Alfred Hitchcock Was Christopher Nolan’s Guiding Light While Directing Dunkirk

During a 2017 interview with NPR, Christopher Nolan talks about how he approached the characters of “Dunkirk,” not through extended stretches of dialogue, but through the visual complexion of an Alfred Hitchcock film:

“I wanted to produce a film that was almost entirely based on the language of suspense, which I think is the most visual of cinematic languages, which is why I think Hitchcock has always been held up as possibly the greatest director of all time. And what Hitchcock understood — and I’ve tried to emulate and really learn from — is that the audience can care about a character simply by virtue of what it is they’re trying to achieve onscreen in a physical sense, a task they’re trying to achieve.”

A Hitchcock film works in spite of the dialogue, as its absence still leaves the mark of a visual storyteller. Think of the silent explanation of Jeffries’ injury in “Rear Window,” or the owl perched above the sinister Norman Bates in “Psycho.” It’s clear that Nolan adopted Hitchcock’s visual metaphors, and for the better too.

“Dunkirk” starts you out feeling isolated in the belly of a massive space, where the threat of annihilation can come from land, air, or sea. You don’t know who any of these folks are, but being trapped there among them makes the danger feel that much more present. In less than five minutes, the foundation of peril is established that anyone can identify and empathize with. Simply being there and looking up at the horizon of the Luftwaffe air bombers is enough to generate a great deal of suspense and dread.

“Dunkirk” is now streaming on Hulu.

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