Genius Hitchcock Decisions at Screenplay Stage

What hasn’t been written about Hitchcock already?

From Francois Truffaut and Raymond Durgnat, to every casual message board user on IMDb, great swathes of humankind have discussed at length the directorial techniques of The Master of Suspense; the long take, use of POV, montage with a focus on hands, off-screen killing, humour within threatening scenarios and ticking clocks to compose a recipe for suspense.

“Today we’re not looking at decisions made on set or in the edit, but rather back at screenplay development stage…”

However, today we’re not looking at decisions made on set or in the edit or his genius invention of the tracking dolly zoom, but rather back at script stage, with a closer focus on a two genius examples within Hitchcock’s canon. Both examples display an economy of communication on the page, as Hitchcock refrains from the use of dialogue in delivering the intended effect for the audience’s pleasure.

For the purposes of the exercise, we’ll look at scenes in REAR WINDOW (1954) and PSYCHO (1960), and the key decisions at script stage that influenced audience perception and reaction to the two scenes addressed.


How To Set Up A Character, Hitchcock Style…

In the ‘final white’ script of REAR WINDOW written by John Michael Hayes and based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story, no dialogue is spoken until the base of page 4. The scene that breaks the duck in the script is set in ‘Gunnison’s Office’, away from the courtyard within which the film is contained. “Indo-China – Jeff predicted it would go sky-high”, Gunnison declares at the beginning of a very expositional scene that spells out to the audience that L.B. Jefferies (played by James Stewart) is the best photographer in the land and that he’s incapacitated with a broken leg.

However, the setting of Gunnison’s office and this expositional scene never made it into the final film, and Hitchcock decided to keep everything based within the courtyard. The scene that remains is devoid of dialogue, expertly communicating the same information as the previous scene between Gunnison and his colleague Bryce. Abstaining from the use of dialogue to communicate what the audience require to know, Hitchcock visually leads us into L.B. Jefferies’ world, and in true Hitchcock style, every action and beat is meticulously outlined in the screenplay, moment by moment.

“Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies”

We first see Jefferies sat in his apartment in an Everest and Jennings wheelchair – of course, the brand is noted on the page – before the camera pans down his plaster of Paris spica that reads “Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies”. The camera then roams in a long take onto “a shattered and twisted Speed Graphic Camera”, and then to an 8×10 glossy photo print that shows “a dirt track auto racing speedway, taken from a point dangerously near the center of the track”.

LB Jefferies from REAR WINDOW
LB Jefferies from REAR WINDOW: not in a good way.

The introduction in a long take continues, but from the association of these images alone, we understand that Jefferies is a man that takes his work as a photographer extremely seriously. We understand that he will put his life on the line to get the shot required to make the back page of the newspapers (or the front page of magazines, as indicated later in the shot). Jefferies has suffered the consequences of this dedication, and through the energy of his work, it’s inferred that he’s a man who won’t take kindly to being cooped up in his apartment for weeks. This is a man that requires stimulation in his work, and who is a voyeur at heart.

There’s also the indication of sense of humour; why else would you let someone write that on your cast, or do it yourself for that matter? In short, all the ingredients for a compelling lead are there for us to ‘see’ on the page. Not just in final form on screen! And all this is without going into any further analysis of what the camera finds as it roams his living room.

The above is far more interesting than Gunnison declaring Jefferies as the best photographer in the US! The audience understands all they need to, and there’s no reason for an extraneous scene. Very rightly, the scene in Gunnison’s office never saw the light of day! Hitchcock certainly made the right decision in making the cut.

Skip to 1 minute 45 seconds of the clip below to see the above described;

Opening Sequence | Rear Window | Screen Bites

Our friend Gunnison does phone Jefferies for an update on his injury later in the scene though, but prior to this, we have already learned a huge amount about L.B. Jefferies. The economy of communication is superb; we understand who L.B. Jefferies is, without Gunnison’s exposition. Why have repeated information and why use expositional dialogue, when you can show and not tell? Hitchcock saw no reason for it, and following the editing out of the setting of Gunnison’s office, what we have in the opening of REAR WINDOW is one of the deftest, informative and visual introductions to a protagonist in cinema.

If only the man himself was around to take part in Industrial Scripts’ Insider Interviews. Unfortunately not, but click here to listen to recordings of Hitchcock being interviewed by Truffaut (plus translator).


How Did Hitchcock Shift Audience Sympathies?

Robert Bloch’s novel PSYCHO had done the rounds at the studios, and each and every studio had passed on the material before a determined Hitch initially hired James P. Cavanagh to write the screenplay for the adaptation. After Cavanagh’s writing remained faithful to the indulgence in gore present in the novel – including the character that became Marion Crane being beheaded – Hitchcock knew he wasn’t getting what he wanted and opted for a change behind the typewriter.

What the studios didn’t see the potential for, and what Hitchcock and eventual writer Joseph Stefano saw in the novel, was an opportunity to tone down the violence, re-structure the novel by not opening with Norman Bates but following another character prior to the motel’s introduction, include elements of Freudian psycho-analysis, and ultimately create a piece of art that would define the psychological thriller/horror genre.

Spoiler alert; we are not revealing any masterfully kept secret by saying that the character of Norman Bates played by Anthony Perkins is the PSYCHO of the title. Pop culture will have spoiled this for many; perhaps the Wu-Tang Clan’s ODB wailing “Psycho killer, Norman Bates” ruined it for you in the 90s?

Safe in the knowledge that everyone is familiar with the murderous motel owner in 2015, we can look at the huge problems Stefano and Hitchcock faced on the page with the characterisation of Bates in 1959. Based partly on a US killer named Ed Gein, Bloch’s character of Norman Bates in the novel was written to be a middle-aged, overweight, glasses-wearing porno-fiend with an interest in the occult.

Hire a script reader

Problem number one; when you kill off your supposed lead, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh), less than half way through the film, how do you get an audience to sympathise with the overweight bloke with a penchant for porno who has to enter the scene and mop up the mess his ‘mother’ created? Well, Stefano and Hitchcock had to make Bates handsome, younger, meek and seemingly kind. That was a start, and then after adding an earlier sprinkle of maternal care from Marion in her exchanges with Norman, and you have our PSYCHO set up as a harmless, affable chap with whom the audience may side with. Though this is then somewhat negated by his antics as a peeping Tom, the overriding response to the character is one of sympathy. A job well done! Here’s a link if you wish to read the entire PSYCHO script.

With this established, the scene of particular interest in the context of minimal dialogue and maximum communication, is the aftermath of the infamous 78-shot, 45-second shower scene to Bernard Hermann’s screeching violins, topped off with a dollop of Bosco chocolate syrup in the water.

“Mother! Oh God, what… blood, blood… mother!”

From the beginning of the shower scene through to Marion’s lover, Sam, writing a letter to the woman whose corpse we’ve just seen entombed in a car and descend into swamp, 7 pages of the 130-page script pass. Granted, Hitchcock scripts are very long, detailed and almost overwritten, but within this 7 page sequence of murder and clean-up job, only one line of dialogue is spoken, “Mother! Oh God, what… blood, blood… mother!” Of course, this is excluding shrill screams as dialogue.

Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO
Norman Bates

“He goes to the bathroom, looks in, sees the body. Slowly, almost carefully, he raises his hands to his face, covers his eyes, turns his face away”

What is of most interest at the point at which Norman discovers his ‘mother’ covered in blood is the pay-off in terms of sympathising with Norman. Now Norman is set up as affable and is likeable, the audience hears Norman’s shock, and see him run down the steps from the house and towards Marion’s motel room. Norman, “goes to the bathroom, looks in, sees the body. Slowly, almost carefully, he raises his hands to his face, covers his eyes, turns his face away”. He also, “fights to find a way out of his dilemma”, making it evident on the page and through Perkins’ on-screen performance, that he did not commit this murder. But there is the ‘dilemma’ the script refers to; does he report it or cover up the murder for and on behalf of his mother?

At this moment, because of the good work done by Stefano and Hitchcock in setting up the character, the audience would side with Norman whichever decision he made. The moment of discovery is within the clip below;

Psycho (6/12) Movie CLIP - Norman Finds the Body (1960) HD

As we know, what follows is 5 ¼ pages of Norman covering up the murder, and as in the REAR WINDOW example above, everything is meticulously outlined, all the way through to the roof of the car in which Marion’s corpse lies, sinking below the swamp surface. As we’re with Norman all the way, this build up of sympathy for him facilitates an even greater shock in the reveal in the film’s conclusion. All hail Hitchcock!

What, ultimately can we take from Hitch’s decisions then?

Any number of scenes, characters and decisions at script stage could have been examined for this Hitchcock article, and scenes from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, BLACKMAIL and THE BIRDS almost made the cut. However, whichever scenes are looked at, there are strong correlations across Hitchcock’s oeuvre in terms of the decision-making process about the screenplay.

In short, the audience reaction appears paramount to any decision Hitchcock made; how is information most-succinctly communicated, how can cinema be show and not tell, how can we strip away dialogue, and how will the audience engage with the characters so that an emotional response can be ushered out of a ticket-buying mass?

It sounds devastatingly simple, but it’s remarkable how many scripts struggle to achieve the above.

We’d suggest revisiting Hitch’s best moments with a fine tooth comb – you never know, it might just deliver the necessary inspiration you’ve been looking for…

– What did you think of this article? Share It, Like It, give it a rating, and let us know your thoughts in the comments box further down…

– Struggling with a script or book? Story analysis is what we do, all day, every day… check out our range of services for writers & filmmakers here.

Get *ALL* our FREE Resources

Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!

Success! Thanks for signing up, now please check all your email folders incl junk mail!

Something went wrong.

Leave a Comment


Get *ALL* our FREE Resources

Tackle the trickiest areas of screenwriting with our exclusive eBooks. Get all our FREE resources when you join 60,000 filmmakers on our mailing list!

Success! Thanks for signing up, now please check all your email folders incl junk mail!

Something went wrong.

Send this to a friend