Alfred Hitchcock

On Pins and Needles: Richard Allen Explains Why Alfred Hitchcock is a "Master of Suspense"

An English filmmaker who directed more than 50 movies between the 1920s and the 1970s, Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) pioneered many techniques in the psychological thriller genres.
Richard Allen is Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University and the author of several books about Hitchcock’s films.

Simply Charly: You’re a Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, the author of several scholarly studies about Alfred Hitchcock, and serve as editor of an academic journal titled The Hitchcock Annual. What initially sparked your interest in Alfred Hitchcock?

Richard Allen: I first saw Hitchcock’s films on television in Britain as a teenager. We did not have a television until I was 10. Dial M for Murder (1954) was often shown, but it was Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) that really had a profound impact on me. I was traumatized by Psycho and wanted to know why. Of course, some key films like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) were out of distribution at the time because the Hitchcock Estate controlled the copyright.

SC: Hitchcock’s career began in the silent era and stayed strong through the advent of sound, color, and television. In what important ways did his style evolve over the course of his long and productive career?

RA: One undoubted feature of Hitchcock’s career is his longevity. I think this is partly explained by the fact that he had a profound grasp of the relationship between technological and stylistic innovation in cinema. Every new technology and medium was an occasion to create anew. For example, where most directors saw 3D as a novelty technique, Hitchcock explored the capacity of 3D in Dial M for Murder to organize our perception of spatial relationships and claustrophobia in a tightly confined drama, as well as to model the figure of Grace Kelly. Television afforded Hitchcock the opportunity to abandon the commercial dictates of the romance formula and indulge his fascination with the macabre in darkly comic Poe-esque tales of unpunished villainy. Towards the end of his life, Hitchcock lamented about the lack of technological innovation in filmmaking. I think he would have delighted in the advent of digital cinema, for finally, he could make a film without leaving his office. Indeed, in The Birds, with its elaborate special effects and electronic score, he seems to imagine what digital cinema might achieve before it was invented.

SC: Hitchcock was known as the “Master of Suspense.” In what did his mastery consist?

RA: The “master of suspense” moniker was bestowed on him by a radio ad man in the early 1940s. It stuck in part because Hitchcock himself was willing to embrace the brand name and turn it to his advantage. But there is, I think, substance behind the brand. Hitchcock, like Sergei Eisenstein, was particularly attuned to the way in which film, because of its ease of comprehension and strict temporal flow, can be used to control and orchestrate the emotions of the spectator. His “mastery of suspense” consists in part of the range of ways in which he orchestrates audience expectations. He lets viewers know more than a character knows and creates worry on their behalf—for instance, as when the birds gather on the jungle gym, unknown to Melanie Daniels in The Birds. He will also restrict us to the limited knowledge of a character so that we know only as much as Scottie knows in his pursuit of the elusive Madeleine in Vertigo.

Hitchcock employs different kinds of suspense: both the on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind caused by anticipating the worst—for example, by the fear of a bomb going off and killing the unwitting young protagonist of Sabotage (1936), and the slower, more subtle kind of suspense caused by an emotionally engaging mystery like the enigma of Madeleine. Hitchcock also links action suspense to anxieties about the outcome of romance. For instance, we worry anxiously in Notorious (1946) that Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) will be poisoned by Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) before Devlin (Cary Grant) finds out. He also uses suspense to help create sympathy for the devil in a way that is characteristically “Hitchcockian,” as when, in Psycho, we worry with Norman as the car that carries the corpse of Marion Crane momentarily stalls on its way down to the bottom of the swamp. Hitchcock’s critics tend to see him as “merely” a master of suspense, that is, as a “technical” wizard, who is concerned with the mechanics of film, but whose films lack the depth. Fans of Hitchcock, myself included, tend to view his mastery of suspense as a key to his greatness.

Alfred Hitchcock

SC: Hitchcock often used strictly visual means instead of dialogue to convey or impart the emotional impact of a shot or a sequence—a style of filmmaking he referred to as “pure cinema.” Can you tell us exactly how he achieved this?

RA: Hitchcock learned the idea of “pure cinema” from the Weimar directors like FW Murnau, whom he observed shooting at the Ufa studios in 1924 when he was working as an assistant to the English director Graham Cutts. He admired how Murnau told stories through purely visual means without the use of explanatory intertitles. Hitchcock himself developed this technique in his silent films. For example, there is a sequence in his silent film, The Lodger (1926), where, the lodger, played by Ivor Novello, leaves his upstairs room in the middle of the night. He awakens the landlady who suspects and fears that he is Jack the Ripper going out to kill another helpless victim. Having shown the pale-faced Lodger leaving his room, his face swathed in a scarf and cast in shadow, Hitchcock cuts between the landlady’s reaction and his stealthy movement down the stairs. Subsequently, we see a man whose shadowed profile resembles the lodger loom over one of his victims. Hitchcock manipulates the point of view of the spectator and engenders a sense of anxious anticipation about what will happen next, or suspense, through “pure cinema.”

Throughout his career, Hitchcock applied these techniques from the silent film to the “talkies,” where he would create long sequences without dialogue. Perhaps the most famous of these is the elaborate pursuit, which structures the first half of Vertigo (1958). There, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) follows a woman, “Madeleine” (Kim Novak), who—as he had been told—is possessed by the ghost of a dead ancestor. The way he becomes possessed himself by “Madeleine” and his growing obsession, together with that of the spectator, is inscribed by languid camera movements that combine a forward tracking point-of-view shot in which Scottie follows the object of his desire, with a backward tracking reaction shot, in which he appears drawn in by the object of his desire, who always remains just out of reach. The suspenseful mystery is augmented by costume, color design, location, and Bernard Herrmann’s extraordinary score. No dialogue is needed.

SC: What is it with Hitchcock and blondes?

RA: Ah yes, Hitchcock liked icy. Perhaps that is a question for a psychologist. But I am going to answer it from an aesthetic point of view. Anyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock will notice that he was fascinated by, if not obsessed with, human sexuality. His sensibility was a turn of the century, Freudian one. All sexuality was for Hitchcock a “perverse” secret, the secret beyond the door, like the bedroom of Rebecca, which Joan Fontaine’s character gingerly approaches in his film Rebecca (1939) under the all-seeing gaze of the “perverse” Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). In this sense, too, sexuality in Hitchcock’s movies is deeply entwined with suspense. The blonde is so fascinating for Hitchcock because she seems to conceal beneath her cool, porcelain exterior, the fire within. Ingrid Bergman was his most intelligent blonde actress in Hollywood, but Grace Kelly, rumored to be quite promiscuous, served as his ideal type. When Hitchcock lost “Gryce,” as he called her, he manufactured “Tippi” Hedren to replace her.

I think Hitchcock was equally interested in masculinity from this standpoint, but lacking a cultural type to draw on, he sought a certain kind of actor. In this respect, he found his ideal in Cary Grant. Grant’s inscrutable, wooden exterior, the sense that “Cary Grant” is always an act put on by Archie Leach, is used by Hitchcock to suggest incipiently darker, more brooding intentions, most obviously in Suspicion (1941) and Notorious. This may be linked to the worry of impotence, that there may be actually nothing there—heterosexually speaking—a thought also hinted at in To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). Grant himself was a man with several marriages and rumored homosexuality.

SC: In your book Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony you set out a very densely argued thesis that “the concept of romantic irony serves to define and unify Hitchcock’s otherwise diverse body of work.” How so? What do you mean by romantic irony?

RA: Ordinarily, irony consists in saying something and meaning something else. What you really mean is the opposite of what you say. This implies a logic of “either-or” in which there are opposite views of the matter and you know which one is right. You may say “it’s a wonderful day,” but you affirm, ironically, that it is raining hard. In romantic irony, the irony consists in meaning one thing and at the same time meaning its opposite: “both-and,” in which there are two incompatible but simultaneously asserted views of the matter. The irony consists in that neither view is privileged over the other; there is undecidability rather than certainty. In Hitchcock, as in many romantic writers, this “both-and” logic takes the form of contrasting and combining the ideal, embodied in romantic love, with its nihilistic opposite—the human perversity where desire is entwined with death. Thus, in Hitchcock’s films like The Lodger and Suspicion (1941), we are unable to decide whether the protagonist is a romantic hero or a man intent on murdering the woman he ostensibly loves.

Romantic irony is a very sophisticated way of telling stories in which the narrator’s hand hovers all the time over the narrative world, ensuring that nothing is as it seems. It helps explain the distinctive tone of Hitchcock’s works in which, as critic André Bazin observed, a sense of menace and anxiety informs every frame. It also helps us understand what unifies seemingly disparate works. Consider the ending of Suspicion, where a car turns away from the camera to take the couple home to happiness. But is it happiness that is promised? By placing us behind the couple, Hitchcock allows us to see that Cary Grant’s hand seems to slide like a snake around Joan Fontaine’s shoulder. Contemplate the darkly tragic Vertigo where a nun “appears” as a looming black shadow and “Madeline” plunges from the tower and Scottie’s embrace to her death. Compare this to the comic romance North by Northwest where Hitchcock “saves” his hero and heroine from certain death on the precipice of Mount Rushmore, by a “magical” cut to a couchette on an express train. All these scenes are poised equally between romance and death, and the balance of the scale is controlled by directorial artifice. In the first example, the scale hovers between romance and death, in the second, it is tipped towards death, and in the third towards romance. The outcomes are arbitrary; it is the tension that is essential. In fact, it was often very difficult for Hitchcock to end his stories. For instance, he entertained three different endings for Suspicion. He would have surely benefited from the format of DVD with the option of choosing your own ending.

SC: Film remakes are commonplace these days. But when a director remakes one of his own films, it’s peculiar, though not unprecedented. Cecil B. DeMille did it with his Ten Commandments, while Hitchcock remade his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. In Hitchcock’s case, what do you think impelled him to remake his earlier work? Was it an overall dissatisfaction with it?

RA: Hitchcock claimed to be dissatisfied with the earlier, English version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), but I think this particular remake has to be put in the broader context of Hitchcock’s work, as he was, in fact, continually “remaking” his own films. While The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) was the most explicit and complete example of a remake in his career, the basic plot situation of The Lodger was reworked several times, as was the case with Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and, more distantly, Frenzy (1972). The John Buchan-inspired 39 Steps (1933) was reworked as Saboteur (1942) by the same screenwriter, Charles Bennett, and much later as North by Northwest by Ernest Lehman. I think there are at least two reasons for this. First, Hitchcock was interested in retelling stories from the English period with more polish using the technical resources and skilled personnel from the American studios. Second, self-plagiarism was a way of establishing and reinforcing his brand—the Hitchcock film. In a context where he did not write his own films, he relied on his writers to absorb the Hitchcock idiom from viewing his previous works.

SC: There is a saying that behind every great man there’s a great woman. No truer words were spoken, scholars now say, when referring to Alma Reville’s role in the making of her husband’s movies. Just how important was she to Hitchcock’s work? What exactly did she contribute?

RA: Alma Reville was already a successful editor or cutter in the film industry by the time she met Alfred, whom she married in 1926. But her collaboration with Hitchcock, both credited and uncredited, was mainly concerned with story development, scriptwriting, and continuity. Alma was assistant director on Hitchcock’s first three silent films (one of them, The Mountain Eagle (1926), is lost), and she surely worked beyond merely the “continuity” she is credited with on the remaining ones. She received a scenario credit on a number of the English sound films and was a consistent contributor to story and screenplay development. Alma also made an important contribution to Hitchcock’s transition to Hollywood and her screenplay or adaption contributions are credited in Suspicion, Shadow of A Doubt (1943), The Paradine Case (1947) and Stage Fright (1950). During the heady years of Hitchcock’s greatest success through the 1950s to the early 60s, Alma’s involvement was less prominent, but Hitchcock continued to turn to her for advice on every aspect of his filmmaking. The Hitchcocks were a professional couple. Alma was a forceful, smart, and literate woman. Her friend, Jay Presson Allen (screenwriter of Marnie (1964)) confided to me that Hitchcock envied her intelligence; he certainly depended on it. That said, Alma’s substantive contribution to the idea of the Hitchcock film is hard to assess, and still more elusive is her contribution to or criticism of the portrayal of female subjectivity and agency in Hitchcock’s work that has been the subject of so much criticism and debate. Reville was powerfully portrayed by Imelda Staunton in the film The Girl (2012), but perhaps she was over-glamorized in the person of Helen Mirren in Hitchcock (2012).

SC: To what do you attribute Hitchcock’s enduring global appeal?

RA: There are a large number of important directors in world cinema, and Hitchcock is on most people’s list but is not necessarily preeminent. Yet, his influence far outweighs that of any other director. Some would attribute this to his genius for self-promotion: think of his instantly recognizable facial profile sketch or his TV appearances, artfully scripted by James Allardice, or the suspense moniker I have already talked about. However, there is more to it than that. Hitchcock draws us into the secret, shadow world of human perversity while allowing us the apparent comforts of romantic and narrative resolution. He plays with our expectations and undermines our certitude, both narratively and morally, without taking us completely over the edge. Hitchcock’s brand of artful suspense has a great appeal to the average spectator as well as to film directors the world over, who seek to challenge and provoke, but remain within the broad, formulaic, constraints of popular film-making.

SC: What is your favorite Hitchcock film and why?

RA: My favorite Hitchcock film is Marnie, though it is by no means his best. The reason I like Marnie so much is that it manages to be both highly self-conscious in style and achingly heartfelt. Tippi Hedren as Marnie plays a frigid kleptomaniac who steals from her boss Mark Rutland, played by Sean Connery (the newly minted James Bond) in order to support her mother. She is subject to periodic breakdowns marked by flashes of red on the screen, which stem from a childhood trauma in which she killed a client of her prostitute mother. Mark believes he can cure her (“you Freud, me Jane,” as Marnie puts it), and he forces her to marry him; otherwise, he tells her, he will go to the police. However, Marnie resists his cure and refuses his love, at which point, in an excruciating scene, he assaults her. The film is perhaps a love story in which the sick Marnie is rendered fit for love by the good intentions and unflagging persistence of Mark, but equally one can read the film as the forcible subordination of a vital, independent woman who has no desire for men or the patriarchal institution of marriage.

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