Study Guide

Rear Window Director

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Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for directing.

This is one of those facts that turns the whole Academy Awards thing into a collective facepalm. Because if you take all of the directors who actually have won and lined them up, you'd see that none of them could do what Hitch did. And the smart ones would have the good grace to admit it. Directors all over the planet have idolized Hitch. A star-struck Francois Truffaut, the iconic French film director, interviewed Hitch for eight days in 1962 and published their conversations in a book that's a bible for many directors. It's a total how-to on film directing and was recently made into a film featuring dozens of today's most celebrated directors discussing how these interviews influenced their own work.

So why the snub by the self-appointed keepers of cinema as Art? Simple answer: he liked suspense movies. He enjoyed scaring his audience, tying them into knots and making them squirm in their seats. The Academy frowns on anything that smacks of popularity (when was the last time a comedy or science-fiction film won Best Picture?), and Hitchcock's movies were very, very popular.

No one better understood how you could use cinematic technique to play on people's emotions, to tell a story using images instead of exposition. Hitchcock got his start in silent films, and he valued visual storytelling as the pure cinematic experience even after the advent of sound. He liked to say that he resorted to dialogue only when pictures couldn't tell the whole story: "In other words, we don't have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie house." (Source)

The success of Hitchcock's early British films like the The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version), The Lady Vanishes, and The 39 Steps won him international acclaim and earned him the attention of the big boys in Tinseltown. He signed a seven-year contract with producer David O. Selznick and moved his family to sunny California.

His first American film was hugely successful. Rebecca is a murder mystery set in the English countryside and was inspired by the best-selling book by Daphne du Maurier. (The same author also wrote The Birds, another Hitchcock thriller.) Rebecca won Best Picture in 1941, the only Hitchcock movie to do so, and his fame skyrocketed. A string of notable films followed: Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, and Torn Curtain, among others.

Hitchcock had a signature look to his films: the dramatic shadows and unexpected camera angles; close-up reaction shots to draw the audience into the characters' emotions; filming strange events in familiar locations.

He had his favorite themes, too: the person wrongly accused; the mysterious blonde; a fascination with voyeurism, quirky characters, dark humor, mistaken identity, and of course, murder. In all of his films, strange things happened to ordinary people. The idea was that the ordinary world can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye and that we live under a constant threat of danger that we don't really recognize. In Hitch's universe, the world isn't as rational or as safe as it might seem to be. If those bizarre things could happen to these ordinary characters, they could happen to us, too. It's all deliciously unsettling.

But it wasn't just camera angles, elaborate and suspenseful set pieces, and plot twists that made his films masterpieces. Hitchcock knew how to use these elements to manipulate the emotions of the audience. Every camera angle, choice of lighting, sound, or wardrobe was his way of speaking to the audience to create a specific feeling (source) "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano," he once told an interviewer (source).

Hitchcock famously described the difference between shock and suspense. To truly engage the audience, he believed, you had to provide them with information. Here's his famous example: Imagine some people sitting around a table discussing baseball. Five minutes into the conversation, a bomb under the table goes off and blows everyone up. You've given the audience a few moments of shock, right? But to create suspense, Hitch said you have to show the audience the bomb under the table that's set to go off in 5 minutes and place a clock in the room so the audience can see the time ticking away. The audience is involved—they're thinking, "Don't talk about baseball—there's a bomb under the table!" Instead of a few seconds of shock, they've had 5 minutes of nail-biting suspense.

That's what Hitch was after.

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