Monday, August 13, 2007

What Mystery Writers Can Learn From Alfred Hitchcock

by Julia Buckley
Today is the birthday of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, who was born in 1899 (he died in 1980). I used to watch reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on television when I was a kid. Remember the music at the beginning of his show, and the famous silhouette that we saw until Hitchcock turned and faced the audience? As a child I was rather horrified by him; I couldn't understand his British accent, further complicated by several chins.

It was only as an adult that I came to appreciate Hitchcock through his films: Rear Window, Rebecca, North by Northwest are three of my favorites, although my husband prefers the more horror-based flicks like Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo. You can see a bio and filmography here.

Hitchcock popularized and utilized the term "MacGuffin" in his direction. The MacGuffin was the plot device that drew the attention of the viewers, and many of the characters, but was often entirely unimportant to the plot. Hitchcock clarified in a lecture in 1939: "It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." The MacGuffin was a wonderful way to use misdirection, and Hitchcock experimented with this in all of his suspense films.

When I was about ten, my dad rented an old reel to reel projector and a big screen, and he took out the Hitchcock movie Suspicion on his library card and showed it in our living room. It was amazing, having our house transformed into a little theatre long before there were VCRs or DVD players. The sound of that old projector, too--something I really miss--made it somehow more suspenseful, and Cary Grant had never looked more ambiguous to me in those black and white images. Was he evil or was he not?

That was the genius of Hitchcock--he always had me asking questions, and I was too often distracted by just what he wanted to distract me with.

In his New York Times Obituary,Hitchcock is quoted as saying, "Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake." Anyone who's enjoyed a Hitchcock film would understand that assessment.

People are still trying to re-invent Hitchcock. Rear Window was Hitch's take on the Cornell Woolrich story; this summer's Disturbia is a re-telling of that tale, taking a stab at Hitchcock-like suspense.

It's nice to think that Hitchcock and other great suspensers that we love will continue to inspire the writers and directors of the future; certainly any mystery writer having a dry spell should plug in a Hitchcock movie and just soak in the atmosphere.

I recommend Rebecca.


Peter said...

I had not read the "slices of cake" quote before, but I understand it well. Andrew Sarris wrote that critics sometimes failed to take Hitchcock seriously because his movies were too much fun. I say that anyone who could produce such wonderful entertainment, who could master its every aspect, and who could speak and write about it so knowledgeably is a man to be remembered with awe as well as fondness.

He is my favorite director and one of the greatest ever. Happy birthday, Hitch!

I recommend, in addition to the usual suspects, Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock's own favorite among his movies, and The Lodger, which shows that even when still directing silent movies, he still had that recognizable atmosphere- and suspense-building Hitchcock touch.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

I adore his movies too, but instead of looking for Maguffins I look for his cameo appearances.

His movies for me are "rich." Technicolor, huge stars appearing, great story. Love it.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for the tips, Peter. I agree that a fun movie can still be a brilliant movie. In a way I think that's why Spielberg has been underestimated, as well.

I'll check out those movies on my next Netflix run. :)

Julia Buckley said...


Good point about the personal appearances. And I remember another one that I really liked: CHARADE.

Julia Buckley said...

Okay, Keith Raffel tells me that Charade was not Hitchcock. I stand corrected. :0

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