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Hitchcock and the Evolution of Violence in Thrillers

Updated on June 12, 2017
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Nicole Cronin is a freelance writer, videographer, editor and all round creator, with a BSc Film & TV Production Tech. (Hons) 1st Class.

Violence in Thriller Films

As reported by iMdB (2016), the top 5 of ‘Most Rated titles with Alfred Hitchcock’ were produced in the late 1950’s-1960’s, with Rothman (2012) stating that Hitchcock’s later films have a sensuality and visual power that lacks in most other films, including Hitchcock’s own earlier ones. Perhaps one reason for this was the ever changing audiences in the post-war years of film; films drew on the genre styles and motifs from Hollywood cinema’s heyday in 1949, and films following this were and areaffected by the changing culture and political environment in the industry and in the nation following the Second World War.

Hitchcock, being famously nicknamed as the ‘Master of Suspense’, was extremely influenced by the time he spent in Germany as a young director on set of F. W. Murnau’s films of the expressionist style; this style greatly influenced a lot of Hollywood directors, attracted to it because of the way Expressionism matched certain genres of film and allowed them to emphasize the feeling of fear and instability which suited audiences of the war and post-war era. Though the war ended in 1945, the nation began the lengthy and costly process of rebuilding itself, which perhaps led to the nation opening their minds and allowing and accepting increased violence in film through filmmakers expressing views and hardships about the wars and associated politics.

When Hitchcock released Psycho (1960) audiences had to deal with a film that broke many cultural taboos and challenged censorships during a period when social attitudes were evolving; as the world moved away from the post-war austerity of the 1950's, Hitchcock introduced them to a number of shocking images new to film of that time - a woman in her bra after making love to her boyfriend, a woman stabbed to death in the shower, a cross-dressing psychopath and the first ever flushing toilet seen on screen. However, others argue it wasn't the shocking images that made Psycho (1960) so popular with audiences, it was the defiance of refusing to stick to a genre’s typical codes and conventions - he challenged conventions of Hollywood narratives in cinema and told the story in a totally new way that made it into a very different film. An example of this is the alarm spectators experienced when Hitchcock killed the star of the picture half way through the story; it was the sudden death of the protagonist who was so innocent, worthy and identifiable that shocked audiences - the presumption of immunity for the main characters was ripped away from them, which was especially rare in American entertainment then. However, for cruelty to excite audiences, identification with the victim is not always required - the person’s suffering is spectacle enough, with the murderer’s shadowiness and concealment of character allowing the sadistic audience to substitute a part of itself into the killer. The interpretation and reading audiences took from such violent thrillers such as Psycho (1960) led to screen violence being discussed by people associating it with violence amongst society, with the discussion being centred around how filmmakers with their forms of art can, for better or worse, control an audience.

Hitchcock produced Psycho (1960) filmed in black and white because he thought the famous shower scene, where blood gurgles down in a bathtub, would be too disturbing for audiences if shot in full colour. However, nowadays filmmakers have no inhibitions about splashing blood about the screen, with the remake of Psycho (1998) being filmed just as violently but in full colour to enhance the bloodiness of the scene.

Hitchcock wanted audiences shocked and surprised, as opposed to being revolted by the blood, that is why he filmed in black and white, which is perhaps a difference between early and modern filmmakers, or perhaps the difference in audiences expectations of the thriller genre and the filmmakers interpretations of what the audience desires. An example of a modern filmmaker is Quentin Tarantino, who openly admits to being an advocate of on-screen violence, stating that he enjoys the power that staged violence has over his audience and their emotions, including in his films gratuitous violence such as a villain cutting a police officer’s ear off and dousing him in petrol in Reservoir Dogs (1992). In one of the films Tarantino wrote and directed himself, Inglorious Basterds (2009), one of the characters says ‘Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies’; this shows that for Tarantino the representation of violence is one of the thrills of movie-going.

The violence in contemporary cinema greatly contrasts the violence in older films such as Psycho (1960), however, audience’s reactions haven’t changed much at all. Psycho (1960) terrified audiences, leaving them fleeing from the screens, but, clearly, the level of violence has increased in film to accommodate desensitised audiences. Extreme violence found in some forms of contemporary popular cinema exists for a younger audience who are profoundly removed from the experience of violence. Psycho’s (1960) younger audiences also had a similar reaction, contrasting the majority reaction – some found Psycho to be a comedy. Perhaps it’s younger audiences that appear to be desensitised to violence in film.

It has been proved that violence in thrillers has indeed changed when comparing films from the 1960’s against contemporary thrillers, with audiences becoming more and more desensitised, leading to the increase of violence in film as filmmakers attempt to provide what spectators want and expect from a thriller. In violent thrillers audiences now see all of the bloody details, with filmmakers attempting to make violent scenes as realistic as possible; whereas violence used to be alluded to, never actually seen, no knife on skin contact and methods such as the clutch and fall used to sanitise the violence in the scene.

© 2017 Nicole Cronin

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