Friday, December 10, 2010

People Will Talk XI – Hitchcock, Settings, & Stage Plays

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



A PLAY is about to begin. In the ORCHESTRA PIT, the CONDUCTOR stands to begin the Overture. He raises his baton—

--a NOISE sounds from the front of the AUDIENCE.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK moves slowly along the SECOND ROW of seats, attempting to get to his seat, having arrived late.

EVERYONE waits for him to reach the SINGLE EMPTY SEAT in the very middle.

The Conductor simmers as he waits, arms sagging.

HORN PLAYERS re-wet their instruments.


Hitchcock steps on a WOMAN’s foot and she YELPS.

He ignores her.

Finally, he reaches his seat, turns to the front, and sits.

The Conductor turns, raises his baton for a second time, and begins.

In Peter Bogdanovich’s Who The Devil Made It, Ballantine, 1997, p. 520, director Alfred Hitchcock said:

But there is another interesting facet about the photographed stage play: some people make the mistake, I think, of trying to open the play up for the screen. That’s a big mistake. I think the whole conception of a play is confinement within the proscenium—and that’s what the author uses dramatically. Now you are undoing a newly knitted sweater. Pull it apart and you have nothing. In Dial M (For Murder), I made sure that I would go outside as little as possible. I had a real tile floor laid down, the crack under the door, the shadow of the feet—all part of the stage play—and I made sure I didn’t lose that. Otherwise, if you go outside, what do you end up with? A taxi arrives outside, the door opens, and they get out and go in. I think those kind of shots are ridiculous and boring.

This recalls a famous Hitchcock principle (also from Who The Devil Made It, p. 541) : 
…I’ll tell you how this scene came about [the killing of Gromek, by Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in the gas stove in Torn Curtain]. It comes under the old heading, ‘If you go into a setting, use it.’ In that farmhouse, all the tools of death or torture were domestic instruments: a carving knife, a shovel, and a gas oven. It’s the same as using the crop duster. Or, again in North By Northwest, if Cary Grant is trapped in an auction gallery, how does he get out? By bidding! You have to use a setting in its depth. It’s not enough to say, “This is a background.” Look at the ballet in Torn Curtain: the ballerina is the one who recognizes him—during a pirouette. And how does he get the idea to shout “Fire”? From the scenery on the stage. That’s using the theater, using the ballet, as part of the drama, not just as a background.”

He wasn't interested in following trends, no matter how popular. He was always a trend-setter. We might note that North By Northwest preceded by only a few years the espionage trend. Torn Curtain was made at the peak of the spy film craze, with James Bond leading the pack. Hitchcock refused to follow the template established by the Bond films, the same template he created. He set himself the task of making a kind of “anti-James Bond” film, and in so doing, took a decidedly more realistic view of espionage:

Bogdanovich – ‘What was your purpose in making Gromek’s murder as gruesome and protracted as it is?’

Hitchcock – ‘Again, the avoidance of the cliché. People are killed so easily in movies. Nobody ever goes back to take a second look to see whether they’re really dead or not. The whole idea was not only to show how difficult it is to kill a man, but to point up to the character what espionage entails: you’re involved in killing!’”

Returning to his point about settings, later, on p. 549, he added, 
…if you’re in a fruit and vegetable market, then vegetables have got to play a part in the story, which (in Frenzy) they do. The potatoes become the undoing and the solving of the whole problem in the story.

“You have to use a setting in its depth,” i.e., to its fullest and most idiosyncratic extent. In the case of the theater, that means the stage (and only the stage) in all its dimension and potential. This is what can make the difference between the cliché and riveting entertainment. The action develops organically, out of the means at hand, and can become entirely un-predictable. #
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post:
You have to use a setting in its depth
---Alfred Hitchcock

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