David Freeman, Alfred Hitchcock’s last screenwriting collaborator, wrote a book “The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock” about the experience and it should be on the shelf of anyone working to advance their craft as a screenwriter. For so many screenwriters, Alfred Hitchcock’s effect on filmmaking and storytelling is indelible and has been hailed as such since before most of us were born. There’s so much to learn from Hitchcock, both from his movies and his approach to crafting them. He’s always someone whose work should be studied. Even if the techniques Hitchcock used to achieve a particular story beat are too worn today, understanding his thought process and decisions will help us improve our craft.
In “The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock,” Freeman explains that Hitchcock’s method of crafting a story can be seen in many of the shots he’s best known for. Hitchcock called the technique “from the farthest to the nearest.”
The most infamous example might be in Notorious, where we’re given a view of a lavish party from atop a staircase and descend closer and closer into the action until we arrive at a closeup of a vital key held in Ingrid Bergman’s hands behind her back. Psycho opens in a similar fashion, but instead of a single cut, we cut in closer and closer from a wide shot of Phoenix, Arizona into the window of a hotel room. The opening of Rear Window follows this pattern as well, which we’ll discuss later in more detail.
Coming from a background of silent film and technical mastery, Hitchcock favored the use of pure cinema—the juxtaposition of shots to tell a story—to dialogue and it shows in his films. The way he would construct stories started at the furthest view—the bare idea of the story—before moving in is constantly on display. In his book, Freeman explains that this was how Hitchcock approached screenwriting. “First the place,” he wrote, “then the people—much of the discussion wide-ranging and speculative—then the details about the people that will drive our story forward. Sure enough, the general to the particular, the farthest to the nearest.”
After taking the initial idea for a story, Hitchcock would explore the places and worlds a character inhabited, then focus on the character that could exist naturally in that world and how they could make the most thrilling story out of his plot, and then leave the writer to work on the dialogue and scenes on their own. It’s a fascinating approach, one at odds with the much more common character-first method, but one can’t argue with Hitchcock’s results.
Let’s study ways to construct scenes and moments in our screenplays that tell stories as riveting as those Hitchcock told and do it in ways that don’t always rely on dialogue.
To illustrate the point, let’s look at the opening of Rear Window.
The film opens with a long shot of the apartments outside the window of L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as we get a sense of the world he inhabits, long before we even meet him. The camera sweeps around this courtyard, giving us our look at the geography, and comes back into our first shot of Jeffries, asleep. Pouring sweat, we’re meant to realize it’s a sweltering summer. Our suspicions are confirmed when the camera cuts to a thermometer getting close to 100° Fahrenheit before getting a little closer on the windows of those folks who live in the courtyard. We see the Songwriter’s apartment, then the couple sleeping on the fire escape to beat the heat, then Miss Torso dancing, and the street beyond. Finally, the camera creeps in closer, giving us a clearer view of Jefferies, and we realize he’s in a wheelchair. Could the sweat be because he’s sick? Just as we wonder, the camera pulls down to his leg in a cast.
“Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies,” is written on the plaster casing.
Now we know his name, his plight, and his world, all without a single line of dialogue.
Hitchcock could have stopped there, but didn’t.
Because we’re curious about how he broke his leg, Hitchcock keeps the camera rolling, darting to the smashed remains of a broken film camera. Then our view pushes in even further to a photograph on the wall behind, clearly taken with the bashed camera. It’s a dramatic shot of a car accident at a race, with tires and a mangled car flying straight to the lens. Then we see a number of other dramatic photographs on the wall. Explosions and war zones, city shots and an A-bomb. But we rest on a stack of fashion magazines bearing a portrait taken by Jefferies. How do we know? The negative of the same photograph is framed beside them.
By the time the shot fades to black and the story begins in earnest, what do we know about our main character?
He lives in an apartment that overlooks the rooms of many others. He is stuck there with a broken leg in a particularly brutal summer. He is a photographer of some renown and a professional as well, not just some amateur. He leads a life of danger and is prone to pay a price for it.
Not a single line of dialogue is spoken.
As for the running time, this has taken under three minutes of screen time. Four if you count the opening credits. The conversation that ensues in the first scene reiterates some of the details that we already knew in dialogue, but our understanding of Jefferies deepens. He’s a keen observer of things around him, practically able to predict the future. He’s an adventurer who wants excitement in his life, and the dread boredom of being stuck, inert, in a cast, is too much for him. The other thing the last bit of dialogue tells us is what he really thinks about marriage—a drastic step and likely not for him.
This sets the stage for every conflict in the film and the premise. Of course, a photographer with a nose for excitement is going to spin a yarn about a man killing his wife across the courtyard, and of course he’s going to have issues with the woman who loves him wanting him to settle him down. This first scene is a guiding light for what we can expect of Jefferies through the entire picture. Would a different sort of character have the right mix of suspicion and know how to spot a potential murderer?
It seems unlikely.
In the short story “It Had to Be Murder,” which Rear Window is based on, there’s no solid indication of Jefferies as a character. His job was nebulous, but it seemed to put him in contact with police at some point. Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes had to decide what his job would be and how his character would function in the story. It’s easy to guess why they landed on the version of Jefferies that we got.
Taking Hitchcock’s example of “farthest to nearest,” they start with the premise and the setting. They know they’ll have someone trapped for some reason in an apartment and they’ll be able to look out behind them and see the lives of others; the audience as voyeur.
With the apartment as the primary location, you could choose a character from just about any occupation, why would they land on Jefferies being a news photographer? For one, I think it makes the story more plausible and plays up the symbolism. As a news photographer, Jefferies isn’t afraid of getting into sticky situations in political hotbeds. A murder in his backyard isn’t going to phase him. It also offers tools for the narrative.
First, by having his job be the cause of his broken leg, it reveals a lot about the lengths he’s willing to go to for the right shot. Second, it gives the filmmakers room to play with the visuals of the camera lenses. Balancing both the needs of the story and the technical needs of the film is a difficult act, and it comes down to the right choices made by the filmmaker and writer in this phase.
Shooting something outside of a single set would require different views and lenses anyway, arming Jefferies with cameras would create a more direct POV of them, helping Hitchcock tell a more pure cinema story. Would Jefferies being an advertising executive (like Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest) or a priest (like Montgomery Clift’s Father Michael William Logan in I Confess) have aided in the story or added any elements to it to make it more exciting? Doubtful.
As you start asking questions about a character who would begin to suspect this murder in his backyard, wouldn’t someone close to the news with a habit of sniffing out stories make a lot of sense? And someone who had an eye on the visuals of a situation? Watch carefully through the first scene about how they build Stewart’s character, and the objects he’d have at his disposal. Of course, he’d have cameras and flashbulbs at the ready.
One of the most striking scenes in Rear Window is when Raymond Burr’s character, Lars Thorwald, shows up to kill Jefferies. Trapped in the cast and with nothing at his disposal to defend himself, what does he rely on? The flashbulbs. They flash bright and blind the would-be attacker.
Would it have been possible to conceive of a scene as visually arresting as this had the concept, setting, and the character work not been put in place first? Moments like this are the “nearest.”
Another aspect is the choice of Grace Kelly’s Lisa as a romantic foil for Jefferies. He’s a grizzled photojournalist whose life intersects with high society and fashion, and naturally he falls for a pretty face in that world. He just doesn’t think she would fit into the rough and tumble life he prefers. As he lays out the case for murder, she tries to prove herself as someone who can fit in his life and handle all of the dangerous situations that his broken leg prevents him from getting into. It’s a perfect blending of the worlds and characters in a way that makes the story more exciting.
Ask yourself questions about why you’re making the choices for your characters that you are. Do they spring naturally from the environment? Or are they at odds with the environment in ways that will make the story better? In North by Northwest, ad executive Roger Thornhill doesn’t belong anywhere near the world of espionage he finds himself in and that makes the narrative all that more exciting.
As you’re crafting your next screenplay, look into how Hitchcock’s “farthest to nearest” can help you. And don’t hesitate to visit classics like Rear Window as you do it. The classics are classics for a reason, and they’re always there to lean on to learn new techniques hidden in their brilliance.
*Feature Image: Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho by bepsphoto (Adobe)