Themes and plot devices in the films of alfred hitchcock
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Themes and plot devices in the films of alfred hitchcock Themes and plot devices in the films of alfred hitchcock Document Transcript

  • 228600-457200<br />Themes and plot devices in the films of Alfred Hitchcock<br />Alfred Hitchcock's films show an interesting tendency towards recurring themes and devices, such that one can almost feel that he was in some way making the same movie, or at least telling the same story, over and over again throughout his life as a director.<br />Here are some of the themes that show up repeatedly in his films:<br />Birds<br />There are countless images of birds in nearly all of Hitchcock's films. Some of the most prominent are listed below.<br />Psycho - The film begins in Phoenix, Arizona and a Phoenix is also a mythological bird. Marion's last name is "Crane". Norman practices taxidermy as a hobby and his favorites are birds. Norman describes Marion's eating behavior as "eats like a bird".<br />Vertigo - Gavin's last name is Elster, which is German for Mockingbird.<br />The Birds-The film's plot revolves around birds attacking a small town called Bodega Bay.<br />Suspense<br />Hitchcock preferred the use of suspense over the use of surprise in his films. In surprise, the director assaults the viewer with frightening things. In suspense, the director tells or shows things to the audience which the characters in the film do not know, and then artfully builds tension around what will happen when the characters finally learn the truth. Hitchcock was fond of illustrating this point with a short aphorism - "There's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't..."<br />Audience as voyeur<br />Further blurring the moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty, occasionally making this indictment inescapably clear to viewers one and all, Hitchcock also makes voyeurs of his "respectable" audience. In Rear Window (1954), after L. B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) has been staring across the courtyard at him for most of the film, Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) confronts Jeffries by saying, "What do you want of me?" Burr might as well have been addressing the audience. In fact, shortly before asking this, Thorwald turns to face the camera directly for the first time.<br />Similarly, Psycho begins with the camera moving toward a hotel-room window, through which the audience is introduced to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her divorced boyfriend Sam Loomis, played by John Gavin. They are partially undressed, having apparently had sex though they are not married and Marion is on her lunch "hour". Later, along with Norman Bates (portrayed by Anthony Perkins), the audience watches Marion undress through a peephole.<br />MacGuffin<br />One of Hitchcock's favorite devices for driving the plots of his stories and creating suspense was what he called the "MacGuffin". The Oxford English Dictionary, however, credits Hitchcock's friend, the Scottish screenwriter Angus MacPhail, as being the true inventor of the term. Hitchcock defined this term in a 1964 interview conducted by François Truffaut, published as Hitchcock/Truffaut (Simon and Schuster, 1967). Hitchcock would use this plot device extensively. Many of his suspense films revolve around this device: a detail which, by inciting curiosity and desire, drives the plot and motivates the actions of characters within the story, but whose specific identity and nature is unimportant to the spectator of the film. In Vertigo, for instance, "Carlotta Valdes" is a MacGuffin; she never appears and the details of her death are unimportant to the viewer, but the story about her ghost's haunting of Madeleine Elster is the spur for Scottie's investigation of her, and hence the film's entire plot. In Notorious, the uranium that the main characters must recover before it reaches Nazi hands serves as a similarly arbitrary motivation: any dangerous object would suffice. And state secrets of various kinds serve as MacGuffins in several of the spy films, especially his earlier British films The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock has stated that the best MacGuffin "the emptiest" was the one used in North By Northwest, which was referred to as "Government secrets".<br />The ordinary person<br />Placing an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances is a common element of Hitchcock's films. In The 39 Steps, the protagonist Richard Hannay is drawn into a web of espionage, after a female spy he meets in a theatre is killed in his apartment. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), James Stewart plays an ordinary man from Indianapolis vacationing in Morocco when his son is kidnapped. In The Wrong Man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is arrested for a crime he didn't commit. In Psycho, Janet Leigh plays an unremarkable secretary whose personal story is violently interrupted by a furious psychopath. Other clear examples are Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Vertigo, and North By Northwest. The focus on an ordinary character enables the audience to relate to the action in the movie.<br />The wrong man or wrong woman<br />Mistaken identity is a common plot device in his films.<br />North By Northwest - Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan, a non-existent CIA agent.<br />The Wrong Man - Henry Fonda is mistaken for a criminal.<br />Vertigo- the film revolves around Scottie Ferguson's investigation of the false Madeleine Elster's real identity.<br />The 39 Steps - The main character is mistaken for a government spy.<br />Frenzy - The protagonist is thought to be the notorious Necktie Killer due the circumstances he finds himself in.<br />The likeable criminal, aka the charming sociopath<br />The villain in many of Hitchcock's films appears charming and refined rather than oafish and vulgar. Especially clear examples of this tendency are Claude Rains in Notorious, Barry Foster in Frenzy, Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train and James Mason in North by Northwest.<br />In Psycho, Marian Crane (Janet Leigh) steals from her employer and runs away to be with her boyfriend, thus making her a criminal for her theft, and immoral for having pre-marital sex. However, the filmgoers are sympathetic to her; she has just decided to return the money when she is then brutally murdered. In Marnie, the title character (Tippi Hedren) is a cunning serial thief.<br />Staircases<br />Images of staircases often play a central role in Hitchcock's films. The Lodger tracks a suspected serial killer's movement on a staircase. Years later, a similar shot appears in the final sequence of Notorious. In Vertigo, the staircase in the church bell tower plays a crucial role in the plot. In Psycho, several staircases are featured prominently: as part of the path up to the Bates mansion, as the entrance to the fruit cellar, and as the site of Detective Arbogast's murder. In Rear Window, an entirely nonfunctional staircase adorns James Stewart's apartment, in addition to the numerous fire escape staircases seen each time we follow Stewart's gaze out of his window. In Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) attempts to murder his niece by rigging a staircase to collapse. In Dial M for Murder, a key kept under the stair carpet plays a pivotal role in booking the murderer. Frenzy features an unusual shot which tracks the killer and his victim first up the stairs, then retreats backwards down the stairs alone while the audience is left to imagine the killing which is taking place. One other iconic stairwell shot comes from the movie Suspicion as Cary Grant slowly walks up the stairs to deliver what would have been the poisonous warmed milk to his wife. Hitchcock, the studios and Cary Grant decided his character could not end up as a murderer and that scene becomes a red herring with a new ending added.<br />This stylistic interest in staircases is attributed to the influence of German Expressionism, which often featured heavily stylized and menacing staircases, for example in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.<br />Trains<br />In Hitchcock's films, trains are often used as a sexual euphemism. Extended sequences on trains feature in a number of Hitchcock films, including Number Seventeen, Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest. In The 39 Steps and North by Northwest, the limitations imposed by train travel on characters' movements enhances the suspense as the lead character is pursued for a crime he did not commit. Hitchcock's most-extended train sequence is in The Lady Vanishes, where the inability to exit the train except at stations forces the two lead characters to accept that the lady for whom they are searching must still be aboard. The vertiginous excitement of moving around the outside of a moving train is exploited in Number Seventeen and The Lady Vanishes.<br />Mothers<br />Mothers are frequently depicted as intrusive and domineering, or at the very least, batty, as seen in Rope, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.<br />Brandy<br />Hitchcock includes the consumption of brandy in many of his films. "I'll get you some brandy. Drink this down. Just like medicine ..." says Scottie Ferguson to "Madeleine Elster" in Vertigo. In a real-life incident, Hitchcock dared Montgomery Clift at a dinner party around the filming of I Confess (1953) to swallow a carafe of brandy, which caused the actor to pass out almost immediately. In Torn Curtain and Topaz, brandy is defined more closely as cognac. This element is also present in Dial M for Murder where the main characters of the film consume brandy throughout the entire film. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is offered a brandy by Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), and after being attacked by the birds, drinks the brandy offered by Mitch (Rod Taylor). In Rear Window, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is "just warming some brandy". In Frenzy, Richard Blaney is sacked for supposedly stealing brandy, and can be seen in several sequences to be drinking brandy.<br />Sexuality<br />For their time, Hitchcock's films were regarded as rather sexualized, often dealing with perverse and taboo behaviors. Sometimes, the prudish conventions of his era caused him to convey sexuality in an emblematic fashion, such as in North by Northwest, when the film cuts abruptly from two aroused but visually chaste lovers to a train entering a tunnel.<br />Hitchcock found a number of ways to convey sexuality without depicting graphic behaviors, such as the substitution of explicit sexual passion with the passionate consumption of food. In a particularly amusing scene in Psycho, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) carries on a conversation with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) while one of his hands strokes a dead animal and the other hand lingers on his crotch. Sexual feelings are often strongly associated with violent behavior. In The Lodger and Psycho, this association is the whole basis of the film. Biographers have noted how Hitchcock continued to challenge film censorship throughout his career, until he was allowed to show nudity in Frenzy.<br />Blonde women<br />Hitchcock had a dramatic preference for blonde women, stating that the audience would be more suspicious of a brunette. Many of these blondes were of the Grace Kelly variety: perfect, aloof ice goddesses, who also have a hidden red-hot inner fire.<br />In Vertigo James Stewart forces a woman to dye her hair blonde. The Lodger, one of Hitchcock's earliest films, features a serial killer who stalks blonde women. Hitchcock said he used blonde actresses in his films, not because of an attraction to them, but because of a tradition that began with Mary Pickford. The director said that blondes were "a symbol of the heroine". He also thought they photographed better in black and white, which was the predominant film for most dramas for many years.<br />Silent scenes<br />As a former silent film director, Hitchcock strongly preferred to convey narrative with images rather than dialogue. Hitchcock viewed film as a primarily visual medium in which the director's assemblage of images must convey the narrative. Examples of imagery over dialogue are in the lengthy sequence in Vertigo in which Scottie silently follows Madeleine, or the Albert Hall sequence in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.<br />Number 13<br />Hitchcock has many scenes which exploit people's superstitious response to the number 13. The number shows up several times in his movies as an apartment number, room number or house number. For example, in Psycho, when Marion checks into the Bates Motel, Norman reaches first for room 3, then room 1. In addition, the number on the license plate that she drives adds up to 13. Another example is at the car dealership when Marion trades cars the number on the dealership adds up to 13. Each incidence of the number 13 provides an opportunity for her fate to change in this film.<br />Tennis<br />Tennis is often mentioned in Hitchcock films. In Strangers On A Train, the main character is a tennis player. In Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland's character is an ex-tennis player. In Rebecca, the Joan Fontaine character claims to be taking Tennis lessons from the Laurence Olivier character.<br />Falling from high places<br />Most notable in Vertigo, North By Northwest, Saboteur and Rear Window and among other Hitchcock films the protagonist or villain or even the supporting good character is falling from a height.<br />The Perfect Murder<br />Several of Alfred Hitchcock's movies feature characters who are deeply fascinated with the craft of murder. Murder is often treated as an intellectual puzzle, and several Hitchcock characters seek to establish a definitive "perfect" murder (i.e. an undefeatable scientific method of murdering another person without leaving any evidence of the act.) This notion is a core concept in Rope, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo and to a lesser extent, Shadow of a Doubt.<br />