Master of Suspense leaves a lasting impression on film.
“A bomb under a table goes off, and that’s surprise. We know the bomb is under the table but not when it will go off, and that’s suspense.”
So explains the ‘Master of Suspense,’ Alfred Hitchcock, who is routinely counted among the greatest film directors of all time. Hitchcock was not only superbly skilled at summoning tension in movies, seemingly out of thin air, but he was a complete master of the film medium itself. His style is so distinctive that anyone familiar with his works can recognize any of his movies after only a few shots.
Thematically, Hitchcock films stuck almost religiously to crime and guilt. His favourite plot can usually be summarized as ‘The Innocent Man Wrongly Accused,’ wherein a character is known objectively by the audience to be blameless but some plot angle causes another character’s point of view to regard the protagonist in a guilty light. Hitchcock delighted in recounting the story of how, when he was a young boy who’d misbehaved, his father would send him to a nearby police station armed with a note asking the sargeant to lock him up in order to teach him a lesson.
Hitchcock was fond of and popularized a plot mechanism called a MacGuffin. MacGuffins are devices or sometimes intangible nouns that lead the audience to believe the plot is about one thing, when in fact the MacGuffin is entirely unimportant to the plot’s actual objective. MacGuffins were most common in thrillers. Some more recent examples include the substance unobtanium from Avatar, and the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
Oftentimes Hitchcock would set himself immense technical challenges. His film Rope (1948) is pieced together with a series of ten-minute unbroken shots, giving the impression that the entire film takes place in a single shot. He also had a handful of sequences that would depict the protagonist realizing some plot development and informing the audience at the exact same time. Perhaps the most memorable of these is a sequence in Rear Window (1954), as shown through star James Stewart’s binoculars,where we realize at the same time as Stewart that a murder may have taken place just across the courtyard from where Stewart’s character resides.
Hitchcock had a bit of a questionable, if not outright nasty, reputation among his film sets, particularly toward his so-called ‘Hitchcock Blondes.’ Stars routinely dropped everything to work with him, and among them were Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint, and Tippi Hedren. Throughout filming, he allegedly took delight in unsettling his female protagonists in order to make more believable the paranoia their characters channeled. One such technique of dishevelment was making romantic advances to these Blondes. Just last year, a TV movie was released on the subject: The Girl, premiered through HBO.
Looking back and recognizing the impossibly immense scope of influence Hitchcock and his movies have had in recent years begs the question: What made his films so universal? Apart from acknowledging that almost all his films are wonderful entertainments, there are so many treasures buried beneath the surfaces of his movies. He has made a number of very personal movies and frequently imbues his obsessions and insecurities into his works through the actions of his male leads. Throughout the forties and fifties, at the peak of Hitchcock’s popularity, his films were often written off by critics as cheap suspense, when in fact the reason his thrillers, so much more so than those by other directors, drew the highest grosses is their depth. To subconsciously recognize real human motivations and feelings behind any great thriller is enough draw—for me, at least—to revisit the works of Alfred Hitchcock as often as possible.
Austin Landry is the president of the Classic Film Society.