Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class by Tony Lee Moral (book review)

I did wonder at the start how author Tony Lee Moral could write an ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class’ considering Hitch has been dead for some thirty-five years now and couldn’t have been around when he was alive. However, in his introduction, he lists the number of people associated with Hitchcock in production and acting he interviewed so certainly has their insights to flesh the book out. Likewise, he also has snippets from various directors of today who have been massively influenced by Hitchcock and use his films as templates for their own. Ergo, if you’re going to borrow, then borrow from the best. The list of these films, including ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012), will make you think and I hope look over his back catalogue if you’ve missed anything. Hitchcock wasn’t called the Master of Suspense without due cause. Hardly surprising considering how he fine-tuned his storyboards to get the maximum out of his plots. Something I found particularly interesting is that he favoured short story writers to write scripts because they would get to the nitty-gritty quicker. When you consider that the plots could be summed up in a single sentence, it’s a lesson for writers in any medium.

Seeing the different types of people he favoured to populate his films, it’s obvious that Hitchcock liked to play with ambiguity and probably why so many involved espionage and psychopaths who shared these traits.

The explanation of the McGuffin being pivotal to the plot but doesn’t have to be detailed is revealing. In prose, there has to be some explanation or justification of why an object is so important and central to the plot. From our genre aspect, considering the analysis that we do, it did make me wonder. However, we tend to test the technology to being sound or the logic process is consistent. I suspect the detail-checking Hitchcock would take it into account but dismissing aspects of it as being mere detail.

It should come as no surprise that Hitchcock worked in depth with his scriptwriters and I suspect that is part and parcel of many films today when they go through multiple re-writes today honing before filming. When you consider that the film can live or die based on the script, this should hardly be surprising. Incidentally, ‘North By Northwest’ was an original screenplay conceived from a Hitchcock idea. Hitch also thought dialogue was extra to the visuals but needed some elements of comedy as relief for the suspense he builds up. This no doubt explains why he thought many of his films were comedies rather than thrillers. It does make me wonder how a scriptwriter can prepare a spec script using minimal dialogue today. I use comedy in my own stories but only to dimensionalise the characters so really must try it his way some time.

Some things I was less surprised about, having recently read other books about how the director gives the actors the emotional needs of the scene. Looking objectively from my point of view, I can’t help but wonder if that is why so many actors have neurotises because they need to use that for their emotions.

Considering that Hitchcock had, in the space of five years, done all the production roles, it’s hardly surprising that he knew all about their jobs, although I wish Moral had pointed out how possible is it for directors to do that these days. Something useful for all you budding directors is that the 50mm lens is the most equivalent to the human eye lens if you want a subjective view.

There is, ironically, a whole chapter devoted to how Hitchcock didn’t waste any film footage and didn’t give much work for his editors on his films. No current director would put claim to that, although I suspect with expensive shots that can only be recorded once, the studios would have an expenses fit if it had to be re-filmed.

Hitchcock was also the first director to have his name over the title of the film although I would place director John Ford somewhere up there as well. I’m not sure if I agree with him that many directors don’t do that anymore let alone aren’t known to the general public. However, Hitchcock undoubtedly became a selling commodity for his films, appearing in cameo and easily recognised. He also made sure he appeared early so not to become a distraction.

I found this masterclass very useful for going over Hitchcock’s career and directing techniques. For upcoming directors, if the most you learn is getting things prepared before filming then you were have learnt something. If you learn from the rest as well, then you will be joining the long list of directors at the back of this book who took point lessons from the Master of Suspense.

GF Willmetts

May 2015

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 222 page enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-137-8)

check out website: www.mwp.com