Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (and what writers can learn from him)

by Lorena

The other day an old college friend of mine invited me to the Hitchcock Film Festival in a downtown theater I thought had closed down years ago. This art-deco building (circa 1927) has been presenting some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films every Friday night for the last two months.

The movie we watched was Rope (1948) with James Stewart. It’s already been three weeks since I saw it and I’m still thinking about it. Funny because that same weekend I watched Gravity—an expensive display of special effects that Hitchcock could have only dreamed about—and a story that values life above all (almost the exact opposite of Hitchcock’s film).Yet, the movie that keeps popping into my head is Rope, one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films and produced 65 years ago. Perhaps if I explain more, you’ll understand why this film impacted me.

Rope was inspired by a famous murder trial from the 1920s. Two affluent college students decide to kill one of their classmates for the simple thrill of killing. As followers of Nietzsche’s philosophy, they believe themselves to be intellectually superior to other mortals and therefore, above the moral laws of “ordinary” men. They think they can plan and execute the perfect crime and, to make it more thrilling, they hide the corpse inside a chest of books and invite the victim’s friends and parents to a dinner party. In very Hitchcock fashion, they set the dinner buffet on top of the chest. 

James Stewart plays the clever schoolmaster who inadvertently instilled this philosophy in the two murderers. Of course, one of the guys is terrified of getting caught, but the other one seems to almost want his former teacher to discover them so he can admire their “masterpiece” crime. The success of the film is in the juxtaposition of tension (anyone could open that chest since the hinge is broken), dark humor (not only in the party set up but also in the dialogue), the motive for the murder (I’ve never heard of something more original) and the Big Question of whether or not the guys will get caught.

The infamous chest where Philip (far left) and Brandon (far right) hide their friend's body

But this film was fascinating in both content and form. The entire story develops in real time, in one single setting, and the cuts are nearly unperceptive—one continuous scene with very subtle transitions (Hitchcock focuses on a jacket or an ornament to make his cuts seamless.) It’s no surprise that the film was adapted from a play. In addition to this novelty, we have another element that struck me as original: the camera tells its own story. 

Let me explain without ruining the film for those of you who’d like to watch it. Have you noticed how in children’s picture books sometimes there is the story the text tells you, but there are minor stories that you can only see in the illustrations? (this is where a very talented illustrator can thrive). Well, Hitchcock does something similar twice. While the characters are speaking, the camera is moving around them or is focused on another object, making the conversation inconsequential and the visual action what really matters. This is something I haven’t seen in contemporary film making. When dialogue is present in a film, it always supersedes anything that may be going on in a scene. 

Because I have a tendency to write complex novels with abundant characters, I always admire writers and directors who can tell simple stories. The plot here is simple: will the guys be successful at hiding their crime?

So here are some of the lessons I learned (as a writer) from this film:
  1. It’s okay to write a story that develops in a short amount of time (and how challenging that is!) 
  2. People can have the strangest motives for committing a murder (and the more original, the better).
  3. Keeping the tension in a story is key.
  4. Add humor whenever you can (even if it’s dark). 
  5. Plot twists and complicated storylines are not always required to write a gripping tale.
  6. Build a complex backstory (even if you don’t mention all the details) and the story and characters would seem more realistic and believable.
  7. For your ending, keep your audience guessing until the last possible moment.
  8. Suppress the desire to make your main characters a) always sympathetic, and b) always safe. Let them make mistakes.
And here are some of the lessons I learned (as a human):
  1. Life is extremely fragile and can end in an instant.
  2. There are a lot of crazy people out there.
  3. Never befriend someone who admires Nietzsche! 
And just for fun (and because I like lists) some of the trivia I learned about this film:
  1. James Stewart was not happy with this role.
  2. Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant for Stewart’s role, but he declined.
  3. The real-life case which inspired this film, Leopold and Loeb, was never discussed or acknowledged by Hitchcock to any of his writers or cast members. 
  4. The attorney who defended Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow, delivered one of the most famous speeches there is against capital punishment—and saved their lives. Both got sentenced to life in prison (plus 99 years each for kidnapping).
  5. According to several online reviewers and the scriptwriter himself, there is a homosexual undertone in the film between the main characters (Leopold and Loeb were allegedly a couple). This may have been the reason why the film didn’t do so well in the box office and why Stewart was not entirely happy with it. 
  6. This film is said to have been a reaction to WWII and Hitler’s belief in the superiority of one race (man) over another. 
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the inspiration for Hitchcock's film

Are you a Hitchcock fan? Do you think there's a contemporary director who compares with him?


  1. Lore, this was such a well-written post. I was reading it when little one knocked on the door on her way back from her friend's apartment from a play date and I actually shook a bit with the shock of the sound when my concentration on your words was broken!

    What drew me in from the dashboard was your comparison of Gravity and Rope and, wow, what a payoff with the rest of the post. I found a lot to chew on in your lessons learned as a writer.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I thought it was odd that I saw both films on the same weekend when they are almost the opposite (in their views about life) but they were similar in that they had small casts and simple plots. I enjoyed both but in very different ways!

  2. Yes, I'm a Hitchcock fan, and I think he was brilliant. Since I rarely go to the movies anymore, I can't really comment on the talents of today's directors, but strangely enough, my husband and I DID go to the movies to watch "Gravity." (First movie outing in fifteen or twenty years... talk about sticker shock!) As much as I enjoyed the movie, it pales compared to Hitchcock's works.

    1. The thing about Hitchcock is that he was original, a visionary, whereas a lot of what we see today is the same stuff from one film to the next (a formula that many times relies on special effects or emotional manipulation of the audience). Hitchcock was an innovator, not only with his themes but also in the way he told his stories.

  3. I love Hitchcock!

    Great reflection, Lorena. Hitch was a master storyteller with much to teach us all.

    1. I'm glad to see so many of you love him as much as I do!

  4. For the most part, I love Hitchcock. (The ones I really can't stand watching are Psycho and The Birds). I'd say Rope is one of my favorite films of his, mainly because it has this trippy feel to it and you really want to know if the murder will be found out. Vertigo is probably another one of my favorites. He really did have a fascinating way of telling a story, and with great suspense. I'm glad you highlighted his work. Even though he was a bit odd, he really knew how to spin an amazing story!

    "Never befriend someone who admires Nietzsche!"

    I'll keep this in mind!

    1. Ok, I know this is weird but I've never seen Psycho!! I understand why you don't care for The Birds. It's a little odd and the effects just seem a little funny to us, but I bet you don't see crows the same way after watching that film!! I get a creepy feeling when I see a large group of birds on a wire (and there's always a lot of them near my house, ha ha!) I also love Vertigo!

    2. I don't recommend Psycho, but I'm sure a lot of people out there probably do. I watched it when I was really young and shouldn't have been watching something like that. It creeped me out really bad and I just can't watch it again. One other film I enjoy of Hitchcock's is Rear Window. It seems Stewart might have been Hitchcock's go-to actor, kind of like Depp is with Tim Burton and DiCaprio is with Martin Scorsese. But, Major H might be right in the fact that he wasn't able to turn down the role if he was hired on by the studio. That's just the way things worked back in the Golden Age of film!

  5. I haven't seen Rope, but now I'm definitely going to! Masterful review. I can't tolerate a lot of visual gore, so I seldom watch horror movies; it's nice to run across scary films that rely on character, psychology, visual cues and camera work to deliver the story and the punch.

    1. "I can't tolerate a lot of visual gore."

      I couldn't agree more! That's why horror films turn me off, but I love psychological thrillers, too!

  6. I agree with Suze, this was a really well-written post. We were on a family Hitchcock kick a year or two ago, and the storytelling style really appealed to the elder kiddo in general, but we only got through the big-name movies. I really want to watch this one now, and the one about the train ride, after talking to you and MM. The trivia you gave was fascinating ... I wonder why Stewart took the role, if it made him uncomfortable? I can imagine how playing the guy who accidentally programs two killers with an amoral philosophy might not be appealing, especially for oh-shucks sunny Jimmy. But he did take the role.

    I love your list of lessons-learned as a writer. Those are all excellent.

    1. Oh yeah ... you asked for a director that compares. Christopher Nolan is not exactly the same kind of director, but we do enjoy all the puzzles he tucks into his films, and the way he keeps you guessing until the end. He makes similar use of the camera. (More so in his non-Batman movies.)

    2. You know, I just heard today that there is a stage version of Strangers on the Train. It would be fun to watch! I hope they bring it here.

      I wondered the same thing about Stewart. Major H speculated that maybe he was under one of those contracts with the big production companies where actors couldn't really decline a role. I was actually surprised to learn this because I thought he did a great job with that character (he was one of the characters who brought humor to the film).

      Christopher Nolan is the one who directed Inception, right? Now that you mention him, I remember he used the camera "to tell us something" at the end of Inception (what he told us, I'm not sure, ha ha!) One needs a manual to understand that film (not joking, there is a website with graphics that explains it, ha!)

      You know, someone who plays a lot with camera angles, humor and suspense is Pedro Almodovar. If only he wasn't so graphic in some of his films I would like him more.

    3. With Strangers on the Train, make sure you watch Throw Mama From the Train! I know you like humor and you'll like this humorous take on Hitchcock's film.

    4. I saw half of that movie when I was a teenager (in a plane!!) But I think I was too young to get it. I definitely want to watch it now.

    5. Nolan did Inception, yes. I've watched it two or three times now because it's J's favorite film. She's watched it probably six, seven times? Nolan does a lot with the camera, not just at the end with the spinning top. He's also directed Memento, The Prestige, and Insomnia. You could call them all "Puzzle Films." David Fincher (Fight Club) is supposed to be like that, too: puzzles and clues placed throughout the set. As you said about Almodovar, I might be more into Fincher if he wasn't so graphic. I was also unhappy with the message of Fight Club, but that may be a post for another day. :)

    6. Wow, I'm just surprised at how many of Nolan's films I've seen! I like the trippy story of The Prestige, but Inception has never been one of my favorites.

    7. I LOVED Memento. Insomnia was good, too. But I've never seen (or heard of) The Prestige. What is it about? I should add it to my list. I didn't know he'd directed all those films but it makes sense. He seems very interested in the brain. In fact, it becomes his antagonist! Talking about puzzle films. Did you guys ever see The Game? I saw it years ago, but it was super hard to follow. Can't remember much about it.

      Fight Club was definitely strange and dark, but I've noticed that a lot of men like it.


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