Let us look
Hitchcock. The word sends chills down the spine of movie lovers around the world. What a name and what a man but where does the man stop and the movies begin? Hitchcock was his movies and so was his desire to entertain through pure cinema. So let us delve into his life the only we can, through the pictures he made. Let us look, as he allowed us to in Psycho when he put us in the place of Anthony Perkins looking at Janet Leigh during her final shower – she was getting cleaner right before an audience getting dirtier and a director who was only to pleased to accommodate in revealing those secret desires. Let us look deep into someone, not like the crowd in the tennis scene in Strangers On A Train who are looking left to right at the volleys and lobs but like Robert Walker’s Bruno who we see staring at Farley Granger’s Guy Haines, a chasm of a stare, a look that says I know what you’re capable of and I’m going to make you think terrible things. Let us look, like James Stewart in Vertigo onto Kim Novak and watch as she changes into someone else and back again; a burning look, the look of Alfred Hitchcock.
In 1899 Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born; the third child of a loving, Irish Catholic mother Emma and a strict, London green grocer William Hitchcock. Although his family was Catholic, he was sent to a Jesuit school where he developed a moral fear of doing anything wrong. Once, his father famously sent his young son to the police station with a note to give the officer there. Once the policeman read the note, he ushered Alfred into a cell and locked it for ten minutes before saying “this is what we do to naughty boys”. A fear of police remained in Hitchcock and is a reminder that his movies, no matter how fantastical in plot or circumstance always came from his own fears and desires.
The first Hitchcock movie I remember watching was Rear Window when I was about fifteen. I don’t remember too much about this initiation into the world of Hitch but I do remember feeling very uneasy as James Stewart’s Jeff watched the intimate details of the lives opposite unfold. I watched his unflinching gaze when, at plenty of moments I didn’t want to because I was scared that Jeff had seen too much, that he and I were just around the corner from something awful that we may not make it out alive. This intermingling of audience and character, of reality and cinema, was exactly Hitchcock’s cinematic aim and at this point in 1954 his manipulation of the audience was well honed. This was Hollywood film making at its best but let’s go back to what got him there, his British years.
He was the assistant director on five features from 1923 to 1925 and along with his first two features, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, these films gave him the rudimentary film technique but it was the filming of his first thriller, The Lodger, where Hitchcock really began innovating and creating a signature technique of his own.
Filmed in 1926, The Lodger was a story about a man whose landlady believes to be the Avenger, a Jack The Ripper-style murderer of young, blonde-hair women. There are some fine sequences in the movie and Hitchcock shows how his time spent in Germany filming The Pleasure Garden and his exposure to the expressionist cinema of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Robert Weine influenced his style. In an early scene, the paranoia of the landlady’s husband concerning their new guest manifests itself by him looking up and imagining the lodger’s suspicious, pacing footsteps through the ceiling. The point of view shot of the ceiling dissolves and we see the lodger’s footsteps from below thus showing the imagined thoughts of the landlady’s husband. This touch was an early example of Hitchcock’s desire to produce ‘pure cinema’, the development of the story through purely visual means. His skill in developing this method was to become increasingly acute and was one of the main reasons critics and audiences would laud his films throughout his career.
The success of The Lodger allowed him to move into a large house in Cromwell Rd in South Kensington and in the next few years, he made six more silent pictures of varying quality before commencing work on Blackmail, his first sound picture. If The Lodger was influenced by the German expressionist style, revealing the inner thoughts of characters in visual ways, Blackmail allowed him to study this new form of cinema and satisfy his urge for the chase. Hitchcock adored the films of the great American director D.W. Griffith, especially when it came to his answers to the question of how to propel the plot in cinema. Griffith pioneered a sense of suspense in his films by showing two different scenarios occurring at the same time almost simultaneously. For instance, he would show a woman tied to the railway tracks, cut to the hero making his way to save her, cut to an approaching train and back to the woman on the tracks. Hitchcock marvelled at this visual way of saying ‘meanwhile’ and followed its rhythms in the chase scene in the British museum in Blackmail. Though mostly silent, the film does have a few scenes of dialogue but Hitchcock certainly lamented the passing of silent cinema. It meant that for him, the montage style (Hitchcock’s third major stylistic influence after Griffith’s editing and the German expressionism) was diluted. He explains to Francois Truffaut:
“This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea. Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know. In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov. You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup and now, when you go back, he looks hungry. Yet in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor; his face exactly the same.”
Here we are seeing Hitchcock’s admiration for the power of montage editing, of telling the story in purely visual terms. For a man intent on a pure cinema, the introduction of sound was problematic as now a poor film could be a success with its ‘photographs of people talking’. His response was to employ the use of sound in a cinematic way and not rely on too much dialogue. He used the example of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, a three hour silent film famed for using the absolute minimum of intertitles to explain the action. The move to sound would allow Hitchcock to show the world exactly what a great director he was.
In the following years after Blackmail he made pictures of very mixed quality. Juno And The Paycock did well critically and at the box office and while Murder!, The Skin Game, Rich and Strange and Number Seventeen were minor works, they allowed Hitchcock to develop his style. His lowest ebb was to come with Waltzes From Vienna and was suitably distraught with himself that he could have faded as a director at this point. However, after a “sobering self-examination”, he went on to direct two of his British greats; The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Thirty-Nine Steps.
The former was his most successful British picture and in it, he gave his audience a scene where they could get involved. A man was to be killed in a scene in London’s Albert Hall and in order to signpost it clearly, Hitchcock timed the murder to occur when a peak in Arthur Benjamin’s cantata was reached by the crash of a pair of cymbals. The audience had been told this was going to occur and by doing so, Hitchcock allowed the audience to anticipate and participate in the scene. He was never to allow the audience to be mere observers again and would invent cinematic techniques to ensure their cooperation in his desire.
In his seminal series of interviews with Hitchcock in 1966, the French critic turned director Francois Truffaut called the Thirty-Nine Steps the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s British period because the development of the plot was driven on purely cinematic means as well as containing the classic ‘innocent man’ theme familiar to many of his films. It was on the strength of these two films that Hitchcock became courted in Hollywood circles and in 1939, he was persuaded to film in Los Angeles at the behest of the producer of Gone With The Wind fame, David O. Selznick.
In the next ten years, Hitchcock was to direct some of his most famous pictures including Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Lifeboat, Spellbound (collaborating with Salvador Dali), Notorious and Rope. This surge in quality was accompanied catalysed by better projects, bigger stars and the further development of Hitchcock’s visual style and his dedication to suspense. Suspense is a word often associated with Hitchcock and we turn to the man himself for the best explanation of it.
“Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience 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 audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!’”
Again we see Hitchcock recognising the audience’s desires and the necessity for them to have a relationship with the characters in the story. This is where he also allows them to be voyeurs, to peep in on a scenario and is one of the reasons why he was so beloved of critics and audiences alike. He gave critics a purely cinematic film, he constructed his movies on the premise that cinema was the only art form that could tell his story the way he wanted. That is why there remains no contradiction in the fact that almost all of Hitchcock’s screenplays came from source novels and short stories. He hardly wrote a word of the script but would meticulously storyboard each scene to maximise the visual impact on the audience. The audiences loved the thrill of developing plot, they loved the emotions he would elicit from them and they would want to come back for more. He also recognised the carnal desires of humankind including sex and murder and this is where Hitchcock movies were discussed in feminist as well as psychoanalytic circles. “Make the audience suffer in their soft, comfortable seats as they see the characters of the drama grope for solutions which the audiences already know” and “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible” he was to say.
In the fifties, he made some of the finest films ever made. Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest were pinnacles of an already wonderful career and he also made exemplary ones in Strangers On A Train, Dial M for Murder, To Catch A Thief, and a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much starring James Stewart. He began to favour the blonde female leads in casting Grace Kelly, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak in four films as his films turned to colour. And it was also around this time that the Hitchcock MacGuffin became famous – the thing that the characters often search for but is merely a plot device that allows the audience to keep one step ahead of the characters and create a suspenseful situation.
In 1959, Hitchcock noticed cinema audiences were changing. He felt they wanted a more extreme kind of picture with more sex and violence. Being in thrall to their wishes and demands, he created Psycho, containing his sexiest and most violent scenes to date. The film opens with a semi naked John Gavin and his mistress Janet Leigh wearing only a brassiere on a bed kissing. Later on we see Anthony Perkins peep at Leigh taking a shower before doing something else entirely with a knife and some dissonant violins in the background. I think Psycho is the ultimate Hitchcock film. The shower scene’s innovation has been widely analysed and discussed and the film’s narrative structure defied what had gone before it. It achieved this by giving the audience plenty of time getting to the main murder but simultaneously killing off its star in the first third of the picture. There are two reels of silent dialogue where Hitchcock tells his story purely visually and confronts his audience, challenging them to keep looking, to not tear their gaze from the screen no matter what he shows them.
He was to direct six final pictures before he died and perhaps only one of them, The Birds, could be described as a classic although I have a fondness for the London-set Frenzy.
Hitchcock literally put all of himself into his art as his 39 cameo appearances attest to and one must always remember that along with the scares and his desire to thrill, he said it must be done ‘with humour’. He knew that in order to maximise the impact of a scare, a laugh must often follow to relax them before their next ordeal. Hitchcock is today remembered as a cinema pioneer, a director who took the cinematic language of Griffith, Murnau and the Soviet montagists and created something entirely new. His cinema is a challenge to his audience and one in which he gives them the utmost respect. “I want to be remembered as a man who entertained millions through the technique of film”. Alfred you truly are.
With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape that European Travel brings, The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley‘ is available from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.