This investigation seeks to evaluate the films Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho, all directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and how the success of these films show his effect on pop culture. The first component of this paper outlines Hitchcock’s techniques in the three films and describes how he used the techniques to instill fear. The reaction and degree of success to these films is measured through the impact of these techniques, the number of ticket sales, and the similarities between these three films and the horror films of today. Several sources are used in this research paper, including The Horror Film and the Alfred Hitchcock Interviews. These sources are then evaluated by discussing their origins, purpose, value and limitations. I will also view the films Vertigo, The Birds, and Psycho, to evaluate the techniques used and to gain a better understanding of his work.
B. SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
In a 1972 interview with the American Film Institute, Hitchcock stated that, in his films, he sought “to handle the material so as to create an emotion in the audience.” Hitchcock’s movies are teemed with techniques used to instill fear within the audience. For example, when Psycho first came out, no one was allowed to enter the theater after the movie had started (this was unusual during the 1960s). In a 1963 interview with Ian Cameron, he said, “I’m more interested in the technique of story telling by means of film rather than in what the film contains.” As the director and often times the producer, Hitchcock used every factor to his advantage, from the sound and camera angles, to the setting and circumstances surrounding the situation.
Vertigo was released in 1958 and starred James Stewart and Kim Novak. The story involves Stewart playing “Scottie” a retired detective who has an obsession with a woman, played by Novak, and a fear of heights. Vertigo is “a sensation of irregular or whirling motion, either of oneself or of external objects” . Scottie experiences this when he is faced with heights. To convey this state of dizziness, Hitchcock used camera movements to exaggerate the distance from the top of a bell-tower. He later explained that this was done by “dollying in and zooming out.” At the time, this was considered a new special effect. The vibrant color of the film also increased its appeal.
Another Hitchcock masterpiece was The Birds, with Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. Hitchcock described the theme of the film as “too much complacency in the world: that people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all.” Even though the monsters were only birds, it still terrified audiences with its everyday scenario. The most notable scare tactic is sound. Although Hitchcock integrated several other effects such as animation, it is the orchestrated sound effects that top it off. The soundtrack, composed by Bernard Hermann, is an eerie compilation of deadly silence and electronic bird noises. Hitchcock explains the silences as “a sort of monotonous low hum” that meant, in bird language, “we’re not ready to attack you yet, but we’re getting ready.”
The MacGuffin is defined as “refer to an item, event, or piece of knowledge that the characters in a film consider extremely important, but which the audience either doesn’t know of or doesn’t care about.” Basically, the MacGuffin is something that the story line is built upon, but it has no significant purpose. The MacGuffin is a technique in Hitchcock’s development of the plot in many of his films, but its use is perfected in none other than Psycho. Released in 1960, the film featured Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion. Bates is a shy, taxidermist, who is controlled by his domineering mother and runs the Bates Hotel. Marion is famously killed off early on, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. In the first half, the movie centers on the $40,000 that Marion stole. Yet when the movie is over, that money is the last thing on the audience’s mind. The MacGuffin was the money, but it was only needed to shift the setting to the Bates Hotel. Hitchcock did this to throw the audience off track and make the impact of Bates’ psychotic actions tenfold.
C. EVALUATION OF SOURCES
The Horror Film was written by Peter Hutchings and was published in 2004. Hutchings works at Northumbria University as a senior lecturer of Film Studies. In the preface, he explains that his book deals with longstanding issues in horror films such as “genre definition, the role played by the monster, the uses (and abuses) of psychoanalytical theory in horror analysis, the extent to which horror is preoccupied with questions of other-ness and differences” (Hutchings, xii). The value of this book is its recent publication in 2004. Hutching’s book contains information of the most recent developments in horror films and the text is written in contemporary language that I can understand. Hutching’s viewpoint has the advantage of an up-to-date perspective. The limitation of this book, however, is its mindset. Perhaps the writer’s analysis is too objective.
Hutchings defines “the” horror film with caution. He is careful to distinguish each component of the horror film. He develops his analysis through chapters like “The Sounds of Horror” and “Terror in the Isles: Horror’s audiences.” While the breakdown of this genre is useful for a generic approach, I find that he does not really concentrate on certain films. Not much information is provided about Hitchcock’s films besides a sentence or two in each chapter. The author pays attention to earlier films like Dracula and Frankenstein, and the slasher films of the 70s, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween series; nothing really in between.
Sidney Gottlieb edited the Alfred Hitchcock Interviews. Gottlieb is one of the many editors in the Conversations with Filmmakers Series. He has compiled several other director interviews for the series. In the introduction, he explains that he “tried to cover Hitchcock’s entire career” (Gottlieb, x). The editor does so by including interviews from Hitchcock’s early years in the 1920s to the late 1970s. The value of this book is that the reader is able to look at Hitchcock during different periods of his careers, from when he was just starting out, to the years when he was declared a living legend. The limitations to this book are very little; the interviews provide a look inside the very mind of Alfred Hitchcock.
Gottlieb is very straightforward with the material he has gathered; no information is provided but the interviews themselves. The lack of information is a little confusing at times, because one might want to know the exact time, location, or circumstances surrounding each interview. Other than that, this raw presentation of Hitchcock’s words is a very refreshing approach and allows the reader to identify with Hitchcock very easily.
When Vertigo was originally released in 1958, it was not a box-office success. Yet Hitchcock’s development of the story and the techniques he used to make the film stand out to this day. Vertigo has been attributed as one of his greatest achievements. It wasn’t until Universal Pictures’ re-released in 1983 that the film began to gather the acclaim it deserved. The American Film Institute rated it #61 on their list of the 100 Greatest American Films.
Hitchcock’s technique of combining both zooming in and dollying back in Vertigo has been imitated in other movies such as Jaws and Evil Dead II. During the late 1950s, this camera movement was considered a new special effect. The result was a spiraling staircase that heightened the dramatic change in perspective and the sense of the character’s fear of heights. This technique was just another factor that drew in audiences. The distinct style of Vertigo distinguishes itself from other horror films at the time and the way Hitchcock scared people separates him from other directors. It kept him ahead of the game, because no one else had used a technique like that before, and to this day, Vertigo is credited as the first film that use the “dolly out, zoom in” camera technique. Modern critics are impressed with the aesthetic quality of the film and applaud Hitchcock’s development of the characters.
It is in The Birds, that Hitchcock, yet again, cleverly uses a technique of his to scare the audience and does so effectively. The use of sound in The Birds constantly switches, utilizing both noise and silence. Hitchcock did this to create suspense and fear, not only when the birds were attacking, but also when they weren’t. The idea of fear arising from an everyday occurrence (encountering birds) terrified audiences in 1963. Hitchcock also once said that it was the movie’s “attack upon complacency” that scared people the most. He did not use natural bird sounds. Instead, he implemented “electronic re-workings of bird sound”, which worked even better to scare audiences. It did very well at the box-office, grossing over $11 million. Hitchcock’s use of normal circumstances added to the fear and potential reality of the film. The new concept of nature attacking provided a basis for other films after its release. In the 1970s, there was a burst of nature’s revenge films, such as The Empire of the Ants in 1977, the Night of the Lepus in 1972 and The Bees in 1979. A sequel was made in 1994, called The Birds II: Land’s End. Mel Brooks parodied it in his 1978 film High Anxiety as did Peter Greenaway in The Falls.
Psycho amassed a total of $32 million at the box-office. It is Hitchcock’s most well known film. There are so many elements to Psycho that are easily identified by today’s audiences. From the shrieking violin music to the famous kill off of Janet Leigh’s character to the insanity of Norman Bates. Psycho’s effect is still very much prevalent in our culture today. Hitchcock’s coined term, MacGuffin, has been used in several other movies like Pulp Fiction. The famous violin music is synonymous with terror, and was even used in Finding Nemo to introduce a jokingly horrific 10-year-old girl. The shower scene, where Janet Leigh’s character is killed, has been parodied in films such as Scream 2 and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The movie itself has been remade twice, and there were two sequels made in the 80s. The house where the 1998 remake was made still stands in Universal Studios for tourists to see. Undoubtedly, Psycho has left its mark due to the ingenuity of Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock has established a distinct style in each of his films. In Vertigo, he invented a visually stunning picture that captured the audience’s attention. His use of camera movements and color marked a turning point in cinematography of the late 1950s. The aesthetic and haunting quality of the film continually draw contemporary audiences to the ingenuity of the film. In the Birds, Hitchcock used the sound of the birds, whether they were there or not, to scare audiences in a whole new way. The combination of normalcy and unexpected terror ushered in new films that used the same concepts but with different situations. In Psycho, Hitchcock introduced underlying themes such as incest and necrophelia that shocked audiences, along with Norman Bates’ shared personality with his mother.
Hitchcock’s techniques he used to develop his films not only make them famous but they still fascinate people. His effect on pop culture has stood strong with Vertigo, The Birds, and Psycho. His films have influenced directors such as Steven Speilberg and Francis Ford Coppola and his face is well known in pop culture. Hitchcock’s films will continue to be timeless classics because they were before their time.