Book Review: The Young Alfred Hitchcock's Moviemaking Masterclass, by Tony Lee Moral
The Young Alfred Hitchcock's Moviemaking Masterclass explores Alfred Hitchcock's approach to filmmaking from almost every angle, breaking the process down into its essential elements. These include scripting, casting, working with actors, camera work, editing and set design. The author also looks at the director's use of sound, music - including both music scores and diegetic music - and even film promotion and marketing, appropriately calling Hitchcock not only the master of suspense, but also "the master of marketing".
The book also looks at Hitchcock's working methods and preferences, including his working with screenwriters to develop stories into scripts, his storyboarding of particular sequences and even his visualising of a film before it was made, with Hitchcock often claiming that actually making the film was the dull part.
The Young Alfred Hitchcock's Moviemaking Masterclass is written by Tony Lee Moral. This is his third book on Hitchcock, following Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie and The Making of Hitchcock's The Birds, so he is obviously well versed in this subject.
The book was previously published in an earlier edition as Alfred Hitchcock's Moviemaking Masterclass and this new version is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Hitchcock's directorial debut on the film Number Thirteen. Although, appropriately enough given that film's unlucky title, this isn't a particularly auspicious anniversary as Number Thirteen had to be abandoned and was never finished.
The book's new title is a bit misleading. The author states in an interview elsewhere that it's called the young Alfred Hitchcock's moviemaking masterclass because he wanted to focus on the director's 1920s and 1930s work. But this doesn't really represent the resulting book, as it draws on films from across Hitchcock's career, inevitably finding itself drawn repeatedly to many of the later, more famous films, including Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho.
The author supplies copious quotes from Hitchcock himself, which are often insightful and always welcome. There is also a selection of praise from famous admirers, including Martin Scorsese, Wes Craven, Sam Mendes and Curtis Hanson, and from a few collaborators, particularly some of the actors who worked with Hitch on his later films.
There are also exercises provided at the end of each chapter for the budding filmmaker, together with suggested Hitchcock and other appropriate films to watch, as well as books on Hitchcock to read. The value of some of these is arguable, especially as the same Hitchcock films tend to reappear on the recommendation lists. Anyone hoping for a recommendation for less popular works like Rich and Strange or Under Capricorn is likely to be disappointed. The exercises are also a bit homeworky and probably won't appeal to most readers - although a few of them might prompt some ideas.
The author is eager to find contemporary relevance by relating Hitchcock's work to more recent films, such as Spiderman: Homecoming, Nocturnal Animals, The Silence of the Lambs and The Woman in the Window, right up to The Batman from 2022. There is even a reference to the title sequence of The Lost King, which has only recently appeared in cinemas. In fact, the author is so keen to appear up to date that one film referenced is from 2023 and so presumably has not been released yet. Sometimes these comparisons with other films won't make as much sense if you haven't seen the films mentioned and there is occasionally the danger of spoilers here.
The book's discussion of shots, camera angles and camera technique is particularly interesting, from the use of high angles and low angles to Hitchcock's famous subjective camera and some of his more complicated camera movements. These include celebrated examples in Young and Innocent, Notorious and Psycho.
There is quite a bit of detailed information here on the make-up of the individual films. Have you ever wondered precisely how long the shower scene murder lasts in Psycho? (45 seconds). Or how many shots there are in the potato truck scene in Frenzy? (118). Or how Hitchcock created the stabbing sound effects in Psycho? (with a knife and a casaba melon).
The Young Alfred Hitchcock's Moviemaking Masterclass is generally an entertaining read for Hitchcock fans, although it's unlikely to turn you into the world's greatest filmmaker. Examining Hitch's approach in this way does have its merits, but it can sometimes result in films being reduced to the level of mechanics. The book also inevitably becomes very prescriptive: do this, do that, use this, etc. As the heading "Kill off your main star" (following the lead of Psycho) suggests, some of the Hitchcock-derived advice is very specific and unlikely to be useful a lot of the time.
The advice provided is inevitably mostly applicable to making "Hitchcock-style films". Which many people have done already, some quite badly, but others quite well, from Carol Reed to Stanley Donen, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma.
There are occasional odd bits of phrasing I wasn't sure about and some statements we might quibble with. Is the reason why the birds attack in The Birds genuinely an example of a Macguffin? Was the 1960s really "the jet set and jazz age", as the author describes it? (Jazz?) Were film title sequences in the US "much more advanced" in 1940 than they were in the UK? (I think this is what the author means, although admittedly, it is phrased ambiguously). And was Shadow of a Doubt really Hitchcock's favourite film, as the author states more than once? (Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that it wasn't.) There are also some minor errors, including a film missing from the Hitchcock filmography, although it's a fairly obscure short, and there is no index.
I'm not sure if the approach taken in the book is necessarily the best one, or if a simple examination of Hitchcock's style, techniques and working methods would have been more appropriate. But there's much of interest here and most Hitchcock fans will learn something. The book makes for a diverting journey through Hitch's films and it provides some fairly detailed background information on their making. The book reminds you how innovative and entertaining Hitchcock's films were, and it's sure to send you back to rewatch the ones you've seen before to see what you missed, and explore those you still haven't.
The Young Alfred Hitchcock's Moviemaking Masterclass by Tony Lee Moral is published by Sabana Publishing.