Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hallie's Hitchcock Moments...

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.
  • 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. 
One little off-detail sets alarm bells in the reader's head ringing.

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?


  1. Somehow, Ms. H, I do not think you've "ended up" writing anything just yet. Surely both you and your literary career have much farther to travel, this blog being a great example, IMHO. It's a wonderful lesson for writers here, how hard film directors work to put just the right thing in their story. Tone, mood, character, even suspense itself as you so aptly point out. Wonderful stuff. Thank you for this and all the Reds' help.

  2. Great discussion Hallie! I don't think I saw the movie with the milk moment but it sounds absolutely terrifying.

    Just by happenstance, we saw THE 39 STEPS last night, which was based on a 1935 film directed by Hitchcock. And full of allusions to his other movies. So, so, so silly, though wonderfully produced with only 4 actors playing all the characters.

  3. I did not know this about the lightbulb in the milk - brilliant!

    And I agree - I find the subtle suspense far more terrifying and riveting than the flamboyant, in your face type action.

    Terrific piece, Hallie.

  4. Oh, thanks for that insight. Little things out of place. I sometimes scare myself by imagining them when I come home. The idea of moving them into writing is brilliant. (Like a light bulb). The sinister in the ordinary.

  5. Hallie, I think Hitchcock should be the inspiration and mentor for all mystery and thriller writers. He was the master of taking the ordinary and giving it that little twist.

    My husband was convinced that someone had come into our house and cut our loaf of bread crookedly. The phantom bread cutter became the one we blamed for anything strange in the house.

  6. So how did he keep the light bulb glowing inside the glass?

  7. Hallie, I suspect I'm going to use this in our little chat on Amazon:-)

    Yes, brilliant. I love the little out-of-place things, the telling details, the ordinary little thing that gives everything away, if only the reader/viewer notices...

    I can see this leading to the art of misdirection...

  8. I agree. It's the little things that give me this creeping sense of unease that stay with me-in books as wells movies. And, yes, how did he keep the lightbulb lit? Or was it some kind os special effect?

  9. Love Hitchcock. Must have been his TV show that introduced me to mysteries. Now I have the theme song stuck in my ear. And the visual. His silhouette moves slowly to fill his outline. Over and over.

  10. Hitchcock used a battery-powered lightbulb in the glass of milk.

  11. That's what my father told me years ago. Like a tiny flashlight.

  12. When Alfred Hitchcock spoke at an American Film Institute seminar in 1970, he said what he really cared about was making suspense films . . . not mystery films . . . and that the essential ingredient in his film was the creation of suspense and getting that suspense element right. He went on to say that he did not get it right in “Sabotage” in 1936 but that he learned from that error and thereafter made certain to build the suspense “in the right way.”

  13. No, but I just swore off milk i definitely...molly

  14. indefinitely--damn these touch screens! Molly