The Long Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock
A hundred years after his directorial debut, here are some of Hitchcock’s greatest cinematic innovations–and examples from modern filmmakers who deploy them.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century and 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of his directorial debut, with the comedy film Number Thirteen. Although he never completed is first feature, Hitchcock went on to direct more than 50 films and was a pioneer in cinematography. In my new book The Young Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class just published by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, I show how he became one of the most influential directors in world cinema, inspiring many others through his innovation and use of camera logic. Here’s a rundown of some of his most famous trademark shots:
The Point of View Shot
When we think of Hitchcock, we often think of the point of view shot. His favourite lens was the 50mm which mimicked the lens of the human eye. Principally a voyeur, his most famous point of view shots occur in Rear Window (1954) when a wheelbound L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) spies on his neighbours and believes he has witnessed a murder across the Greenwich village courtyard.
Fast forward to 2022, and Matt Reeves, the director of The Batman, uses Hitchcock’s character point of view: “Batman or Bruce is in almost every scene of the movie, which is not the usual way these movies are done. . .what I try to do, in an almost Hitchcockian sense, is use the camera and use the storytelling so that you become that character, and you emphasize with that point of view. There’s a chance to do an almost noir-driven detective version of Batman that is point of view driven in a very, very powerful way, that will hopefully connect you to what’s going on inside of his head and inside of his heart.”
Reeves tells the story voyeuristically, through the editing, and uses the main character’s point of view to make the audience feel like a participant in the movie. The audience often know more about the dangers than the characters such as in the opening murder scene, and the tempo and type of music raises the suspense.
Hitchcock famously experimented with long takes in two of his films, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). In Rope, which is based on a stage play about two intellectuals who murder a friend for the thrill of it, Hitchcock filmed each scene in segments lasting up to ten minutes (the length of a reel of film at that time). He hid some transitions between reels by having a dark object fill the entire screen for a moment, such as a person walking into or past the camera. Hitchcock used those points to hide the cut and began the next take with the camera in the same place.
Another famous opening long take occurs in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) where Choi Min-sik’s wrongfully accused man fights countless thugs with a single hammer. The shot took three days to film and goes on for so long in a breath-taking long shot with many different movements within. Director Spike Lee was so impressed with the long take that he copied it beat for beat when he remade the film in 2013.
Another Hitchcock trademark is the tracking shot, which he often used to create emotion. One of the most famous tracking shots occurs in Notorious during the balcony kiss between Devlin and Alicia (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman). “I didn’t want to cut there because I wanted to retain an embrace,” he said. “I felt that the camera, we should all embrace, they should remain in their embrace and we should join them. And [so I] followed them, never left the close-ups, all the way to the telephone and up to the door, a continuous shot. The whole idea was about not breaking the romantic notion. So it was an emotional thing, the movement of that camera.”
The intention is to keep the audience with the embrace, so that when Grant and Bergman go to the phone, the camera follows them, never leaving the close-up all the way, right up to the phone and over to the door, all in a continuous shot. Hitchcock didn’t want to cut up the sequence so he used the movement of the camera to maintain the emotional intensity. This two and a half minute kissing scene in Notorious is famous for being an attempt to get around the censors, as at the time on-screen kisses could only last three seconds, so Hitchcock cleverly got around this by simply having the actors break apart every three seconds before they resumed kissing.
Martin Scorsese has perfected the art of the long tracking shot in his films from Cape Fear (1991), Goodfellas (1990) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), where the camera follows Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) around his office as he explains the inner workings of his company.
You can see one of the most famous examples of jump cuts in The Birds (1963). Lydia (Jessica Tandy) goes to call on a neighbor and discovers to her horror that birds have killed him. To represent Lydia’s point of view, Hitchcock films a triple jump cut, starting with a wide shot of the neighbor’s body, a mid-shot of his face, and ending with a close-up of his pecked-out eyes. “The three staccato jumps are almost like catching the breath — gasp, gasp, gasp,” said Hitch.
Directors can deploy jump cuts no only for shock tactics in a horror film like The Ring (2002) when Samara kills Noah, but also to suggest the time in Juno (2007). They can also be used to create a stylistic opening such as Snatch (2000) and City of God (2002) which sets the style and tempo of the films. Jump cuts also convey the character’s psychological state. In Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) when Ritchie (Luke Wilson) cuts his hair and beard, there are many jump cuts before his attempt to commit suicide. Quentin Tarantino uses jump cuts in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), when Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to his movie set trailer and begins to spiral out of control.
The Vertigo Shot
Probably one of Hitchcock’s most famous shots is the Vertigo shot, which is a camera technique that causes the image to “stretch” — which creates the illusion of the shot’s background suddenly moving farther away from the camera. We also know it as the Dolly Zoom, the Zolly, and even the Hitchcock Zoom. It took Hitch twenty years to get the effect he wanted, and it’s truly memorable.
James Gunn also uses this shot in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017) when Ego (Kurt Russell) reveals to his son Peter (Chris Pratt) that he has implanted a tumor in Peter’s mother to prevent him from falling more in love with her. When Peter replied ‘What?’ the movie deploys the dolly zoom to convey the total shock and fear as the background recedes as Peter realizes his father killed his mother.
The Young Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class is out now, priced $19.99 in paperback and $4.99 in Ebook.