Let’s look at Norman Bates. Such a nice boy. In the movie Psycho, he places Marion Crane’s dead body in the trunk of a car and plows the car into a marsh. Then he stands by, nervously waiting for the car sink. The audience is feeling nervous too. The car begins to submerge itself. About mid-way the car stops, its trunk almost teasingly above the water line. Norman is worried, and the audience is thinking, come on, sink already.
Hey, Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane. She was the only name star in the movie, and Hitch kills her off a third of the way in. Now we’re hoping her dead body sinks to the bottom of a marsh. In other words, we’re now identifying with Norman Bates. How did the hell did that happen?
Double Indemnity, maybe the greatest film noir ever.
Its ad campaign said, “The two most important words in suspense are Double Indemnity.” And when it got seven Academy Award nominations, Hitchcock sent Wilder a telegram: “The two most important words in suspense are Billy Wilder.”
Like Psycho, there’s a scene in Double Indemnity that makes marvel at the film maker’s skill in manipulating the audience’s identification: Phyllis and Walter want money and each other. So they kill her husband. Then they dump his body on the train tracks. They carefully arrange his crutches, then run to her car to escape the murder scene.
Except the car engine won’t start. It’s a great suspense scene – we know they have to get out of there, the cops will come soon, but they’re stuck. The audience identifies with them completely, even though they’ve just murdered an innocent man. How did Wilder get the audience to identify with the killers as they try to escape the murder scene?
In the early 80’s when I was a film student at USC, Mr. Wilder attended a screening of Double Indemnity. He talked about the film. It was great — a living legend discussing the source novel, his attempts to get a name actor before “settling” on Fred MacMurray, and working with Raymond Chandler on the screenplay.
Once the program finished, a small group of kids met Mr Wilder outside the theater to ask him questions. I felt a little bit bad for him because, inadvertently, we kids had surrounded him. We were too young, too excited to know better. Mr. Wilder had come to USC on his own. Now he was encircled by students throwing questions from all sides. He spun left to answer a question, only to have another popped at him from the right.
As soon as I caught an opening, I said, “Mr. Wilder, none of us in that theater have ever killed anyone, yet we’re all hoping the car engine will start and that the hero will get away with murder. How did you accomplish that kind of identification?”
Wilder looked at me, his eyes magnified by his owl-like glasses. I’m quoting from memory here, but this is what recall him saying:
“We do this by getting the audience to identify with the guy” he said, meaning the hero, Walter Neff. “And we go to a lot of trouble to do this. First, we understand that he wants the woman. Second, we see that he wants the money. And third, we understand that this guy’s seen it all, he’s been in the insurance racket such a long time, that he knows every trick. He’s seen all kinds of people try to bilk his company and lose. But Walter’s on the inside, he knows how to do it right. All he needs is a shill to put down the bet. And that’s the woman.”
So that’s the secret, folks. To get your audience to identify with your character, you make sure the audience can understand the why of what he’s doing. You may not make the same choices, but you’ll understand, and so identity with the hero. Even if he’s left a dead man on the tracks, or a dead woman in the trunk of a car.
How about you? Have you ever found yourself surprised that you identify with a certain character?