Happy Birthday, Hitch
Doc Remembers the King of Suspense on his 100th Birthday
(August 13, 1999) I find it ironic, and a bit funny, that August has been the month that a little independent movie called The Blair Witch Project has made millions of dollars and become a cultural phenomenon. It's also scaring the ever-lovin' stank out of millions of moviegoers, too. The movie plays on the basest of fears -- fear of what you cannot see. This is frightening magic without CGI effects. There are no names in the credits like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Howard Berger, or Greg Nicotero, just a few of the heroes of splatter and makeup. This movie works on one simple principle -- let the audience imagine the things offscreen, because their imagination will be wilder than anything the filmmakers could depict.
The ironic part of this observation is that, despite what some people would want you to believe, this is not a revolutionary idea. There have been filmmakers throughout the years who knew this principle well, and used it better than most. Alfred Hitchcock was the master of it, and let it wash through most every film he made during his remarkable career. I like to think it's just a coincidence that, in the August of Blair Witch, Alfred Hitchcock would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
Sir Alfred knew how the human mind worked, and he could play with an audience's mind like a child with a toy drum. His tune would start out subtle -- tap, tap, taping out lightly, smoothly, charmingly -- setting up a nice steady rhythm, and then, when you'd least expect it, he'd POUND the skins off it, rattling the brain with unforgettable imagery and emotion.
And he did it by never showing you everything until he wanted to, and then, only a glimpse. Just enough to set the imagination reeling.
I remember an interview Hitchcock did for a BBC documentary. The interviewer asked him how suspense worked. Hitch took a deep breath, leaned forward, and gave the following explanation, which I have to paraphrase: "I could show you a bomb under a desk, and have two men walk into the office, and have the bomb explode. That would scare you, perhaps even shock you, but only for a second. Now, if I show you the bomb under the desk, and have the same two men enter the office, and sit down and discuss baseball for five minutes, that is suspense. You know something's about to happen, but you don't know exactly when. And the wait is unnerving."
Something else struck me during that interview. As Hitchcock said those last two sentences, he slowly began to smile. When he reached the word "unnerving," he looked as pleased as punch.
The look meant so much to me because it was the first time I'd really seen someone be completely tickled by the thought of making another squirm in their seat, trying to brace themselves as the suspense grew palpable. He loved scaring people to death. Simple as that.
For most people today, that would involve tons of CGI effects, a tanker-truck full of simulated blood, and lots of in-your-face shocks. But not Hitch.
Take, for example, his classic Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. There are people that swear to this day that, in that famous shower scene, you actually see Marian Crane get stabbed repeatedly. You don't. You see the knife, you see her body, and you see blood dripping into the tub, but you never see her get stabbed. There are, I admit, a few flashes of the knife and her flesh in the same picture, but you never see the knife go into her. By rapidly editing the footage from some twelve cameras, Hitchcock created a slaughter where there was no slaughter. None of it is actually onscreen. We connect the details in our heads.
And, think about this -- Psycho was filmed in 1960, well after the onset of Technicolor. He chose to make this movie in glorious black and white. Why? Because there are shadows in the monochrome world, sure. But, on a greater level, there was no need for color. Hitchcock used chocolate sauce in that wonderfully eerie shot of blood swirling down the drain. People swear they see red blood in that tub. The movie is totally black and white, but I know people who swear the famous close-up of Janet Leigh's eye clearly shows a blue-tinted iris. It's gray, folks. Our minds paint in that blue stare, that red blood, that Technicolor horror.
That is the mark of filmmaking greatness, no matter how you slice it. (Pardon the pun.) It's also the mark of a man who has faith in his audience -- not underestimating their ability to fill in the blanks and appreciate the subtleties of complex storytelling. It'd be a better world if all filmmakers -- and not just the makers of Blair Witch -- would think more like Alfred Hitchcock.
Friends, do yourselves a favor one weekend. Go rent some of the Hitchcock classics. Better yet, go buy them. Get copies of North By Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, and, one of my personal favorites, Strangers on a Train. You'll realize that every good director working today has studied one or more of these films, and has learned volumes from the subtle work of a master craftsman.
Happy Birthday, Alfred Hitchcock. And, thank you again for teaching us how to love the suspense in life.