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Cahiers du cinéma (1954) - Hitchcock contre Hitchcock





Hitchcock verses Hitchcock

I trust that the following account of my encounter with Alfred Hitchcock will not disappoint his wildest partisans. They may accuse me of being unworthy of the privilege of confirming all their insights. Certainly, where I am in doubt, I would prefer to give them the benefit of that doubt. I cannot say that the combined efforts of Scherer, Astruc, Rivette, and Truffaut have entirely convinced me of Alfred Hitchcock's flawless genius, particularly in his American work, but they have at least persuaded me to question my previous skepticism. Consequently, I can report that I approached my assignment in good faith and a constructive spirit by conscientiously assuming the point of view most favorable to the director and by insisting on his recognizing for himself and by himself every last morsel of meaning French critics had assigned to his films. Moreover, I would have been delighted if his answers had vindicated his champions and if the reservations I had formulated about such works as Rope, The Paradine Case, and I Confess had been reduced to rubble.

Before going any further, however, I propose some critical axioms, which the Hitchcockians may scorn as useless and undignified alibis.

I will begin with an embarrassingly personal anecdote. Once upon a time I analyzed a certain scene in The Little Foxes, the one in which Marshall is seen about to die on the stairway, in the background, while Bette Davis sits immobile in the foreground. The fixed gaze of the camera seemed to me to be intensified (moreover, if I remember correctly, the remark came from Denis Marion) by the fact that in the course of his movement the actor moved out of the line of vision and then came in again a little further away, while the lens — identified somehow with Bette Davis' implacability — did not deign to follow him.

When I attended the Brussels Festival in 1948 I had occasion to meet William Wyler, whose native language is French, and I explained my interpretation to him. Wyler seemed astonished. He insisted he had done everything quite simply with no intellectual premeditation. As for my crucial point about Marshall's departure from the field of vision, Wyler explained the specific reason: Marshall had a wooden leg and had difficulty climbing stairs; his eclipse permitted a double to be substituted for the last few seconds of the scene.

The anecdote was too funny to ignore even though the joke was on me. I reported it in "Le Film d'Ariane" (Roman Holiday) in Ecran Francais under the collective signature of the Minotaur and held my ground as far as my initial analysis was concerned. My candor was rewarded with an ironic letter about critics of Spanish inns from some sly type reminding me of the Minotaur's note which I was forced to ignore in order to continue to ascribe to Wyler aesthetic calculations, a hypothesis that he himself had demolished.

I have verified the truth of this edifying story on several other occasions. There are, occasionally, good directors, like Rene Clement or Lattuada, who profess a precise aesthetic consciousness and accept a discussion on this level, but most of their colleagues react to aesthetic analysis with an attitude ranging from astonishment to irritation. Moreover, the astonishment is perfectly sincere and comprehensible. As for the irritation, this often springs from an instinctive resistance to the dismantling of a mechanism whose purpose is to create an illusion, and only mediocrities gain, in effect, from malfunctioning mechanisms. The director's irritation springs also from his resentment at being placed in a position that is foreign to him. Thus, I have seen a director as intelligent (and conscious) as Jean Grémillon play the village idiot and sabotage my debate on Lumière d'été evidently because he did not agree with me. And how can I say he is wrong? Is not this impasse reminiscent of Paul Valéry's leaving the lecture hall where Gustave Cohen had presented his famous commentary on Cimetière Marin with a word of ironic admiration for the professor's imagination? Must we conclude then that Paul Valéry is only an intuitive artist betrayed by a pedant's textual analysis and that Cimetière Marin is merely automatic writing?

As a matter of fact, this apparent contradiction between the critic and the author should not trouble us. It is in the natural order of things, both subjectively and objectively.

Subjectively, because artistic creation — even with the most in tellectual temperaments — is essentially intuitive and practical: It is a matter of effects to attain and materials to conquer. Objectively, because a work of art escapes its creator and bypasses his conscious intentions, in direct proportion to its quality. The foundation of this objectivity also resides in the psychology of the creation to the extent — inappreciable — to which the artist does not really create but sets himself to crystallize, to order the sociological forces and the technical conditions into which he is thrust. This is particularly true of the American cinema in which you often find quasi-anonymous successes whose merit reflects, not on the director, but on the production system. But an objective criticism, methodically ignoring "intentions," is as applicable to the most personal work imaginable, like a poem or a picture, for example.

This does not mean that knowing auteurs personally, or what they say about themselves and their work, may not clarify the critic's conception, and this is proven by recently taped interviews that we have published. These confidences, on the contrary, are infinitely precious, but they are not on the same plane as the criticism I am discussing; or, if you will, they constitute a pre-critical, unrefined documentation, and the critic still retains the liberty of interpretation. Thus, when Wyler told me he had had Marshall leave the field of vision merely in order to substitute a double, I thought to myself that the flaws in the marble were useful only to good sculptors and that it was of little importance that the camera's fixity was imagined to come out of a technical contingency. But the following day when I saw Wyler again, it was he who returned to the subject and explained to me that Marshall's going out of the frame was not part of his artistic intentions and that, in turn, the light and soft quality of the background (the stairway where Marshall is dying) had been asked of Gregg Toland in order to create an uneasy feeling in the spectator by the imprecision of the action's essential point. In this context, virtually the entire film was shot in deep focus. Quite possibly, the softness and the disappearance had the same function: to camouflage the substitution of the double for the actor. Simply in the case of the softness, the director was conscious of the effect and the means, which suffices to elevate material servitude to the dignity of artistic windfall. Unless, profoundly astonished that so many things could be seen in this unfortunate sequence, he dreamed it up during the night and, when he woke up the next morning, was retrospectively persuaded that he had done it on purpose. It is of no real importance in terms of Wyler's glory and the excellence of The Little Foxes, but I am more partial to this explanation than to my original interpretation.

I make the foregoing observations in order to reassure and encourage those who, in this same issue of Cahiers du Cinéma (No. 39, October 1954), will credit Alfred Hitchcock with more talent than is implied in this interview. I am also perfectly conscious of not having pushed the auteur of The Lady Vanishes to a point where I could get past his defenses. Also the relatively serious nature of my questions undoubtedly had little in common with what he was accustomed to in American interviews, and the sudden change in critical climate may have upset him. Besides, people say that his answers anywhere tend more to mask than to reveal, and his penchant for straight-faced jesting is familiar enough to lend credence to this interpretation.

But now that I have raised every possible objection against my interviews with Hitchcock, I might well add that I am personally convinced of my interlocutor's sincerity, and I do not suspect for a moment that he accommodated my questions in order that I might judge his work less severely.

We met the first time at the flower market in Nice. They were shooting a scuffle. Cary Grant was fighting with two or three ruffians and rolling on the ground under some pink flowers. I had been watching for a good hour, during which time Hitchcock did not have to intervene more than twice; settled in his armchair, he gave the impression of being prodigiously bored and of musing about something completely different. The assistants, however, were handling the scene, and Cary Grant himself was explaining Nice police judo techniques to his partners with admirable precision. The sequence was repeated three or four times in my presence before being judged satisfactory, after which they were to prepare to shoot the following sequence — an insert in close-up of Cary Grant's head under an avalanche of pink flowers. It was during this pause that Paul Feyder, French first assistant on the film, presented me to Hitchcock. Our conversation lasted fifty or sixty minutes (there were retakes) during which time Hitchcock did no more than throw one or two quick glances at what was going on. When I saw him finally get up and go over for an earnest talk with the star and the assistants, I assumed that here at last was a matter of some delicate adjustment of the mise-en-scène; a minute later he came towards me shaking his head, pointing to his wristwatch, and I thought he was trying to tell me that there was no longer enough light for color — the sun being quite low. But he quickly disabused me of that idea with a very British smile: "Oh! No, the light is excellent, but Mister Cary Grant's contract calls for stopping at six o'clock; it is six o'clock exactly, so we will retake this sequence tomorrow." In the course of that first interview I had time to pose nearly all of the questions I had had in mind, but the answers had been so disconcerting that, full of caution, I decided to use a counterinterrogation as a control for some of the most delicate points. Most gracefully, Hitchcock devoted another hour to me several days later in a quiet corner of the Carlton in Cannes. What follows comes out of these two interviews without, in general, any distinction between what was in the first or the second.

I must make it clear at the outset that I speak and understand English too poorly to manage without an interpreter. I had the good fortune to find in Sylvette Baudrot, French scriptgirl with the crew, more than a faithful dragoman, a persistent collaborator. I take this opportunity to thank her cordially.

I attacked in more or less these terms: "While traditional criticism often reproaches you for brilliant but gratuitous formalism, several young French critics, on the contrary, profess a nearly universal admiration for your work and discover, beyond the detective story, a constant and profound message. What do you think about that?"

Answer: "I am interested not so much in the stories I tell as in the means of telling them." There followed a long account of Rear Window in terms of the technical improvisations that gave the film its originality. The film takes us, once more, into the realm of the detective story. The investigation is conducted in this instance by a convalescing magazine photographer, obliged to stay in his room because his leg is in a cast. He is also to discover a crime and identify the criminal solely by observing the comings and goings through the windows of the apartment building across the courtyard. During the entire film the camera remains in the journalist's room and sees only what he can physically see, either with the naked eye or with the aid of binoculars, which in any event allows for the use of different lenses. Telescopic lenses were ultimately required to keep the action in some sort of meaningful dramatic focus. The construction of the set posed equally complicated problems in order to permit the protagonist to observe as much as possible of his neighbor's actions without falsifying the architecture of an American city. Hitchcock himself insisted that half the film's action should be silent because the journalist cannot be expected to hear his neighbors at the distance he sees them. Thus the director had to resort to the guile of "pure cinema" which he adored. In general, dialogue is a nuisance to him because it restricts cinematographic expression, and he reproaches several of his films for this restriction.

At this point I did not abandon the point of my original inquiry by taking up the fallacious opposition of form and content. What Hitchcock calls "means" may be, perhaps, only a more indirect (and more unconscious) manner of following, if not a subject, at least a theme. I insisted, therefore, on the unity of his work, and he agreed with me in a negative way. All he demands of a scenario is that it go his "way." Let us stick our foot in the crack of that door. What I wanted was the exact definition of this "way." Without hesitation, Hitchcock spoke of a certain relationship between drama and comedy. The only films that may be taken as "pure Hitchcock" (sic) are those in which he has been able to play with this discordant relationship. Although this is more a matter of the way of conceiving a story than content properly speaking, it is, all the same, no longer a question of simple formal problems. I risk the word "humor." Hitchcock accepts it; what he is trying to express may well be taken as a form of humor and he spontaneously cites The Lady Vanishes as conforming most closely to his ideal. Must we conclude from this that his English work is more "purely Hitchcock" than his American? Without a doubt, first of all because the Americans have much too positive a spirit to accept humor. He could never have made The Lady Vanishes in Hollywood; a simple reading of the scenario and the producer would have pointed out how unrealistic it would be to send a message with an old woman by train when it would be quicker and surer to send a telegram. He thought he would please his old Italian maid by taking her to see The Bicycle Thief, but all she felt was astonishment that the worker did not end up borrowing a bike: America is rapidly becoming less colorful. Moreover, in Hollywood films are made for women; it is toward their sentimental taste that scenarios are directed because it is they who account for the bulk of the box-office receipts. In England films are still made for men, but that is also why so many studios close down. The English cinema has excellent technicians, but English films are not "commercial" enough and Hitchcock declares, with pain mixed with shame, that they are idle there while he is working. But it is still essential for a film to bring in more than it costs; the director is responsible for other people's money, a great deal of money, and he has a duty, in spite of everything, to be commercial. Hitchcock told me that his "weakness" lies in being conscious of his responsibility for all this money.

What I am inserting here is parenthetical: At the time of our second interview, the question came up again. Hitchcock appeared to me to be somewhat conventionally concerned with correcting that indirect criticism of being commercial by affirming that it was easy to make an "artistic" film, but the real difficulty lay in making a good commercial film, a very feasible paradox, after all. Such as it was, the sense of his first self-criticism was unequivocal and the necessity of renouncing adult, masculine humor in order to satisfy American producers was presented as an exquisite torture. When he arrived from England, and saw the technicians standing in line with their mess-bowls, under the clock, at the door of Warners', he anxiously asked himself if, in all this hubbub, film could possibly still be concerned with a form of the fine arts.

Faithful to my role of Devil's advocate, I remarked that, in the Hollywood studios, perhaps he had gained a sumptuousness of technical means that just suited his inspiration. Had he not always been concerned with ingenious and sometimes complex technical effects in order to obtain certain effects of mise-en-scène? Categorical answer: The importance of the technical means placed at his disposal did not particularly interest him. To the extent that they rendered the film more costly they even augmented commercial servitude. To sum it up, his ideal is, under those conditions, to accomplish perfection of "the quality of imperfection." This rather oracular line was one of those about which I was determined to see Hitchcock again to pin him down to a more precise confirmation. My interpreter, Hitchcock, and I spent a good quarter of an hour on this one point. He maintained what he had said and commented on it, but it never became perfectly clear. His exact words, in English, were, "I try to achieve the quality of imperfection." I believe I understood that the quality in question was American technical perfection (lacking in the European cinema) and the "imperfection" that margin for liberty, imprecision, and, shall we say, humor that makes, for Hitchcock, the English cineaste's position superior. Thus it is a question for the director of I Confess of achieving the almost impossible marriage of perfect technical execution through Hollywood's oiled and supple machinery with the creative stumbling block, the unforeseen Acts of God, as in the European cinema! I am paraphrasing here and forcing myself to give a resume of a conversation that, as far as I can see, was persistently obscure due to my lack of intellectual agility with the English language but also, I strongly believe, due to Hitchcock's instinctive irony. For I noticed several times his taste for the elegant and ambiguous formulation that goes so far as to become a play on words. Chabrol became aware of this tendency several times in Paris when Hitchcock made theological jokes based on "God and "Good." This linguistic playfulness assuredly corresponds to a cast of mind but undoubtedly it is also a certain form of intellectual camouflage. For all that, I did not have the impression that this preoccupation affected our dialogue more than marginally. In general, the answers were clear, firm, and categorical. The circumstances were rare when, whether to correct the excessiveness ot an affirmation that was a little too scandalous or paradoxical, or the question was particularly embarrassing, he used this sort of critical humor to rectify something or to pirouette his way out of a statement. The general sincerity of his answers and, I even dare to say, up to a certain point, their naivete (if I am not misjudging how much is bravado and how much paradox) was indirectly proven to me by his reaction to one of my arguments. Always pursuing my initial purpose of having him recognize the existence and the seriousness of a moral theme in his work, I decided, in default of obtaining an acknowledgment from him, to suggest one myself, borrowing for this the perspicacity of the fanatic Hitchcockians. Thus, I had him notice that one theme at least reappeared in his major films that, because of its moral and intellectual level, surely went beyond the scope of simple "suspense" — that of the identification of the weak with the strong, whether it be in the guise of deliberate moral seduction, as in Shadow of a Doubt where the phenomenon is underlined by the fact that the niece and the uncle have the same name; whether, as in Strangers on a Train, an individual somehow steals the protagonist's mental crime, appropriates it for himself, commits it, and then comes to demand that the same be done for him; whether, as in I Confess, this transfer of personality finds a sort of theological confirmation in the sacrament of penitence, the murderer considering more or less consciously that the confession not only binds the priest as witness but somehow justifies his acceptance of the guilty role. The translation of such a subtle argument was not very easy. Hitchcock listened to it with attention and intensity. When he finally understood it I saw him touched, for the first and only time in the interview, by an unforeseen and unforeseeable idea. I had found the crack in that humorous armor. He broke into a delighted smile and I could, follow his train of thought by the expressions on his face as he reflected and discovered for himself with satisfaction the confirmation in the scenarios of Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. It was the only incontrovertible point made by Hitchcock's enthusiasts, but if this theme really exists in his work he owes it to them for having discovered it.

However, I did not keep the initiative very long and the self-criticism that he pursued was rather severe. I Confess, for example, was rejected for its lack of humor — the comedy was not in step with the drama. He is no longer enchanted with the players. Anne Baxter is an excellent actress but her personality is not socially true to life in relation to Canada. He would have liked Anita Bjork whom he greatly admired in Miss Julie, but Hollywood had been scared off by her extramarital entanglements. (Ingrid Bergman's troubles still lingered in the studio's memory.)

In opposition to this I remarked that he had, however, held on to this subject, taken from a little-known French boulevard play, given to him four years earlier by Louis Verneuil ("sold," he corrected). If he had not shot it before, he explained, it was only because Warner's was afraid of censorship; there was thus nothing mysterious about the delay. Good; but must we not assume that the films he produced would have a hold on his heart? — Not at all, notably Under Capricorn, which, in spite of its failure, had been principally a commercial enterprise. All of his efforts to save something from this film were in vain. Hitchcock complained that because of her fame Ingrid Bergman was no longer tenable. "All the same," I said, "the brilliant sequences, continuous in time, that called for the utmost in technical experience, in Rope...." "Let us talk about that!" he interrupted. "These continuous scenes were boring enough later during the montage; there was nothing to cut!"

However, coming back to I Confess, I obtained an important concession. When I praised the extreme technical sobriety, the intensity in austerity, it was not in order to displease him. It is true that he applied himself here and that the film finds favor in his eyes for these formal reasons. In order to characterize this rigor of raise en scene it would be necessary to employ an epithet from the "clerical vocabulary." ... I suggested "Jansenist." — "What is Jansenist?" Sylvette Baudrot explained to him that the Jansenists were the enemies of the Jesuits. He found the coincidence very droll for he had studied with Fathers and, for I Confess, had been obliged to free himself from his education! I did not tell him I would have thought him, nevertheless, a better student. At least in theology.

Which, then, at least among his American films, did he consider to be the most exclusively commercial and the least worthy of esteem? — Spellbound and Notorious. Those that found grace in his eyes? Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window.

We have already spoken of the last one. What, in particular, does he like in the first? — the truth, the social and psychological realism, in the framework, naturally, of that dramatic humor we have already defined. He was able to avoid the concessions and commercial "fantasies" that more or less debased his other American films.

The interview came to an end, not because my interlocutor had the air of becoming impatient, but because I could see no way to bring the debate back to the essential. I come now to the formal and secondary questions: Is it true that he never looked through the camera? — Exactly. This task is completely useless, since all the framing has been planned and indicated in advance by little drawings that illustrated the cutting technique. At my request he immediately executed several. If I may, I will add a personal comment here: It seemed to me, as much from certain precise points made in the conversation as from statements gathered from Hitchcock's collaborators, that he had a permanent notion of mise-en-scène, that of a tension in the interior of a sequence, a tension that one would not know how to reduce either to dramatic categories or plastic categories but which partakes of both at the same time. For him it is always a question of creating in the mise-en-scène, starting from the scenario, but mainly by the expressionism of the framing, the lighting or the relation of the characters to the decor, an essential instability of image. Each shot is thus, for him, like a menace or at least an anxious waiting. From German expressionism, to whose influence he admits having submitted in the studios in Munich, he undoubtedly learned a lesson, but he does not cheat the spectator. We need not be aware of a vagueness of impression in the peril in order to appreciate the dramatic anguish of Hitchcock's characters. It is not a question of a mysterious "atmosphere" out of which all the perils can come like a storm, but of a disequilibrium comparable to that of a heavy mass of steel beginning to slide down too sharp an incline, about which one could easily calculate the future acceleration. The mise-en-scène would then be the art of showing reality only in those moments when a plumb line dropped from the dramatic center of gravity is about to leave the supporting polygon, scorning the initial commotion as well as the final fracas of the fall. As for me, I see the key to Hitchcock's style, this style that is so indisputable that one recognizes at a glance the most banal still from one of his films, in the admirably determined quality of this disequilibrium.

One more question to get off my conscience, the answer to which is easy to predict: Does he use any improvisation on the set? — None at all; he had To Catch a Thief in his mind, complete, for two months. That is why I saw him so relaxed while "working." For the rest, he added with an amiable smile, lifting the siege, how would he have been able to devote a whole hour to me right in the middle of shooting if he had to think about his film at the same time?

It was a charming way to end our conversation.