Movie-making is essentially a family heirloom some preschool teacher brings for show-and-tell, passing it around a circle of sticky-fingered four-year-olds until it’s so covered in smudgy fingerprints, it’s almost unrecognizable. Gross. But sometimes, one of those gunky mouth-breathers leaves behind a smear that changes the landscape of cinema forever, and gets elevated to the pantheon of baby geniuses – but not Baby Geniuses (1999), which I never saw, but I heard sucked. Anyway. What follows is the first in a series of looks at one of those geniuses, Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock #1: Sight, Sound, Truth
In 1929, Hitchcock released Blackmail, his tenth feature film and Britain’s first all-talking picture. The director himself was skeptical of the “talkies”, however. Throughout his career, Hitchcock touted the virtues of “pure cinema” – visual storytelling – and disparaged dialogue-driven scenes as “photographs of people talking.” This distrust of sound permeates his entire oeuvre.
Several of Hitchcock’s greatest films deal directly with the uneasy relationship between sight and sound. Both Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) present competing narratives, one created through dialogue, the other stitched together from visual elements. Both films ultimately discredit the verbal narrative.
Psycho (1960) ups the ante by expanding the scope of suspicion to include the entire soundtrack, including the score. The first third of the film follows Marion Crane, on the lam after stealing $40,000 from her boss. Whenever Marion is alone with the cash, the same ominous motif plays. The music pulls us in. Our thoughts race as Marion packs and re-packs the money, rolling it up inside a newspaper. Will she be caught, or get away? In reality, Marion is going nowhere but the Bates Motel, and the newspaper nowhere but the swamp. Hitchcock [and composer Bernard Herrmann] plays us for suckers, making us care about the money and the thief just because he can.
Later, he kicks the chair out from under us. We’ve spent an hour-plus listening to Norman Bates and his mother argue off-screen. Surprise! Mrs. Bates is actually Norman in a dress, running around and stabbing people. The end result of this one-two punch: we’re left wondering if we can trust anything we hear. Is the whole world just lies upon lies?
This all suggests an iron-clad maxim from the barn wall in Animal Farm – Pictures Good, Sound Baaad. North By Northwest (1959), however, is a different beast altogether. When we meet our hero, Roger Thornhill, everything we need to know about him comes in a blitz of snappy dialogue. He’s an advertising executive, a self-absorbed, womanizing cad. Later, the talking heads in charge of an unnamed government organization reveal the truth about super spy George Kaplan – despite hotel rooms full of personal belongings, Kaplan doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, the visuals run amok, spreading misinformation faster than the Trifectura® LazerBlade™ Heated Knife I used to butter my toast this morning [nothing worse than waiting for butter to reach room temperature, am I right???]. Roger is mistaken for Kaplan by the Big Bad’s henchmen. They kidnap him and take him to a country estate, where he incorrectly identifies the Big Bad as Lester Townsend. When he confronts the real Townsend, Roger is framed for his murder, and goes on the run.
Roger meets Eve Kendall, his love interest and apparent accomplice. Yet in a pivotal scene with almost no dialogue, Eve slips a note to the Big Bad. We see her true colors, and they ain’t pretty.
Now the familiar paradigm asserts itself. Roger is rescued from probable death by “The Professor”, one of the talking heads from the earlier scene. The Professor refuses to divulge which agency he works for [“We’re all part of the same alphabet soup”], but reveals that Eve also works for them. He asks Roger to help rescue her before cover is blown. As the Professor outlines the rescue plan, the rotors of a nearby plane drown him out. We don’t need to hear it laid out; we’re about to see it in action.
What’s going on here? Why the heavy reliance on dialogue in the first half of the film? It would be easy to assume this was unintentional, an imperfect example of the paradigm. But Hitchcock and his writers polished their screenplays until he was completely satisfied. And it’s hard to ignore how the opening scenes make the dialogue the focus, or how the visuals gradually undermine its position.
Remember, Roger is an ad man, adept at weaving words to obscure reality. He also uses them to maintain a carefully crafted image, hiding his true self. When the Big Bad’s henchmen get him drunk and force him into a car, hoping he’ll have an accident, Roger is instead arrested for drunk driving. He sets out to find the real George Kaplan to avenge his wounded pride.
In the first half of the film, we see the world as Roger sees it. Words are safe, dependable. Then – betrayal. Danger. His world unravels. As the pressure mounts, Roger’s defensive screens are stripped away, until he stands exposed – not the great spy, not the smarmy executive, but a man of ideals, willing to risk everything for the woman he loves.
The conflict between sound and image lies at the heart of Hitchcock’s entire filmography. Even films that abandon the “pure cinema” aesthetics pit the two against each other in interesting and often ironic ways. Hitchcock knew the importance of sound for creating engaging, multi-layered stories. Through the careful use of sight and sound, he made some of the greatest movies of all time.
What can we learn about film-making from watching Hitchcock? The following list suggests several films which can serve as models for the particular techniques we’ve been discussing. What other films do you think illustrate these techniques well?
- Visual Storytelling: Rear Window, Psycho, Strangers On A Train.
- Manipulating the Audience Through Sound: Psycho, The Birds
- Conveying Theme Through Story Structure: North By Northwest
Truth In 24 Frames © 2018 Ethan R. Friend.