Lecture: Radio City Music Hall, New York City (30/Mar/1939)
Transcript of a lecture Alfred Hitchcock gave on March 30, 1939 at Radio City Music Hall, New York City. The lecture was organized by The Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University.
I have some notes here that are mixed up with a letter from my mother, and I am trying to sort them out. First of all, before we go into melodrama and suspense, about which Mr. Abbott asked me to speak to you, I wish to talk about the method one invariably uses in designing a motion picture script.
When I am given a subject, probably a book, play, or an original, I like to see it on one sheet of foolscap. That is to say, have the story, in its barest bones, just laid out on a sheet of foolscap paper. You might call it the steelwork, or just the barest bones, as I said before. Now you do not have to write down very much, maybe just that a man meets a woman at a certain place, and something else happens. In the briefest possible way, this thing should be laid out on a piece of paper.
From that, of course, we start to build the treatment of that story — the characterizations, the narrative, and even the detail, until we have probably a hundred pages of complete narrative without dialogue. But I do not mean narrative in the abstract, the practical side of what is going to appear on the screen. I always try to avoid having in the treatment anything that is not really visual. In dialogue we indicate it by saying, for instance, that the man goes to the sideboard, pours himself out a drink, and tells the woman that something or other is going to happen to him. We indicate it in the treatment, and this is very full and practically the complete film on paper, in terms of action and movement.
The particular reason why I prefer to do that is because I don't like to kid myself. I do not like to let myself think that there is more in it than there really is, because I believe that one should build up. That is why I prefer to start with the broad narrative, and then from that, develop into this full treatment — but purely cinematic treatment. You must not go into anything like a short story, or anything descriptive, like "with half-strangled cries" and that sort of thing. You just want the actual movement or action, and then indicate the dialogue.
Dialogue is the next phase, and that depends on how much time one has. Once the story line is decided upon and one has a dialogue writer in, one usually deals with it sequence by sequence. After the first sequence, we call the dialogue writer in and hand it to him. While he has the first sequence, we start the first sequence in treatment, and build up as we go along. Finally we have a whole pile of material which is treatment, and a whole pile of material which is dialogue.
From the stage we go into the shooting script by assembling the dialogue and the treatment. We keep building it even further, and adding to it. We do not do this in a mechanical way, but put up as many ideas as we possibly can. Finally we have a shooting script of the whole thing. Then we cast it, shoot it, and finally it is shown.
A member of the audience sees that film, and probably after seeing it goes home and tells his wife about it. She wants to know what it was like, so he tells her that it was about a man who met a girl — and whatever he tells his wife is what you should have had on the piece of paper in the very beginning. That is the complete cycle that I like to aim for, as far as possible, and that is the process one works on in designing a motion picture script.
Now to talk about melodrama, you know, of course, that melodrama was the original mainstay of motion pictures material, on account of its obvious physical action and physical situation. After all, the words "motion pictures" means action and movement. Melodrama lends itself very much — perhaps more than before the talkies came in; more than anything else, I mean.
You know we had the early chase films, and we had those French pictures where a man used to run around Paris. He was on a bicycle and knocked people over as he went along. Are there any of these films in the museum?
Of course, in those days, and even up to the coming of the talking picture, the characters were pretty well cardboard figures. One advantage that the talking picture has given us is that it allowed us to delineate character a little more, through the medium of dialogue. The talking picture has given us more character, and obviously, in the long run, that is what we are going to rely upon.
There has been a tendency, I feel, in the past, in this development of character, to rely upon the dialogue, only, to do it. We have lost what has been — to me, at least — the biggest enjoyment in motion pictures, and that is action and movement. What I am trying to aim for is a combination of these two elements, character and action.
The difficulty is, I feel, that the two rhythms are entirely different things; I mean the rhythm and pace of action and the rhythm and pace of dialogue. The problem is to try and blend these two things together. I am still trying it, and I have not entirely solved the problem, but eventually, I imagine, it will be solved. The field of the future motion picture story has obviously got to come from character, and where the difficulty comes is that character controls the situation.
That is the one thing that disturbs me a little. You see modern novels, psychological novels, with frank characterizations and very good psychology, but there has been a tendency, with the novel and with a lot of stage plays, to abandon story. They don't tell enough story or plot. For a motion picture, we do need quite an amount of story.
Now the reason we need a lot of story is this: a film takes an hour and twenty minutes to play, and an audience can stand about an hour. After an hour, it starts to get tired, so it needs the injection of some dope. One might also say there should be a slogan, "Keep them awake at the movies!"
That dope, as one might call it, is action, movement, and excitement; but more than that, keeping the audience occupied mentally. People think, for example, that pace is fast action, quick cutting, people running around, or whatever you will, and it is not really that at all. I think that pace in a film is made entirely by keeping the mind of the spectator occupied. You don't need to have quick cutting, you don't need to have quick playing, but you do need a very full story and the changing of one situation to another. You need the changing of one incident to another, so that all the time the audience's mind is occupied.
Now so long as you can sustain that and not let up, then you have pace. That is why suspense is such a valuable thing, because it keeps the mind of the audience going. Later on I will tell you how I think the audience should participate in those things.
In trying to design a melodrama with these elements of character, action, and movement, of course it does present a pretty big problem, and one has to adopt various methods. One method I have used in the past — I did it with The Man Who Knew Too Much — was to select some backgrounds or events that would lend themselves to a colorful, melodramatic motion picture. Of course, this is quite the wrong thing to do, but here is an idea: select the background first, then the action. It might be a race or it might be anything at all. Sometimes I select a dozen different events, and shape them into a plot. Finally — and this is just the opposite to what is usually done — select your character to motivate the whole of the above.
Under the present circumstance, people figure out a character or group of characters, and they allow them to motivate the story, the background, and everything else. Now you see, you are liable, unless you get a very colorful character, like an engine driver, a ship's captain or a diver, to be led into very dull backgrounds.
For example, if you take a society woman, she will obviously lead you into a drawing room, into a lot of talk, you see, and there you are! You might choose many characters of that nature, and it is inevitable, if you follow the regular method. I am not advocating that this should be everybody's method, it is only a feeling I have, myself, because I want to get certain things, you see.
Sometimes you cannot get the characters you want to take you into these places, so you say, "All right, I will have the society woman." The next thing is, of course, what to do with her. You might say, "I would like to have her in a ship's stokehole." Your job becomes very hard, indeed! You have to be really inventive to get a society woman into a ship's stokehole, to get a situation that will lead that way, and a character who, by reason of the situation, would find herself in a ship's stokehole.
Of course, I'd bet a lot of you would say, "It is too much trouble. Let's put her in a yacht's stokehole. A society woman is bound to go there." That, of course, is radical and you must not do it, because the moment you do, you are weakening and not being inventive.
If you can summon up enough courage to select your background and your incidents, you will find you really have something to work out. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, I said, "I would like to do a film that starts in the winter sporting season. I would like to come to the East End of London. I would like to go to a chapel and to a symphony concert at the Albert Hall in London."
That is a very interesting thing, you know. You create this terrific problem, and then say, "How the devil am I going to get all those things into it?" So you start off, and eventually you may have to abandon one or two events, as it might be impossible to get some of the characters into a symphony concert, or whatever it is. You say, "Well, can't Stokowski have his hair cut?" or something like that, and you try and blend the characters in the best way you can — appear to be quite natural that all the events have taken place in those settings because it was necessary for them to do so.
Now in the shape of this thing, it is inevitable that you must design your incidents and your story shape to mount up. I always think the film shape is very much like the short story. Once it starts, you haven't time to let up. You must go right through, and your film must end on its highest note. It must never go over the curve. Once you have reached your high spot, then the film is stopped.
Now one of the things that is going to help you hold all these things together and provide you with that shape is the suspense. Suspense, I feel, is a very important factor in nearly all motion pictures. It can be arrived at in so many different ways. To me, there is no argument that a surprise lasting about ten seconds, however painful, is not half as good as suspense for about six or seven reels.
I think that nearly all stories can do with suspense. Even a love story can have it. We used to feel that suspense was saving someone from the scaffold, or something like that, but there is also the suspense of whether the man will get the girl. I really feel that suspense has to do largely with the audience's own desires or wishes.
There, though, we have another subject — audience identification, and it is so great that I don't think I have time to deal with it here. I might say that it is a very, very important point. For example, you probably get more suspense out of an audience worrying about a known figure than some unknown person. It is quite possible that an audience will have convulsions at the thought of Clark Gable being shot or killed, but if it is some unknown actor, they will say, "Who the hell is he, anyway?" That is one important aspect of suspense.
Then there is the other thing, and that is where suspense is in a title. Take a film like Mutiny on the Bounty. Suppose it had not had the word "mutiny" in the title, but that it was called The Good Ship Bounty. You would have told the audience nothing. With its real title, however, the audience in the cinema is waiting from the moment the picture starts, wondering when the mutiny is going to start.
That applies again and again with titles. A lot of people are very unconscious of that fact. They do not realize how much suspense the audience is enjoying through a thing like that.
But to revert to the actual writing of suspense, of course in the old days, as I said, it was the race to the scaffold. Griffith did it, you know, in Orphans of the Storm, The Knife, and that sort of thing, but I feel that today we can have two types of suspense. We can have suspense like the old chase, which I would call objective suspense, and then there is a subjective suspense, which is letting the audience experience it through the mind or eyes of one of the characters. Now that is a very different thing.
You see, I am a great believer in making the audience suffer, by which I mean that instead of doing it, say as Griffith used to do it, by cutting to the galloping feet of the horse and then going to the scaffold — instead of showing both sides, I like to show only one side. In the French Revolution, probably someone said to Danton, "Will you please hurry on your horse," but never show him getting on the horse. Let the audience worry whether the horse has even started, you see. That is making the audience play its part.
The old way used to be that the audience was presented with just an objective view of this galloping horse, and they just said they hoped the horse got there in time. I think it should go further than that. Not only "I hope he gets there in time," but "I hope he has started off," you see. That is a more intensive development. Of course, that is simply dealing with the treatment of what is the convention of suspense, but to get to suspense for a film as a whole, as I have said, a title can give it.
And then there is a thing which one might term the springboard situation. In the first reel of a film you establish a given situation. You might take a sympathetic character who gets himself into some sort of trouble, whatever it might be. The rest of the film, then, is, "Will he get himself out of that situation?" I always call that the springboard situation.
For example, this film that Mr. Abbott mentioned, The Lodger, was based on Jack the Ripper. I took the trouble to spread a description of this man over London. I did it by every known means of disseminating news. The fact that he only went for fair-haired girls was broadcast, or that he wore a black cloak or carried a bag. I spent a whole reel on stuff like that. By the end of the reel you were shown a house where the gas went out, and just as the man was putting a shilling into the meter, there was a knock at the door. The housewife opened the door, and just then the gas came up with a full flood of light on this figure. Now that is what I call the springboard situation. You then knew that Jack the Ripper was in a London boarding house. In the rest of the film, you see, you were bound to hold on to that.
I have always been, as far as possible, a great believer in that sort of thing, such as you had in the Chain Gang picture, where a man escapes and you wonder what happens to him. Galsworthy's Escape is another example. They are what I call springboard situations, where suspense starts practically in the first reel. I have always found that, generally speaking, what I would call letting the audience into the secret as early as possible. Lay all the facts out, as much as you can, unless you are dealing with a mystery element. I have just finished a film, Jamaica Inn, with Charles Laughton, and apropos of this, I came upon a very queer problem. I don't know how many of you have read the book, but there was a character in it who was a village parson. He was in a village where wrecking took place — the luring of ships on to the rocks by a gang of wreckers. Their headquarters were at this Jamaica Inn, and the innkeeper was the head of the gang, but he was under the thumb or control of a shadow described in the book.
Actually, of course, it was this parson character who emerged for the last third of the story, and there he took an active part in the film. He had big acting scenes with the girl in the story, and he really took command of the whole picture, he was that strong. But for two-thirds of the picture, he had to appear just as an innocuous figure.
The problem there was, as I saw it, when I came in on this thing, that one would have to have a very important actor to play this character, because of what he had to do in the last third of the picture. The question was, how could one possibly have an important actor playing in an apparently unimportant part in the first two-thirds, when the characters are talking about a mysterious and influential figure?
Well, as you know, in the "who-done-it" story, the murderer turns out to be none other than the butler or the maid! Now this was a sort of "who-done-it" story, but with that difference, that the part was so strong a prominent actor had to be cast for it, because he took possession of the whole film at the end. The question was that you had neither suspense nor surprise. You certainly had one moment of surprise, though, when Laughton turned out to be whatever it was. A good phrase, that, don't you think?
Naturally, then, the story had to be changed. It is one occasion when journalists say, "Those film people have ruined another good story by changing it around." But one can really hold one's head up here, and say that it has been done with every possible reasoning. We had to let the audience into the secret about that figure and change the whole middle of the story, so that you saw this figure behind the scenes and how he manipulated the wreckers. We had to invent new situations. We couldn't just show what he did and how he did it, but had to have new situations, showing him up against it, investigations going on by the detectives of the period — if they had them in 1820. The entire middle had to be changed, so that it became a suspense story instead of a surprise story.
How am I doing? Don't you want to ask questions? I sound bored, with nobody interrupting me.