Alfred Hitchcock was a genius, there’s no denying that
fact. Whether or not you like his films
is inconsequential; he was simply a master, the likes of which may never be
seen again. He was an artist in the purest sense of the word. He was also quite the
character, one that purposely stirred the proverbial pot just to see how far he
could take it. He was a great
manipulator, as an artist and a human being.
It’s amazing to discover that, even though there are countless books, magazines
and websites dedicated to the man, he still remains a mystery much like the
characters that inhabit the world of his films. What is known is that he was incredibly opinionated when it came
to the filmmaking process. I mean, it is
Hitchcock, so when he talked, people listened.
More often than not, controversy was sure to follow.
A couple of days ago, I came across an article posted by
Peter Sciretta and the fine folks over at slashfilm. The article contained comments Hitchcock made years ago, in which he claimed
that the introduction of sound led to the deterioration of cinema. And by sound, he was referring to the use of
gratuitous and expositional dialogue.
Upon reading the comments, I thought for sure that Hitchcock
might have lost his marbles at that point in his career. Besides, to be a genius, you must be a
little mad, right?
As a screenwriter, I didn’t know what to think of
Hitchcock’s comments. Here was a man
who had gone on record, saying time and time again that the screenwriter is the
most important aspect of the filmmaking process. And then, with this comment, he single-handedly made me question
the element of filmmaking that elevated the moving picture above the act of
pantomime. What gives?
Hitchcock was reputed to be an intricate filmmaker. Every camera movement, every angle, whatever was in the frame, the lighting, the movements of the actors- it was
all predetermined in fine detail by him.
He reportedly refused to work with certain writers if he didn’t like
them and I’m not speaking in
professional terms. He would talk to
them about everyday tasks and if he didn’t care about what they had to say, he
wouldn’t waste his time working with them.
Hitchcock was one of the very few directors who worked closely with his
writers, which was, at the time, unheard of.
He loathed many actors and often referred to them as “cattle”. Yet everyone wanted to work with him. That’s because he understood the art of
filmmaking and it was infectious, to say the least.
Which brings me back to his comments about the advent of
sound. In true Hitchcock fashion, the
comments pack a punch only after reading it for a third or a fourth time
because he chose his words carefully.
He was commenting on how the industry was becoming over reliant on sound
and (especially) dialogue as a crutch, in which it became a way to tell a story quickly
and without much effort. I’ll admit it,
when I started writing, I made the cardinal sin of letting words express how
the characters felt instead of letting their movements do the “talking”. Sometimes even to this day, I have to remind
myself that they are called “motion pictures” for a reason. Hitchcock realized this and his vast and
impressive filmography drives the point home.
In almost every film, there is a beautiful marriage of picture and
sound. Characters interact, but it is
not their dialogue that propel the story forward but rather their actions; in
other words, the little things that you miss the first time that trigger your brain
on a subconscious level. Just look at
the famous moments from some of his greatest films- Jimmy Stewart’s fear of
heights in Vertigo, Cary Grant outrunning a plane in North by Northwest, the silent birds waiting to attack in The
Birds and Janet Leigh taking a fateful shower in Psycho. Each and every one of these scenes contain
little to no dialogue. In fact, it is
the actions of the characters that tell the story and they are all memorable
for that reason alone.
In this day and age, having a film tell its story without the
crutch of dialogue is hard to come by.
For some reason, over the years, we’ve developed a fixation with having
the facts spoon-fed to us; which means, mystery no longer serves any purpose in
a story. It’s a shame most of us think
that way because I’ve always found that what isn’t revealed is much more
interesting than what is. Look at
the end of The Birds– do we ever find out why the birds
attack? No. That’s why the film is still going strong today. Psycho is a different
sort of animal. All of the facts are
withheld from us until the very end, the breaking point. You can tell that when the psychologists
discuss Norman Bates’ deteriorating mental state Hitchcock was turning the
expositional moment on its head; just enough information is given,
leaving out the finer details. The rest
is up to you to decide. Ambiguity
(especially in Psycho) was the filmmaker’s secret and greatest
Hitchcock’s comments are a warning to us, the modern day
filmgoer and filmmaker. Sometimes, body
language speaks louder than words and these are facets that should be
remembered while telling a story. We
have to be careful not to adhere to our intensely growing interest in knowing
anything and everything a character is thinking. It is essentially the mystery of a character’s surroundings that drives the
story, yet it is our desire in knowing everything there is to know that may be the downfall of the very essence of the motion
picture. In the
words of Hitchcock himself: “Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds,
just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story
in visual terms.”