The noir and gothic films of the forties and fifties often feature beguiling portraits, paintings that possess a strange power; they inspire acts of fraud, forgery, theft, murder, and obsession. Think of The Woman in the Window, Laura, or Vertigo: in the first few scenes of each film, a kind of investigator becomes enraptured with a woman who also appears in a painted portrait—and, often, the twist reveals that she’s not who she seems to be. In Laura, the portrait itself stands in for the woman who’s supposedly disappeared, as Detective Mark McPherson investigates the crime—until, that is, Laura walks into her old apartment, where the detective is sleeping beneath the portrait that so intrigued him. The portrait serves as a kind of false look, or false double, that only can really be appreciated on film.
The artists who created these portraits—usually just large-scale photographs slapped with varnish—typically went uncredited; today most of the portraits themselves have gone missing. In The Dark Galleries: A Museum Guide to Painted Portraits in Film Noir Gothic Melodramas and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s, the art and film historians Steven Jacobs and Lisa Colpaert have created a guide to an imaginary gallery of these imaginary paintings, which often took imaginary people as their subjects.
What interested Jacobs most was not so much the portraits themselves, but the roles they played in their respective films: they reflected how people thought they should behave in front of pieces of art. The plots of these films often came from classic literature or standard noir fare, but it was film techniques that brought the paintings into more direct conversation with the narrative.
Jacobs noticed that cinematographers used editing methods like reverse-shot patterns to make it appear that the portrait was looking back, as in Laura—in which a portrait has to stand in for the missing character in McPherson’s mind. They also used eye-line matches between the portraits and characters in tracking shots—or special effects with color and sound. For example, Bernard Herrmann’s well-known refrain “Carlotta’s Portrait” plays as Scottie follows Madeleine into an art gallery, where she stares at a portrait of a woman eerily similar to her—an eeriness conveyed by the camera’s glide between their shared features, to the sound of an unsettling score.
Jacobs has also published a book of the real and imaginary architecture in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. His book with Colpaert, designed to resemble a forties- or fifties–era catalog, offers an encyclopedic collection of portraits, organized by categories like the “Gallery of Matriarchs and Female Ancestors” (Lady Caroline de Winter in Rebecca), a “Gallery of Ghosts” (Carlotta Valdes from Vertigo), and the “Gallery of Dying Portraits” (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard). There’s also an illustrated survey of noir and gothic art, devoted to film stills of the made-up artists, museums, galleries, critics, and connoisseurs from these movies—and shots of “Paintings Concealing Safes” or “Modern Art in the Homes of Criminals.”
Even though the plots of the films hinge on these artworks, surprisingly little information exists about many of them—which is all the more surprising in light of the fact that some of the artists who painted them were certifiably famous. Of the more than ninety works in the book, only one is credited to an artist: to Ivan Albright, who painted the titular portrait for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Man Ray painted the portraits in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, but those works can no longer be found. He was credited only as “still photographer” for the film. Similarly, Robert Brackman received acknowledgement for his work on Portrait of Jennie, but there’s no specific credit for his portrait.
Of the works included in the book, Jacobs estimates that only about five exist today. Two are at museums: Albright’s grotesque Picture of Dorian Grey is at the Art Institute of Chicago and Brackman’s Portrait of Jennie can be found at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. The portrait by Albert Ferren for Vertigo is owned by one of the restorers of the film, and the Decker paintings from Scarlett Street have whereabouts unknown. One wonders what an exhibition of these paintings would look like in real life, but then again, that might spoil the fun: as The Dark Galleries suggests, most of the allure in these paintings derives from their roles in imaginary spaces.
Ali Pechman is a writer living in New York City. She has written about art for Artforum, Artnews, and The Awl, among others.