Learning from Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most celebrated directors in cinema history and for good reason. His unique way of building suspense and his borderline-obsessive focus on perfecting every scene saw him become a master of the horror genre. He has influenced a countless number of directors over the decades. In this post, we will be dissecting the style of this great man, and looking at how Hitchcock can help you create better films.
The early years
Hitchcock began his career in the 1920’s, during the golden age of silent cinema. The British film industry was much slower to focus on quality, with Hollywood taking up the challenge instead. Hitchcock found himself disappointed in his early creations. It was a time of cinematic experimentation and was lost on the average cinema goer and film critics alike. However, with the advent of sound in the 1930’s, Hitchcock was able to develop his distinctive style. British cinema as a whole was becoming more refined and confident. In 1935 the audience was able to appreciate his second feature film, ‘The 39 Steps’, a solidification of Hitchcock’s technique.
The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes
Singled out by the British Film Institute as one of the most influential British films of all time, ‘The 39 Steps’ is a masterful thriller, focusing on an innocent man on the run. Oozing with that typical Hitchcockian formula of sexual tension, suspense and a plot that played with the psyche of the viewer, all the right ingredients are there.
The standout aspect of ‘The 39 Steps’ is the drama. Hitchcock understood that drama needs to delicately unfold before it can be unleashed on the viewer. Many other directors were attempting to keep audiences engaged by stringing dramatic scenes together from beginning to end. Hitchcock found that by gradually laying out every inch of the plot and the characters, he could introduce drama organically in the second half of the film.
This aspect of Hitchcock’s formula came into its own with the 1938 feature film ‘The Lady Vanishes’ starring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. The story of a young woman traveling through Continental Europe by train, who befriends an old lady only for her to vanish during the journey. It shows Hitchcock’s passion for the psychology of human behaviour.
A philosophical mind
Throughout all of his films, Hitchcock loved to treat the viewer to a lesson in psychology. At the core of each film there lies a sense of desire and fear, epitomised by the 1960 classic ‘Psycho’.
It runs the whole gamut of psychological traits, from sexuality to sadism. The film sees a complete breakdown of the human mind, including psychosis, that British cinema audiences hadn’t seen before.
Creating power from simplicity
Hitchcock worked within self-imposed creative boundaries, forcing him to reevaluate scenes over and over again. This wrung every drop of talent from his actors, rather than having to rely on expensive special effects. During the filming of ‘Psycho’, Hitchcock allegedly placed a different corpse of Mrs. Bates in the chair for each take - to see which would frighten actress Vera Miles the most. His efforts to stretch the acting talent were infamous.
Writing in Den of Geek, Ryan Lamble explains more on Hitchcock shunning the temptation to create big budget films:
“Hitchcock was sixty when he shot Psycho, and yet his desire to tell concise, often dark stories was as strong as it was when he began his career. After the financial success of North By Northwest, he could have continued making huge studio pictures with big name stars and watched the paycheques flow in. Instead, he chose to make a low-key, black-and-white film in which the lead was killed within the first half-hour, a daring plot twist at the time, and one that has since been borrowed by William Friedkin in To Live And Die In LA, and Eli Roth in Hostel.”
Rewatching Hitchcock’s films after learning about this potent formula, people are able to see how he could mould plot lines, characters and suspense into truly groundbreaking movies.