Many film historians and filmmakers believe that visual techniques are superior to audio ones. This belief has it roots in the early years of sound. With few exceptions, silent films were far superior to early talking pictures; the problem being that due to the technical intricacies of recording, the acting suffered, rendering many films painful to observe.
Hitchcock constantly defined his style of filmmaking to that of “pure film”; film that expresses its meaning visually. But examining this term closely, it is apparent that he is objecting to an unnecessary reliance on dialogue as opposed to the use of sound overall. In his famous interview with Francois Truffaut Hitchcock stated: “In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. … In writing a screenplay, it is essential to separate clearly the dialogue from the visual elements and whenever possible, to rely more on the visual than on the dialogue.” Hitchcock’s visual and aural goals were becoming clear and many of his production notes, increasingly throughout his directorial career, would feature detailed references to sound effects and music. Aside from the novelty of dialogue, audiences began to experience soundscapes which, often utilising ambience sounds and effects occurring within a scene, accentuated the drama of Hitchcock’s movies. His non reliance on dialogue harks back to the silent era where movie-goers would watch a film often with a live organist alongside performing either a complete musical work or emotion driven passages and stings to set the mood when the scenes required it.
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Alfred Hitchcock’s use of sound in Blackmail (1929) and Murder! (1930) in particular is important in many respects. These films went against the ideas of the day of what was technically possible in filming with immobile cameras and uneditable sound systems. In addition, they represent Hitchcock’s first major experiments in combining sound and image in ways that in which the visuals did not come second to the dialogue. Blackmail establishes Hitchcock’s preference for integrating music and sound effects, and introduces most of his favourite audio motifs. Both films are interesting historically, but Blackmail is the more successful work of art because its audio techniques and motifs are an integral part of the film stylistically.
Blackmail’s aesthetic integrity is all the more remarkable given the uncertain conditions under which it was produced – circumstances that are frequently misreported in film histories. Despite its reputation, Blackmail was not technically the first British sound feature, although it was immediately hailed as such. It is in part the makeshift and transitional circumstances of the filming that allowed Hitchcock to use sound with a flexibility and creativity that distinguished it from other early sound efforts.
Blackmail’s admirers have rarely mentioned any specifics except the expressionistic highlights, such as the knife sequence, the overloud doorbell, or the merging screams. From a historical viewpoint, however, Blackmail is just as unique in its treatment of dialogue. A close look at the dialogue sequences shows that the film contradicts almost every rule written in standard histories about the use of sound in the transitional period from 1928 to 1930. For example, whereas films of the period supposedly always showed the speaker because producers thought that the audience must see the source of sound, Hitchcock very often has the speaker out of shot. Whereas films were supposed to have been photographed in long master shots (because sound could not be cut), Hitchcock only does so three times. Finally, whereas cameras and people were supposed to remain relatively immobile, the director moves not only his characters but also his camera, and therefore the audience viewpoint, during synchronised sequences, heightening the involvement of movie goers, placing them almost inside the action rather than making them feel like they were merely watching a theatre production.
Blackmail has stilted moments, especially in the delivery of speech. Even the better actors at the time were hindered by the need to recite their lines distinctly for the relatively unresponsive microphones. However, Hitchcock also includes several scenes where dialogue is intentionally incomprehensible – a daring device at the time. When two policemen come off duty, ten minutes into the film, dialogue is added for the first time, but not synchronised, and we are supposed to merely get the gist of their conversation.
An early example of his understanding of sound is clear even from his first use in Blackmail. The opening appears almost comedic; heavy honky tonk pianos and hand cranked visuals seem to be at odds with what is a serious story. Initially it appears the film is to be a silent, there are no sounds or dialogue until ten minutes have passed, and even at that point it is introduced in an ambiguous manner, with sound being used sporadically. In his early movies, Hitchcock’s experimentiative nature is as apparent with sound as with the visual development of filmmaking.
As the story progresses, the main character Alice (Anny Ondra) stabs and kills her would-be attacker. Hitchcock uses offscreen sound that is relevant to his content. One frequent purpose of offscreen dialogue is to contrast Alice’s emotions with the lack of awareness of other characters. This contrast occurs in the knife sequence, and later when her boyfriend (Frank) and her harasser (Tracy) blackmail and counter-blackmail each other. Showing the girl while the mens’ conversation continues offscreen emphasises her emotional exclusion from the other characters. Hitchcock also begins here a use of nonparallel cutting to create tension between characters.
Later in 1930, Hitchcock filmed Murder! Although the director was again facing great technical limitations, Murder is clearly a personal work, which in every scene shows Hitchcock’s efforts to work creatively with sound despite the abundance of dialogue.
The script requires a trial (which Hitchcock condenses through a complicated montage of sound and image) and jury deliberations which entail a thorough analysis of the issues. Because the deliberation scene is the longest and most dialogue heavy scene it was also the most challenging, and Hitchcock strains to enliven it. The scene is a first statement of three major techniques that the director would use to minimise the filming of talking heads during the rest of his career: camera movement, non-parallel editing of dialogue, and deep-focus sound. The scene is set up so that the jurors are seated on the outside arc of a table that forms two thirds of a semicircle, with the foreman in the centre chair and Sir John Menier at one extreme. As the scene opens the camera pans past eleven jurors while the foreman summarises the arguments. Later, the camera pans away from the foreman in one direction and then swings past him, panning the other way. In neither case does the camera movement work. The jurors are not defined enough visually for us to learn something new by watching them in turn. Much more successful is Hitchcock’s nonparallel cutting of dialogue and image. He rarely ends a shot of a person speaking at the precise moment that the person’s dialogue ends; usually cutting to a second speaker before the first has finished. In parallel cutting the simultaneous aural and visual cuts reinforce each other so we notice them; thus shock is generally created through parallel cutting, whereas smoothness and continuity are created by overlapping.
Murder’s deliberation scene ends with a form of deep-focus sound that completely eliminates talking heads. The camera stays in the deliberation chambers after the jurors exit. We hear the verdict, the death sentencing, and the defendant’s last words as we watch a janitor cleaning up after the jurors. The effect is to lessen our interest in the reaction of the accused girl and to heighten our awareness of the responsibility of the jurors for her fate. The decision to stay outside of the room when a verdict is read emphasizes the impersonality and heartlessness of the trial, and Hitchcock uses the technique for similar effects as late as Frenzy, when another innocent defendant is sentenced to death.
The technique for which Murder is most often remembered is the interior monologue of Sir John, which Hitchcock claims is the first in film history. This is a recurring motif used in many of his films, and represents the director’s desire to move inside a character’s mind and reveal his thoughts and feelings. Hitchcock’s expressionistic impulses are somewhat obstructed in his British films by the limitations on technical resources, which forced him to become minimally dependent on mise-en-scéne. In his American period the use of lavish tracking shots furthered his wish to explore physical depths which correspond to their psychological counterparts. Meanwhile, in the thirties he was more dependent on inexpensive means of penetrating surfaces; sound is a chief device of creating subjective experiences-a device that reaches its height of development in Secret Agent.
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By the time Alfred Hitchcock had made Murder he had already experimented with his two main options for using sound subjectively: the interior monologue, as in Murder’s shaving sequence, and the distortion of exterior sounds to suggest how they impinge on a character’s consciousness, as in Blackmail’s, knife sequence. He would eventually settle on the impingement of the exterior world as the preferred choice, and even that technique would soon become subtler, less of a stylistic nourish, less expressionistic. Ultimately, by switching from the distortion to the intrusion of exterior sounds, he would find ways of creating the same effect in the more realistic style of his American films.
By contrast, the interior monologue in the shaving sequence furthers Hitchcock’s central point in Murder that Sir John is acting more out of amorous than moral motives when he becomes newly convinced about Diana’s innocence and decides to find the real murderer. The radio is used as a form of scoring (in a film that is ostensibly limited to source music). An orchestra performs the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, and Sir John’s thoughts have been carefully timed so that Wagner’s high points emphasize the emotional highs of the interior monologue, the love motif suggesting that Sir John’s motives involve feelings for the girl that he does not yet admit to himself. Sir John delivers the monologue in his distinctive, characteristically passionate, rhythmic phrases. We hear Sir John’s thoughts about saving Diana, but it is the performance of Tristan und Isolde on the radio which conveys the emotions. Sir John leaves the music playing after shaving and moves into an adjacent room for the next scene, in which he speaks to an assistant. Because the love theme is still playing, we realise that during these transactions he is thinking more about Diana than about the business at hand.
The interior monologue as a means of getting inside a character’s mind in Murder, then, is not altogether satisfactory on three counts: it does not really convey underlying emotion, it does not involve the audience, and it is grafted onto a film that is otherwise quite different in style. By contrast, the solution of showing how exterior sounds impinge on a character in Blackmail has become a much more integral part of Hitchcock’s style. Specifically, his challenge in Blackmail was to find techniques for externalising the heroine’s guilt. The solution, which entails stylisation and distortion, is the aural equivalent of visual expressionism. To show that the expressionistic uses of sound in Blackmail are indeed stylistically integral to the film it is necessary to examine the film in detail.
Hitchcock first makes us aware that he is distorting the sound subjectively when he exaggerates the loudness of bird chirpings to stress Alice’s agitation on the morning after the murder. When the mother enters Alice’s bedroom to wake her, she uncovers the cage of Alice’s canary. Once the mother leaves the room, the chirping is loudly insistent while the girl takes off the clothes she wore the night before and puts on fresh ones. The chirps are loudest, unnaturally so, when she is looking at herself in the mirror. The sound reminds us of the tiny, birdlike jerkings that the girl made immediately after stabbing the artist. After the knife sequence there is another subjective distortion of sound, when a customer rings a bell as he enters the store. We are in the breakfast parlour, and yet the bell resonates louder than it does elsewhere in the film. The camera is on a close-up of Alice’s face to indicate that it is her point of view, once again, from which we hear.
In a sense the use of bird noises in the bedroom scene should be distinguished from the other techniques mentioned here. Whereas aural restriction and distortion of loudness are related to character point of view, the choice specifically of bird sounds has a particular meaning for Hitchcock independent of the film. This sequence marks the beginning of an ongoing association of murder and bird noises in the director’s mind which accrues meaning from film to film, from Blackmail and Murder through to Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Psycho, and culminates in The Birds.
Commentators have regarded the “knife sequence” as an isolated gimmick, but the scene as a whole should be seen as the culmination of a larger movement to which Hitchcock has been building since the murder. The scenes showing Alice’s retreat from the artist’s rooms and her subsequent wanderings through the streets have each used elements that unite in the knife sequence. The sequence occurs while Alice breakfasts with her parents. In the doorway leading from the parlour to the father’s shop stands a gossip, talking about the previous nights murder. Alice’s parents go about their business, not giving much attention to the gossipy neighbour but Hitchcock’s cutting shows that the guilt ridden Alice is already more sensitive to the woman’s speculations about the crime. As the gossip’s speech becomes more graphic, the director suggests Alice’s increasing sensitivity by panning from the girl to the chattering neighbour. From here on in her dialogue becomes almost abstract: it alternates between muffled speech and the word “knife” five times. Offscreen the father says, “Alice, cut us a bit of bread,” as the camera tilts down to Alice’s hand approaching the knife (which resembles the murder weapon). We hear “knife” five more times: in the gossip’s voice, at a fast pace, with the intermediate words eliminated. Hitchcock, a possessor of a great aural imagination, increases the volume of the word to emphasise the subjectivity of the moment, still further matching the visual intensity of the close-up with the intensity of the loudness. On the sixth repetition the word knife is screamed, and the actual knife seems to leap out of Alice’s hand and falls onto a plate.
Hitchcock related later in his career that, despite any relevant education in the required fields, he saw himself as a composer or a conductor but typically he had less control over the music than over the other aspects of production. His use of music in Blackmail reflects his need to observe various conventions and his desire to be personally creative with the music using pure instinct. It is complicated by the film’s midstream switch to synchronized sound: the director therefore has to deal with both the silent-film conventions of scoring for live orchestra and with the early talkie expectations that a character would perform a song in synchronism. Musical themes introduced in the first reel recur later in the film, associated with similar images. For example, a string agitato theme identified with the image of the spinning wheel comes back both when we see the wheel again and during the museum chase. There is a central theme arranged for full orchestra associated with Scotland Yard, and also a pizzicato phrase which ascends the scale almost every time a character climbs a flight of steps. Nevertheless, Hitchcock managed to assert his personality over the scoring by controlling not the content so much as the placement of it. Whereas it was typical of the period to use either continuous music or none, the director had already hinted at his future style by eliminating scoring under most dialogue sequences and by insisting on silence during most moments of tension.
Not until Secret Agent would Alfred Hitchcock once again find a vehicle appropriate for extensive experimentation with the use of expressionistic sound. By 1936 re-recording practices were more sophisticated. Therefore, much of the impetus to use sound creatively in Secret Agent must have come not (as in Blackmail) from the challenge of overcoming stringent technical limitations but from a wish to explore the new range of expressive possibilities available with technically sophisticated equipment, and further involving his audience emotionally in his movies.
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