Two strangers meet on a train and plot to trade murders; a wheelchair bound photographer passes the time by spying on his neighbours through his rear window; a young woman is stabbed to death in a motel shower; an advertising exec is wrongfully accused of killing a man and has to go on the run; a timid new bride is haunted by the memory of her husband’s first wife; and a retired detective romantically falls in love with a mysterious woman only to have his illusions shattered.
All these ideas have the indelible stamp of one director – Alfred Hitchcock, a master of suspense and the macabre. “I think that all films I make are fantasies. They are not slices of life, they are larger than life.” Hitchcock had the greatest of all things, a story to tell. Audiences knew that with a Hitchcock story they would have a good time, they may be frightened, or they may be amused, as Hitchcock had an individual personality as a storyteller.
Characters in Hitchcock’s films often fall into three types. The wrongfully accused man was a subject Hitchcock repeatedly returned throughout his career from Strangers on a Train through to North by Northwest, with the audience having sympathy for the man on the run. The Guilty Woman is often embodied in the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ and is familiar from films such as Rebecca, Vertigo and Psycho. The serial killer or psychopath in the story has long fascinated Hitchcock from the earliest days of The Lodger, through to Strangers and Psycho. Mothers also feature heavily in Hitchcock films, most notably in Psycho, where mother isn’t feeling quite her self today. Motel manager Norman Bates has both guest and mommy issues.
Hitchcock often talked about the MacGuffin in his films, which is the engine of the story. It’s the object which the plot revolves around and motivates the characters, but the audience cares little about. Often a MacGuffin is central to thrillers, spy stories, and adventures. Most of the characters in the story will base their actions around it, although the final result will usually be of greater significance than actually getting, controlling or destroying the MacGuffin. In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is the roll of microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue, which both Cary Grant, the hero, and James Mason, the villain, are after. In Psycho it’s the $40,0000 dollars of cash Marion Crane steals from her boss.
Hitchcock often outlined the difference between mystery and suspense. Whereas mystery is an intellectual process, like a ‘who dunnit’, suspense is an emotional process that involves the audience or reader. In all suspense you must give the reader information otherwise they will have nothing to be anxious about. If you tell the audience that there is a bomb in the room and that it’s going to go off in five minutes, that’s suspense. Hitchcock knew how to mix the ingredients of suspense so that emotional tension became almost unbearable. “We’re sitting here talking,” said Hitchcock in an interview. “And we don’t know there’s a bomb hidden inside your tape recorder. The public doesn’t know either, and suddenly the bomb explodes. We’re blown to bits. Surprise, but how long does it last, the surprise and horror? Five seconds no more.” The secret Hitchcock said, was to let the audience in on the ticking bomb. In that way, instead of five seconds of surprise, you’ve created five minutes of suspense. In Vertigo, the mystery is who is Madeleine Elster and has she really been possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdez? But the real suspense is what will James Stewart’s character Scottie do when he finds out that Madeleine is really Judy the shop girl, and he has fallen in love with an illusion?
Most of all, Hitchcock relished a good yarn, he described his stories as a slice of cake, a rollercoaster ride or a trip to the haunted house.
Our Hitchcock season starts on Sunday 6 July. See what’s on
Tony Lee Moral is a documentary filmmaker and author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass’ published by Michael Wiese Books), ‘The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds’ published by Oldcastle Books and ‘Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie’ published by Roman and Littlefield.