Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #6 - Alfred Hitchcock

-Rear Window
-Dial "M" for Murder

-Torn Curtain
-The Man Who Knew Too Much
-North By Northwest
-Strangers on a Train

-The Paradine Case

It is an understatement to say that Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense.  But I think that boxes him in a little too much.  Hitchcock was able to draw out the tension like a knife because he knew how to tell a story with visuals.

And he was a very efficient visual storyteller.  With simple shots he was able to illicit great fear, like Raymond Burr staring at Jimmy Stewart's POV camera in Rear Window.  Hitchcock could tell you so much with so little.  That is the reason so many of his movie scenes are considered "iconic."  We have a very concrete sense of what was happening and how we felt while it was happening in simple shots:

-the silhouette  of "mother" in the shower curtain
-the playground full of birds
-a man being chased by a bi-plane in an open field
-the zooming staircase from Vertigo.

Creating suspense is simply mastering Aristotle's understanding of plot.  As paraphrased in the movie Shadowlands, Aristotle said that the important thing wasn't why someone was doing something, but what they were going to do next.  Hitchcock was able to draw you into a feeling of desperation for the next moment.  You stare at the screen and are on the edge of your seat to find out what will happen when Grace Kelley enters the apartment across the way or if Paul Newman will be discovered as a spy before he gets the formula he needs.

The great John Nolte once pointed out that Hitchcock also had a sly, devious directing style that made you sympathize with the villain.  If you remember in his greatest film, Psycho, after the frenzied murder, the movie spends a very long time on Norman as he cleans up the body.  In most movies, there would be a quick cut or montage of him disposing of her.  But Hitchcock lingers and watches, but without judgment on Norman.  And you can tell Hitchcock as done his job when Norman pushes the car with the body into the swamp.  It begins to sink but then stops.  And if you feel a moment of "uh-oh" that means that you have gotten into the head of the character and part of you wants him to succeed.  Hitchcock does this again and again in movies like Dial "M" for Murder, Frenzy, and Rope.

But returning to the idea of suspense, you can only create that kind of tension when you care about your characters.  Part of you falls in love with the people on the screen and so you worry for their safety.  When people talk of Hitchcock's suspense movies, they remember the fear and the brutality.  But those qualities can only have an impact if you connect and empathize with your characters.  And Hitchcock does this with charmers like Carey Grant, everymans like Jimmy Stewart, and creepers like Anthony Perkins.

Alfred Hitchock's influence on movie making and visual storytelling is still felt to this day and will continue to be felt for generations to come.

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