The Universe of Alfred Hitchcock: From Silent, To Sound, To Colour
"Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human."
Infamously known as the manipulator of the audiences, Alfred Hitchcock was a figure who was larger than life; a true connoisseur of the strange and the uncanny. His filmography is distinct in its approach towards cinema, as it emotionally involves the audience in its plot lines and ensures that we know more than the protagonist, this makes us feel as though we are part of an inside joke and we are no longer passive observers.
Although a British filmmaker by birth, his art style has influences that span across several cultures and forms, especially Russian. His cinematic presence can be described as enigmatic, and full of intrigue. Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), Strangers on a Train (1951) are some of his most well known works, but his debut behind the camera began in the silent cinema.
A trademark style adopted by Hitchcock is one where the setting reveals more of the plot, and the dialogues remain minimal. The motive behind most Hitchcock films is to evoke a sense of fear and helplessness in its viewer; we remain frozen in our seats as we watch the sinister plots unfold slowly, we can neither drag our eyes away from the screen nor can we help the characters as they walk towards their imminent death
With a career that spans across more than 50 films, right from silent motion pictures, to monochrome thrillers and the big box office colour films - Hitchcock's cinematic appeal slowly progressed towards a macabre sense of humour, which evolved into plot lines that consciously toyed with the human psyche. In this blog, we will explore some of the idiosyncratic elements that play homage to the Hitchcockian style of cinema.
Hitchcock’s films are created with the vision to motivate the audience to disassociate from reality, to leave their bleak, monotonous lives for a couple of hours and fully immerse themselves into the visuals of the film. He does this best by the use of not dialogues, but the art of body language. He focuses on hands, eyes, and feet as a replacement for words. Through nuanced facial expressions and an emphasis on minimalism, Hitchcock uses the camera to create emotions that transcend the ability of mere words. He believes a movie screen can be compared to a blank canvas, and as an artist he fills the canvas with colour through simple gestures and detailed eye contact.
"I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between."
The Kuleshov Effect (Image Credit: Google)
He adopts a technique called the ‘Kuleshov Effect’. Although this film technique was first introduced by Russian Film-maker Lev Kuleshov, it has been widely popularised by its repetitive occurrence in Hitchcock films. This effect came into existence to differentiate between various artistic forms, and how film directors had the potential to manipulate the emotions of the viewers. Hitchcock’s adaptation of this technique, which he propounded as ‘Pure Cinema’ comprised three distinct shots:
Close - up
Point of View
The alignment and interconnectedness of these three shots implies that the juxtaposition of the concerned shot can elicit certain emotions within the viewer and build tension, as can be seen in the preview scene of Rear Window as well as the legendary murder scene of Psycho. He also invented the use of what’s called the zoom dolly in the film Vertigo, having the camera zoom into a scene as it simultaneously dollies out.
Psycho, 1960 (GIF credit: Giphy)
Zoom Dolly Scene in Vertigo,1958 (GIF credit: Google)
The restraints of the silent form led filmmakers to adapt to a visual language to enable them to say with images rather than through the use of dialogue or sound. A key component of Hitchcock’s filmography is his ability to stimulate variation in the emotional intensity of the scene through changes in camera proximity. Each specific angle depicts a certain sentiment, and the ones familiar with the Hitchcockian universe would be able to decipher them with a single glance. Examples of this are as follows:
A scene depicting the back of the actor expresses denial
A side view shot expresses guilt
High shots are used to express the supernatural element
Wide shots are synonymous with the emotional distance between the characters
A slow paced close shot of the actor is used to heighten the emotional quotient
Tracking a wide to close shot depicts the unravelling of a hidden secret
Cutting of a wide to close shot is used to produce an element of shock
North By Northwest Colour Palette (Image Credit: Pinterest)
“If it were music, it would be tremulous on a violin and suddenly a brass instrument which is the big close up.”
Essentially, the camera lens becomes Hitchcock’s instrument and its sequence of shots, a soulful symphony.
His film Rear Window (1954) is an adept example of his visual storytelling - Pure Cinema. The entirety of the film is grounded in a singular location, and the opening shot sets the scene for the rest of the film simply through the camera angles. It provides the audience with an introduction to the setting, the protagonist, and the reasoning behind his situation, all without any dialogue. He leaves it up to us to navigate through the scenes, and find all the required pieces for the jigsaw that is his film. Although his films are not completely devoid of dialogues, all essential elements and subtexts are still conveyed through visuals only.
Rear Window,1954 (Image Credit: Google)
Prolonged Suspense and Conjuring Fear
"I believe in putting the horror in the minds of the audience, and not necessarily on the screen."
Hitchcock carried out his shots with immense precision - his focus on the eyes of the actors, adept editing techniques and the element of surprising things happening in completely mundane albeit unexpected locations such as the renowned crop duster scene in North By Northwest. The intention behind this eye to detail is to align the fate of the audience with that of the characters on screen. The protagonists and antagonists are composed in parallel ways, and often mirror one another, but the minor change in lighting is the distinguishing factor to identify the morality of the character. The use of prolonged shots and close-ups help in panning out the plot and convey the emotions visually. It is through these shots that we can assess who is lying, and who’s being sincere.
Rightfully deemed as the ‘Master of Suspense’, Hitchcock believes that characters should attain their goals through their own efforts, and not through an external force that just happened to be at the right place at the right time, or perchance. He is evidently not a fan of the ‘deus ex machina’ trope where an unexpected power or event ends up saving a seemingly hopeless situation. He terms this as bad filmmaking, and advises filmmakers to make sure their film fully engages its audience, rather than depending on the shock value of the unexpected outcomes. There is value in the gradual build up of the plot or subverting the outcome till the last moment.
“The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them.”
Hitchcock is regarded as the pioneer of evoking fear in films for the audiences. This is because of his interpretation and appreciation of fear as a reward. As a filmmaker, he impersonated a puppeteer - carefully manipulating his viewers to feel and understand the film through their ambiguous attraction to that fear.
A Lesson in Manipulation
Hitchcock composed his films with conscientious awareness, planning every aspect of form, composition, movement, and performance with utmost care. Every specific detail was determined deliberately by the filmmaker, and is not the result of chance occurrence.
Cinema, unlike other forms of art, has the power to detach itself from the physical reality. It is this surreal nature of films that allows us to psychologically place ourselves within the narrative of the film - This is widely known as ‘Suturing’ and has been propounded by Christian Metz, a film theorist. Inside the theatre, we consume the film as though we are the camera lens- and thus we occupy varying subject positions as per the scene. Suturing was inadvertently applied in Hitchcock’s film language, as a way of letting the audience identify with the film. In order to achieve his main goal of manipulating the audience, he required them to be so deeply submerged in the reality he fabricated that they were willing to be under his control.
Image Credit: Google
Hitchcock’s star studded cast is also an incentive to further compel the audience into typecasting the actors and forming preconceived notions about their values and morality. These are red herrings - and are meant to be misleading. Hitchcock’s leading ladies were usually blonde ‘bombshells’ but never the ones that were at the peak of their career. These actresses did not have a unidimensional character arc, nor were they solely reduced to the love interest. However, the women were still used as a means to propel the narrative forward, and were more often than not - a plot device to enhance the relationship with the titular man. These characters were often central to the climax, but they would be portrayed as overly simplified. In Vertigo (1958), Kim Novak plays a mysterious woman- Madeleine Elster. The revelation of her conspicuous nature propels the plot further, and provides the element of twist in the film. She manages to deceive the protagonist male, played by James Stewart.
Hitchcock refused to believe that masculinity needed to be butch and overtly matcho, his leading men have always been slim and inconspicuous. Whether they play the role of the protagonist or the antagonist, the men portrayed are always analytical and gentlemanly. Hitchcock aimed to break down the biased notion of ‘butch’ masculinity being more intimidating than the ‘bookish’ erudite type. His villains need not be large, well toned, protruding figures. All they require is a hint of malevolence to determine that evil is lurking behind their guise. Through this resistance towards submitting to stereotypes, Hitchcock criticises and mocks the shortsightedness of society and its inability to look beyond appearances.
Hitchcock and The MacGuffin
In Hitchcock’s own words, a MacGuffin is the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after... The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever.
The MacGuffin is the catalyst that propels the plot forward. It could be anything or nothing. It is "secrets vital to your air defence" in The 39 Steps, a valuable piece of jewellery in Number Seventeen, and a coded message contained in a piece of music in The Lady Vanishes, the most perfectly abstract of all Hitchcock's MacGuffins.
Hitchcock did not design the MacGuffin, but he made it his own, utilising it throughout his career. Nowadays, it is so strongly aligned with him that when it is used by others, such as in Roman Polanski's very Hitchcockian Frantic (1988), it is frequently interpreted as either an homage to, or thievery from Hitchcock.
Watch the video linked below for a more comprehensive explanation of The MacGuffin:
Key takeaways from this blog:
There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it. Build up tension in the viewer’s mind to ensure the impact of the suspense lasts long beyond its screen time.
Adopt a voyeur centric approach through POV editing, as can be seen in Vertigo
Do not unnecessarily complicate your storyline. Allow it to be driven by simple, linear plots and sentiments.
Incorporate humour within your story through ironic situations, or uncomfortable interactions.
Your storyline does not need to be grounded in reality. A storyteller owes the world a good story, not a logical one.
Your movie should be visually communicative. Treat your film as though it's silent.
Wide shots, Minimal Dialogue and Blonde Bombshells make up the Trifecta of Hitchcockian Cinema. The relatively new term, 'Hitchcockian' has made its mark in the advertising jargon, denoting a skilful control of suspense as well as a safeguard of audience satisfaction. This clearly exemplifies Alfred Hitchcock's legacy of being a masterful conman and of leaving audiences relatively powerless over which subject position they will occupy. Rather than remaining confined to the realms of film and performance, his impact has spread to a range of diverse fields. His directorial attributes are timeless, and will continue to influence cinema for years to come.