Creating a Hitchcockian Opening
"It must always be remembered that the primary aim of pictures is to provide entertainment. To entertain people, one must first capture their interest." -Alfred Hitchcock
Borgus.com - Geography and space were important factors in Alfred Hitchcock’s storytelling technique. So much so that film scholar Paul Duncan (2003) described his formal style as merely "a series of set pieces linked together by plot." In 1934, Hitchcock wrote to readers of Film Weekly declaring his appetite for more "freshness in choice of backgrounds" citing mundane locations in other British films (Gottlieb 1995).
Here we will examine more specifically the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock films and examine his strategy for introducing his stories to the viewer. Film scholar Seymour Chatman (1978) asserted that all stories inherently have a narrator, defined as the "person or presence" telling the story to the audience, no matter how minimally evoked…" One must look no further than the Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955 – 65) television series as a clear example of Hitchcock’s desire to actively introduce his stories, toying with viewer expectations, sometimes even coyly apologizing for what they are about to see. In his feature films, the ways in which he introduced the stories narratively are no less clever. Even his cameos, according to British film scholar Susan Smith (2000) serve as a way of making the viewer conscious that there is a man actively shaping and manipulating the story they are watching.
In his opening scenes, Hitchcock established tone and setting from a point of objectivity toward the subjective, flirted with the boundaries between public space and private space, and painted a satirical world filled with a tapestry of caricatures.
1. Tone and Setting
In the early part of Hitchcock’s career he wrote about the need for shifts in tone throughout a film, and that a comic opening is essential to suspense. He said, "in a light-hearted setting, the advent of drama is made all the more effective by its unexpectedness…The more happy-go-lucky the setting, the greater kick you get from the sudden introduction of drama." He saw around him British films had one single tone throughout, yet noted many theatre plays had comic first acts which he referred to as "perfect coating with which to sugar the plot-planting pill." In Film Weekly he explained:
"After all, that is how things happen in real life. Although a tragic event may be destined to happen sometime during the afternoon, we do not go about all the morning with sombre faces. We just don’t know that the catastrophe is coming – consequently, when it does arrive, we are as likely as not to be laughing and drinking in complete light-heartedness" (Gottlieb 1995).
The consequences of not having this contrast between comedy and drama in a film, he said, resulted in a lack of freshness and "unrelieved tension." The drama had no room from which to rise to a dramatic climax. He believed these shifts in mood serve to keep the audience interested, and more importantly convey the impression that the characters are first "really alive," leading the viewer then to be drawn into their dramatics (Gottlieb 1995).
A survey of his body of work reveals a growing trend, emerging in his first sound pictures, and especially prevalent in his American period, that: a majority of his suspense films opened in the bright daylight accompanied by playful music. With the exceptions of Young & Innocent (1937), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), The Wrong Man, and Family Plot (1976) – all of which begin at night – his films tended to open in the afternoon. Even then, in Rebecca for instance, the night is immediately juxtaposed by bright sunshine in the next scene, at the beginning of the flashback in which a suicidal man is about to jump from a cliff. Young & Innocent dissolves from an opening scene in a storm with violent lightening surrounding a couple arguing, to a bright sunny beach in which the woman’s body washes up on shore. Probably the most obvious example of a bright opening is in Trouble With Harry (1955), showing beautiful autumn scenery of orange leaves, rolling Vermont hills, and a church. Then an innocent child skips along and stumbles onto a dead body lying on green grass.
Much of Hitchcock’s music introductions tread almost absurdly toward the juvenile, with bouncy flutes, whopping bass tubas, as if he wanted to appeal to our childlike nature. This counterpoint of triviality and danger is fully articulated when gun fire disrupts the auditorium in the opening of The 39 Steps (1935), and the stage band plays happy music to calm the crowd. Even with more dramatic films such as Rear Window (1954) and Dial M For Murder (1954), he opened with a facetious music score, this same childlike peek-a-boo tone recalling his tendency toward audience trickery. Hitchcock openly teases, tickles, and plays with the audience from the very outset of his films, much like one would to a baby (Gottlieb 1995).
2. Skylines and headlines
Hitchcock set his films in a wide array of locations. During his British years he stayed mostly near London, and then upon moving to America his locations varied wildly from the deserts of Morocco in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) to the Red Square of Moscow, Russia in Topaz (1969); Miami, Florida in Notorious (1946); the French Riviera in To Catch a Thief (1954); the small Vermont villages and rolling hills in The Trouble With Harry and Spellbound (1945); and to suburban California in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Saboteur (1942).
Hitchcock almost always showed these landscapes at the beginning of each film, with more muted representations in films of entrapment such as Rope (1948) and Rear Window. The opening of Vertigo (1958) follows James Stewart on a rooftop chase, allowing the camera to simultaneously show a panorama of San Francisco’s city lights with a cloudy dusk sunset over the bay. The most intense skyline revelation is in The Ring (1927) in which we are treated to a point of view from a swinging carnival ride – we swoop up and down catching brief glimpses of the city each time. Hitchcock was very interested in using variations of camera proximity to the subject in order to control tension and release (Truffaut 1984). In some instances he believed establishing shots of locations should be "saved" for later use at a dramatic moment. A vast majority of his film openings, however, include a wide establishing shot of a skyline, showing a cityscape, suburbia, a wilderness, or an ocean. On this usage he said it depends on the purpose: "The opening of The Birds (1963) is an attempt to suggest the normal, complacent, everyday life in San Francisco." Whereas, the opening of Rebecca is on a mansion far away from anyone and thus "the fear would be greater if the house was so isolated that the people in it would have no one to turn to" (Truffaut 1984). Strangers on a Train (1951) begins with a view of the Capitol dome looking through the archway of Union Station in Washington D.C, hinting about a story with political connections – in this case a Senator’s daughter is entwined in a murder plot. In Too Catch a Thief he saves the skyline view of the French Riviera until the first woman discovers her jewelry has been stolen. We follow her as she runs frantically to the balcony and screams out at the picturesque city, "I’ve been robbed!" In Family Plot he keeps the skyline hidden, starting only on a crystal ball. Sabotage (1936) crosscuts a close-up of a light bulb with a London skyline shot, the bulb then going black and subsequently the city lights go dark.
Written text is a prominent narrative device used to pull Hitchcock’s viewers into the story openings through captions on the screen, signs on buildings, and newspaper headlines. The most basic use seen in Psycho (1960), The Wrong Man (1956), The Secret Agent (1936), Notorious, and Torn Curtain (1966) is a caption labelling the time and location. In a few films, captions are used to explicitly spell out a plot gimmick such as the on-screen text at the beginning of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) telling the viewer to watch out for the cymbals crashing in the story – the moment the assassination occurs. In Foreign Correspondent (1940) the text gives a salute to all correspondents in wartime and Topaz explains over a large public military march: "Somewhere in this crowd is a high Russian official who disagrees with his governments display of force and…will…attempt an escape…" Captions in his earlier films tended toward the philosophical, Easy Virtue (1927) saying "virtue is its own reward." Signs are another easy way of establishing location, whether a bus labelled "Casablanca-Marrakech" in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), a street sign for the corner of "Park Ave. and E. 72 St." in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), the French tourism posters in To Catch a Thief, or the billboard on the ship of Torn Curtain telling us about the "International Congress of Physicists" meeting. Newspaper headlines are positioned in front of Hitchcock’s camera for the benefit of the viewer, introducing the court case in Easy Virtue, telling us the Queen Mary cruise liner is arriving in Dial M For Murder, or implying a jealous romance in Champagne (1928).
3. Through Public and Private Space
"I'll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look." -Alfred Hitchcock
Movement of the camera through geographic space is one way that Hitchcock signals to the viewer that a new story is being uncovered. Typically he begins scanning a public space, luring the viewer from an objective vantage point and calling upon the voyeuristic. In the case of films like Rebecca – repeated in openings of Psycho, Rope, Dial M For Murder, Secret Agent, and others – the camera begins wide on the landscape and moves or pans through the environment in search of a story. Rebecca begins with the moon shining through dark rolling clouds, as the camera tracks between the bars of an iron gate. Crossing into private territory, it moves down a driveway surrounded by trees, and soon the camera arrives at an old deteriorated mansion, tracking further around the mansion until it moves in on a window. This window serves as a gate into a flashback, but in Psycho we pass through a crack in the window curtains and enter the hotel room where a couple is getting dressed. Here Hitchcock opens across the Phoenix cityscape, getting closer to the buildings in sequential shots, as if picking out a random window to peer into. In quite the same form, The Lady Vanishes (1938) opens onto mountain scenery with snow-caps. The camera pans downward from a mountain slope, cranes past a train station, floats along a road following a car until it reaches a window on a hotel. The camera tracks into the window revealing a crowd waiting inside as Miss Froy checks in.
It is this free ranging camera that makes its way more subtly into the opening of films such as Rope, Dial M For Murder, and Shadow of a Doubt, all of which pan from sunny city street and cross through a window to reveal the private space inside. In Foreign Correspondent Hitchcock begins on the spinning globe on top the New York Morning Globe headquarters and pans down toward the newsroom window, dissolving to a shot of the busy interior. The early British film The Farmer’s Wife (1928) features a window in which a man is seen looking out onto his farm. It is only after we are shown various cutaways of the farm exterior that we then cut back to the man as he turns back into a bedroom where his wife lay ill, surrounded by family. This window motif is most explicitly carried out in the opening of Rear Window, this time in reverse. The camera begins looking out the window from inside an apartment and then dollies through to the outside, scanning through windows and the neighbours’ activities.
The scopophilic is symbolized by a wine glass in Champagne in which we peer through the bottom of a wine glass at a crowd. Easy Virtue’s opening sequence includes a nearly blind magistrate looking through his spectacle at the court proceedings; we are shown his point of view as entirely blurry except through his lens. Similarly, the woman in Lifeboat (1944) peers through her camera lens and sees a survivor swimming toward her. The opening of Notorious begins with a press crowd gathered outside a courtroom, as our camera pans to the doorway and peers in through the open doors while a decision is being read by the jury. Cary Grant is revealed to us for the first time through a window in To Catch a Thief, as we pan from a cat lying atop a newspaper toward the window to see Grant in the garden.
Other Hitchcock openings remain within a public space but find a story within a crowd. The opening of Frenzy (1972) is probably the most majestic, flying above the river Thames with the entire city of London below. As the camera swoops down and under the London bridge it finds a crowd gathered along the shoreline to hear a political speech. In the midst of this speech a dead body floats by, capturing the attention of the crowd. When a neck tie floats along with it, someone makes the declaration that it must be "another neck tie murder" and we then cut to an interior of a man putting on a tie – implying by causal juxtaposition that he is the killer. In a similar opening, Juno and the Paycock (1930) begins with a political speech in the side streets of Dublin, but in this case the crowd is fired upon with machine guns.
Another opening tactic became more prevalent in his later years: following a person on a journey through a crowded public space. This is best exemplified in the openings of both The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) and North by Northwest (1959), in which the male protagonist is in a vehicle travelling through his environment. In North By Northwest Cary Grant gets into a taxi during a crowded rush-hour and rides to a New York restaurant. Similarly, James Stewart and Doris Day ride a bus through the landscape of Morocco in the The Man Who Knew Too Much. We see the highway retreating behind them as the rocky terrain moves around us, cued by dialogue from their child that they are in Africa. Blackmail’s (1929) opening features a ride in a police car through London streets in which we view the surrounding landscape in motion through the windows. The Wrong Man opens with Henry Fonda leaving a nightclub and walking through the streets of New York City. In each of these instances, the camera joins a random person and follows them. The same happens in the openings of The Birds, Marnie (1964), and Family Plot in which the camera follows a woman from behind. Rich and Strange (1932) opens showing accountants walking out of the office at the end of a workday, spilling out onto the rainy street. One man has trouble opening his umbrella, and we follow his journey into the train station and onto the train.
Most cleverly however are the openings of Strangers on a Train and The 39 Steps which follow feet walking through a crowd. This possibly signifies Hitchcock’s desire to tell stories from a simplistic perspective - in the way a child views the adult world from below. The films The Trouble With Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) also feature a child in the opening scenes with which the audiences identifies on a comic level. In the first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) it is a dog which runs onto the ski slope and must be rescued before the skier crashes into him. We first enter the story from objective viewpoint of the ski slopes toward the subjective through identification with the dog’s sudden peril. In To Catch a Thief a black cat is featured laying on top of an important newspaper article. Hitchcock’s camera pans toward the cat guarding a newspaper headline which we must read. Dogs are also subjectified in The Farmer’s Wife as they run inside the house, and quite comically, a rat frightened by the panicked crowd jumps up the side of a building in Juno & the Paycock.
4. Landscape of Crowd Caricatures
The comic Hitchcock landscape is populated by uniquely stylized crowds, portraying the everyday citizen in a rich array of caricatures. An elderly woman glares disapprovingly and a young man whistles suggestively at Tippi Hedren as she crosses the street in opening of The Birds, subtle indications that – we later learn – she has a history of public indecency. This fine level of detail goes back to his first British film, The Lodger (1926), showing a frantic woman recalling a story to the policemen and curious onlookers tipping their heads forward to hear the news. The 39 Steps opens in an auditorium of people gathered to stump Mr. Memory. Hitchcock gives each person a close-up as they take turns asking ridiculous questions, allowing a rich tapestry of personalities to surface. His strategy seems to be of showing us that there are many equally interesting stories happening at once, but choosing only to follow one.
Hitchcock’s extras aren’t just generic members of a crowd, they are individuals with their own agendas. In The Manxman (1929) we see traders cutting raw fish on the docks, bored factory workers on an assembly line in Saboteur, and the physicists tapping grumpily with their forks at the frozen wine on the cruise ship in Torn Curtain. Grandmothers in feathered hats make frequent crowd appearances, like the woman at the train platform in Rich and Strange losing balance on her feet whilst the tight crowd steps back and forth in unison. On the train a man accidentally grabs the feather on her hat and pulls it off while the train sways; she glares and swipes it back from him. Similarly, the crowds at the beginning of North By Northwest seem to walk in unison down the stairs to the subway; a woman tries to get into a taxi before another woman swats her away. The bus in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) is packed with tourists: a blonde in sunglasses, a Frenchman, and various veiled Muslims. As we peer down onto the street in Rope, we see a woman pushing a baby carriage, another woman sweeping stairs, a man carrying a briefcase, and a policeman escorting two children across the street. Rear Window, of course, is filled with a tapestry of comical extras which weave their way into James Stewart’s conspiracy. The opening of Shadow of a Doubt features a man sitting on the peer eating a sandwich, and kids playing ball in the street. Crowds react to the power outage at the beginning of Sabotage, and are rather amused. Grandmothers gossip about the neck tie murderer as the body washes ashore in Frenzy, as a man takes tourist photos.
In the opening of Lifeboat, objects take the place of people as Hitchcock pans across various items floating in the water from a sunken ship: a New Yorker Magazine, playing cards, a checkerboard, and eventually a floating dead body. Dead bodies make frequent appearances in the openings of Hitchcock films, including Lifeboat, Frenzy, Young and Innocent, The Lodger, and The Trouble With Harry. And of course, any time you see a large confused bald man, it may be Hitchcock himself – the true artisan of the worlds he created.
Written: December 2010
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
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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.
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Gottlieb, Sidney 1995. Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, California UP, USA.
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The Man Who Knew Too Much 1955, Paramount, Filmwite Prod.
The Manxman 1929, British International Pictures.
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Rope 1948, Transatlantic Pictures, Warner Bros.
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The Secret Agent 1936, Gaumont British
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Topaz 1969, Universal.
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