HALLIE EPHRON: I never would have guessed that I'd end up writing suspense novels, but a lifetime fascination with movies of Alfred Hitchcock could have tipped me off. One of my favorite of his techniques -- one which I've borrowed over and over again -- is what I call the "light bulb in the milk" moment.
I found it near the end of Suspicion. Cary Grant plays the husband Johnny, a handsome ne'er-do-well married to wealthy Lena (Joan Fontaine). She's an invalid, and every night he brings her a glass of warm milk before bedtime. She's convinced he's trying to poison her.
Hitchcock photographs climbing the stairs carrying a silver tray, and on the tray is a glass of milk. And we're riveted as the camera goes back and forth from Lena to Johnny as he gets closer to her bedroom. Meanwhile, the milk seems to glow.
That's because Hitchcock put a light bulb in the milk to make what would be an ordinary, comforting glass of warm milk seem sinister. And Hitchcock slows things down, brings the camera in closer and closer, unpacking the moment and building the tension.
I think of that light bulb in the milk when I write. I try to mix the everyday with the sinister -- noticing that something ordinary is just slightly off, and then slowing things down to take it in. Like...
- Suppose you get into your car and realize the seat's been pushed back.
- Or you come home and the phone is off the hook or the bathtub overflowing.
- Or the light is on in the attic and no one ever goes up to your attic.
Hitchcock movies are full of them -- here are a few of my favorites:
- One crow perches on a children's jungle gym. Then several. Soon its rungs are crowded with crows. (The Birds)
- A windmill is turning the wrong way (Foreign correspondent)- A nun steps out of the shadows in a church bell tower (Vertigo)
- A crop duster flying low over a field where "there ain't no crops" (North by Northwest)
- A boy on a bus is carrying a birdcage which contains a bomb. (Saboteur)
- A husband who may have murdered his wife plants flowers in his front yard (Rear Window)
I like these subtle moments far more than Hitchcock's flamboyant ones (the mummified mother in the rocking chair in Psycho or the brutal rape/ strangulation in Frenzy).
Do you find inspiration in the movies, too?