Alfred Hitchcock: my own methods

In this article written by the Master of Suspense himself for our Summer 1937 issue, Alfred Hitchcock dissects how he puts together his thrillers, and reflects on the possibilities and limitations of popular cinema.

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock during the production of Blackmail (1929)

Alfred Hitchcock during the production of Blackmail (1929)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Many people think a film director does all his work in the studio, drilling the actors, making them do what he wants. That is not at all true of my own methods, and I can write only of my own methods.

I like to have a film complete in my mind before I go on the floor. Sometimes the first idea one has of a film is of a vague pattern, a sort of haze with a certain shape. There is possibly a colourful opening developing into something more intimate; then, perhaps in the middle, a progression to a chase or some other adventure; and sometimes at the end the big shape of a climax, or maybe some twist or surprise.

You see this hazy pattern, and then you have to find a narrative idea to suit it. Or a story may give you an idea first and you have to develop it into a pattern.

This feature was originally published in our Summer 1937 feature

This feature was originally published in our Summer 1937 feature

Imagine an example of a standard plot – let us say a conflict between love and duty. This idea was the origin of my first talkie, Blackmail. The hazy pattern one saw beforehand was duty-love-love versus duty – and finally either duty or love, one or the other.

The whole middle section was built up on the theme of love versus duty, after duty and love had been introduced separately in turn. So I had first to put on the screen an episode expressing duty.

I showed the arrest of a criminal by Scotland Yard detectives, and tried to make it as concrete and detailed as I could. You even saw the detectives take the man to the lavatory to wash his hands – nothing exciting, just the routine of duty. Then the young detective says he’s going out that evening with his girl, and the sequence ends, pointing on from duty to love.

John Longden and Anny Ondra (left and centre) in Blackmail

John Longden and Anny Ondra (left and centre) in Blackmail

Then you start showing the relationship between the detective and his girl: they are middle-class people. The love theme doesn’t run smoothly; there is a quarrel and the girl goes off by herself, just because the young man has kept her waiting a few minutes.

So your story starts; the girl falls in with the villain – he tries to seduce her and she kills him. Now you’ve got your problem prepared. Next morning, as soon as the detective is put on to the murder case, you have your conflict – love versus duty. The audience know that he will be trying to track down his own girl, who has done the murder, so you sustain their interest: they wonder what will happen next.

The blackmailer was really a subsidiary theme. I wanted him to go through and expose the girl. That was my idea of how the story ought to end. I wanted the pursuit to be after the girl, not after the blackmailer.

Anny Ondra in Blackmail

Anny Ondra in Blackmail

That would have brought the conflict on to a climax, with the young detective, ahead of the others, trying to push the girl out through a window to get her away, and the girl turning round and saying: “You can’t do that, I must give myself up.” Then the rest of the police arrive, misinterpret what he is doing, and say, “Good man, you’ve got her,” not knowing the relationship between them.

Now the reason for the opening comes to light. You repeat every shot used first to illustrate the duty theme, only now it is the girl who is the criminal. The young man is there ostensibly as a detective, but of course the audience know he is in love with the girl. The girl is locked up in her cell and the two detectives walk away, and the older one says, “Going out with your girl tonight?” The younger one shakes his head. “No. Not tonight.”

That was the ending I wanted for Blackmail, but I had to change it for commercial reasons. The girl couldn’t be left to face her fate. And that shows you how the films suffer from their own power of appealing to millions. They could often be subtler than they are, but their own popularity won’t let them.

But to get back to the early work on a film. With the help of my wife, who does the technical continuity, I plan out a script very carefully, hoping to follow it exactly, all the way through, when shooting starts. In fact, this working on the script is the real making of the film, for me. When I’ve done it, the film is finished already in my mind. Usually, too, I don’t find it necessary to do more than supervise the editing myself.

Alfred Hitchcock (centre) filming Sabotage (1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (centre) filming Sabotage (1936)
Credit: BFI National Archive

Settings, of course, come into the preliminary plan, and usually I have fairly clear ideas about them; I was an art student before I took up with films. Sometimes I even think of backgrounds first.

The Man Who Knew Too Much started like that; I looked in my mind’s eye at snowy Alps and dingy London alleys, and threw my characters into the middle of the contrast. Studio settings, however, are often a problem; one difficulty is that extreme effects – extremes of luxury or extremes of squalor – are much the easiest to register on the screen.

If you try to reproduce the average sitting-room in Golders Green or Streatham it is apt to come out looking like nothing in particular, just nondescript. It is true that I have tried lately to get interiors giving a real lower-middle-class atmosphere – for instance, the Verlocs’ living room in Sabotage – but there’s always a certain risk in giving your audience humdrum truth.

However, in time the script and the sets are finished somehow and we are ready to start shooting. One great problem that occurs at once, and keeps on occurring, is to get the players to adapt themselves to film technique. Many of them, of course, come from the stage; they are not cinema-minded at all. So, quite naturally, they like to play long scenes straight ahead.

But if I have to shoot a long scene continuously I always feel I am losing grip on it, from a cinematic point of view. The camera, I feel, is simply standing there, hoping to catch something with a visual point to it. I want to put my film together on the screen, not simply to photograph something that has been put together already in the form of a long piece of stage acting.

Hithcock with Sabotage actor Oscar Homolka

Hithcock with Sabotage actor Oscar Homolka
Credit: BFI National Archive

This is what gives an effect of life to a picture – the feeling that when you see it on the screen you are watching something that has been conceived and brought to birth directly in visual terms.

You can see an example of what I mean in Sabotage. Just before Verloc is killed there is a scene made up entirely of short pieces of film, separately photographed. This scene has to show how Verloc comes to be killed – how the thought of killing him arises in Sylvia Sidney’s mind and connects itself with the carving knife she uses when they sit down to dinner.

But the sympathy of the audience has to be kept with Sylvia Sidney; it must be clear that Verloc’s death, finally, is an accident. So, as she serves at the table, you see her unconsciously serving vegetables with the carving knife, as though her hand were keeping hold of the knife of its own accord.

The camera cuts from her hand to her eyes and back to her hand; then back to her eyes as she suddenly becomes aware of the knife making its error. Then to a normal shot – the man unconcernedly eating; then back to the hand holding the knife.

Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka in Sabotage

Sylvia Sidney and Oscar Homolka in Sabotage
Credit: BFI National Archive

In an older style of acting Sylvia would have had to show the audience what was passing in her mind by exaggerated facial expression. But people today in real life often don’t show their feelings in their faces: so the film treatment showed the audience her mind through her hand, through its unconscious grasp on the knife.

Now the camera moves again to Verloc – back to the knife – back again to his face. You see him seeing the knife, realising its implication. The tension between the two is built up with the knife as its focus.

 

Getting the audience into the picture

Now when the camera has immersed the audience so closely in a scene such as this, it can’t instantly become objective again. It must broaden the movement of the scene without loosening the tension. Verloc gets up and walks round the table, coming so close to the camera that you feel, if you are sitting in the audience, almost as though you must move back to make room for him. Then the camera moves to Sylvia Sidney again, then returns to the subject – the knife.

So you gradually build up the psychological situation, piece by piece, using the camera to emphasise first one detail, then another. The point is to draw the audience right inside the situation instead of leaving them to watch it from outside, from a distance.

And you can do this only by breaking the action up into details and cutting from one to the other, so that each detail is forced in turn on the attention of the audience and reveals its psychological meaning.

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail (1929)
Credit: BFI National Archive

If you played the whole scene straight through, and simply made a photographic record of it with the camera always in one position, you would lose your power over the audience. They would watch the scene without becoming really involved in it, and you would have no means of concentrating their attention on those particular visual details which make them feel what the characters are feeling.

One way of using the camera to give emphasis is the reaction shot. By the reaction shot I mean any close-up which illustrates an event by showing instantly the reaction to it of a person or a group. The door opens for someone to come in, and before showing who it is you cut to the expressions of the persons already in the room.

Or, while one person is talking, you keep your camera on someone else who is listening. This over-running of one person’s image with another person’s voice is a method peculiar to the talkies; it is one of the devices which help the talkies to tell a story faster than a silent film could tell it, and faster than it could be told on the stage.

Or, again, you can use the camera to give emphasis whenever the attention of the audience has to be focused for a moment on a certain player. There is no need for him to raise his voice or move to the centre of the stage or do anything dramatic. A close-up will do it all for him – will give him, so to speak, the stage all to himself.

Hitchcock (on railing) watching a scene from Sabotage

Hitchcock (on railing) watching a scene from Sabotage
Credit: BFI National Archive

I must say that in recent years I have come to make much less use of obvious camera devices. I have become more commercially-minded; afraid that anything at all subtle may be missed. I have learnt from experience how easily small touches are overlooked.

The film always has to deal in exaggerations. Its methods reflect the simple contrasts of black and white photography. One advantage of colour is that it would give you more intermediate shades.

I should never want to fill the screen with colour: it ought to be used economically – to put new words into the screen’s visual language when there’s a need for them. You could start a colour film with a boardroom scene: sombre panelling and furniture, the directors all in dark clothes and white collars. Then the chairman’s wife comes in, wearing a red hat. She takes the attention of the audience at once, just because of that one note of colour.

A journalist once asked me about distorted sound – a device I tried in Blackmail when the word ‘knife’ hammers on the consciousness of the girl at breakfast on the morning after the murder. Again, I think this kind of effect may be justified.

There have always been occasions when we have needed to show a phantasmagoria of the mind in terms of visual imagery. So we may want to show someone’s mental state by letting him listen to some sound – let us say church bells – and making them clang with distorted insistence in his head.

But on the whole nowadays I try to tell a story in the simplest possible way, so that I can feel sure it will hold the attention of any audience and won’t puzzle them.

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail (1929)
Credit: BFI National Archive

I know there are critics who ask why lately I have made only thrillers. Am I satisfied, they say, with putting on the screen the equivalent merely of popular novelettes? Part of the answer is that I am out to get the best stories I can which will suit the film medium, and I have usually found it necessary to take a hand in writing them myself.

There is a shortage of good writing for the screen. In this country we can’t usually afford to employ large writing staffs, so I have had to join in and become a writer myself. I choose crime stories because that is the kind of story I can write, or help to write, myself – the kind of story I can turn most easily into a successful film.

It is the same with Charles Bennett, who has so often worked with me; he is essentially a writer of melodrama. I am ready to use other stories, but I can’t find writers who will give them to me in a suitable form.

Sylvia Sidney talking to Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Sabotage

Sylvia Sidney talking to Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Sabotage
Credit: BFI National Archive

Sometimes I have been asked what films I should make if I were free to do exactly as I liked without having to think about the box-office. There are several examples I can give very easily. For one thing, I should like to make travel films with a personal element in them.

Or I should like to do a verbatim of a celebrated trial. The Thompson-Bywaters case, for instance. The cinema could reconstruct the whole story. Or there is the fire at sea possibility – that has never been tackled seriously on the screen. It might be too terrifying for some audiences, but it would make a great subject worthwhile.

British producers are often urged to make more films about characteristic phases of English life. Why, they are asked, do we see so little of the English farmer or the English seaman? Or is there not plenty of good material in the great British industries – in mining or ship-building or steel?

One difficulty here is that English audiences seem to take more interest in American life – I suppose because it has a novelty value. They are rather easily bored by everyday scenes in their own country. But I certainly should like to make a film of the Derby, only it might not be quite in the popular class. It would be hard to invent a Derby story that wasn’t hackneyed, conventional. I would rather do it more as a documentary – a sort of pageant, an animated modern version of Frith’s Derby Day. I would show everything that goes on all round the course, but without a story. Perhaps the average audience isn’t ready for that, yet.

Popular taste, all the same, does move; today you can put over scenes that would have been ruled out a few years ago. Particularly towards comedy, nowadays, there is a different attitude. You can get comedy out of your stars, and you used not to be allowed to do anything which might knock the glamour off them.

In 1926 I made a film called Downhill, from a play by Ivor Novello, who acted in the film himself, with Ian Hunter and Isabel Jeans. There was a sequence showing a quarrel between Hunter and Novello. It started as an ordinary fight; then they began throwing things at one another. They tried to pick up heavy pedestals to throw and the pedestals bowled them over. In other words I made it comic.

I even put Hunter into a morning coat and striped trousers because I felt that a man never looks so ridiculous as when he is well dressed and fighting. This whole scene was cut out; they said I was guying Ivor Novello. It was ten years before its time.

Ian Hunter, Isabel Jeans and Ivor Novello in Downhill (1927)

Ian Hunter, Isabel Jeans and Ivor Novello in Downhill (1927)
Credit: BFI National Archive

I think public taste is turning to like comedy and drama more mixed up; and this is another move away from the conventions of the stage. In a play your divisions are much more rigid; you have a scene in one key – then curtain, and after an interval another scene starts.

In a film you keep your whole action flowing; you can have comedy and drama running together and weave them in and out. Audiences are much readier now than they used to be for sudden changes of mood; and this means more freedom for a director.

The art of directing for the commercial market is to know just how far you can go. In many ways I am freer now to do what I want to do than I was a few years ago. I hope in time to have more freedom still – if audiences will give it to me.

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