Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Filmmakers are neither novelists nor short story authors, but, like both, directors are committed to bringing characters to life for their audiences. Because moviemakers cannot directly explore characters’ thoughts through a narrator’s exposition or the character’s own stream of consciousness or interior monologues, they must rely upon other techniques. These techniques, used by a novelist or a short story writer, can enhance and support traditional narrative techniques of characterization, offered to readers by means of description rather than camera work.
Here’s an example of how Alfred Hitchcock conveys emotion on the screen; he is discussing a scene from his movie Sabotage:
It was a supper table. The man complained about the color of the greens. All I did was to show the close-up of the woman, about ordinary bust size, and the man the same. Sometimes the man from her eye-line, sometimes the woman from his eye-line. That was all we were concerned with. The most important aspect of the scene was her hand. It was essential to play up her using the carving knife. She carved meat with it, and then found herself helping him to vegetables with the carving knife. She realized what was wrong. Then I showed her hand dropping the knife, trying to get rid of it, and then having to pick it up because more meat needed carving--and dropping it with a clatter. Then immediately a close-up of the man hearing the clatter. Then the woman’s hand clasping and unclasping over the handle of the carving knife. All we saw was a foreground of a table; glasses, and cutlery, and her hand hovering. Then back to him. He got up, and the camera tilting [sic] up with him. He realizes his danger. I never bothered to show the room, and I allowed that man to go right past the camera towards the woman; and, then again he comes to her and he looks down, and the camera goes right from him, following his thought, down to the knife and her hand still hovering over it. And then he makes a grab and she gets it first. Then the two hands: her hands win. And then all you see is two figures, and the man gives a cry and falls (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995], 186-187).In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe explains why the end of a story is all-important in determining how the rest of the narrative is structured and told. Hitchcock subscribes to a similar notion. For him, every scene and every montage must be carefully and deliberately worked out, often with storyboards, before it is committed to film: “The director,” Irving Singer, declares, “must have a prior conception of the response he wishes to achieve and how it can be evoked,” for, otherwise, the Sabotage montage of which Hitchcock speaks would have come to naught. Indeed, Hitchcock himself argues, “To have shot all that in a long view would have been useless. It had to be made up of these little pieces. With a first-class director the final cutting is a simple job, if he has constructed the scene in his mind in advance and knows what he wants to achieve” (Three Philosophical Filmmakers [Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004], 10-11).
According to Hitchcock, Singer says, “there are two primary uses of cutting or montage in film: montage to create ideas and montage to create violence and emotion.” In his discussion of the Sabotage scene, Hitchcock explains how he used montage to perform the latter objective; Singer offers an example of the director’s use of this technique to create the former: in Rear Window, Singer contends, Hitchcock creates ideas (that is, depicts a character’s thoughts on film) by “cutting back and forth to what James Stewart sees (and shows in his facial expressions) as he watches what is happening outside his window” (13).
Besides his views as to how to create thought and emotion on film, Hitchcock also had specific thoughts as to how characters should be represented. According to Singer, the director rarely achieved suspense in his films as the result of relating it “to someone’s character”; rather, “it is because we immediately perceive the innocence and (most often) friendliness of some ordinary person in his movies that we are lured into feeling concerned about what might happen to him or her” (129).
For Hitchcock, characters, like actors, were necessary evils, as it were, to the filmmaker’s true purpose, which was to create and project suspense and other forms of emotion. “His innocent victims,” Singer contends, “ordinary people who sometimes end up doing heroic acts, rarely behave as they do because of abstract thought or sensory need or even passionate impulse.
They flee from imminent danger or engage in a secretive and solitary mission that pits them against something that is determined to destroy them. The drama concludes when they succeed, for then nothing perilous remains to prolong suspense” (230).
The appeal of such characters, Singer suggests, is in their very ordinariness, for they represent stand-ins for audience members who, as ordinary people themselves, lead ordinary lives: Do we really care about the happy married life that the threatened couples will now presumably enter into? Not at all. We were fascinated by them only because they were surrogates for ourselves as imperfect human beings, and of all other persons who have also so much to fear in mere existence, which seems forever poised to victimize every finite creature (231).Hitchcock had definite ideas about female characters and villains, too. His ideas about female characters are clearest, perhaps, in the type of actress he preferred to direct. He sought “elegant women,” Singer says, “even ‘ladylike women’ . . . rather than sexy fleshpots,” preferring “Nordic types because their sexiness is deeply hidden in them and must be discovered instead of being flaunted,” and “he thought that stylish actresses. . . have the greatest range of cinematic expressiveness,” although, as raw materials, so to speak, “they too would have to be molded, even manipulated by him, in order to perform as he desired” (65-66).
Hitchcock wants his audience to see his villains as realistic, believable characters. To this end, Singer says, the filmmaker “give[s] his villains a pleasant, often suave and seductive appearance as opposed to his innocent protagonists,” which, Singer believes, “keep[s] his thrillers from degenerating into horror films” (231).
In a previous article, I listed various ways by which novelists and short story writers depict their character’s personalities. To these techniques may be added the montage that Hitchcock uses, represented on the page in images conveyed through description rather than as pictures filmed by a camera and projected onto screens by projectors.. Interspersed or alternated with traditional narrative methods of characterization, the cinematic montage, effected through description and, indeed, exposition, can add a dimension to novels and short stories which is present at this point more in cinema and theater than anywhere else.