Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lest We Forget: Alfred Hitchcock Director Extraordinaire

Scriptwriting for a movie is similar to novel writing. Both need fully-fleshed characters, a logical plot and setting. When the script is good and the movie is well-directed, it works.

One of my favorite movie directors of all time was Alfred Hitchcock. I grew up watching his fabulous films. In fact my most vivid movie memory is of being twelve-years-old, babysitting my seven-year-old sister while we watched The Birds (1963). Neither of us went to the bathroom alone at night for several weeks! But oh my, what a film. I showed it to my own children when they were preteens and the hilarious part was—they loved it! It had become campy over time, but the emotional value was still there. Classic Hitchcock.

For those of you too young to know about this director or haven't seen any of his classic films, watch some with a pad and pen. Take notes as you discover the plot points and character arcs. What is the inciting incident and where does it fall? When does the main character decide to take action (plot point two)? Where does the climax fall and how is it built up to? Because his movies are relatively short and simple, it is easy to formulate the plot and learn how to apply it to your own writing.

Here’s a bit about Alfred Hitchcock for those who don’t know him or have forgotten:
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born August 13, 1899. His father was a green grocer in London, England, named William Hitchcock; his mother was Emma Jane Whelan and he had two older siblings. Raised as a strict Catholic, he attended Saint Ignatius College for engineering and navigation. In 1914, when Hitchcock was 15 years old, his father died. His first job outside of the family business was in 1915 as an estimator for the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company. His interest in movies began at around this time, frequently visiting the cinema and reading US trade journals.

In 1920, Hitch, as his friends called him, learned about a studio opening in London and managed to secure a job as a title designer. He designed the titles for all the movies made at the studio for the next two years. In 1923, his first opportunity to direct occurred when the director of Always Tell Your Wife (1923) couldn’t continue due to illness and Hitch finished the movie. Impressed by his work, studio chiefs gave him his first real directing assignment on Number 13 (1922); however, before it could be finished, the studio closed its British operation. Hitch was then hired as an assistant director for the company later known as Gainsborough Pictures. Hitch, however managed to do much more than assist. He wrote, designed titles and art directed.

Hitch was soon given his chance to direct a British/German co-production called The Pleasure Garden (1925) which became very popular. It was the break he’d been hoping for. In 1926, Hitchcock made his first trademark film, "The Lodger". In the same year on the 2nd of December, Hitchcock married Alma Reville. They had one child, Patricia Hitchcock (born 7th July 1928). His success followed when he made a number of films in Britain such as "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1939), some of them which also made him famous in the USA. David O. Selznick, an American producer at the time, got in touch with Hitchcock and the Hitchcock family moved to the USA to direct an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1940). It was when Saboteur (1942) was made that his name became part of the ‘title’; such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy. A trademark of his became the quick cameo of himself in profile somewhere in the film. On set he was always formally dressed in a suit.

There is a recurrent motif of lost or assumed identity through most of his films. As a child, Hitchcock was sent to the local police station with a letter from his father. The desk sergeant read the letter and immediately locked the boy up for ten minutes. After that, the sergeant let young Alfred go, explaining, "This is what happens to people who do bad things." Hitchcock had a morbid fear of police from that day on. He also cited this phobia as the reason he never learned to drive (as a person who doesn't drive can never be pulled over and given a ticket). It was also cited as the reason for the recurring "wrong man" themes in his films. While mistaken identity applies to a film like North by Northwest (1959), assumed identity applies to films such as The 39 Steps (1935), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and Marnie (1964) among others. In order to create suspense in his films, he would alternate between different shots to extend cinematic time (e.g., the climax of Saboteur (1942), the cropduster sequence in North By Northwest (1959), the shower scene in Psycho (1960), etc.) Walt Disney refused to allow him to film at Disneyland in the early 1960s because Hitchcock had made "that disgusting movie Psycho (1960)".

Many of Hitchcock's films have one-word titles: Blackmail (1929), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972). He favored one-word titles because he felt that it was uncluttered, clean and easily remembered by the audience.

His driving sequences were also shot in this particular way. They would typically alternate between the character's point of view while driving and a close-up shot of those inside the car from the opposite direction. This technique kept the viewer 'inside' the car and made any danger encountered more richly felt. In a lot of his films (more noticeably in the early black and white American films), he used to create more shadows on the walls to create suspense and tension (e.g., the "Glowing Milk" scene in Suspicion (1941) or the ominous shadow during the opening credits of Saboteur (1942).

'MacGuffins', one of his devices, were objects or devices which drove the plot and were of great interest to the film's characters, but which to the audience were otherwise inconsequential and could be forgotten once they had served their purpose. The most notable examples include bottled uranium in Notorious (1948), the wedding ring in Rear Window (1959), the microfilm in North By Northwest (1959) and the $40,000 in the envelope in Psycho (1960). He hated to shoot on location. He preferred to shoot at the studio where he could have full control of lighting and other factors. This is why even his later films contain special effects composite and rear screen shots.

He was infamous with cast and crews for his "practical jokes." While some inspired laughs, such as suddenly showing up in a dress, most were said to have been more cruel than funny. Usually he found out about somebody's phobias, such as mice or spiders, and in turn sent them a box full of them. He almost never socialized when not shooting films, with most of his evenings spent quietly at home with his wife.
During the making of Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock's wife Alma suffered a paralyzing stroke which made her unable to walk very well at all.

He directed nine of the American Film Institute's 100 Most Heart-Pounding Movies: Psycho (1960) at #1, North by Northwest (1959) at #4, The Birds (1963) at #7, Rear Window (1954) at #14, Vertigo (1958) at #18, Strangers on a Train (1951) at #32, Notorious (1946) at #38, Dial M for Murder (1954) at #48 and Rebecca (1940) at #80.
On March 7, 1979, Hitchcock was awarded the AFI Life Achievement Award, where he said this famous quote: "I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen and their names are Alma Reville." He joked with friends that since this was a lifetime achievement award,  he must be about to die soon. He died a year later.

He started to write a screenplay with Ernest Lehman called "The Short Night" but he fired Lehman and hired young screenwriter David Freeman who re-wrote the script. Due to Hitchcock's failing health, however, the film was never made; although Freeman published the script after Hitchcock's death on April 29, 1980 in Los Angeles, California. In late 1979, Hitchcock was knighted, making him Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock directed eight different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, Albert Bassermann, Michael Chekhov, Claude Rains, Ethel Barrymore and Janet Leigh. Fontaine won an Oscar for Suspicion (1941). He, however, never won a best director Oscar in competition, although he was awarded the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1967 Oscars. He delivered the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history simply saying, "Thank you." Classic Hitchcock.

A Few Hitchcock Quotes
The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.

There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.

To me Psycho (1960) was a big comedy. Had to be.

Even my failures make money and become classics a year after I make them.

Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.

Drama is life with the dull bits left out.

There is nothing quite so good as a burial at sea. It is simple, tidy, and not very incriminating.

Man does not live by murder alone. He needs affection, approval, encouragement and, occasionally, a hearty meal.

Cartoonists have the best casting system. If they don't like an actor, they just tear him up.

The paperback is very interesting but I find it will never replace the hardcover book -- it makes a very poor doorstop.

Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders.

I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella (1937), the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.

If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.

Reality is something that none of us can stand, at any time.
I like stories with lots of psychology.

Everything's perverted in a different way.

And my favorites:
Puns are the highest form of literature.

To make a great film you need three things - the script, the script and the script.
Classic Hitchcock.

1 comment:

  1. I actually saw Mr. Hitchcock in the lobby of a hotel when I was 13 years old and was shocked at how much his real-life profile matched his silhouette! I also read somewhere that a favorite practical joke was inviting everyone to dinner and serving all blue food, from the bread rolls through the beverages. If I remember correctly, his mother's field of expertise had included doing studies on what colors people found the least appetizing in foodstuffs, and the winner was blue. So her son enjoyed serving his guests the most unappetizing food he could come up with at dinner. I saw "The Birds" when I was in grade school and to date it's still the only Hitchcock movie I've been able to watch in entirety!