“The Master of Suspense”
Hitchcock’s lasting influence on film and filmmakers, particularly in the genres of horror and suspense.
Critics often divide film into genres (the French word for “type” or “kind”) to allow for meaningful comparison and study. Westerns, film noir, romantic comedies, war films, horror films, and biographies are among the most commonly identified genres. Go the Message Board and tell fellow students your favorite movie of all time, why you like it, and in what genre it belongs.
Hitchcock and Film Genre
By now you should have a good grasp of what made Hitchcock “Hitchcock” and why his work has appealed to audiences for more than 70 years. Let’s conclude with an assessment of Hitchcock’s lasting impact and look at how he changed the film medium forever. During his long career, Hitchcock worked in a wide range of film genres, everything from courtroom drama (The Paradine Case, 1947) to screwball comedy (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 1941). But he is best remembered for his contributions to two film genres in particular: horror and suspense.
Hitchcock and the Horror Genre
Today, Hitchcock is often thought of as a director of horror films. The influence of Psycho is far-reaching, and directors such as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Brian de Palma — as well as countless second-rate talents who helmed derivative slasher films — all owe a great debt to Hitchcock. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant paid Hitchcock perhaps the ultimate tribute in 1998 when he directed and released a controversial, shot-by-shot remake of Psycho!
Hitchcock’s frequent exploration of the thin line between sanity and insanity — in films like Spellbound (1944), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958), and Marnie (1964) — and his stories of serial killers — The Lodger (1926), Psycho (1960), and Frenzy (1972) — paved a direct road to contemporary horror films. Film villains today are often psychopaths or sociopaths who seem to be — and sometimes think themselves — beyond morality; it was Hitchcock’s great skill that he never led audiences to believe them free of guilt.
Psycho led the way for graphic violence on the screen with the skillfully rendered violence of its shower and stairway murders. Following its lead, the fast-paced montage of violent images has become a staple of horror films, and of film violence in general. The action montages in Jaws (1975), The Godfather (1972), Die Hard (1988), or Unforgiven (1992) are, at their best, examples of Pure Cinema. Too many directors and screenwriters miss the point, however. They believe startling images and lightning-quick editing will instill shock and terror in their audiences, whereas Hitchcock portrayed terror by laying bare the killer’s psyche.
Perhaps Hitchcock’s most important contribution to horror films was his frequent use of the subjective camera to reveal a character’s vision, as in Psycho when Norman Bates peeps through a hole at Marion, or when “Mother” slashes Marion in the shower.
As film critic Roger Ebert has complained, this subjective technique — shooting from the killer’s point of view — has been used to the point of overuse in recent slasher films. Here again, Hitchcock’s imitators fall short of the Master. In Hitchcock’s films, point-of-view shots force moral culpability onto the audience; in most contemporary slasher films, the images exist only to gratuitously display gore. No moral order exists in most of these films, except perhaps the suggestion that having sex in the woods on a dark night may be a bad idea.
The Suspense Film
Hitchcock’s other great contribution to contemporary film genres comes in the field of suspense (which can encompass action/adventure, espionage thrillers, and detective stories, among other film types). We’ve noted how Hitchcock’s Pure Cinema, his belief in the superiority of suspense over surprise, and his favorite storylines made his style and subject perfectly matched. Hitchcock’s chase films, such as The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959), have evolved into a virtual subgenre of their own.
Film critic Robin Wood and director Francois Truffaut are among those who have noted that the James Bond films, for example, are copies of North by Northwest. A suave and unflappable hero, outlandish dangers, beautiful predatory women — all are elements found in Hitchcock, although the Bond films often revel in titillation and vicarious violence. While it is perhaps unfair to ask entertainments to do more than entertain, North by Northwest does. As Wood notes, it “has a subject as well as a plot.”
Perhaps the greatest recent neo-Hitchcock film is The Fugitive (1993). Its stylishly edited train wreck and intelligently woven double chase suggest vintage Hitchcock, as do the moral issues underlying the action.
Among the directors who employ a consistent visual style and approach to themes and subject matter include old Hollywood directors like Welles, Ford, Hawks, and Erich von Stroheim. We might also recognize world filmmakers Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, and Akira Kurosawa, as well as contemporary directors such as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman.
Earlier we mentioned the auteur (French for “author”) film theory, which has become a dominant method of film criticism today. It has changed the way we look at films, and it has changed the way we look at Alfred Hitchcock.
In the 1950s, French film critics (and later filmmakers) Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and others began to articulate the auteur theory in the journal Cahiers du Cinema. In studying Hollywood films of the studio era, they noticed that, despite the assembly-line nature of studio filmmaking, certain directors brought a consistency of style and subject to most or all of their films. Directors like Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock began to be studied as the authors of their films, and Hitchcock, as we have seen, encouraged that identification by claiming the lion’s share of credit for his movies.
Although directors languished in obscurity under the studio system, today you don’t have to be a film buff to be excited that a new film is directed by John Woo or Spike Lee. Actors still rule at the box office, but if a film is a success or failure, directors typically get the credit or the blame. Since the 1960s, when film critic Andrew Sarris popularized the auteur theory in this country, directors have come to be recognized as the most important creative force on a film, and Hitchcock has become known as one of the most prominent auteurs ever.
Partly, Hitchcock is recognized as a supreme auteur because he was so involved in so many aspects of his films, from planning to promotion. More importantly, he can be easily identified as an auteur because — despite the many producers, writers, and actors with whom he worked — his films bear a consistency of style and thematic material that render them instantly identifiable. Just saying “a film by Alfred Hitchcock” conjures indelible images and scenes, and this, ultimately, is the hallmark of a true film auteur: a distinctive and consistent vision.
As a film innovator, Hitchcock showed us that diverse cinematic techniques could be transformed into a powerful storytelling language. Every montage in the movies or music videos reminds us how Hitchcock made frenetic editing mainstream.
His influence on major film genres, as well as on contemporary directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, is profound and lasting. But perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest legacy is his body of work. The films Hitchcock left behind will continue to challenge and entertain audiences all over the world for years to come.
Chaos and Order, Love and Death
Hitchcock’s films touch on some of the central concerns of modern life. Although Hitchcock was born in the Victorian age, he lived his adult life in the 20th century, in the world that created ours: a world of violence, deceit, war, and terror. Violence, insanity, and loss mark the landscape of Hitchcock’s art. His characters are subjected to them as we are. His world — like ours — often seems gray with ambiguity.
But Hitchcock leaves us with comforts. Films like Spellbound, Notorious (1946), and North by Northwest affirm the power of love to ultimately redeem human beings. Rear Window, both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and The Birds show human connection and community as our best hopes against chaos.
Even in films like Vertigo, Psycho, and Frenzy, where our sympathies are divided and our sensibilities disturbed, Hitchcock leaves us the recognition that we can live as moral human beings. A further analysis of the themes in Frenzy can be found in Chapter 38 of the course text, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, by Donald Spoto.
Perhaps the greatest solace Hitchcock offers is in the films themselves, which remind us that meticulously crafted works of art can serve — as poet Robert Frost once said — as stays against chaos. Artistic thought and creation can affirm order and life, and Hitchcock reminds us that both are possible in this world.
Goodbye and Good Luck
We covered a lot of ground in these eight lessons. Everything from Hitchcock’s development of technique and early influences to overriding themes throughout his movies and how he shaped the course of filmmaking.
What other aspects of Hitchcock’s life would you have liked us to touch on in this course? Thanks for the assistance in helping us better serve you.
Your learning can continue, even after you complete the final quiz and assignment. The work of Alfred Hitchcock is endlessly rewarding, whether you want to make films or just enjoy them as a viewer. Best of luck to all of you as you continue to think, to learn, and to grow, and thank you for taking your time to share in this class.
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Assignment: Final Thoughts
Read Chapter 33 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. This chapter on Psycho gives Donald Spoto the opportunity to analyze one of Hitchcock’s most influential and meaningful films. Why does Spoto believe that Psycho attains the level of great tragedy?