Monitor (BBC, 05/Jul/1964)
The following interview, between Alfred Hitchcock and Huw Wheldon, was filmed for the BBC television programme "Monitor" and was first broadcast on 05/Jul/1964.
It was repeated in May 1997 as part of the BBC2's 1997 Hitchcock Season along with an interview from "Picture Parade".
(c) BBC 1964
Let's start, Mr Hitchcock, by discussing this whole business of frightening the audiences. Do you find that audiences are frightened by different things now from the things that frightened them when you started, what, 30 years ago... 35 years ago, making films?
No, I wouldn't say so, because after all they were frightened as children. You have to remember this is all based on "Red Riding Hood", you see? Nothing has changed since "Red Riding Hood". So, what they are frightened of today are exactly the same things they were frightened of yesterday... because this... shall we call it this "fright complex" is rooted in everything.
Do you think, when making films, that women are frightened by different things from the things that frighten men?
I would say so, yes, I would definitely say that... after all, women are frightened by a mouse. You don't see men jumping on chairs and screaming! So there are definitely differences.
When you make a film, are you setting out to frighten men or women, or both?
Women – because 80% of the audience in the cinema are women. Because, you see, even if the house if 50:50 — half men, half women — a good percentage of the men... have said to his girl, being "on the make" of course, "what do you want to see, dear"? So that's where her influence comes as well. So, men have very little to do with the choice of the film.
When it comes to audiences in different parts of the world, take American audiences as against British audiences, instead of men and women for a moment — bearing in mind your Red Riding point that we're all frightened by the very simple things — are American audiences frightened by different things from European audiences?
I would say no. You see, you've got to remember than American audience is the global audience. As I once reminded an Englishman, I said, "You don't understand America because you think they are Americans, but they're not. America is full of foreigners. They're all foreigners since 1776." So, therefore, whatever frightens the Americans, frightens the Italians, the Romanians, the Danes and everyone else, you known, from Europe.
Do you think that it does an injustice to you, simply to think of you as a man who above all else has frightened the wits out of audiences?
Yes, but you have to remember that this process of frightening is done by means of a given medium — the medium of "pure cinema" is what I believe in. The assembly of pieces of film to create fright is the essential part of my job. Just as much as a painter might put certain colours together to create evil on canvas.
Now, you would as far as that, would you, to say that to create fright is "an essential" or "the essential part of my job"?
My job? Only in terms of the audience expect if from me.
Let me put it in another way. You're a master, aren't you, of the unexpected...
Well, that's only because one's challenged by the audience. They're saying to me "show us" and "I know what's coming next"... and I say, "do you?" And therefore, that's the avoidance of the cliché — automatically. They're expecting a cliché and I have to say "we cannot have a cliché here".
When you talk about putting bits of film together and then creating, in terms of what you call "pure cinema", the sequence that you're going for, I can imagine that it must have a bit of a shock to you personally when "talkies" came?
Well, the only thing wrong with the silent picture was that mouths opened and no sound came out. Unfortunately, when talk came in, the vulgarians — the money-changers of the industry — immediately commenced to cash in by photographing stage plays. So, that took the whole thing away from cinema completely.
It's like a lot of films one sees today, not that I see very many, but to me they are what I call "photographs of people talking". It bears no relation to the art of the cinema, and the point is that the power of the cinema, in its purest form, is so vast because it can go over the whole world. On a given night a film can play in Tokyo, West Berlin, London, New York, and the same audience is responding emotionally to the same things.
No other medium can do this — the theatre doesn't do it, because you've got different sets of people... but remember, in a film, they're the same actors. A book is translated — how well do we know, I don't know. The risk is, in translating even a film — what they call "dubbing", you know — is that there's liable to be a loss, and therefore, when one's thinking of a film globally, the talk is reduced to a minimum. And, if possible, tell the story visually, and let the talk be part of the atmosphere.
I imagine it's because of this point of view, which you've now articulated and which is very definitely known about you, that your reputation is so high with the great avant-garde film critics in France, particularly, where you have been practically canonised by them, haven't you?
...I mean they really regard Hitchcock as the last word. Your response to that elevation — has that been one of gratification? Are you pleased?
Oh, I think so. I think one should be flattered for that. Of course, you know, there are constant divisions of opinion among the devotees, and...
Yes, of course. Yes, sure.
Have you ever been tempted to make what is nowadays called a horror film, which is different from a Hitchcock film?
No, because it's too easy. Are you talking about visual horror like "Frankenstein" and that kind of thing?
No, they're... they're props. I believe in putting the horror in the mind of the audience and not necessarily on the screen. I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called "Psycho". And, of course, a lot of people looked at this thing and said "What a dreadful thing to do. How awful", and so forth. But, of course it was to me... it had great elements of the cinema in it.
The content, as such, was I felt, rather amusing... and it was... it was a big joke, you know? And I was horrified to find that some people took it seriously. It was intended to cause people to scream and yell, and so forth, but no more than the screaming and yelling on a switchback railway.
Now, this film had a horrible scene at the beginning with a girl being murdered in a shower. Well, I deliberately made that pretty rough, but as the film developed, I put less and less physical horror into it because I was leaving that in the mind of the audience and, as the film went on, there was less and less violence but the tension, in the mind of the viewer, was increased considerably. I was transferring it from the film into their minds. So, towards the end, I had no violence at all. But the audience by this time was screaming in agony... thank goodness!
You mentioned a "switchback railway"... you do see yourself as a switchback railway operator?
Well, possibly I am, in some respects, the man who says, in constructing it, says, "How steep can we make the first dip?" and "This will make them scream!" If you make the dip too deep, the screams will continue as the whole car goes over the edge and destroys everyone. Therefore, you mustn't go too far, because you do want them to get off the switchback railway giggling with pleasure, like the woman who comes out of the movie — a very sentimental movie — and says, "Oh, I had a good cry."
Now, what is a "good" cry as opposed to a "bad" cry? I don't know, but she says that and she says, with tears rolling down her cheeks, "Oh, it was lovely! I cried my eyes out!"