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Columbia Daily Spectator (26/Apr/1999) - Peter Bogdanovich on a Hundred Years of Alfred Hitchcock




Peter Bogdanovich on a Hundred Years of Alfred Hitchcock

By Peter Carter, Spectator Film Editor

Peter Bogdanovich is the director of over twenty films, including The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Mask, and They All Laughed. Film critic and author, his writings include The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock and Who The Devil Made It, a collection of interviews with sixteen directors, of which Alfred Hitchcock is one. Bogdanovich also led the first retrospective of Hitchcock's work in the U.S. at the Museum of Modern Art in 1963. I spoke to him on occasion of the Hitchcock Centennial being celebrated this year.

Spectator: It's said that The Lodger is the first 'Hitchcock picture.'

Peter Bogdanovich: It's very clearly the Hitchcock story, it's all about suspense. There are numerous shots which are very Hitchcockian: the hand on the rail as [the lodger] goes up the stairs; when we see the lodger [from below] through the floor, pacing.

S: What glimpses of Hitchcock's style can be seen in his other earlier films that are expanded and more fully realized later on?

PB: The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, those are very clearly Hitchcock pictures, more so than his films of the twenties. All the themes that he later used are there, like the innocent man accused of murder, innocent people getting involved in crime stories.

S: How did Hitchcock's style change when he came to the US? What influence did Hollywood have on him?

PB: His films were smoother, seemingly more realistic — better technique, craftsmanship. The effects were better and easier to get. The English film industry was pretty primitive compared to Hollywood.

S: How was Hitchcock able to work as a successful commercial director without compromising the quality of his filmmaking?

PB: He always was a commercial filmmaker; he was never anything else. He felt he did compromise his material. He wasn't happy about the casting in certain pictures because stars were the wrong stars. He often said that he had made his pictures in his head. As he put it, it wasn't until he entered the sound stage that he entered the area of compromise.

S: To what extent was Hitchcock a product of his times? How did he reflect or chose to alter the culture of the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties? For example, in his portrayal of women.

PB: Well, as Robert Graves said, it's impossible not to be a product of your times, even if you are against it. I wouldn't say that Hitch was against it, I would say he reflected it. I think he reflected an ambivalence toward women, though he often takes the woman's side against the man, for example in Notorious or Marnie.

S: In Notorious?

PB: Well Cary Grant's completely wrong in the picture and the picture shows him as wrong. Ingrid Bergman's the martyr in the picture, the victim, but the picture takes her side. Your sympathy is very much with her, and you can see from the way Hitchcock made it that his sympathy is very much with her. Even Cary Grant said that's the picture Hitch threw toward Ingrid. He said [Hitchcock] always threw them at the women when he could.

S: Why did critics initially reject Hitchcock? Why did they later embrace him?

PB: They didn't so much reject him as take him for granted or trivialize him. That's part of the snobbism — more so then than now — in which crime melodramas were generally despised and not taken very seriously. It wasn't that he was put down so much as he was ignored. Although he was put down as well. They didn't see what was beneath the surface, they took it for granted, as they did most of the personality actors of the Golden Age. People like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stuart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne; their performances were usually dismissed in a sentence — "John Wayne gives the usual John Wayne", "Cary Grant is reliable", "Jimmy Stuart is likable" — not realizing what they had. [The critics] didn't feel the nuance beneath it. Same thing with Hitchcock — "another good Hitchcock picture", "not quite as good a Hitchcock picture" — without any thinking or depth involved.

(At one point I asked about suspense in Hitchcock's work and Bogdanovich replied that for good suspense, as for good comedy, the key is providing the audience with information. But, he noted, while suspense is more effecting than surprise, most filmmakers today jump at the chance to provoke shock and disgust in the audience. He contrasted setups like Hitchcock's shower scene in Psycho with the blatant lack of planning in today's filmmaking.)

PB: Most people shoot an enormous amount of footage and make their decisions in the editing room. That's the diametric opposite of what Hitchcock did.

S: It's hard to believe that with Hitchcock being taught so much in film classes he has had so little influence.

PB: What you get is various different types of crime stories, but in terms of how he made them, the techniques, the style of making, I don't see much of that at all. Except in obvious people who basically lifted shots, like [Brian] DePalma, but that's different. There are some filmmakers on whom I think Hitchcock has had some influence, but I generally see the opposite.

S: What are some of your favorite Hitchcock films?

PB: The 39 Steps is certainly the best one from the English period. Hitchcock's own favorite was Shadow of a Doubt because he said it was one of the few times he was able to put a lot of character into a film. I like Notorious. It's a very complicated love story, and a kind of metaphor for many love stories in which the men take the women for granted. North by Northwest — it's kind of a complete fantasy, but it's the ultimate innocent man on the run picture that Hitchcock did. Rear Window is an example of the kind of movie that Hitchcock was particularly good at: humor, suspense; macabre, brilliant... and sexy.

S: You were with Hitchcock on the set of The Birds, Torn Curtain, and Topaz. How would you characterize his style of interacting with the actors and crew?

PB: I would say he was very patient. Very much in control but not demonstrative. Rather serene. He wasn't a flashy director, jumping up and showing them how to do it, or any of that stuff. Everything was very muted with the crew. Everybody wore ties and suits. It was quiet, though he'd make the occasional dry joke. You got the feeling that he had already made the picture and he was just trying to put together what he had already seen. I never saw him look through the camera.

S: In one of his interviews with you, Hitchcock said that he was able to "picture his characters objectively" because he didn't identify with them. Do you think this is entirely true, or was his compassion for the murderer and the man on the run another side of him?

PB: I think to a degree he stayed on the outside. In many cases he identified with the heavy, certainly in Notorious you have a tremendous sympathy for Claude Rains who actually loves [lngrid Bergman], On the other hand, in what I think are the most intense Hitchcock pictures, you get the strongest sense of his identification. Pictures like I Confess or Vertigo or The Wrong Man, in which they are really very serious pictures without any of the flippancy or playfulness of the other Hitchcock movies. And those were usually detested by the critics because they weren't typically Hitchcock. So he was put down when he was typical and when he was atypical then they said it wasn't like the usual Hitchcock. He was kind of damned if he did and damned if he didn't. I Confess is particularly touching, considering Hitchcock's Jesuit upbringing, because it's about a priest deciding whether to be a martyr. (I mentioned I hadn't seen I Confess, and Bogdanovich replied in his knowing baritone with advice that I imagined he had given often regarding films, "Ah, yes. Well, you should.")

S: When you introduced Chimes at Midnight [Orson Welles, 1965] at the MoMA you told of John Ford's statement that "Most of the good things in pictures happen by accident" and Welles' response that if it that were true, then the director must be the man who "presides over accidents." How did Hitchcock feel about the element of chance in his filmmaking?

PB: I don't think that was a thing that played for him. That wasn't the way he made his films. On the other hand, he was open to things that actors would bring in, things that would happen on the set that were not pre-planned, but I don't think that played a tremendous part in his thinking, because he wasn't that kind of filmmaker. There's a lot of life in his pictures because he left the actors room to function.

S: Was Hitchcock serious when he said that he didn't consider himself an artist?

PB: I think he did consider himself something of an artist. But that was not a position that people in Hollywood took. They weren't about to go around saying they were artists, that was not a good way to have "continuity." That's not something people want to hear in Hollywood.

S: How would he have defined himself?

PB: Craftsman.