Monday, 1 March 2021

An Actor’s Revenge and a Director’s Triumph

An Actor’s Revenge (Directed by Kon Ichikawa)

An Actor’s Revenge, the English name given to the 1963 Japanese film Yukinojo henge (Yukinojo the Phantom), is the perfect title for a killer blend of cinema and theater. The director, Kon Ichikawa, transforms a standard period revenge plot, rooted in the cross-dressing kabuki theater of the 1830s, into a hypnotic prism that generates fresh colors as he holds each facet to the light. The palette of the film is psychedelic: the opening performance explodes in red, pink, gold, white, and purple. The kabuki proscenium, letterboxed against the darkness, looks wider than widescreen—it’s an incandescent ribbon that tests the limits of the frame. And in Ichikawa’s hands, even the shape of the screen seems changeable. He breaks up the space with exhilarating audacity, whether by adopting an artful version of picture-in-picture or literally spotlighting his characters (in the theater or in the street) or dissolving boundaries so that a snow-blanketed stage stretches out in all directions like a vast Arctic landscape. The story runs the gamut from farce, soap opera, and action-packed chanbara all the way to heart-crushing tragicomedy. The supporting characters cover the emotional spectrum. They can be satirically rapacious and grotesque yet still transfix us with their pathos and terror.

If any movie requires a protean protagonist to pull everything together, it’s this one. Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) fits the bill. Orphaned at age seven, trained as an onnagata (a male performer of female roles), and schooled in martial arts, Yukinojo has become a star whose soft face and physique belie his physical strength and steel will. His experience and expertise do more than make him a top performer; they also put him in a position to observe Japanese culture and society, high and low, with ruthless, flexible objectivity. As Yukinojo plots vengeance against the three powerful, greedy men who drove his mother and father to suicide, he analyzes their ambitions and sets them at loggerheads. Being an actor and thus déclassé, close to “the people,” he knows how dangerous it is for big shots to wheel and deal in basic commodities like rice as the masses face famine in the turbulent Tenpo era, beset by droughts, fires, and floods. Warehouses become targets for hungry mobs. This movie is an aesthete’s delight that’s also socially aware. As a pickpocket at the theater remarks in one scene, “People spend more when times are hard.”


The film’s cinematic reach stems from the peerless range of Ichikawa, who continues to defy critical categorization a decade after his death in 2008. He made An Actor’s Revenge during his peak period, which began with the antiwar fable The Burmese Harp (1956) and ended with the epic documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1965). Studio executives at Daiei intended to punish the director for his costly techniques on Conflagration (1958), Bonchi (1960), and The Outcast (1962) by saddling him with this assignment. After all, it was a remake of a trilogy made by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1953’s Gate of Hell) between 1934 and ’36; it even showcases the same star, Hasegawa, ostensibly in his three hundredth production. Ichikawa, though, made this old chestnut of a tale bloom. With the help of his preferred screenwriter—his wife, Natto Wada—Ichikawa made the project an excuse to go all-in creatively, with a whirling narrative and eye-popping beauty. His virtuoso moviemaking melds stage magic and the uncanny while exploring psychological and gender role-playing in a time of chaos.

Ichikawa and Wada’s storytelling has an ultramodern briskness and edge. As the main attraction of the kabuki company, Yukinojo, born in Nagasaki and raised in Osaka, conquers Edo (later renamed Tokyo) on the troupe’s first appearance in the capital city. The movie begins on opening night, which draws two of the bad guys to the box seats: Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date), an ex-clerk, now an ambitious trader; and Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura, who had recently starred in Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds and The End of Summer), formerly a Nagasaki magistrate, now a member of the shogun’s retinue. (The shogun, Japan’s military ruler, controlled the country’s entire feudal structure and government, up to and including the mikado, or emperor.) Dobe’s daughter, Lady Namiji, the shogun’s favorite concubine—played by Ayako Wakao, who had appeared in Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1956 swan song Street of Shame and alongside Nakamura a few years later in Floating Weeds—also attends the show, and instantly falls for Yukinojo’s peculiar masculine-feminine charms. None of them knows Yukinojo’s true identity. Since the onnagata wears women’s clothes and subtle makeup even during his downtime, it’s unlikely that the men will recognize him as the boy they orphaned back in Nagasaki. Yukinojo, on the other hand, knows all about them, as well as the third villain, Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi), a rich merchant. Ichikawa reduces the rest of the first-night audience to a blur, then outlines Dobe, Kawaguchiya, and Namiji in the actor’s vision like a group portrait in a rearview mirror. Yukinojo confides in voice-over that he will use Namiji to sunder and destroy Hiromiya and the other two.


Yukinojo’s enemies consider theater people amoral members of the demimonde. Still, it’s a staggering insult when Kawaguchiya offers Yukinojo lifelong protection in exchange for his amorous services. Namiji’s father, Dobe, invites Yukinojo to their home, hoping that she’ll tire of him after one or two visits. All the while, Kawaguchiya bets that if he can put Namiji in his debt by setting up a long-term affair between her and the actor, he can use Namiji’s sway with the shogun to expand his own wealth and prestige. As he leads the way to her room, he thinks he’s the one toying with Yukinojo.

But Yukinojo himself has determined to exploit Namiji’s crush and snake his way into Dobe’s household. Again and again, Yukinojo takes advantage of anyone who underestimates him. Extreme weather has produced catastrophic famines, generating riots against rice merchants who hoard their stores. Realizing that Kawaguchiya has tried to corner the market in rice, Yukinojo advises his third target, Hiromiya, to bring his stash of the grain into the city and unload it. When the unholy trio are weakened and at one another’s throats, Yukinojo pulls off two primal performances: impersonating his dead father for Kawaguchiya, and recreating his mother’s suicide for Dobe, thus shattering his antagonists’ confidence and sanity. Here, the director’s careful preparation and expressionistic masterstrokes of lighting, staging, and composition—for instance, the shadow Yukinojo casts as he plays the part of his mother possesses a life, and death, of its own—take us into a phantom zone as eerie as anything in Shakespeare, Tarkovsky, or the Superman franchise.


What Yukinojo brings down on his foes really is an actor’s revenge, dizzyingly dramatic in its form, surgically perceptive in its manipulation of movers and shakers too vain to recognize their own weaknesses. And Ichikawa’s giddy, experimental movie is itself an auteur’s revenge on his studio, because he treats the timeworn material as an opportunity rather than a punishment. Until the tragic drama of its climax, the movie remains inventive, amusing, antisentimental, and playfully meta about almost everything and everyone, including the downtrodden and even the hero himself. Yukinojo inspires passionate debate among theatergoers who buy cheap tickets for standing room (the equivalent of “the gods” as seen in Children of Paradise or the balcony in The Red Shoes). An Actor’s Revenge doesn’t idealize the popular audience, or the dirt-poor, either. It’s frightening to see desperate men riot for rice; they recall the cutthroat gangs in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, released just a couple of years earlier. Thugs lurk in the film’s plentiful shadows and around each corner of its stylized sets. Yukinojo shocks even himself with his cold-bloodedness. He doesn’t strike immediately: he waits for the moments that will produce maximum emotional torture. He takes actions that result in the death of an innocent woman who genuinely loves him.

Hasegawa’s performance is extraordinary from beginning to end. Yukinojo’s onstage postures and gestures, generally soft and elegant, are sometimes definite and passionate. They’re always expressive, often of two things at once—the emotions he’s acting out and the ones simmering beneath the surface. It’s significant that Hasegawa was in his fifties when he made An Actor’s Revenge. Watching this weathered, stocky man play Yukinojo is a bit like watching the burly Shintaro Katsu play the blind swordsman Zatoichi. His age and bulk humanize a mythic character, putting the focus on Yukinojo’s intensity and powers of suggestion. Ichikawa is so comfortable in the world he has created that he can be irreverent about the time-honored kabuki theater and the tradition of the onnagata. He allows us to laugh at and with the tomboy thief Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) when she says she finds Yukinojo creepy. But Yukinojo’s art and presence are potent enough to turn skeptics into converts. Hasegawa interprets Yukinojo’s craft as an elevated form of dissembling. In close-ups, we see from his eyes that he has more going on in his head than whatever he’s miming, dancing, or reciting in the moment. Offstage, he wraps himself in his onnagata guise as if in a cloak of privacy. Whenever a former fellow student from martial-arts school, consumed with jealousy, challenges Yukinojo to a duel in the street—something he does repeatedly—Hasegawa snaps into a fierce, magnetic concentration. Ichikawa’s focus on these galvanizing transformations stokes the film as much as do his nonstop innovation and imagistic dazzle.


In the volatile culture of the film’s setting, the ambiguity of Yukinojo’s gender is an asset. His ability to put a man’s muscle behind an onnagata’s demure composure spellbinds the second female lead, Ohatsu. Why wouldn’t it? Most males she sees are either callow youths or vicious bastards. Ironically, Ohatsu plays the reckless seducer with Yukinojo, while Namiji, the courtesan, acts like a blushing ingenue with him. Yukinojo’s sake-drinking sessions with Namiji are so tender they might be called love scenes. Both clad in elegant kimonos in different shades of purple, the two sip from tiny silver cups and embrace cheek to cheek, as the strings on the soundtrack play a bittersweet romantic theme that would suit one of Sirk’s, Minnelli’s, or Hitchcock’s melodramas. (The gleefully eclectic score also includes an amped-up version of traditional kabuki music, and jazzy interludes and staccato riffs for ruminative moments and action scenes.) Yukinojo doesn’t take an aggressive, conventionally masculine role when he woos Namiji. He’s modest, at times coquettish. And Namiji, though sensitive and gentle, is no shrinking violet. Ichikawa cuts away just after they press their bodies together as if ready to make love.

The director establishes their apparent emotional parity but never lets us forget that Yukinojo controls the power dynamic with his secret agenda. As a revenge artist, the actor has chosen the ideal path to annihilating her father: Dobe’s life will be hell without the apple of his eye and his sole source of power at court. But Namiji gets to “Yuki,” as she calls him, and to the audience, too, so we understand why the onnagata must seek some sweeping expiation for fatally exploiting her.


Adding to the movie’s gender-role merry-go-round is the general perception around the city’s underworld that Ohatsu, lovely and handy with a gun or knife, isn’t traditionally “feminine” or sympathetic enough to be a desirable mate. The only guy’s guy who can turn Ohatsu’s head is her fellow cutpurse Yamitaro, who operates like an urban Robin Hood without a band of merry men. As he did decades before, Hasegawa plays Yamitaro as well as Yukinojo, and in this part he exudes a gruff, warm charm. It is comical and touching that Yamitaro is attracted to Yukinojo in ways he finds difficult to explain. At the end, he tells Ohatsu that he may give up banditry and girls and beg to become Yukinojo’s assistant. Ichikawa employs the dual casting wittily. It feels organically funny, not at all self-conscious, when Ohatsu tells Yamitaro that, in profile, he resembles Yukinojo.

Remarkably, Ichikawa’s moviemaking wizardry makes this spinning contraption of a film feel all of a piece. Each shot contains something marvelous—such as Yamitaro effortlessly scaling a wall like a figure from a Cocteau fairy tale (Ichikawa adored Cocteau), or Ohatsu popping out from a black nocturnal forest as a royal-blue horizon line streaks across the screen—or something devastating: say, a corpse hanging from a rope like an unstrung marionette. Of course, the film is more than a collection of flourishes. Ichikawa uses classic and contemporary materials to create his own elastic, personal aesthetic.

The filmmaker is perhaps best known today for the tough-minded nostalgia of his 1983 masterpiece The Makioka Sisters. There, he intimately and lyrically evokes the elegiac side of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel about the fraying of an old Osaka merchant family as it confronts westernization. An Actor’s Revenge does something fundamentally different. It bristles with modernity while miraculously retaining the nuance of an art form that began in the sixteenth century. The director displays an old-time stage, illuminated, as Tanizaki once wrote, “by the meager light of candles and lanterns.” But that’s just a conceit. All the tools in Ichikawa’s studio contribute to his very 1960s light show. At the same time, he treats his star performer lovingly, like a master portrait artist preserving the illusions of gender.


Tanizaki hated the “vulgarity” of kabuki seen in bright Western stage light. (He favored the refinement and simplicity of Noh theater.) For him, the authentic Japanese sensibility rests on an appreciation of darkness. His book-length essay In Praise of Shadows celebrates, among other things, “the mystery of shadows,” “the secrets of shadows,” “the magic of shadows,” and “delight in shadows.” Yet that’s also the basis of the kaleidoscopic, sometimes “vulgar” beauty of An Actor’s Revenge. Working with breathtaking confidence and freedom, Ichikawa shapes both his interior and exterior action so that it always leaps out of darkness. He stages one fight primarily as the clash and clang of a blade and a dagger at night. Steel glints and slashes through the blackness. In another coup de cinéma, two constables try to lasso Yamitaro, and for a moment they snag one of his wrists (or does he grab the rope?). The lasso disappears into the night as if falling down a bottomless well. Shrouded in murk, the constables proceed, hand by hand, along the taut, tingling cable, only to discover that Yamitaro has tied it to a post. All these episodes work visually and viscerally. Ichikawa choreographs camera and actors for maximum punch.

In the movie’s ultimate poetic irony, a benshi (or narrator) tells us that Yukinojo, “the greatest female lead of his age,” the inspiration of so much life-or-death conflict and passion, fades from memory once he gives up the stage. The final shots depict the actor disappearing into the wild flora of a windswept plain. It’s as if Ichikawa is saying, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Our revels now are ended,” his actors “melted into air, into thin air.” The “gorgeous palaces” and “solemn temples”—the enigmas of sexuality and the moral vanities of justice—“dissolve, / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.” The glory of An Actor’s Revenge is its infinite suggestiveness. Ichikawa, like Shakespeare, transforms a revenge saga about playacting into a profound masquerade about man’s, and woman’s, fate.

– An Actor’s Revenge and a Director’s Triumph. By Michael Sragow

For original article see here

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Michelangelo Antonioni: ‘My scripts are not formal screenplays’.

Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eclipse (L’Eclisse)
‘It seems to me that L’Eclisse is one of the most interesting films of and about the middle of the last century, when humanity was caught between the promise of modernity and the threat of atomic annihilation. This air of paralysis hangs heavily throughout the film and partly defines the once critical term ‘Antonioniennui’ which was used to describe the psychology of his characters in this cycle of films. And yet in spite of its specific historical backdrop and its self-evident modishness in the early 1960s, the film remains a rich and complex portrait of the modern world that still demands and rewards repeat visits.

‘On the surface L’Eclisse is a love story, with its main character Vittoria (Monica Vitti) ending one affair with the writer Riccardo and moving on to a new relationship with the stock market trader Piero (Alain Delon). The setting is Rome – metropolitan, sophisticated, the subject and setting for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita only a couple of years before. We witness a breakup, a new affair, stock market crash, a car crash.

‘The character types and genre elements are all there, and yet the first striking aspect of the film is the deviation from the classic narrative structure of the modern romantic drama. From the very first frame, it sets out to defy conventional expectations and encourage the audience to create meaning from the film in a different way.

‘There are no conventional story signposts, climactic peaks or moments of emotional resonance. It’s as if Antonioni has designed a classic love triangle story and placed it in a time and place where the usual story drivers simply don’t work. He places the actors like static objects into conventional seeming scenes, but the underlying chemistry is missing its catalyst. Every gesture, every declaration of love between Riccardo and Vittoria, or Vittoria and Piero becomes completely artificial when evacuated of all feeling. In this the director is supported by the beautifully blank faces of Monica Vitti and Alain Delon. It’s hard to imagine two other actors who could be better used in this film.’

– David Sin.

The following extract is from an interview by the film critic Bert Cardullo with Antonioni in which the director discusses his approach to filmmaking, his ideas for films, and his attitude toward his work.

BC: Do you do a lot of research before you start shooting a picture?

MA: Yes. If I didn’t do so much research for my films, my work would then be a lie. I must always start from more or less scientifically proven data. The biggest danger and temptation of cinema is the boundless possibility it gives movie directors to lie.

BC: When did you first put your eye behind a camera?

MA: “When” is not so important, but what happened at that moment was. The first time I got behind a camera was in a lunatic asylum. I had decided with a group of friends to do a documentary film on mad people. We positioned the camera, got the lamps ready, and disposed the patients around the room. The insane obeyed us with complete abandon, trying very hard not to make mistakes. I was very moved by their behavior, and things were going fine. Finally, I was able to give the order to turn on the lights. And in one second, the room was flooded with light . . .

I have never seen again, on any actor’s face, such an expression of fear, such total panic. For a very brief moment, the patients remained motionless, as if petrified. That lasted literally only a few seconds, followed by a scene really hard to describe. The men and women started having convulsions, then they screamed and rolled on the floor. In one instant, the room turned into a hellish pit. All the mad people were trying to escape from light as if they had been attacked by some prehistoric monster.


We all stood there, completely stunned. The cameraman didn’t even think to stop the camera. Finally, the doctor shouted, “Stop. Cut off the lights!” Then, when the room was dark and silent again, we saw piles of corpses, slightly shaking as if they were going through their final death throes. I have never forgotten that scene, and it is one of the reasons I keep making films.

BC: Research aside, how mentally prepared are you when you arrive on a set to shoot?

MA: Just as an actor, in my view, must arrive on the set in a state of mental virginity, so, too, must I. I force myself not to overintellectualize, and I force myself never to think the night before of the scene I’ll be shooting the next morning. I have a lot of confusion in my head, a real mess—lots of thoughts, lots of ideas, one of which cancels out the other. That’s why I can’t think about what I’m doing. I just do it.

Once on the set, I always spend a half hour alone to let the mood of the set, as well as its lighting, prevail. Then the actors arrive. I look at them. How are they? How do they seem to feel? I ask for rehearsals— a couple, no more—and then shooting starts. It’s while I’m shooting that everything, so to speak, becomes real. After a shot is finished, I frequently continue to shoot the actors, who don’t know that I am doing this. The aftereffects of an emotional scene, it had occurred to me, might have meaning, too, both for the actor and for the psychological progression of his character. Once shooting really stops, sometimes it takes me fifteen minutes of complete silence and solitude to prepare for the next scene. What I still cannot do, however, is concentrate when I feel the eyes of a complete stranger on me, because a stranger always interests me. I want to ask him questions....


BC: Where do you get your ideas for films?

MA: How can I say it? It’s one of my failings that everything I read or see gives me an idea for a film. Fortunately, I can’t do them all. If I could, maybe they would all be very bad. One thing I can say: Until I edit a film of mine, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps it will only be the reflection of a mood; perhaps the film will have no plot at all in the conventional sense. I depart from my shooting script constantly, so it’s pointless beforehand to release a synop- sis of the film’s action or to discuss its meaning. In any case, my scripts are not formal screenplays but rather dialogue for the actors and a series of notes to the director—myself. When shooting begins, there is invariably a great degree of change. I may film scenes I had no intention of filming, for example, since things suggest themselves on location, and you improvise. Only in the cutting room, when I take the film and start to put it together—only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is all about.

Usually I write the original stories of my films myself, but I never start out with an idea that afterwards turns into a story. Most of the stories which go through my hands in search of form are simply germs which have been breathed in as from the air. If, when the film is finished, it turns out to be saying something, it has happened a posteriori, and that is natural enough. I am a human being, and I am not lacking in perceptions about the people and affairs of this world. If I make the film in all sincerity, then these perceptions will inevitably reveal themselves. However, it is the story which fascinates me most; the images are the medium through which a story can be understood. To be a lover of form for me means being a lover of substance.


BC: Are you ever satisfied with any of your films?

MA: Sometimes I think L’Eclisse is my best work. Other times I like L’Avventura better. The other day I screened La Notte again and thought it was pretty good. But I don’t think Blow-Up is one of my best pictures, and I don’t know why. I guess I am never really satisfied; I amuse myself by experimenting. Even though my experience is deeper now, and technically I am more mature—everything I have to say comes out fluently— I’m not happy after I complete a film. I’m not even happy while I’m shooting it. Again, I don’t know why. Still, I don’t look back, or at least I try not to. These are the best years because they are the only years. You can’t afford to look back; you have to make the best of the present, whatever it may send your way—and however, finally, you may respond.

– Bert Cardullo, Extract from ‘Interview with Antonioni’, Soundings on Cinema.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Alfred Hitchcock on Cinematic Style

The Lodger (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The emotions of the audience are the pivotal point in Hitchcock's narrative world; these emotions are invoked by "gripping situations", which in turn result from the basic structure of the film, in which dialogue plays a relatively minor part. Generally, Hitchcock is not dependent on dialogue, limited to serving the story, writing the screenplay in collaboration with his chosen screenwriters. In building up a character, a number of visual strategies are available to the screenwriter:

[...] in particular the use of things. This is one of the ingredients of true cinema. To put things together visually; to tell the story visually; to embody the action in the juxtaposition of images that have their own specific language and emotional impact - that is cinema. [...] Things, then, are as important as actors to the writer. They can richly illustrate character”

This narrative style was a feature of of the silent film, going back to the films of D.W. Griffith, and is the era in which Hitchcock learned his craft, but was unfortunately passed over in favour of the theatrical and dialogue with the advent of the sound film. From then on, relying on dialogue became the standard practice. But according to Hitchcock, the experienced screenwriter knows how to make effective use of non-verbal elements: things and objects, in the film, instead of falling "into the uncinematic habit of relying too much on dialogue".

Of course, Hitchcock understood that the modern film cannot simply eliminate the need for dialogue. You cannot shoot a modern motion picture only in pictures. So Hitchcock settles on a compromise: "Therefore the skilled writer will separate the two elements. If it is to be a dialogue scene, then he will make it one. If it is not, then he will make it visual, and he will always rely more on the visual than on dialogue". 

The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema’ - Alfred Hitchcock

It is important to remember that Hitchcock began his career in the era of silent movies. His first nine films as director - between 1925 and 1929 - were all silent, and even his first sound film, ‘Blackmail’ (1929), was begun as a silent, and was released in silent and sound versions.

The limitations of the silent form led filmmakers to develop a visual language to enable them to say with images what they could not using dialogue or sound. By the time of the arrival of sound in 1927 (later in Europe) this filmmaking language had become so sophisticated that sound was felt by some to be almost unnecessary. Others - including Hitchcock - felt that the arrival of sound meant that something was lost to cinema. Directors were no longer forced to tell a story using images alone, and cinema's distinctively visual storytelling suffered as a result.

Throughout his career, Hitchcock continued to believe in cinema as a visual medium. For him, dialogue and sound should remain secondary to the image in telling the story. This is not to say that he was completely uninterested in dialogue - he worked with many fine writers, and many of his films have excellent dialogue sequences. But it's true that when we think of Hitchcock we tend to remember images - the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ (1960) or the handcuffed Robert Donat and Madelaine Carroll in ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935) - rather than lines of dialogue.

“When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between" 

The limitations of silent cinema meant that directors were forced to be imaginative in using images to convey dialogue and effects. The use of 'intertitles' allowed some dialogue and exposition (setting the scene), but it was generally felt that too many intertitles interfered with the action. After the release of the German director F.W. Murnau's ‘Der Letzte Mann’ (‘The Last Laugh’, Germany, 1924), which used no intertitles at all, many felt that a 'pure' cinema should be able to do away with dialogue altogether, and convey everything with images alone.

Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’ (1926) concerned a Jack the Ripper-style murderer at loose in a fog-bound London. The arrival of a mysterious guest raises suspicions among the residents of a lodging house. In one scene, Hitchcock wanted to show the effect the lodger's pacing up and down in his room has on the other residents of the house in the room below. In a sound film, we could simply hear the lodger's footsteps while seeing the reactions of the other residents.

Hitchcock had a glass floor made up and shot the lodger (Ivor Novello) pacing backwards and forwards from below. By superimposing this shot over one of the ceiling - with the swaying chandelier further emphasising the force of the lodger's steps - and intercutting between this image and the reaction of the family below, Hitchcock creates an effect more interesting and more powerful than he could have achieved using sound. 

For more on this aspect of Hitchcock see the full article from the BFI Screenonline: ‘Hitchcock’s Style’.

North By Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

In the following extract from an interview with Hitchcock in 1963, the great director discusses his prioritisation of cinematic style over content.

H: Let me say this to you. I put first and foremost cinematic style before content. Most people, reviewers, you know, they review pictures purely in terms of content. I don’t care what the film is about. I don’t even know who was in that airplane attacking Cary Grant. I don’t care. So long as that audience goes through that emotion! Content is quite secondary to me.

I: Now is this a philosophical viewpoint? ... Or is this something that just happened, like the man who makes cartoons likes to make people laugh?

H: Well, I believe this. I believe we still have in our hands the most powerful instrument, cinema, that’s been known. I know of no other medium where on a given night in Japan, in Germany, in Paris, and in London and in New York, the different audiences of different nationalities can be shocked at the same moment at the same thing on that screen. I don’t know of any other medium. The theater? How far does that get? It never gets to Japan. Well, by God, you go outside of a movie on The Ginza, and you will see a great big head of Hitchcock up there. Because they think so much of the director with oriental eyes! Really! Yes! But this is my point when you say what do I enjoy? I enjoy the fact that we can cause, internationally, audiences to emote. And I think this is our job.

I: As an entertainer? As a creator?

H: As an entertainer. As a creator. What is art? Art is an experience, isn’t it? You know? Now the art of the talking picture, I think, belongs to the theater. You see, the only thing wrong with silent pictures was that sound never came out of the mouths. But unfortunately, the moment sound arrived, all these horrible commercial people rushed to the theater, and borrowed from the theater. And they are still doing it today. I’ve done it myself! They say “Will you make a film of Dial M For Murder?” I say O.K., all right. But I refuse to open it up like they do in the movies. I said it’s nonsense. What do you do? When you take a stage play, I said? What do you call opening it up? The taxi arrives, we have a long shot of the street. The taxi stops at the front door of the apartment house. The characters get out, cross the sidewalk, go into the lobby, get into an elevator, go upstairs, walk along the corridor, open the door, and they go into a room. And there they are, on the stage again. So, you might just as well dispense with all that, and be honest and say it’s a photographed stage play and all we can do is to take the audience out of the orchestra and put them on the stage with players.

Dial M for Murder (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

I: You didn’t do this completely though. In Dial M?

H: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. Because I’ve seen so many stage plays go wrong through opening up, loosening it, when the very essence is the fact that the writer conceived it within a small compass.

I: But you would still treat it cinematically?

H: Within its area. If I can. As much as I can.

I: Do you design each production? Design each film in advance completely? With drawings, and ...

H: Yes, Psycho, yes, to some extent with drawings, but you see Psycho was designed, first of all to lead an audience completely up the garden path. They thought the story was about a girl who stole $40,000. That was deliberate. And suddenly out of the blue, she is stabbed to death. Now, a lot of people complained about the excessive violence. This was purposely done, because as the film then proceeded, I reduced the violence while I was transferring it to the mind of the audience. By that first impact, so the design of the film was very clearly laid out. So that that audience, by the time we got toward the end when the girl was going over the house, wandering, they didn't particularly care who she was ... They will yell LOOK OUT! when a burglar is going around the house. They will still have the same fear of being caught or being attacked or what have you. So, I was transferring by establishing the violence strong in the beginning and then got less and less violent as the film went on, thus letting their minds carry. That’s what the pattern of the film was. The pattern of The Birds was deliberately to go slow. And with an unimportant kind of relationship.

I: This has been highly criticized by some critics.

H: I deliberately made it slow.

I: You deliberately made it slow?

H: Oh, no question about it.

I: But it was still — to me, interesting.

H: But the point is, that’s where the critics were wrong, you see, because the effect on an audience isn’t there unless I’ve made them wait deliberately and gone slow.

I: This is timing?

H: This is truer timing. Well, it's just like designing composition in a painting. Or balance of colors. There is nothing accidental, there should never be anything accidental about these things. You’ve got to be very clear in what you are doing and why you're doing it. You know, for example, I think it was the New Yorker once — they don’t review pictures. They don’t review them, they make jokes about pictures anyway. They always have a man who’s supposed not to like the movies — But they had the ridiculous effrontery to say a picture like North by Northwest was unconsciously funny. You know. They really did. Or, Hitchcock is doing a parody of himself Of course, I’m doing it with the tongue in cheek. Psycho was the biggest joke to me. I couldn’t make Psycho without my tongue in my cheek. If I’d been doing Psycho seriously, then it would have been a case history told in a documentary manner. It certainly wouldn’t have been told in terms of mystery and oooooh, look out audience, here comes the bogey man! This is like telling a story to a little boy. It’s like telling a fairy story. You tell it in hushed tones: ‘Ssh! and then the woman went up the stairs!’ That’s all I’m doing. And you’ve got to have a sense of humor to do this.

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

I: In The Birds then, there is really no — what you would call theme or message ?

H: All you can say about The Birds is nature can be awful rough on you. If you play around with it. Look what uranium has done. Man dug that out of the ground. The Birds expresses nature and what it can do, and the dangers of nature, because there is no doubt if the birds did decide, you know, with the millions that there are, to go for everybody's eyes, then we'd have H. G. Wells’ Kingdom of the Blind on our hands.

I: I think you took advantage of a natural human trait though, that when, say uranium, or the Bund movement in the ‘30s, or the plague in the medieval times starts to descend upon a given group of people, they don’t want to believe it. They fight against it.

H: Well, or they're helpless with it. You see, the idea of the people in the house, when the birds are attacking and not knowing what to do ... I only had the shutter blow open and the young man try to close the shutter, to tell the audience what it was really like outside. Otherwise, I was asking too much of their imagination. So, I gave them a little sample: White shadows go for his hand ... bloody it up. I'm saying ‘Audience, that's what it's really like outside.’ Only by the millions, not just two, as I’ve just shown. Now the helplessness of the people is no different in that sequence than people in an air raid with nowhere to go. Now, that's where the idea came from. I've been in raids ... in London and the bombs are falling, and the guns are going like hell all over the place. You don't know where to go. Where can you go? Can't go down to the basement. That's kind of sissy, you know.

I: I see ... So you’re just caught.

H: You’re caught! You’re trapped!

– Extract from “Cinema (1963) - Hitchcock on Style: An Interview with Alfred Hitchcock”. Reprinted in Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 1 (1995) edited by Sidney Gottlieb.