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Sight and Sound (1980) - Working with Hitchcock




Working with Hitchcock

Ivor Montagu worked with Alfred Hitchcock during the 1920s and 30s. Here, he recalls his experiences

My periods of active association with Alfred Hitchcock were two: briefly at the start of his career, around 1926-27, and rather later for a little longer, when he was already a master craftsman, from 1934 to 1936.

By 1926 I had said goodbye to Cambridge and, for a time, zoology. The Film Society had been founded, to a generally frosty welcome from the film trade, which saw in its Sunday gatherings an implied criticism – which was not intended – of their own standards and choice of product for public presentation. I had myself infiltrated into the film industry, or the edge of it, through Adrian Brunel, than whom there was no better teacher. Adrian had some tiny rooms where he and his cronies ran a sort of film knacker's business – repair and rebeautifying of ravaged pictures – off a narrow staircase in Dansey Yard, behind Shaftesbury Avenue. He helped us to title-translate and get ready the Film Society imports, and I crept in, like many other luminaries of British filmmaking before and after, by sitting and watching and passing, on demand, out of reach paper clips, elastic bands, and even film cuts that dangled precariously over waste bins. Sooner or later Adrian would take pity on us and put us on the payroll; which was, of course, not quite the same as finding us a regular salary.

After a few months I became a partner in this very happy, if slightly happy-go-lucky enterprise, with more responsibilities. Adrian was often away. He was under contract to Mick (later Sir Michael) Balcon at Gainsborough studios, and this meant a constant striving not to be neglected in the queue for production space within that dingy warehouse.

Suddenly a phone call from Mick. Would I lunch in Piccadilly with him and Adrian? I said yes, of course, and over my fried onions and mashed potatoes Mick explained. He was in a difficulty. Hitchcock – a shadowy figure at that time, whom I vaguely knew by name – had just finished a picture and Mick could not get the distributor to show it. He had taken a risk in promoting Hitch from floor assistant actually to direct. (Mick, all his life, loved recruiting fresh talent to direction, and this was not the least of his blessings to British film production.) But this was now not Hitch's first picture for the company but his third, and the distributor would have none of any of them. The mounting unused investment was becoming impossible for Balcon to defend.

At this juncture Adrian had had an idea. What was the distributor's chief grudge against the latest Hitchcock – The Lodger by name? It was supposed to be highbrow, the most scarlet epithet in the film trade vocabulary. Hitch, indeed, was deeply suspected by the distributors of this damning fault. Had he not even been trained in an art school, and entered the film world drawing the lettering and little decorative pictures on titles? I had been to a university and was mixed up...