Sunday, 1 November 2009

Maestros of the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock was devoted to the production of pure cinema, directing 52 films.

Beginning his 50 year career as an art designer in the silent movies, he was a master of visual story telling, story-boarding every scene. So far as Hitch was concerned, most of the work was done before the cameras rolled. Compare his working sketches of 'The Birds' with the finished product.

He was a master technician, being able to call shots and count frames without needing to be behind the lens, and loved to work within constraints and innovate his way out of them:

- 'Rear Window' was filmed within and looking out of a single New York apartment, that becomes a window on the world.

- 'Rope', possibly the first mainstream movie to feature homosexuals as the - albeit murderous - protagonists seems to happen in real time and be composed of just one shot, in fact ten spliced by clever edits.

- In 'Frenzy', he used a similar technique to maintain the continuity between scenes shot in Pinewood Studios and Covent Garden, London.

- Hitch and his cinematographer Irmin Roberts introduced the dolly zoom, moving the camera in while zooming in to stretch an image, mimicking the experience of vertigo in the film of the same name

- They also pushed blue screen technique further and got better results than any other crew, though his preference for studio over location and love of car shots sometimes gives the modern viewer a sense of unreality; some of the remake of his own 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' was shot in Morocco, but you wouldn't know it

Although his minor works have dated, budding film directors can still learn plenty from his finest creations:

- Direct the audience, not the actors. The cast are there to fake it, the audience to feel it. Method acting made no sense to Hitchcock; you don't need to feel how it is to be a murderer to act like a murderer; and if you're feeling murderous, you won't be a bundle of fun on set.

- Make the film before you make the film. For all his use of ground-breaking set design, Alfred had the first cut down in his head before the clapper board came down. Every frame of the famous shower scene in 'Psycho' was conceived and sketched before it was filmed.

- Tell the story with the sound turned off. Hitchcock began his apprenticeship in the silent German cinema of the Expressionist era, when visuals were primary and music completed the emotional palette; when used, dialogue was there not to carry the plot, but to illustrate it in words.

- Music has more emotional impact than words. Hitchcock's closest working relationships were with his camera men, set designers and, most of all, the composers of his soundtracks. Actors might be fun socially, but were never co-creators. Bernard Hermann's decade long stint as Hitch's own maestro took the sound of movies from the melodic and orchestral to the screeching electronica of 'The Birds'.

- Suspense is the withholding of information: from the audience, from the characters, from the actors. Hitchcock was the master of the long pause: a steady, silent shot while something crucial was happening just out of hearing, just beyond view, became his trademark. He wasn't a horror film maker, but every film maker working in that genre learnt their tricks from Hitch.

Not all of his work will satisfy the modern audience. By the sixties, he was over-stretching himself, making more than cameo appearances to introduce his TV series and working on multiple projects when his best works were his sole obsessions. By the late sixties he'd lost touch with the times. Not all of the comedy in 'Family Plot' was intentional.

His raw material was pulp fiction and cod-psychology and in most of his work, neither plot nor character motive bear too much scrutiny. It was on the occasions when the screenplay transcended its source and the movie-making transcended its screenplay that he achieved greatness; his greatest scenes get beneath the conscious mind and into your dreams.

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