Tuesday 26 May 2009

The Influence of Hitchcock

The Bank Holiday weather was excellent, so I spent a good part of it outdoors, but I still managed to catch the Sky documentary about Alfred Hitchcock, introducing a season of his films. In half an hour, the programme provided a good summary of some of the reasons why the portly film director was one of the most influential movie-makers of the twentieth century.

Film pros such as Stephen Frears waxed lyrical about the way in which Hitchcock’s visual imagination, coupled with his artistic and technical skills, enabled him to create so many suspenseful scenes. The point was made that Hitchcock didn’t bother much with dialogue, but rather focused on set pieces – the crop-dusting sequence in North by North West and the shower scene in Psycho are classic examples. This is something which perhaps differentiates the thriller from the conventional mystery, where dialogue is often highly important (yes, it’s a generalisation, but I think it’s broadly true.)

Another key point was that humour played an important part in many Hitchcock films. Thrillers which are unrelentingly bleak can be wearisome, and I'd guess that the wit of the films is one of the reasons why they have lasted so well.

It isn’t just movie-makers who can learn from the Master of Suspense. Novelists keen to fathom the craft of building tension (and I’m one of them) can hardly fail to benefit from studying Hitchcock’s techniques. Even in his supposedly weaker films, such as Frenzy and Family Plot, there are many clever touches. I’m planning to record one of the Hitchcocks I’ve managed to miss over the years, Notorious, and another that I haven’t seen for a very long time, To Catch a Thief. Something to look forward to.


no said...

Notorious is such a wonderful film! One of my favourites. I envy you having it to watch for the first time.

Bernadette said...

He truly is the master of suspense...and I think he often builds it through what he doesn't say/show as much as what is said and shown. Any storyteller could learn from that. I think Rear Window is my favourite for sheer story telling but I've got a swag of his others in my DVD collection for those rainy winter afternoons when I don't feel like reading.

Lauren said...

Notorious is wonderful, so you've definitely got a treat in store. (I have a real soft spot for Claude Rains.)

Apparently the film's "MacGuffin" led to Hitchcock being trailed by the FBI at one point. Or so the story goes!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks very much for these comments.
Aliya, your name came up at Crimefest when I was with some of your fellow crime writers and I'm looking forward to your next book.
I must put Notorious on top of my to-be-viewed list. I didn't know the FBI story, Lauren.
Rear Window is another favourite - the film adaptations of Cornell Woolrich stories were often truly memorable.

Dorte H said...

I´ll have to admit I haven´t watched much Hitchock (don´t tell anyone, but when it comes to his films I am a real chicken). I have seen most of the ones about the horrid birds, though, and still can´t understand how that man can make ordinary black birds so scary. BUT HE COULD!

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

The film that really got Hitchcock in trouble is _Saboteur_, in which he suggests, by the smirk on the face of the Nazi bad guy, that the Nazis are responsible for the fire that destroyed the _Normandie_.

I suspect your point re Hitchcock's lack of emphasis on dialogue, Martin, stems from Hitchcock's early work in silent film.

Read the book _Hitchcock/Truffaut_, which is a series of Hitchcock interviews on a film-by-film basis conducted by his fellow director, Francois Truffaut. It is really interesting.

Sarah Hilary said...

Great reminder of how and why Hitch is important, Martin, thanks. Have you ever read the book that is a sustained interview between Francois Truffaut and Hitchcock? It's fascinating stuff. They talk about the books Hitch adapted for the screen, including Strangers on a Train and Rebecca. The text is broken up with stills from the films, including montages where they discuss frame by frame what Hitch was doing to create a sequence of shots.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm a big Hitchcock fan myself, but haven't seen "Notorious." I think every time I caught it on television, I'd come in around the middle of it and decided to just turn it off. I'll have to go rent it.

I love "To Catch a Thief." But "The Birds" is probably my favorite Hitchcock.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for your comments. Okay, I'm persuaded to track down that book with Truffaut!
Saboteur is, I must admit, another one that I've somehow missed over the years. Another gap to be filled one day.

Peter Rozovsky said...

The Truffaut/Hitchcock is probably the most informative, entertaining book ever written about movies, and Hitchcock is probably the most technically savvy director who ever lived. And his humor? Have you ever seen his long promo film for "Psycho"? Just Hitck walking around the set talking. The man was a briliant standup comic. I'd call his style deadpan, but one can a smile breaking through form time to time. He was just having too much fun.

My Hitchcock Top Five:

1) Rear Window
2) North by Northwest
3) Shadow of a Doubt
4) Strangers on a Train
5) The Lodger

Blackmail (1929) is a wonderful example of silent movies turning into sound.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Martin Edwards said...

Hi, Peter. I haven't seen the promo film, or Blackmail. I was lukewarm about Shadow of a Doubt when I saw it a long time ago, but so many people admire it, I must give it another try.
Vertigo is probably top of my own list of faves, but several others run it close.

Ray said...

The thing that I like about Alfred Hitchcock is that when you saw him speaking the intro's to 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' he sounded so precise and English.
Yet when he was in the director's chair - he couldn't lose his cockney accent.

Peter Rozovsky said...

If I recall right, I saw the "Psycho" promo at a Hitchcock festival in Rome. Hitchcock is everywhere.

I liked the lonely city shots in "Shadow of a Doubt" and their contrast with the cozy suburban environment to which Joseph Cotten's character finds himself. I think the movie was Hitchcock's favorite of his own films.

"Vertigo" did not do much for me the first time I saw it, but I saw it again more recently and was highly impressed.

Hitchcock made a movie that rubbed nme the wrong way ("The Wrong Man"), a couple that were just odd ("Under Capricorn," "Jamaica Inn") but probably just one that I thought was not that good: "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." But Hitchcock was so great that I'm willing to give even that one a second chance.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Martin Edwards said...

Peter, I share your reservations about The Wrong Man, and I haven't seen the others you mention. Nor was I that keen on The Trouble With Harry, which some people like a lot. But I did like Rope, and, even more, Dial M for Murder, The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Vertigo was based on a book by my favourite French crime writers, the brillaint Boileau and Narcejac.

seana graham said...

Can't begin to comment on Hitchcock--I've seen a lot of them, but am just not all that well-versed. Maybe if I read that Truffaut/Hitchcock book, which sounds really interesting.

But it fascinates me that the voice of the Hitchcock we think we know was not the voice the actors heard when he was directing. Somehow, you think that the voice of the narrator "HItchcock" was the 'real' Hitchcock. But of course he was not. How could he be?

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Seana. I'll be hoping to track down the Truffaut book over the weekend!