So we were watching Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 Strangers on a Train the other night, and among its fascinations I was most struck, this time, by the director's visual conception of the film's "villain," Bruno Anthony (masterfully embodied by Robert Walker) who is of course the increasingly not-so-secret sharer of its "hero," Guy Haines. As Bill Krohn aptly points out in his excellent book Hitchcock at Work, Bruno "is the Monster from the Id," and, more importantly from Guy's unconscious point of view, he represents a means by which Guy may scratch—as in permanently eliminate—an itch. Hence, up until his apotheosis as a means, that is, his murder of Miriam, Guy's troublesome wife, Bruno is almost always visually outsize, the dominating figure in pretty much every frame in which he appears.
As in the above shot, in which Bruno makes himself at ease in his private compartment, putting his feet up (of course we recall that the respective protagonists were introduced, and their characteristics indeed limned, by way of their shoes, walking). Hitchcock keeps every part of Bruno in focus even as the soles of his shoes loom in the center of the frame. As in the shot at the top of the post, from the soon-to-be-late Miriam's point of view, of Bruno at the fairground entrance, a slash mark in the middle of the frame, a sharply defined malignant man in full, as it were.
As I said, this version of Bruno stays in play up the the point Bruno murders Miriam, and as reflected in her glasses he is at the height of monstrousness. Having done the deed, he does not quite recede, but he is rather peskily incorporated into Guy's existence, like a wart; note Bruno's forward-gazing presence as one of Guy's tennis matches: just another face in the crowd, only different.
But up until the murder, Hitchcock's visual conception of Bruno is inflexible, to the point where it could not necessarily be entirely accomodated by the filmmaking technology of the time. You see this a lot in Hitchcock, not just the early stuff but in the middle, all the way up to The Birds: visual ideas so audacious and imaginative that they could only be acheived by way of special effects, or kluges incorporating a mix of effects and techniques. The recent Criterion Blu-ray disc of Hitchcock's 1938 The Lady Vanishes reveals in great detail the particularities of the dolls and model cars used in the film's opening shot, an ostensible camera-swoop from a height onto a train station and chalet on a fictional mountain range. Unable to accomplish the aerial shot "for real," Hitchcock and his team did it via minatures. Two decades later, Hitchcock conceived a similar opening for Psycho, and was able to use actual aerial shots, but still had to resort to dissolves to finally get the camera into the hotel room where we find Sam and Marion.
In any event, for a shot of Bruno speaking on the phone prior to going out and committing "his" murder, Hitchcock wanted to foreground Bruno in a sort of family portrait, showing his dotty, doting mother and his increasingly irritated father squabbling over Bruno's mental state even as Bruno's on his way to committing homicide. He wanted every figure in focus but didn't want to use a wide-angle lense to get the "deep focus" effect and I presume that as of the time of the film's making there were no flat lenses with a focal length sufficient for the depth the director was going for. So Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks opted for a process shot, which results in a slight degradation of detail but gets the desired effect.
I don't follow lens advances as much as I ought to, so I wonder if the shot as Hitchcock conceived it would be possible without having to split it in two, as the maestro did then, today. I do recall, in an interview with Premiere pegged to his 2000 film What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis waxing enthusiastic about how Hitchcock would have loved new-fangled tools like CGI. There were a couple of wags on the staff who snorted at this for a variety of parochial reasons; to tell you the truth, I might have been one of them. But I think Zemeckis was precisely correct. When I look at something like the opening shot of Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which in a sense approximates the opening of The Lady Vanishes, train station and all, and ups the ante on the camera mobility aspect...only this time the fake people are computer-generated, and not models, I think: Yes. By any means available/necessary.