A Salute to Alfred Hitchcock: The Game-Changing Master of Suspense

October 29, 2011 A DGA 75th Anniversary Event

Alfred Hitchcock

Inclement weather proved no impediment to the hardy souls who braved a winter snowstorm on October 29, to gather in the Guild’s New York Theater for a salute to Director Alfred Hitchcock. It seemed only fitting that Halloween weekend was the date chosen to pay tribute to the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award-winner whose work terrified millions. During this DGA 75th Anniversary celebration of the Master of Suspense, Directors Neil Burger (The Illusionist, Limitless) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs) discussed the far-reaching influence of Hitchcock’s films in a conversation moderated by DGA Special Projects Committee East Chair Raymond De Felitta (The Thing About My Folks, City Island).

“Tonight we are proud to celebrate the work of a one of the most influential filmmakers of all time,” said DGA Fourth Vice President Gary Donatelli in his welcome to the audience. “The king of the psychological thriller, Sir Alfred was a master of building suspense through intricate plots, innovative camerawork and creative editing techniques that left audiences on the edge of their seats. Hitchcock once said, ‘There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.’ Nobody ever made more out of a moment of anticipation than Hitchcock.  In a career that spanned 55 years he blazed the path of suspense movies for decades to come.”

Gary Donatelli

Donatelli then turned things over to De Felitta, who prefaced the discussion with his own opinions of the director whose name became known worldwide. “Hitchcock became America’s first true auteur and he never looked back,” said De Felitta. “He found a way to strike a balance. He was a commercial and audience pleasing phenomenon, but he was also a personal filmmaker. This man always created from his own obsessions, his own fears and his own interests at a time when other relatively personal filmmakers had to go out and do what the studio told them to.”

De Felitta then introduced a vintage clip of a Hitchcock appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970. After the clip, he was joined onstage by panelists Neil Burger and M. Night Shyamalan, for a discussion that explored not only Hitchcock’s career, but the influence of his films on their own lives and careers.

Raymond De Felitta

Asked to speak about their first impressions of Hitchcock, Shyamalan recalled watching Psycho when he was still a pre-teen and being mesmerized by the work of the master. “I remember feeling a connection to him,” said Shyamalan. “I understood him before I understood film.”

Burger recalled a viewing of Saboteur when he was 12. “The thing that stuck with me was the scene on the Statue of Liberty where the guy falls off and another guy is holding him by his jacket and the threads start to go. Those details ‑ the way that time was manipulated and elongated ‑ was amazing. Each thread going was a shot to your gut. It made a huge impression on me.”

De Felitta agreed and added, “For me Hitchcock was the first director who you actually felt the presence of telling the story, but not in a distracting way, you’re in his world.”

M. Night Shyamalan

To fuel the discussion, the panelists had selected clips from Hitchcock’s films from three periods, the 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s.  The first set included Rebecca (1940) and Shadow of A Doubt (1943) chosen by Shyamalan and Notorious (1946) chosen by Burger.

After viewing the first set of clips, the panel verbally dissected the scenes and explained what they learned from them as filmmakers.

“I think of Hitchcock as singular and special because of his command of character, and not for the suspense or for all the technical wizardry he had at his fingertips,” Shyamalan admitted. “He was the first person that taught me about character point of view. Our struggle as filmmakers is to satisfy the craving for plot and our desire as artists is to put character in the film as deeply and as much as we can. He so deftly weaves the two of them together.”

Neil Burger

“Hitchcock in the realm of film is a little bit like Shakespeare is to writers,” said Burger. “If you’re a writer you can go back to Shakespeare for inspiration, ideas and language. It’s very much the same for filmmakers. You can learn so much just by looking at Hitchcock’s work.”

To illustrate his point, Burger detailed a sequence from Notorious where Hitchcock kept the audience of the edge of their seats fearing for the safety of spies Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman who are hiding in a wine cellar and imperiled with discovery because a of teetering bottle. “That small microcosmic moment of the bottles pushing against themselves is so visceral. What you learn as a filmmaker is to try to find those kinds of moments and to tell your story in the most effective and physical way. That moment is so inventive. It tells eight different things at the same time.”

The audience hears about Hitchcock’s work.

Expounding on Hitchcock’s command of the medium Shyamalan spoke about the set up for the same scene. “It’s so fascinating to watch. Remember when they cut to the very low angle of the champagne glasses and the bartender? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred when you see a cool angle in a movie it’s meaningless. Somebody just went ‘oh, it would be cool to get the glasses in the foreground.’ But that’s not what that shot was. That shot empowered this really bit character with power. The angle told me this guy is powerful and he can really do something bad to the characters we care about. Then he looks over at the champagne and I went, uh-oh, he’s unknowingly powerful and can hurt our main characters.  Every shot had a meaning. There were no cool shots, and yet lots of cool shots.”

So the evening went on with detailed examinations of the director’s artistry which was perhaps best summed up by De Felitta at the end of the evening. “The thing about Hitchcock’s movies is that you’re looking at somebody who’s telling you, ‘Go up another level. You can do a great deal in this medium that you can’t do in any other medium. “It’s so exciting that it makes me want to go home and make another movie!”


Pictures & Video

 Still photos by Donald Rasmussen

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