This lesson discusses the early influences on Hitchcock’s life and films, including the inspiration of his wife, Alma, and the evolving techniques of film pioneers in Soviet Russia and Germany.
The Modern Era and Its Art
The early 20th century was a time of great upheaval and cultural foment, and into this age of fragmentation and anxiety came art which reflected it. Cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso showed multiple perspectives on a scene. Literature by Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot played with time and depicted the inner workings of the mind. Ultimately, film developed its own response to the nature of the age through its use of subjective camera work and editing.
The Perfect Blend of Nature and Nurture
In the last lesson, we began our exploration of Alfred Hitchcock’s genius by introducing you to his films and the era in which he began directing, the era of silent film. In this lesson, we’ll examine in more detail how his talents, relationships, and ability to assimilate movements in art and culture led to the creation of a cinematic style all his own — what Hitchcock called “Pure Cinema.”
Alfred Hitchcock, like most people of genius, was fortunate in two things: He was a person of vision who understood what he wanted to accomplish, and he lived at a time when that vision could be realized. Born in 1899, during the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, he grew up in a world steeped in Victorian values and cultural institutions. But, like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso, he was about to venture into a very different century, marked by very different artistic responses to the growing unease and chaos of the Modern Age.
Influenced by Victorian novelists like Charles Dickens, Hitchcock drew his stories from middlebrow culture: romance, melodrama, and suspense. His appropriation of popular narrative techniques from the past, combined with his willingness to learn from new experiments in the visual arts and cinema, made Hitchcock a great Modern artist: more accessible than Picasso, Stein, or Pound, yet every bit as challenging in his content.
The Young Hitchcock
None of this was obvious at first. The Alfred Hitchcock who grew up in London’s East End, who was educated at Saint Ignatius, a Jesuit preparatory school, and whose first job was with the Henley Telegraph Company, could have been any of us. And yet the roots from which the future Master of Suspense would grow were already there.
His teachers called him absent-minded, but from an early age, his mind was already on other things. He loved the plays and silent films of the day, and when he read about film, he read professional and trade papers instead of fan magazines. His interest in engineering led to studies in mechanics, electricity, and acoustics. And in time, his formative experiences would be transformed into the themes that would compel him for 60 years.
In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock did not contradict the French director when he described Hitchcock’s father as very strict. One incident from his upbringing loomed large in his memory, and possibly in his development as well. Hitchcock often told the story of how when he was four or five years old, his father sent him to the police station with a note. An officer read the note, took the tiny boy back into the jail, told him “This is what we do to naughty boys,” and locked him up for five or 10 minutes in a jail cell.
Film critics have rightly made much of Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing. Being Catholic in largely Protestant London was a first sign of personal difference to Hitchcock, and the overwhelming sense of guilt he developed from being Jesuit-schooled made him afraid of even accidentally committing evil. Perhaps more importantly, Hitchcock developed a fear of punishment because of the corporal discipline meted out by the Jesuits.
“I was terrified of physical punishment,” Hitchcock told Truffaut. “In those days, it wasn’t done casually, you know; it was rather like the execution of a sentence. They would tell you to step in and see the father when class was over.” The boy terrified of stepping out of line for fear of punishment grew into a man with a fear of even unwittingly transgressing the authorities, a personal issue that became an artistic one.
These elements contributed to Hitchcock’s fear of authority and need for control, his sense of being a watcher, outside the action rather than a participant, his sense of difference, and his fear of accusation. Together, these issues would form the core of Hitchcock’s major cinematic themes: The wrong man, power and powerlessness, and deviance and normalcy. We’ll discuss these themes in more detail in later lessons, but for now, let’s meet another key influence on Hitchcock: his wife, Alma.
Meet Alma Reville Hitchcock
You can get a sense of Alma’s official presence in her husband’s work by reviewing the Hitchcock filmography at the end of the course text, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, by Donald Spoto. Although women occasionally worked in the technical end of films (particularly as “script girls”), Alma was a rarity for her time. Assistant director, continuity supervisor, screenwriter, and Hitchcock’s most trusted collaborator, Alma exerted a powerful influence on Hitchcock’s life and his work.
Hitch and Alma
Any examination of the factors that made Alfred Hitchcock a great filmmaker has to include an understanding of his relationship with his wife, the former Alma Reville. While Hitchcock often downplayed the contributions of other collaborators on his work, everyone understood that Alma always had the last — and most important — opinion on matters related to her husband’s films.
From their marriage in 1926, the Hitchcocks remained a professional team even after she no longer received official credit. Yet most studies of Hitchcock mention Alma little, if at all. (One important exception is Dan Aulier’s Hitchcock’s Notebooks, a supplemental text for this course, which not only posits, but also documents Alma’s influence.)
Some who worked on Hitchcock’s films cattily suspected Alma’s presence on the payroll as scenario writer, continuity/script supervisor, or in other capacities as some sort of nepotism on Hitchcock’s part. Although Hitchcock was canny enough to do this sort of thing, she was there for her solid contributions, not her relationship with the director. In fact, Alma and Alfred first met on a movie set, where she was already an established talent, and his professional respect for her was surely a part of his decision to marry her.
Alma and Alfred collaborated officially on some of his early screenplays, including Rich and Strange (1932), Suspicion (1941), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). She also served as continuity supervisor (or script supervisor) on many films, a challenging job requiring her to keep track of scenes shot, camera angles, costuming and makeup, and other relevant details so that no continuity mistakes appeared in the finished film.
Although Alma took no official credits after 1950 (Stage Fright, which featured the Hitchcocks’ daughter Patricia in a starring role), she continued to advise her husband. Her strengths in story construction balanced his purely visual sensibilities, and although Hitchcock was fortunate enough to work with some of the great writers of the day, he was even more fortunate to have a talented and trusted writer like Alma at his side for most of his long career.
What Is Expressionism?
German Expressionism is the manipulation of artistic details to elicit the maximum emotion from an audience. Expressionist films used exaggerated sets, canted camera angles, and stark gradations of light and shadow to convey exaggerated psychological states. Expressionist techniques may be seen in such American films as Citizen Kane (1941) and film noir classics like Double Indemnity (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946).
Soviet Montage and German Expressionism
D.W. Griffith was not the only film pioneer to influence Alfred Hitchcock. He also assimilated the innovations of two great movements of the silent film era, Soviet Montage and German Expressionism, in creating his personal style.
Soviet Film and Montage Theory
After the Bolshevik Revolution deposed the Czar and the Communist Party took power in Russia, the Party exerted tremendous influence over all the arts. A shortage of raw celluloid film and the Communists’ propagandistic leanings led to the development of montage — the combination of images through editing to create meaning — by film innovators Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein.
Because of the lack of raw film, it was difficult to shoot new footage, so Soviet filmmakers experimented by combining exposed footage in new ways. Kuleshov performed an experiment in which he intercut images of a bowl of soup and a coffin with footage of a man sitting. Although the shot of the man was exactly the same, audiences believed he was experiencing different emotions based on which image was inserted, the soup or the coffin. The experiment powerfully showed the impact montage could have on an audience’s perceptions.
Eisenstein took Kuleshov’s experiment and refined it. His greatest films, Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Strike (1927), still enthrall viewers who have no interest whatsoever in Soviet ideology. The Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin, the best-known example of Soviet montage, is a scene in which hundreds of individual shots are edited to build in power and tension. Hitchcock quotes one of the most famous shots in the sequence, a close-up of a woman in glasses who has just been wounded, in both Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Birds (1963).
Expressionism and Mise en Scene
Hitchcock learned about combining shots from Griffith and the Soviets; he learned about creating meaning through the framing of shots — the compositional technique called mise en scene — and about filming for maximum emotional effect from the Germans.
During his early career, he was based in Munich, home of the state-run German studio UFA. Hitchcock saw and was influenced by the seminal German films of the era, among them Der Mude Tod/Destiny (1921) by the prominent German director Fritz Lang. In films like Destiny, Dr. Mabuse (1922), Metropolis (1927), and M (1931), Lang used scenery, costumes, lighting, and, later, sound to elicit greater emotion from his audiences, particularly by emphasizing the subjective nature of experience.
Another German filmmaker whose work influenced Hitchcock was F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu: The Vampire (1921), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926). Murnau, Lang, and other German directors did for composition what Eisenstein did for editing — freed it from notions of what it could and should do. In their films, audiences were given information in individual shots rather than through editing. By moving the camera and shooting in longer takes, they created a film style that provided a viable alternative to montage in creating suspense and building mood.
Chapters 1 and 3 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock trace the development of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pure Cinema. In these chapters, you can observe how Hitchcock learned his craft as a filmmaker in the small British film industry and began to achieve renown for his technical mastery of cinema
From his observation of montage and Expressionism, Alfred Hitchcock created a directing style that seamlessly melded the two. Bravura examples of the long takes and subjective techniques he absorbed from Expressionism appear throughout his films, including:
- The jarring images of Alice’s walk home after killing her attacker in Blackmail (1929)
- The famous crane shot swooping down onto a key in the palm of Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious (1946)
- The exaggerated flashes of red in Marnie (1964)
The crop-duster attack in North by Northwest (1959) and the shower scene in Psycho (1960) are both textbook examples of the power of montage. You can read more detailed analysis of these two films in Chapters 32 and 33 of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
French filmmakers and critics Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol argued that Hitchcock’s form — what Hitchcock liked to call “Pure Cinema” — was completely interwoven with his favorite content, suspense. In saying so, they stated a simple truth that few directors besides Hitchcock had embodied before him: A great artist’s form and content always complement each other.
Hitchcock’s skill with montage allowed him to create breathtaking sequences when the movie called for it. His technical skill with cameras, lenses, and machinery helped him film long takes and move the camera wherever he felt it should be to best record significant detail, whether it be an object or an actor’s face. A fluid, facile, and completely cinematic approach to filmmaking was one of Hitchcock’s greatest contributions to the movies.
We’ve briefly looked at how Hitchcock created his filmmaking style. In Lesson 3, we’ll see the process by which he brought those movies to life. In the meantime, go to the Message Board and talk about your favorite uses of montage, mise en scene, or Expressionism in film — or anything else that interests you about the course so far.
Assignment: Becoming Alfred Hitchcock
Read Chapters 1 and 3 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. In these chapters, Spoto describes the evolution of Hitchcock’s art up through The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the first of what Spoto describes as five remarkable British films that sealed Hitchcock’s international reputation.
To parallel his developing film style, Spoto also introduces Hitchcock’s developing themes and storytelling devices.
According to Spoto, what is a MacGuffin and what is its significance in Hitchcock’s films? Go to the Message Board and post your answers, as well as — warning, clue — sharing your favorite MacGuffin with fellow students.