Diana Bretherick on Hitchcock: Better Film than Fiction?

imgresDiana Bretherick, author of City of Devils, is inspired by the power of suggestion in Alfred Hitchcock’s work.

When I write crime fiction, I often picture each scene as if it was a film because I find it helps me to create ideas on the page. The man who inspired me to do this was the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

Film adaptations are difficult things to get right. Depending on the quality of the original material, sticking closely to the text does not always make for an interesting piece of cinema. Hitchcock for the most part chose to use the novels he filmed as more of an inspiration, rather than produce a faithful representation of the book.

Three of Hitchcock’s films that feature serial murderers were based on novels. What all of them have in common is not so much the story itself but the way in which Hitchcock enriches it. He tricks us with his use of camera work, lighting and sound, and that is really what makes these narratives stand out.

The Lodger (1926) is a silent film based on the book about the Jack the Ripper case by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Here, Hitchcock leads us to share his landlady’s suspicion that her lodger is a killer by allowing us to watch through her eyes as he strides restlessly across his room and back, over and over again. We look up with her and view him through what has become a glass ceiling as she listens to his footsteps and wonders what they mean.

The shower scene in Psycho (from the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch), where Marion Crane is stabbed to death by what looks to be an elderly woman, is a masterpiece of illusion. We imagine a gory spectacle filled with blood and wounds. In reality, of course, it is all done with suggestion. Hitchcock cuts from one frame to another so that all we actually see is the knife and stabbing action accompanied by the offstage sound of a knife going into a melon. The only blood on screen is that which drains away with the water from the shower as Janet Leigh grabs hold of the curtain and pulls it down with her when she falls.

Novelist Arthur La Bern wrote Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square in 1966. It became the 1972 film Frenzy and featured a man wrongly accused of the crimes of a serial murderer known as the Necktie Killer. In one memorable scene the killer attempts to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from the grasp of one of his victims. The sound of the bones in her fingers snapping suggested by the breaking of a breadstick is truly chilling.

La Bern himself, however, was less than charmed by the adaptation, even writing to The Times to complain.

All of these films are about illusion and confounded expectations, and in each, Hitchcock plays with us like a cat with a mouse. For me, his use of imagery is an inspiration, and if I can get anywhere near that on the page I’ll be a very happy writer indeed.

Diana Bretherick is an ex-criminal barrister and now a lecturer in criminology and criminal law at Portsmouth University. She won the Good Housekeeping New Novel competition in 2012. You can find out more about the author and her work on her blog.