any desire he may want to place upon her is discarded due to his sheer annoyance with her. She is told that their constant fights mean that he has a fixation on her. When confronting Huxley about this she simply says, “Do you know why you’re following me? You’re a fixation.” This is reminiscent of the way Mildred mispronounces words from Dix’s book. Both Mildred and Susan attempt to draw the male protagonist’s gaze and desire by being entertaining to him, which inevitably ends in failure. 

Dix’s embodiment of Huxley’s disinterested male lead is matched by a parallel development of his character into a cool and in control noir lead such as Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon. When he gazes up at Laurel, his desire is immediate and he recognizes the kind of woman with whom he should be sharing his living (and bed) room. This experience of a “tutorial” in desire is described in Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Zizek explains that, “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire.”

 Zizek uses the example of the film Possessed (Bernhardt, 1947) to illustrate how a film within a film signifies its ability to subject the spectator to certain desires. A working-class girl walks up to a slow-moving train and peers in through the windows. The windows, Zizek claims, “reproduce the magic of the screen.”

 She peers through the windows and what she sees are the upper class enjoying a lifestyle foreign to her. As she is enraptured by the images, the screen tells her that this is the life that she should desire, but does not have.

The window that Dix looks through to see Laurel is akin to the screen that Zizek is referencing. The “screen” presents to him the femme fatale and he instantly desires her. This desire does not come solely from her beauty, but from her likeness to a noir character. Upon this realization, it becomes evident to Dix (and the spectator) that Mildred (our screwball gal) must be cast aside so that Dix may continue with his desired role. Upon meeting Laurel for the first time, Dix’s desire for her continues despite the fact that she seems to have no intention of being with him. Now clearly fulfilling the role of a noir leading man, Dix is drawn in by her lack of interest. He says that she’s not “coy, or cute, or corny” like other girls. These, of course, just so happen to be the characteristics of Mildred. 

When Dix and Laurel finally do form a romantic bond, Dix reverts back to a more passive role, akin to the leading man of screwball. This, in turn, forces Laurel to take up an active role within the narrative. Ultimately, Dix turns to total apathy, giving up any narrative agency. Dix is consumed by his work, hardly paying attention to Laurel. He spends day and night in front of his typewriter working, leaving Laurel to take care of both him and his house.

Laurel’s narrative actions sway between two poles – the noir femme fatale and the screwball heroine – in her attempt to reengage Dix as an agent of his own destiny (and the film’s narrative). In the most distinctive combination of the two genres, Laurel struggles to gain Dix’s attention, which is exclusively focused upon his writing. She first acts silly, telling him that he is going to a beauty pageant and that she only wants him for his money, while, like the femme fatale, seductively coming closer to him, kissing him from behind. Having no effect, Dix gives generic, agreeable answers. She then gets close to him and asks the question, “What’s my first name?” This question is what awakens Dix from his trance. He shows a temporary reentrance into his role as male lead through his immediate playful actions with Laurel. 

The film, up until this point, is completely confused with how it presents the drive of heterosexual desire. The film begins with Dix stereotypically gazing upon the waitress Mildred until her allure is replaced by Laurel’s initial mystique. But he once again loses interest in his object of desire once he and Laurel are together. The underlying complexities of this character confusion are made evident through a comparison to generic dynamics at play within the film. As seen in Double Indemnity, the noir aspect of In a Lonely Place early on establishes the active male/passive female dynamic, which the remainder of the film works to maintain. Yet, the screwball aspect of In a Lonely Place, as in Bringing Up Baby, struggles to bring about that dynamic within the narrative. In a Lonely Place has to deal with a finicky male protagonist and his female counterpart who tries, but does not know how, to reestablish the gender hierarchy required for the model of heterosexual desire advanced by classical Hollywood narratives. 

It is for this reason that Laurel’s question is so important. By asking this question, Laurel presents herself in a vulnerable state. She ceases to use humor or sexuality to be the active controller of the narrative, and instead establishes herself as the female character who is in need of a strong male protagonist capable of naming her – producing her into being. 

The film discovers that the male protagonist will maintain the gender hierarchy when his female counterpart is in need of him. In noirs like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, the femme fatale is able to seduce the male character by placing her problems upon him, causing him to fall for her by trying to solve these problems. Similarly, in Bringing Up Baby, Huxley only becomes an active character when Susan ceases to be so because she needs the help of an active male character. Upon the realization of this, the strongest connection between genres, Dix becomes the active male protagonist and surrogate for the spectator’s gaze and desires. The film is able to attempt a darker turn from here on out, and delve further into the noir genre because it is no longer confused by the character’s actions mixing with that of the screwball comedy. Yet this common ground between the two is hardly stable.

This genre transformation presents a clear danger to Laurel. If the film is to turn completely towards noir, then Laurel will inevitably fall into the femme fatale role. This becomes all the clearer upon the revelation that Dix is a sadist. Following the discovery of the connection of the genres by the female protagonist being in peril, any challenge to his narrative agency will be met with violence. Before he kisses Laurel he has to rough her up, playfully tickling her after she tells him what to do. Even then, he must further establish that she will only do what he tells her before he can show his affection.

Dix’s sadism makes it impossible for a screwball-noir connection to remain in the film and so the narrative collapses. Laurel realizes she is in peril and so tries to leave. Dix is a sadist who can only love Laurel in this hybrid if she is in peril. When she takes an active stance by escaping, Dix both succumbs to his sadistic tendencies and tries to reestablish the gender hierarchy by putting Laurel in physical distress. He loses control and strangles her, nearly to death. This excessive act of sadistic love is also his attempted punishment of the femme fatale, and so leaves no room for the miraculous ending of the screwball. Despite the revelation that Dix is freed of murder charges, his violence shows that he is still in the wrong. And so the film ends with Dix walking away, being observed by another character just as the film established would occur in the opening shot. The lovers split and the femme fatale is left as the unpunished subject to the audience’s gaze…..

In a Lonely Place is a highly confusing film because, as a noir, it takes up scenes that are silly enough to remind the viewer of a screwball comedy. Yet the film has a difficult time establishing the gender hierarchy that the noir genre tries to enforce. It mixes and matches elements of both genres since they both incorporate female characters breaking this hierarchy, whether the reason is to control the narrative or to attempt to reestablish the hierarchy itself. Only upon the discovery of the middle ground that both genres can stand on, will the film try to break out of the confusion and reestablish gender relations normative to the noir genre. Yet the damage is done and the narrative collapses, leaving an ending that lacks the catharsis of either genre, certainly a lonely place for a film of the classical Hollywood era.


i Based on the novel, In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy Hughes.

ii Dana Polan, In a Lonely Place (London: British Film Institute, 1993) 16. Print.

iii Ibid. 62.

iv Ibid. 18.

v Teresa De Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,                

      1984) 139. Print.

vi David R. Shumway, “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying

      Marriage,” Cinema Journal, 30 (1991), 401–02. Print.

vii Dana Polan, In a Lonely Place (London: British Film Institute, 1993) 38. Print.

viii Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Film and Theory (2000) 487. Print.

ix Slavoj Zizek, perf. The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema, dir. Sophie Fiennes, Microcinema 

      International, 2006. DVD-ROM.

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