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The Guardian (02/Jun/1999) - Alfred the Great

(c) The Guardian (02/Jun/1999)

Alfred the Great

Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks, by Dan Aulier, Bloomsbury 567pp £20

Let's get one thing straight: these are not Hitchcock's secret notebooks. The second line of the introduction says: "He himself kept no journals or diaries." This is, instead, a collection of production stills, facsimiles of scripts, treatments, and letters, with some Pooterish interpolation by the author. It may be one of the worst organised and written film books, but it is still full of fascination, because the papers provide, often inadvertently, many insights into a truly great director and interesting man.

Behind the East End pork butcher frame lived a literate and highly competent human being. Hitchcock drew his own story-boards, collaborated on all the scripts, and, above all, steered writers towards the Hitchcock film, so that no matter who his collaborators were, from Sydney Gilliatt during his British period, through Ben Hecht to John Michael Hayes], the result was unmistakably a Hitchcock production. Most of the writers loved working with him: he had a rare talent for making them enjoy the process of collaboration.

But long before a film actually went into production, Hitchcock had set his stamp on it. He liked to say that the film was finished before the first day of shooting and that all he had to do on the set was sit back and watch his plans unfold.

Of course this was untrue. It is an enduring mystery of big productions that with tens of millions of dollars riding on the outcome, productions start without rehearsals, without final scripts and without actors committed.

Film is a medium that demands an enormous range of abilities from the director, many of them social. But the one indispensable talent is to be able to hold the whole project clearly in view while all around actors are whining and technicians are complaining and producers are adducing their mother-in-law's reaction to the script. A director cannot work alone. He must first possess a clear vision of the finished product and then know exactly how that is to be achieved.

Hitch understood that no time spent in preparation was wasted. The two most famous scenes in his work are the crop-dusting scene in "North By Northwest", and the shower scene in "Psycho". The evidence of the extent of the preparation for the shower scene has long been published. Now 70 frames of Hitchcock's storyboard for the crop-dusting scene are reproduced.

But it is an anorak's book, written by people for whom language is secondary, critical analysis a mystery, historical context unimportant, and meaningless detail fascinating.