In A World

This was the film we were discussing earlier about women in the film industry.


Jean-Luc Godard: “The Spirit of the Forms”

During the second week of the 51st New York Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center began a 3-week retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard’s work.  Here is a link to the website that has a description about the event, as well as a fun trailer that features images and sounds across his widespread filmmography.  Notice the references to Week End!

Godard Tribute Trailer from Lincoln Center

Hitchcock and auteur theory

Hitchcock and auteur theory

The Andrew Sarris essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”, argues that the auteur film is not always bad even if there is a bad director. Sarris gives the example of Marlon Brando and his film One-Eyed Jacks and how he thinks it was better than many films without directors. Also, that there are so many other elements to look at in a film such as the script, the music, the costuming and the acting, rather than just focusing on the director. To what extent is a director really needed, in some cases? Another argument is that the film should be an extension of the director’s mind (when there is one); his thoughts, his perspectives, his visions. The auteur always has a ‘signature style’, or recurring elements of the film that really just personalizes his or her films. It also becomes part of the auteur’s identity. The essay also says that ultimately films are art and there is always more than one meaning, which comes from the director’s views and persona. The mise-en-scene is very important in the auteur theory because what the director puts into the scene sets the tone for the whole movie, and essentially could make or break the film.

Sarris classifies these three premises of auteur theory as concentric circles, with underlying meaning as the inner circle, the auteur’s personal style as the second circle, and the technique as the outside circle. The essay mentions Hitchcock as an important auteur much like Maurice Yacowar’s “Hitchcock’s Imagery and Art.” The Yacowar essay says Hitchcock’s “delight is to make his moral points through exciting fictions, reminding his audiences of the difficulties of moral life…” and talks of the tensions between innocence and guilt.  This is described as Hitchcock’s signature style and Yacowar mentions North by Northwest as one filled with moral issues and innocence and guilt. Yacowar believes Hitchcock is bored with morality, and finds sin much more exciting for his films and audiences. As an auteur, Hitchcock has much more decision-making power in his films, and being a famous auteur gives him even more creative authority because the stars and other people working on the film know that the film will already be catered to a certain audience and will be associated with his name, and therefore more likely to become popular. Alfred Hitchcock is known for his suspense and his art is based on the “dramatic appeal of the insecure” (Yacowar, 205). Hitchcock usually has several common obstacles for his protagonists, such as police, as seen constantly in North by Northwest, and there is also always a conflict between a character’s love and duty. For example, in North by Northwest, Eve’s internal conflicts between her love for Thornhill or her duty as a spy. These reoccurring elements in plot really characterize the film as Hitchcock’s and add to his popularity as a respected auteur. Yacowar explains all of the common themes in Hitchcock’s movie and all of the different movies the different elements are known for.

Works cited

   Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. “Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962″” Film Theory and Criticism. Sixth ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 561-64. Print.

Yacowar, Maurice. “Hitchcock’s Imagery and Art.” Hitchcock’s British Films. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1977. N. pag. Print.

Style and Convention Breaking in Psycho

After the film studio system collapse, major distribution companies like RKO went under. Lead by industry avant-gardes, a new era of creative license for filmmakers began. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho revolutionized the horror-suspense genre by defying narrative conventions established in the decades prior to 1960. Seat-gripping stylistic choices and tragic character fates exploit the expectations of audiences previously accustomed to the rigid conventions of classic Hollywood films.

Hitchcock’s stylistic niche became clear in his previous massive productions like North By Northwest, however Psycho pushed the boundaries of his provocative tendencies. One such way was through the use of realistic point of view shots in conjunction with non-diegetic sound to build suspense and terror. As the protagonist Marion drives through the pouring rain at night after leaving Fairville, a series of shots expose her view outside the car windshield. Suspense builds as rain beats down and blinding lights hit Marion’s tired eyes. Fast paced string orchestra sounds and dialogue remind the audience of her difficult situation. The dialogue in the car scene also challenges Marion’s purity; it reminds the audience of her wrongdoing. Unlike Singin in the Rain and other classic Hollywood pictures where single shots frame entire scenes, Hitchcock predominately uses restricted camera angles to emphasize the inner terror of the main characters. Perhaps no other use of POV mixed with non-diegetic sound is more famous than the shower murder. The audience never gets a full view of the bathroom and we are aware of the killer’s presence several seconds before Marion. Her screams are mixed with screeching rhythmic sounds.

Regardless of the scene’s style, the shower murder breaks a key narrative norm. Marion is killed just after she insinuates that she will return home to give the money back. Films in previous decades reprieve protagonist misdeeds given they demonstrate a willingness to change. Rather, the convention dictates those who are evil as punished and those who are good as rewarded. Also, the timing of her death so early in the film comes as a big surprise. Another tragic fate during the film is that of the private detective Arbogast, another one of the film’s positive characters. He is killed suddenly atop the stairs in Norman’s home.

The characters of Psycho are made to exist in a world where the safeguards of society are limited and the good are punished. Even when Marion’s sister and Sam visit Sherriff Chambers, he demonstrates apathy and an unwillingness to help. Clearly Hitchcock resisted the urge to deliver classic Hollywood conventions to shock his audience. He displays the fragility of human life and the twisted cousin of a just society. He defies classic Hollywood conventions by killing positive characters. Shots and stylistic choices make the audience aware of character psychology to amplify terror.

The Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock directed the infamous suspense thriller Psycho in 1960. It has become one of the most classic horror films of all time, and one of many films that added to Hitchcock’s legacy of being the “master of suspense.” The many things that Hitchcock draws attention to almost seem pointless, but as a whole these scenes contribute to the suspense while watching. These scenes also add to the growing mystery of who the murderer is, and help to leave the audience’s questions unanswered when the killer is finally revealed.
In the beginning of the film the main character, Marion Crane, gets very tired while driving and falls asleep on the side of the road. In the morning, Marion wakes up in her car to a police officer asking her questions. This police officer follows her as she drives, and she keeps looking back at him in the rear view mirror as suspenseful music plays in the background. This causes the audience to question if the policeman is an evil character or not, when he really plays no major role in the film. He continues to follow her until she pulls into a car dealership and trades her car in and pays $700 cash for the difference. He drives away as Marion gets ready to leave the dealership because having him follow her any longer would have been pointless. This is just one of the many tools Hitchcock uses to create questions and possibilities in the minds of the audience, which in turn adds to the building suspense element seen throughout the course of the film.
The timing of the film also has a lot to do with this buildup of suspense that Hitchcock utilizes. The famous shower murder scene takes place about 50 minutes into the film. To some, this may have been the most climactic, exciting scene of the film, however it takes place barely halfway through it. This scene is not only significant for this reason, but also because it sets a pace to the film in which the audience is horrified early on; therefore, they are even more intrigued than before to continue watching the film to find out who the murderer is.
At this point in the plot there are still multiple twists that lie ahead. The death of the private investigator was not the climax of the movie, however in my opinion it was the most suspenseful point. The way the murder was shot from above the private investigator as the killer makes a clean entrance to the frame, all the while accompanied by loud music, was the most realistic moment of the film. Compared specifically to the shower scene and at the end when we see Bates’ mother it is by far more scary and believable.
This leads to the final suspenseful moment of the film when Bates is dressed up as his mother. He is about to attack Lila but Sam comes back and struggles the knife away from him. In my opinion, the film could have ended here and had a sufficient conclusion. The fact that we get to look deep into the eyes of the now-known killer Norman Bates was another great addition to the creepiness of his character and wraps up the whole story in an eerie but appropriate manner.

Music Takes A Supporting Role in Psycho

Known by many as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock proves he’s earned this nickname with each of his horror films. In Psycho, he succeeds once again in feeding off human emotions with various aspects of filmmaking. For this film in particular, sound plays a major role in keeping audiences on the edge of their seats.

Hitchcock juxtaposes complex psyches with simple music and a black and white layout. The single tone color of an all-string orchestra reflects the black and white images and matches the strained tone of the film. Hitchcock manages to retain suspense in the slower portions of the film, such as when the main character steals a large sum of cash. As Marion leaves town with said cash in her passenger seat, the fast-paced violin sounds create a flurry of nerves, and audiences can practically feel her stomach churning. This musical style reappears any time Marion handles the stolen money, revealing the fear and tentativeness she feels for her impulsive actions. A similar musical scheme is used when Marion’s sister, Lila, sees Norman approaching when she’s inside the Bates’ house. The curt violin sounds reflect the sister’s sudden panic as she searches for a place to hide.

Though the soundtrack has great success retaining tension in the slower portions through ostinato—a technique in which each note has the same stress as the last—the film’s true victory is the birth of an infamous violin combination. A combination so shocking that it has become synonymous with horror. This horrifying violin-centered sequence keeps eardrums ringing with each high-pitched strain. Hitchcock uses screeching violins in the film’s most intense scenes.  The first of these scenes is when Marion takes a shower in her motel bathroom. The scene starts out quiet, and audiences can relate to the feeling of vulnerability as they hear the familiar sounds of water running down the drain and the surrounding stillness just outside the shower curtain. Even as the murderer approaches, the music doesn’t start until the curtain is ripped aside and the dagger is raised, revealing “mother’s” cruel intentions. Shrieking violins accompany Marion’s screams, and viewers can hear the sound of the knife slicing through her flesh. The screeching violins actually resemble a bird’s shrill call, which may hint to Norman who admits his hobby is stuffing dead birds.

In addition to Marion, the P.I., Arbogast also finds himself a victim of Norman’s twisted personality. As Arbogast approaches the Bates’ house, he’s accompanied only by dull cello sounds. The music changes to high pitched violin chords when the detective enters the house, signifying that Arbogast has put himself in a risky situation. The violins continue to strain as he carefully proceeds up the stairs. When Norman—dressed as his mother—attacks Arbogast, the music returns to its familiar screech and screams out on behalf of the fallen investigator. Audience members can assume the intensified violin sounds signal impending violence. This assumption proves true when Marion’s sister ventures down into the Bates house cellar, where she finds Mrs. Bates sitting in a chair. As Lila approaches the figure in the chair, the music remains relatively consistent, suggesting that Mrs. Bates presents no real danger. When Lila discovers that Norman’s mother is really just a corpse with a wig, the music does not change; but when Lila screams and looks to the cellar door, the violins accompany her screams. This time, the violins sound even before the oncoming danger is present. Despite this slight delay, suspicions are confirmed less than a moment later when Norman runs into the room, wig in place and a dagger in hand.

Psycho emphasizes the importance of not only cinematographic techniques in suspense, but also of sound strategies. Suspense relies heavily on these two facets of film-making, and by utilizing both aspects, Hitchcock manipulates audiences and once again proves his mastery in the art of true horror.

The Suspense of Horror

Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho is without a question the first film of its kind. Before the film came out in 1960 many “horror” films simply expressed a scare factor many times through a monster. Psycho is the first non classic Hollywood film that takes the horror genre and creates a more suspenseful approach, creating a new level of scare. Hitchcock’s auteur style and other suspense characteristics allow for the film to show little to no blood, but allow for the viewers to believe a gory death occurred.

Perhaps the most suspenseful part of the film is watching the character Norman Bates look through a peephole into Marion Crane’s room. The  scene allows for the viewers to get that suspense factor and wonder what is Marion’s fate. The viewer also is never given the true reason behind this voyeuristic action performed. The next collection of scene simply shows a figure stabbing Marion to death. During the stabbing scene the viewer does not know if it is indeed Norman, or perhaps it is Norman’s mother a character not yet featured on screen.

The shower stabbing scene is by far the most famous scenes of this featured film. Hitchcock was a smart man; he was able to give the idea that Marion was naked, without any need to express full nudity. Classic Hollywood films had very strict moral codes and nudity was not one allowed on screen, neither was the use of gory blood shots. However, Hitchcock walked right on the line when it came to those production codes. The blood in the scene was not gory nor was it displayed, but the viewer was able to get a feel for the horrific action; the screaming of Marion allowed for true suspense too.

Many other classic Hollywood films have death scenes within the picture, but Psycho took death and murder to another level. Classic Hollywood films, for example Mildred Pierce, used guns to commit murders, but Psycho used a knife. The use of a knife created that slasher type of genre. This knife approach, a sweeping motion up and down along with the highs and lows of the music created suspense.

Psycho also creates suspense within it’s name, Psycho. Not only is the movie a horror film that takes a suspenseful approach, but the movie is also a psychological thriller. The viewer is able to see what is shown on screen, but is never fully allowed in the mind of the characters on screen. Yes Marion does have inner conversations of others during a voiceover scene, but the viewer does not know entirely why she is stealing the money and going to Sam. Also, the viewer does not know why Marion was murdered. The viewer is given some range, but very little depth when it comes to the narrative. Thus creating more suspense and more horror for the film. It is not until the end of the film that the viewer learns that Norman is acting as his mother. Even this idea is suspenseful to the audience, because it is the unknown even at the end.

How does Hitchcock defy expectations in Psycho?

In his 1960 film, Psycho, Hitchcock embraces his title as the “master of suspense.” Psycho is widely recognized as one of the greatest films of all time and because of this, it is hard to find a contemporary audience that is not aware of its plot twists. However, the viewer had very little previous knowledge of the film and was thus able to relate similarly to the reactions of the original audience of 1960. These reactions are due to Hitchcock expertly defying the expectations of both the audience’s thoughts of their own conscious as well as the Classic Hollywood film style prevalent at the time.

The introduction of Marion Crane as the film’s protagonist immediately invites the audience to sympathize with her character. Between her secret affair with Sam and what seems to be a monotonous, cyclical job, it is not surprising that she runs away with the money she sees can help improve her life. The audience is connected to Marion and the viewer’s feel what she feels while the plot seemingly revolves around her story. When Norman Bates’ character is introduced he appears as a timid man whose life revolves around taking care of his debilitated mother. By characterizing Norman this way, Hitchcock subtly, almost against the viewer’s knowledge, shifts the sympathy from Marion to Norman. Norman’s character is where Hitchcock begins to utilize his technique of defying expectations.

Think about these two descriptions: “a person who steals money, from a crude man, to escape her tedious life and help pay off the debts of the man she loves” vs “a person with multiple personality disorder who has murderous tendencies.” When presented with the following two descriptions of a person, not a character, it seems obvious who has more a realistic and relatable problem many could sympathize with. While one might read the second description and recognize the unfortunate situation, it is uncommon that people sympathize with real life murderers with mental illness. However, Hitchcock manages to defy this conscious expectation in the film. This viewer felt more sympathy for Norman, who was revealed to have, potentially, killed four people as opposed to Marion who only stole $40,000 which she intended to give back before she was brutally murdered.

In previous paragraphs it was mentioned that Marion is the audience’s link to the films plot. When she meets Norman and they have a conversation the audience expects that the plot will now revolve around both of them together as protagonists. That expectation is shattered with the first chilling chord strung before the plunge of the knife. The audience is left jarred; the protagonist of the film was just killed after only 40 minutes. The fact that the heroine died so suddenly and abruptly is vastly different than conventional Hollywood films.

Marion’s death introduces the detective Arbogast, Sam, and Marion’s sister Lila, all vying for information about Marion’s disappearance and the stolen money. Previously, Hitchcock gave the audience some omniscient knowledge because it is known that the money is gone; sunk with Marion’s body. To modern audiences the repeated obsession with the stolen money may seem a bit redundant, but it makes sense within the confines of the Hollywood era. Typically in those films characters who do wrong are meant to be punished. Marion did steal the money after all, even if she intended to give it back. By continually mentioning the crime the audience almost forgets her plan to return it. This makes the audience question if Marion “deserved” to die for her actions, like Hollywood style expects, or if she atoned for her crime, either way she did not get the ending many anticipated for her. This brings up the final expectation for Hollywood cinema that Hitchcock defied. Typically there was a happily ever after- all things solved and everyone smiling in these films. It is ironic that at the end of the film someone is smiling; Norman Bates as “Mother” is shown with a ghastly superimposed grin of a skeleton after speaking to the police. This final image leaves the audience feeling disturbed rather than comforted as they leave the cinema

There are certain tropes that films are expected to have, especially in the Classic Hollywood era. Hitchcock throws these expectations out the window and presents a new film style that will pave the way for years to come. Do the unexpected; make a film where the protagonist doesn’t necessarily win and the audience cares more for the “bad guy.” Additionally, make an ending imperfect where nothing turns out right for the characters. The point, Hitchcock’s Psycho taught Hollywood, was to defy expectations.

Suspense and Tone in “North by Northwest”

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense in modern cinema, and rightfully so. Films like Psycho and The Birds keep audiences on the edge of their seats with their eyes glued to the screen. North by Northwest is a curious film because it has several elements that would make it an excellent thriller: a case of mistaken identity, a pair of deadly assassins, and a dangerous femme fatale. However, very early on in the film Hitchcock decides to take the film in a different direction, providing a number of humorous moments that seem to undercut the suspense of the film.

The film begins by introducing the audience to the busy life of the ad agent Roger Thornhill.  During a business meeting he has to make a call, but before he can he is grabbed by two men and forced into a car at gunpoint. Obviously this is a very suspenseful moment in the film but it is undercut by comedy in the next shot. Once the group is in the car Thornhill asks, “Well, where are we going?” and continues to be nonchalant about the whole affair. Since Thornhill appears to be comfortable with being kidnapped the audience loses some of the suspense created earlier in the scene.

Another suspenseful scene in the film is when Roger Thornhill and his mother are going around trying to figure out what happened to Roger the night before. The scene builds suspense by having “Mrs. Townsend” contradict Roger’s tale of events and having the set pieces, such as the cushions and the liquor cabinet, match her telling of events, and opposing Roger’s. These suspenseful elements are once again undercut by Roger’s mother, whose very appearance in the film provides a rather peculiar quality. Roger Thornhill is a man who appears to be in his mid to late thirties and when he’s arrested he calls his mother? But, during the scene at the Townsend estate, after the liquor cabinet is revealed to have books instead of bottles, Roger’s mother says something to the effect of “I didn’t know they stored bourbon in books now” or some other one liner that makes the audience laugh but takes away from the suspense of the scene.

Near the end of the film there is a scene where Thornhill is being driven to the airport to meet the “Professor”. The professor fills him in on George Kaplan and tells him that Eve is a double agent and is in danger of being exposed if Thornhill doesn’t aid in her escape. It’s a tense & crucial scene in the film. Once again however, the scene is undermined by another comedic one-liner. Thornhill says “I have a couple ex-wives, a lawyer, and two bartenders that depend on me” which is probably one of the funniest lines in the film but it does take away from the suspense of whether or not Thornhill will come to save the day.

All of these comedic moments throughout the film undermine the suspenseful nature of the plot. The light-hearted tone of the film was probably a major selling point to audiences at the time and may be the reason it was so successful. I think that if the film had ditched the comedic one-liners and gone with a more serious tone, the film would’ve held up better for contemporary audiences and could have ranked among other Hitchcock classics like Psycho.

Subversion through tonal shifts in North by Northwest

North by Northwest, celebrated director Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film, is considered a classic spy drama. The commonplace elements of the genre—including a debonair lead, the mysterious love interest, a case of mistaken identity, and betrayals galore—are all in place in this film. However, the film also uses atypical additions that stand out from convention. The tonal shifts in North by Northwest subvert the expected elements of the “spy movie” genre.

The opening of the film sets up protagonist Roger Thornhill as a blasé, inconsiderate man who lies often and easily. A startling kidnapping, though the dramatic inciting incident for the events of the rest of the film, draws only humorous confusion and mild fear from Thornhill, instead of extreme terror and anger that might occur if the film were using a straightforward tone to convey the suspense of the kidnapping. By keeping this event at arm’s length, the film informs viewers early that this will not be merely a tense thriller, but rather a film that does not hesitate to mix tones. The method by which the devious kidnappers choose to attempt to kill Roger is decidedly ridiculous (as later pointed out by several characters in the film, including the police and Roger’s own mother), subverting expectations of a cold-blooded criminal mastermind that viewers would normally expect from such a film. Other humorous additions make the viewers’ laughter as common a reaction as their suspense.

The chase that Roger endures due to his mistaken identity, pursued by both the police and the criminals, seems at first to unfold according to convention. Framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Roger is forced to wear sunglasses and attempt to be discreet as he boards a train to Chicago. It is on this train that the most obvious tonal shift takes place, due to the introduction of Eve. From the moment Eve comes into the film, it is clear that she is an appealing, forward-thinking, confident, assertive, witty woman, unlike many of the classic female leads of the era, but bearing much similarity to female love interests in many films to come. However, Eve’s entrance into the film seems to mark the beginning of a different film entirely—a romance at the center of the thriller. From the point of Eve’s introduction, Roger remains concerned with the mystery of George Kaplan, even arranging to meet him, but he is also consumed with the whereabouts and actions of Eve. He takes her supposed betrayal in a very personal way, and then later he does everything he can to rectify his mistake when he finds out she is an American operative. The romantic preoccupation of a male lead is and was not a new concept, but this motivation and subplot seem almost to be tacked on to a much more action-packed caper of a film. The two tones don’t exactly co-exist peacefully, with the changes at tone at times seeming jarring. One example of this bizarre balancing is the auction scene, in which Roger reveals to Eve that he knows of her betrayal, and Eve begins to cry. The heightened emotion of this scene would seem to fit better in a melodrama, not the type of tongue-in-cheek spy film that North by Northwest has henceforth established itself to be. However, the care that the audience has invested in Eve and Roger’s capers up to this point means that the film can insert this scene without losing the audience’s engagement.

Perhaps the most distinctive cut of this film can be seen as an instance of meta-commentary on the strange marriage of tones. At a moment of intense dramatic action, as Eve seems like she is about to tumble down the face of Mount Rushmore, clinging precariously to Roger’s tenuous grip, the scene is graphically matched to Roger pulling Eve up into a bunk, presumably on their wedding night. The film exaggerates the easy ending that most films have, skipping over the resolution of the tension and going straight to the epilogue. This cut suggests which tonal theme the film prefers, as the union of Eve and Roger is emphasized over any continuation or resolution of action.

In conclusion, the film North by Northwest showcases its own determination to subvert expectations throughout the film. This intention is realized through injections of humor in suspenseful situations, as well as with the insertion of a prominent romantic plot that is given equal consideration to the main plot of intrigue and suspense. North by Northwest is a film that delights in challenging the viewer’s preconceived notions, and it does this primarily through playing with the tone, making for a unique viewing experience.