Great Cinematographers, Part 2: Robert Burks

Robert Burks (1909-1968), the preferred cinematographer of Alfred Hitchcock between 1951 and 1964, helped create the ambiance of some of my favorite moments in all of film history. His collaborations with Hitchcock are probably not as well known as the Hitchcock/Bernard Herrmann connection, but Burks’ careful eye was responsible for many of the Master of Suspense’s greatest artistic achievements.

Strangers on a Train (1951, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) – The scene showing the killing of Miriam (played by Kasey Rogers) is one of many scenes which undoubtedly led to Burks being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) for this film. Burks used the light and shadows of the nighttime setting to his advantage, as in the moment when we see the shadows of the Tunnel of Love passengers on the cave wall, the illumination of Miriam’s face by the cigarette lighter and, most notably, the reflection of the murder in Miriam’s fallen glasses.

North by Northwest (1959, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) – Here is the famous “crop duster” scene, but more specifically the first part of the scene in which Cary Grant’s character waits for George Kaplan. I love all the vistas and cornfields but I especially love the shot at 2:40 when Cary Grant and Malcolm Atterbury eye each other from across the road. I love the distance between them. The POV shots of Atterbury as Grant walks toward him are also excellent. Everything about this scene is perfect and that’s without even counting the later crop duster portion.

Marnie (1964, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) – You can watch the clip from the beginning, but I particularly like the part starting at 3:19. Besides the flashes of color in the office windows, I love those disorienting angles amplifying Tippi Hedren’s sense of psychological anguish and the zoom-in as she is kissed by Sean Connery (perhaps more accurately described as “dragging his lips across her head”). Marnie is one of Hitch’s most underrated films; not only does it have one of Bernard Herrmann’s best scores, it has some terrific cinematographic work by Robert Burks. You should also see some of his other glorious opuses: Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, The Birds and the non-Hitchcock films The Music Man and A Patch of Blue.

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2 thoughts on “Great Cinematographers, Part 2: Robert Burks

  1. (North by Northwest) Yes, except that it was not Burks,but Hitchcock who determined where the actors would be in relation to one another. You will also remember the extraordinary scene after the Mount Rushmore shooting when Thornhill and Eve Kendall look at each other wordlessly across the full width of the image. It’s the same thing, emphasising the isolation felt by Thornhill. The use of VistaVision is also incredibly important in the movie – all ofthe very high definition shots – like the UN building, and the interior of Grand Central station – would not heve been possible without VistaVision.

    • Hi, thanks for reading the blog. (It’s good to know that what I wrote still means something a few years after the fact!) I know that Hitchcock was responsible for the way the scenes were put together and that VistaVision was the technology used in the film; I wasn’t claiming otherwise. I was simply noting my appreciation for Burks’ end of the camerawork and his talented eye.

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