to turn your boring movie into a Hitchcock thriller...
- We've put together a list of the most significant film techniques that
were used by Alfred Hitchcock. This information comes out of many
books and interviews from the
man himself and has been simplified for your consideration.
This page is
mostly for filmmakers who are sad and depressed because their movie is
so average that nobody will watch it. Stop crying and pay attention.
What is written here will save your career (at least until tomorrow morning!)
It's the Mind of the Audience
everything in your screenplay so that it is done for the audience.
Nothing is more important than how each scene is going to affect the viewer.
Make sure the content engages them and reels them in. Use the characters
to tease the viewer and pull them along desperately wanting more.
why people are drawn to a darkened theater to absorb themselves for hours
with images on a screen. They do it to have fun. In the same way
people go to a roller coaster to get thrown around at high speeds, theater
audiences know they are safe. As a film director you can throw things
at them, hurl them off a cliff, or pull them into a dangerous love story,
and they know that nothing will happen to them. They're confident
that they'll be able to walk out the exit when its done and resume their
normal lives. And, the more fun they have, the quicker they will
come back begging for more. (Gottlieb)
Frame for Emotion
(in the form of fear, laughter, surprise, sadness, anger, boredom, etc.)
is the ultimate goal of each scene. The first consideration of where
to place the camera should involve knowing what emotion you want the audience
to experience at that particular time. Emotion comes directly from
the actor's eyes. You can control the intensity of that emotion by
placing the camera close or far away from those eyes. A close-up
will fill the screen with emotion, and pulling away to a wide angle shot
will dissipate that emotion. A sudden cut from wide to close-up will
give the audience a sudden surprise. Sometimes a strange angle above
an actor will heighten the dramatic meaning. (Truffaut)
this theory of proximity to plan out each scene. These varations are a
way of controlling when the audience feels intensity, or relaxation.
Hitchcock compared this to a composer writing a music score - except instead
of playing instruments, he's playing the audience!
Camera is Not a Camera
camera should take on human qualities and roam around playfully looking
for something suspicious in a room. This allows the audience to feel
like they are involved in uncovering the story. Scenes can often
begin by panning a room showing close-ups of objects that explain plot
This goes back
to Hitchcock's beginnings in silent film. Without sound, filmmakers
had to create ways to tell the story visually in a succession of images
and ideas. Hitchcock said this trend changed drastically when sound
finally came to film in the 1930's. Suddenly everything went toward
dialogue oriented material based on scripts from the stage. Movies
began to rely on actors talking, and visual storytelling was almost forgotten.
(Truffaut) Always use the camera as more than just a camera.
Dialogue Means Nothing
One of your
characters must be pre-occupied with something during a dialogue scene.
Their eyes can then be distracted while the other person doesn't notice.
This is a good way to pull the audience into a character's secretive world.
always express their inner thoughts to one another," said Hitchcock, "a conversation
may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks
or needs.” The focus of the scene should never be on what the characters
are actually saying. Have something else going on. Resort to
dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.
"In other words
we don’t have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have
a rectangular screen in a movie house,” said Hitchcock. (Schickel)
Point of View Editing
looks at dog and then we see him smiling. Jimmy Stewart looks at
a woman undressing and then we see him smiling. Those two smiles
have completely different meanings, even if they are the exact same smile.
an idea into the mind of the character without explaining it in dialogue
is done by using a point-of-view shot sequence. This is subjective cinema.
You take the eyes of the characters and add something for them to look
Start with a close-up of the actor
Cut to a shot of what they're seeing
Cut back to the actor to see his reaction
Repeat as desired
You can edit
back and forth between the character and the subject as many times as you
want to build tension. The audience won't get bored. This is the
most powerful form of cinema, even more important than acting. To
take it even further have the actor walk toward the subject. Switch
to a tracking shot to show his changing perspective as he walks. The audience
will believe they are sharing something personal with the character.
This is what Hitchcock calls "pure cinema." (Truffaut)
another person looks at the character in point-of-view they must look directly
at the camera.
Montage Gives You Control
into a series of close-ups shown in succession. Don't avoid this
basic technique. This is not the same as throwing together
random shots into a fight sequence to create confusion. Instead,
carfully chose a close-up of a hand, an arm, a face, a gun falling to the
floor - tie them all together to tell a story. In this way you can
portray an event by showing various pieces of it and having control over
the timing. You can also hide parts of the event so that the mind of the
audience is engaged. (Truffaut)
this was "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the
audience." (Schickel) The famous shower scene in
montage to hide the violence. You never see the knife hitting Janet
Leigh. The impression of violence is done with quick editing, and
the killing takes place inside the viewer's head rather than the screen. Also
important is knowing when not to cut. (Truffaut)
anytime something important happens, show it in a close-up. Make
sure the audience can see it.
Keep the Story Simple!
your story is confusing or requires a lot of memorization, you're never
going to get suspense out of it. The key to creating that raw Hitchcock
energy is by using simplistic, linear stories that the audience can easily
follow. Everything in your screenplay must be streamlined to offer
maximum dramatic impact. Remove all extraneous material and keep
it crisp. Each scene should include only those essential ingredients
that make things gripping for the audience. As Hitchcock says, “what is
drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out…” (Truffaut)
story will bore the audience. This is why Hitchcock tended to use crime
stories with spies, assassinations, and people running from the police.
These sort of plots make it easy to play on fear, but are not mandatory
for all movies.
Characters Must Break Cliché
Make all of
your characters the exact opposite of what the audience expects in a movie.
Turn dumb blondes into smart blondes, give the Cuban guy a French accent,
and the criminals must be rich and successful. They should
have unexpected personalities, making decisions on a whim rather than what
previous buildup would suggest. These sort of ironic characters make them
more realistic to the audience, and much more ripe for something to happen
tend to be wealthy upper class citizens whom you’d never suspect, the policeman
and politicians are usually the bumbling fools, the innocent are accused,
and the villains get away with everything because nobody suspects them.
They surprise you at every step of the plot.
Use Humor to Add Tension
is essential to Hitchcock storytelling. Pretend you are playing a practical
joke on the main character of your movie. Give him the most ironic
situations to deal with. It's the unexpected gag, the coincidence, the
worst possible thing that can go wrong - all can be used to build tension.
Tippi Hedren is stealing money from an office safe and is just about to
leave when she notices the maid happens to be cleaning in the next room.
The maid is completely innocent and unaware. Hedren will get caught if
the maid sees her, but the audience is already hoping that she gets away
with it. The more happily the maid mops the floor and the closer she gets
to seeing Hedren, the higher the tension.
find that Hitchcock tended to use comical old women to add a flavor of
innocent humor in his films. They will usually be opinionated, chatty,
and have a highly optimistic view about crime. If someone were committing
a crime they might even help with it!
about use of humor]
Two Things Happening at Once
into a scene by using contrasting situations. Use two unrelated things
happening at once. The audience should be focused on the momentum
of one, and be interrupted by the other. Usually the second item
should be a humorous distraction that means nothing (this can often be
dialogue.) It was put there by you only to get in the way.
guests arrive at the hotel room in the Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Jimmy
Stewart and Doris Day are in the midst of a tense phone-call. The
arrival of the guests laughing and joking serve a dramatic counterpoint
to the real momentum of the scene. In Spellbound (1945) Ingrid Bergman sees a note which has
been slipped under her door. Just when she grabs for it, her colleagues walk in and speak with her about the
dissapearance of Gregory Peck, completely unaware they are standing on top of the note from him! The end result is - the audience
pays more attention to what's happening.
Suspense is Information
"Information" is essential to Hitchcock suspense; showing
the audience what the characters don’t see. If something is about
to harm the characters, show it at beginning of the scene and let the scene
play out as normal. Constant reminders of this looming danger will
build suspense. But remember - the suspense is not in the mind of
the character. They must be completely unaware of it. (Schickel,
In Family Plot (1976) Hitchcock shows the audience that brake fluid is
leaking out of a car well before the characters find out about it. In Psycho (1960) we know about the
crazy mother before the detective (Martin Balsam) does, making the scene in which Balsam enters the house
one of the most suspenseful scenes in Hitchcock's career.
essential fact is to get real suspense you must let the audience have information." --Alfred Hitchcock
Surprise and Twist
Once you've built your audience
into gripping suspense it must never end the way they expect. The bomb must never go off! Lead them
in one direction and then pull the rug out from under them in a surprise twist.
In the climax scene of Saboteur (1942) Norman Lloyd is cornered on the top of the Statue of Liberty as
Robert Cummings holds him at gunpoint. Just when you think it's over, Cummings begins to speak, startling Lloyd
to fall backwards over the edge!
Warning: May Cause MacGuffin
MacGuffin is the side effect of creating pure suspense. When scenes are
built around dramatic tension, it doesn’t really matter what the story
is about. If you've done your job and followed all the previous steps,
the audience is still glued no matter what. You can use random plot
devices known as the MacGuffin.
is nothing. The only reason for the MacGuffin is to serve a pivotal reason
for the suspense to occur. (Schickel) It could be something as vague
as the "government secrets perhaps" in North by Northwest, or the
long detailed weapons plans of Mr. Memory in the 39 Steps.
Or, it could be something simple like the dog blocking the stairway in
on a Train. Nobody cares about the dog. It's only there
for one reason - suspense. It could have just as easily been a person,
an alarm, a talking parrot, or a macguffin!
Written: June 2004 Updated: July 2004, January 2006, December 2007.
Continue to other articles:
How to Turn Your Boring Movie into a Hitchcock Thriller
Humor: Hitchcock's Secret Weapon
Message in a booth: Arbogast's last words
The Definitive List of Hitchcock MacGuffins
Creating a Hitchcockian Opening
Sound: Hitchcock's Third Dimension
The Cameo: Appearing in Your Own Film
[Back to Main]
Written by Jeffrey Michael Bays, an award-winning radio producer most widely known for 'Not From Space' on XM Satellite Radio. He is also filmmaker and film scholar with a Master of Arts in Cinema from La Trobe University. Jeffrey has written for Peter Marshall's Director's Chair, and is currently writing a book for Micheal Wiese Publishing. As an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Jeffrey directed the Australian suspense film Offing David and is currently in development of two new films.
Truffaut, Francois. "Hitchcock" Revised Edition. New York. 1985.
Gottlieb, Sydney. "Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews"
Los Angeles. 1997.
Spoto, Donald. "The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of his Motion
Pictures" New York. 1992.
DOCUMENTARY "ALFRED HITCHOCK: MASTER OF SUSPENSE" City Center of Music
and Drama by Richard Schickel, Fox Lorber Associates, Inc. 1973
Family Plot, Torn Curtain, Rebecca, Psycho, Rear Window, Man Who
Knew Too Much
All images are copyright each respective
studio, and are most likely copyrighted under the Hitchcock Foundation.