How Alfred Hitchcock Changed Cinema and Society

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most important and most significant directors in film history. A household name who directed more than 50 films in his career, he was in front of the camera as often as he was behind it – making cameo appearances, starring in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, making himself as much of a star as his actors. Though he may be one of the best-known, he also remains a complete unknown.

More than 60 years ago, his breakthrough film Psycho debuted in downtown Manhattan, enthralling the audience and changing the landscape of cinema. Here are the ways Hitchcock changed film and society:

He created the element of suspense in movies, changing the way we watched films.

Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense. His movies proved that suspense can be just as effective, if not more so, than surprise. The restraint could trump the usual scare tactics and cheap tricks, enhancing the story rather than overwhelm it.

Hitchcock’s ability to build suspense by letting audience be or think they are ahead of the characters has become invaluable, creating tension and excitement on the audiences and changing the way audiences watch films. Insinuating suspense before something is realized by the central character makes the audience feel helpless and creates drama.

Hitchcock said, “My suspense work comes out of creating nightmares for the audience. And I play with an audience. I make them gasp and surprise them and shock them.” The audience responds in proportion to how realistic the film was made, and the photography was so natural that the audience gets involved and believes, temporarily, what’s going on in their screens.

Before Psycho, movie watchers simply turned up at the picture house and watched the film from whichever point it was at. They will stay ‘till they have seen the beginning of the next screening, and then left. But Psycho was the first to demand the audiences’ absolute commitment to the story.

He created the influential film Psycho.

Psycho is arguably Hitchcock’s best-known and most influential film. The movie was produced on a tight budget and on a spare set using crew members from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Released under a cloud of secrecy in 1960, Psycho shocked audiences by brutally killing its hero early in the film, and let innocent lives get extinguished by a disturbed murderer.  These tropes became the hallmarks of a new horror film genre. Hitchcock insisted that cinemas refuse to let in any latecomers at the movie, which was a controversial move at the time, but it helped turn Psycho into an early blockbuster phenomenon, drawing lines of people queuing up to find out what the story is about.

The film was almost never made (and the Robert Bloch novel it was based on was trashy), but today, Psycho was such a pop culture mainstay that the Bates Motel now appears in theme parks, complete with a knife-wielding lookalikes of Anthony Perkins. No filmmaker like Hitchcock could have produced films that simultaneously delighted audiences, shocked sensors, and impressed critics. He mixed high and low art by creating films that are conscious of the mass appeal, yet turns out to be artistic masterpieces.

He changed the way filmmakers create thrillers.

Hitchcock is a master of showing ordinary people caught up in events beyond their control, and of creating tension before the main character is even aware of the impending danger.

The term “Hitchcockian” was invented to describe the qualities that he exemplified in filmmaking – things like innocent people being accused (which frustrates the audience), or people getting caught up in a series of events they don’t understand but have to figure out a way of. The Hitchcockian style also includes camera movement that mimics a person’s gaze and the strategic framing of shots to maximize fear and anxiety.

Hitchcock was also a revolutionary filmmaker because he emphasized psychology. He displayed it from the Oedipus complex of Norman Bates to the shared psychosis that binds the killers in Rope, from Teresa Wright’s reluctant coming of age in Shadow of a Doubt to James Stewart’s mounting obsession in Vertigo.

He was the father of the slasher genre.

The launch of Psycho gave birth to the slasher genre of films, which typically involved a psychopathic killer who graphically murders a group of people using a slashing weapon, like a knife. Psycho was one of the earliest examples of graphic violence shown in films. It’s a classic piece – though it may seem unimpressive by today’s standards – Hitchcock’s work stands apart because its influence still endures until today. Whenever you see a horror film that pushes you to the edge of the seat with tension, you have Hitchcock to thank.

He popularized the term “MacGuffin.”

Loosely speaking, a MacGuffin is a cinematic lexicon, which means the use of an object, a person, or event to keep the plot moving along even if it’s not essential to the story. It drives the narrative forward as it has crucial importance to the protagonists, even if the audience themselves may have little or no investment in it. Some examples include the $40,000 stolen money in Psycho and the microfilm in North by Northwest.

More recent examples of MacGuffins include the ring in The Lord of the Rings series, the rabbit’s foot in Mission: Impossible 3, and the heart of the ocean necklace in Titanic. MacGuffins are now perhaps most closely associated with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and the Indiana Jones series, with the lost Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

He popularized the use of the dolly zoom.

Hitchcock’s thriller Vertigo popularized the use of the dolly zoom, a camera technique developed by Irmin Roberts. The dolly zoom is an in-camera effect that seems to undermine normal visual perception, and it’s also known as the Hitchcock shot, Vertigo shot, or Jaws effect. It’s a technique wherein the camera moves closer or further from the subject while the zoom is simultaneously adjusted to keep the subject the same size in the frame. In Vertigo, Hitchcock used the technique to look down the tower shaft to emphasize both its height and Scottie’s vertical orientation.

After Hitchcock, many filmmakers copied the effect – Spielberg even paid tribute to Hitchcock with his own films in Jaws and E.T. where he used the effect.

He pioneered quick cutting.

Back then, films are composed of long cuts. But Psycho, again, pioneered something filmmakers apply today, which is quick cutting. The shower scene never actually showed most of the things we thought we see. Through a series of quick edits, with over 90 cuts in a span of 45 seconds, Hitchcock as able to create the illusion of graphic violence. In reality, the knife never even touched the flesh.

His musical scoring changed films as we know it.

Psycho’s influence to the world of films can also be seen in its use of music. Its legendary soundtrack instantly evokes a feeling of tension and suspense, whether or not they’ve seen the film. The shrieking violins that accompanied the murders has been a big influence on its own, not least on John Williams’ Jaws theme.

He was one of the first filmmakers to explore themes of voyeurism and surveillance.

Surveillance is one of the pre-occupying, security, and privacy concerns of the modern era. Yet, Hitchcock was into this theme earlier than most filmmakers, and the classic claustrophobic thriller Rear Window brilliantly studies voyeurism and morality, which now reminds us of reality television and social media.

The theme of surveillance dominates many classic titles, including The Bourne Ultimatum, Minority Report, The Conversation, and Panic Room, which is influenced by Rear Window’s Grace Kelly/James Stewart double-header.

He was the first to experiment with 3D in his films.

Hitchcock was ever the pioneer in adding new kinds of technique to films. He was one of the first to ever experiment with 3D, which can be seen in his mystery thriller Dial M for Murder. However, audiences in the 1950s had little interest in the new technology, so it quickly faded away. Hollywood attempted to launch 3D in a couple more occasions, before it really connected in 2009 with Avatar, which itself is a Hitchcockian film with the use of unobtainium as a MacGuffin.

He made people respect populist artists.

Today, many of his films appear in audience and critic polls of the greatest movies of all time, but for many years Hitchcock was dismissed as nothing more than a populist entertainer. It was only when a group of French critics developed what became known as the auteur theory, in which a film director was recognized in the same way as an author of a novel or a play, or a painter was recognized in literature and art. Because of that Hitchcock’s reputation was re-evaluated, paving the way for other directors of popular films to be taken seriously. Because of him, people had the right to dismiss the notion that because a film is popular doesn’t mean it has no artistic merit.