Good evening, ladies & gentlemen…
It’s a greeting that continues to resonate with society, years after the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, first uttered those words. On August 13th, Alfred Hitchcock was born. His career as a filmmaker spanned over half a century and more than fifty films.
He even had a role as a filmmaker in events that took place during World War II which most are unaware. From late June to late July 1945, Hitchcock served as “treatment advisor” on a Holocaust documentary which used footage provided by the Allied Forces. Produced by Sidney Bernstein of the British Ministry of Information, the film was assembled in London. Bernstein brought his future 1948-49 production partner Hitchcock on board as a consultant for the film editing process for the British Ministry of Information and the American Office of War Information.
The filmmakers were commissioned to provide irrefutable evidence of the Nazis’ crimes, and the film recorded the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. Unfortunately, the film would not see the light of day for decades as it was transferred in 1952 from the British War Office film vaults to London’s Imperial War Museum for political reasons as the Allies felt reparations with Germany held precedent. It was not until 2014 that the full-length version of the film German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was completed and restored by film scholars at the Imperial War Museum.
That, however is an aside for the work he is most known.
Hitchcock pioneered special effects in films like the The Birds that were a decade ahead of George Lucas and Star Wars. Psycho, which he mainly funded out of pocket with a second mortgage, remains to this day one of the most frightening films of all time. No slashing, no blood, well except for the Hershey’s chocolate syrup he used in the famous shower scene because it was the only thing that looked just right to Hitch.
His directorial style remains recognizable through his use of camera movements that mimic a characters point of view, forcing viewers into a type of omnipotent voyeurism. His framing and pacing maximized fear, empathy, but most of all anxiety and suspense. For me, however, it was/is the characters. The stories played secondary to the turmoil going on in the characters’ heads. This is why Marnie is one of my favorites. Why, oh why couldn’t Marnie Edgar just get right with all of the second chances and perfect life being provided her by Mark? Therein lies the example of Hitchcock’s style, the character driving the story, which inevitably unlocks as Marnie does.
He later came to hate his techniques and camera tricks as he evolved as a director. To him it became more about filling the screen’s space.
“I like my screen well used, with every corner filled, but no artsy theories clamping the action down,” Hitch said in a typescript called ‘Production Notes’ on July 6, 1936. “Nowadays, I want the cutting and continuity to be as inconspicuous as possible, and all I am concerned with is to get the characters developed and the story clearly told without directorial idiosyncrasies.”
Perhaps, but down the line he seemed to have made peace with his demon and found a balance. To exemplify the example that comes immediately to mind, I return to The Birds and one additional quote.
Hitchcock said that “I do not despise sound in my preference for pictures first, but when I am told that the talking picture has a bigger range of subjects, I argue that it also lessens the appeal.”
Now to my example. Consider the scene in The Birds where Mitch, Melanie, Lydia and Cathy are sitting in the living room. The house is boarded up and all is quiet. The foursome is nervously drinking tea. Then, the birds begin attacking the house. All chaos breaks loose and we as the audience also begin to give way to the claustrophobic anxiety of being pecked to death without any relief in sight. But what are we really watching? Four actors/actresses in a room and the sound of screeching, pecking seagulls. Nothing more.
This scene, of all other motivations and inspirations, made me want to be a filmmaker.
In retrospect, considering the words of an exuberant young filmmaker, to one who worked on a documentary involving war atrocities to his later, more notable work, Mr. Hitchcock’s journey into the art aged to the form in which I best know him. To me, that is a privilege to behold the finished product.
This article may come across as more than a bit personal, it is. I am more than thrilled that the editorial staff of the Pennsylvania Bridges let me write it. Happy birthday, Mr. Hitchcock.
Story by Fred “Tomato” Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges