Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fear Is The Key

The name Hitchcock stands for mystery, suspense, and fear. As a maker of suspense films, he was unique because, although he was not a writer, it is largely because of his films that the mystery novel is one of the most popular genres of fiction today. To be read again and again, a mystery story has to be more than a mere puzzle, and Hitchcock knew this better than anyone else. And as the world celebrates his 101st birthday, his influence is as strong as ever, writes Kuldip Dhiman.

AS darkness descends on a remote motel, a woman enters the bath and turns the shower on. We hear the eerie sound of water falling to the floor. Presently, someone enters the room, but unmindful of the intruder, the woman continues to enjoy her shower. As the dark figure approaches the woman, we watch with bated breath, and literally move to the edges of our seats. We would like to scream and warn the woman. But just as it happens in a bad dream, we are paralysed with fear.

That is exactly what the creator of this scene, Alfred Hitchcock, loved to do. And he enjoyed every minute of it; so did the viewers.

"Our nature is such that we must have these 'shake-ups,' or we grow sluggish and jellified," Hitchcock, the universally acclaimed master of suspense, wrote in Why Thrillers Thrive. Generally regarded as the creator of the suspense thriller film, Hitchcock managed to captivate his viewers with a combination of anxiety and relief. "Little children go on a swing," he once observed.. "They go higher and higher and then they scare themselves and stop at the crucial point. And after they get off the swing, they're laughing."

That is precisely the way the audiences react to a Hitchcock film. While you are in the cinema hall, he keeps you on tenterhooks, and the willing suspension of disbelief is total. Many other filmmakers have spun suspense-filled tales, yet, when you talk about suspense, the first name that springs to mind is Hitchcock. People don't go to a Hitchcock film for the stars alone, they go to a Hitchcock film, because it is a 'Hitchcock' film. Many would not like to place him next to directors like Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese or David Lean, although Hitchcock could match the greatest of directors in content or film technique. It has something to do with a bias against the thriller genre, for most critics have failed to recognise its literary worth.
Hitchcock is unique because although he was not a writer, it is largely because of his films that the mystery novel is one of the most popular genres of fiction. To be read again and again, a mystery story has to be more than a mere puzzle, such as who the murderer is, and Hitchcock knew this better than anyone else. In an introduction to one of his anthologies, he explained: "The difference lies in the fact that Suspense here is accompanied by Danger - danger mysterious and unknown, if possible. Or, if the danger is known - then as inexorable or as insurmountable peril as may be imagined."

With Dial M For Murder, Psycho, Frenzy and his immensely popular TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock showed us that to scare someone, you don't have to show skeletons, snakes, scorpions or scary monsters. Hitchcock could scare us with such beautiful and harmless creatures as seagulls in his film Birds. He used a mix of a strong storyline, believable and interesting characters, crisp and witty dialogue, appropriate locale, and high technical support, such as music, brilliant photography and tight editing to make his spine-chilling films.

The use of the so-called 'travelling matte shot to capture the policeman's fall, like that in Saboteur and Rear Window was achieved by double printing. The method is described by Leonard South, director of photography for Family Plot, in Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. First 'an actor was dropped from a height onto mattresses and rubber padding. Then in the laboratory, miniatures of the background were painted in and the second take was made (alternatively, and actor could be positioned in a swivelling chair and the camera swung up and away from him, with the additional painting done as described).

In Birds he combined live action, animation, mechanical birds, live trained birds, and complex composite photography and editing to produce over 14 hundred amazing shots. One of Hitchcock's famous trick shots can be seen in the final moments of Vertigo where the simultaneous forward zoom and reverse tracking shot of the miniature of the stairwell, doubled with a shot of James Stewart descending a short flight of steps. The shots of Gregory Peck and railway tracks in Spellbound are examples of outstanding editing. In this film based on Freudian dream theory, Hitchcock used paintings by Salvador Dalli, to create those spectacular dream sequences. A perfectionist to the core, Hitchcock relied on a tight script, and had a storyboard made of each scene. He understood every department of filmmaking, and would often ask his photographer what lens he had on the camera. One wonders what Hitchcock would have done with the latest digital imaging techniques.

Had Hitchcock relied on technique alone, the world would have forgotten him long ago. His greatness lies in the superb storytelling techniques that he evolved and perfected over the years. When he told you a story, you wanted to believe it no matter how illogical and strange the plot was. In many of his films, the hero and other characters behave in an unrealistic way. In North By Northwest, for example, Cary Grant is mistaken for a spy by the villain, James Mason. When he tells the police that he had been kidnapped by James Mason and his henchmen, the police and even his own mother refuse to believe him. In real life though, it is very difficult for such things to happen, but Hitchcock is so convincing that we go along with him willingly. He must have believed in the Aristotelian dictum: in a plot, a probable improbability is preferable to an improbable probability. In the dedication of The Thirty-Nine Steps, to Tommy Nelson, John Buchanan said that his aim was to write 'romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.' Hitchcock couldn't have agreed more. To tell his story, Hitchcock often used his cinematic licence, and even altered the original story. In an interview with the famous French director, Truffaut, he said, "To insist that a story teller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representation painter that he show objects accurately."

Born 101 years ago on August 13, 1899 as Alfred Josef, in Leytonstone, England, this acknowledged master of the suspense thriller began his career in 1919, illustrating title cards for silent films at Paramount's Famous Players-Lasky studio in London, he rose to the position of assistant director in about four years. In 1922 he got his break as director for film, No. 13 or Mrs. Peabody. This film remained incomplete, but the experience gave Hitchcock rare insight into the art of filmmaking. Then came the Anglo-German production The Pleasure Garden (1925), his first completed film as director. But it was in The Lodger (1926), that we see some of Hitchcock's typical motifs that were to earn him fame world-wide: an innocent protagonist is falsely accused of a crime. The more he tries to prove his innocence, the more he gets involved in a web of intrigue. The films that followed were usually full of characters who construe things wrongly because they put too much faith in what is, in legal parlance, called 'circumstantial evidence'.

With the introduction of sound in the 30s, film technique was transformed dramatically, and Hitchcock was quick to adapt to the change. Because of the absence of sound and, therefore, dialogue, the silent films relied on strong visual images to carry the story forward. To cash in on the new development, most directors began to make their movies full of dialogue at the expense of visuals, but not Hitchcock. He continued to rely on strong visual techniques of the silent era, but enriched his films with soulful music and even silences to keep the viewers spellbound. An early example of Hitchcock's technical virtuosity was his creation of, what a critic has called, "subjective sound" for Blackmail (1929), his first sound film. This was followed by Murder, in which Hitchcock first made explicit the link between sex and violence. But Hitchcock at times carried his technical virtuosity a bit too far, as in the case of his unsuccessful film Rope. In this film based on Patrick Hamilton's play, he tried an experiment in which he intended to make the entire film in uninterrupted ten-minute takes. Those who understand film technique, might appreciate what an impossible task it could be, for an average shot ranges from five seconds to fifteen seconds. Hitchcock realised his mistake and later said, "I undertook [it] as a stunt. That's the only way can describe it. I got this crazy idea to do it in a single shot. It was quite nonsensical because I was breaking my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage."

But it was with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), a commercial and critical success, that established Hitchcock's favourite cinematic motif: an investigation of family relationships presented not in a chronological order, but in a forward-and-backward movement. The end result was heightened suspense with moviegoers gasping for breath at every twist in the tale.

Even in his personal and professional life, a twist was forthcoming. During the shooting of The Lady Vanishes (1938), producer David O. Selznick invited Hitchcock to Hollywood to make a film on the sinking of the Titanic. Now, with hindsight, six decades later, one wonders what Hitchcock might have done with a theme like that. Anyhow, the film was never made, but Selznick signed Hitchcock to make a film based on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, a story of a girl who marries a British nobleman but lives in shadow of his former wife. Over 20 actresses were tested for the role that eventually went to Joan Fontaine. The film was a great success and it won rave reviews. It fetched the producer Academy Award winner for Best Picture and the cinematographer the award for best Cinematography, but Hitchcock got nothing.

Though he directed about 55 films in his long career spanning half-a-century, Hitchcock's fame rests on the films that he made in the 50s and the 60s. Most of his earlier firms with the exception of Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, are mere historical curiosities now. But then quantity has never been the main criterion to judge talent. And Hitchcock was well aware of this, that's why he made the second version of films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. Referring to The Man Who Knew Too Much, he told Truffaut: "Let's say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional."

In the next two decades, Hitchcock produced a string of memorable films such as Dial M for Murder (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the black comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955).

Hitchcock was well aware of the voyeur in every one of us, Rear Window (1954) exploited this trait to the maximum. James Stewart, a photographer who is temporarily bedridden, starts observing strange doings in his neighbourhood. Soon he begins to believe that one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Vertigo (1958), is another classic that explores a man's obsession with a woman who didn't exist. With a rivetting script, excellent actors, breath-taking locales, high production standards, and sensitive direction, Vertigo is an object lesson in film technique. The virtual cliffhanger, North by Northwest (1959) written by Ernest Lehman is perhaps Hitchcock's most typical film.

For the kind of fear he managed to generate, Hitchcock rarely showed violence and gore on the screen. This is exemplified by the famous killing scene in Torn Curtain. "I have always felt that you should do the minimum on screen to get the maximum audience effect," he told a psychiatrist who interviewed him for Redbook magazine in 1963. "I believe the audience should work." And he made them work, indeed, as a music conductor does. "The audience is like a great organ," he once remarked, "that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won't even have to make a movie — there'll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we'll just press different buttons and they'll go "ooooh" and "aaaah" and we'll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won't that be wonderful? It might be wonderful indeed, but most of us would rather have Hitchcock frighten us to death with his murder mysteries.

Ironically enough, this man who scared the living daylights out of moviegoers all over the world, was himself a very frightened man. "If they [the audience] did but realise it," he admitted to an interviewer, "I'm more scared than they are by things in real life." There is a ring of truth in this statement. When Hitchcock was a little boy, goes a widely circulated story, his father gave him a note and asked him to deliver it at the nearby police station. When the policeman read the note, he locked Hitchcock up in a cell. He opened the cell after five minutes and released the terrified boy, and said. "This is what we do to naughty boys." That experience was to haunt Hitchcock all his life. Nobody knows what went on in his mind during those five minutes, but the experience taught him the psychology of fear.

There are some who maintain that there is no real Alfred Hitchcock outside his films. But this is a gross generalisation, for Hitchcock was a harmless eccentric who reminded us of his hugely popular cameo appearances in his films. He was a devoted husband and loving father. This master entertainer, whose films gave you sleepless nights, was prone to dozing off in public. On one occasion he took Loretta Young and Carol Lombard to dinner, and in the middle of it fell sound asleep between two of the most glamorous women in the world. On another occasion, he dozed off at a dinner party and continued to sleep until all the other guests had tiptoed away. When his wife, Alma, woke him up, he said, "Wouldn't that be rude to leave so soon?"

Over a century after his birth and two decades after his death, Hitchcock's stature as a serious filmmaker is growing by the day. His films are shown at film schools and film workshops to teach young filmmakers the inns and outs of cinema.

And though he was given an honorary Oscar, it is still a mystery to his fans and critics why he was never awarded an Oscar for direction.

Hitchcock might well have told the Academy judges that select the Oscar winners what Cary Grant tells James Mason in North By Northwest: "Apparently the only performance that's going to satisfy you is when I play dead."

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