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Hitchcock and Suspense

What differentiates one director’s style from another? Without knowing the name of a film, what small details in a film allows one say, “Oh, this is one of those Ford westerns?” The cinematic style in which a director (and a cinematographer) chooses to shoot a scene, light a set, and construct the physical parameters of a shot ultimately becomes a unique authorial signature.

If there is one director within the classical film context who fully exemplifies this notion of signature, Alfred Hitchcock would be the overwhelming victor. Between 1950 and 1960, there were a multitude of Hitchcock films that hit the box office. Three in particular, Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960), all made at Paramount Studios, are among top contenders for what critics call “Hitchcock masterpieces.” All three films are incredibly entertaining and far more suspenseful than the vast majority of contemporary popular culture “horror/suspense” thrillers. These three films share such commonalities as shot position, plot progression, and overall thematic development that resonate throughout contemporary American history as the Hitchcockian approach.

Not unlike other Hitchcock films, all three pictures exert star power to fill up a theater. Grace Kelly, James Stewart (in both Vertigo and Rear Window), Kim Novak, and Anthony Perkins are the focal point of all three films. But, Hitchcock’s approach to achieving a signature is distinctly different in each text. Hitchcock’s success in developing suspense is built upon an atypical basis. The first rule of the art of suspense is to hold the climatic element of the plot as long as possible. Keeping the clincher until the end. In the case of these films, Hitchcock reveals the “clincher” halfway through the narrative. Rather, it is his modus operandi that differentiates his great films from the rest. The use of multiplexed suspense plots and unconventional shot position are just some of the tools that Hitchcock utilizes to magnify effect.

Withstanding my personal love of classic American film, any of these three films will make for an exciting experience. And, you can probably rent all three for the price of a current movie ticket!

February 25, 2002
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