How Alfred Hitchcock’s Films Use 50 Years Worth of Cinematic Principles
If you are into cinema, you’ve probably heard the name Hitchcock a bunch. But what really makes him so special? In this article, I talk about what makes him unique, and how his work displays these concepts.
Hitchcock’s influences of German cinema through the shadows and emphasis of visuals brought from silent cinema, furthered his venture of incorporating Eisenstein’s discovery of the soviet montage which allowed his films to be filled with depth through the framing of his cinematography, concise editing, and intricate use of sound.
German Expressionism and Visuals
Films are mainly a visual medium due to their silent cinema origins, and emphasizing that was a difficult task that German filmmakers focused a great deal on when producing.
Some of these concepts include:
“the existence of an occult or shadow world that exists beyond the domain of the ordinary…expressed through…opposition between light and dark…highly stylized costume design, and non-naturalistic acting styles” (Allen 165).
German filmmakers birthed these concepts from their perspective on the world: one that was heavily shaken through the impacts of the Great War.
During this period, filmmakers experimented a great deal and Hitchcock was present, absorbing it all.
“Hitchcock worked at UFA in Berlin in 1924 while he was a set designer” (164), and through the experience of German expressionism first hand, its influence was brought into many of Hitchcock’s films.
A scene that exemplifies this is in Rear Window when Mr. Thorwald realizes that Jeff is the one causing the commotion in the building and walks to Jeff’s apartment while Lisa and Stella are still in Thorwald’s apartment. The scene is dark, with only Jeff seen in the moonlight by the window while Mr. Thorwald inches closer to him from the darkness, making him look incredibly menacing.
Through these couple of seconds, Hitchcock is able to portray his foundational rule of building suspense in comparison to shock, making the audience wonder what will happen when Jeff runs out of camera flashes.
These were concepts the Germans developed about subjective expressionism:
“strategies for evoking extreme psychological states such as fear, anxiety, and desire by using a combination of point of view shots…blur[ing] the boundary between what is visually perceived and visually imagined” (171).
Thus, much of Hitchcock’s stylistic design of scenes, framing, and shot choice was influenced through German Expressionism, but his editing was derived from a concept built further East.
Soviet Montage and Its Impacts
Hitchcock derived much of his visual representation from a formula Eisenstein pioneered: one plus two equals three, otherwise known as the Soviet Montage.
Hitchcock applied this principle methodically stating that when making movies “you must do the editing in your head, in advance. Then the movement between the scenes is made continuous by the movements… of the actors and of the camera together” (Truffaut et al. 194).
His belief in this system came so far that he stopped “look[ing] into the viewfinder” (196). He stated “I know what lens is in use and its aperture; I can see the position of the camera and the actors” (196), thus there is not a reason to see what he already knows it will look like. His stick-to-it-of-ness nature comes from the impact this discovery made in Soviet Cinema.
The idea of a montage was created post The Great War because film in Soviet Russia was hard to come by and so many filmmakers were only given small pieces of celluloid and thus, had to chose their shots carefully.
Through this work, Eisenstein found that montages could “provide commentary on the ideological, political, or social implications of the depicted events” (Vassilieva 114).
As a result, the Soviet government realized they could teach illiterate serfs the idea of Marxism “illustrat[ing] ‘the Bolshevik version of history, which places class struggle at the center of change’” (115). Thus, Hitchcock took hold of this idea and applied it to each of his films.
Examples of Eisenstein’s Work in Hitchcock
Two scenes that emphasize Eisenstein’s work in Hitchcock’s is in Vertigo when Scottie is following Madeline in his car initially as well as the scene where she jumps off the bell tower at the mission.
In the first scene, the shot choices mainly repeat between the subjective point of view of Scottie, hinting back to the idea of subjective expressionism, and a look at Madeline’s actions.
Through each return back to Scottie, the audience gains further curiosity and the story receives more depth because of the underlying factors involved: questions of whether she is possessed, how this will affect her marriage, what she will do next, and what the result of Scottie falling in love with her will do to Gavin are all tying the audience intellectually and emotionally into the story.
Dissecting the montage further in scene two at the tower, there are four shots present that really tell the audience what Madeline is doing. It starts with Scottie’s reaction with letting Madeline go into the church alone and the audience is curious, but after spending so much time with her, we find Madeline to be somewhat credible.
Hitchcock then cuts to a shot of Madeline looking up and running and then back to Scottie’s confused reaction and finally the bell tower itself.
In these ten seconds, Hitchcock drives the statement that Madeline is planning on committing suicide, and suddenly all the questions from the previously discussed scene are brought back. This adds depth to the story because it heightens the conflict in a concise way.
Music Heighetening Scenes
Moreover, sound’s presence in this film adds a story filled with dialogue and confusion, but what really keeps the audience on the same page is the music backing the montages present.
In the first scene the music is suspenseful and cuts on the beat shifting from Scottie to Madeline as they visit the multiple sites.
However in this bell tower scene, the lower notes of the violin when Madeline looks up at the tower emphasize something is about to happen, and when Hitchcock cuts to the bell tower, the high minor horns build a sense of danger and urgency.
The use of music adds depth to Hitchcock’s films and is only furthered through its presence in Rear Window. The idea of Jeff opening with looking out the window gives a visual representation about each of the characters, but throughout the film, the use of sound from the alarm clock, the musician, “Ms. Lonely Heart”, and the new couple make the film multidimensional in that so many witnesses are present, yet only Jeff truly understands what happened with Mrs. Thorwald.
Moreover, one of the main conflicts that was not directly addressed in the climax of the film was whether Ms. Lonely Heart was going to commit suicide with her pills.
With Jeffries calling the cops for the situation in Thorwald, it is only the offscreen music that stops her from dying. This subplot heightens the main conflict with Thorwald and Jeffries, yet maintains its separation to keep the audience’s focus aligned.
As a result, Hitchcock allows the movie to be streamlined and incorporate multiple conflicts while still achieving the films main objective.
Thus, through Hitchcock’s stylized approach of German Expressionism through the subjective point of view with the light and dark contrast as well as his exemplified version of Eisenstein’s Soviet Montage, Hitchcock incorporated much of the visual tools that encompassed the first fifty years of cinematic discoveries.
It is through the culmination of these aspects that make him a great director and a filmmaker whose impact lasts beyond his lifetime.
Belton, John, editor. “Expressionism.” Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, by Richard Allen, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007, pp. 164–217. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/alle13574.9. Accessed 1 May 2020.
Truffaut, François, et al. “Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (1955).” Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Volume 2: Selected Writings and Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2015, pp. 191–200. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt9qh2hb.41. Accessed 1 May 2020.
Vassilieva, Julia. “Montage Eisenstein: MIND THE GAP.” Film as Philosophy, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2017, pp. 111–131. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt1mmft20.9. Accessed 1 May 2020.