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Hitchcock series offers crash course in suspense

| Friday, March 1, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

Alfred Hitchcock, cinema’s “Master of Suspense,” has directed some of film’s most thrilling scenes. This semester, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s “Learning Beyond the Classics” series brings 14 of his startling films to the Notre Dame community. The series organizes Hitchcock’s films into four categories, two of which — “Crimes and Criminals” and “Women, Guilt, and the Law” — have already been completed. The third module of the series, “Conscience and Complicity,” begins next week, featuring the films “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), “Strangers on a Train” (1951), “Rear Window” (1954) and “Vertigo” (1958). The fourth module, “Spies and Spycraft,” will include “Notorious” (1946), “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (1935) and “North by Northwest” (1959).

In contrast with today’s visually gruesome horror movies, Hitchcock’s films deal with psychological paranoia — suspense in action — a concept that pervades his movies. Dr. Susan Ohmer, an associate professor in the Notre Dame department of Film, Television and Theatre (FTT), explained: “Really up until the ’70s, [Hitchcock] doesn’t show a lot of gore. He lets you think you’re seeing it, and that makes it much worse. … Your mind fills in the gaps. It’s the distinction he makes between surprise and suspense. If something happens that you’re not expecting, you’re surprised, but that’s momentary. But if you know something is going to happen … and you’re waiting and waiting and waiting, that’s suspense. That’s what he aims for — not a momentary surprise, but a suspenseful situation that keeps you anxious.”

Previously, Ohmer said, FTT has screened Hitchcock’s films chronologically. While teaching in London, however, Ohmer started experimenting, ordering the films by themes. The new approach, Ohmer said, “opens up connections between the films in some exciting new ways … Even if [viewers] have seen the films, maybe they haven’t have thought of them in comparison with [Hitchcock’s] other films.”

Ohmer begins each screening with a 20-minute introduction, during which she shares the film’s background information, including the era of production, filming location, notable cast members and production facts. FTT screens the films in the Browning Cinema using the best format available. Afterwards, Ohmer explained, the audience discusses topics of their choosing, typically “gender roles, particular characters, plot points, social context, the deeper meanings of the film.” The audience — comprised of FTT students, students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s, Indiana University South Bend and the South Bend community — typically converses for about 30 minutes. The diverse audience, Ohmer said, gives students the opportunity to hear outside perspectives. Richard Herbst, the cinema program director at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, also stresses the uniqueness of engaging both students and the community in discussion.

“It’s vital for [them] to learn alongside one another,” Herbst said. “Those viewpoints mixing and co-mingling makes for such a richer educational experience and a richer viewing of a film.”

Hitchcock’s films, intentionally produced for large audiences, naturally lend themselves to discussion, he said.

“What Hitchcock was acutely aware of is the communal viewing experience,” Herbst said. “He’s making films for big groups of people and knowing that there are times when people would be uncomfortable and squirm in their seats and other people would inevitably hear that and be aware of it themselves. [Hitchcock’s work] was meant for feeling uncomfortable both inwardly and outwardly. And then there are moments where it comes to a head, and you actually do scream or shock or gasp and that’s amazing to experience in a room with 199 people.”

Unlike many thrillers, Herbst said Hitchcock’s films encourage repeated viewings.

“When you look at films that are suspenseful or thriller or horror, there’s definitely a divisional between, ‘That was scary, and I don’t want to go back to it,’ and, ‘That was scary, I want to watch that again right now,’” he said. “Hitchcock is of the latter, and that’s a very rare group to find. Normally, you get burned by the jumps, by the frights, and you don’t want to go back. With Hitchcock you do.”

Why do we still enjoy Hitchcock’s films today? Ohmer cites Hitchcock’s star-studded casts (Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck), his creative cinematography (typically resembling a viewer’s gaze, which instills anxiety in the audience) and his great sense of action and suspense as reasons for his staying power. But primarily, Ohmer explained, Hitchcock’s films survive because they are “speaking about issues that we still think about, like the nature of guilt, or the behavior of institutions … or the way that people can get mixed up in situations almost by accident. He deals with moral ambiguity, he deals with people who look to be one thing on the surface, but there’s a lot more going on underneath … Hitchcock is still of our time. He is dealing with issues that we still reflect on.”

Though Hitchcock is a modern director, Herbst said the qualities of his work are timeless.

“The aspects that make his films psychologically captivating don’t go out of style,” Herbst said. “Scares are difficult to age well … But when it’s internal, it’s going to be always refreshing itself with each movie-goer, so that’s going to have a fountain of youth to it.”

“Shadow of a Doubt,” Hitchcock’s favorites, plays Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Browning Cinema, and “Rear Window” — a good film to watch in a group — will play at the same time and place on March 27,the following week. Student tickets are free with ND / SMC / IUSB ID.

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