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"Hitchcock and Early Filmmakers" - by Charles Barr




Hitchcock and Early Filmmakers

A cinema-obsessive from youth, Alfred Hitchcock can be seen as a movie brat ahead of his time. Unlike those of the Lucas-Spielberg generation, he had no film school or film history classes to go to; like most filmmakers who began in the silent period, he did not go to university at all. But where others had studied at the University of Life, he constructed his own single-minded program of vocational study and training. As he told John Russell Taylor, looking back in old age: "I left school at the age of fourteen, went into engineering drawing and from there by a succession of logical steps into the cinema" ("Surviving" 60).

Others found their way into this young medium in unpredictable or indirect ways. Many came from theater, others had been "adventurers," traveling and doing a variety of jobs before drifting into films. Hitchcock's route was different. He spent a few years working for the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company, and went often to see plays in the West End of London, but these were, by his own account, two of the "logical steps" toward cinema, giving him design skills and insights into dramatic structure. Even his precocious knowledge of railway and shipping timetables led not to travel and exploration but to a fantasy control of time and space that would feed neatly into film construction. He told Taylor flatly, "I have no outside interests" ("Surviving" 60), and this seems to have been more or less true from the start. Theater and design and timetables, as well as his extensive reading, were subsidiary topics in Hitchcock's self-created film school.

But the central topic, naturally, was cinema itself. Alongside his assiduous filmgoing, he was a regular reader of the trade papers from his mid-teens, before judging, in 1920, that the time was right to join a production company; then he worked his way through a succession of subsidiary roles before becoming a director in 1925. The following year he married a colleague, Alma Reville, who was one day younger than him, but who had herself been working in the industry since the age of sixteen.

He was, then, to a remarkable extent, immersed in cinema, shaped by cinema, as he began his own fifty-year career as a director.

In the 1972 addendum to their original book-length interview, François Truffaut asked Hitchcock: "Are you in favor of the teaching of cinema in universities?" Hitchcock replied: "Only on condition that they teach cinema since the era of Méliès and that the students learn how to make silent films, because there is no better form of training. Talking pictures often served merely to introduce the theater into the studios" (Truffaut 334). He insists here on going back not simply to silent cinema, but to its very early stages, the time of Georges Méliès, whose short films are, like so many of their time, virtually devoid of editing. Hitchcock's professional interest in the medium is rooted in the pre-classical period. He dated his serious commitment as beginning soon after he left school in 1913, a year which in the now widely-accepted periodization of film history belongs to a transitional stage between early or primitive cinema and the emergence of the classical system – a system that is based, among other things, on consistent conventions for handling space and time through editing. The standard work The Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson convincingly suggests 1917 as the key year, if one has to be chosen, for the coming together of this system (231).

Hitchcock would become a vigorous proponent and exploiter of classical editing strategies, but he would also direct the two films made within mainstream cinema which most rigorously renounce editing: Under Capricorn (1949) and, even more so, its predecessor, Rope (1948), whose 79-minute narrative is made up of only eleven shots. He would later tell Truffaut that these experiments were misguided, but one doesn't have to accept this retraction, and the fact remains that he was, at the time, moved not only to conceive this idea of minimizing editing, but to follow it through with intense commitment and skill.

This may seem a paradox, but in the wider perspective it surely is not. Combined with his intelligence and staying power, Hitchcock's very distinctive formation makes him arguably the nearest we have to a universal representative of the medium of cinema, testing out an exceptionally wide range of its potentialities. He spans American and European cinema, commercial and experimental, silent and sound (not to mention cinema and television) – and montage and non-montage, or pre-montage: he reaches back toward the time of Méliès.

In describing Hitchcock, Jane Sloan astutely observes that "far from the lonely romantic artist, he appears to have been more of a sponge, eager to adopt the point of view that would sell, and open to any idea that seemed good, insistent only that it fit his design" (37). This process goes right back to his early years. He made himself as near as anyone could get to a tabula rasa, a blank page, ready to absorb and be imprinted with whatever was of potential use, from whatever source.

Four Currents

In his own acknowledgment of inspirations and collaborators, Hitchcock was se...

[ to view the rest of the chapter, please see the book ]


  1. I particularly regret not having space to discuss the silent films made in Sweden and Hollywood by Victor Sjöström. Whether or not Hitchcock saw them in London, as he certainly had the chance to, they have an abundance of instructive parallels. Starting his career in 1912, Sjöström moved from a non-editing long-take style to the full classical system, exploiting both to their fullest extent, notably in, respectively, Ingeborg Holm (1913, shown in London 1914) and The Scarlet Letter (MGM, 1926). In effect, Hitchcock, in his late-1940s return to the long-take style, is going back over the ground that Sjöström had with supreme intelligence measured out.
  2. Screen credits for Reville and Stannard on Hitchcock’s British films are tabulated in Barr, English Hitchcock (16). Stannard’s work is further discussed both there and in my chapter “Writing Screen Plays: Stannard and Hitchcock.”

Works Cited