The Times (24/Jun/1964) - Mr Alfred Hitchcock's Zest for the Cinema
(c) The Times (24/Jun/1964)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV), Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, H.G. Wells, James Stewart, John Buchan, Laurence Olivier, Marnie (1964), Mary Rose, North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Rope (1948), The Birds (1963), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Three Hostages, The Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958)
Mr. Alfred Hitchcock's Zest for the Cinema
Really, I'm not very interested in subjects and characters: only in making films. It's like asking a still-life painter if he's interested in apples: the only answer is 'Not particularly, but you've got to paint something'. Well, it's the same with me: I've got to make films about something, but I don't really attach all that importance to what it is." The director who said all that recently on a flying visit to London was not, as you might imagine, some wild young man who had just fallen in love with that wonderful box of tricks that is the cinema, but Alfred Hitchcock, veteran of over 40 years in the cinema and happily about to embark on his fiftieth feature film, which will probably be a return to Buchan with The Three Hostages.
As one would gather from what he says, and even more from what he does in the cinema, Mr. Hitchcock has never lost his sheer zest for the medium; his habit of setting himself technical problems, like making a whole film without a cut (Rope), or from one limited point of view (Rear Window), or with twice as many trick-shots as any previous film (The Birds), for the pleasure of working them out is proverbial; and moreover for the past ten years in addition to his film-making for the cinema he has personally supervised several television series under the title Alfred Hitchcock Presents and filled in any spare time he may happen to have by directing half hour and hour episodes for them. In spite of his evident mastery of the techniques of the modern cinema — commercial as well as artistic — he has some harsh things to say about the way it is run, particularly in Britain and Hollywood.
GETTING AN IDEA
"There was nothing wrong with the silent cinema except that people opened their mouths and nothing came out. If only sound pictures could have contented themselves with remedying this slight defect! But because of the greed and meanness of the producers they soon started buying up successful stage plays and films became just nice pictures of people talking. I have always fought against that, tried to tell the story in cinematic terms, not in endless talk. In the old days it was not too difficult: I'd get an idea for a film, and then I and some capable journalist — not a distinguished literary figure, you know, but a practical journeyman writer — would talk out and then write down an outline. Once that was there the film was there; then someone literary would be brought in to fill in the gaps where dialogue was really needed with something which would round out the characters sufficiently: first you decide what the characters are going to do, and then you provide them with enough characteristics to make it seem plausible that they should do it.
"Now, of course, with all the rules and regulations controlling the employment of writers and the allotment of credits, I can't do it this way; but I like to come as near as I can. I decide on a subject, hire a writer and just talk to him about it for several weeks until I think he knows what I want. Then I send him off to write a draft script, and when he comes back I start pulling to pieces and rearranging, always with the writer standing by, then I myself re-dictate the whole final script from beginning to end. At that stage I have virtually the whole film in my head, and change and improvise very little on the set; though I had to more than usual with The Birds because it was difficult to calculate the reactions of the characters until we had something for them actually to react to."
How far did Mr. Hitchcock find that audience reactions to his fashion of story-telling on the screen had changed over the years? "Well, I have more trouble now than I used to have in the 1930s with satisfying the dictates of what I call idiot logic. When I made the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (which was perhaps not a good idea anyway, but I wanted a vehicle for James Stewart quickly, and it was just lying to hand) I found that most of the trouble was filling gaps in the story which no one in his right mind would want filled anyway, except that people would complain, if all these inessentials were not spelt out. I think I've sometimes given in too far about this. In The Birds, for example, I believe I really devoted too much time to spelling out the ordinariness of the characters' lives before the catastrophe, so that the beginning is rather boring; it would be better if you could take more of that on trust, like in Wells' books — The War of the Worlds and so on — which were what I had at the back of my mind. Again, when I first thought of North by Northwest it was much more abrupt and disjointed. I saw it like an early Nevinson painting, you know, all jagged, angular shapes. But I had to fill in the gaps, to make it smoother-flowing so that the modern public shouldn't be too puzzled, and I think that was a pity.
Mr. Hitchcock seemed, I said, more than any other director to have mastered the star system, so that stars were in his films a positive asset rather than a liability. This amused him, "Oh. stars are always a liability. The only advantage they have is that they raise the intensity of an audience's involvement; they're that much more involved if it's Cary Grant up there hanging off a cliff edge than if it's a nobody, however good an actor he may be. But anyway acting's for the stage; all you want on screen is for actors to be themselves, not to create characters — even Olivier can't bring that off". How did The Birds fit into this; it had no important stars in it? "It doesn't, really. The trouble there was a matter of balance between the people and the birds. If you are too interested in the people, if they're Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, then the birds will be an irritating irrelevance; on the other hand I admit that if you're not interested in them at all then the period before the birds come will be very boring indeed. That was a real problem, and I don't think I solved it.
Mr. Hitchcock is relatively reticent about his latest film Marnie, due soon in the West End ("Well, that's another direction.") but talks happily about his projects, The Three Hostages, and, of all things, a version of Mary Rose, The Island that likes to be Visited ("I see it essentially as a horror story"). To hear him describing effects he has in mind for the latter, like having the semi-phantom Mary Rose lit from inside, so that she casts a ghostly glow instead of a shadow on the walls, and in the death scene letting her husband feel her brow when she goes into a trance and find his hand covered in blue powder ("I don't know exactly what it signifies, but I like the idea"), one is left in no doubt that he starts his films very much (from the visual end of things. But from there on nothing is left to chance, nothing wasted; a great director at the very height of his powers — what better films has he made than Psycho, or Vertigo, or The Trouble with Harry? — he seems to have no limits before him. There is no knowing what he may do next, but one can be certain that whatever it is it will be well worth waiting for.