Innovating narrative cinema – Lessons of Alfred Hitchcock©

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Alfred Hitchcock in film (Photo credit: twm1340)

Alfred Hitchcock (1920-1980) innovated the film form from the silent era of the 1920s until his death in the 1980s. Early influences in Hitchcock’s career can be broken into four phases. Hitchcock was part of a dynamic emerging English middle class. His talent and can-do-attitude landed him a job at the US studio Famous Players-Lasky in London and support from English producer Michael Balcon. This is where he met his first love, collaborator and wife (editor and screenwriter Alma Reville). Time spent in Germany exposed Hitchcock to the work of film giants F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang and the  Kammerspielfilm movement, which made intimate films depicting lower middle class life. Hitchcock faced setbacks early in his career including considerable resistance to him becoming a director in Britain. Hitchcock was one of the few film makers to understand the power of publicity but faced criticism for courting journalists. But it was the press attention that took him to Hollywood. Hitchcock’s career flourished because he worked hard to nurture his talents and create his own opportunities.

Alfred Hitchcock’s film career spanned 60 years. This is an exceptional record in itself but his contribution to cinema and enduring advancement of the form is nothing short of remarkable. Hitchcock started out in film as a title designer but enthusiastically volunteered to help out in various departmental crafts before seeking the position of film director.  Hitchcock is often cited for his talents as a film technician in art direction, costumes, props, lighting and camera but he also collaborated with screenwriters and developed screenplays when he started out making silent films. Professor of film Dick Ross says: “A Hitchcock film is defined as much by what he does not choose to show.” Hitchcock films work on an objective and subjective level as he manipulates the audience with information but he also makes room for the viewer to engage and use their own imagination. Hitchcock is credited for exposing the techniques of police and international espionage in his murder and spy thrillers. Hitchcock turned his use of blonde actresses into a signature trademark. He popularised the term MacGuffin, the motivation for the story, an idea invented by his screenwriter Angus McPhail. Hitchcock motifs include using doors, stairs etc signifiers often leaving the anxious viewer to share the character perilous experience. A full exploration of Hitchcock’s motifs are explored by Michael Hayes at http://tinyurl.com/bh25bra.

This article will detail the four phases and also show Hitchcock’s commitment to cinema particularly his inventiveness with the form, mastering of techniques and crafts, development of film scripts to engage better with his audience. Hitchcock’s career is a lesson for all film makers including the writer of this blog.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on 13 August 1899, Leytonstone in East London. He was Roman Catholic, a group that was marginalised in England during this period. Like many young English boys, he had an interest in maps and all things transport. Hitchcock read, went to the cinema and the theatre. He also found the time for evening classes in navigation, mechanics and draughtsmanship at the University of London. His first job was as an estimator at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company after working at the family greengrocery following his father’s death when he was 15. He was influenced by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Hitchcock continued night classes and moved on to art history, economics, political science, drawing especially illustration. The Henley Telegraph company recognised Hitchcock’s talents and transferred him to the advertising department. He had an interest in this area and no doubt developed skills which would later help promote his films. Hitchcock was also able to print his first short story called ‘Gas’ in the staff magazine.

Hitchcock’s interest in US film trade journals alerted him to the opening of a US studio branch in London in 1920. He took the opportunity to present samples of his work to the studio Famous Players-Lasky. As a result of his efforts, he secured a job as a title designer. It was here Hitchcock met his future wife and collaborator Alma Reville. She was senior to him and worked as a screenwriter and editor. Famous Players-Lasky gave Hitchcock experience in designing drawings and lettering styles, working on sets, costumes, props and scripts. His set designs became more and more ambitious and his volunteering efforts on sets introduced him to the entire film process.

Hitchcock took a keen interest in narrative storytelling but also participated in “art” cinema and wrote for a journal called Close Up. He participated in attempts to shake up British film much like his admirer François Truffaut and the French New Wave would do in later years. Hitchcock understood the power of publicity but more importantly how to apply himself to generate the right kind of publicity for his films. Hitchcock focused on the audience impact of his work and developed press contacts to garner interest outside of industry norms. In 1930, he even created a publicity company called the Hitchcock Baker Productions Limited to publicise news about his work and films.

Hitchcock’s mentor and supporter Michael Balcon sent Hitchcock to Germany to undertake assignments at the UFA Studios. Hitchcock was able to observe the work of German expressionist film maker F. W. Murnau on the set of The Last Laugh. The film starts inside a descending lift which open onto a lobby where a revolving door represents the changing fortunes of a doorman who is visible working on a dark rainy evening. The script by Carl Mayer and F. W. Murnau’s silent film was a lesson in economical visual storytelling. F. W. Murnau himself was heavily influenced by William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer.

The Last Laugh was part of a German movement called Kammerspielfilm, German films showing an intimate cinematic portrait of lower middle class life. These films were noted for their character psychology and lack of or limited use of intertitles. Kammerspielfilm itself was a reference to the Kammerspiele theatre created by the influential stage director Max Reinhardt who was friends with F. W. Murnau. Popular films with ordinary people were championed by Hitchcock as a result of his own background, interests and appreciation of the German Kammerspielfilm movement. Hitchcock would later say his movies were about ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. Like Mozart, Hitchcock understood the power of popular literature which he adapted for his own art form – cinema. Hitchcock later said he was also influenced by the work of Fritz Lang, who in addition to his many innovations of modern cinema used light and shadow in what would later become film noir. These avant garde film makers had a profound impact on Hitchcock’s work especially their use of light, lack of verbal exposition, visual storytelling and intimate portraits of ordinary people. The Last Laugh is not short of irony itself given the title and the lead himself is a portly man with changing fortunes.

Hitchcock is one of the few directors who worked uncredited with writers. Hitchcock had an interest in the art of visual storytelling and continued to develop this talent. He collaborated with writers including his wife Alma who was also a screenwriter. Hitchcock had a coterie of writers but he did cultivate some special relationships. The English screenwriter Eliot Stannard wrote eight screenplays directed by Hitchcock at the beginning of his career. The films include The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Mountain Eagle (1926), The Lodger (1927), Downhill (1927), Champagne (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Easy Virtue (1928), The Manxman (1929). Stannard was an experienced screenwriter who wrote 88 screenplays during his lifetime. Throughout his career, Hitchcock collaborated with screenwriters and developed the drafts right up until the final script. He did this to ensure the narrative possibilities had been fully explored so he could fully realise the cinematic potential of the story. Hitchcock meticulously planned his shoots only after this process had been exhausted. The script had to be ready to be turned into a film. Hitchcock’s recognition as an auteur is precisely because he applied his numerous talents to manifest his ideas into narrative films that offered visceral cinematic experiences for his audiences.  Hitchcock would later say: “A lot of people embrace the auteur theory but it’s difficult to know what someone means by it. I suppose they mean that the responsibility for the film rests solely on the shoulders of the director. But very often the director is no better than his script.”  William C Martell analyses the richness of Charles Bennett’s script for Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps (1935) on his scriptsecrets.net website at http://tinyurl.com/bx4hbw8.

Hitchcock is credited as a director on two films made whilst he was in Germany called The The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle. Hitchcock tried to raise the standard of films but his efforts to mix highbrow and lowbrow were not well received by many quarters in Britain. His attempts to direct were further thwarted by the head of film distribution CM Woolf and many peers with the exception of Michael Balcon. His first film The Pleasure Garden was described as “too sophisticated” by Woolf.  Similarly to Mozart’s “too many notes” no doubt. The Lodger which was made in London and completed in 1926, was shelved by Woolf who later forced Hitchcock to accept a streamlined version. The film which had been seen as a source of embarrassment was suddenly a popular and critical success. Hitchcock said: “…there you see the thin red line between failure and success”. The Lodger was well received by the press that Hitchcock had cultivated. Hitchcock himself said: The Lodger was shelved for several months, and then they decided to show it after all. They had an investment, and wanted their money back. It was shown, and acclaimed as the greatest British picture ever made.”  Hitchcock challenged the British film industry to understand “the nouns and verbs” of films in a letter published by the London Evening News in 1927. Following the success of The Lodger, his other two films were released. Hitchcock who was careful with etiquette did not marry Alma Reville until he had achieved a level of success. Alma became his chief collaborator. She was a key decision maker in all his subsequent films. Hitchcock publicly acknowledged his wife’s contribution when he shared his AFI Life Achievement Award with her.

The Lodger was based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and adapted into a screenplay by Eliot Stannard. The novel was the first book to fictionalise a Jack the Ripper character. The Lodger, which was a silent film, is often described as a thriller but rarely credited for being a forerunner of modern horror.

The Lodger is about a beautiful innocent blonde girl Daisy who attracts the interest of a dark mysterious lodger. Daisy’s mother begins to suspect that the lodger is the serial killer. The opening scene shows a blonde girl screaming, a sign with the words “To-night GOLDEN CURLS” flashing three times before revealing a girl’s body, an upset woman followed by a policeman and journalist taking notes. The audience is one and half a minutes into the film. A description of a man thought to be responsible for the crime is provided for the benefit of the audience as much as the film’s characters. The serial killer only has an interest in blondes. Later, Hitchcock interweaves a happy family scene while the blonde daughter Daisy laughs at the comic antics of her father falling trying to fix a striking clock as her mother opens the door to a dark cloaked stranger seeking lodgings on a stormy night. The lodger who arrives has an aversion to portraits of blondes.  The Lodger contains elements such as terror, fear and suspense, motifs such as stairs and the outside representing portentous threats raising tension and heightening a state of paranoia because of actual or perceived violence in both subject and audience. Feelings are heightened as these states are often contrasted with moments of calm, clarity, innocence, humour and joyfulness. Hitchcock edits the film so we fear for the girl’s safety. This was certainly the start of Hitchcock’s interest in horror. The http://cinemademerde.com website reveals Hitchcock’s thoughts on The Lodger. He says: “I took a pure narrative… and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.”

Hitchcock created a set with a see through glass floor to show The Lodger’s impact upstairs on the family below. The viewer is left to use their own imagination to ‘hear’ the pacing footsteps in what is a silent film. It would be wrong of this article to reveal the denouement but suffice to say that the viewer will wonder about the lodger’s innocence and the danger he poses to Daisy. An excellent resource for exploring Hitchcock’s film techniques can be found at http://www.borgus.com/hitch/.

Sound was a further source of inspiration for Hitchcock’s film aspirations when he shot his tenth film Blackmail. The film’s plot has similarities with The Lodger in terms of character choices. Alice is the blonde daughter of a shopkeeper who spurns her boyfriend Frank,  a Scotland Yard detective, to meet an artist who she is forced to stab when he attempts to rape her. The information about Blackmail in this article makes use of François Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock. The entire series of interviews can be found at http://tinyurl.com/ydje8nu.

Hitchcock made what he called “conscious use of sound” to heighten the cinematic experience. The sound element for the film was short notice as the studio only opted to add sound after the shooting had begun. Hitchcock did not just make a talkie film reliant on the novelty of speaking dialogue but instead chose to use sound inventively. Hitchcock raises the level of certain street sounds to show Alice is unable to think clearly and manage an ordinary walk home as she leaves the scene of the stabbing. Hitchcock used sound to let the audience in on some dialogue and shut the viewer out in other parts.

The morning after the stabbing, the audience sees a panicked Alice and her preoccupation with the word knife (not dialogue). Hitchcock himself says: “The famous use of sound when the girl has committed the murder and there is a scene at the breakfast table with a talkative neighbour downstairs talking about the murder …a terrible thing to stab someone in the back… I would have hit him over the head…the talk becomes less clear and coherent and all you hear is the word knife… suddenly the father says pass the bread knife. It was the contrast of a normal conversation which was my first experiment with sound.” Hitchcock’s innovative use of sound in Blackmail is worthy of full exploration. Please see an excellent resource for this purpose at http://borgus.com/hitch/sound.htm.

Hitchcock innovative use of devices indicate that he did not consider change or the introduction of new developments as a threat to his style of film making. He appears only to consider their value and potential in relation to narrative cinematic expression.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, the first Hitchcock version in 1934, helped reunite Hitchcock with Balcon at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. The story was an ordinary British couple on vacation in Switzerland being caught up in international espionage after a friend is killed and their daughter is kidnapped by spies plotting a political assassination. The success of the film helped relaunch his career after a difficult period which he described as “careless”. Hitchcock’s renewed confidence led him to write articles on film and his career. This led him developing fans and achieving fame in the US.

In 1938, celebrated US Hollywood producer David O. Selznick hired Hitchcock to direct Rebecca, a novel by Daphne du Maurier. A tale of a young woman who marries a rich English widower and returns to his estate Manderley where the husband and particularly the housekeeper seem obsessed by his former wife Rebecca. Selznick and Hitchcock clashed because of Selznick’s interference and spying on set. But Hitchcock was committed to the contract. In reality, Hitchcock was treated no better or worse than Selznick’s other hired directors. Hitchcock did benefit from Selznick’s flamboyance. Selznick paid $50,000 to acquire the film rights and spent a total of $1,288,000 on a lavish production.

Hitchcock’s assistant and screenwriter Joan Harrison had written the screenplay for Jamaica Inn (1939). Harrison’s screenplay which was loosely based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier had displeased her. Selznick took no such risks with Rebecca. Harrison was teamed up with Pulitzer prize winning playwright and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood. The writers wrote a faithful screenplay of the novel from an adaptation by Philip MacDonald‘s and Michael Hogan. Fortunately, unlike some novels, the plot and scenes of Rebecca were ideal for film and allowed Hitchcock to make use of his motifs making the house foreboding and some rooms terrifying. In an interview in Film Weekly Hitchcock reveals: “I shall treat this more or less as a horror film, building up my violent situations from incidents such as one in which the young wife innocently appears at the annual fancy-dress ball given by her husband in a frock identical with the one worn by his first wife a year previously.” Hitchcock clashed with Selznick over many aspects of Rebecca. Selznick wanted to end the film with a smokey ‘R’ rising like a phoenix from the burning house. Hitchcock managed to turn this into a restrained ‘R’ on a monogrammed négligée on a pillow.

Hitchcock could not understand the success of Rebecca but it gave him an insight on how a major producer made highly successful films centred around female characters from a female perspective. Hitchcock simply said the film was faithful to the novel and was liked by women. Hitchcock’s ability to shoot to edit helped limit Selznick’s ability to interfere with the final film. Hitchcock may have viewed some of Selznick’s ideas as clumsy but his later films reveal that he learned valuable lessons about powerful motifs and complex female characters. This would have been important to Hitchcock who in the 1930s realised that female characters “must be fashioned to please women rather than men…most women are idealists and want to see ideals personified in heroines”. His reasoning was based on average cinema audiences being women. This aside, Hitchcock understood early on that women characters must appeal to women first and foremost. David O. Selznick won two Oscars for Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). Hitchcock may have felt stifled by Selznick’s spying and interference but it introduced him to a man who produced epic Hollywood melodramas. Both films had complex female characters who became iconic film representations albeit of their age.

Note to readers: This article has sought to concentrate on how Alfred Hitchcock’s development of film scripts helped transform the cinematic experience through his constant innovation. I apologise for omitting a significant number of films and may well return to review Hitchcock’s full oeuvre. This article has made full use of Jane E Sloane’s excellent book Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography. The author of this article is also a grateful beneficiary of the course run by John Wischmeyer but undertook their own research to consider the film from the perspective of a screenwriting and film practitioner. Part 2 of this article will consider Hitchcock’s Hollywood director years. It will include films like Rope and his films with John Michael Hayes and Ernest Lehman. Please expect the next instalment in February.

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4 thoughts on “Innovating narrative cinema – Lessons of Alfred Hitchcock©

  1. Pingback: Hitchcock: The Abridged Script – From The Editing Room « HORROR BOOM

  2. Pingback: “You can watch either the sound or silent version of this movie…” | Cinematic Narrative

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