The Cinematic Tools Alfred Hitchcock Used to Toy with Your Emotions
"In feature films the director is God." — Alfred Hitchcock
A director may be an omnipotent force when they direct films, but it's a different story entirely when that director sits down and becomes a spectator. Their ability to manipulate an audience using the power of cinema is something Hitchcock commented on quite a bit during his career, and his methods are explored in this video essay written and narrated by Julian Palmer for The Discarded Image.
Hitchcock was known as a master cinematic manipulator, partially because he pulled it off time and time again in his films, and partially because he was one of the first filmmakers to really acknowledge the power of an image, a piece of music, and an edited sequence to influence a viewer's emotional and psychological response.
In his famous interview with fellow director François Truffaut he stated:
"I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream."
He believed that the basic parts of a film — images, sounds, as well as their relation to each other (editing) — inherently affect a viewer emotionally, mentally, and psychologically, whether that leads the audience to scream, cry, or become angry.
When it comes to producing an audience's reaction, Hitchcock essentially thought that the subject matter was inconsequential. In other words, if you want the viewer to feel anxious, it doesn't matter what the subject matter is as long as it's shot and edited in a certain way. He demonstrated this idea when he explained a major concept of Soviet Montage Theory called the Kuleshov Effect.
Hitchcock's assertion is often met with criticism, perhaps mostly because no one wants to think of themselves as a viewer who is completely powerless against the manipulation of a filmmaker, but the truth is — we kind of are. For example, how many times have you rooted for a bad guy in a film? We like The Joker in The Dark Knight because his anger and frustration with the system resonates with ours, but hey — he's a murderer! We like Walter White from Breaking Bad because he takes his fate into his own hands, but — he's a meth cook! Do we always root for murderers and drug lords in films? No. Most of us are morally opposed to these things.
The reasons for our affinity for anti-heroes are many and complicated, but the way they're presented cinematically definitely plays a role in making them likable. For instance, the power struggle between The Joker and Batman in The Dark Knight, represented in both the narrative and the cinematography, not only blurs the lines between "good" and "evil", but manages to make The Joker a sympathetic character.
These same cinematic techniques that Christopher Nolan used to turn The Joker from a homicidal maniac into a misunderstood vigilante are the same ones that Alfred Hitchcock used to turn Norman Bates from a gentile mama's boy into a deranged psychopath.
Those are just a couple of examples of how our opinion of characters can change with cinematic conventions, but if you reduce Hitchcock's claim down to its base, you can see just how powerful these tools are when it comes to inspiring individual emotional and psychological responses in an audience. The way a shot is composed, lit, and edited could change everything about how an audience feels toward a character, scene, or entire film.
It's interesting, and honestly pretty sobering, to think about.