When I was a kid I found it fascinating how I could tell what decade a tv show was made within seconds of watching it. I didn’t need to know the plot or who the actors were, though that certainly helped. Costuming, hair, props, and things like cars and decor certainly factored in, but those weren’t necessary either. It was the almost imperceptible things that really made the difference–things like qualities of colorization, camera lenses, the way the camera was handled, how far it was from the action, and whether there was more than one camera. The subtleties of the editing, blocking, and cinematography were like fingerprints that marked television shows from one decade to another.
Pioneering examples help to illustrate this point. The underrated landmark 1990s television show NewsRadio (1995-1999) helped to usher in the type of absurdist comedy that Scrubs, Arrested Development, and Community later developed. And the quick editing that you’ll find in the last few seasons of Seinfeld (1989-1998) influenced the rapid pace cutting in 21st century sitcoms like Scrubs and 30 Rock. Compare the absurdist comedy and quick editing there to shows with a different type of editing and a more naturalistic form of acting–shows like Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, and King of Queens, and you’ll see how stylistic choices really do mark shows within categories.
Sometimes stylistic fingerprints cohere together a genre, like the examples above. Sometimes though, these fingerprints tie together a body of work by an actor. Take, for instance, Brad Pitt, and his acting. It’s become a bit of a communal running gag to note instances of the legendary actor eating–apples, snacks, Twinkies, or with chopsticks. You name it. There’s the Nicholas Cage montage of him freaking out. There’s how Tom Cruise runs all . . . the . . . time. In fact, montages of actors doing a certain thing have become their own genre.
Sometimes artistic signatures can lead to false positives, where a viewer might think they’ve identified an example of an artist’s work but not really. Have you ever heard of the Mandala effect? The Mandela effect is something a large number of people remember that just never actually happened, like for instance, Nelson Mandela dying in prison, or the non-existent monocle of the Monopoly Guy. I’ve personally noticed that there’s something similar that happens in art, where something just seems like it should be attributed to someone or some group, even though someone else did it. This happens when an actor, a writer, a director, or a movie studio has an especially identifiable style, a fingerprint that we know them by.
One example of this false positive is with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. There was an Hitchcock-esque film starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn called Charade (1963) that came out when the director’s fame was at its apex. This film had the casting a film of his would have, the pacing and adventure of a Hitchcock film, its sense of joyful adventure, and a thrilling and suspenseful ending. It also had one of Hitchcock’s trademarks, the McGuffin–a plot device to get the story started and that then would be quickly forgotten.
Other characteristics would include an everyday person who reluctantly and quite unwillingly gets swept up in the world of murder, intrigue, and international politics; and an outcome that hinges on this reluctant warrior’s ability to navigate her strange new world. In Hitchcock films, there was the sexual tension between characters, who couldn’t tell whether they could trust each other, and slowly begin to love each other. And, finally, there’s a train–there’s usually a train. Charade was, to put it concisely, the definitive Hitchcock film, and here’s the thing: Hitchcock never directed it. It’s famously referred to as “the best Hitchcock film, Hitchcock never made.” This is a lexical gap in the English language–a word to describe when you just know something belonged to a certain artist, except for the fact that it didn’t. It’s like the Mandela Effect, but not quite.
But that leads us to another interesting question. Why do people assume that Charade is a Hitchcock film? What leads to the connection? To figure that out, we need to take a look at the director’s style, and to do that, let’s take a look at one of his most famous films, The 39 Steps, a 1935 thriller. The plot involves a man by the name of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) who is visiting the United Kingdom. He’s in London, in a club with a stage, where he meets two people. One of them is Mr. Memory, a man who is basically a human almanac; he can memorize anything, and his talent enables him to put on a show–something similar to a circus act. The audience shouts out questions, and he tries to answer them. The more random, the better. (His inclusion in the film seems random, but he will emerge later in unexpected ways.) The second person he meets is Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim), a mysterious woman who has an accent and something to hide. He doesn’t know her, but when there’s a fight, followed by gunshots, they run out of the building together, and she persuades him that they should go to his flat together.
She’s terrified; she wants the lights off; she wants to be away from the windows, and she’s scared of a phone that keeps ringing. The call is for her, she says, even though she’s never been in Richard’s flat before. How could that be? Because international spies are after her, and they are standing near a lamppost below Richard’s flat. They are after her because she knows that they are trying to leave the country with important national security secrets. And somehow the phrase, “the 39 steps” is wrapped up in all of this, but she won’t say how. What are the 39 steps? Is it a group? A code? An organization? Richard doesn’t know, and he can’t get it out of her.
But he and Annabelle go to bed, and when Richard wakes up, Annabelle is dying, stabbed in the back. As she breathes her last, she gives him a map to a village in Scotland, a warning about a mysterious man who is missing part of a finger, and a warning that he must flee, or otherwise the men who killed her will kill him. Richard suddenly realizes he has spies after him; he will probably be suspected for murder, and he is the only person who can stop a spy ring for stealing national secrets. His first goal is to escape his apartment to get away from the murderous spies, but then he needs to flee London via train and try to get to Scotland.
But Richard has two problems. First, the authorities are also on the train, and second, the only person who can help him hide from the cops is a beautiful woman, Pamela (Madeline Carroll). He walks into her train car and confides in her, just as the police are moving from room to room. He tells her that he’s being framed, and he needs her to lie for him. The police walk in, and Pamela instantly gives him away–there’s your man!! Grab him!!! As he continues to flee he’ll meet this woman again, and they’ll fight and cooperate with each other, as they slowly began to trust one another. He’ll meet a mysterious man in a old manor type house, and he’ll find himself barely escaping legal capture and mortal danger on numerous occasions. He doesn’t want to be put in this situation. He doesn’t even really know what situation he’s in, to be honest. But he’s got to start moving. The spies are after him. The authorities will be after him, and he doesn’t much time to unravel the secrets of The 39 Steps!
So what are some of the key characteristics of Hitchcock’s style that we see in this very short summary of the film? We’ve got a McGuffin–the death of Annabelle that gets the plot started, but that never really gets resolved–and mostly gets forgotten. There’s the protagonist who is forced into a world of intrigue, and that is chased by both the police and villainous spies. There’s an evil older man he meets, and a mysterious ominous old house, there’s another woman whom he battles with, and whose help he must have but who he cannot fully trust. There’s a train. (Like I said, there’s very often a train.) There’s some mysterious document or device or something (the 39 steps), and there’s a lot of moving, travelling across the countryside. There’s also a marginal but emergent love story, and a slow reveal of what’s really going on.
The 39 Steps is very similar to another famous Hitchcock film from 24 years later, North By Northwest (1959). And if you’re going to watch one of them, you really ought to watch both. In this later film, we first meet Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), who is minding his own business, eating lunch and enjoying his life as a New York advertising executive. Roger’s not interested in intrigue; he’s interested in martini lunches.
One day, while Roger is getting ready to dine in a fancy New York restaurant, he beckons an employee over to his table. But that same worker was instructed by two mysterious men to locate someone named George Kaplan. These two other men–henchman of an international spy ring– see Roger talking to the worker and mistake Thornhill for Kaplan. They immediately kidnap Thornhill, try to get him to talk; and when that doesn’t work, they try to kill him, frame him for drunk driving and then for murder. All of a sudden Thornhill is wanted by the police for murder, has to flee on a train to escape the authorities, and must try to exonerate himself. He might be able to restore his good name if he can find the real George Kaplan, but that’s going to make things difficult for ol’ Roger, because Kaplan doesn’t exist; he’s a phantom spy that the U.S. government created to confound enemy spies.
While he’s on a train, Thornhill meets a mysterious woman named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who seems to already know a lot about him and offers to help him escape detection from the authorities. There’s an immediate sexual tension between the two, but there’s more to her than meets the eye, and he soon finds he cannot fully trust her. Throughout the film they toggle between trusting each other, fighting each other, and loving each other.
In this film, there’s an older evil man, some henchmen, a wealthy manor house, travelling throughout the country, a madcap race to find information that both the spies and the government want, and a slow reveal of what’s going on. There’s a McGuffin, a marginal love story, and a train (are you picking up on the motif?). Does all this sound familiar? It should. It’s not the same plot as The 39 Steps, but the similarities are unmistakable. Watching these two films back-to-back will give a good introduction to Hitchcock’s adventure/thriller films, which make up a subsection of his total work.
Even though the films have a similar plot, you’ll be able to note differences in characterization, humor, cinematography, and editing. It will also be interesting to see how Hitchcock’s directorial style evolved from his time in England to when he came to Hollywood. I’d recommend both of these films to start to understand Hitchcock and for an entertaining evening.