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Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Hitchcock’

“I say about myself that I make comedies the way John Ford might have said ‘I make westerns.’ That might be true. That might also be cloaking something. Scorsese in his survey of American cinema, talks about the American director as smuggler. You work within a given genre and smuggle your honest, artistic concerns in those film. John Ford with westerns, Hitchcock with thrillers, Scorsese with gangster pictures. You kind of declare that you make a certain kind of film because that helps them get made, get marketed, makes them more palatable to an American film going public, so I make comedies.

“That’s helped me, the fact that I can get laughs in these dramatic films. The fact that I make them funny, charming, keep them nimble, has helped me sell them to financiers and later to audiences and forge a career that way. One reason it’s great to do comedy is that it’s such a rush when the audience laughs. ‘We love you! We love you!’ When you make a drama, the only feedback you get from the audience is no walkouts.”
Writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska)
WGAW article Paynefully Funny by Denis Faye

P.S. I believe the survey Payne referenced is A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) 

Scott W. Smith

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“In Dramatic Irony the audience knows more than the characters….What in Suspense would be anxiety about outcome and fear for the protagonist’s well being, in Dramatic Irony becomes dread of the moment the character discovers what we already know and compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.”
Robert McKee
Story
Page 351

“It occurs to me that the device of dramatic irony is so standard a formula of dramatic construction that, in truth, it is quite rare to find any really well-structured story that does not make use of it. Think of the stories you have encountered where we, the audience,  are aware of circumstances of which of the onstage characters are ignorant and are thus kept in a state of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty’ as we wait for some turn of events (peripeteia*) in which the suspenseful situation is resolved. Can you think of any dramatic work that does not make use of this structure, however indirectly? It seems to me that as students’ projects are offered to me, it is the absence of clearly structured dramatic irony (especially in visual terms) that is their weakness. There is a sense in which the most basic elements of film grammar have potential for dramatic irony…As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.'”
Alexander Mackendrick (Former director—Sweet Smell of Success—and one time dean of California Institute of the Arts)
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
Pages 93-94

P.S. “The bomb under the table” is a famous Hitchcock illustration found in the above video, and in the Francis Truffaut book Hitchcock.

*Peripeteia: a sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation especially in a literary work (Merriam-Webster)

Related post:
Irony in Movies (Tip #79)
Irony Playground
Dramatic Irony (Ibsen & Shakespeare)
Dramatic Irony (Paul Lucey)

Scott W. Smith

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Hitchcock & Coincidence

“Is there are difference between crows and blackbirds?”
The Birds

Since I mentioned coincidence in the post Screenwriting and Coincidence (2.0)  I’d like to add what could be called one of the biggest (blatant?) misuses of coincidence by a major director in a major film. When Alfred Hitchcock used coincidence in The Birds he didn’t try to hide it or underscore it in any way. Heck, he highlighted it in a key part of the script and then used it as an expositional dump.

Here’s the crazy thing, he pulled it off like the theft of a car in front of a police station. I guess when you’re known as the master of suspense you can pull off things that mere mortals can’t.

The scene in question is in the restaurant after children have been attacked by birds at the school yard. For some reason there just happens to be a woman at the restaurant who at the right moment overhears a conversation about birds and says “Ornithology happens to be my avocation.” (Ornithology being the study of birds.)

Spielberg and his writing team handled this much better in JAWS when a shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) is drawn to the town because of the shark attack of the girl on the beach. He didn’t just happen to be there. So he becomes the perfect person to explain shark behavior to the others in the film (and that is how the audience is also informed).

But Hitchcock just has a lady buying a pack of cigarettes in a restaurant just happen to be a bird expert. Granted she does say avocation rather than vocation, but still. Keep in mind that The Birds was made after VertigoNorth by Northwest and Psycho.

Seems like I recall Hitchcock once being asked about why the bird expert was there and his response was in line with he thought it would be a fun break between all of the suspense activity, and that people wouldn’t notice. (If I can find that quote I will post it later. And if you find that exchange post it in the comments and I’ll add it here.)

Guess the key lesson learned there is if you do use coincidence (on top of an expositional dump) make sure the rest of your film is good enough that no one notices or cares.

P.S. A fun Hitchcock fact via his daughter Patricia; A couple of Alfred Hitchock’s guilty pleasures were two films from the 70s— Benji and Smokey and the Bandit.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting & Exposition (Tip#10)
Cary Grant & Exposition (Tip #38)

Scott W. Smith

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“In Dial M for Murder, I did my best not to go outside…what I did was to emphasize the theatrical aspects”
Alfred Hitchcock

The film Dial M for Murder (1954) was written by Frederick Knott based on his play. Several different TV versions of the play have been done and it was the basis for the 1998 film  A Perfect Murder starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. Here’s an exchange from the ’54 version—directed by Hitchcock— between Tony (Ray Milland), Mary (Grace Kelly), and Mark (Robert Cummings).

Tony: How do you go about writing a detective story?

Mark: Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime’s the thing. And then you imagine you’re going  to steal something or murder somebody.

Tony: Oh, is that how you do it? Interesting.

Mark: Yes, I usually put myself in the criminal’s shoes and then I keep asking myself, “what do I do next?”

Mary Do you really believe in the perfect murder?

Mark: Yes, absolutely. On paper that is. And I think I could plan one better than most people but I doubt if I could carry it out.

Tony: Why not?

Mark: Well because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to and in real life the don’t always.  No, I’m afraid my murders would be something like my bridge, I’d make some stupid mistake but not realize it until everybody was looking at me.

For low-budget filmmakers, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is an excellent film to study because most of it takes place in one apartment. Hitchcock said filmmakers often go wrong when they try to “open up” a play by adding exterior scenes and business. Hitchcock, of course, embraced limitations of locations in shooting Rope, Rear Window and Lifeboat. (One could imagine Hitchcock watching Buried (which takes place in a coffin) and thinking, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

One of Hitchcock’s trademarks in many of his classic films his visual storytelling. But Dial M for Murder is dialogue driven. It’s more intellectually based  than the emotional films such as Birds, Psycho and North by Northwest. Francis Truffaut remarked to Hitchcock that he took something that’s hard to do and somehow made it look easy:

“I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a stage play. All of the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter. I could just as well have shot the whole film in a phone booth. Let’s imagine there’s a coupe in that booth. Their hands are touching, their lips meet, and accidentally one of them leans against the receiver, knocking it off the hook. Now, while they’re unaware of it, the phone operator can listen in on their intimate conversation. The drama has taken a step forward. For the audience, looking at the images, it should be the same as the reading the opening paragraphs of a novel or hearing the expositional dialogue of the stage play. You might say that the film-maker can use a telephone booth pretty much in the same way a novelist uses a blank piece of paper.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Truffaut/Hitchcock

Dial M for Murder was also filmmed in 3-D.

Scott W. Smith

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“The aesthetics of film are 80 percent visual, 20 percent auditory…The best advice for writing film dialogue is don’t.  Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression.”
Robert McKee
Story


“The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises. But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in. In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema. They are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between… To me, one of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.’ Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”
Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock did a pretty good job himself of telling visual stories. Watch the great filmmakers and see how they do a masterful job of showing, not telling. And great examples are not  just found in the old classics films of Chaplin, Hitchcock and John Ford— but right up to modern times with the good folks at Pixar.

Scott W. Smith



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“You have to design your film just as Shakepeare did his plays—for an audience.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Interview with Francois Truffaut

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Hitchcock loved The Hurt Locker? As in Alfred Hitchcock? Really? Hasn’t he been dead for like 30 years? Yes, I guess I should have said that “Hitchcock would have loved The Hurt Locker”—but that’s a long title, and less interesting. So why do I think the master of suspense and a psychological thrillers would have appreciated the film that picked up the best picture Oscar Sunday?

Well, in part because The Hurt Locker was suspenseful and psychological. But there are three other reasons that come to mind of why I think director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal tapped into the Hitchcock creative mindset as filmmakers.

1) Hitchcock said that the difference between shock and suspense was the difference between having a bomb suddenly going off surprising the audience (shock) and the audience seeing that there is a bomb under a table with a timer ticking down (suspense). The later being able to hold your attention for a long time no matter what the conversation is above the table. Bigelow and her editors knew they didn’t need to rush certain scenes and used the built in suspense to their advantage.

2) Little dialogue/strong visuals—Hitchcock came from the world of silent films and believed you only used words when the visuals didn’t tell the story. (Watch Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Birds to see excellent examples.) Bigelow studied painting before she became a filmmaker and The Hurt Locker is strong on visuals. Hitchcock embraced simplicity at times sometimes using little or no sound effects. Sometimes pulling the effects and music altogether for a dramatic effect. I’ve only seen The Hurt Locker once so far but I seem to recall the music and effects track being spartan at times. I’m sure much effort went into the sound design of The Hurt Locker but it didn’t overpower the track and at times seemed to be just actor Jeremy Renner breathing in his protective suit.

3) Hitchcock didn’t care about reality. There have been a few articles about how some bomb experts in Iraq don’t feel like the film was realistic. One used the words “grossly exaggerated.” Bigelow wasn’t making a documentary. She was making a movie. And movies as I learned in film school are “heighten reality.” Some cops never shoot their gun in their whole career, but that tends not to make for good drama. Hitchcock didn’t worry about reality and I’ll let him explain his reasoning, after all he’s the guy who had a chase scene on top of Mount Rushmore, a killing inside the UN building, as well as many other “grossly exaggerated” situations;

“To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately…We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow…I don’t want to film a ‘slice of life’ because people can get that at home, in the street, or even in front of the movie theater. They don’t have to pay money to see a slice of life. And I avoid out-and-out fantasy because people should be able to identify with the characters. Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Truffaut

Of course, the military leadership has to go on record saying that they aren’t looking for lone-ranger, hotshot cowboys on their bomb squads. And they probably don’t. But I image they realize  this will do a little for recruiting what the cocky, hotshot pilot Tom Cruise and Top Gun did back for Navy recruiting in the 80s. Bigalow and Boal have made rock stars of guys that risk their life to defuse bombs. (I read one reviewer who went as far as to say the movie felt like an Army recruitment film.) The movie hasn’t been seen any where near as much as Top Gun and flying a jet plane seems a little more glamorous, but I think that bomb disposal experts should be sending thank you notes to Bigelow and Boals because they have brought dignity and awareness to a job most Americans knew little about.

And if any bomb disposal experts in Iraq or Afghanistan read this, thank you for what you’re doing. I hope you come home safely soon.

And congrats to Bigelow and the whole Hurt Locker crew on the Oscar wins.

Related post: Pandora vs. Baghdad

Scott W. Smith

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“Alfred Hitchcock, the undisputed master of suspense drama once said, ‘There is no terror in a bang only in the anticipation of it.’  Anticipation is one of the  most important emotions scriptwriters can feel as they look forward to something that will happen in the future, whether it’s positive, like winning  a big prize, or negative, like facing off against a superior opponent. Without this forward momentum, the story will drag and fail to hold the readers interest.”

Karl Iglesias
Creative Screenwriting
September/October 2009
The Power of Anticipation, page 48

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It’s been 50 years since the release of the great Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest and Warner Bros. just released a Blue-ray 50th Annivesary Edition of the film. Here’s part of one review of the new release.

“During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hitchcock went on one of the greatest winning streaks in cinema history, cranking out Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds in quick succession. Of these, North by Northwest—with all the director’s trademarks in place—is arguably the most iconically Hitchcockian, and has also served as the template for numerous espionage thrillers to come, its influence easily seen in the James Bond films and even the Bourne trilogy.”
Casey Broadwater
North by Northwest Blu-ray Review

Broadwater also points out a comment that Hitchcock was reported to have told screenwriter Ernest Lehman during the making of North by Northwest; “You know, we’re not making a movie we’re constructing an organ, the kind of organ that you see in the theatre. And we press this chord and now the audience laughs, we press that chord and they gasp, and we press these notes and they chuckle. Someday we won’t have to make a movie, we’ll just attach them to electrodes and play the various emotions for them to experience in the theatre.”

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The other day I was driving to a shoot and listening to an old Robert McKee CD on screenwriting based on his book Story and I stumbled upon this little passage that made me stop and repeat it three times:

“Success in the Art Film genre usually results in instant, though often temporary, recognition as an artist. On the other hand, the durable Alfred Hitchcock worked soley within the Archplot and genre convention, aimed for a mass audience, and habitually found it. Yet today he stands atop the pantheon of filmmakers, worshipped worldwide as one of the century’s major artists, a film poet whose work resonate with sublime images of sexuality, religiosity, and subtleties of point of view. Hitchcock knew there is no necessary contradiction between art and popular success, nor a necessary connection between art and Art Film.”
Robert McKee
Story

Scott W. Smith

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