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The Times (03/Aug/1971) - Murder with comedy at Covent Garden Market

(c) The Times (03/Aug/1971)

Murder with comedy at Covent Garden Market

Alfred Hitchcock, working on his first film in Britain for 21 years, has a way of directing simply by being present

By Peter Waymark

In a corner of Covent Garden market, thick with traffic and bustle at 8.30 in the morning, the film unit is lining up the first shot of the day. Across the street, the director sits in a Rolls-Royce, resting his back, which he injured in a fall a few days before. “I am hers de combat”, Mr Alfred Hitchcock says cheerfully as we are introduced, “but the show, as they say, must go on.”

We chat about his films, his interest in crime and his contention that comedy and the macabre go well together. “It has been possible to laugh at a funeral”, he says.

Every few seconds an admirer pushes pen and paper through the car window for an autograph. Mr Hitchcock, patient and affable, obliges with a little caricature of himself and a signature underneath. One lady says she merely wanted to sec him. “You could have done that at Madame Tussauds” he replies.

Frenzy”, his fifty-third film and first in Britain for 21 years, is about a sex murderer; Mr Hitchcock gave the actor who plays him two books on Neville Heath to study. But he insists that the film must have plenty of comedy.

The director is helped out of the car and walks slowly over to the unit. He will spend most of the day sitting in a chair, partly because of his back but mainly because he does not need to dash around yelling instructions through a megaphone. Otto Klemperer has said that he can conduct an orchestra with his eyes; Mr Hitchcock directs a film simply by being there.

He calls the crew by their Christian names but they address him as “Sir” or “Guvnor” showing proper respect for a giant of the industry. “He is bigger than any star I have met”, says the director of photography, Gil Taylor, who last worked on a Hitchcock film nearly 40 years ago. He found Mr Hitchcock an economical director, knowing exactly what he wanted and often printing the first take.

The morning's first shot, superficially simple, does need several rehearsals and several takes. Extras pretending to be porters, fruit salesmen and various passers-by (including a couple of nuns) have to be coached in a sort of elaborate ballet, and while they are milling around one of the principal actors has to walk towards the camera, stop and look up at a first floor window.

There is a hiatus as the sky darkens and the camera crew look to their light settings. Someone mentions tea. “What do you think this is”, Mr Hitchcock mutters, “an English film unit?”

For his actors he has raided the London theatre and come away with Barry Foster, Anna Massey, Vivien Merchant, Alec McCowen and Michael Bates; and he has chosen Roman Polanski's “Macbeth”, Jon Finch. He explains that he has gone for character players rather than stars because this is a fairly realistic film and the audience knows that someone like Cary Grant can never be a murderer.

Jon Finch walks along the pavement for the umpteenth time and you begin to wonder how a film ever gets made. Eventually the shot is completed; Mr Hitchcock amuses himself by squatting on a dustbin, a must for the amateur photographers. Jon Finch, the handsome young rising star, relaxes with a cigarette and says that Mr Hitchcock is very strong visually but not too concerned about the dialogue.

“Some of the lines are frankly unbelievable, but he has told us to change anything we like”, Mr Finch says, “so all the actors are getting together to work out something reasonable.”

By lunchtime, a crowd of several hundred has gathered round the unit, and Barry Foster at the upstairs window has to speak his lines directly at them.

After lunch Mr Hitchcock’s chauffeur brings Gil Taylor a cigar from the director. Mr Taylor says that although it is early days, things seem to be going well. Mr Hitchcock arrives, also with a cigar, and chides Mr Taylor for smoking his so quickly.

The next scene is complicated and rails have to be laid for the camera to track on. Mr Hitchcock explains that he is shooting a dialogue scene between Barry Foster and Jon Finch in which the camera will be employed subjectively, moving in on the actors. Sipping tea afterwards, Barry Foster says: “Before I met him. I expected Mr Hitchcock to be a rather intimidating personality. In fact he is a very kind man and will do anything to help you. He exudes the feeling that nothing of this is crucial and it can be done again, which has an enormously relaxing effect on the actor.”

Work is not over until after 6 o'clock, a long day that will produce about two minutes on the screen. By now the market is almost deserted and Mr Hitchcock takes a final walk round, discussing future scenes. Then, after a few more autographs, he is driven off to Claridges.