Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense

Every year, an increasing number of directors take on the ultimate challenge of creating a movie that will pull at your emotions to the most extreme points a film is capable of.  Comedy makes you laugh till you can’t breathe.  Tragedy makes you cry until your throat aches from being choked up.  Then, there are suspense/psycho thriller films.  There is nothing like gripping the edge of your seat, scared to watch what happens next, yet simultaneously dying to know where the twists will take you next.


Many filmmakers have strived to create good thriller films, but no one has done it quite as well as Alfred Hitchcock.  He didn’t focus on gore, like many contemporary directors did.  Hitchcock went for the shocking, the twists that had audiences more dumbfounded than grossed out.  A poll from Britain’s Daily Telegraph said Hitchcock is “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else."


His plots focus on crime, violence and murder and ushered in techniques directors even use to this day.


Voyeurism is when an artist takes a figure and focuses on them in a private setting, like a bedroom or a dressing room.  Often known as “keyhole paintings,” this technique gives us the feeling that we are looking at the audience through the keyhole of a door.   The camera angles Hitchcock used were similar to this.  He would pan over scenes similar to the way a person’s gaze would. Audiences felt like they were part of the film, standing in the room beside Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly.  These angles emphasized the fear, anxiety and terror characters in the film would feel, and create everything to be more tangible to us.  For example, in “Rear Window,” the main character sits by his window throughout the film looking through his camera’s zoom lens, observing his neighbors. 


The MacGuffin Factor is a motivator (whether it is an idea, a person or an object) that pushes the protagonist to behave the way they do.  Oftentimes, it wouldn’t be verbally mentioned.  In horror films, as Hitchcock has used, it is the film’s main focus in the first few scenes, but it loses its importance.  It will still drive the main character throughout the film.  However, by the end of the film, so many twists have jumped out at audiences that often it is forgotten about.  For example, the suitcase full of money in “Psycho” becomes forgotten by the middle of the film, if not sooner as the characters hunt for Marion. 


Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense, an appropriate name for this man, as he will live on in film history forever.  The English film director and producer established many precedents and techniques for the genres of film he focused on.  His filmmaking lasted for over half a century from the 1920’s up until the later 1970’s.  In all 53 of his films, he has made a cameo, whether it was boarding a train or walking past a shop window. 


There are several films (some more well-known than others) that I like to revisit as autumn and Halloween rolls in.  These are my top five favourites:


1. Psycho (1960): among the most mainstream and well-known horror films, “Psycho” Is very high up there.  It is based on the book written by Robert Bloch.  A secretary (Janet Leigh) takes $40,000 from a client and rides all the way to the Bates Motel.  There, she meets a strange man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives with his mother.  Upon her visit, she is murdered and the hunt for the money (and Marion Crane) begins.  How about some useless knowledge about this film?  The blood in the famous murder scene?  Hitchcock used chocolate syrup, since it has the same consistency as blood.  “Psycho” was also the first film to have a toilet flushed onscreen.  The more you know. 


2. Rear Window (1954): The film that inspired the Shia LaBeouf film “Disturbia,” “Rear Window” is sure to increasingly keep you on the edge of your seat as the plot progresses.  Injured sports photographer L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) sits in his apartment during the heat of the summer.  As he watches the people who live in his apartment’s courtyard, he discovers that a man who lives across the way is a murderer.  With the help of his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), they spy on him as he tries to cover up the evidence of his murdered wife.  As the film progresses, you will find yourself further and further on the edge of your seat.  My heart pounded upon my first viewing, and even though I know how it all ends, I cannot help but have panic attacks during the climax of the film.    


3. Rope (1948): Not only does it offer a good storyline and Jimmy Stewart, but it has cinematography that shouldn’t go unnoticed.  The film opens with a murder scene, as two college students strangle a classmate.  They proceed to hide the evidence before a dinner party in their apartment, but constantly fight to keep their cool. What they believe is the perfect crime isn’t, as their professor (James Stewart) smells a rat.  Audiences will be as nervous as the criminals throughout the film.  Now, for the cinematographic aspect.  At the time, film reels could only hold nine minutes of film at a time.  In “Rope,” Hitchcock moved his camera around the scenery for the entire film as though to make it look like it was all one continuous shot.  Today, this wouldn’t seem like such a fantastic feet. In his time, it required patience and smart camera angles.  Viewers think that the film was filmed in one shot, as the camera pans the rooms and actors.  You feel as though you are walking throughout the set alongside the cast members. 


4. The Birds (1963): well-known for its strange plot (which was inspired by a short story), this film is more than enough to get under someone’s skin.  The film stars Tippi Hedren, as she searches for a pair of lovebirds for Mitch Brenner’s (Rod Taylor) sister’s birthday.   As the movie progresses, they develop a relationship, and the birds begin acting increasingly strange.  Many people fear in San Francisco that the apocalypse is approaching in the form of birds.  Everywhere.  They perch on fences, injure people and are just plain old creepy.  After seeing “The Birds” I would not be surprised if you refuse to leave your house for a week.  As all the birds migrate south for the winter, paranoia will take over your mindset, as they flock in bountiful packs overhead. 


5. Vertigo (1958):  Once more, Jimmy Stewart stars in this Hitchcock film, this time alongside Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes.  The plot follows Scottie (Stewart) as an acrophobic retired cop. Scottie becomes obsessed with a friend’s wife (Novak), and follows her around only to find out she may be suicidal.  “Vertigo” is dark, and keeps the audience on their toes.  The film introduced the camera technique known as the “zolly,” or dolly zoom.  Irmin Roberts conceived this idea, as the image appears to stretch.  It is essentially the opposite of a zoom. 

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