Mining for story gold - learning from the best - Hitchcock
( Before I get a razzbery for focusing on film - take note most of Hitchcock’s films are
adapted from books - some of which are by top notch authors like Patricia Highsmith , Daphne
DuMaurier , John Steinbeck and Robert Bloch. )
As an experiment, I decided to sift through some Hitchcock films to see how he handled
his stories. I decided to stick with 15 movies even leaving off some good ones ( including his oscar winner Rebecca. ) to keep focused. But these show a good range of how he dealt with plot twists , story lines ,
formula , even some flubs.
*** Warning - If you’ve never watched Hitchcock films this deals with major spoilers ****
1. Family Plot -the intertwining plot -
Interesting mystery has two dueling mc’s in two contrasting plot threads that eventually intersect. The
first plot thread features Arthur and Fran, lovers , who kidnap men for ransom, payable by jewels, before
retiring to their upscale home where they stash the loot in a chandelier. Fran frets over their 'career',
while Arthur likes their life the way it is. The second plot thread features a phony medium , Julia,
whose about to hit paydirt when a wealthy client asks her to find ( using her powers )a lost heir. The
medium enlists the aid of her taxi-driver boyfriend , George posing as a pipe chomping , private eye.
The characters fates eventually collide via mistaken identity , and irony giving this nifty set up some
black humored punch. The same idea was used outside the venue of the thriller with Sleepless in Seattle.
2. Notorious - freshening up an old theme - the love triangle -
There’s nothing more old hat , more dreary than yet another love triangle. But Notorious breathes
life into these old bones with three characters whose true nature is hidden behind masks. To make
up for her father’s traitor status , Alicia agrees to spy on the Nazi’s mainly because
she has fallen for her recruiter Devlin. But Devlin learning Alicia will have to
seduce Sebastian one of her father’s contacts , pretends indifference.
Meanwhile Sebastian eagerly agrees to marry Alicia. There you have it a three way triangle
in which each one is trying to con the other. Devlin is trying to hide his love in lieu
of a loyalty to the cause, Alicia is trying to hide hers to risk getting her meanwhile
pretending devotion to Sebastian and even though Sebastian might be the only one who really
feels anything, he’s pretty quick to agree with disposing Alicia , and hides his
Nazi activist status behind a veneer of suave elegance.
3. Strangers on a train - When the Hero resembles the villain -
Guy the charming tennis pro bares more than a passing resemblance to Bruno the la-di-da
madman in SOAT. ( which is a theme Patricia Highsmith uses in a great deal of her stories
the hero is another shade of the villain or vice versa. ) When Bruno suggests they swap
murders , Guy can’t help but be intrigued, he’s got a slutty wife who won’t give him a divorce
which he needs in order to climb the next rung in his social ladder. I
n fact Guy’s situation is more desperate than Bruno’s. But Guy’s images has been given the
Hollywood polish , in the book my point is nailed home when Guy actually does murder Bruno’s
father something that never occurs in the movie. The shading between them becomes not their
mutual sin but their contrasting regard for it. While Guy is torn with guilt and remorse. Bruno is
4. Psycho - killing off your main character - Is it okay to kill off your main character? Yes -
But only if what follows, surpasses, what came before. Take Marion, Psycho’s main
character whose starts the movie having a tryst in a dumpy motel with her boyfriend.
They’re at a crux in their relationship , smothered by debt , bills, the past. Marion
takes the opportunity to steal a large sum of money from the office where she works
and runs. But her flight is mad hampered dash , till she finding herself caught in a downpour
seeks shelter at the Bates motel. For now the story has been about Marion’s rash decision ,
and how she’ll get out of it. Will she be caught? Will she meet up with Sam? Should she turn
But before the reader can reflect on any of this, she’s killed. By the proprietor,
Norman Bates’, crazy mother. The reader’s goal vaults from resolving a theft to resolving a
murder. The suspense has been boosted from Marion’s flight , to Norman’s protection of his
daft mother. The character exchange has been a gain, not a loss with a whiz-bang shocker
of an ending.
5. The Birds - the unexplained -
In the Birds it’s never explained why our feathered friends attack. In Daphne DuMaurier’s
novella the family speculated wether the attack was organized by the military , but in the
movie the characters stay away from such frank ideas - theirs are more cosmic , more
fairy tale, more Freudian. The main character Melanie is an aloof practical joker , whose
intrigued when her recent prank bombs on a handsome decent lawyer , Mitch. Determined
to start fresh , she buys a pair of love birds for his sister , and heads out to Bodega Bay to
present them , the deed itself an elaborate prank. Rather than present them in person she
sneaks them into the farm, leaving them alongside a note.
Soon birds are swooping , diving , clawing through the town like sharks in a body of water.
Nobody knows why by the speculations run rampant. An old drunk declares it’s the end of the
world, another hysterical woman believes Melanie brought them, witchlike, cursing them all.
And even the reader , could imagine that perhaps the birds are messengers of doom
orchestrated by Mitch’s mother’s jealousy rather like Samantha Egar’s giving literal birth to
her anxieties in The Brood.
6. Marnie - Psychological whosits - When the heroine behavior is a mystery , even unto herself
or - Why do I do the Things I do.
The book Marnie differs slightly from the movie paring down the cast of
characters and actually ditching Mark’s popular brother. But I’ll focus on the
movie which starts with our title character Marnie
a thief , who blows threw jobs , alias’, and safes like a klepto in a candy store.
Her life is dull and loveless, and the relationship with her cold mother is strained.
Mark a handsome , young business owner , hires her knowing her to be a thief
from a brief encounter at one of her previous ‘jobs.’ Allowing her to rob him , he
now has the upper hand and blackmails her into marriage.
However Marnie is far from cooperative and her morbid frigidity has him reaching
for the psych books. Surreal hints drop like Hansel and Gretel crumbs leading to the
showdown, with a flashback to Marnie’s past, in which all is unveiled. A top notch
7. Lifeboat - Controversial ideas -
Never a big hit , some believe it’s due to it’s
claustrophobic title setting others think the cast wasn’t up to snuff. Than there’s
the movie reviewers who might’ve hit the nail on the head - It was just
too controversial for it’s own good.
Over the credits a boat sinks - a torpedo victim of World War 2. A straggle of
survivors pull themselves into a lifeboat already occupied by a husky voiced- mink
swathed, rich reporter. The survivors appear to represent every American, at the time,
from an easy-going hoofer ( dancer ), to nurse , to a mother with a dead baby , to a
cigar chomping shipping magnet and a tattoo strewn, coke-stoker whose communist views
bare an uncomfortable resemblance to the most controversial survivor, the German
captain who bombed their boat.
While the American’s bicker, remain disorganized and grow weaker , Willie,
their enemy, captain’s their lifeboat , with the goal of rowing them to their doom ,
and his victory a German supply ship.Though the American’s manage to defeat
this foe it’s only through mob violence and sheer numbers rather than rules or
organization. Rule of thumb - Touchy subjects could touch off your audience.
8. Stagefright - lying to the reader -
This bombed some say due to the eclectic i.e weird
cast. Others attribute it to the outrageous twist.
The story follows Jonathan a haplessyoung man whose affair with a vixenish
actress, Charlotte, gets him framed for murder,when she asks his help in
removing evidence, after she killed her husband.
He’s caught at her residence with the body and flees, begging the help of his friend ,
actress wannabee Eve, who jumps at the intrigue. Going under cover as maid to
Charlotte in order to find some evidence to save Jonathan , she falls in love with
detective Ordinary Jones. The film comes to a head when Eve runs and hides with
cornered Jonathan only to discover , that he is the killer. Flashbacks dishing up the
‘Truth’ were actual lies. The flaw with this story , and a note to keep in mind
when pacing a story with a twist, is that when your ‘hero’ ( Jonathan ) disappears
for half the story , and is denied the romance angle - the viewer can guess that he’s
not the hero but the psychotic killer.
9. The Lady Vanishes - humor -
Hitchcock always had a sly sense of humor and uses it
to great effect in this movie which fluctuates between intrigue , mystery and laughs.
While this could’ve been an ordinary spy thriller it’s given a buoyant boost by
using humor to derail our sense of detection.
The story starts with an eclectic bunch of travelers stranded on their way home to
England pre World War 2 . It’s quick with the comedy to pan over the characters and
keep everything light - Our heroine is a freewheeling upscale young woman whose having
one last hurrah before she marries. Her ‘love’ interest is a quirky young man who
collects folk songs - both argue, bicker and flirt. This is to put us off guard for
when Miss Froy , a quirky old woman disappears on the train the next morning
the event becomes even more bizarre , more outrageous given the light, playful
mood. Good tip - use humor in a mystery when you want to keep your readers offguard.
10. Rope - taking risks -
Hitchcock filmed this adapted stage-play in ten minute takes hoping
for a seamless uninterrupted movie. The one-set story is highly controversial and takes
it’s cue from a murder duo at the time called Leopold and Loeb. The story features
Phillip and Brandon two college students who, for the Hell of it , strangle their friend
under the warped theory that they’re expressing their superior freedom. To celebrate their
crime they give a party , planned in anticipation of success , and serve dinner
on an unlocked trunk, where the body is stuffed, to their victims friends and family.
One of the guests is a former teacher , who’d nurtured the boys perverse theories
in college. But whether they’re all a joke to him, or for real, is hidden under one of James
Stewart’s darker performances. The party atmosphere contrasted with the cruel crime
and cat and mouse shenanigans, makes for an uneasy, but suspenseful story that borders
on the tasteless.
11. Rear Window - tension -
Hitchcock was a genius at pulling the leg of his audience - this story
of a man powerless before a window with shifting characters and
changing scenes- sounds very much an audience mesmerized by t.v.
Which shows you that Hitchcock knew - whether the torso was alive and whirling or
planted in a garden, a viewer got their jollies either way. Yow!
The story begins with a photographer , Jefferies, immobilized by a cast spending
a hot summer, gazing out over the courtyard of his apartment building, and into the
windows of the opposing apartment building. At first it’s fun , and harmless. There’s a
dancer he dubs torso who twists about in a pastel corset , a lonely old woman who
dines alone , and an argumentative couple whose case in point for not marrying his
lovely girlfriend Lisa. But when Freemont’s wife just disappears, Jefferies begins to
suspect that he murdered her. With each mounting suspicion , the tension rises another
degree. Specifically because the hero , has become as helpless as the reader/ viewer,
watching his girlfriend root around in the killers bedroom , seeing the killer come down
the hall and put his key in the door and is he like the viewer in a movie theater , or a
reader is helpless to warn her. Terrific angle offering a powder keg of tension.
12. The Man who knew Too Much - decisions -
In Hitchcock’s glossy remake with Doris Day and James Stewart
they play a likable married couple traveling in Morocco with their
young son when a stabbed man stumbles into Mr. McKenna’s ( Stewart )
arms mumbling a bit of intrigue. Soon their son has been kidnaped and they’re
under orders not to repeat the dying man’s cryptic phrase. As the couple rush
to follow their one lead, the plot ticks down to a decision , one of those life
affirming decisions that beg to ask the reader/viewer - what would you do. Jo
( Day ) must decide whether to interrupt an assassination attempt at risk of losing
her son. Ironically, the plot features Day singing Que Sera Sera ( What will be , will
be ) perhaps to show her later growth as a mother who having allowed a flotsam
career can now asserts herself as someone with a voice to make her own
decisions. The suspense in this one is nerve jangling.
13. Dial M for Murder - flipping the plot -
Sometimes a mystery runs in such a
straight line - you can see clear to the horizon with no obstacles ahead.
However Dial M, flips the plot. It starts off with Tony, a washed up schnook of a tennis pro ,
whose about to loose his gravy train - a lovely wife whose begun having intimate spaghetti
suppers with younger lover, Mark. Knowing he’d be the first arrested if she turns up
dead , he blackmails an old acquaintance into doing the deed. However , a
pair of scissors, left out, flip the murder and his wife survives the
attack having murdered her attacker.
Deciding this could still work to his advantage, Tony plants letters on the body
making it look like his wife had killed a blackmailer.
The plot has turned from will Tony get away with killing his wife , to, will Tony
get away with framing his wife. A good twist on an old standard plot.
14. The Paradine Case - when the reader’s one step ahead of you -
One of Hitchcock dullest movies. A slick but plodding courtroom drama of interest, only, for
Charles Laughton’s creepy performance of a sadistic old judge. Story
wise it offers some tips on what not to do. Specifically - don’t let your reader get ahead of you.
The story starts with Mrs. Paradine ,a marble-like beauty, accused of poisoning
her blind husband. Gregory Peck is appointed to defend her and the moment you see him
fall in love with her , you know exactly where this is going. Maybe the fact that they used
Louis Jordan to play a greasy valet ( without a speck of grease ) who no-one could imagine
a lady sinking to that level( It’s Louis Jordan, anyone would sink. ) foiled the suspense.
The twist is quite obvious that he’s going to watch his darling hang - and
for a crime she committed. The more agonizing twist would be to watch his darling
hang for a crime she didn’t commit.
The echoing symbolism however was cool - Mrs. Paradine becomes eyes for
her blind husband, but offers only an opaque view considering she was boffing
the groundskeeper. She also becomes Gregory Peck’s eyes ( as he’s blinded by
her beauty ) , shading her guilt from his view.
15. Vertigo - where to place the twist -
If you haven’t seen Vertigo it’s rather a complicated plot to describe -
needless to say it involves an actress impersonating a wife who
thinks she’s been possessed by the spirit of a dead woman named Carlotta. Whew!
Near the halfway point in the movie an event takes place that shatters the plot. Our
heroine has killed herself , sending the hero to a mental institution. When he’s
released he bumps into her look-a-like , Judy. Though the girl insists she’s not
this Madeline person , she agrees to see him. We than follow her home, watching her
write a letter, confessing her guilt. She really is Madeline ( or rather an actress
payed to portray Madeline for a murder scheme. ) She crumples the letter and
starts dating Scotty, allowing him to make her over in Madeline’s image because
she loves him.
I always wondered if this wasn’t a mistake of Hitchcock’s revealing
Judy’s true identity here, and not later when she dons her famous necklace.
However on closer scrutiny this is the perfect place. If Hitch had cut this scene
out - Scotty would’ve lost sympathy - and looked like he was just pestering a poor
shop girl. However because the audience knows that Judy is Madeline , we feel that
she’s getting her just desserts - ( forever forced to play a part she initiated. ) But it’s
not that simple he’s got our sympathy in a tug-of-war. Hitch was indeed brilliant!
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