Rightly dubbed the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic legacy is unparalleled. Over the course of his illustrious career that spanned more than 60 years, he made over 50 feature films, with many of those now considered an indispensable part of filmmaking history. On the 41st anniversary of his demise, we revisit Alfred Hitchcock’s work to figure out how he changed cinema forever.
Like many great artists, Alfred Hitchcock kept evolving as a filmmaker throughout his lifetime. Starting from the silent films he made during his early years, Hitchcock figured out how people responded to the visual narratives. While he employed complicated techniques like the Soviet theory of montage, and aesthetic styles that were influenced by movements like German Expressionism, Hitchcock was aware of the voyeuristic behaviour patterns of his audiences.
This innate understanding helped Hitchcock manipulate the cinematic medium and the viewers simultaneously. He once explained, “We have rectangular screen in a movie house, and this rectangular screen has got to be filled with a succession of images. That’s where the ideas come from. One picture comes up after another. The public aren’t aware of what we call montage, or in other words the cutting of one image to another. They go by so rapidly, so that they are absorbed by the content that they look at on the screen.”
When we talk about Hitchcock’s contributions to the world of cinema, the “MacGuffin” immediately comes to mind. Although Angus MacPhail coined the term, Hitchcock popularised it by using the narrative device to create a distinction between the objectives of his characters and the concerns of his audience, who did not care about the “MacGuffin”. Filmmakers who grew up watching Hitchcock’s work, like George Lucas, interpreted the “MacGuffin” differently and used it in their own ways. For example, Lucas said that the beloved droid R2-D2 was the “MacGuffin” of the first Star Wars film, and the audience definitely established a connection with it.
Hitchcock’s legacy is primarily dictated by his pioneering innovations in cinematic grammar, like the “zoom dolly” in Vertigo, where the camera zooms in and dollies out simultaneously. This translated the feelings of visual disorientation and emotional destabilisation in a poignantly simple manner. It was so brilliant that newer generations of directors still haven’t stopped paying tribute to it, especially Steven Spielberg, who feature the same technique in his own works like Jaws and E.T..
Equally, his experiments with film editing have attained immortality in cinematic history. From the beautiful illusion of Rope which felt like it was shot in one single take, to the famous shower scene from Psycho which had over 90 breaks in just 45 seconds — Hitchcock utilised the full visual potential of the cinematic medium to toy with his viewers. In a conversation with Bryan Forbes, Hitchcock revealed that he refrained from using descriptive words while constructing the screenplay: “There are no descriptions of any kind — no ‘he wondered’, because you can’t photograph ‘he wondered.'”
Hitchcock always maintained that he made films about the things that terrified him the most, and that’s exactly why the audience responded to his constructed nightmares so well. His childhood experiences with the police made him explore crime and the criminal mind through the cinematic lens. Hitchcock’s investigations of phenomenons like psychopathy and repressed sexual tendencies (most notably in Psycho) have shaped the genre in undeniable ways. His films like Rear Window have explored the process of voyeurism better than many scholarly documents, enabling the audience to conduct a metaphysical examination of themselves.
Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for Best Director in his lifetime but that says more about the incompetency of the Academy than Hitchcock’s stature as a filmmaker.
It is an undisputed fact that he is rightly recognised as one of the greatest directors of all time. His works have influenced the likes of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who set the French New Wave in motion. Younger artists like David Fincher and Cary Fukunaga have also incorporated his lessons on cinematic anxiety to boost their own endeavours. While writing about Hitchcock’s brilliance, Godard explained it best: “Broadly speaking there are two kinds of filmmakers. Those who walk along the streets with their heads down, and those who walk with their heads up. In order to see what is going on around them, the former are obliged to raise their heads suddenly and often, turning to the left and then the right, embracing the field of vision in a series of glances.
“They see. The latter see nothing, they look, fixing their attention on the precise point which interests them,” he continued. “When the former are shooting a film, their framing is roomy and fluid (Rossellini), whereas with the latter it is narrowed down to the last millimetre (Hitchcock).”