Picture this. You're out on a date with an attractive member of whatever sex you happen to prefer. You've made a mutual decision to catch a thrilling, dark or otherwise frighteningly suspenseful movie.
After the film, your respective partner turns to you and asks, "What did you think of that movie?" To which, you take a second, clear your throat and respond, "Well, this is obvious of course, but I found it to be immensely Hitchcockian." Your date cocks an eyebrow, wipes away a bead of sweat and says, "Of course."
Cleary, he or she is impressed. You've just sounded very smart. And that is that.
The term has become a blanket way of identifying anything that we find "good" or perhaps even "innovative" within the thriller genre.
It's a good thing they pretended to know what you were talking about, instead of asking you to both clearly and articulately define what it was exactly that made you describe the film in that way. It's safe to say, at that point, a lot of people (film critics included) would be screwed. The term has become a blanket way of identifying anything that we find "good" or perhaps even "innovative" within the thriller genre.
When you throw around "Hitchcockian" as a blanket term like that, you really lose an appreciation for what exactly makes a Hitchcock movie so unique. In her video essay Alfred Hitchcock and The Art of Pure Cinema for Art Regard, Luiza Liz Lopes does a fantastic job of breaking down what it is exactly that makes a film "Hitchcockian."
Here's what we took away.
1. Hitchcock uses film as a place for audiences to project their anxieties
This could very well be the most overwhelmingly identifiable trait of a Hitchcockian movie. As Lopes puts it, "Cinema invites you to reflect on your own impulsions and anxieties, considering which role you want to play when you juxtapose your psychological interpretations to the filmmaker’s intention." We use the word overwhelming here because the feelings of dread that Hitchcock's characters feel quickly become our own. It is the level of depth at which we feel personally connected with the film that made Hitchcock such a master at exploiting his audiences.
"Suspense in Hitchcock’s filmography is powerful because it is structural, it is character-based and, there, blurs the line between our reality and the diegetic space," Lopes notes. "As spectators, we often stare at the diegetic space through the eyes of individual characters, but Hitchcock’s use of point-of-view reveals much more than just a voyeuristic gaze. We are invited to look through Hitchcock’s eyes entering the shell of his personality and discovering the rooted perversions that may be also in our own nature, inherent to the human condition."
“Hitchcock’s films evoke the underlying forces that form our imagination,” Lopes explains. The beauty here is not simply that we feel uncomfortable watching some graphic scene of violence in a film, it is that we feel almost responsible for rendering that violence upon them, and what's more...we kinda liked it. The uncomfortable feeling comes from us worrying about our own perversions, which is an altogether more terrifying prospect. Especially when on a date.
"Psycho" Credit: Paramount Pictures
2. Hitchcock's films were a way for him to deal with his own worst fears
Hitchcock once said, “The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them." Lopes describes these films as "projections, dreams, constantly evoking childhood fears and commonly repressed dreads as motifs in his filmography; voyeurism, the fear of heights, murder, betrayal, guilt, or even the unsettling notion that chaos lies just underneath the surface of everyday life.”
These aren't your standard B-movie horror monsters. Hitchcock understood that we are the most terrified when we understand "that the evil doesn’t lurk behind a door, but it is constantly there, around us, watching.”
"Vertigo" Credit: Universal Pictures
3. Hitchcock knows you're watching
It's true that the gaze plays a very important role in many of Hitchcock's films. It's also important, however, to realize that voyeurism is employed as more than just a thematic device (as is the case in Rear Window.) Hitchcock took it a few steps further.
We've touched on how his craft causes the audience to project their own desires through the eyes of the film's characters, but he was also one of the first to use film as if it had eyes of its own. As Lopes puts it, Hitchcock's films are "aware of its spectator’s gaze as much as we are aware of the camera and its impossibilities."
There is something exciting about voyeurism and, as the audience, it often feels like we're able to get away with watching these secrets unfold before our very eyes. “It was Hitchcock that first understood cinema’s obsession with gaze," Lopes claims. He didn't shy away from "the fetish and the desire that the camera imposes in us spectators.” Instead, he embraced it and thus we feel as if the film is somehow judging us for sitting idly by as the character's stories descend further into dread.
"Rear Window" Credit: Paramount Pictures
4. Hitchcock mastered every tool at his disposal
As Lopes is keen to point out, “Hitchcock mastered every single aspect of filmmaking: screenplay, cutting, photography, sound.” Not only was he a master of all these tools, but he used them all to serve in the respect of building up suspense. "Suspense is the core logic of Hitchcock’s films," Lopes argues. "His almost perverse choices that build up the tension by emphasizing details, bringing the audience closer, breaking the action into puzzle pieces, revealing the hidden psychological meanings behind what is perceived."
She further identifies a few specific examples of how Hitchcock would employ these tools. Take montage, for example. Lopes describes the way the director uses them as "if the shots and scenes are words, the montage assemble phrases and, by doing so, perform a dual role: they obstruct and clear, the reveal and hide both the transcendental value of the cinematic image and the structure of the narrative."
She also isolates Hitchcock’s use of slow dissolves as transitions that "disclose something that was once hidden from the characters, but at the same time, bring the audience to a clearer understanding of the frightful mystery that is the act of seeing and perceiving.