Monday, 26 January 2009

Influences part 11: Alfred Hitchcock

Doesn't this image look similar to the paintings of Edward Hopper? (See my earlier post about the influence of Hopper on my work).

The most obvious influence with Hitchcock's films on my graduation film is the suspense element that he is famed for. I have been interested in creating a suspense film since I started 3rd Year, but it was a long time before I considered writing such a story for my graduation film (roughly two months into my 4th Year, after having spent 5 months prior to that working on a different story)! But anyway, here I am (at last) with a suspense element in my graduation film, and I'm now much more enthusiastic about trying to pull it off.
In the last 6 months I have watched 14 Hitchcock films as influential research for developing the suspense element of my graduation film, as well as almost 100 other films for alternative research purposes. While the suspense element is what Hitchcock is famed for, there is no single/specific element that creates the suspense - it is built up with effective use of several elements together - and that is what I will try to focus on here...

Hitchcock films are regularly set within common locations that either seem typical of any town in a Western country (for example within the town centre, library, church, motel, seaside resort), or in real-life locations that are well known (like San Francisco, Quebec, Mount Rushmore, Albert Hall). This gives the film a familiarity within which the audience does not expect crime or murder to happen, making the audience realise that such events could easily happen anywhere - including their own friendly neighbourhood. This prospect terrifies the audience, and the terror makes the audience anxious to discover what has or may happen, therefore creating a lot of suspense.
I feel as though this element of Hitchcock's work is not as effective in today's society because we get access to horrific news from around the world instantly through TV and the Internet. This means that we now get regularly bombarded with news of murder and crime, so it feels commonplace in the 21st Century, and this reality of commonplace murder therefore lessens the impact that fictional stories about death can have on us... This does not mean that fictional stories will no longer affect us like they affected people when Hitchcock made his greatest films, but simply that the setting of Hitchcock's films is not as relevant to today's society.
For example, I do not think that a film about war set in a Western country like America or Britain would have much impact on kids in those countries today because kids hear about their war in Iraq on TV but have little idea of the impact that war would have on their life, whereas if you show the same film to an older generation who experienced the Second World War, I think it would have a much greater impact on them because they have a real understanding of the story.
It is not that for a fictional suspense film to be effective today it must tell a story relatable to everyday life and set within a typical location, rather it is that the story should seem realistic without already being commonplace in the media.

Aside from the fact that Hitchcock's protagonists are often played by the glamorous people of Hollywood, the characters in his stories are usually living a believable life (eg: a common man wrongfully accused of crime, a woman on the run, or someone in the wrong place at the wrong time) which helps the audience to relate to and sympathise with their situation.
The audience's sympathy for the character makes them more emotionally involved in the story, and therefore heightens the audiences response to the situation arising within the film. This emotional connection to the film is a key component with any film genre because without it the audience is likely to have little involvement with the story, and they will probably not care much for what is happening, or have any interest in seeing the film again.

Shot composition:
Hitchcock uses a lot 1st or 2nd Person shots (from a human perspective like head-height) that are immediately relevant to the viewpoint of a character in the story. This places the audiences directly into the action, and involves us with what the characters on screen are doing within our proximity. This places us in the same situation as the characters, allowing us to more-or-less experience their life, and feel what they feel. This shot composition makes the story situation feel real to us, and heightens our emotional response to the story - increasing the suspense.
Along with the regular use of 1st or 2nd Person shots, Hitchcock also uses what I will call "suggestive angles" (shot from a non-human perspective like the far end of a tunnel or from the ceiling - a position not immediately relevant to a specific character in the story) that takes the audience away from the situation of the characters in the story, but hints at something nearby that could be dangerous for the characters. This tells the audience of a threat that the characters in the film are unaware of, but rather than spoil the surprise for the audience, it makes the audience anticipate the threatening action, which then allows the film director to play with where, when, and how this threat will take place. It may occur immediately, or will occur after many false starts, or may not happen at all.
Regardless of what happens after the audience sees such a shot, the audience's anticipation of threat creates a natural suspense in the imagination of the audience, but the director will often choose to play with this natural suspense, and the less predictable the director's decision is, the better the suspense may be - so long as the director does not make it too recurrent.

A basic film will be shot at a leisurely pace, but in order to create suspense the pacing will fluctuate more often. For example the pacing may slow right down to calm the atmosphere only for a sudden change to dramatically alter the story - creating a fright. The pacing may get quicker and build up to a frantic climax, or it may just steadily fluctuate to keep the audience guessing.
There are various rules commonly adopted by directors, but the key is to allow for change and not to be predictable or for the pace to be drastically off. As a general rule in relation to suspenseful moments, shots will slow down and there will be few cuts, so that the audience gets sucked right into the moment and is constantly expecting a sudden change to scare them.

Through the work of Hitchcock I have learnt a lot about pacing my film and shot composition, which has greatly assisted in developing the suspense elements of my graduation film.
There are a couple of things in my film that could be identified as being influenced by his work, but hopefully my eclectic range of other influences will make it more than just seem like an imitation of the Master of Suspense - because that is not what I have been aiming for.

To conclude, saying as I have barely referenced Hithcock's work in this post, here are some of my favourite Hitchcock films:
North By Northwest,
I Confess,
Strangers On A Train,
Dial M For Murder,
Rear Window,
The Trouble With Harry

And here is a great website with lots of images from all of Hitchcock's films:
1000 Frames of Hitchcock

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