Scorsese and Hitchcock

Directors Martin Scorcese and Alfred Hitchcock have made some of the most memorable and influential films in American Cinema. With the majority of his work being made during Hollywood’s Classical Era; Hitchcock eventually became famous for the signature stylistic and thematic elements seen in so many of his pictures–like camera technique, casting and music. During Hollywood’s Post-Classical Era, Scorcese became one of many film school graduates who would rise to fame during the 1970s. Though his early films do have very much in common, looking at them alongside the other films he would go on to make in the next 25 years gives a clearer idea of what makes a Scorcese film a Scorcese film. Through each of the stylistic choices that have almost come to define them as filmmakers, both directors have shown that they strive for two opposing themes. Hitchcock aims more for the fantastic, often telling somewhat larger than life stories in a manner that is equally theatrical and romantic. Scorcese has a greater appreciation for the realistic, often aiming to reflect real life in its most raw and shocking state through his use of actors, music, language and setting. This essay will analyze how each of Hitchcock’s and Scorcese’s stylistic choices reflect these themes seen within each of their films.

The time in which both directors made their films may have had a substantial influence on their respective styles. Part of what allowed Scorcese to represent everyday life and human nature so accurately was the freedom he enjoyed regarding display of content. In Hollywood’s Post Classical Era, there were no longer any production codes that limited a director’s use of violence, sex and language. Scorcese, therefore more at liberty to show such content, was more able to project that raw, realistic feel within his films.

Which isn’t to say that Hitchcock never pushed any boundaries. The shower scene in “Psycho” still ranks as one of the most controversial in movie history for its relative violence and sexuality. However, if “Psycho” were released to today’s audiences as opposed to those of 50 years ago, the impact wouldn’t have been nearly as noticeable. More than likely, Hitchcock never aimed to have real life play any sort of prevailing theme in his films. Even if he had, however, it would have been almost impossible for him to do so to the same extent as Scorcese.

Camera movement and technique together form one element in projecting the opposing themes. Scorcese frequently seems to favor tracking shots, while Hitchcock often gravitates toward point of view shots. “Rear Window” is made almost entirely with point of view shots–a type of shot that will always follow a shot of the actor staring at something offscreen, and consist of the image at which the actor is staring. Since the main idea of the story is that Jeff is always looking at and studying something, and since the story is told from his perspective, point of view shots are necessary. Through his frequent use of the point of view shot–which creates a feeling of stepping into one’s shoes–Hitchcock places a greater emphasis on the notion of experience, which adds to the surreal quality of his films.

One scene, in which Jeff is observing Thorwald walking in and out of his apartment with the suitcase, effectively uses the point of view shot. Following the moment where Jeff wakes up to a lady screaming from outside; Hitchcock cuts alternatively between Jeff staring outside the window, to Thorwald going about his business in the middle of the night during a storm. This choice by Hitchcock, which allows the audience to step into Jeff’s role and see things as he sees them, better ensures that they and Jeff are on the same wavelength. Therefore, the audience’s suspicions of Thorwald mount at the same pace as Jeff’s.

Another film which relies heavily on point of view shots is “Vertigo”. About a half-hour is dedicated to the days Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie, spends following Kim Novak’s character, Madeleine, through San Francisco. Hitchcock will often have a shot of Stewart driving, looking intently offscreen, before cutting to the image of Novak’s car visible trough the windshield; informing the audience that he is following her.

The point of view shot is effectively demonstrated in another scene in which Scottie is observing the similarities between Madeleine’s appearance and the painting at which she is staring. Following a shot of a curious Scottie, Hitchcock cuts to the flowers beside Madeleine before panning to the image of an identical set of flowers within the painting. Moments later, Hitchcock does the same thing with Madeleine’s hairstyle and that of the woman in the painting. This decision insures that we come to the realization at the same time as Scottie.

Scorcese uses tracking shots frequently in his films. The tracking shot involves moving the camera, which is usually mounted on a wheeled platform, to follow the movements of the character. Its effect tends to put audiences not so much in the position of the character, but more so in a position of following the character in whatever he or she is doing within the narrative. Scorcese is thereby placing a greater emphasis on observation rather than experience. He directs attention to the details of the world in front of us, rather than the sheer drama of situation surrounding us.

The tracking shot in “Raging Bull” of Jake La Motta walking down the corridor and into the ring before his championship fight creates a shared feeling of anticipation between La Motta and the audience. The audience is more able to tap into the anxiety and/or excitement of the moment. Another example, from “Goodfellas”, follows Henry Hill and his girlfriend as they walk through narrow back hallways and kitchens of the Copacabana before arriving at their table in the main dining area. This allows the audience to better observe the extent of Henry’s power and influence.

The differing roles in which the tracking shot and point of view shot place the audience is essentially that of the observer versus the actual character, respectively. The audience may indeed share in the anticipation before Jake’s championship fight; but that is more due to the moment itself rather than any bond the audience feels with Jake. Rather, if this scene were shown with a point of view shot, it might be instead be due to both. Furthermore, each of the two choices correlate with the themes of the fantastic and the realistic. For instance, the extraordinary nature of Scottie dangling off the edge of a building rooftop is perpetuated by the point of view shot of the ground far below him. Compare this scene to an alternate version that contains no point of view shot, but simply a long shot–maybe in high-angle–of Scottie hanging off of the edge of the building. The suspense and shock value of the situation would be drastically minimized. Any intended sensationalism behind the moment would be far less noticeable because the audience would be observing Scottie’s predicament, rather than being a part of it. In conclusion, what these decisions reflect is how the point of view shot and tracking shot, the role of character and that of observer, extend to correlate with the fantastic and realistic; and that it is due to the idea that realism calls to be observed, whereas sensationalism calls to be experienced.

Casting is another decision that plays an important role in each of the directors’ respective themes. Hitchcock frequently cast Classical Hollywood movie stars like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, actors who were both very skilled in playing the everyman and the debonaire. Their performances, however, usually lacked any real complexity and they often played the same type of role. There wasn’t a whole lot to analyze and comprehend about their nature. It is almost as though the actors in Hitchcock’s films are chosen for no other reason but to fill in the gaps for the sake of his rich plot-line; that they are simply pawns in the grand scheme of trying to tell the story. Furthermore, the characters don’t seem to demand any real degree of study and motivation by his actors. The character of Jeff probably required a minimal amount of introspection on the part of Stewart. More than likely, Cary Grant had to prepare very little–mentally and emotionally–for his role in “North by Northwest”. Hitchcock’s limited focus on the complexity of acting, therefore, further hints to his focus on the complexity of plot.

This is a drastically different approach from that of Scorcese, whose characters were often much more complicated, and therefore, more demanding of the actors. Scorcese frequently cast method actor Robert De Niro in most of his more famous pictures. Method acting, which was championed in the early 50s by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, requires actors to look within themselves and upon life experiences to more accurately develop a character. His tendency to cast method actors and thereby work toward an authenticity in performance reflects Scorcese’s inclination towards realism.

The driving force behind most of Scorcese’s films are its characters, and what makes them who they are. “Taxi Driver” is not so much about a New York cab driver saving a young prostitute as it is about why he saves her. It is Travis Bickle’s state of mind, his loneliness and contempt for society, that is the main focus of the film. There is no clear plot to “Goodfellas”. Yet part of what makes it so exceptional is its analytical nature. It is a story about real people and how they lived and interacted with each other and the outside world. The manner in which this emphasis on real life and human nature is portrayed depends greatly on the skill and type of actors cast in the film. The emphasis calls on the actor for a greater understanding of the themes and characters within the narrative. De Niro had to have an understanding of Travis’ loneliness and anger in order to portray him successfully, the same way he had to grasp Italian-American mannerisms and lingo to make his performances in “Mean Streets”, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” more believable.

In most of Hitchcock’s films, the drama arises less from within the character than from the situations in which they find themselves. This doesn’t mean that all his films are totally void of complex characters. “Psycho” again stands out among his films for its rich characters, such as Norman Bates and Marion Crane. Nevertheless, the true focus of the narrative appears immediately after Marion is killed, when the audience realizes that it is less about her and more about the predicament in which they find she and the other protagonists. Norman’s spooky inner monologue at the end of the film may suggest that he and his state of mind are actually the focus of the film. Yet for a character to fully drive a narrative, their motives ought to be seen from the beginning of the film and usually last until the end; which isn’t the case with the Norman.

Emphasis on space versus setting is an element that further illustrates Hitchcock’s and Scorcese’s difference in style and theme. Scorcese’s aim for realism is seen in his focus on setting within the film; how it affects the story and characters as it may affect the lives of people in real life. Hitchcock’s focus on space and proximity–the terrifying height of Mt. Rushmore or the lone courtyard that separates Jeff from Thorwald–aim to reflect the melodrama in a given moment.

Emphasis on proximity and space in Hitchcock’s films add to their surreal nature. The fact that the Bates Motel is somewhere in the American southwest, or that Jeff’s apartment complex is in Greenwich Village, or that the “The Birds” takes place in a Northern Californian seaside town doesn’t really contribute to the films’ suspense; none of these facts seem in any way unordinary within the narrative. Yet the fact that the Bates Motel lies just beside a spooky old house, that a potential murderer lives only feet away from Jeff, or that killer birds have somehow penetrated the walls of the protagonists’ house are each elements which drive their plots as though they were characters themselves.

In Scorcese’s films, it is setting that often becomes its own character, often dictating the character’s personalities and actions. In “Taxi Driver”, for example, it is the ugliness and corruption within the slums of New York City that drive Travis Bickle to take violent action. In “Casino”, Scorcese reveals the inner workings of the Mafia hidden behind the glamour of Las Vegas. This gives the audience a greater understanding of how Rothstein and his associates prosper in the modern-day American city. The use of music and dialect are key details in the attention Scorcese dedicates to setting. In “the Departed”, the audience is made fully aware that the story takes place in Boston. This may be due to the strong accents in the film; the blue-collar persona, with which many have come to associate Boston, that is equally projected by the actors; or the inclusion of the Riverdance-sounding song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”. These choices all reflect Scorcese’s desire for accuracy and authenticity in the film, and provide a further example of his appreciation for realism.

Finally, Scorcese and Hitchcock each strive for their respective themes through their choices in music. In the majority of his films, Hitchcock relied on the talents of film composer Bernard Hermann to create an often suspenseful and surreal soundtrack to accompany the already melodramatic narrative. The music is employed so that the ideas and feelings of the film register almost forcefully in the minds of the audience. The dizzy, hypnotic opening theme in “Vertigo” projects the film’s themes of confusion and obsession; whereas the repeated screeching of the violins in “Psycho”, which seem to correlate directly with each of the repeated stabs by the mother, more effectively evoke the terror in Marion’s murder.

Scorcese’s use of rock ‘n’ roll works to provoke emotion much like Hitchcock’s use of Hermann’s scores. The difference therein lies in how the two styles provoke that emotion. The scores in Hitchcock’s films are more direct in their purpose, almost telling the audience how to feel. The violin shrieks accompanying each stabbing motion in “Psycho” equally penetrate the minds and nerves of the audience. The hypnotic nature of the score to “Vertigo” is inviting the audience to share in the same bewilderment that Scottie will soon feel. In this way, Hitchcock’s music functions as though it were a drug. Its effect tends to force viewers into a state of mind and emotion, one that will influence how they react through the rest of the film and further add to the film’s fantastic nature.

The use of rock ‘n’ roll, which also provokes thought and emotion, acts as a frame of reference to the time and place in which events occur in the film. The songs don’t necessarily have to correlate with the mood of the film, though they often do. As the narrative in “Goodfellas” progresses through the decades, so too does the music–moving from upbeat pop songs of the late 50s and early 60s to the more complicated classic rock songs of the late 60s, the 70s and early 80s. Therefore, Scorcese’s inclination toward realism is again demonstrated through his use of actual music to stage actual environments and points in time. It works in a similar fashion to the music in an Italian restaurant; which plays more for the sake of establishing environment and aura rather than for any mental or emotional provocation.

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