Portsmouth Evening News (27/Nov/1936) - "I Make Suspense My Business" Says Film Director Alfred Hitchcock
- article: "I Make Suspense My Business" Says Film Director Alfred Hitchcock
- author(s): Alfred Hitchcock
- newspaper: Portsmouth Evening News (27/Nov/1936)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock
- This is a slightly truncated version of "Close Your Eyes and Visualise!" which appeared in a July 1936 issue of The Stage.
"I MAKE SUSPENSE MY BUSINESS"
Says Film Director ALFRED HITCHCOCK
In North London, on the banks of the Grand Junction Canal, stands a tall building topped by a giant chimney. In 1924 a film critic said, concerning a film made in this building, that it was "the best American picture made in England."
That film, "Woman to Woman," starring Clive Brook and Betty Compson, was made at what are now the Gainsborough studios, and was produced by the embryonic Gainsborough Company for Famous Players-Lasky. Therein lies my debt to America, for in the beginning I was American trained, and under the old F.P.L. banner dug myself in and studied the branches of the cinema game.
On "Woman to Woman" I was the general factotum. I wrote the script, I designed the sets, and I managed the production. It was the first film that I had really got my hands on to. Up till then I had been trained as an engineer, studied art, earned 15s. a week in an advertising agency, and, finding this depressing, finally managed to sell myself to the American unit at Islington as a writer of sub-titles for silent films.
Michael Balcon took over the studios from F.P.L. and under him I made my first film, "The Pleasure Garden." Others which followed were "The Lodger," The Ring," "Juno and the Paycock," "Blackmail," "Murder." and "The Skin Game."
I played about with "technique" in those early days. I tried crazy tricks with violent "cuts," "dissolves," and "wipes" with everything in the room spinning round and standing on its head. People used to call it "the Hitchcock touch," but it never occurred to me that I was merely wasting footage with camera tricks and not getting on with the film.
I have stopped all that to-day. I have not the film time to throw away on fancy stuff. I like my screen well used, with every corner filled, but no arty theories holding the action down. Nowadays I want the cutting and continuity to be as inconspicuous as possible, and all I am concerned with is to get the characters developed and the story told without any directorial idiosyncrasies.
The creed that I chalk up in front of me to-day is that we are making Motion Pictures. Too many men forget that. A film has got to be interesting to the eye, and above all it is the picture which is the thing. So much do I try to tell my story in pictures that if by any chance the sound apparatus broke down in the cinema, the audience would not fret and get restless. The pictorial action would still hold them!
Sound is all right in its place, but it is a silent picture training which counts to-day. Naval men have a theory that the finest navigators are the men who learnt their craft in the now out-of-date sailing ships. Similarly I maintain that the young men of America and Britain who strike out into the film game should first go through a course of silent film technique.
There is not enough visualizing done in the studios, and instead far too much writing. People take a sheet of paper and scrawl down a lot of dialogue and instructions and call that a day's work. It leads them nowhere. There is also a growing habit of reading a film script by the dialogue alone. I deplore this method, this lazy neglect of the action, this lack of reading action in a film story, or if you like it, this inability to visualize.
I try to do without paper when I begin a new film. I visualize my story in my mind as a series of smudges moving over a variety of backgrounds. Often I pick my backgrounds first and then think about the action of the story. This was the case in "The Man Who Knew Too Much." I visualized the snow-clad heights of the Alps and the ill-lit alleys of London, and threw my story and characters in amongst them.
BIGGER RANGE, LESS APPEAL
I do not despise sound in my preference for pictures first, but when I am told that the talking picture has a bigger range of subjects I argue that it also lessens the field of appeal. What appeals to the eye is universal; what appeals to the ear is local.
My methods of film making and the introduction of those legendary "Hitchcock touches" are quite straightforward. I like to keep the public guessing and never let them know what is going to happen next. I build up my interest gradually and surely, and, in thrillers, bring it to a crescendo. There must be no half measures, and I have to know where I am going every second of the time. If there is a secret in doing this, it is perhaps in knowing your script by heart. Then you know automatically the tempo of each succeeding scene, and it matters not whether they are shot out of proper order. But also I have to guard against going too fast in a film. This is fatal. I have to remember that, whereas I know the story backwards, the audience has got to absorb it gradually. Other-wise the whole thing would be too sketchy to be intelligible.
My artists, too, must behave as human beings, and in my determination to achieve this ideal arises perhaps the story about my loathing of women in films. I don't loathe them, but if they are going to appear in one of my pictures they are not going to look too beautiful or be too glamorous. Glamour has nothing to do with reality, and I maintain that reality is the most important factor in the making of a successful film.
The very beautiful woman who just walks around, avoiding the furniture, wearing fluffy negligees, and looking very seductive may be an attractive ornament, but she does not help the film at all. I hate it when actresses try to be ladies and in doing so become cold and lifeless, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to knock the lady-likeness out of chorus girls. I don't ask much of an actress and I have no wish for her to be able to play a whole list of character roles, but she must be a real human person. That is why I deliberately deprived Madeleine Carroll of her dignity and glamour in "The Thirty-Nine Steps," and I did exactly the same thing in "Secret Agent." In this last film, the first shot you saw of her was with her face covered with cold cream!
THE ACCENT ON COMEDY
Next to reality, I put the accent on comedy. Comedy, strangely enough, makes a film more dramatic. A stage play gives you intermissions for reflection on each set. These intermissions have to be supplied in a film by contrasts, and. if a film is dramatic or tragic, the obvious contrast is comedy. In all my films I try to supply a definite contrast. I take a dramatic situation up and up to its peak of excitement and then, before it has time to start the downward curve, I introduce comedy to relieve the tension. After that, I feel safe with the climax. If the film petered to an end without any contrast, it would have an anti-climax.
I am cut to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups. Civilization has become so sheltering that we cannot experience sufficient thrills at first hand. Therefore, to prevent our becoming sluggish and jellified, we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this. In "The Man Who Knew Too Much," in "The Thirty-Nine Steps," and in "Secret Agent," I have been all out for whole-hearted thrills, the more exciting the better. But my thrills are not horror thrills, but full-blooded, healthy stuff, for which there is always an eternal demand.