Literature Film Quarterly (1975) - Poe, Hitchcock, and the Well-wrought Effect
- article: Poe, Hitchcock, and the Well-wrought Effect
- author(s): DeLoy Simper
- journal: Literature Film Quarterly (1975)
- issue: volume 3, issue 3, page 226
- journal ISSN: 0090-4260
- publisher: Salisbury University
- Sloan's Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography and Bibliography (1995) — page 417, #442
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Bodega Bay, California, Claude Chabrol, Critics, DeLoy Simper, English language, François Truffaut, North by Northwest (1959), Poetry, Psycho (1960), Robin Wood, San Francisco, California, The Birds (1963), Éric Rohmer
Poe, Hitchcock, and the Well-wrought Effect
Some interesting parallels can be seen in the careers and works of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. Both are practitioners of suspense and masters of horror; both have appealed to a popular as well as critical audience; both have been somewhat deified and emulated by French critics, poets, and filmmakers. Poes influence on French poets and critics - principally Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry - has been discussed in several articles and full-length studies. Mallarmé said that he went to London in 1862 in order to learn the English language - "the better to read Poe." Baudelaire's translations of Poe are well known, and his poem "Le Tombeau d'Edgar Poe" is an elegy to the American poet. Likewise, Hitchcock's reputation as a serious artist was spurred by French film critics. The study of Hitchcock by Erich Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in 1957 was one of the earliest extended critical works on the Anglo-American film-maker, and it was followed by a series of extensive interviews with Hitchcock by François Truffaut, who himself in interview has acknowledged Jean Renoir and Hitchcock as his mentors in film style.
However, aside from the question of influence, more important is the similarity of attitudes towards the composition of art held and practiced by Poe and Hitchcock. This parallel is most apparent when we examine Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) and some of Hitchcock's comments in interview with Truffaut in the late 1960s. After comparing Poe's and Hitchcock's theories of composition, we will briefly consider Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) as an example of the well-wrought film. This particular film is used not because its thousands of birds are direct descendente of Poe's raven, but because it is probably Hitchcock's most technically complex achievement in film composition and compilation. Poe discusses writing a poem and a short story as if he were working out a "mathematical problem"; and in The Birds Hitchcock proves himself the master of montage - the mathematical though creative process of planning, shooting, cutting, and reassembling moments on celluloid which achieve an integrated and artistic whole. Hitchcock is a conscious artist whose working methods are carefully executed and whose desired ends are mathematically calculated; in this way, he is a poet of film whose creative process parallels quite closely the method prescribed by Poe in "The Philosophy of Composition."
Using his poem "The Raven" as an example of the carefully composed work because it is widely known, Poe says of the work that "no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition - that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem" (p. 365). The first step of this planning of the poem, Poe says, is the consideration of the effect of the poem or other short literary work. If the reader can not complete the work at one sitting, he does not experience "the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression"; as Poe says, "the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed" (p. 365). In other words, the short, highly unified literary work is ideal as a vehicle for producing a pronounced emotional effect. Poe argues that the "brevity" of the work "must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect" (p. 366), though he admits that a certain duration is necessary to achieve any effect at all. He recapitulates the intentions he charted out before he began writing "The Raven." After calculating the poem's length (about 100 lines), the intended effect (the impression of Beauty), tone (that of sadness), the line and stanza pattern (especially the use of the refrain "Nevermore"), and finally the subjects of love and death, Poe says he was ready to begin the actual writing of the poem. He tells us: "Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning - at the end, where all works of art should begin - for it was here, at this point of my preconsideration, that I first put pen to paper ..." (p. 369).
Whether or not Poe actually did this before writing "The Raven," we will never know. Daniel Hoffman argues that Poe is purposefully tricking the reader with this supposed after-the-fact rationale for the composition of the poem. T. S. Eliot does not think it matters whether or not the essay is "a hoax, or a piece of self-deception, or a more or less accurate record" of Poe's creative process. Kenneth Burke says that whether or not there is trickery involved in Poe's "Philosophy of Composition," the essay provides the critic with a viable method for examining a work of literature. For, says Burke, in the essay Poe gives his explanation of the creative process a kind of "logical priority" (as opposed to "temporal priority") to the poem itself and thereby comes "close to the ideal procedure for critics to follow, in relating a poem to the principles of composition." Whatever is the real relationship between Poe's poem "The Raven" and his essay which supposedly explains its creation, the essay is a prime example of an argument for conscious and planned artistry. And although it deals with the older art of poetry-making, Poe's theory of composition suggests some parallels with Hitchcock's method of film-making.
Hitchcock allows that playwrights generally make better screenwriters than do novelists because playwrights are "used to the building of successive climaxes." Like a play and like a poem and like the short story Poe requires be read at one sitting, a film must be carefully calculated so as to make its effect on the viewer in a generally prescribed length of time - usually about two hours. Hitchcock has said on this issue: "A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is closer to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve" (p. 50). This statement bears close comparison to Poe's formula for the short literary work ideally experienced at one sitting.
Another point at which Hitchcock meets Poe's philosophy is in the method of planning the work - the film - before the actual filming. Hitchcock is widely known for his practice of "pre-cutting"; that is, he conceives the entire film and maps out each take and sequence before he ever assembles the actors, cameramen, and other technicians for the actual filming. So thorough is his preparation for the filming process that he admits to losing much interest once the film begins shooting. Because he knows the work in detail from his extensive planning of it and knows how the pieces of film will all fit together in the cutting and editing processes, Hitchcock is able to maintain supreme artistic control of his films. Just as Poe puts pen to paper only after considerable planning, Hitchcock actually starts the process of shooting his movies after he has already mentally completed them.
Although Hitchcock admits to more improvisation during the filming of The Birds than he usually allows, the film still serves as an example of his method of film-making. In fact, the changes he made in the final product from its original shooting script reveal a narrowing of the story line to underscore his original conception of the desired effect and how he was to achieve it. As Truffaut points out in the interviews with Hitchcock, The Birds is tightly unified in setting, time, and characters: the action takes place on one long weekend in San Francisco and a nearby fishing village. Bodega Bay (p. 218). As in other films by Hitchcock, the direction from the urban to the rural - from the crowded to the isolated (as in North by Northwest and Psycho) - takes the heroine, Melanie Daniels, from a kind of casual innocence to a kind of sobering experience. A wasted playgirl who enlivens her existence by playing practical jokes on people, she takes a pair of love-birds to the fishing village as a birthday present for Mitch Brenner's sister. Delivering the present, she is soon after attacked by a gull. From that point on, with increasing intensity, the Brenner family, all of Bodega Bay, and the world by extension face an unusual terror in the form of attacks by many species of birds, banded together against mankind - for unexplained reasons.
In a recent interview, Hitchcock said that in The Birds he wanted to show the forces of chaos supplanting the known order of the world - a result, perhaps, of man's "messing about" with nature. Robin Wood has convincingly argued that the birds are not instruments of revenge or punishment, nor can they be seen as expressions of tension between the characters. He says he agrees with Hitchcock when the film-maker says the film is about "complacency." Hitchcock says that in the beginning of the film he intended to show the "complacent" world of Melanie Daniels in San Francisco, and what we see throughout the course of the film is the undermining of that world view as we go with Melanie Daniels to Bodega Bay. Therefore, if Hitchcock's intention is to demonstrate through Melanie Daniels and the inhabitants of Bodega Bay that men are living in a tenuously ordered world and that they are unjustifiably complacent about their position in this world, the effect he wishes to achieve is the emotional response to the potential breakdown of that world - in personal and universal terms. This view is supported by certain images which collect throughout the film: images of broken windows, shattered cups and saucers, Bodega Bay's main street on fire, the image of the unvoiced scream coming from Mrs. Brenner as she staggers from a scene of destruction.
Just as Poe dictates that the desired effect must determine the poem's parts, so Hitchcock's film works with increasing intensity to undermine our complacent view of the natural world. Hitchcock achieves this effect by using several carefully planned film techniques: first, the repeated images of cages for men rather than for birds; second, complex montage sequences which recreate the nearness and brutality of the birds and their destructive power; and third, a subjective camera which forces us to experience the frightening attack of the birds with and as Melanie Daniels. Poe says that the effect must be kept in mind, that all of the poet's "artistic piquancy" - his method of refrain, repetition, diction, symbol - all these must serve to make the emotional impression or effect. Hitchcock in The Birds follows a similar pattern in filmic terms through using repeated images of extended cages and by creating carefully edited segments which show the fragility of order and the fury of natural chaos.
The film's narrative follows from the pet shop in San Francisco, where birds are caged and classified and ordered and priced, to the Brenner farm in Bodega Bay, where at the film's end the family and Melanie Daniels leave the large house and go to the small car - both cages into which the attacking birds have forced them. During the film, Melanie Daniels advances from one cage to another: a car, a restaurant, a telephone booth, the Brenner house, and finally an upstairs room, where she experiences her most frightening trial - a physical assault by numerous birds. Rescued and bandaged, she revives but is reduced to a near-maddened and helpless child in a threatening world. It is only of marginal comfort that she has found a new mother in Mrs. Brenner.
The complex montage sequences in The Birds are not as often cited as the shower sequence in Psycho perhaps for several reasons. One reason may be that it is easier to identify with Marion Crane being attacked by a knifewielding psychopath than it is to identify with Melanie Daniels being assaulted by hundreds of birds; therefore. Psycho's scene may be more frightening because it is more believable. But from a technical point of view, the later film is the more complex because Hitchcock is working with birds and choreographing their deadly assaults so that they become not only animals of physical violence but also, because of their non-humanness, abstractions for metaphysical chaos possible in the world. They represent an irrational disorder pushing in on the world's seemingly ordered atmosphere, and in no place do we experience 'this more effectively than when we see, through carefully constructed montage, the gathering of birds from out of nowhere as they collect on the schoolground jungle-gym or when they descend from all directions and in seconds turn a small-town main street into a blazing holocaust. These virtuosic montage sequences provide intermediate climaxes which build to the final effect produced by the last assault on Melanie Daniels. There is controlled, mathematical precision evidenced in the compilation of these sequences and in the climactic building to the final confrontation - all of which, when it produces an emotional effect on the viewer, Poe would have greatly appreciated.
Because Hitchcock has emphasized Melanie's point of view through his use of subjective camera work - when she first leaves the love-birds at the Brenners'; when she is in the restaurant, the telephone booth, and the car; when finally she climbs the stairs to face the room full of birds - the viewer feels in a very direct way the terror of the final assault. The cinematic images, then, accrue emotionally, and the viewer identifies to a large extent with Melanie Daniels and encounters - particularly as a result of subjective camera movement - the emotional effect of experiencing a world gone mad. This is the effect, then, that Hitchcock plans in The Birds: the viewer experiences through Melanie Daniels the precariousness of natural order and the emotional terror resulting from the ordeal of being battered by the forces which the attacking birds represent. Just as Poe's "The Raven" demonstrates the melancholy effect of lost love's beauty, Hitchcock's The Birds demonstrates the frightening effect of man's being denied a complacent view of life. Herein lies Hitchcock's achievement: to make the viewer feel the emotional effect resulting from nature turned chaotic. Just as after seeing Psycho we can never shower in a motel bathroom with the same abandonment as we did before seeing the film, we perhaps can not after seeing The Birds respond without some uneasiness when we see birds gathering on telephone lines.
Hitchcock and Poe warrant our consideration as artists who profess an artistic philosophy which reveals their desire to create art demanding critical as well as popular response - that is, carefully planned creations to be experienced emotionally as well as intellectually. Hitchcock says about Psycho what he could just as well have said about The Birds: "My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and t consider that very important. 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 photography and the sound track and all the technical ingredients that make the audience scream. I feel it's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion" (p. 214). Because Hitchcock desires to achieve a pronounced emotional effect, his method of film-making is comparable to that process outlined in Poe's dictum on the composition of the short work of literature which calculates a particular and pronounced effect on the individual. Perhaps essential for creating art of suspense, horror, and intense emotional effect as theorized by Poe and demonstrated by Hitchcock - is careful planning before the actual writing of the lines or the actual shooting of the scenes.
DeLoy Simper, University of California Riverside
- T.S. Eliot, "From Poe to Valéry," Hudson Review, 2 (1949) 327-42. Célestine Pierre Cambiaire, The Influence of Edgar Allen Poe in France (New York: G. E. Stechen, 1927. rpt. 1971); Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press. 1957).
- In a letter to Paul Verlaine, dated 16 November 1885. quoted by Quinn, p. 3
- Baudelaire on Poe. trans, and ed. Lois and Francis E. Hyslop. Jr. (State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press. 1952), essays Baudelaire wrote on Poe in the 1850s. See the introduction to this book. See also the chapter titled "The Revelation of Poe, 18521854" in Enid Starkie's Baudelaire (New York: New Directions, 1958). pp. 213-24.
- Rohmer and Chabrol's Hitchcock (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1957) has not been translated into English. Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock were first issued in French, Le Cinéma Selon Hitchcock (Pans: Robert Laffont, 1966) but have since been translated (with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott) as Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 19671. See also the special Hitchcock edition of Cahiers du Cinema (Number 39, October 1953) with essays by Chabrol, Truffaut. André Bazin, and Alexandre Astruc. For Truffaut's debt to Hitchcock, see. for example, his introduction to Hitchcock and, also. Interviews with Film Directors, ed. Andrew Sarris (New York: Avon Books. 1967). pp. 520-27
- Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (New York: Doubleday. 1972), pp. 81-96.
- "From Poe to Valéry," p. 341.
- Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press. 1966). pp. 35-36.
- Hitchcock in interview with Truffaut. Hitchcock, p. 50. Most of the subsequent references to this book of interviews are given in the text. For Hitchcock's discussion of The Birds and its changes, see Chapter Fourteen of the Truffaut interviews, pp. 215-25.
- Hitchcock segment in the Public Broadcasting Service television series The Men Who Made the Movies, produced and directed by Richard Schickel and first shown on national television on 16 December 1973.
- Hitchcock's Films (New York: Paperback Library. 1970), p. 137. See Hitchcock's statement about "complacency" in the Truffaut interviews, p. 203.
Copyright Salisbury University Summer 1975