Jump to: navigation, search

The Times (12/Aug/1978) - Saturday Review: Life with Alfred Hitchcock

(c) The Times (12/Aug/1978)

Saturday Review

Life with Alfred Hitchcock

by John Russell Taylor

It was at lunch one day, up in the bungalow at Universal Studios, that I finally plucked up the courage to ask him. Could I, might I, how did he feel about the possibility of my.... Well, would be consider letting me write his biography? Hitch paused and pondered, magisterially. "John, a lot of people have asked me that. I've always said no. I'm not going to say no to you, but I don't - want to say yes just yet." Fair enough. End of conversation.

We continued to eat our lunch -- steak, medium well done for me, a small hamburger -with mashed potatoes for him (I remember because that is what we always had) -- and talked of other things: British politics, the theatre of his youth, the present state of Westminster Cathedral. Much as wa always did, for I had got into the habit, since living in Los Angeles, of seeing Hitch fairly regularly, just in the line of an agreeable social occasion. I had the impression that he liked it because (i) I was, after all, British, and could make sense, of all those British topics which preoccupied him, as one who still got practically all his news about the state of the world from reading The Times each morning, and (ii) because I was sufficiently informed about films and the industry without being in any way directly involved.

I should, however, backtrack a bit, to explain how I arrived at this point, early in 1973. I had known Hitch for some years, in the way that a film critic knows a film-maker -- which is to say, usually, a bit guardedly on both sides. The critic generally avoids getting too close personally to anyone whose work he may have to criticize adversely at some future date; the film-maker, however well he may get on personally with the critic, naturally fears future betrayal. Mind you, when I got to know Hitch, around 1960, one could have been forgiven for thinking he must be impregnable: surety, anyone whose last three films had been Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, with The Birds currently in the works, could hardly care much about what any mere critic might have to say. While I, dazzled by the excitement of meeting one of my all-time idols could never have conceived of anything like a friendship developing between us. I was later on to find that I was wrong on both counts. But for the time being we were both, it seemed to me, pretty unguarded. I would generally see him once or twice when he was in London, we would occasionally meet at film festivals, and I lurked a little on the sidelines while he was shooting Frenzy in London. And that was about it until I first went out to Los Angeles.

It was through a somewhat unfortunate incident that I got to know him better. I spent the month of February, 1972, in Los Angeles, thinking I owed it to my profession to see something of Hollywood while there was something like the Hollywood I had known and loved at a distance still there to see. I went out with various introductions, through one of which I was invited round one night to the house of a famous producer to see his remarkable art collection.

That afternoon his secretary called me to ask if I could come a bit later than arranged, as he was screening the new Hitchcock film (Frenzy) and thought I might like to see it. Wouldn't I just! But when I arrived with a friend it was all very strange. My host was curiously vague and abstracted. What a pity I had come so late: he would have to rush me round because he was having some people in in half an hour to see a movie. I was at first a little embarrassed (had I misunderstood?) then, increasingly irritated, so I decided to lean on him ever so slightly -- with the result that we got chummy after a while and as the other guests never arrived he showed us Frenzy after all. I found out afterwards that after getting his secretary to invite me my name rang a faint bell and he realized that he should not be showing this film, seen by no one up to then, to, horror of horrors, a film critic. If he had come clean there could have been no argument, but by trying to be devious he had got himself just where he did not want to be.

Anyway, since of course I was completely bowled over by the film, he felt he could confess to Hitch and pass on the news that I had loved it. Hitch was absolutely furious -- I don't think he has yet forgiven the producer -- but happily this did not seem to rub off on me, and I think that from then on I was gradually accepted into the "family" because I had passed the test: I had not made any use of privileged information or let on to anyone that I had seen the film until it turned up at Cannes three months later. Hitch places a very high value on loyalty and I suppose he regarded this as a demonstration of loyalty and reliability or something. He takes his time about trusting anyone, but once he makes up his mind he does so completely, and the Frenzy incident seems to have been my first step (along that road).

That autumn I went out to Los Angeles as Visiting Professor in the Cinema Division of the University of Southern California -- for a semester, as I thought, though as I got progressively ensnared by the place and the people it came to be a full-time job. And so I had drifted into this routine with Hitch. And suddenly, once I had delivered the book I was then working on and, in my usual state of post-natal depression, began to wonder what I was going to write next, the obvious dawned on me. I think subjects for books usually come out and find you: once the idea formulates itself you realize that, unconsciously, you have been in training for some time past, storing away ideas and bits of information like a jackdaw with no clear idea why and for what.

Thus it had been with me. I had always been fascinated by Hitchcock's films: The Thirty-Nine Steps and Jamaica Inn were two of the earliest films I ever saw (Jamaica Inn really scared me at the age of six, but I staunchly refused to be taken out of the cinema till the end) and I had kept up very consistently with them ever since. And, naturally once I became aware that it was the director who actually made the film, I became fascinated with Hitch himself. I was an inveterate keeper of scrapbooks, and I had one devoted entirely to him. Later, when I became a journalist and started interviewing people, I always made a point of asking anyone I met who had worked with Hitch all about him, his methods of film-making, his private personality. So once the idea formed in my mind, I found I already had a lot of material in my head and on paper. All I needed was his agreement to go ahead. This, both because for a lot of the early days he seemed likely to be virtually the only source and authority, and, more generally, because I liked him enough and enjoyed his company enough that I did not want to do it without his approval and certainly did not want to run the risk of his feeling that I had pumped him for information without his being completely clear about what, over and above my personal interest, I wanted it for.

What then, I asked myself, should I do about this qualified suggestion of his future agreement to the project? The answer, obviously, was absolutely nothing. Let him think about it in his own good time, do nothing to hurry him into a decision, but just watch and wait. So that is precisely what I did. I have since been told by writers who have worked on the scripts of his films that something like this is a common pattern in his life. Once an idea has been put to him, he likes to brood over it and, as it were, audition the person concerned for reliability, compatibility and so on. I suppose that is what he was doing with me in the following months. For more than a year we continued to meet pretty regularly, and talk about anything under the sun -- except the proposed biography. But I did notice one thing: in his parentheses he gradually slipped from saying "If you write this biography..." to "When you write..." Finally, when I was back in England for the summer, I wrote to him to ask, from a distance that would make him comfortable, whether he had had any further thoughts on the subject, and after a short interval, I got back a typical letter which started with one sentence saying "Yes, of course you can" and then went on for two pages with a gruesome recital of his latest medical trials, including a kidney stone ("Of course, nowadays they don't cut you. They go in from the front, if you know what I mean") colitis and the fitting of a heart pacer, all of which he had had done under local anaesthetic, since he likes to be conscious of everything that is going on.

You might wonder why I say "from a distance that would make him comfortable". That is one of the first things I learned on really getting to know Hitch. He does have a formidable image to the outside world, and certainly in his work he is determined to get absolutely what he wants. But personally he is the mildest, gentlest, most timorous person you could ever wish to meet. He is terrified of confrontations, will not engage in arguments of any kind, and hates to be put in a position where he may have to express an unfavourable reaction to anything done by someone he knows. Charles Bennett, writer on several Hitchcock films in Britain and America, put it succinctly when he said of Hitch : "Biggest bully in the world; kindest man I've ever known in my life". And certainly, when I had finally completed the biography, I had almost to force Hitch to read the typescript -- far indeed from those who insist on checking and rewriting everything you ever write about them, convinced that it is the nature of the writer to get everything wrong. Not that I imagine Hitch had any illusions about my infallibility, but simply that he did not want in any way to have to tell me I was wrong.

Once I had got the go-ahead, everything would seem to be plain sailing. And so, in the main, it was. But Hitch does have a certain teasing side to his nature: in self-protection if for no other reason he has through the years made life around him a game which other people have to play according to his rules or not at all. I sensed that I could ask him anything, but there were many things that I would gain points for finding out by, myself. I could, for instance, knowing that he had had a brother and a sister, have easily asked him if either of them was still alive, and if so for their addresses. But it seemed more in the spirit of the enterprise that I should find out for myself, as, quite by chance, I was able to do: one day I happened to be talking about the book to a group who included, unknown to me, a relative of Hitch's who was able to tell me that his sister was still alive and well, and after a little more inquiry was able to give me her address. It pleased and amused me greatly to be able to say to Hitch when I got back to California "By the way, your sister sends her love", and watch (I think) a slight air of surprise pass behind his usual carefully impassive mask.

Certainly as far as documentation is concerned, Hitch is a dream. Everyone who has ever worked with him wants to talk about him (with one notable exception, but eventually I got to her too), and the devotion he has inspired is astounding -- indeed, there were times when I irreverently hoped to hear a few malicious details. But none ever seemed to be forthcoming. Picturesque details in plenty, though: even people who have merely brushed him in passing all have their Hitchcock stories to tell. The lady who helped me get a copy of his birth certificate at Somerset House (that was how I found out the exact address of his birthplace, then a disused Pakistani grocery in Leytonstone) asked timidly "Is that the Alfred Hitchcock?" and then told me that he was godfather to one of her sons, since her late husband had been a grip on a couple of his films before the war. A bookseller friend told me in vivid detail about watching, aged about six, Hitch and his unit making The Manxman near Penzance and causing havoc in the normally staid family hotel where they were all staying.

And then, first and foremost, there is Hitch's own memory. It is always reputed to be phenomenal, but for once it really lives up to the reputation. One meets many people who seem after a while rather, like Stepford Wives: they have programmed themselves to remember so much, but they really remember only the stories they have always told about their lives, not the life itself. It is far otherwise with Hitch. Naturally there are stories he has told often, some of them not strictly true but edited into their familiar form by the born raconteurs art. But you can point him in any direction to ask specific questions and he will rifle through his mental card index and come up with equally specific replies. On one occasion I found an old reference to The Prude's Fall, fifth of the six films he worked on as designer, assistant, writer and general factotum before he directed his own first film, which indicated that it had been shot a couple of years earlier and shelved. Was this true, I asked him. He considered. "No, because, let me see, we started shooting The Prude's Fall on location in Calais in April, 1925 -- the weather was terrible, I remember -- and then came back to Islington and shot for another four weeks..." Now all of that he can have had no reason to think about for upwards of 50 years, but when he has to, there it all is. Most of us would have problems being so specific about something that happened only a year ago.

Next only to Hitch's memory in importance is that of Mrs Hitchcock, Alma. My first image of Alma goes back to a press lunch in London, I think maybe for Torn Curtain. A colleague justly renowned for his gallantry to the ladies was trying to engage her in light conversation. Did she, he inquired, ever read the scripts of Hitchcock films before they were made? Yes usually. Probably, he pursued, she would be interested in the feminine angle, possible casting for the heroine? "Oh no", Alma said sweetly, "I'm usually looking to see if they will cut together properly." As Hitch delights to remind people, she was in films before he was, a fully fledged film editor when he was hardly more than an office boy. A quirky and outspoken lady, she remains about the only unpredictable element in the comforting, comfortable world Hitch has built around himself to keep confrontation at bay. For this reason if no other many people who knew the Hitchcocks told me I would never be able to get to Alma: she never gave interviews, she was still slowly recovering from a serious stroke, and anyway, Hitch never knew what she was going to say next. But clearly those who said so were underestimating both the Hitch-cocks: when the time came I was able to meet with Alma on a number of occasions, and talk very freely with her.

One evening at dinner with the two of them at Chasens, Hitch's favourite restaurant for many years (they always dine there on Thursdays, always at the same table), I was even able to extract from Hitch a story that Alma had never heard. It occurred to me that since he was 18 in 1917 he must have been eligible for military service in the First World War. Well, said Hitch, he had received a low grade in the medical, but he had joined a territorial group, and remembered going along from work with another lad for manoeuvres in Hyde Park, and the trouble he had to keep his puttees from falling round his ankles, and going afterwards to have poached eggs on toast (he who claims never to have eaten eggs in his life) at Marble Arch Cornerhouse. Alma was astonished: "Why, Hitch, you never told me you were in the army!" I felt that was a small, perhaps, but very real triumph.

Where, then, were the problems in the enterprise? There must surely have been some problems. I suppose the most obvious problem to an outsider was the one which in practice least concerned me. It is, of course, how do you go about making interesting the life story of someone with no deep dark secrets to be revealed, someone who, has been happily married to the same woman for more than 50 years, someone who is by general consent in all his business dealings a model of probity carried almost to the point of stuffiness, who gets unreserved testimonials from just about everyone who has ever worked with him or known him well? In the abstract it sounds like an almost insuperable problem; in practice, if the man so described happens to be Alfred Hitchcock, it merely adds to the fascination. For who would think it of the man who has created the ferocious horror comedy of Psycho, has explored the morbid psychology of Marnie or Frenzy with such evident sympathy and fascination, has made some of the screen's greatest stories of romantic obsession in Notorious and Vertigo? That such a man should be also a devout, church-going Roman Catholic, a model bourgeois husband and father, living a typical English suburban life even when a multi-millionaire in the midst of Bel Air, only deepens the mystery.

When I started out, an old associate of Hitchcock told me: "There is no real Alfred Hitchcock outside his films." When I was nearing the end, one of his writers said; "How you feel about Alfred Hitchcock depends on how you feel about movies. He has made himself into a movie." Both of these statements are true and not true. If I had hoped to find "the real Alfred Hitchcock", something I absolutely did not expect which would gradually be revealed in terms of unknown areas; in his life full of guilty passion and double-dealing, then I would have been doomed to disappointment. But what I wanted was to find out what made the man I knew from his films -- for few film makers permit themselves to be so totally known through their work as Hitch -- tick, how the parts of his life history fitted together, how, if at all, the evident contradictions were resolved. How could someone so careful of his dignity lend himself to such ridiculous publicity stunts? How could someone so terrifyingly familiar throughout the world -- especially since the television series -- manage to guard his essential privacy so well? Could the real Alfred Hitchcock be the same as the inescapable public image, Alfred Hitchcock disguised in a Alfred Hitchcock mask?

In the past four or five years I have come a lot nearer to answering these questions for myself and, I hope, for other people too. I still cannot come up with any easy cut-and-dried answers to some of the questions people ask me, like why does he always set up, glamorize and then mistreat and shatter the cool soignee blondes in his films? I can hypothesize, of course, about some adolescent trauma. And I can add to the general store of knowledge the fact that, for someone famed in his films as a misogynist, Hitch has had through the years an extraordinary number of female collaborators (starting with Alma) and seems if anything happier in the company of women than of men. I can tell you what he eats, what he does on his holidays, how he passes his days, what else he thinks he might have liked to be besides a film-maker, what he thinks about the possibility of retirement.

There is no real Alfred Hitchcock outside his films? Well, possibly. But then, in a career like his, does there need to be? His life is the story of a single minded obsession. Yes, his life in a certain sense is a movie. But then, consider the result of this obsession: that, as he enters his eightieth year and prepares to shoot his fifty-fourth feature film, there is no one in the world whose next film one looks forward to with more eager anticipation, more certain expectation of surprise and entertainment and delight.

They say no man is a hero to his valet or his biographer. I don't know if Hitch is a hero to me, though his achievement is heroic. But I do know that after all this time and contact, I could not possibly like any man more.

John Russell Taylor's "Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock", will be published in early October (Faber, £6.50).