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The Observer (17/Nov/1935) - A genius of the films: Alfred Hitchcock and his work

(c) The Observer (17/Nov/1935)



Alfred Hitchcock, whose film, "The 39 Steps," will be shown throughout the country this week, is the first national institution, along with the "Cheshire Cheese" and the Savoy Grill, that itinerant American journalists demand to see.

Oddly enough, they all seem to approach him with the same figure in mind. They expect to find a lean, tough, grim fellow, compound of Dashiel Hammett, Sherlock Holmes, and Perry Mason. It is one of my major professional pleasures to lead up some transatlantic colleague, unprepared, to the genial "Hitch," and watch him as his hand is engulfed in the vast directorial paw.

During my ten-year friendship with Hitch — the full name is unthinkable to anyone who knows him — I have never known him fail to impress strangers with a start of surprise. He has always been chubby, but to-day he is a mellow, exuberant mountain of a man in the late thirties, whose passion is music, whose pleasure is good living, and whose genius is for visual imagery. He is a man who visualises both by instinct and training. He cannot help drawing. As he talks to you his broad, draughtsman's pencil sneaks out, and he blocks in groups and figures on the napkin or table top. When he signs his name to a letter the flourish under the signature slips into a cartoon. His Christmas cards are self-portraits, broadly saline.


Strangers, hearing rumours of the way he de-bunks his actors on the set, knocking conceit out of them, bludgeoning sense into them — I have myself heard him thunder at a leading man, after a dozen unsuccessful entries, "Come in, so and so, you Quota Queen!" — have visualised him as a kind of domestic Von Stroheim, "the man you love to hate."

Actually Hitch, like most heavy men, is the gentlest creature you could meet in a month of Sundays. He has done more kindly turns to out of work actors, assistants, secretaries, and mere sponging acquaintances than anyone I know in this industry. Off the set he is many people's angel. On, he is frequently a fiend.

Hitch has a tiny wife, who helps him with all his scenarios, and a tiny fairylike daughter, who bobs an old-fashioned curtsey to you when she speaks. These are the people who really rule his life. He is an old-fashioned person at heart, believing in the ordinary things of life, the small common decencies, the trivial events that alone make the big ones extraordinary. That is why, I am convinced, he is a good film-maker. His genius, like Anthony Hope's, is in starting excitement with the cracking of the first breakfast egg, buying a first-class ticket from Charing Cross to Ruritania. His films are exciting because they take cognisance of the ideas and inhibitions of everyday.

When I first met Hitchcock he was writing and ornamenting sub-titles for silent pictures. He used to announce "Came the dawn" in black letters on a while ground, or tell us that "Heart spoke to heart in the hush of the evening" in white letters on a black ground. His title cards were both elegant and original, because the man simply could not help drawing. All his instincts were towards visualisation, and all his training towards draughtsmanship. It was obvious to everyone except the commercial nabobs of the industry that some day he would direct pictures, and direct them supremely well.

That was eleven years ago. In the years between he made a number of pictures, of varying popular success, including six of the best films ever turned out in this country — the silent films "The Lodger" and "The Ring," the early talkies "Blackmail" and "Murder," and the modern talkies "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The 39 Steps."


At present Hitch is working on the third picture of his "spy trilogy" for Gaumont-British, "The Secret Agent." It is based on two of Somerset Maugham's stories in "Ashenden," and is what Hitch calls a "red-herring trailer." Beyond the fact that it has three leading men, oddly and provocatively cast — John Gielgud as the secret service agent, Peter Lorre as a humorous professional killer, and Robert Young, the hero of numerous American romances, as "something of a villain," Hitch will tell you nothing. He rubs his hands, beams genially upon you, and reserves the right of keeping the last ace up his sleeve.

When I went out to the studio to see him last week, I found him standing, rather like a malevolent kelpie, among a litter of broken china.

"You've come five minutes too late," he said.
"For what?"
"For the big scene."
"Murder?" I asked, hopefully.
"No; temperament Me breaking teacups. I always do it when I'm feeling good. That was a tea-pot once. I like to get up on to a high rostrum with a camera, and tip the tray over. Or push cups over the edge of a platform. Or just open my hand and let the whole thing drop. Wouldn't you?"

I admitted that the game had its possibilities, and asked him where he caught the habit. He told me, breaking crockery at Wembley Exhibition, in a mis-spent youth.

"You must let me have some fun," he pleaded. "I'm on a diet. And I don't do crazy tricks in my pictures any more. You know what a good time I used to have in the old days, with violent cuts and dissolves and wipes, everything in the room spinning round, standing on its head, all that sort of thing. But I've stopped all that. I haven't time to waste any more on technical tricks. I like my screen well filled, every corner used, but I've no fancy theories — I want the cutting and continuity to be as inconspicuous as possible. All I'm concerned with is to get the characters developed and the story clearly told, without wasting any footage. I've turned technical ascetic, kid, without either fun or luxuries. Surely you don't grudge me a bit of fun between scenes?" he ended reproachfully, kicking a sugar basin across the floor.