Form Is Content: An Examination Of Hitchcockian Murder

In this paper, I will examine how Hitchcock, in spite of the Hays Code restriction of showing explicit violence, developed editing techniques to formalize content – turn content into form – in order to pass the censors and depict violent acts on film. Specifically, I will parallel murder scenes in several of his films, and argue that, by using editing techniques, such as cuts, freeze-frames, and montage, Hitchcock formally conveys an impression of violence, giving the viewer an aesthetic appreciation of the content, and that, since form, like music, is non-representational, using form to convey violence inspires more emotional resonance than mere images of violence. I will assert that how Hitchcock utilizes editing techniques to translates content into form is directly linked with how Hitchcock established himself as the ‘auteur’, ‘master craftsman’, and ‘master of suspense’ that he is heralded as today.

I will begin with an overview of the history and regulations of the Hays code. Then, by applying the film theoretical perspectives of ‘auteurism’ and ‘formalism’, I will analyze the editing techniques utilized by Hitchcock in a specific murder scene of each of the following films: Rope (1948), Strangers On A Train (1951), Psycho (1960), and Frenzy (1972).

The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, enforced censorship guidelines of the production of American films between 1930 and 1968, before it was replaced by the Motion Pictures Association Of America (MPAA)  rating system. It set forth general standards of “good taste” and specific do’s and don’ts under the notion that film ought to be preserved as a means for social, spiritual, and moral progress, and that filmmakers are responsible for upholding this. Regarding murder scenes in Hitchcock films, I will make use of only one specific restriction introduced by the Hays Code: “Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail” (I-1-C, Hays Code).

In spite of this restriction, Alfred Hitchcock developed editing techniques to convey the impression of horror while leaving out the gruesome details. Moreover, his advancement in the technical art of filmmaking firmly established his identity in the world of ‘auteurism’, which deems films as the creative products of director’s. In the late 1940s, French film theorists André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc (writers for the periodical Cahiers du Cinéma) developed the auteur theory, largely based on Astruc’s concept of caméra stylo (“camera-pen“), which states that fundamental visual elements, such as cinematography, lighting, and aesthetics, and the editing of these elements, convey the meaning of a film more so than the plot-line. Moreover, this view suggests that the director, if truly an auteur, wields the camera as the author does the pen – ‘auteur’ is French for ‘author’. Alfred Hitchcock is quite clearly and distinctly a true auteur; how, exactly, he became regarded as such is not so clear; I will attempt to attenuate this concern by examining his editing techniques, which I believe is directly linked with his palpable ‘auteur status’.

Since the Hays Code restricted Hitchcock from displaying murders in detail, he turned to the formal art of editing to exactly render the temper and mood of horror while sparing the gory details. Regarding the film theoretical perspective of ‘formalism’, Jean Epstein, one of the first ever film theorists, developed the concept of ‘pure cinema’, which states that “cinema is art”, and that autonomous film techniques have the capacity to produce intense, “essentially supernatural” emotional experiences that transcend the capability of images, which merely “reproduce reality (quoted in Abel, 1988, p. 246)” (Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction, P. 35). As such, ‘pure cinema’ suggests that the formal characteristics of cinematic devices, and in particular the editing of these formal characteristics, may facilitate abstract emotional experiences.

Above all, one editing technique is especially indebted to the notion of ‘pure cinema’: the montage, also known as the ‘Kuleshov Effect’. The ‘Kuleshov Effect’, named after it’s inventor Lev Kuleshov, is a technique of alternating images in quick succession; Kuleshov’s utilization of the Effect demonstrates the effectiveness of film editing, the implication of which is that, through the perception of quickly alternating images, the viewer’s instinctive emotions and intuitions will surface.

Hitchcock’s editing techniques support both these concepts of ‘pure cinema’ and the ‘Kuleshov Effect’; not only does Hitchcock’s editing techniques inspire abstract emotional experiences through form, the form itself is suggestive of content, the limits of which are only bound by the viewers imagination. On the other hand, mere images of grotesque or horrifying violence is literally limited by what is shown on screen. This idea – that once an idea is imagined, it will take you in every possible direction – is a central theme of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954);  this suggests that Hitchcock was fully aware of the psychological effect of his editing techniques.

With these concepts in mind, I will now parallel a specific murder scene in each of the aforementioned films, focusing particularly on how they are edited. Bear in mind that editing consists of moderating and rearranging formal cinematic elements, such as camera angle, shot length, and shot take.

In Rope, a film taking place in real time, Alfred Hitchcock experimented with long takes. The film is edited to appear as one continuous take; in actuality, there are approximately ten, but Hitchcock disguises the cuts with editing techniques, such as darkening the picture as someone passes in front of the camera. There is only one direct, unaltered cut; it occurs during the murder scene depicted in the first few minutes.  The cut divides between inside and outside the living room where David Kentley (Dick Hogan) is being strangled to death by Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger), two former colleagues. The cut is edited to occur immediately after David screams and gasps for his last breath; the cut itself literalizes the moment David dies. Not only does the cut match the single scream and single gasp of breath of the victim, it literally marks the moment of David’s death; the rest of the film (while David is dead) is edited to appear as a single shot. Matching the number of cuts with the number of screams or gasps of breath of the victim is a practice that Hitchcock, as we will see, utilizes in virtually all of his murder scenes. Moreover, by literally marking David’s pass between life and death with a cut, Hitchcock uses form to express story, in other words, for Hitchcock, form is content.

Similarly, in Strangers On A Train, like Rope, there is only one murder (again by strangulation); Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) kills Miriam Joyce Haines (Laura Elliot) after proposing a sadistic plan to her husband, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), that, to avoid being trapped by motive, they ought to “criss-cross” and commit each other’s murders. Moreover, like Rope, although there is no scream, Hitchcock matches the number of gasps of breath of the victim with the number of cuts. As Miriam gasps for her last breath, her glasses fall; the picture immediately cuts to the fallen glasses and depicts the rest of the murder through the reflection. Not only does the single gasp correspond with a single cut, by depicting the strangulation through the reflection of glasses, Hitchcock was able to pass the Hays Code censors and display the strangulation in more detail than he could with Rope; through the reflection, we watch every moment of the murder. This demonstrates how Alfred Hitchcock developed editing techniques in order to tastefully depict violence. Moreover, the practice of corresponding a single gasp with a single cut transforms content into form; while the cut literally corresponds with the falling of Miriam’s glasses, it symbolizes Miriam’s loss of control and inevitable demise.

Furthermore, in Psycho (1960), Hitchcock displayed further development of his editing techniques by crafting one of the most horrifying and critically acclaimed murders in cinema history; this feat firmly established his status as an ‘auteur’. In the scene, the psychopathic Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) stabs Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to death in the shower. Here, Hitchcock makes use of the ‘Kuleshov Effect’ by creating a montage of quickly alternating images; a rapid succession of close-ups between Marion’s body and Norman’s knife fill the screen. By corresponding each knife cut with a perceivable film cut, Hitchcock formalizes the content of the stabbing sequence. While we don’t overtly see the knife penetrate the skin, each knife cut is signified by a film cut, and the rapid succession of film cuts represents the rapid succession of knife cuts; this technique ostensibly makes the viewer feel the stabbing. Instead of experiencing an emotional reaction by viewing a violent display and interpreting the content, the formalized murder immediately inspires an abstract emotional experience in the viewer. Moreover, the music, a rapid succession of high pitched shrieks, enhances this emotional experience, as each shriek, which sounds like a scream, corresponds with both a film cut and a knife cut; moreover, the rapid succession of the shrieks ostensibly ‘sound like stabbing’. Furthermore, throughout the montage, Hitchcock incorporates several freeze-frames – stilling of the image – which permeate the impression of horror; for example, a freeze-frame of Marion’s fingers grasping for the shower curtain impart a sense of violence to the viewers. What’s more, Hitchcock finishes the montage with a close up of the bathtub sinkhole, followed by a close-up of Marion’s dead eye which slowly zooms out. These images aesthetically suggest Marion’s lifelessness as she drifts into oblivion. Through Hitchcock’s utilization of editing, content is transformed into form, and, as form, it is immediately and unconsciously experienced rather than understood on a rational level. The psychological implications of his ‘Kuleshov Effect’ are immense; the viewer’s instinctive emotions and intuitions surface, bounded only by the limits of their imagination.

What’s more, in Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock again utilizes the ‘Kuleshov Effect’, this time to present a rape as well as a murder. In 1972, the Hays Code had been out of effect for several years; consequently, Hitchcock could present the rape and murder of Frenzy in more detail; however, although it is palpably Hitchcock’s most violent display of a murder sequence, as well as his first display of full frontal nudity, his editing techniques to transform content into perceivable form is still in operation. In the scene, Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) rapes and murders Brenda Margaret Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). The montage begins after the rape, and only incorporates the murder, wherein Rusk strangles Brenda with a necktie. Similar to how Hitchcock formalized content by corresponding knife cuts with film cuts in Psycho, he corresponds Brenda’s gasps for air with film cuts in Frenzy; each gasp for breath emanating from Brenda’s constricted throat corresponds with an edit point. A rapid succession of close-ups between Rusk’s face, Brenda’s face, and the tie constricting her neck, choking the life out of her, fill the screen. By corresponding each of Brenda’s gasps for air with a perceivable film cut, Hitchcock formalizes the murder; this technique ostensibly makes the viewer feel the murder; they feel like their life is being choked out of them. Moreover, throughout the montage, Hitchcock again incorporates several freeze-frames to permeate the impression of horror. For example, a freeze-frame close-up of Brenda’s dead face completes the sequence; not only does the freeze-frame serve the diegetic function of showing a lifeless corpse, her lifeless eyes and hanging-out tongue are strikingly horrific. Comparable to Psycho, the formalized murder in Frenzy immediately inspires an abstract emotional experience in the viewer; their instinctive emotions and intuitions surface. The audience aesthetically experiences a sensation of ‘pure cinema’.

Furthermore, regarding Hitchcock’s editing techniques, renowned French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, a man who wrote a text based on interviews with Hitchcock, stated the following: “It was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes”. This notion is most clearly understood in reference to the rape and murder scene in Frenzy. The rape shocks audiences with its jarring, cold frankness, while the strangulation is handled with tenderness and care. In retrospect, it is quite palpable that Hitchcock handles all of his murder scenes with similar precision and technical virtuosity; each editing point is methodically chosen to craft the most engaging effect. Moreover, Truffaut completed his statement by saying that “in Hitchcock’s cinema…to make love and to die are one and the same”. In other words, Hitchcock transforms love into violence, and violence into love, to create a synergy between love and death. Both the psychological implications and the emotional invocations of this are unparalleled, as the two most intellectually and emotionally resonant themes are bound together in Hitchcockian cinema.

Additionally, the effectiveness of Hitchcock’s developed editing techniques to formalize content are not only demonstrated by the fact that Hitchcock himself continued to use these techniques after the Hays Code was replaced, but that countless director’s have copied these techniques over the years. For example, modern filmmaker Gus Van Sant made a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho in 1988. In light of his innovations, Hitchcock is widely regarded as an ‘auteur’, ‘master craftsman’, and ‘master of suspense’, and his works, especially his murder scenes, are commonly utilized as an archetype.

In conclusion, by formalizing content, Hitchcock depicts violence on a visceral level. He transforms concepts into perceivable counterparts in form; as a result, he immediately inspires an abstract emotional experience in the viewer through aesthetic means. Furthermore, this immediate emotional experience conveyed through form is significantly more resonant, as we have seen with our examples, than mere images. As a final point, with his utilization of editing techniques to transform content into form, Alfred Hitchcock effectively wields the camera, as the author does the pen, to create ‘pure cinema’; for this, he is a true auteur.

Works Cited

Rope. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Writ. Patrick Hamilton, Hume Conyn, Arthur Laurents, Ben    Hecht. Perfs. John Dall, Farley Granger, James Stewart. Film. Warner Brothers. 1948.

Strangers On A Train. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Writ. Raymond Chandler, Czenzi    Ormonde, Whitfield Cook, Patricia Highsmith, Ben Hecht. Perfs. Farley Granger,    Robert Walker. Film. Warner Brothers. 1951.

Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Writ. John Michael Hayes, Cornell Woolrich.    Perfs. James Stewart, Grace Kelly. Film. Paramount. 1954.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Writ. Joseph Stefano, Robert Bloch. Perfs. Anthony    Perkins, Janet Leigh. Film. Shamley. 1960.

Frenzy. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Writ. Arthur La Bern, Anthony Shaffer. Perfs. Jon Finch,    Barry Foster. Film. Universal. 1972.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Book. United Kingdom: Blackwell    Publishing, 2000.


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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1 Response to Form Is Content: An Examination Of Hitchcockian Murder

  1. Hy Singer says:

    Interesting essay, but there is a factual error of some significance. In “Strangers On A Train” Bruno Antony was played by Robert Walker. Leo G Carroll played Senator Morton.

    Oops, thanks for catching that, and thanks for reading!

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