Filmmakers of Fear

“To me, Psycho was a big comedy,” said film director Alfred Hitchcock.  Psycho was a definitive film of Hitchcock’s legendary career; however, he was an expert maker of thrillers, not comedies, and Psycho was undoubtedly his most terrifying and controversial work.  Why then, did Hitchcock think of his film as a farce?  The answer lies in the distinction Hitchcock made between him and the audience.  Hitchcock did not appear to be making personal films for himself, but suspenseful entertainments for the audience.  On the other hand, Ingmar Bergman once stated that Psycho told him very much about Hitchcock.  “Not very good things,” he went on to add.  Bergman was also a film director working at the time, but his films were different than Hitchcock’s.  While Hitchcock disturbed the viewer, Bergman allowed audiences to observe a universe parallel to their own, where people experience life and dread death.  Bergman’s characters often ran from death, Hitchcock’s characters almost never saw death coming.

Ingmar Bergman is known as one of cinema’s greatest directors because each of his films has something to say about life or death.  The idea of dying was one that had haunted him as a child.  The son of a devout priest, Ingmar was introduced to the movies by his grandmother, who took him to the theater secretly because his father would not allow it.  Nonetheless, the young Swedish boy came to adore the movies, and would begin his career in the arts by writing several plays at age 23.  He eventually broke into Sweden’s film industry as a writer-director during the 1940s.  However, it was not until the mid-1950s that he began gathering international recognition.  In 1955, he released his breakthrough film, Smiles of a Summer Night, a romantic comedy set in the Swedish countryside.  He then directed two of his most popular films, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, two years later.  The following decade, Bergman would work at a frantic pace, sometimes turning out two or three movies in a year.  Even so, he continued to create highly intellectual films that had both personal and universal themes.  Of course, most of his works drew from his own search for a purposeful life as well as a passionate fear of death.  Such passion is ever apparent in Bergman’s films.  His masterful command of the camera gave many of his movies the air of a paranoia thriller while his dialogue was intelligent and occasionally, funny.  The people that occupied his films usually had something in common with their director.  The Seventh Seal depicted a medieval knight engaged in a chess match with Death himself.  Wild Strawberries followed an elderly man who realizes that his choices have created an empty and meaningless life.  The most admirable aspect of Ingmar Bergman’s work is how incredibly thoughtful each of his movies was.  He vitalized film to document his questions about life, but he filmed these inquiries in such a way as to drive the viewers to come to their own conclusions.  He is one of the few movie directors who have made passionate, thrilling pieces of work that can be interpreted differently by each audience member.  This is one of the great things about a Bergman film: it provokes deep thoughts and conversations long after the movie is over.  Such is the case with many of his films, but especially those from the ‘50s and ‘60s: Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and more.  Bergman’s influence upon today’s filmmakers is incredible; Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg all name him among their favorite directors and biggest influences.

Alfred Hitchcock is unquestionably one of the most popular directors since the invention of the motion picture camera.  Through the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties, he produced a large number of hits that have now become classic thrillers.  It was always apparent, even in his earlier works that Hitchcock was a technical genius.  He had an eye for disturbing the audience.  This can be seen in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) when the hero finds himself at the mercy of an evil dentist, in Dial M for Murder (1954) when a man fell backwards onto a pair of scissors, or in Psycho (1960) when a schizophrenic psychopath stared the audience directly in the eyes while bearing an insane, murderous grin.  Hitchcock knew how to generate fear because he knew what it was like to experience it.  As a child, his father had made him spend one night in prison after misbehaving.  This marked the beginning of the director’s worst fear: being convicted of a crime that he did not commit.  Hitchcock’s filmmaking career began in 1924 when he wrote the screenplay for a British silent film called White Shadows.  Among his films made after the invention of “talkies”, he only wrote a small handful, and his best movies were largely not ones which he had written himself.  Such films as Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho were all written by different screenwriters, yet each is obviously a Hitchcock thriller.  This is due to the stylization that Hitchcock contributed to all of his projects.  His bold vision for his films not only influenced film censorship but also future directors such as Brian De Palma, Francois Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, David Lynch, and Tim Burton.

Ingmar Bergman was correct in observing that Hitchcock’s films said something about their director, as was the case with his own films.  Psycho was the most powerful summary of Hitchcock’s fears, just as The Seventh Seal was the most poetic review of Bergman’s frightened view of mortality.  Though their films are unalike, the two men worked for the same reason: to transfer their own fears to somebody else.  The essential difference in the directors was the way they delivered that fear.  After all, Hitchcock once noted, “Fear isn’t so difficult to understand.”

3 responses to “Filmmakers of Fear

  1. Great article. It’s a shame both Bergman and Hitchcock may not get along personally – but the combined influences of these two filmmakers alone had brought wonders.

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