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The 10 Most Ingenious Techniques Used By Alfred Hitchcock

26 February 2014 | Features, Other Lists | by Chris Esper

hitchcock techniques

It goes without saying that Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. Known as the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock had a special touch to each of his pictures that made him stand out as a director. This list represents the techniques and methods he used that made his movies stand out. It’s these little details that stood the test of time and helped creating the tension and suspense he was aiming to bring to an audience.

 

10. The Dolly Zoom from “Vertigo”

It was impossible not to include this on the list. it ranks low here because sadly this technique has become overused and abused by filmmakers for years after “Vertigo” was released. I’m one of those filmmakers that are guilty as charged. It’s been called the “Zolly”, “Jaws shot” and “reverse tracking shot”, but its origins begin in this Hitchcock masterpiece.

Developed by Paramount Pictures second unit cameraman Irmin Roberts, the Dolly Zoom was used by Hitchcock in the famous scene of James Stewart climbing up the stairs. His character suffers from vertigo after a traumatic episode he faced in his life. As he climbs higher, he looks down and sees how high up he is and we get the point of view shot that gives us the illusion of what he’s feeling and seeing. It really brings you in and you get that feeling of too high as the camera zooms out and dollies in at the same time or vice versa.

For years after the movie came out, directors started implementing it into their own films such as Spielberg for “Jaws”, Scorsese for “GoodFellas”, Landis for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, etc. It has become almost a cliché in this day and age, but it’s still as affective as ever in “Vertigo”.

 

9. The Intro to “Strangers on a Train”

This may not be a big deal to many, but this opening has some layers to it that is quite interesting.

The film tells the story of a socialite who meets a tennis player on a train and shares with him a plan for a perfect murder and get away with it. What I like about this sequence is how we don’t see their faces, but only from the knees down. We identify that these are two different men by their shoes and which direction each one comes from. They continue that way until they bump into each other at the end of the scene. This is when they meet and the story commences.

This is a simple but brilliant way on Hitchcock’s part to connect these two characters together through the use of camera work and editing. These two complete strangers are slowly coming together and the audience is in on it.

 

8. The Milk in “Suspicion”

“Suspicion” tells the story of a woman who suspects her husband is trying to kill her. There’s one scene in the film that really jumped out.

That’s the scene where Joan Fontaine’s character is in bed, fearing the worse and her husband, played by Cary Grant, brings her a glass of milk. The camera follows Cary Grant coming up the stairs and as he continues something strange stands out about the glass of milk. It’s bright and bold in the frame. Is he trying to poison her? That’s certainly what we thought when we first it.

That was Hitchcock’s intention, actually. He put a light in the glass to highlight it in the shot to get the audience to wonder what was going to happen next. It’s a simple, but ingenious, technique.

 

7. Whirling Camera in “The Wrong Man”

Wrong Man Cell Baja

For some reason, “The Wrong Man” is always under the radar. The film features a common Hitchcock theme about a man wrongly accused. Henry Fonda plays a man who has a striking resemblance to a murderer. When the man is wrongfully thrown in jail for the murder he didn’t commit, Hitchcock again helps the audience get in the head of the character with his camera work.

When Fonda realizes there’s nothing he can do at this point to prove his innocence, he puts his head back against the jail cell wall and the camera whirls around and around, picking up speed. It successfully gives this disorienting affect of feeling lost.

 

6. Use of Double Exposure in “The Wrong Man”

Again, “The Wrong Man”. This time, though, we have a scene where Henry Fonda’s character is at an all time low at this point in the story. His innocence still hasn’t been proven. So, he prays to the Lord for hope. As he does so, the picture dissolves into a close up of the murderer and both of their faces line up with each other.

Again, this scene presents a lot of layers to the story. These two men live in two different worlds and what Hitchcock does is show these two worlds colliding witch each other.

 

 

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  • Richard

    there is actually is music in birds. the kids singing in the background while tippy is outside the school and the birds slowly gather on the playground

    • Judge Fredd

      Which is even creepier, it stays in your head.

    • Chris

      Yes, you’re correct and it is creepy and it actually slipped my mind to mention that when I was writing this piece. However, I was referring more to a diegetic soundtrack rather than non-diegetic which is what that singing would be considered. Good point, though.

    • Dris

      That’s one of the most creepy scenes in the movie. brrr.
      A really great article about a really great artist!

    • Rania M

      The absence of music mostly refers to extra-diegetic music (the soundtrack). Any music you might hear, it’s produced by the characters.

  • IvanDoctor Ortega

    muy valioso, es importante ver de donde vienen los efectos para saber a donde van

  • Terry Powell

    I also love it in Frenzy when the camera pulls out of the house so we don’t see the woman being killed. The camera keeps pulling back and we gradually start hearing the noises of the street and city outside.

  • Bill Oppenheim

    AH also realized we see and retain a frame shown for only a second, contrary to Hollywood wisdom. That’s why in the Psycho trailer, it’s Vera Miles, not Leigh in the shower.

  • The key scene in “Notorious’. There is a incredible tracking shot from the stairs to Ingrid Bergman’s hands holding the keys. One of the best Hitchcock’s scenes.

  • R. D. Finch

    I would add the scene in the cockpit of the plane that crashes near the end of “Foreign Correspondent.” In his interview with Dick Cavett, Hitchcock himself cited this as a sequence he was especially proud of. He repeated the split perspective of the opening of “Vertigo” in “Psycho” when Martin Balsam falls down the staircase. Glad to see “The Wrong Man” get its due here. I’ve always considered it Hitch’s most underappreciated film.

  • Alonso Valdés Morales

    Chris,

    I’m sorry to say, that your scene selection for this topic is not proper to the topic itself.

    Suspense is not something that you can find in just one scene, suspense is made by a sequence of scenes together.

    I have seen all the movies from Alfred Hitchcock, and studied the author for educational purposes. The scenes you selected and presented in this blog are important because of the technical improvement they made in their specific time when they were released to the audience.

    Nevertheless, both the scenes and the descriptions typed below them, are not representative for the master work of the Master of Suspense.

    Quote: “This list represents the techniques and methods he used that made his movies stand out. It’s these little details that stood the test of time and helped creating the tension and suspense he was aiming to bring to an audience”.

    Techniques: checked.

    Methods: Not checked, because technique doesn’t make suspense, suspense is made by proper POV narrative, trought more than one scene. (just for the case of Psycho’s scene, that’s a good example) [The Birds’ scene would have been another good example, but it doesn’t start in the right moment: when she woke up, before climbing the stairs].

    Details: Technically checked, but not narratively.

    Time: Not felt in just one scene.

    Tension and suspense: You can get to feel this, when you see the whole movie, not just trought one scene.

    Nice effort. Technically good, narratively (there is where you achieve suspense) poor.

    Greetings!

    • Chris

      Alonso,

      Thanks for the feedback, but I think you’re reading too deep into this piece.

      I never stated that the suspense is created through just one scene or that technique is what creates suspense. It’s happens in the whole movie, you’re right.

      This list was merely about the filmmaking techniques he employed in particular scenes of his movies that elevated the suspense to another level. All these films and more from his filmography all create tension throughout. I just wanted to zero in on key points, I felt, stood out.

      Believe me, I would have loved to have gone on and on, but with articles like this, the point needs to be made quickly.

      Hope this makes sense.

      • Chris,

        I’ll agree with you, based on the title of this article: 10 most ingenious techniques used by A. Hitchcock.

        Nevertheless, we have to state clearly; because I don’t see it on the article, and may be, that detail is the point that is making noise to my reading, that Alfred Hitchcock is more than a director and a storyteller, he is the greatest technician, and because of that, he created and achieved to manage the suspense like no other: thanks to his techniques.

        Hope this make sense, too.

        Greetings!

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  • Thomas Muething

    The
    author is a MORON. Instead of mentioning the superb use of music in
    many Hitchcock films (Herrmann, Waxman, Rózsa, Tiomkin, etc) – the idiot
    singles out the use of NO music in THE BIRDS, a film SERIOUSLY in need
    of music. What a MORON!!!!

  • Thomas Muething

    “With several projects under his belt and more on the horizon including, Chris continues to work closer to his dreams.”

    In other words, he’s a complete FAILURE.

  • Clatskanie

    Thank you. (effective)

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