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Speech: Screen Producers Guild (07/Mar/1965)

Transcript of a talk Alfred Hitchcock gave at the Screen Producers Guild dinner on March 7th, 1965 when he accepted their Milestone Award.

They say that when a man drowns, his entire life flashes before his eyes. I am indeed fortunate, for I am having that same experience without even getting my feet wet.

First of all I wish to express my deep appreciation for this honour. It makes me feel very proud indeed. It is especially meaningful because it is presented by my fellow dealers in celluloid. After all, when a man is found guilty of murder and condemned to death, it always makes him feel much better to know that it was done by a jury of his friends and neighbours.

The wording of this award is highly complimentary, but just a little disturbing. Being given a plaque for "historic contributions" makes one want to pinch himself to be sure it isn't being awarded posthumously. I am indeed touched — and I want to thank you very much.

Here on the dais I see men who have been good friends and business associates — a difficult combination. I have good news for one of these gentlemen. I came to these shores 26 years ago to make a picture for David Selznick. Naturally upon my arrival Mr. Selznick sent me one of his interoffice memos. I completed reading that memo yesterday. I shall act upon it at my earliest opportunity. Actually, it wasn't bad reading. In fact, I may make it into a picture. I intend to call it "The Longest Story Ever Told."

The condemned man, having eaten a hearty meal, is now permitted to say a few words in his behalf. During the next few minutes... I shall probably make quite a number of references to myself and my pictures. I trust that, because of the circumstances of this dinner, you will excuse this immediately.

I have laboured in this bizarre trade for 40 years. There have been ups and downs; battles won and lost. I shall recall only one of the latter. In North by Northwest during the scene on Mount Rushmore I wanted Cary Grant to hide in Lincoln's nostril and then have a fit of sneezing. The Parks Commission of the Department of Interior was rather upset at this thought. I argued until one of their number asked me how I would like it if they had Lincoln play the scene in Cary Grant's nose. I saw their point at once.

In my years in the business I have survived the silent films, talkies, the narrow screen, the wide screen, 3D, the drive-in movie, the in-flight movie, television, smell-o-vision, bank night, and butterless popcorn. The subject of concern at the moment seems to be runaway production. I think I can speak with some authority on this subject. After all, in England I am regarded as a runaway production. How would I stop runaway production? By urging American producers to be faithful to their wives.

I began as a writer, then became, successively, stage setter, art director, director, and now, the climax of my career: after-dinner speaker.

I think I shall avail myself of the time given me to acquaint you with the person to whom you have given this award. Who is this man? Who is the real Alfred Hitchcock? I shall begin by correcting several misconceptions about myself which have grown up over the years. It is high time I set the record straight.

First of all, there seems to be a widespread impression that I am stout. I can see you share my amusement at this obvious distortion of the truth. Of course I may loom a little large just now, but you must remember, this is before taxes.

I am certain that you are wondering how such a story got started. It began nearly 40 years ago. As you know, I make a brief appearance in each of my pictures. One of the earliest of these was The Lodger, the story of Jack the Ripper. My appearance called for me to walk up the stairs of the rooming house. Since my walk-ons in subsequent pictures would be equally strenuous — boarding buses, playing chess, etc. — I asked for a stunt man. Casting, with an unusual lack of perception, hired this fat man! The rest is history. He became the public image of Hitchcock. Changing the image was impossible. Therefore I had to conform to the image. It was not easy. But proof of my success is that no one has ever noticed the difference.

Our cherubic friend had a tragic ending. It was during the 1940s while he was trying desperately to make an appearance in a picture. Unfortunately Tallulah Bankhead wouldn't allow him to climb into the lifeboat. She was afraid he'd sink it. It was rather sad watching him go down. Of course, we could have saved him, but it would have meant ruining the take. He did receive an appropriate funeral. We recovered the body, and after it had dried out, we had him buried at sea.

You may be sure that in securing an actor for my next picture I was more careful. I gave casting an accurate and detailed description of my true self. Casting did an expert job. The result: Cary Grant in Notorious.

As you know, I still remain a prisoner of the old image. They say that inside every fat man is a thin man trying desperately to get out. Now you know that the thin man is the real Alfred Hitchcock.

There is a dreadful story that I hate actors. Imagine anyone hating Jimmy Stewart... or Jack Warner. I can't imagine how such a rumour began. Of course it may possibly be because I was once quoted as saying that actors are cattle. My actor friends know I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude, and unfeeling remark; that I would never call them cattle... What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle.

I will admit that I have, from time to time, hoped that technology would devise a machine to replace the actor. And I have made some progress of my own in that direction. In Foreign Correspondent Joel McCrea played a scene with a windmill and in North by Northwest Cary Grant's vis-à-vis was a crop-dusting airplane. I believe the airplane had real star quality, for it drew an amazing amount of fan mail. However, when I attempted to sign it up for my next picture, it was already asking too much money.

This leads to the next logical step when I reduced the human element still further in The Birds. Now there are some actors I would call cattle! You have heard of actors who insist that their names be above the title; these demanded that they be the title! As a result I am definitely in favour of human actors. As far as I am concerned birds are "strictly for the birds" — or for Walt Disney.

On the subject of actors I should like to add this footnote. I find it delightful that the stars have been placed on the Hollywood sidewalks so we can walk all over them. It is an encouraging demonstration that the city's Chamber of Commerce not only has an eye for publicity but is psychologically oriented as well.

It has also been whispered about that I hate television commercials. Once again I plead "not guilty." I love them. Oh, I readily admit that they are noisy, nauseating, ridiculous, dull, boring, and tasteless... but so are many other things — including after-dinner speakers. The difference — and herein lies the reason I love commercials — the difference is that one can turn them off. This is an epoch-making breakthrough. In the entire history of sadism, the television commercial is the only instance where Man has invented a torture and then provided the victim with a means of escape. What is interesting is that so few people avail themselves of the opportunity.

Actually I find commercials fascinating. They are so exquisitely vulgar and so delightfully tasteless that they must be irresistible to everyone save the few who aren't enchanted by discussions of nasal passages and digestive tracts.

TV has been an interesting chapter in the history of screen entertainment. It was only natural that it would affect theatre attendance, but I explain it this way: The invention of television can be compared to the introduction of indoor plumbing. Fundamentally it brought no change in the public's habits. It simply eliminated the necessity of leaving the house.

With the sale of features to television, many a screen producer now sits in his living room in front of his television set, his past rapidly catching up to him as he watches his turkeys come home to roost.

Television brings us to another accusation I should like to refute. We often hear the criticism that there is too much violence. Screen producers need not be told that television violence is very much like an iceberg. Only a small fraction of it is visible on the screen. The public should see what goes on behind the scenes.

But the point is that one of television's greatest contributions is that it brought murder back into the home where it belongs. Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one's antagonism. And, if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.

The real danger in my opinion is not violence. It is that the viewer of television murder can enjoy all the sensations without the mess. There are no stains to remove, no body to dispose of, no cement to dry. Such a situation is not good for national character. It encourages sloth and dries up creative juices. The result? Murder could someday be reduced to a mere spectator sport.

I have been making light of murder but I hope you never forget that it can be a very sordid business — especially if you don't have a good lawyer.

The public thinks I have been getting away with murder for 40 years. But am I really unscathed? I can best describe the insidious effect of murder on one's character by reading this paragraph from Thomas de Quincey's delightful essay, "Murder as One of the Fine Arts."

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun on this downward path you never know where you are to stop. Many a man dates his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

I think it is now obvious that the real Hitchcock is almost totally different from the public image. I only hope that having learned this, you do not feel you have given this award to the wrong man. I have already grown quite fond of it.

They say that a murder is committed every minute, so I don't want to waste any more of your time.

Now, will the real Alfred Hitchcock please sit down. Thank you very much.