Nancy: Spending Halloween with the ‘Master of Suspense’

Can you spot the monster in this picture?  Image via Wikimedia Commons

Can you spot the monster in this picture?
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Time for a true confession on this October 31st. I’m not a big fan of Halloween. Never have been. Even as a kid, I wasn’t very motivated to go collect candy if it meant having to dress in a costume to do so.  And while, like Michaeline, I do enjoy the occasional monster story, in my case stories like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and some of the really clever iterations of vampires and zombies that have come out in recent years, I’m not into the non-stop gore fests that crop up on cable TV at this time of year. Other turnoffs: crazed clowns, possessed dolls, and anthropomorphic killer cars.

For me, the best scary stories are the ones where the monsters aren’t so obvious, the ones where they hide behind very human masks, when they look like clean-cut college kids, a worried husband, or the neighbor across the street whom you’ve never met. If any of these ‘monsters’ sound familiar to you, then you, too, might be a fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. While Psycho is more likely to get airtime at this time of year, if I had to pick my three favorite Hitchcock films, I’d say Rope, Rear Window, and Vertigo. (I didn’t realize until putting together this list that my favorite Hitchcock films star Jimmy Stewart. I’m sure some of the love I have for these particular movies comes from the chemistry between these two artists: Stewart, the all-American nice guy, contrasted with Hitchcock, the brash and notoriously difficult Brit.) These films are more than just great entertainment; each is a masterclass unto itself of great storytelling.

Rope. While film critics and analysts consider this one of Hitchcock’s weaker films, I have all the love for it. It’s the story of two young college men who murder another after a philosophical discussion with their professor (Stewart) about whether murder is the ultimate proof of one’s superiority over another. This movie is nonstop tension as we wait for the professor to discover the vile crime while worrying he might be the students’ next victim. The tension is heightened by long, continuous shots. There are no location changes and rarely a break in our gaze into the room with our murderers and the dead body (making us voyeurs of their crime – a common theme in Hitchcock films).

Rear Window. This time, temporarily wheelchair-bound L.B. Jeffries, played by Stewart, is now the voyeur, and he, too, sees a murder. Or he thinks he does. But there is ‘proof’ that the murder victim is alive, so no one in Jeffries’ world believes there’s been a crime. Except, perhaps, the murderer. And so begins the race to prove the neighbor is a murderer before the man can strike again, this time taking out the only witness to his crime, a witness who is confined and immobile…Can you say sitting duck?

Vertigo. This film has become Hitchcock’s most acclaimed and probably most studied film. But (as I only learned recently) it didn’t start out that way. In the beginning, it was panned. Let this be a lesson to us all. Sometimes the world is just not ready for the greatness of our art. (Hey, whatever we have to tell ourselves to get butts in chairs and fingers on keyboards.)

Back to the story…This time, Stewart plays a retired police detective with a gaping emotional wound. He’s developed vertigo and depression after watching another police officer fall off a roof and die. An old acquaintance begs Scottie to help with the delicate matter of following his wife who is ‘possessed by a ghost’. So Scottie watches, then stalks, then becomes sexually obsessed with the woman, who then commits suicide. Or does she? The film uses slight of hand and subterfuge to great effect. Nothing is as it seems. Scottie is an unreliable narrator not out of malice, but because he does not know what the hell is going on. Until the end. If you don’t know what that end is, I’m not going to tell you. Hie thee to thy favorite film delivery system and watch it!

There’s so much to parse through in Hitchcock films, there are entire college semesters devoted to his work. Obviously, this post can’t do justice to all the lessons there are to learn from studying the ‘master of suspense’, but I’m going to spend some time dissecting these stories again while pondering what they can teach me about building suspense and creating everyday monsters in my own work. And some time soon we’ll discuss the amazing documentary called Hitchcock/Truffaut that came out in 2015 and features several acclaimed directors discussing Hitchcock’s work.

But tonight, as I’m waiting for the trick-or-treaters who rarely make it to our neighborhood, I’m going to kick back with some popcorn and just enjoy one (or maybe all three!) of these classics. How will you be spending your Halloween? Are you watching/reading/writing anything scary to go with the season?

8 thoughts on “Nancy: Spending Halloween with the ‘Master of Suspense’

  1. I love Hitchcock in general—his movies, but also his TV show. I love these three films you’ve mentioned, but also The Birds, North by Northwest (climbing on the face of Mount Rushmore!), Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder—so many good ones. And most of them would be terrific Halloween fare!

    Myself, I’m going to a friend’s house for pumpkin soup. She lives in a destination neighborhood for trick or treaters, so the doorbell’s busy over there.

    • I’m jealous that you’ll see trick-or-treaters. They just don’t make it to our neighborhood. It’s probably not worth the effort, as we’re just 13 houses spaced just far enough apart to be annoying for candy-gathering purposes :-).

      Agreed about all of those Hitchcock films. Dial M for Murder probably makes it into my top 5. I’ll even watch the remake (A Perfect Murder) if I stumble upon it, as the story really holds up for me (and also, Viggo Mortensen), but it’s not quite as fab as the Hitchcock classic!

  2. I LOVE Rope. As someone who works in television (when not trying to make a living writing romance) the technical aspects of the long shots are fascinating. And I find it truly spooky. And Rear Window is definitely a favourite!

    • Oh, if you love Rope and you haven’t done so, you should check out its trivia page on IMDB. So many fun facts, like Jimmy Stewart didn’t like it and thought he was miscast. I, on the other hand, can’t imagine the film without him.

  3. Hitchcock wasn’t only the master of suspense — he was a master of the startling image. I think the movie that made the most impression on my mind ever was The Birds. Good god, what a horrible, horrible movie! I can’t even look at a telephone wire of birds without shivering — and in my area, we’ve got these huge ravens that gather on the power line over the river around sunset next to my gas station. Ugh. Almost enough to make me want to walk to work so I don’t have to go to the gas station . . . . Thank god for cell phones, so I’ll never have to use a telephone box near there.

    I wanted to watch Beetlejuice for Halloween, but I couldn’t find it. So, I wound up watching some of the opera Rheingold (it’s research for my WIP). Gosh, opera is corny. The acting and staging is really . . . I have no words for it. I think my elementary school students could do a better job of it. Of course, it’s all about the singing, which . . . is not really my cup of tea, either. I also don’t like the way the characters react and act in this version. It is still motivating my writing — not so much as inspiration as irritant. “I can write better than that!” Well, my goals and motivations are different from Wagner’s, so I’m sure there’s room in the world for both of us, LOL.

    • Well, if you ever want to get into opera (at least the music, because the opera as story is high melodrama, indeed), Wagner is about as inaccessible as it gets. I usually recommend Verdi for newbies, then Puccini, and Mozart (frex: Magic Flute) is always wonderful. IIRC, Wagnerian opera is less about the voices per se and more about the orchestra interacting with the voices. So sayeth my husband with the music theory degree. But what a cool idea to watch opera for research! I look forward to seeing what it yields.

      • Oh, thank god! I want to like opera — in fact, I do like stuff like The Barber of Seville (thank you Bugs Bunny!). I will try to listen more for the interaction, then. (-: But, you know, I’m like a soprano, and all I can hear is the top note. (LOL, no excuses. I can learn.) Thanks for the tip!

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