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Action (1968) - Alfred Hitchcock




Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, who like Kubrick believes in the primacy of the visual in film, has been putting his principles into practice for nearly 50 years, ever since his first film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925. He chatted about this and a variety of other topics in an interview in his Universal City office.


I'm American-trained. My first work was at the Paramount Studio in London—then it was Famous Players-Lasky. All of the personnel at the studio were American, and as soon as you entered the studio doors you were in an American atmosphere. I started out as a designer of titles working with Mordant Hall, who was a critic later for The New York Times, and for Tom Geraghty, who had been a writer for Douglas Fairbanks.

Later I worked for UFA in Berlin. The man I was working with spoke no English and looked a little bit like Harpo Marx. We were both designing titles and we communicated by means of drawings. But finally I was forced to learn the language and that came in handy, because my first directing job was in Munich and I had to direct some of the actors in German.

First Direction

My first picture was called The Pleasure Garden and it was filmed In Munich. But I also had locations to shoot in Italy and that was quite an experience. You know how film companies now go on location with 90 people and loads of equipment? Well, when I left the Munich station at 20 minutes to eight on Saturday evening I was accompanied only by the actor, whose name was Miles Mander, the cameraman, a newsreel man who was to shoot film on shipboard, and a camera. No lighting, no reflectors, nothing else at all, except the film—10,000 feet of it. After I got on the train the cameraman told me not to declare the camera or the 10,000 feet of film as we crossed the border into Austria. The studio wanted to save money on the customs. "Where is the camera hidden?" I asked. "Under your bed," he told me. When we crossed the border the customs officials did not discover the camera, but they found the film stock in the baggage car and confiscated it. I arrived in Genoa on a Monday morning without any film and on Tuesday noon I had to shoot the departure of an ocean liner from the port. So I sent the cameraman to Milan to buy some film stock. I spent more time doing the accounts than I did directing the picture. Most of my evenings were spent translating marks into lire via pounds. I happened to flash the 10,000 lire which I had for expense money and that night it was stolen from my hotel room. I had to borrow money from the cameramen and actor to meet expenses, and they weren't very nice about that. During one of the scenes a native girl was supposed to wade out into the sea with the idea of drowning herself, then the leading man was to go into the water in an attempt to rescue her, only to hold her head under the water and drown her. When I set up for the scene I noticed the cameraman, the leading actor and the native girl were in conference. The leading man told me, "She can't go into the water." I asked him, "You mean she's refusing to do her part?" Then the two cameramen had to explain to me about menstruation. I was twenty-five years old and I had never heard of it; I had had Jesuit education, and such matters weren't part of it. I hadn't really wanted to be a director; I was content to go on writing scripts and being an art director. But I finished The Pleasure Garden and it turned out well. At least The London Daily Express termed me "a young man with a master mind."

The Visual Medium

A film like Guess Who's Goming to Dinner? could well have been done as a play. It is a series of duologues—between the man and his wife, between the father and the colored man, between the colored man and his father, etc. The result can be very interesting and entertaining as has been proved. I don't decry dialogue, but I feel that the technique is not necessarily cinematic. I did a dialogue film. Dial M for Murder, which was taken from a successful play. I could have phoned that one in. But Rear Window is a pure motion picture, even though the man never moves from one position. You can't tell the story in the theater and you can't tell it as succinctly in a novel. What the man sees is everything. The oral part comes when he says to someone, "I saw something over there." But the person he's talking to doesn't see it. Later the person does see it and that solves the whole plot. The cinema is a succession of images put together like a sentence. Together they create a story. Chaplin did this brilliantly in a picture called The Pilgrim. He had first a scene of prison gates with a guard posting a picture of an escaped criminal, Chaplin. The next scene shows a long, lanky man coming out of a river after a swim to discover that his clothes are gone. The next scene is in a railroad depot where Chaplin is dressed in a parson's clothes which are much too big for him. Here in three brief scenes Chaplin told you everything you needed to know: The tramp has escaped from jail and he has stolen a preacher's clothes. I commended him on this one time, and he didn't realize what he had done. That kind of technique is rarely practiced today, but it is really not too difficult. All you have to do is apply your mind to it.

Films vs. Theater

Since talk came in, the films have been invaded by a lot of things that belong to the theater. Dissolves and fade-outs are theater techniques—curtains. Nowadays we use more of the quick cuts, and that is probably good. But techniques that apply in one case do not necessarily apply in another. Take the hand-held camera. This fellow who directed the Beatles did a fine job with the hand-held camera in catching the mood and jumpiness of the Beatles. But when he applies the technique to a Broadway show such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, it does not work. The reason is that comedians need more time to do their techniques. People like Phil Silvers need to set up their pieces of business.


One of my biggest problems is writing and that is why I can't make films more often. No matter how much I try to indoctrinate a writer with my mode of operation, many of them say, "I only see it this way." Well, they are writers and creative people, but they don't necessarily take the audience into account. I do find that the bigger the writer, the easier he is to work with. I've had great luck working with men such as Ben Hecht, Thornton Wilder and Robert Sherwood. It's the lesser ones who are the problems. Many of them are writing for their reputation, not for the film. But, of course, I need writers. I am a visual man, but unfortunately I also must have delineation of character and dialogue. The plot I can depict, but I must have convincing characters and good dialogue.

Silent-Film Directing

It was much easier. There were no nuances of dialogue to be concerned with, and the acting was much more elemental. The whole atmosphere was relaxed. We always had a three-piece orchestra on the set—violin, cello and piano—to provide the proper mood when a mother was bending over a cot to look at her dying baby.


One of my problems with writers is that when you tell them it is going to be a murder story, they start thinking in low-key terms. That is not my method. I think murder should be done on a lovely summer's day by a babbling brook. The liveliest fellow at a party might well be a psychopathic killer. Take real-life murders, like the district attorney's wife or Doctor Finch's wife. The events leading up to the actual violent act might well be light and even humorous. Murderers often have to be delightful people; otherwise they wouldn't attract their victims. They often are after sex or money, and they need to use their wiles to get it. But it is hard to get writers to understand that. The average writer writes on the nose, whereas a suspense story should be written contrapuntally. In real life, murderers do not go around with black mustaches or with their faces in green light.


I make it a rule if I am going to use a theater, I will integrate it into the plot, not just use it as a background. For instance, in Torn Curtain I made the ballerina the catalyst for the story. I always try to use the background in the story. For instance, North by Northwest, I put Cary Grant into an auction, and the question was, "How will he get out of there?" The solution was for him to bid at the auction. In the same picture I wanted to use the face of Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore for a definite purpose. I wanted Grant to slide down Lincoln's nose, hide in a nostril and be flushed out by a sneezing fit. In that way I would have been using everything for a payoff. But the authorities would not let me use Lincoln's face, and Grant had to slide down between the faces. If I had made No Way to Treat a Lady, I would have had the detectives sit in the theater audience and see all of the costumes of the murdered on the stage—the priest, the fairy, etc. But I am not going to tell anyone else how to direct his picture.


I remember seeing a London play called Jolly jack Tar. During the action a bomb was planted on stage and I remember hearing a woman in the galleries shout to the actors: "There's a bomb in the box!" Audiences are very strange. I know their reactions so well I don't have to go to the theater anymore; the emotional anxieties are pretty well standard. And they do not necessarily relate to right and wrong. Those anxieties can be so powerful that, if you show a burglar in the bedroom and then cut to a woman opening her front door, the audience says to the burglar: "Get out!" They don't care about the fact that he is involved in a criminal act. When I made Psycho, I had a scene in which Tony Perkins tried to dispose of a body by pushing a car into a swamp. When the car did not sink under the water, the audience was pulling for it to do so, even though Perkins was the murderer.

Mystery vs. Suspense

I have made only one mystery and that was Murder!, from a play by Clement Dane. It was a real whodunit. I feel that mysteries are fine in books, when you can spread the clues throughout the story and then reach the climactic moment when you find out that the butler did it. But I don't feel it works in a film when you have to wait the whole length of it for the surprise denouement at the end. It's like this: If you touch off a bomb, your audience gets a ten-second shock. But if the audience knows that the bomb has been planted, then you can build up the suspense and keep them in a state of expectation for five minutes.


Mystery is mystifying; it is an intellectual thing. Suspense is an emotional thing. The audience does not necessarily emote when it is mystified, but it does emote with suspense. The point is to give the viewers information which the cast doesn't have. If you see a man with a club coming up behind an innocent person, you know more than the innocent person does, and suspense is created.