Alfred Hitchcock's Thrillers

Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers instilled fear in viewers through cinematic devices and storytelling. These films became the defining works of Hitchcock's career and influenced all manner of future filmmakers as textbook examples of how to create suspense.

Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Photo:

Hitchcock's Thriller Theory

Hitchcock considered the "thriller" film to be not about scaring audiences, but about creating realistic moments that elicit emotional reactions from them. He defined thrills as "emotional disturbances."[1] He argued that thrillers were an important style of filmmaking because people, unable to experience these true thrills firsthand, should nonetheless be exposed to these emotional upheavals in order to avoid becoming idle and complacent. Hitchcock believed that film was the best medium to do this in because it possesses an unequaled ability to actively draw the audience into a story, to turn them from spectators to active participants.[2]

Films are also able to create sympathetic and empathetic characters. When audiences care for a character on screen, they become involved in his story and can be thrilled by the danger of his situation. [3] What makes thrillers better at prompting these audience reactions than horror films is that thrillers depict "natural" and realistic thrills, situations that audiences can actually imagine themselves experiencing. [4] He maintained that cinema was the perfect way to inspire fear because "fear... is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety,"[5] and "the cinema can leave the spectator with a subconscious assurance of absolutely safety, and yet surprise his imagination into playing tricks on him."[6]

The goal of these thrillers was to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Hitchcock believed the only way to do this was through "suspense." To Hitchcock, suspense meant giving the audience a privileged perspective, letting them in on all of the secrets that a film's characters are unaware of. He wrote, "Every maker of movies aims at getting the audience on the edge of their seats. The ingredient to keep them there is called 'suspense.'" [7] These films can't fit into the category of "whodunnit?" stories because the audience already knows who did what. [8] The suspense comes not from discovering the antagonist or villain but in catching them and achieving justice through their capture.[9]

Hitchcock explains the different between "mystery" and "suspense" in a video from the American Film Institute:[10]

Development of Hitchcock's Style

Alfred Hitchcock. Photo:

After working with a variety of production companies for much of his early career, Hitchcock was signed to Gaumont-British Picture Corporation in 1933. He made many of his signature thriller films with Gaumont-British, like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Despite directing many successful films for Gaumont-British, Hitchcock signed a deal with American producer David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures in order to gain access to better facilities and to have larger budgets for his films. [11]

Hitchcock made some of his best and most beloved films during his time in America. He continued to focus not on horror, but on creating visceral suspense, meant to promote physical reactions for his audiences. [12] Much of the suspense in Hitchcock's films was derived not only from the content of the narrative, but from the form of the film itself. [13]

Hitchcock was also known for infusing his otherwise tense and dramatic thrillers with humor. The comedy not only provided comic relief for the audience, but provided a temporary change of tone to emphasize the intense suspense throughout the rest of the film. [14] However, though this humor often provided a break from the action for the audience, Hitchcock never let it detract from the suspense. Though a comic moment might relieve the protagonist and, therefore, the audience, the relief must be temporary and both character and audience must be quickly re-inserted into the action.[15]

Many of Hitchcock's thrillers were centered on a man-woman relationship of some sort. Sometimes this came in the guise of romance, while in other films, it might be more about the psychology behind love. [16]

Hitchcock was a widely known and recognizable figure in his time and earned the title "Master of Suspense." [17]

Psychological Horror

Hitchcock's films used an element of psychological analysis and exploration to create dramatic suspense. He was inspired mainly by the work of novelists such as John Buchan, J.B. Priestley, John Galsworthy and Marie Belloc Lowndes, who incorporated a lot of psychology in their stories and in character development.[18]

He often used flashbacks to explain the history of a character and inform their psychosis.[19] He also utilized the new modes of psychoanalysis popularized by Sigmund Freud to further explore character psychology. [20] Hitchcock frequently incorporated elements of montage and tight framing to further a representation of the mental and psychological and to create worlds that are overwhelming and claustrophobic to the characters. He hoped to directly impart these feelings on the viewers through these cinematic techniques. [21] Hitchcock's unique mode of character exploration in his thriller films has often been characterized as "psychological horror," which found the fear internally within the characters. [22]

Hitchcock emphasized the psychological in this dream sequence from Spellbound, designed by Salvador Dali:[23]

The Chase

Richard Hannay hides in "The 39 Steps." Photo: Hitchcock and Me
Hitchcock believed the chase, in which a character is running towards a goal, to be the ultimate expression of the possibilities of film as a medium. This chase theory was inspired primarily by the works of D.W. Griffith, specifically his films Way Down East and Birth of a Nation.[24]

A chase implies a race against time in some way and creates its own form of suspense. The chase, though, is not so much about a literal race, in which a character, or several characters, is running constantly. It is a way in which a story is crafted so that this character, or characters, must accomplish a certain goal in a specific time-frame.[25]

In Hitchcock's chase theory, many characters can be involved in a chase and there can be multiple chases going on simultaneously. These multiple threads typically connect or intersect in some way at the end of the story.[26]

Hitchcock believed that the form of a chase should reflect and represent the relationships between the characters involved in some way. When filming the chase, he aimed to capture elements of these relationships visually. He would also incorporate moments of stillness and reflection within the chase to further explore relationships and character development.[27]

A trailer for Saboteur, which utilizes the chase to drive the story of Barry Kane:[28]

The Innocence Plot

A key feature of many of Hitchcock's films is the innocent plot. In these narratives, a character is wrongly accused of a crime early in the film that he did not commit. He must then, throughout the rest of the film, both evade the police or whatever official forces are after him as well as find the real criminals behind his framing.[29]

In these films, the protagonist becomes the victim of unfortunate circumstances but must operate within the constraints of those circumstances, nonetheless. Until he can prove his own innocence by discovering and revealing those who truly committed the crime, he must act alone and outside the boundaries of normal society[30]

The suspense of the innocence plot is drawn from the hero's actions to uncover the true criminals and his actions to prove his innocence in the eyes of legal and official justice.

The trailer for The 39 Steps, which utilizes Hitchcock's innocence plot:[31]

Major Films

The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps, made while the director was still working in his native En
A lobby card for "The 39 Steps." Photo:
gland, is based on a novel of the same name by John Buchan. The film stars Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Donat plays Canadian Richard Hannay, a man visiting London who helps a woman running form secret agents. When she is murdered in his apartment, Hannay flees, fearing he will be blamed for her. He is joined along the way by Pamela (Carroll) as he tries to find the real murderers. The 39 Steps was produced by Gaumont British Picture Corporation and was written by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay with contribution from Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville.[32] [33]

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca was Hitchcock's first American film. It won two Oscars, including Best Picture and received another nine nominations. In the film, Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) falls in love with and marries a never-named woman (Joan Fontaine). They return to his estate but never find marital bliss. Max is still haunted by the death of his first wife, Rebecca, in a boating accident. His new wife discovers that Rebecca still has a strangely strong effect on Max and everyone still living at the estate. Rebecca was produced by Selznick International Pictures and distributed by United Artists. The screenplay was written by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison.[34] [35]

The trailer for Rebecca, which ironically advertises the film more for its romance than its suspense:[36]

Spellbound (1945)

Hitchcock's Spellbound won an Oscar for Best Music and received five other nominations, including one for Best Picture. It stars Gregory Peck as John Ballantyne and Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Petersen. Dr. Anthony Edwards is brought in to be the new head of the Green Manors mental asylum. He is immediately attracted to Dr. Petersen, but it is soon revealed that he is an imposter. Edwardes, a paranoid amnesiac, is actually John Ballyntyne, and Dr. Petersen goes on the run from the police with him to try to help him get to the root of his condition and find the real Dr. Edwardes. Spellbound was released by Vanguard Films and Selznick International Pictures. Based on novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by John Palmer and Hilary St. George Sanders, the screenplay was written by Ben Hecht and adapted by Angus MacPhail.[37] [38]

Notorious (1946)

Notorious stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman as T.R. Devlin and Alicia Huberman. Huberman is lost after her father is convicted of treason against the US when Devlin, a government agent, asks her to start spying on some of her father's Nazi friends. The two enter a dangerous romance as Huberman slips deeper and deeper into her new assignment. Produced by Vanguard Films and RKO Radio Pictures, Notorious was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. The script was written by Ben Hecht.[39] [40]

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith and was nominated for one Academy Award. When Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) and Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meet on a train one day, their lives go haywire due to a murderous misunderstanding. Bruno reveals that he wants to kill his father while Guy is in an unhappy marriage. Bruno suggests that they exchange murders so they won't be caught, and Guy agrees, believing it to be a joke. Bruno, however, takes it a little more seriously. Strangers on a Train was produced by Warner Bros. with a script adapted by Whitfield Cook and written by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde. [41] [42]

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Another of Hitchcock's films for Warner Bros., Dial M for Murder stars Ray Milland as a retired tennis pro, Grace Kelly as his wife and Robert Cummings as her lover. In the film, Milland's Tony decides he wants to kill his wife because she once had an affair long ago and because she is rich and he wants her inheritance. He plots a scheme of deceit and blackmail, but his plans go terribly awry. Dial M for Murder was produced by Warner Bros. with a script adapted from his own play by Frederick Knott. [43] [44]

Rear Window (1954)

A 1954 lobby card for "Rear Window." Photo:
Confined to a wheelchair after a work accident, L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) spends his time observing his neighbors through his rear window. When he thinks he has witnessed the murder of his neighbor by her husband, he and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) try to solve the murder themselves. Produced by Paramount Pictures, Rear Window was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director. The story is based on a short called "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich and the screenplay was written by John Michael Hayes. [45] [46]

To Catch A Thief (1955)

Based on a novel of the same name by David Dodge, To Catch a Thief features Cary Grant as ex-thief John Robie who helps the authorities catch a copy cat heisting jewels in the French Riviera. Along the way, he meets Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly), a wealthy heiress, and they fall in love. When her mother's jewels are stolen, the Stevens help John to catch the real thief. To Catch a Thief won one Oscar and was nominated for two others. The film was produced by Paramount with a screenplay by John Michael Hayes.[47] [48]

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

This 1956 version is a remake of Hitchcock's film of the same name from 1934. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as Benjamin and Josephine McKenna, who are touring Africa with their son Hank. When a mysterious man reveals an assassination plot to them, the assassins kidnap Hank and the McKennas go on a chase to find him. With a screenplay by John Michael Hayes, The Man Who Knew Too Much won one Oscar and was produced by Paramount Pictures. [49]

Vertigo (1958)

A Poster for "Vertigo." Photo:
Vertigo stars Jimmy Stewart as John Ferguson, a retired detective who suffers from acrophobia. A friend asks Ferguson to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is behaving mysteriously. As Ferguson becomes increasingly involved in his job, Madeleine pushes him to confront his greatest fears. Produced by Paramount and Hitchcock's own company, Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, Vertigo was nominated for two Academy Awards. The script was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.[50] [51]

North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest features Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint as Roger O. Thornhill and Eve Kedall in a story of mistaken identities that puts both their lives in danger. Thornhill is falsely identified as a man named George Kaplan and gets wrapped up in a dangerous adventure of political intrigue. The film features Hitchcock's famous crop duster chase sequence. Produced by MGM and Loew's, North by Northwest was nominated for three Oscars. The script was written by Ernest Lehmann and features a famous musical score by Berrnard Hermann. [52] [53]
The overture to North by Northwest:[54]

Psycho (1960)
Vivian Leigh in "Psycho." Photo:

Considered one of the greatest thrillers of all time and featuring the iconic shower murder scene, Psycho is the story of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his strange relationship with his mother. When her sister Marion (Vivan Leigh) goes missing after leaving town with money stolen from the bank at which she worked, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Marion's boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) find themselves at the mysterious Bates Motel in search of her. Here they uncover both the secret of Marion's disappearance as well as the bizarre history of proprietor Norman Bates. Psycho was nominated for four Oscars and was produced by Shamley Productions. Based on a novel by Robert Bloch, the screenplay was written by Joseph Stefano and featured another score by Berrnard Hermann.[55] [56]

The Birds (1963)

A scene from "The Birds." Photo:
Produced by Universal Pictures and Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, The Birds follows Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) follows Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to a small town in Northern California. However, when arrives, the local birds begin acting bizarrely, attacking Melanie as she crosses a bay in a boat. Soon, the birds go wild and begin attacking anyone they can find, and all for no apparent reason. The film is based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier and the screenplay was written by Evan Hunter. The Birds was nominated for one Oscar.[57] [58]

Marnie (1964)

Marnie stars Sean Connery as Mark, who marries Marnie (Tippi Hedren) despite the fact that she is a known liar and thief. Once they are married, he quickly learns that Marnie has serious psychological issues and discovers a tortured childhood that he forces her to confront. Marnie was produced by Universal Pictures with a script by Jay Presson Allen. The story is based on a novel by Winston Graham. [59] [60]

Other Notable Thrillers

Blackmail (1929)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Suspicion (1941)
Saboteur (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Rope (1948)
Stage Fight (1950)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Topaz (1969)

External Links


Internet Movie Database:


Due, Reidar. "Hitchcock's Innocence Plot." Film Studies 4 (2004): 48-57.

Hayward, Susan (2006). Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. Routledge. ISBN: 9780415367820

Hurley, Neil P. (1993). Soul in Suspense: Hitchcock's Fright and Delight. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN: 978-0810825260

Orr, John (2005). Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema. London: Wallflower Press. ISBN: 978-1904764557

Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell (2003). Film History: An Introduction. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. ISBN: 978-0070384290

Wood, Robin (1969). Hitchcock's Films. London: Zwemmer. ISBN: 978-0302002308

Brady, David. "Core of the Movie - The Chase." New York Times Oct. 29, 1950. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2006): 166.

The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films.


  1. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 109
  2. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 109
  3. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 110
  4. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 110-111
  5. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 143
  6. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 110
  7. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 113
  8. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 113-121
  9. ^ Hurley, Soul in Suspense, 189
  10. ^
  11. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 222
  12. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 320
  13. ^ Wood, Hitchcock's Films, 19
  14. ^ Wood, Hitchcock's Films, 9
  15. ^ Brady, "Core of the Movie - The Chase," 166
  16. ^ Wood, Hitchcock's Films, 19
  17. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 320
  18. ^ Hitchcock, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 131
  19. ^ Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 155
  20. ^ Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 240-242
  21. ^ Orr, Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema, 68-71 and 89-91
  22. ^ Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 209-212
  23. ^
  24. ^ Brady, "Core of the Movie - The Chase," 166
  25. ^ Brady, "Core of the Movie - The Chase," 166
  26. ^ Brady, "Core of the Movie - The Chase," 166
  27. ^ Brady, "Core of the Movie - The Chase," 166
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  29. ^ Due, "Hitchcock's Innocence Plot," 48
  30. ^ Due, "Hitchcock's Innocence Plot," 48 and 56
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