The Sound of Hitchcock: How the Director Used Sound to Create Atmosphere & Suspense in His Films

Alfred Hitchock is often hailed as one of the great visual artists of the 20th century. His films are admired for their graphic eloquence — for the power they have, through carefully planned sequences of images, to manipulate the emotions of a viewer. What tends to be overlooked, though, is that Hitchcock applied the same care and foresight in the design of a film’s sound.

In these excerpts from Gary Leva’s 2008 documentary The Sound of Hitchcock, some of Hollywood’s top sound designers and filmmakers explain how Hitchcock used sound to create atmosphere and build suspense in classic films like Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds.

In the same way Hitchcock made frequent use of the “subjective camera,” or the point-of-view angle, he also explored the use of subjective sound to communicate the psychological state of his characters. In the following passage from Hitchcock’s notes for Psycho, for example, we see how he used sound to convey the extreme anxiety felt by Marion, a woman who has just stolen a large amount of money and fled in panic to the countryside, ending up at at a remote motel:

When we reach the night sequence, exaggerate passing car noises when headlights show in her eyes. Make sure that the passing car noise is fairly loud, so that we get the contrast of silence when she is found by the roadside in the morning…. Just before the rain starts there should be rumble thunder, not too violent, but enough to herald the coming rain. Once the rain starts, there should be a progression of falling rain sound and slow range of the sound of passing trucks…. Naturally, windshield wipers should be heard all through the moments she turns them on…. The rain sounds must be very strong, so that when the rain stops, we should be strongly aware of silence and odd dripping noises that follow.

In his 1962 interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock explains how he used sound in The Birds to create a gathering sense of menace:

After a picture is cut, I dictate what amounts to a real sound script to a secretary. We run every reel off and I indicate all the places where sounds should be heard. Until now we’ve worked with natural sounds, but now, thanks to electronic sound, I’m not only going to indicate the sound we want but also the style and the nature of each sound.

For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds, we inserted the natural sounds of wings, but we stylized them so as to create greater intensity. We wanted to get a menaing wave of vibration rather than a single level. There was a variation of the noise, an assimilation of the unequal noise of the wings. Of course, I took the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all.

To describe a sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in the attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, “Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumpgh or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.” That’s what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to acchieve that effect through electronic sound.

h/t Aleksandar R.

Related content:

Alfred Hitchcock Explains the Plot Device He Called the ‘MacGuffin’

Alfred Hitchcock on the Filmmaker’s Essential Tool: ‘The Kuleshov Effect’

Listen to François Truffaut’s Big, 12-Hour Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (1962)

Hitchcock’s Seven-Minute Editing Master Class

Hitchcock Reveals The Secret Sauce for Creating Suspense


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  1. lafamiliafilm says . . . | October 9, 2013 / 4:35 pm

    Aleksandar R.? Give credit where credit is due: @LoSceicco1976 http://www.youtube.com/user/TheSheik1976

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