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Whenever people desire to watch a movie, they have thousands, if not millions of options to choose from. The first movie dates back as far as the late 1800’s and since then, movies have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment and art worldwide. This is all thanks to the people who create movies for a living, people known as directors. Each director differs in his or her own way, leaving a “thumbprint,” or directing style on all of his or her films. Many directors today try to mimic the thumbprints of previous minds from the early 1900’s in order to become as successful and legendary as they were. Names such as Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Charlie Chaplin, and Woody Allen still live on for their groundbreaking contributions to the history of cinema. However, one of the most famous directors to have lived is none other than Alfred Hitchcock, whose career spanned more than fifty years and helped define an entire movie genre. The film industry has been greatly influenced by the British director Alfred Hitchcock, whose works employed techniques to instill suspense, reoccurring plot devices, and innovative cinematography.
Throughout the world, Alfred Hitchcock is known as the “Master of Suspense” for his special techniques he incorporated in his films. One thing he always kept in mind was how the audience would react to his movies, because without the audience he considered his movie incomplete. Hitchcock says “there is no satisfaction in having a large auditorium but with only one seat. It is the collective audience and their reaction that gives interest to your endeavor” (Alfred Hitchcock 10). His goal was to take the audience on a journey to escape the reality of their own lives “and, the more fun they have, the quicker they will come back begging for more” (Bays 1).
Keeping the mentality of the average moviegoer in mind, Hitchcock only used straightforward plotlines which could easily be followed. When reviewing a film script, he removed anything that was considered boring or irrelevant to the story. “What is drama,” Hitchcock states, “…but life with the dull bits cut out…” (Bays 4). Using this method, the audience can maintain their interest in the movie and suspense can be delivered more efficiently.
Vital to any “Hitchcockian” film is what is known as “information.” Information is something the characters do not see, yet the audience does. In most cases, the information is usually dangerous and is presented in the opening of a scene. As the scene continues, the audience is reminded of that information which could jeopardize the ignorant characters. For example, in the 1976 movie Family Plot, the audience sees a shot of a car leaking brake fluid, yet the characters in the car have no idea this is happening. Watching scenes with information build up tension, and it is one of the most popular techniques Hitchcock has made famous.
Surprisingly, one would not think to include anything comical in a thriller movie, yet Hitchcock believed “suspense doesn’t have any value if it’s not balanced by humor” (Bays 1). By using contrasted characters and settings, it made his films more amusing to watch. In order to intensify the audience’s anxiety, Hitchcock utilized “understatement,” which was a means of turning the attention of an action scene to insignificant and petty character features or actions. In Rear Window, the protagonist Jeff tries to stall the villain’s attack by blinding him with flashing camera bulbs. The great effort the villain uses to regain his vision is amusing, yet at the same time is suspenseful because of his steady and eerie approach. Hitchcock also frequently inserted a character which mocked a serious matter such as murder. This is usually a sign of foreshadowing, as seen in Rear Window when Stella (the nurse) laughs about the idea of a killing in an adjacent apartment. Irony is also evident in Hitchcock’s films because he places characters in terrible situations against bright and joyful settings. He thought “the more happy-go lucky the setting, the greater kick you get from the sudden introduction of drama” (Bays 3). An excellent example of irony is in The Trouble With Harry, where a dead body appears with a beautiful fall scenery.
The final suspense method is none other than the twist ending. Hitchcock never wanted his films to have a predictable ending because it would destroy the entire point of putting suspense into the audience. In the key moment of Saboteur, Barry Kane corners Fry, the real saboteur, on the top of the Statue of Liberty. Although one would normally think the scene ends with Fry being captured, Kane’s sudden talking actually startles the saboteur, which causes him to tumble over the railing and plunge to his death. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
When watching several Hitchcock films, it may be noticed that certain objects and themes have a tendency to appear in the plot over and over again. These plot devices are an important quality because “they link the British to the American period, because their recurrence is particularly obstinate, and because they seem taken in conjunction, central to the thematic complex of Hitchcock’s total oeuvre” (Wood 2). The three themes which are profoundly examined are the wrongly accused man, the female culprit, and the alluring villain. The accused man is usually the central character who is blamed for something he did not do, and often experiences the “double chase.” The double chase is “the hero is pursued by the police and in turn pursues (or seeks to unmask) the actual villain” (Wood 2). The female culprit is present in Sabotage, Notorious, Vertigo, Dial M for Murder and many more Hitchcock films. Interestingly, the villains in his films are considered to be some of the most intriguing characters to observe. They all possess one or more of the following characteristics: “a) Sexual ‘perversity’ or ambiguity…b) Fascist connotations…c) The subtle associations of the villain with the devil…d) Closely connected with these characteristics is a striking and ambiguous fusion of power and impotence operating on both the sexual and non-sexual levels” (Wood 2). Norman Bates in Psycho is one of the most famous sociopaths in cinema history.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Arguably one of Hitchcock’s greatest contributions to the film industry is the “MacGuffin.” Yet the MacGuffin is, in truth, one minute entity. Its definition describes it as “a device or plot element that catches the viewer’s attention or drives the plot. It is generally something that every character is concerned with” (Alfred Hitchcock Film Techniques 1). Primarily, the MacGuffin is something that the majority of the film revolves around, yet in the end its importance diminishes and can sometimes be forgotten. Examples of MacGuffins include the government secrets in North by Northwest, the uranium in Notorious, and the stolen 40,000 dollars in Psycho. These MacGuffins “keep the audience spinning in a certain direction while the real action was getting ready to come in from the side. A true MacGuffin will get you where you need to go but never overshadow what is ultimately there” (Alfred Hitchcock Film Techniques 2).Â Â Â Â Â
Although Hitchcock was greatly identified for his suspense techniques, his movies would not be complete without their creative cinematography. He was excellent at knowing what to film, when to cut to a different shot, and how to edit a scene after it was completed. Because Hitchcock began directing silent films, he liked to “work purely in the visual and not rely upon words at all” (Alfred Hitchcock 2).
Camera angles make a great contribution to the quality of Hitchcock’s films. He incorporates his “theory of proximity to plan out each scene” (Bays 2). Essentially, this means a certain scene would call for a certain camera shot in order to change its emotion. The closer the camera is to the character’s eyes, the more emotion the audience could see. If Hitchcock wanted to increase suspense, he would use a high angle shot above the character’s head. In a way, the camera also acts as a human eye because it gazes around objects as if it truly contained curiosity. His idea of personifying the camera remains constant because when films did not have sound, visuals were the only form of communicating with the audience.
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“Hitchcock always welcomed innovation in film technology, but in the 1950s he reveled in it” (Silet 2).
As a result of combining these three factors, Alfred Hitchcock’s movies will forever be considered some of the most revolutionary works of art known to man. “It is also not an exaggeration to claim that his films elevated the medium as a form of art in the minds of the public in ways that exceeded the work of more self-consciously ‘artistic’ directors. And that is not a bad accomplishment for a director who set out merely to entertain” (Silet 3).Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
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