Alfred Hitchcock: The Style of a Master

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most famous and highly regarded film directors. He is best known for the films Notorious (1946), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). During his career he managed to develop his unique cinematic style, which is so recognizable today, and gained a reputation as the 'Master of Suspense'. In this article we will focus on the main aspects of the director's filmmaking methods, based on the interviews with the director.

by Diana Ushkar


The screenplay
A detailed screenplay is the most important part of filmmaking, according to Hitchcock; half the work of direction should be accomplished in the script. All screenplays to his movies were prepared by the writer in collaboration with the director himself, so he could control everything. The screenplay sets out the dialogue, describes the movements and characters' reactions. At the same time, he gives the breakdown of the individual scenes, with some indication of the role, in each scene, of the camera and the sound. So while working, the author must be able to visually anticipate the finished film in detail.

The viewer's emotions are the crucial point in Hitchcock's narrative universe. They are evoked by gripping situations, which are made according to the basic structure of the motion picture, where dialogue plays a minor part. Hitchcock does not rely on it and avoids the use of interminable ones, which, supposedly, must inevitably send a cinema audience to sleep. In fact, in building up a character he uses the language of visual means. The key point here is the details — they can vividly illustrate a character. We may see in Hitchcock's films that even parts of characters wardrobe are carefully selected. Let's take, for example, a famous scene from Stage Fright (1950) with Marlene Dietrich trying on her funeral look: apart from making a great combination of strict black dress and Tudoresque head garb, designed by Dior, the director also manages to create a special atmosphere around Marlene in that scene – a woman is smoking profusely under her veil with a mysterious smile playing across her lips. This look makes the scene attention-grabbing and impressive.
The direction
Besides the all-important screenplay, Hitchcock also believes in direction as a central part of filmmaking. The director's main purpose is to show what people are doing and thinking and, secondarily, what they are saying. Each shot creates a certain state of mind, of emotion, in the audience. That is to say, the impact of the image is directly on the emotions of the cinema audience. In doing so the director reveals his style, which is evidenced by both his choice of subject and his manner of directing it. Hitchcock is known for his highly personal style. François Truffaut described it in the introduction to his famous conversation with Hitchcock: "Because he exercises such complete control over all the elements of his films and imprints his personal concepts at each step of the way, Hitchcock has a distinctive style of his own. He is undoubtedly one of the few filmmakers on the horizon today whose screen signature can be identified as soon as the picture begins."

We may say Hitchcock is a storytelling director, interested in telling the story in his own manner, and he mainly focuses on that manner. He knows how to provoke an emotion in the audience, starting with the actor's face, to which he will guide the eye of the spectator by his direction. Everything begins with the actor's face, we may say, referring to a maxim of Ingmar Bergman's — the face on the screen in a certain pictorial frame, a close-up or a long or medium shot, depending on the dramatic purpose. Whatever the director's choice is, Hitchcock emphasizes that the rectangle of the screen must be charged with emotion. For example, we may see in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) that the villain (Peter Lorre) is often shown close-up so that his face with a mad smile and his big eyes could have the biggest effect.
However, a modern film cannot do entirely without dialogue. You cannot shoot a motion picture exclusively in pictures. For that reason Hitchcock agrees to a compromise, stating that the skilled writer will separate the two elements. If it is to be a dialogue scene, then he will make it one. If it is not, then he will make it visual, and he will always rely more on the visuals than on dialogue.
The process of shooting
Then comes the director's staging of the action. Hitchcock's work with the actors can be described as the mechanical process of setting up the action. The actors can move in and bring their emotions to bear — not spontaneously, but under his strict supervision. It is the director who is in charge, who controls every movement of the actors.
A good screen actor, in Hitchcock's opinion, is the one who does nothing with his face, but in a convincing way. Then it is up to the director, through the cutting, to show the exact meaning of the actor's face. This is pure cinema, in which dialogue is, again, an additional thing. In this way, Alfred Hitchcock's films differ from the majority, where the story consists of illustrated dialogues or photographs of people talking, as a result of this, when we think of Hitchcock, we tend to remember images, for example, a famous shower scene in Psycho that was mainly accompanied by the scream.
In his further description of the director's use of cinematic means as part of the staging of the action, Hitchcock enumerates the following items: 1) sets and art direction; 2) lighting; 3) camera; 4) sound; 5) music; 6) colour; 7) widescreen; 8) editing; 9) the machinery of filmmaking. But the main factor to be borne in mind in art direction, as in other areas of filmmaking, is complete control, which can be exercised not only over what the audience sees or not on the screen but even over the actual movements of the eye.

Camera movements are divided into two categories. First focuses on movements in relation to the characters' ones, in which case the camera follows the person. The important factor here is that the scene has to be shot in such a natural way, that the audience should never be aware of the camera. The second category focuses on a dramatic movement of the camera when the character is in repose. In this case the camera may dolly up to the face of the character for emphasis, or dolly away at the end of a scene to reveal a lonely figure standing by themself in the center of a room. So used, the camera can make a metaphorical statement for a dramatic purpose.

The sound has many functions, according to Hitchcock, such as dialogue in combination with images. Sound also can be used to illustrate the character's stream of consciousness along with the image of a thoughtful, silent face — as an interior monologue. For Hitchcock, the sound is generally useful in expressing the mental processes of the characters or creating suspense. In his discussion with the French film director François Truffaut, Hitchcock cited a scene from Sabotage (1936). A young boy, Stevie, is delivering a package on behalf of his stepfather. Unknown to him, the package contains a bomb, set to detonate at a particular time. As Stevie finds himself increasingly delayed, our anxiety grows that he will be unable to deliver it in time. We are tense because we know something that the character doesn't - what's in the package, and when it is due to detonate and Hitchcock increases the feeling by interposing a series of shots of clocks and package's contents. A recurring ticking sound is heard on the soundtrack.

Music also gives a certain vibe to a film. It is perfectly in accordance with the aim of the motion picture, namely to unfold the action or to tell a story, and thereby stir the emotions.
Last but not least is the use of editing, often described as the essence of making cinema. Hitchcock refers to George Méliès, whose strips of film were joined in a simple sequence; to Eisenstein and Pudovkin, who in the 1920s developed creative editing — so-called "montage", a juxtaposition of individual shots or frames that illustrate a character or convey ideas.
Whatever method is used, it contains the understanding that everything in cinema is a visual statement, and the images are its language. So the film, like any language, has its own syntax, which, as the word implies, is a lining up or an order of images to create the best effect.
Made on