It is nearly impossible to begin a conversation about the film genres of suspense and psychological thrillers without returning to one of the earliest and most widely influential master of the genres, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. Hitchcock, also lovingly referred to as Hitch or ‘Master of Suspense’ was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980 after a career spanning nearly six decades and more than fifty feature films. Many magazines, organizations, filmmakers, critics and entertainment professionals have called him one of the most significant filmmakers of all time and that honor continues to this day.
Hitchcock’s authority is undeniable and widespread not only in terms of technique. He was anointed, if you will, by Truffaut and other members of the nouvelle vague “French New Wave” along with Howard Hawks and Jean Renoir as perhaps the earliest true auteurs or “authors” of cinema. Auteur then can be best understood as the personal, primary creative vision of the director. One might think of their contemporary counterparts like Scorsese, Lynch, and the Coen’s as auteurs. Hitchcock incorporated many inventive and stylistic choices in his films, such as insistence that the camera be fluid and unobtrusive to the audience, using camera angles that impersonated a person’s actual field of view, and inviting the audience to interact with the film in a way that was immediate and often described as voyeuristic. Much has been written about his manipulation of the audience’s feelings to maximize reaction, to elicit anxiety, fear and empathy with sophisticated and purposeful composition, editing and cinematography. Hitchcock is famously known for saying to Roger Ebert, among others regarding the conception and creation of his films that, “Once the screenplay is finished, I’d just as soon not make the film at all…I have a strongly visual mind. I visualize a picture right down to the final cuts. I write all this out in the greatest detail in the script, and then I don’t look at the script while I’m shooting. I know it off by heart, just as an orchestra conductor needs not look at the score.” The greatest and perhaps most lasting of Hitchcock’s legacy is a methodology whereby the film is born from an idea that becomes a story that begets a screenplay that in its most realized state is the product of planning, orchestration and machination. This command of cinematic language and precisely realized style has been duplicated, copied, borrowed from, and serves one of the most notable influences for filmmakers from Spielberg to Scorcese , David Mamet and Polanski, from M. Night Shyamalan to David Lynch, and of particular mention is his influence of the Cahiers du Cinema or French New Wave, especially Truffaut, who celebrated Hitchcock both with praise and inspiration. Truffaut, in commenting on Hitchcock’s style, technique and influence, further explored his impact in a study of Edgar Allan Poe and aptly described them as “artists of anxiety”. There is no mistaking the significance of anxiety in Hitchcock’s films or its impact on the thriller and suspense genres. Some have even cited horror filmmakers Tobe Hooper and George Romero as having been directly influenced by Psycho, but the connection between that genre and Hitch would be an article unto itself.
Christopher Sepesy over at Mubi.com makes an interesting and informed observation regarding Hitchcock and French film director Claude Chabrol; a perhaps lesser known member of the nouvelle vague “French New Wave” and considered the most mainstream of the group. In 1957 Chabrol co-wrote with fellow group member Eric Rohmer the book Hitchcock (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1957) which was an examination and study of Hitchcock’s films. Sepesy goes on to point out the similar techniques used by Chabrol and the obvious “Hitchcokian feel” in his films Le Boucher and Les Biches, in particular.
Constantine Santas at Senses of Cinema points out the oddly controversial and commercially unsuccessful, though an obvious homage and distinctly Hitchcock inspired project whereby Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Elephant) made a shot for shot remake of Psycho in 1998. H goes on to note in the DVD commentary how Van Sant had been considering the project for several years and was intended not as a commercial endeavor at all but one with which to renew its appeal to contemporary audiences. As he details, “With today’s young crowd opting for Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet (2000) and Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die (1999), names like Hitchcock are becoming shadowy memories.” It is unclear if the latter films were also intended for something other than commercial means as Hamlet fared poorly with a scant $2 million dollars in sales. Romeo Must Die did fuel nearly $100 million but it is uncertain whether audiences were drawn to the martial arts element of the film or the idea of a Hitchcockian themed movie; some might argue that Bartkowiak’s reputation and long career of popular and successful action thrillers is the case.
Of particular interest is a point made by Doctor Lemon Glow on the mubi.com site regarding further discussion about the influence of Hitchcock on contemporary filmmakers. He describes Kenneth Branaugh’s film Dead Again is like, “Branaugh doing DePalma doing Hitchcock” and even more recently Michael Apted’s Enigma (2001) “brilliantly captured the mood and movement of Hitchcock’s..espionage pics”. The idea of an established cinematic language from which a filmmaker builds upon is an essential element of any real discussion of influence and homage, of narrative structure and the use of recurring themes that are not simply a starting place but rather fertile groundwork with the intention of branching out and deepening the basic elements of the art of filmmaking. The purpose of such analysis is not simply to connect one filmmaker with another or to offer that a mimicry of or direct correlation to Hitchcock is a means by which to fully understand a particular filmmaker or genre. The complexity of influence is far-reaching and even indefinable. Hitchcock himself when queried regarding his influence by Edgar Allan Poe would not confirm or deny the assertion but rather pointed to the inner workings of the unknowable subconscious. It would be impossible to know the extent to which Hitchcock’s indelible mark on cinema of the past half century has made except to say that every film and filmmaker is but a byproduct of the collective spirit of the art and through our collective influences we in turn lend those influences to others.
Resources, Sites and Inspirations
Google Books – Stanly Donan & Hitchcock
Google – Truffaut