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"The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock" - by Richard Schickel

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Abstract

  • Contains 4 pages of biographical details, followed by a lengthy interview in which Hitchcock talks about his career.

Chapter

Alfred Hitchcock's fears and anxieties dominate his imagination and the conduct of his daily life, just as, more lightly and artfully expressed, they dominate his films. Now seventy-five years old, and active as ever professionally, he continues to arrange his existence so that nothing untoward — the sort of mischance that so often propels his protagonists into danger — will happen to him. As he has often said, he has never learned to drive a car in order to obviate the possibility of receiving a traffic ticket. Indeed, unless he is shooting a picture or is out promoting one, he rarely ventures away from home or office, which is a bungalow at Universal City studios in the San Fernando Valley. A chauffeured car deposits him there in the morning, he nips quickly through a side door and does not emerge again until quitting time. The studio commissary is not a hundred yards away, but lunch is brought in and served in a spacious dining-cum-conference room a few steps from his desk. (Lunch, incidentally, is extremely modest considering his girth and his reputation as a gourmet — lean steak or broiled sole, salad and coffee; no bread, potatoes or dessert.) Once a week, when they're both in town, Lew Wasserman, head of mighty MCA — of which Universal is the major subsidiary — takes lunch with Hitchcock and he, like the rest of the world, beats a path to the director's door.

Behind that door one finds a well-ordered world. The director's office is dominated by an extraordinarily large desk with a tooled-leather top. It is extremely neat, with a few trimly stacked papers and perhaps some books of film criticism and theory on it — along with a well-thumbed European railway timetable, which he employs to plan imaginary journeys to exotic places. When he does travel, it is rarely to unfamiliar locales. New York, London, Paris — these are on his beat, but when he goes to them he always stays in the same room in a hotel he has frequented for years and, once ensconced, encourages people to visit him in the hotel so he does not have to chance the streets more than is absolutely necessary. As for the rest of his office furnishings, they combine to give the impression of being modeled on the library of an English country home, or perhaps the writing room of a London club. There is a profusion of leather-covered sofas and easy chairs, breakfront bookcases containing, among other items, the books on which he has based some of his films as well as other mystery and suspense tales he has obviously considered. Across from his desk is a comic painting of Mount Rushmore — site of the famous climax in North by Northwest — with Hitchcock's face worked in among the American presidential visages there. Elsewhere in the bungalow are offices — empty when we shot our interview — where writers, production managers and other functionaries can establish themselves when Hitchcock is preparing or shooting a film. The draperies are closed against the California sun, the air-conditioner thrums steadily, and in the world capital of casual attire, the director wears a funereal black suit, a white shirt whose starched collar inevitably starts to curl up by day's end and a conservative narrow tie.

In short, he has gone to every effort to create a serene, stable, traditional atmosphere around him. He has done so because, even though he is one of the few film directors who are truly household names, even though he has more control over his career than almost any other director (absolutely free choice over projects, final cut of the finished film), even though he is wealthy, he remains prey to the phobias and fantasies of his childhood. Indeed, it is because he is so closely in touch with them, and because they are to greater or lesser degree common to so many of us, that his films have through the years exercised such consistent mass appeal. Acrophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia — these have been recurring motifs in his films from the beginning. And, of course, there is his overriding preoccupation, which is a form of paranoia: Hitchcock has time and again returned to the "wrong man" theme, in which an innocent individual is wrongly accused of some crime and is nightmarishly pursued by the police or some other agency of the state which normally we would turn to in search of peace if not justice, and also by the true miscreants trying to silence him. What makes that preoccupation so compelling to the rest of us is the implication that the protagonist, though he may not be guilty of the crime he has been accused of, is indeed guilty of something. That may not be an indictable offense, it may be (as it is with Tippi Hedren in The Birds) only the crime of indifference. Or insensitivity. Or nothing more than membership in the human race, for Hitchcock was raised a Catholic and there is no question that he believes we are all tainted by something like Original Sin. And though he never comments directly on the matter, one can speculate that he believes he is as guilty as the next man of some vague imperfection for which he deserves punishment.

Hence his cautious life-style. Hence the careful way he covers his tracks in his movies, making sure his tormented heroes and heroines are bright and witty and handsome, so that the heavy — not to say tragic-themes of his best work don't spoil our identification with them or interfere with the entertainment values of the pictures. Hence the dazzling yet subtle technique which so entrances sophisticated viewers, who might otherwise speculate more deeply on his meanings. Hence — and this is perhaps the most interesting revelation one gains by spending some time with him — the almost entirely fictional persona he has created for himself: the jolly fat man with the macabre, punning sense of humor.

He put that one over on us when he was host of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series in the 1950s. An appealing characterization, it served to hide from the public the fact that he is a serious artist who has a craving (constantly checked) to be taken seriously. The problem was, I think, that he calculated that this desire (a perfectly reasonable one, after all) might interfere with the popularity of that art; if people saw that he did not create it in an entirely larkish spirit, they might start to probe a little more deeply and thus find themselves discomfited by films they had taught themselves (with a little help from the master) to take lightly. Certainly, few in the general public — and not many critics outside the film quarterlies — perceived the general darkening of tone in his films once he had left behind the genial little English comedy thrillers and passed through the overdressed, perhaps excessively psychoanalytic, certainly more romantic Selznick phase. However, such great works of the 1950s and 1960s as Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest and, climactically, Psycho and The Birds were much more ambiguous, pessimistic and richer in meaning than most of what had gone before. (Shadow of a Doubt, which Hitchcock has said is his favorite film, would be the one film of his earlier career that I would rank with these in complexity and ambition.)

Be that as it may, Hitchcock has favored most interviewers from the popular media with nothing more than re-runs of his television personality. On the other hand, he has been exhaustive, and entirely sober, about technique with Francois Truffaut as well as with scholarly and well-prepared interviewers from the more serious film journals, from whose writing has grown — especially among younger critics and filmmakers — an increasing regard for him as a film artist in recent years. It would appear that he is attending to his "image" with the journalists, his posterity with the students. Happily, he chose to put me and my film crew with the latter group — doubtless because we were representing public television — and so we came away with an interview of considerable duration (thirteen camera rolls) in which he spoke earnestly about technique and, to the limited extent that he chooses to, about his view of the world.


BEGINNINGS

I think it would be interesting to talk about fear and how it first came to one. Psychiatrists will tell you if you have certain sort of psychological problems [and] you can trace them back to, say, your childhood, all will be released. And, of course, I don't believe this to be true at all. If you go back and trace the origins of when you were first scared as a child, I suppose the earliest thing I can think of is when my father, who was a wholesale and retail fruit and greengrocer at the time, sent me with a note to the local chief of police, who glanced at the little piece of paper and then led me along a corridor and I was locked in a cell for five minutes. Then he let me out and said, "That's what we do to naughty boys." I always think it was the clang of the door which was the potent thing — the sound and the solidity of that closing cell door and the bolt. But it hasn't altered the fact, even though I can trace that episode so many years ago, that I'm still scared of policemen. In fact, I don't drive a car on the simple fact that if you don't drive a car you can't get a ticket. I mean, the getting of a ticket, to me, is a rather suspenseful matter.

I think somebody once said to me: "What's your idea of happiness?" And I said, "A clear horizon, no clouds, no shadows. Nothing." But being given a ticket is a cloud on one's personal horizon, and this was brought home very, very forcibly to me when I was at college,1 a Jesuit college called St. Ignatius. It may be that I was probably born with a sense of drama because I tend to dramatize things, and at college the method of punishment was rather a dramatic thing. If one had not done one's prep, the form master would say, "Go for three." Well, going for three, that was a sentence, and it was a sentence as though it were spoken by a judge. And the sentence then would be carried out by another element, which would mean a special priest in a special room, with the help of a rather old-fashioned sort of strop for sharpening razor blades, only it was made of gutta-percha, which is a soft black rubber. And the awful part about this to, say, a little boy of ten was that, having been sentenced, it was up to him when he should take it. He could take it at the first morning break, lunchtime, mid-afternoon or the end of the day. And always it was deferred until the end of the day. And then you'd go into this room and the priest would enter your name in a book and then grab the hand that was to be punished and lay this thing in. Never more than three on one hand because the hand became numb and it was no good putting four on the hand because a fourth one you'd never feel it. So then they started on the other hand. And if, by chance, the crime was so great that you were sent for twelve, I mean, that would be for a terrible crime of some kind, you could have only six a day and then the other six the following day. Well, this was like going to the gallows. And the other interesting thing — and one almost compares it with the crowds that used to watch public executions — was that if one went into this particular room, outside the door a number of the boys would gather and listen for these loud thwacks and then wait and look to see what kind of expression the culprit had on his face as he emerged. Yes, they were voyeurs. But I don't think that when one emerged you were aware of them, really. That was the least important factor. The most important factor was this making up your mind when to go, when to have your head removed, shall we say. I think it's a most horrible kind of suspense.

DEGRADATION AS PUNISHMENT

The degradation really occurs when the persons being charged with an offense are, for the first time in their lives, removed into a world to which they've been totally unaccustomed. As I showed in The Paradine Case, the most degrading moment, but it was a true moment, was when the wardress, the woman guard, went through Alida Valli's hair and put her fingers through the hair and let it down. This beautifully coiffed head, you see, already was degraded and reduced. You know, it's like the medieval sort of stories when a woman is going to have her head chopped off and the scissors |are] going through the hair to lay bare the neck; [that ] is another degrading moment.

If I may digress while we're on the subject of head removing I read some long time ago a fascinating story about a Chinese executioner who was able to wield a sword so skillfully that there was an occasion when a victim mounted the steps onto a platform and the executioner was slightly behind him. And the victim said, "Mr. Executioner, please don't keep me standing here in agony. Why don't you do your work?" And the executioner said, "My dear sir, please nod your head slightly." But going back to the degradation thing — I once saw a picture of the head of the New York Stock Exchange going to jail handcuffed to a criminal, and by contrasting their clothes and general demeanor it was a weird thing to see a man of such eminence as this going off to jail.

I've always thought that the handcuff thing was almost a kind of a fetish. If you notice, any press photographer around a courthouse will try and get the picture of the man in handcuffs. There's some strange appeal that it has, and just in the same way the man who is handcuffed tries to cover them up. He'll even take his topcoat and hang it over his hands. It's almost a symbol of reduction, as it were, to the lowest form. It's like a chain on a dog, you know? And it's always been, and that's why in The 39 Steps, used in a different context as a comedy thing, it nevertheless had a fascinating effect on audiences — the fact that the man and woman were handcuffed together. And it sort of brought out all kinds of thoughts in their minds; for example, how do they go to the toilet was one natural, obvious question. And the linking together is a kind of — I think it relates more to sex than to anything else.

EVIL AS DISORDER, DISORDER AS EVIL

If you take your bourgeois family and then the element of the bizarre comes into it, like one of the members of the family gets into trouble, you can pretty well say that that family — if it al...

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Notes

  1. Hitchcock means a prep school, not a university.
  2. In which Macdonald Carey, as a policeman who has tried to warn Teresa Wright that her uncle, played by Joseph Gotten, may be a psychopathic murderer, attempts to explain to her that the world is more dangerous than she believes.
  3. Used as the setting for the climax of the chase in Saboteur.
  4. These scenes did not survive the final cut and were never shown to the public.