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In year 11 and 12 English and Media Studies classes, you will often analyse the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. His movies are so widely studied because they are character-driven suspense stories which invite the audience to ask questions about human nature. Some of the driving questions of his stories are:
- The debate over nature vs nurture when it comes to ‘evil’ behaviour,
- How people react to adverse situations,
- The ways in which mental illness can shape behaviour, and so on.
Characters representing human nature
Some of the most common Hitchcock movies for year 12 texts are; Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Rope, The Birds and Psycho. While these films all have different plots dealing with distinctive problems and concerns, they all draw upon similar themes and issues regarding human behaviour. They all broadly troubled, unhappy main characters dealing with a huge problem or issue. They have trouble adequately and appropriate addressing the challenge. This is because of their own personal issues and concerns, and this limits their ability to function as a productive member of society.
Often these characters seek to find an ‘easy way out’ of their problems by lying, cheating, or hurting another person; and this always backfires on them. Their dishonest behaviour usually works against them and leads to the demise of their plans and sometimes even themselves. Another central theme of these suspense stories is self-denial. The main characters often lack morals, and we see them justify their behaviour to themselves and others in a number of ways; typically they focus on how they believe the ends justify the means. Including, how lying and cheating is not inherently wrong, so long as you believe the person ‘deserves’ it.
Therefore, a central theme within Hitchcock’s movies is that evil behaviour never has a positive outcome. While doing the right thing is usually rewarded, albeit slowly.
No Hitch when it comes to writing on Hitchcock
An effective starting point when writing an essay on a Hitchcock movie is to address some of the character’s central problems. For example, if you were studying Psycho you could write about the initial protagonist of Marian Crane. Marian is a dishonest, underhanded character seeking to rip off her employer. To support your essay, it is useful to find quotes from the characters where they discuss their own personal philosophy. Hitchcock’s stories are character driven, and there is often a scene where a central character describes their own personal philosophy, or world view.
This is their personal justification for why they feel it is acceptable to behave the way they do. It is crucial in terms of understanding them as a character.
Quotes support charcater world views.
For example, as a character Marion is selfish and only thinks about herself and personal gain. She does not for a moment care what consequesnces her selfish actoions have on others, so long as it works to her advantage. When discussing a random issue with another character, Marion responds with: “Headaches are like resolutions. You forget them as soon as they stop hurting.”, a quote which tells us much about Marion’s character. It has a double meaning, as headaches are not simply a painful sensation in the cranium, they can also refer to a stressful situation or problem one deals with.
This quote tells us that Marion thinks only in the short-term. She does not care about the consequences of her actions for others because as soon as it stops “hurting” for her, she forgets about the issue. However, this selfish behaviour backfires for Marion, when she goes on the run after stealing from her employer, taking refuge at a motel run by an extremely troubled man, and things do not end well for her. A central theme within Hitchcock’s movies, is that of hurtful, nasty behaviour working against the person. These people often get caught out in a troublesome manner which they themselves caused.
You could call it a form of karma, as Hitchcock’s movies end on a somewhat positive note. Hitchcock reinforces the view that good things usually happen to ‘good’ people, while bad things often happen to bad people.
Attempting to find an easy ‘out’ to your problems only makes them worse.
Another key theme in these suspense stories is that trying to avoid personal responsibility and how this is not a good idea. This is seen in Strangers on a Train where the main character finds himself trapped in a bad situation. A complete stranger (Bruno) proposes the idea of ‘swapping murders’ with him. While it initially seems like a hypothetical, vaguely humorous suggestion, the protagonist finds himself with problems, after realising that the man proposing this is serious.
We learn the personal philosophy of Bruno, when he claims “my theory is that everyone is a potential murderer”. He believes that all people have within them the capacity for evil, and that placing someone in an uncomfortable situation could bring this behaviour out.
As with other Hitchcock movies, kindness and humanity win out in the end. The main character, Guy Haines, refuses to let Bruno’s negative influence cause him to commit murder. In Hitchcock fashion, the maintaining of decent human behaviour results in a happy ending for Guy, with the complete opposite for the villainous Bruno.
What have we learned?
This reading has provided us with an introduction into how to analyse a Hitchcock movie. Remember, that Hitchcock was fascinated by human behaviour, and how negative situations can lead to negative behaviour. However, he was ultimately an optimist when it came to human nature. His films typically show kind-hearted, decent human beings being rewarded, and unprincipled, selfish characters getting out caught in a web of deceit.
Regardless of the Hitchcock movie under analysis, an effective way to go about writing about it is to look at the main characters and how their own personal behaviour shapes their situation. How the situation turns out for them is usually a reflection on whether they acted morally or immorally. Further, characters that are trapped in bad situations usually have some personal responsibility for being there. Their deceitful, immoral behaviour has backfired on them, resulting in them being stuck in the mess.
If you really want to understand the characters, remember to look for their quotes in which they describe their world view/philosophy. This gives us much insight into who they are, and the eventual consequences of their actions.
Keep these tips in mind when you prepare an essay based on a Hitchcock movie and you will do well.
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