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Lessons from Alfred Hitchcock’s Art

Alfred HitchcockThere are few people today that would argue with the suggestion that Alfred Hitchcock is one of history’s finest filmmakers. His storytelling and mastery of the visual art form has captivated many millions across the world, and continues to do so. There is a timeless quality to his works that seemingly breaks through all boundaries and translates across all cultures. Yet for ‘the master of suspense’, the road to success was not a simple one. His struggles in creating many of his greatest films are reminiscent of those faced by many artists: self-doubt, the search for inspiration and surrounding oneself with the right people.

Photography, whether in still or moving form, has a great deal to do with observation. That Hitchcock was destined for a special future as a visual storyteller might have been predicted by his early childhood:

“I would sit quietly in a corner, saying nothing. I looked and observed a good deal. I’ve always been that way.”

The quietly observant boy would go on – as he would often say – to be a storyteller that wrote with the camera. Moulded by his formative years living through World War I, many of his films based on carefully chosen novels and plays would involve intrigue, assassins and murder.

Strangers On a Train

A relentless attention to detail would see to it that he gathered a great deal of notes and sketches on everything that would give the “right look” for his films. He knew what he wanted and would often make a little screen out of his hands to show his cameramen the shot that he wanted.

“What’s suggested is always more potent than what’s shown.”

Influenced a great deal by his peers in North America and Europe, Hitchcock would frequently use many unusual cinematography techniques. Unusual angles and lighting effects would be a key feature of his dramatic suspense. Beginning at a time when sound had yet to be used in films, meant that visuals played an even greater role in communicating drama. Having honed his techniques during the silent-film era, Hitchcock would later complain that the poetry of film had suffered as a result of sound. Film, he suggested, should essentially be thought of as a series of pictures. He preferred not to express every last meaning with words, believing that images should do the talking.

“What you see on the set does not matter. All that matters is what you see on the screen.”

Unlike many other art forms, creating a film is a deeply collaborative process, but Hitchcock would often stress that it was the director who ultimately bore responsibility for everything. Just as the conductor of an orchestra ensures that all instruments play together in full harmony, so should a director lead his creative team. This was easier said than done though, and Hitchcock would admit to it being “tremendously hard work”.

Suspicion

While Hitchcock worked hard to mould his films into what he envisioned them to be, he was also flexible enough to allow for improvisation where it proved to be beneficial. Not at all shy to experiment, he would regularly shoot as many takes as it took to get the right feel out of a scene. Even greater effort would go into creating unique visuals. In shooting a sequence for Strangers On a Train for example (the murder scene refracted through eyeglasses), he is said to have spent as much effort planning that single shot as some directors put into entire films.

Hitchcock further believed in allowing the creative process to grow organically in a relaxed atmosphere. If he sensed that anything was being forced, he would often quickly change topic and add a dash of humour:

“You never get it when you press”.

In creating his films, Hitchcock also despised clich├ęs and would put a great deal of effort into surprising his audience with the unexpected.

Despite his brilliance, Hitchcock was not a perfectionist – sometimes it was necessary to accept a film’s imperfections. Where it proved necessary, he would accept flaws, paper over them and move on.

A believer in location work as a way of adding a touch of authenticity, he frequently preferred to work outside of the studio. This became a great deal easier to do when he moved to the US and no longer had to struggle with Britain’s wet weather!

Psycho

As a pragmatist Hitchcock believed that a responsibility to the stability and continuity of one’s industry meant that work would have to be created every now and then that might please the industry, but not necessarily oneself.

“If sometimes you have to make corn, try at least to do it well.”

Despite his continued success both in the US and around the world, even at the height of his accomplishments Hitchcock still admitted to being as frightened and insecure as the next person.

“Everybody’s frightened and insecure, and the ones who appear not to be are just appearing not to be. Deep down, they’re as frightened as the next fellow, maybe even more so.”

A master in understanding the emotions projected by his actors and actresses, he was never shy to tell his performers precisely what he was searching for. He particularly favoured responsive actors (as well as writers) and would seldom work again with those who lacked this quality.

“I only want on your face what you want to tell to the audience – what you are thinking.”

Towards the end of his career and overtaken by cultural transformations, Hitchcock continued to press ahead with new styles and techniques, at times comparing his work unfavourably to that of his peers.

“These Italian directors are a a century ahead of me in terms of technique! What have I been doing all this time?”

What many might find surprising is that despite being nominated for Best Director five times, Hitchcock never won an Academy Award. An outsider, one might call him, to the very end, but even until his final moments, he remained a master dedicated to his craft. In a life full of lessons for us all, film fans and admirers of his cinematography will be forever grateful for his contributions to the world of art.

The above is based on the biography of Hitchcock: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan.

Photos: Sabrina Campagna, Warner Bros., RKO Radio Pictures Inc. and Universal Pictures.

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