Hitchcock’s blueprint to success

Alfred Hitchcock never took a writing credit for any of his films but his presence is evident when watching all his movies. I doubt whether there is a single cinema goer who cannot spot a Hitchcock film.

This is mainly because of the clarity he demanded from a script and his personal supervision of writers. He wanted a blueprint of the film he was about to make as there was little room for improvisation once the cameras began rolling. He hammered into the writers that they had to explain the story with vision. He once famously remarked, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”

Hitchcock would typically choose a story where he knew he could exploit a single emotion to the max. Creating an emotion to the point that it would make the audience feel it in their guts was Hitchcock’s stock-in-trade.

The Birds based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novelette is a good example of this as the story goes nowhere, but Hitchcock manages to work his magic all the same. The story has just one concept: a massive attack by birds on a rural community. Individually, a bird is harmless but in flocks so big that they block out the sky, a new dimension of fear is created.

Hitchcock was a good friend of Du Maurier’s father and he’d already directed Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, two of her better known novels. He did not think much of Jamaica Inn as a story, and while he liked Rebecca he was not allowed a free-hand in the script because of the intervention of David O. Selznick. Luckily for the British director that Selznick did put his foot down as Rebecca won the Oscar for best picture, launching Hitchcock’s career in the US.

By the time he got to make The Birds, Hitchcock could walk on water as far as Hollywood was concerned because he had so many hit films. But he was sniffy about Du Maurier’s 1952 short story, claiming he’d only read it once and at that very quickly. He explained to François Truffaut that after reading a book he’s thinking of turning into a film, he just forgets the book and starts to create cinema.

As long as a story had a hook, he was confident that he could make something from it. Du Maurier’s story is about a poor post-war Cornish family whose cottage suddenly comes under an unexplained attack by birds. It later becomes clear that the whole of Britain is under attack, which some commentators believe was a possible reference to the emergence of the Cold War.

Hitchcock didn’t like the drab setting and swapped Cornwall for California, upgrading the main character from a disabled farm hand to the dashing Rod Taylor. There was only one challenge for Hitchcock and that was to frighten the audience with birds for 90 minutes.

He said his job was to always make the audience suffer as much as possible and that he did in the case of The Birds, using a combination of real birds and models. It should be said that Du Maurier provided plenty of horror in her short story for Hitchcock to feast upon. It didn’t matter why the birds were attacking or whether it was some metaphor. All he was interested in was to exploit our phobias and make us suffer.

The Birds is one of his best known films and I admire it because it is based on a simple what if?  Hitchcock begins the story with the purchase of two love birds and then ratchets up the tension scene by scene. Dare any film maker to remake it. Of course Steven Spielberg did in a way with Jaws, but making a scary movie with gnashing razor sharp teeth is arguably slightly less challenging than doing one about our feathery friends.

So which of his 52 films are my favourite? For me it still remains The 39 Steps, followed by Foreign Correspondent, Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Blackmail, Rear Window, Notorious, The Paradine Case, Torn Curtain (like the Wizard of Oz, it grows on you with every viewing), and controversially Topaz. The Leon Uris spy novel, which the latter film was based upon, is a cracker and Hitchcock takes a more conventional approach in his storytelling, something that would have been at odds with him. I have to admit I have a soft spot for the single overhead shot of Karin Dor being shot and her long flowing dress representing the spilling of her blood – the only arty Hitchcockian scene in the film and well worth the wait. It does have three endings, depending on which version you watch. Unfortunately, the critics hated the film and it was a commercial flop.

I’m not sure why the BFI in 2012 voted Vertigo the best film of all time, replacing Citizen Kane. Before going to press, I re-watched Vertigo and still think it excruciatingly slow.

It took the French critics writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-1950s to truly recognise the genius of Hitchcock. His work allowed them to put across their view that it was the director, not the producer, writer or actor, who was the true author of a film. Hitchcock was the perfect example of their theory because he controlled every element of his movies.

So many film makers have played homage to Hitchcock over the decades because of his influence in the language of modern film making.

Every so often the press and film bloggers like to play a game of naming the best half dozen films that look like a Hitchcock film but were not directed by the great master of suspense. So here are my six films that have Hitchcock qualities: Peeping Tom (Michael Powell); Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol); Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg); Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut); Misery (Rob Reiner) and Charade (Stanley Donen).

Whether Hitchcock would have chosen to make any of these films is another question and probably a far more interesting one.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

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