The New York Times (1950) - Master of Suspense, A Self-Analysis
(c) New York Times (1950)
Master of Suspense: A Self-Analysis
By Alfred Hitchcock - Director and Bit Player
Hollywood -- Directors of motion pictures, ever since the leather puttee era, have been permitted at least one eccentricity per capita, and my habit of appearing in my own pictures has generally been regarded as exercise of the directorial prerogative. In "Stage Fright" I have been told that my performance is quite juicy. I have been told this with a certain air of tolerance, implying that I have now achieved the maximum limits of directorial ham in the movie sandwich.
It just isn't true. There may have been a "McGuffin" in my film appearance, but not a ham. My motives have always been more devious, or, if you prefer a more devious word, sinister. I have wormed my way into my own pictures as a spy. A director should see how the other half lives. I manage that by shifting to the front side of the camera and letting my company shoot me, so I can see what it is like to be shot by my company.
I find that my actors are kept on their toes that way. Everyone is anxious to get his work done quickly, before I take it into my head to get in his particular scene. The technicians work gaily in anticipation of the fateful moment when I will be at their mercy. And then the moment comes. I step before the cameras. The actors call for retakes. The make-up man splashes his pet concoctions on my face; the wardrobe department tells me how to dress. The electricians and the camera man joyfully "hit" me with the lights. The still photographer tells me how to look, for his photographs.
I find myself tempted to try the same trick with some of the press people, when they come for a full-dress interview. I have a secret yen to interview them, to pose them for still pictures. I would like to focus a press camera on some photographer and ask him to "express menace and suspense, please." I would also like to write a review of some of the newspaper stories.
My purpose is, as I have indicated, purely sinister. I find that the easiest way to worry people is to turn the tables on them. Make the most innocent member of the cast the murderer; make the next-door neighbor a dangerous spy. Keep your characters stepping out of character and into the other fellow's boots.
I should like, for example, to make a thriller about the United Nations, in which the delegate of one nation is denounced by another delegate for falling asleep in the middle of an important international speech. They go to wake the sleeping delegate, only to find that he is dead, with a dagger in his back. That would be the beginning of my story -- except for one thing. It is too close to unamusing reality. Which delegate will be the corpse? What tangled international threads will be caught in the skein? How do we avoid making a weighty political document instead of a suspense story?
To my way of thinking, the best suspense drama is that which weaves commonplace people in what appears to be a routine situation, until it is revealed (and fairly early in the game) as a glamorously dangerous charade. The spy stories of pre-war days fit these specifications perfectly. Today, however, there is nothing very glamorous about spying -- there is only one sort of secret to be stolen and there is too much at stake for people to play charades over it.
I believe that the suspense drama is being smoked out of its old haunts. I think that we must forget about espionage and rediscover more personal sorts of menace. I think that a suspense story in the old tradition can be made today about an international crime ring, with its agents in high places, much more easily than a film about the missing papers.
The "McGuffin" -- my own term for the key element of any suspense story -- has obviously got to change. It can no longer be the idea of preventing the foreign agent from stealing the papers. It can no longer be the business of breaking a code. And yet these very same elements, disguised to fit the times, must still be there.
One of the ways in which the suspense drama must change is in its setting. The Orient Express, for example, has had its day as a scene for spy melodrama. I think the same may be said of narrow stairways in high towers, subways and the like. Personally, I rather lean toward Alaska as the setting for the next thriller. It is logical -- as one of the last targets of international espionage -- and it has the color of a frontier territory. (I could wear a beard for my own bit role.) And there is such a nice air about the title "Eskimo Spy."
But the big problem of the glamorous villain -- whether in Alaska or Times Square -- remains a riddle, just one minor heritage of a brave new world in which we are becoming conditioned to suspecting our neighbors and expecting the worst.