The Bigger Picture: Gettin’ Hitched

Written by Film, The Bigger Picture

darkhitchcockbaja1I’ve been watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s work lately. When searching for a new project, I tend to immerse myself in that which I wish to imitate. I have quite a task ahead of me, considering Hitchcock directed over fifty feature films in his long career.

In many ways, Hitchcock was the Spielberg of his time, though much more uniform in his style. It amazes me that one could be so prolific. It also becomes apparent that it is likely impossible for anyone in today’s cinema to attain the sort of success he achieved.

To begin with, Hitchcock’s earlier movies are not nearly the triumphs that he is known for. Take, for example, The Lady Vanishes. This is, in many ways, a groundbreaking film that can’t seem to get out of its own way. While watching, I was amazed at how much there is for a director to work with in the confined spaces of a train. The movie contains one of the most advanced effects shot I have seen from the era, in which Michael Redgrave climbs out of the window of the moving train and is nearly sideswiped by a passing locomotive. For all its clever ideas, The Lady Vanishes tends to get a little muddled in its plot, and contains some unintentionally comical editing.

Nevertheless, The Lady Vanishes was a major hit for its time. It is also a massively influential film. Hell, it made my mind go crazy with potential ideas. However, some classic films have a difficult time living up to their own legend.

What seems apparent to me, as I watch more and more of Hitchcock’s films, is that he is almost always better when holding back. Nearly everything I’ve seen by him has interested me in some way, but his absolute masterpieces are almost always the smaller films.

Consider the films Rope, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Psycho. All of these are very small films. All of these take place in no more than a couple of settings. What this demonstrates is Hitchcock’s self-awareness of his own strengths. When he reached his peak, he understood that cinema was stronger when using the power of suggestion. In all these films, there is a key element that remains hidden to either the audience or the characters. Dial M for Murder spends its first half-hour or so with dialogue in a single setting. It takes a filmmaker who is confident enough in his own abilities to hold our attention the entire time.

Yet it took Hitchcock some time to make the films he is most remembered for. In today’s world, this would never happen. The margin of error today is too slim, and the competition much too stiff. Alfred Hitchcock began his career making silent films, such as the amusing but overlong The Farmer’s Wife. It’s a clever film, but not entirely spectacular nor even a hint of what was to come for the English director.

Today things work differently. Production costs have lowered within the last decade. While this makes it easier for the fledgling filmmaker to get started, it also means there is a larger throng of talent trying to get through a doorway that has not expanded. And, while it costs far less to make a film using modern technology, it is still a massive expense. Many will only have one chance to make it, as aspiring directors today tend to draw from their own savings to realize their dreams.

What this all means is that today’s young filmmakers need to enter the industry with their cinematic vision already formed. They need to have some kind of plan. We see many examples of filmmakers who find massive success with their first film, but struggle to follow up with another strong effort.

One wonders whether Alfred Hitchcock ever foresaw the kind of brilliance his career would lead him to. Regardless, he was given the opportunity to find his true voice. It’s rare to have someone believe in you, and rarer still a person of influence.  It has become so important to hit a homerun on the first try that people tend to forget a game is won through nine innings.

When Hitchcock made Vertigo, he was at the very top of his game. It came 36 years after he began directing in England. How many young filmmakers of today will even be working over three decades from today, let alone making their best film?

Being an artist is about progressing, evolving, and maturing. The progress, however, must be attained naturally. It’s about constant interpretation of the surrounding world into a chosen medium. I couldn’t ever expect to be as prolific as Hitchcock, but what I can do is make that progress at my own pace.

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