Like many film geeks, I fell down the Hitchcock rabbit hole at the impressionable age of 12 or so. I was initially attracted to his reputation as the master of the macabre, a genre custom-tailored to pubescent boys. But if those thrills were all I had been looking for, I would have been disappointed and to be honest, I was—at first. What grabbed me then and still hasn't let me go, was his mastery as a film maker. In interviews and articles, he often spoke of his work in “pure film,” a phrase he occasionally alternated with the more majestic phrase “pure cinema.” 30 years after first hearing those words, I'm still exploring what he meant by that. My next two posts will explore some of the filmmaking techniques Hitch employed in his pursuit of the grail of “pure cinema.”
“I don't care about the subject matter; I don't care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that make the audience scream.... [In the case of Psycho,] it wasn't a message that stirred audiences, nor was it a great performance or the enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.”
Bernard Herrmann's star turn in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
While Vertigo might be the most profound collaboration between composer and director of any film ever undertaken, the Hitchcock/Herrmann alliance in The Man Who Knew Too Much is the most transparent example of the heights they could achieve working in concert (pun fully, shamelessly, intended). By showing him conducting the London Symphony Orchestra during the Royal Albert Hall sequence, Hitchcock awarded a cameo appearance to Herrmann—the only time he shared the screen with a member of his non-actor team. And what an exquisite example of "pure film" that scene is! Arthur Benjamin's Storm Cloud Cantata provides the perfect underscore for dramatic tension as Jo McKenna (Doris Day) agonizes over her choice between saving her son from his kidnappers and averting an assassination. It's 10 minutes of wordless suspense, in which the audience shares subjectively in Jo's predicament. A tour de force of editing that serves the music, the story and a maternally ferocious performance by Day, it's a textbook example of "pure film" in which the audience is literally put through the same feelings as the characters on screen.vi
"was not the art to which Herrmann was dedicated. Herrmann swore allegiance to the art he called "melodram,"... which restored to music what he felt was its rightful primacy. In the case of [the shower scene in] Psycho, Hitchcock allowed Herrmann to prevail, but the incident must have opened his eyes to the fact that he and his friend, whose genius was as undeniable as his own, did not ultimately share the same artistic vision."