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The Times (07/Jul/2005) - Bound by the spell of Hitch



Bound by the spell of Hitch

Hitchcock, whose Spellbound is being given away in the Saturday Times, is recalled by his friend John Russell Taylor

When I first moved to Los Angeles to teach at the University of Southern California and struck up an unlikely friendship with Alfred Hitchcock, lunching once or twice a week with him and spending time with him and his wife Alma in their Bel Air home, friends kept saying to me things like "But you can't really like that old monster, can you?"

I assumed that their mock solicitude was masking envy: well, I would, wouldn't I? In any case, the simple fact was that I did like him, very much, and found him constantly fascinating company. And as for his being a monster, well, he was definitely a monstre sacre.

Throughout my life I have been drawn to people who were larger than life, and in some sense monstrous, but worth putting up with that because of their talent, originality and general interestingness. Indeed, one of the things that fascinated me about Hitchcock, whose biography I was to write, was that he shared my taste: he always seemed to enjoy most working and being with fellow monsters.

He adored working with Marlene Dietrich on Stage Fright and she returned the compliment: she once told me: "After work he would take us to the Caprice restaurant, and feed us with steaks he had flown in from New York, because he thought they were better than the British meat. And I always thought he did that to show that he was not really disgusted with our work."

Equally he was fascinated with Tallulah Bankhead, whom he cast in Lifeboat precisely for her personal outrageousness. She was alleged not to wear any underwear, and the studio staff had plenty of chance to judge for themselves while the lifeboat was careering up and down in choppy seas created in the Twentieth Century Fox tank. Gradually, as word got round, a surprising number of studio employees turned up to look, to such an extent that studio head Darryl Zanuck had to ask Hitch to do something about it. Hitch blandly replied: "I am as keen on the chain of command as you are. The problem is, do I refer the matter to Costume, Makeup or Hairdressing?"

Rival male monsters could be another matter. He was not close friends with either of his favourite male stars, Cary Grant and James Stewart: they were too obliging and malleable. He told me that he had only two real (male) friends in the world, and "one of them wouldn't think twice to stab you in the back, and the other is the meanest man you could wish not to meet".

The back-stabber was Lew Wasserman, formerly Hitch's agent, and then the head of Universal Studios. The Scrooge was Sydney Bernstein, the founder of Granada Television. Hitch liked to tell the story of being invited to dinner in Paris by Bernstein, which they took accompanied by their respective wives and Hitch's daughter, Pat. Quail was on the menu, and Bernstein ordered it. But as they came in pairs, he announced that only two brace were necessary, leaving someone with the invidious task of dividing two tiny birds among five people.

Professionally, too, Hitch relished a challenge. I once asked him what other directors he really rated: a tricky question, since he was not noted for his generosity towards his peers. But he answered without a second's hesitation: "Oh, Bunuel. He's the master of us all."

And of course the two old monsters (who knew each other slightly) had a lot in common, including a taste for chilly blondes with a fire beneath the surface.

Catherine Deneuve told me that ever since playing one for Bunuel in Belle de Jour, she had longed to do the same for Hitchcock, and had bombarded him with suggestions.

I asked him why he had not taken any of them up. He said that yes, Deneuve was perfect, but her English was not good enough to play any but a specifically French woman. He did not explain why, if that were so, he had not used her in Topaz and I didn't ask.

Given the regard for Bunuel, it was almost inevitable that Hitch should jump at the chance of working with Bunuel's erstwhile collaborator, Salvador Dali, on the dream sequence in Spellbound. Dali, after all, was the quintessential artist-monster, and the main justification for using him, as far as the film's producer David O. Selznick was concerned, was the regularity with which he had been hitting the headlines in America with his outrageous behaviour.

Hitch sometimes had to rein him in, but that was not a bad thing, and in the main Hitch got what he wanted: Dali's idea of a dream was the same as his — brutal clarity and matter-of-factness, however fantastic the basic action might be.

Subsequently Hitch described Spellbound as "just another man-hunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis", and it is doubtful he took the psychoanalytical trappings terribly seriously. Still, while he might not have believed in them, he was certainly interested. I once asked him if he had ever considered getting psychoanalysed, just for curiosity's sake. "Oh no," he said. "After all, it's all a hypothesis. Even the very existence of the subconscious is a hypothesis. And I think I have enough silly hypotheses about myself without listening to other people's silly hypotheses."

But since psychoanalysis was very much in vogue at the time, it made as good a McGuffin as anything else.

And Hitch needed a good excuse for doing what he wanted, as Selznick was enough of a monster in his own right.

Hitch had gone to Hollywood in 1939 under contract to Selznick, and still had more films to work on before he would be released. He had been lucky in his time of arrival, since while he was making his first American film, Rebecca, Selznick had his hands more than full with Gone With the Wind and did not have the time to interfere, as he normally would have.

Then, when Rebecca proved to be a huge hit, Hitch was in a very strong position.

But later on, in Spellbound and The Paradine Case, Selznick became much more heavy-handed, wanting everything he produced to be slow-moving and dialogue bound (he wrote much of the dialogue himself), as well as preferably starring his new wife, Jennifer Jones.

Selznick was in fact concerned with Jones's epic vehicle Duel in the Sun during most of Spellbound's shooting, though he did increasingly want to interfere with the script. Hitch was relieved (despite the implied insult) when Selznick decided to sell their next project together, Notorious, to another studio. At least it meant that Hitch became in effect his own producer, which was the way he liked it.

Walking with monsters might have been his idea of fun, but when they have real power the fun rapidly evaporates.