What modern directors can learn from Hitchcock’s Psycho

News Ryan Lambie
11 Aug 2010 - 17:44

Fifty years old this year, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is as suspenseful as ever. And, Ryan argues, modern directors could learn a lot from its maker’s back-to-basic approach...

Few mainstream directors have been as influential or well-regarded as Alfred Hitchcock. In a succession of suspense thrillers, including  Rope, Vertigo, Rear Window and Dial M For Murder, the director forged a filmmaking language that was both distinctive and personal, which would go on to have a profound effect on the output of an entire generation of filmmakers, including Brian De Palma, William Friedkin and Steven Spielberg.

For a director whose work began in pre-war England, quietly crafting black-and-white classics such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, his later rise to colossal fame in Hollywood was unprecedented. Within the space of a few decades, he was one of America's most bankable filmmakers and, for a time, each one of his productions topped the last in spectacle and scope.

After the big budget blockbuster North By Northwest (if you haven't seen it, think Knight And Day, but far, far less rubbish), Hitchcock, to Paramount's chagrin, decided to try something completely different.

Setting himself a budget of $1 million, Hitchcock employed the TV crew from his series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, over the comparatively brief period of just over three months, made Psycho.

Compared to many features of the era, particularly Z-grade, drive-in fare such as The Wasp Woman or The Angry Red Planet, Hitchcock's budget was hardly small, but his self-imposed creative boundaries (in a period when he had virtually none) were arguably the cardinal reason for the film's pared back, still shocking power.

And while the conventions and rules of filmmaking have changed considerably in the fifty years following Psycho's production, there are some constants in Hollywood that still remain.

For most directors, their dealings with Tinseltown's studio system is one of steadily diminishing returns. As their fame, stature and the budgets they're afforded increase, so does their creative daring. While this isn't always true (Christopher Nolan is one director who continues to thrive creatively in Hollywood), there are plenty of other big names that prove the point.

As an example, take a look at the career of James Cameron. From humble beginnings as a production designer on low budget sci-fi schlockfest Galaxy Of Terror, Cameron steadily rose through the Hollywood ranks, carving out a name for himself with The Terminator and Aliens, before going on to direct the most financially successful movies of all time with Titanic and Avatar.

But as impressive as Avatar was from a technical standpoint, the movie lacks the economical, aggressive narrative drive of The Terminator, a film that refuses to stand still for a single frame of its 108 minute running time, and whose ambition far outstripped its tiny budget.

Within the financial and technical constraints he was saddled with, Cameron created a film with an urgency that has ebbed away as his career has progressed. As the budgets for his subsequent pictures increased, so did their running time and creative verve. 2009's Avatar weighed in at a flabby 168 minutes, and even its biggest fans would surely admit that it's not in the same league as Cameron's earlier ventures into sci-fi.

If Cameron followed Hitchcock's lead, and packed away his expensive motion capture equipment, restricted his budget and shot a film in a few weeks, could he regain the same desire to tell a concise, urgent story he so clearly had while making The Terminator?

The same question could be asked of most big Hollywood directors, both young and old. If George Lucas dared to put aside the increasingly ridiculous Star Wars franchise, assembled a small crew and went back to making films along the lines of American Graffiti or, better yet, THX 1138, perhaps he could regain the creative promise he displayed early on in his career.

Hitchcock was sixty when he shot Psycho, and yet his desire to tell concise, often dark stories was as strong as it was when he began his career. After the financial success of North By Northwest, he could have continued making huge studio pictures with big name stars and watched the paycheques flow in.

Instead, he chose to make a low-key, black-and-white film in which the lead was killed within the first half-hour, a daring plot twist at the time, and one that has since been borrowed by William Friedkin in To Live And Die In LA, and Eli Roth in Hostel.

Psycho's (mostly implied) violence pushed the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking, and its moments of pitch black comedy bear all the hallmarks of Hitchcock's impish sense of humour. When Mrs. Bates turns to confront the camera at the film's conclusion, her teeth exposed in a lipless jeer, it could just as easily be Hitchcock's face, laughing heartily at his horrified audience.

Modern filmmakers continue to be fascinated by the fluent visual language of Hitchcock, by his bravura camera sweeps and editing tricks. But Psycho provides, potentially, the most important lesson: that budgets and gimmicks can only take your career as a director so far.

So, filmmakers of Hollywood - Cameron, Spielberg, Lucas, the brothers Wachowski - forget 3D, CGI and interminable, three-hour narratives. Go back to basics. Reconnect with your audience. Find an original, startling story worth telling, and tell it cheaply, quickly, and urgently.

Our review of the 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is here.

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