Learning from the Master: Hitchcock’s Thematic Throughlines
James Napoli explores Hitchcock as a writer, examining his use of recurring motifs and themes in three of his classic films.
By James Napoli.
One can accuse Alfred Hitchcock of being many things, but unintentional is not one of them. His films were constructions, designs of often epic thematic proportions that commented upon themselves even as they fooled us into being entertained. Donald Spoto, in his well-known text The Art of Alfred Hitchock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, quotes the director stating as early as 1935 that he hoped viewers would see his films “at least three times, in order to pick out all the details and the intention behind them, and in order to get deeper into things.”
Hitchcock famously storyboarded his work to the point where he is often cited as claiming his movies were already made before he shot them. Indeed, Hitchcock’s visual style, his subjective camera, his German Expressionist influenced set pieces, these all tend to be the benchmark people use to laud his directorial vision. But Sir Alfred’s preparation of the screenplay included the design of the characters and dialogue, and he worked in concert with his screenwriters to make these aspects share equal prominence with the position of the camera. Also in Spoto’s book, Samuel Taylor, who co-wrote Vertigo, noted, “I sat down every day with Hitchcock and worked it out step-by-step… Working with him meant writing with him. He never claims to be a writer, but he does write. A screenplay for Hitchcock is a collaboration, and that is extremely rare.”
In William Baer’s Classic American Films: Conversations with the Screenwriters, Josef Stefano, who adapted Robert Bloch’s Psycho for Hitchcock, readily corroborates this idea. “He always gave me the feeling that he somehow knew I was going to write a good script which he could shoot effectively. This, of course, is the rarest gift that a producer or director can give to a writer: total confidence.”
This sort of totality of experience incorporated into the preparation of a screenplay provides a great lesson for screenwriters: yes, we can deftly underscore our themes with recurring motifs in character and dialogue that contribute to the artistry of our craft. Even if no one notices (at least on the first go-round), we know they are there, and working subliminally on the reader/viewer. Hitchcock’s films are a great jumping-off point for this study because everything he put on screen was so deliberate; hence, we know there is nothing random about the placement of certain ideas and repeating concepts intended to create a rippling undercurrent of thematic unity. But, rest assured, the tradition goes back thousands of years. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, dubbed “the perfect tragedy” by Aristotle and, as such, often cited as one of the cornerstones of what we now call 3-Act Structure, contains dozens of references to sight, blindness, eyes and vision, all used in context and woven seamlessly into the dialogue. We barely notice them and yet are constantly, subconsciously reminded of these ideas throughout the play. Which is fairly resonant, given that the play culminates with the protagonist tearing out his own eyes.
Using Hitchcock to explore this technique, let’s look at Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho.
In Rear Window, James Stewart plays L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, a risk-taking photographer who, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, develops an obsession for spying on his neighbors, one of whom might have murdered his wife. That Jeff rudely shuns intimacy and refuses to see how much pure love he is being offered by society girl Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) reflects on his defeatist attitude toward all the relationships going on behind the windows that fuel his voyeurism. As the film progresses, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes casually imply that Jeff’s subconscious desire to be “rid of” Lisa is manifesting itself as a murderous fantasy as he becomes engrossed in the murder plot across the way.
With this thematic background in place, the film spends much of the set up reinforcing Jeff’s constant negation of Lisa’s feelings for him. Before any dialogue is even spoken, part of the establishing shot of Jeff’s apartment settles on a photographic portrait of a woman in negative. The idea of not seeing what is right in front of you and wishing it would just go away is then explored in small ways throughout the story. Here are a few examples:
- Jeff explains his frustration with his injury to his policeman friend by saying that if he cannot alleviate his boredom he will “do something drastic, like get married.”
- Jeff’s insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) makes a somewhat Oedipal reference to how blind Jeff is by telling him that “in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker” for being a Peeping Tom. She goes on to say, “when a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they ought to come together, wham, like a couple of taxis on Broadway.” The clever imagery hides the two key words that lurk to comment upon the action, “see” (reflecting Jeff’s voyeurism and Lisa’s constant putting on a show to be seen by him—she later asks, “How far does a girl have to go before you notice her?”) and “like,” the simple concept of liking someone, and how threatening it can be to some afraid of commitment. This word will come back to deliver a big one-two punch later.
- When Lisa first enters Jeff’s apartment, for the legendary romantic close up and kiss, their hushed conversation ends with Jeff intoning sarcastically, “Who are you?” A joke which negates her.
- Reflecting on the possible motivation of his neighbor to have killed his wife, Jeff says, “Sometimes it’s worse to stay than it is to run.”
- When the murderer shoos away the neighborhood dog thinking it might be sniffing around for evidence, he tells it to “get along.” (Not “go away,” not “get out of here,” but “get along,” which is what couples need to do to survive.)
- And it is the dog, a small but significant trigger, that brings the beautiful thematic work of the script full circle. Just before the series of scenes that plunge Lisa directly into the path of the killer (thereby waking up Jeff to a newfound respect for his girlfriend, and to how his twisted desire to be rid of her could manifest itself in a most violent way), the dog is found murdered in the courtyard, its neck broken. The scream of the dog’s owner shakes Lisa and Jeff from a moment of flirtation, as Lisa shows off a nightgown. The last words they speak before being interrupted by the shriek are “Do you like it?” and “Yes, I like it.” They then look out to the courtyard, where the neighbor who owns the dog curses her neighbors for being so heartless, wondering which one of them might have killed the poor, defenseless creature. In a telling and beautifully written piece of dialogue, she yells, “did you kill him because he liked ya? Just because he liked ya?” Indeed, this is the symbolic culmination of Jeff’s “killing” of Lisa’s “liking” for him, and it occurs just before he sees what she really means to him.
Vertigo takes negation a step further. James Stewart, this time plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who becomes obsessed with a woman he believes to be dead—only to twistedly remake her again in the image of his deceased beloved. The credits announce a mask-like face and spiraling movement, setting us up for the themes of the roles we play in our futile attempts to achieve lasting romance, and the dizzying push and pull that occurs when we foolishly wander into pursuing a phantom, impossibly idealized relationship instead of living in reality.
- In fact, the word “wandering” appears eight times in the screenplay, reinforcing the idea of the ghost-like pursuits that occur repeatedly in the storyline, as Scottie tracks his obsession Madeline (Kim Novak) through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco. The word “dream” also appears countless times.
- Scottie’s old girlfriend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) is designing a new strapless bra when we meet her, but she is matter of fact about it. She represents the ordered reality and devotion Scottie could have if he wasn’t so caught up in going after a dream. As such, Scottie calls her “motherly,” she catches him when he falls in a Pieta-like embrace, and even, in her last appearance in the film, tells him, “mother’s here,” as he sits catatonic in a lunatic asylum. Scottie, further negating her as the less mysterious and sultry option in his life, earlier makes the double entendre crack that Midge is “wasting [your] time in the underwear department.”
- Reflecting on the themes of male dominance and the urge for the ultimate freedom of death, the words “power” and “freedom” appear side by side in three separate exchanges in the screenplay.
- In a film that is well known for its haunting visuals, the idea of being “made over” is present in every frame of the final third of the film, in which Scottie forces Judy (whom he does not know was in on the murder plot) to be reborn as Madeline down to the last physical detail. Which makes perhaps the script’s best line resonate all the more. After Judy has remade herself completely as Madeline, and she and Scottie have made love, they are preparing to go out on the town. Scottie suggests that he would like to embrace and kiss her, to which Judy, now Madeline, replies, “…it’s too late. I’ve got my face on.” Not only do we remember the mask-like face from the credits, but we may do well to reflect on what face we put on to please others.
Psycho, as with most of Hitchcock’s films, is on the surface a thriller, and under the surface a commentary on a variety of themes. Most prominently, it is a warped look at mother love and, by extension, a (literal) “stab” at the heart of the American ideals of happiness and how to achieve it through marriage, respectability and money. The script also works in foreshadowing of both the horrific shower murder and the ultimate fate of Norman Bates, as well as trading in bird imagery, reflective of Norman’s interest in stuffing them.
Consider the following:
- Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), after her motel room-tryst with Sam Loomis (John Gavin), declares that she wants things to proceed from now on, “respectably, in my house, with my mother’s picture on the mantel…” To which Sam replies that maybe when they are alone they can “turn momma’s picture to the wall.” Later, when confronting Norman (Anthony Perkins), Sam prods him about perhaps buying a new motel, one where he wouldn’t have to “hide your mother.” Norman has, of course, been hiding the mother side of himself for the past ten years. And Norman refers many times to his key parental relationship, most famously by saying, “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”
- In Marion’s office, the jabs at American ideals come fast and furious. Marion’s coworker (played by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia) jokes that her mother’s doctor prescribed tranquilizers for her wedding day. The businessman from whom Marion embezzles the cash boasts that his about-to-be-wed 18-year-old daughter has never had an unhappy day in her life, adding, “You know what I do about unhappiness? I buy it off.” Marion’s sister, she is told, is off “doing some buying.”
- In two ironic references to the doom lurking at the Bates Motel, Marion tells Sam in regards to their tryst location, “Hotels of this sort are interested in you when you come in, but when your time is up…” Later, when she is confronted by the California Highway Patrolman after sleeping in her car, he tells her, “There are plenty of motels in the area. You should’ve, I mean, just to be safe.”
- Recalling the many references to sight used by Sophocles, the patrolman’s legendary dark glasses are one of several references to staring eyes both visually (the eye sockets of mother’s corpse, the staring eye of the victim Marion, Norman’s voyeurism) and in text, which culminates in the final voice over of the mother who has now fully possessed Norman saying, “They’re probably watching me… I hope they are watching.” The script’s final words, “why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly” are previously echoed in Norman’s invitation to Marion to come into his parlor, and in the customer in Sam’s hardware store, who is looking for an insecticide that will kill bugs painlessly.
- Norman’s stuffed birds are reflected in the name Marion “Crane” and in the fact the she lives in “Phoenix” Arizona. Surrounded by the stuffed birds, Norman tells Marion that she “eats like a bird,” and speaks of being “trapped.” Marion replies that she has gotten herself into her own trap and plans to extricate herself from it. She is sadly prevented from doing so.
- After their tryst, Sam tells Marion, in reference to his own family, “I’m tired of sweating for people who aren’t there.” Norman, in covering up for his dead mother for ten years, has been doing just that, sweating for someone who isn’t there.
When carefully and thoughtfully worked into our screenplays, layers of meaning can be added to our characters and themes. Hitchcock, a filmmaker who made clear, conscious choices about everything, is a good starting place to begin examining how to deliberately design our own works as carriers of our themes and, most importantly, how not to let everyone know—at least right away—that we are doing it.
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