'Buried' And Alfred Hitchcock: An Expert's Perspective

If you’d like to boil it down to its simplest form, "Buried" -- opening in a limited release this Friday and going wide on October 8 -- is a movie that features actor Ryan Reynolds in a box. Which is, coincidentally, precisely how I like my Ryan Reynolds served up (preferably with a bow on top, delivered overnight express to my front door). Obviously, upon first hearing the premise, my feminine sensibilities were intrigued.

As for the rest of you, I’m not surprised that the concept is a harder sell. After all, the entirety of the film is set in a coffin. That’s 94 minutes of a dude in an 84x28x23-inch space. What Reynolds’ character, Paul Conroy, endures over those 94 minutes is an intense, claustrophobic, emotional ride (complete with multiple action sequences inside the wooden casket – believe it!). Not only is the film an adrenaline rush until the bitter end, but its underlying themes also serve as sage political and sociological commentary on the nature of war, government accountability, hostage negotiation and terrorism.

The director of “Buried,” Rodrigo Cortés, cites Alfred Hitchcock – iconic master of suspense – as a major influence on the film’s style. Those of you who’ve seen Hitchcock’s tales are familiar with the trademark psychological and stylistic elements that make his narratives wildly terrifying and affecting.

The Hitchcock themes within “Buried” are so plentiful that I decided to speak to an expert on the subject in order to create something of a primer to enhance your viewing experience.

Enter: Richard Allen, professor of the Department of Cinematic Studies at New York University, author of “Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony” and editor of “The Hitchcock Annual.” As Professor Allen explains, “Hitchcock is still alive and well 30 years after his death” thanks to the immortalization of his devices in popular cinema today.

MTV: “Buried” is shot entirely in a coffin. Director Rodrigo Cortés cites Hitchcock's "Rope" and "Lifeboat" as major influences on his style. How did Hitchcock pioneer this form of single-location filmmaking and how did he manage to make it such an intense audience experience?

One of the extremes he experimented with was restricting his films to a single set. In “Lifeboat” we have there in the boat a miniature society – this group just thrown together. Hitchcock is typically interested in subverting our customary moral responses to things. In “Lifeboat,” you get the sense that the democracies are not so democratic after all. The fact that the characters are restricted to this single location creates a sense of claustrophobia and – in this case – intensifies the conflict of tension between the characters. There’s that sense of the concentration of people in that single space, and the invasion of each other’s personal space creating emotional tension between the characters.

“Rope” is an interesting case because it was shot in – essentially – a single location. You see the outside of the apartment initially when you’re introduced to it and then you go into the apartment and you remain in it throughout the movie and it causes an incredible sense of claustrophobia – he shot the film in only 11 shots. It’s a very dark film because the whole thing is based upon the idea of these two guys who kill a character and bury the corpse in the middle of the room and hold a dinner party to see whether or not the guests will be able to identify the fact that they’re dining on top of a corpse. Basically, they’re having a joke at the guests’ expense, but what Hitchcock does is that he actually invites you, the audience, to have a joke at the guests’ expense as well. There’s a very dark and perverse morality going on with the way that you actually identify with the two hosts of the party and their little game of foiling the guests and deceiving them.

MTV: The camerawork in “Buried” utilizes traditional Hitchcock devices such as voyeuristic gaze, Vertigo effect, POV and framing that creates claustrophobia and builds tension - how did he develop and wield these techniques and why are they so effective at garnering an emotional response from an audience?

Talking about subjectivity and establishing a strong psychological bond between the character and audience, one of the ways he does it – he uses it throughout “Vertigo” to brilliant effect, and also in “Psycho” – is a characteristic camera movement involving point of view. It’s a forward-tracking point of view shot where we’re put in the position of what the character is looking at – so the camera actually moves forward as if we’re moving with it. There’s that sense of exploring a space and moving into a space.

Then, he combines that forward-tracking point of view shot with a backward-tracking reaction shot. So we move forward with the character and move into the space and then there’s a reverse field shot so you’re seeing what the character is looking at and reacting to, but the camera is also continuing to move backward, so there’s also a sense of being pulled in. It creates a strong sense of placing the spectator physically in the position of the character.

It also reinforces a sense of mystery because – I make the analogy – it’s like an adult holding up a spoon to a child with something on it and the child is trying to see it and all the time the adult is pulling the spoon back. It’s like that with Hitchcock – it entices a character into the mystery but it entices the audience as well.

MTV: Paul Conroy, the main character in “Buried,” is an "everyman" - not a figurehead, not someone famous or rich. How did Hitchcock develop similar archetypal characters in his films to incite audience empathy?

The situation created of an ordinary guy caught in extraordinary circumstances is very much a Hitchcockian-identified formula, and one that he pioneered and perfected.

The classic film where he did this is “The 39 Steps.” It’s a classic wrong man narrative in which the hero is an ordinary man – a Canadian on holiday in Britain who finds himself with a femme fatale and brings her home. While he’s in her apartment, she gets shot and dies in his arms and he’s implicated in murdering her. So the classic Hitchcock wrong man formula is that the hero of the romance gets fingered as the villain in a murder mystery and then has to clear his name. He’s pursued by the police as a criminal, but he’s also pursued by the villains because he’s still alive. He’s suddenly caught in this web of intrigue – he’s just an ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Half of Hitchcock’s films in some way or another fit into this formula because it’s a very strong vehicle of identification with the audience.

The other thing that Hitchcock is known for in terms of a story-telling way is the restriction of the audience’s knowledge to that of a single character. So the character is caught up in this mystery and you as the audience are consistently restricted in what you know to what the character knows. So that strong identification is putting the audience in the character’s shoes and restricting their knowledge to the knowledge that the character has. It’s very psychological.

MTV: Music and ambient sound played key roles in “Buried.” The music borrowed very similar high and low-note, jarring tones from Hitchcock scores, keying up only to emphasize emotion or terror. Creaks, falling sand, breathing, the sound of a lighter igniting – these noises were raised and lowered in intensity in a calculated manner. What was Hitchcock's take on music and sound in the creation and control of tension?

Hitchcock used music to reinforce mood – every element of what you see and hear in a Hitchcock film is there for a purpose. He was very concerned with all the visual and sonic design elements. So in a film like “Rear Window,” where there is no musical score in the traditional sense, all the sound is what we call diegetic sound.

Diegetic is a technical term – it means the narrative world of the film, the diegesis. The sound is issuing from the world of the film, not from an accompaniment. A strong example of this in “Rear Window” is the very portentous sound of boats in the dark – the foghorn. It’s not like the average audience hears the boom and thinks, “Aha!” – it’s more sort of subliminal, subconsciously or preconsciously that the audience has that sense of eeriness and they’re not quite sure why.

MTV: Lighting is key in “Buried” - there are varying sources of light, all creating different hues that play as a metaphor for emotion or act as forewarning of things to come. Red and white light from a flashlight, blue light from a cell phone screen, yellow light from a Zippo, green light from glow sticks. How did Hitchcock utilize lighting?

Hitchcock conceived a film as a blank – each image and the mutual surface. Every color in that image is there for a reason. An element that’s commonplace is his use of warning colors – oranges, reds, yellows – as a way of creating tension. Another example is the contrast between warm and cold colors – like in “North by Northwest.” Overwhelmingly, the colors of “North by Northwest” are white and blue, which create this sense of coolness in the film. It’s another wrong man narrative where the main character gets caught up in this elaborate world of spies and it’s a highly calculating, manipulative world that denies the importance of human emotions. The essential character is given up for dead – so it’s the blue that creates this coolness.

The white-red combination is also something Hitchcock uses extensively – it’s not just the presence of red, it’s red against white – that sort of intense sense of danger that’s also associated culturally with danger. And I don’t think that’s an accident – I think that cultural indicator is linked to the physiological effect of the bright red on white – it has an intense impact.

MTV: The script of “Buried” unfolds tension that climaxes, dips and rebuilds. There are painstakingly-placed action sequences that keep the momentum going, but there are also incredibly quiet moments that are equally as effective. How did Hitchcock work with his scripts to similar effect?

That makes me think of “The Birds,” which has long periods where nothing much happens followed by intense periods where everything happens. A lot of the movie is simply spent waiting for the birds to attack. “The Birds” is very much a claustrophobic film restricted to one space of the house – it’s not true of the whole film but that’s where the characters end up, and it has become a cliché of horror movies to end up in one space, that space being the place in which the characters are attacked. But the film’s score is the screeching of the birds – there’s no music in the film – so when the birds aren’t attacking, the characters are waiting and there’s a little bit of dialogue but there are also these pregnant silences. For example: when they’re boarding up the house and there’s just the sound of the hammer. And then – all of a sudden – you hear the sound of the birds on the soundtrack long before you see them – you hear them around the house and then of course finally they start pecking and it goes from silence to overwhelming, all-pervading sound.

In “Psycho,” you have that violin noise when Marion is killed in the shower, and then you have this silence where all you hear is the sound of the water running and the camera goes down into the sinkhole. It moves from this scene of intense violence with this screeching violin to virtual silence and it’s very creepy.

MTV: If Alfred Hitchcock woke to find himself buried alive in a coffin, with no recollection of how he got there, what do you think he'd do?

He’d freak out! His dad – as a punishment – sent him to the police station and had a policeman lock him up, and ever since that point he had an intense fear of enclosed spaces. So he would completely freak out.

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