What's So Great About Hitchcock? Five Reasons in Five Films
Hitchcock on Suspense
"A curious person goes into somebody else’s room and begins to search through the drawers. Now, you show the person who lives in that room coming up the stairs. Then you go back to the person who is searching, and the public feels like warning him, “Be careful, watch out, someone’s coming up the stairs.” Therefore, even if the snooper is not a likable character, the audience will still feel anxiety for him."
-Interview with Francois Truffaut
Is Hitchcock still Relevant?
Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), a British-born filmmaker who did considerable work both in England and America, is praised for being the "master of suspense." Modern audiences don't always understand why his long, Technicolor films with classic actors like James Stewart, Doris Day and Cary Grant are relevant, important, or even fun by today's standards.
Yet, so many filmmakers today still "quote" scenes from old Hitchcock films- that is to say, they copy his style, and sometimes entire scenes, directly. Brian DePalma's "The Untouchables," for example, famously quotes Hitchcock's style and pacing.
Hitchcock is relevant because he was the inventor of many film techniques that we still see in modern movies - and his movies are still fun if you know what makes a particular scene good. The following are five examples of his ingenuity.
Master of Suspense: Rear Window
Many say "I don't really find Hitchcock's movies scary at all."
Of course, this is the first misconception about Hitchcock. He was never the master of horror films. He was the master of suspense. Suspense is different from horror, or surprise, or fear. Suspense is the tension created when the audience knows something and the characters in the movie do not, and they want to yell at the screen.
Hitchcock's "Rear Window" features a scene with Grace Kelly snooping around an apartment that she's broken into, when the owner comes home. It would be enough were this a scene in and of itself, but Hitchcock adds another layer: the woman's boyfriend, played by Jimmy Stewart, is watching her from across a courtyard, knowing that she's about to get caught, and there's nothing he can do.
In short, we're watching Jimmy Stewart watch Grace Kelly. We're nervous for Grace Kelly, knowing that she's about to get caught, but our nerves are further shot by watching Jimmy Stewart fret and agonize on her behalf.
Caught in the Act.
Nowhere to Run: North by Northwest
In North By Northwest, Cary Grant's character, Roger Thornhill, spends much of his life surrounded by people. He lives in New York. He gives orders to his personal secretary. He spends much of his life in bars.
So where does he end up when he's a wanted man, wrongly accused of murder? What's the meeting place, with a man who can clear his good name?
A corn field in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nobody. Compared to the opening scene of the movie, in which traffic is so dense it is ignored, we are introduced to a scene that's exactly opposite. Every car that drives past is a subject of intense fascination, hope and dread.
Likewise, no person in a crowd of hundreds is the subject of fascination in New York City. In the cornfield scene, the only other person encountered in the rural setting is the subject of intense fascination.
And the real threat? Not from where you might expect.
What's brilliant is how much of the scene requires no dialogue. We're waiting for minutes. We know something is going to happen. And, we don't mind the wait, even though waiting in the middle of an Indiana cornfield for something to happen is possibly the most boring subject one could be asked to film.
Having read this article, do you feel you better understand why Alfred Hitchcock is so well regarded?
The Use of Sound: Blackmail
Blackmail was made in 1929. It was to be a silent film, when the studio changed its mind in the middle of production. It became Alfred Hitchcock's first "talkie" picture.
Many directors at the time were not being creative with sound. They were simply recording people talking, as they were. Hitchcock wanted something a bit more fun for his audience.
In the film, Anny Ondra has fled a murder scene, after knifing a man who tried to rape her. Nobody in the kitchen the next morning is aware of her whereabouts the night before, and she is lost in her own thoughts.
While this clip is a bit difficult, given the low quality of the recording and limitations of early filmmaking, it's still a pretty spectacular concept.
A gathering storm: The Birds
"The Birds" is a Hitchcock film that's both suspenseful AND scary, and nothing is better than the scene in "The Birds," where crows gather on a school playground behind Tippi Hedren as she smokes a cigarette.
This scene could have been done wrong in a countless number of ways, but in every detail gets things right. Crows are large, scary birds that tend to flock high in trees on winter days - a thing of playground nightmares from childhood. The thought of being attacked by hundreds from the sky raises an unanswerable question: "what would I do were I attacked?" There's no satisfactory answer.
God is in the details: the way they gather behind our protagonist without her knowing; the way the singular tracking shot of one crow exposes the horror; and the way the children's song being sung inside amplifies our feelings of dread. We want it to stop. It's terrible and catchy and we're likely to sing it for the rest of the night. It speeds up as the suspense builds. It's utterly horrible and perfect.
Blondes and Bernard Hermann
Explaining what's going on in "Vertigo" is a complex task. It's about obsession with the dead, in many ways, and though it's beyond the scope of this article to get into what's really going on, here's what you need to know for the purpose of the next clip:
Jimmy Stewart's character is in love with a woman named Madeleine, played by Kim Novak. Madeleine dies, and he's bereaved. One day, he meets a woman named Judy (also played by Novak) who looks exactly like Madeleine. After some courting, and persuading, he decides to dress her up like her dead counterpart, so he can continue his obsession.
In one of the most famous scenes in the movie, Judy is all dressed up like Madeleine, but for her hairstyle. He demands that she change it. She goes into the bathroom, and he sits in eager anticipation, in the glow of a green neon light from outside. When she emerges, looking exactly like Madeleine, through the green haze of the neon light she appears to emerge from another world.
Like Doris Day, Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Anny Ondra, it's of note that Kim Novak is blond - Hitchcock's obsession.
This scene is also important for the musical score, which fits the mood and the scene perfectly. It's by Bernard Hermann, who wrote the score for many of Hitchcock's best films.