Dissecting Directors: Hitchcock
Fifty plus great films during his career of which only a tiny handful can be said to have been ‘just-ok.’ And today we watch ‘just-ok’ films with only a tiny handful we can call ‘great.’
An influence on directors such as Kubrick, De Palma, Van Sant, Scorcese, Polanski, not to mention pioneering storytelling techniques and becoming, perhaps, the first auteur.
The man was Alfred Hitchcock and we are still talking about what made him so great. To dissect him and all his movies would amount to nothing less than a thesis. Fortunately for us, he was consistently great and what made him great was his consistence in his technique. Hitchcock was meticulous in his preproduction and planning stage. He would storyboard the entire movie as he saw it in his mind, editing it shot by shot before production actually began. He knew the story he wanted to tell, how he wanted to tell it and what the final product would look like before the cameras started rolling. But above all he knew how to make the audience feel the way he wanted them to throughout his story. To examine how he so effectively told his stories, we need to examine only one of his movies carefully. Vertigo is counted among his top five films of all time in any list and serves as a prime example.
Let us proceed through the movie, highlighting some of the best examples of his technique found among the numerous within.
(It is assumed that you have seen the picture, otherwise beware of spoilers)
From the very beginning, Hitchcock liked to set the mood and tone in the opening titles, but more importantly he wanted to capture the audience’s interest.
Appropriately, considering the subject matter of the movie, the title sequence by the well renowned Saul Bass (in addition to Hitchcock’s live images) offer abstract, twirling, hypnotizing images which also act on two other levels; imagery of eyes and the vertigo effect. From the outset, the whole theme and feel of the film is imbued in the audience in an abstract manner.
THE RELATABLE PERSON
The story begins and Hitchcock uses his usual character: a person who is relatable to us. No one too fantastic, no one too special. Someone we can attach ourselves to. James Stewart plays John Ferguson, commonly known as Scotty, who has a fear of heights. And as soon as Scotty’s mission to follow his friend’s wife, whom the husband believes to have been possessed by supernatural means, is revealed to him, Scotty reacts the way we would; he is reluctant and unbelieving in the case. That is how most of the audience would feel when shown a ludicrous premise and that is how Scotty feels. We both scoff at it, and in doing so, we are beginning to associate with Scotty.
Reluctantly, Scotty accepts and quickly we are introduced to the wife, who is nothing short of the mysterious blonde. The first shot we see of her is from behind, of the back of her head; the blonde hair. Her seduction of Scotty begins right there and so does ours, Hitchcock piquing our interest with the femme fatale. Involving himself in every aspect of the production, Hitchcock makes sure that the wife stands out by having her in a bright green while everyone seems to melt into shades of grey.
SHOW DON’T TELL
Having accepted the task to follow his friend’s wife in order to ascertain her mental state, considering how she seems to be overtaken by the spirit of her great grandmother at times, Scotty follows her wherever she goes.
For a lengthy period of time there is no dialogue whatsoever, just the lead character following his subject in his car. A testament to Hitchcock’s silent film years, he knows how to use dialogue as little as possible and only when necessary. He knows how to effectively communicate the events and feelings of the scene through imagery.
POINT OF VIEW (POV) CAMERAWORK AND THE VOYEURISTIC NATURE
Hitchcock believed that all of us humans have this voyeuristic tendency in us. We like to watch when no one is watching us. He felt it was much more effective and interesting to us if he showed us a shot from a voyeuristic point of view than a standard one. He believed such a view would keep our attention and make us watch the most mundane things. Rear Window aside, one can see how instead of showing the wife’s car by itself, he chooses to frame it through Scotty’s windshield.
Hitchcock was known for his careful framing to evoke the exact emotion he wanted from the audience but he was also conscious of his pacing and used his framing to control it. Having already seen the wife drive and pull up and park, the last thing the audience wants to do is go through the same motions again. Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene and framing allow the pace to move forward as he would please by shortening the next sequence of the wife being followed and adding just a shot of Scotty walking to a building with the wife’s car parked in the background, effectively skipping monotonous events where the audience’s mind may have lagged.
Hitchcock began making movies in the silent years but with the advent of technology to include sound, he was a pioneer in realizing its importance and using it to his advantage to maximize the effect of his images. Even more importantly, he knew when to use it and when not to.
As Scotty follows her in the beginning there is suspenseful music during the driving scenes as she goes to different locations. Her driving, her parking, her going in, her driving, her parking, her going in. And then, silence. We only hear diagetic sounds as she goes to her last location. As the audience, being used to the music, we now sit up and pay even more attention. Whatever she must be doing now must be really important; our interest is reawakened by the silence just as it was by the music we heard when he first started following her. The silence pulls us in and as she goes to her last location, music again! Stronger than before. Hitchcock uses the contrast to manipulate our interest at the time he needs it the most. The result of all of this: We pay close attention to the dialogue and scene which comes next.
As he follows her and saves her when her apparently possessed mind tries to commit suicide, they begin developing a relationship. Madeleine and Scotty start becoming close. However, throughout all those events, we are still with Scotty and his POV whether it is when we are watching her from behind a wall under the Golden Gate bridge or through the bedroom door in Scotty’s apartment as she sleeps. We could have just had a shot of her lying in bed but instead Hitchcock makes sure that the shot is from outside the door and it is in the frame, effectively keeping us connected with Scotty and teasing our voyeuristic tendencies.
The director may be known as the master of suspense, but there is a lot of comedy in his movies. He likes to present ironic, even ludicrous situations and at the very least, some relief from the tension.
The movie is getting a bit more serious now. What we thought was ridiculous, much like Scotty, is starting to get personal and we are becoming invested.
After having rescued Madeleine, Scotty is discussing the matter with his friend and her husband. The supernatural aspect is becoming more real and as we start to seriously consider it, Hitchcock breaks the tension through a comedic moment where Scotty takes a shot, saying, “I need this.”
We laugh, which is just what we needed at the moment.
MAKING IT PERSONAL
Continuing the story, Stewart’s character grows closer and closer to Novak’s. Hitchcock makes the narrative personal now, a blooming love story between Scotty and Madeleine. Since we are tied to Scotty by now, the supernatural aspect falls in the background and we care more about their relationship, just as Scotty does. And when he vows to help her by the tree, somehow both Scotty and we have been duped. We both thought the supernatural aspect of the plot was farfetched at first, but here we are, involved in it so deeply that we have to find out whether it is true or not, we have to help her as much as we can. Hitchcock has us both trapped.
Having decided to help Madeleine, Scotty takes her to an old Spanish mission to help her deal with her supernatural memories. The story there ends badly. Madeleine, apparently under the influence of her great grandmother’s supernatural suicidal spirit, jumps of a tower while Scotty succumbs to his fear of heights and cannot save her.
Hitchcock was a technically innovative director as well. His storytelling methods form the basis for a large amount of what we see nowadays in movies where suspense, thrill and horror are concerned. However, what is often neglected about him is the fact that he pioneered great methods in using sound, editing and camera work to different effects. Although the dolly zoom was not invented by him, he saw the use of it and used it in Vertigo to emphasize how Scotty felt. He popularized it and today it used in a manner a little too promiscuous.
This was a method which not common during that time in filmmaking. For the audience to receive something new, unexpected and thus shocking is exactly what Scotty felt and what the director wanted to evoke. The scene highlights another aspect of Hitchcock; he was adoptive of new methods where they were appropriate. He incorporated and defined their use.
MORE SOUND MANIPULATION
After Madeleine’s death, Scotty sees her face everywhere. Every time he encounters someone who may be her, there is a crescendo when we realize it is not her. The sound effect is used twice, only to be proven wrong each time and then the third time, when he encounters a woman who resembles Madeleine, the music does not reach the same crescendo. It is lower and not as loud. The first two drew our attention, the third lets us mellow. It does not draw our attention. Why? Because if you have seen the movie, you know this time it truly is Madeleine/Judy. However, we are not supposed to know this yet and Hitchcock makes sure we do not, primarily through sound.
WHO KNEW WHAT WHEN
The story progresses to its end as Scotty gets convinced that Judy is not Madeleine. So do we for a few minutes and we could have been throughout the rest of the movie but as soon as Scotty leaves the scene, Hitchcock keeps the scene going to reveal only to the audience, and not to Scotty, that Judy is actually Madeleine. Or that Madeleine was always Judy.
The control Hitchcock ensures in his stories as to who knows what and when, whether it be his characters or his audience, keeps the suspense and interest alive in a way like no other.
Consider this: At first, Scotty was privy to Madeleine’s situation and the audience was as well. But Madeleine was not. We, the audience, associated with Scotty for almost two-thirds of the movie. Then suddenly, we are privy to what is actually going on with Judy and how she pretended to be Madeleine. We also find out what really happened on top of the bell tower. And we also realize that Judy was actually privy to everything from the very beginning of the movie and that Scotty was not privy to anything at all. However, we have been associated with Scotty for so long that now we feel as foolish as Scotty does. But wait. He does not feel foolish yet since he does not know any of this. We have finally been given the information to the whole story and Scotty has been left out. Hitchcock has just switched our side but since he developed that attachment between Scotty and the audience, now our interest is heightened as every further move towards the conclusion is so much more important to Scotty’s outcome.
If you have read this far, you know how the story ends. You know how the information concerning ‘who knew what when’ switches again. And you know who pays the ultimate price. However, all the highlights of Hitchcock’s techniques have already been covered. The rest would be redundant and god forbid, you haven’t seen the movie and read as far this… in which case, at least the ending remains unspoiled for you.
But what about:
Though Hitchcock has had his famous MacGuffin in nearly all his movies, Vertigo, one of his masterpieces, shows no clear sign of one. Some say it is the necklace of Carlotta. Others say it is the obsession of Scotty itself. However, it was one of my reasons for choosing this movie and not other arguable masterpieces such as North by Northwest (the microfilm) or Dial M for Murder (the spare key), because Hitchcock gets tied immediately with the MacGuffin and his numerous other aspects are overshadowed by it. In Vertigo, there is no clear MacGuffin, only everything else he had in his repertoire which made him one of the greatest directors who ever lived.
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