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The Times (15/Nov/1983) - Return of the missing Hitchcocks

(c) The Times (15/Nov/1983)

Return of the missing Hitchcocks

For many years, five classic Alfred Hitchcock thrillers have been kept off cinema screens. Peter Waymark reports on their reappearance

Alfred Hitchcock was a frugal man, probably as a result of his Jesuit upbringing. His daughter Patricia says: "He did not go in for fancy cars, racehorses, yachts or any of the other Hollywood accoutrements. He was very, very conservative and used to say, 'I never want to risk anything'." When he died in 1980, he left considerable wealth, mainly in stocks and bonds, and two luxurious Californian estates, one in Bel Air and the other in the magnificent redwoods of Santa Cruz. But there was another bequest to his family, which he jealously guarded and which should provide them with an income as long as the cinema survives: five of his famous films.

These were pictures he had removed from circulation several years before, ordering that all the prints should be destroyed. Some have not been shown, legally at least, since the 1960s, and their long disappearance has led them to be dubbed "the missing Hitchcocks". Just why he should have deliberately suppressed some of his most admired work for so long is the final Hitchcock mystery.

The five include two of the best he ever made in his 50 years as a director, Rear Window and Vertigo. Another, The Trouble With Harry, was one of his personal favourites. The others are Rope, with its intriguing experiment with the 10-minute takes, and the 1956 remake of his popular British thriller of the 1930s, The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Good news for Hitchcock buffs is that after protracted negotiations, Universal has bought the world rights to the five for a sum unofficially put at $6m; and that the films are once more available to cinemas and to television. The story of their disappearance and eventual reemergence has as many twists and turns as a vintage Hitchcock plot.

Apart from Rope, the films were made in the 1950s under a deal with Paramount which stipulated that ownership of the titles would revert to Hitchcock eight years after their first cinema release. It is unusual for directors to own their films, but Hitchcock's case was not unique. Chaplin is probably the supreme example of director-owners and, more recently, Stanley Kubrick has secured outright control of his pictures, from A Clockwork Orange onwards.

Rope came into Hitchcock's possession by a different route. It had been made in 1948 for a company called Transatlantic Pictures, headed by Sidney Bernstein (later Lord Bernstein), who himself held the rights before releasing them to Hitchcock. Of the five in the bequest, Rope has been the least inaccessible and it was shown by the National Film Theatre in London as recently as 1977.

The others have become rarities, much written about by the growing body of Hitchcock admirers, but little seen. Except for Vertigo, for instance, none has ever been shown on British television. When precisely they were withdrawn is difficult to establish; even Hitchcock's agent is unable to supply the answer. The most likely date is somewhere in the early 1970s, though not all the films were freely available before that.

In 1969 the National Film Theatre planned a complete retrospective of Hitchcock's work, confident of being able to obtain and screen all the films he had made up to that time. For Vertigo a print was ordered from the Cinematheque Francaise, the Paris archive, and brought to London personally by the curator, Henri Langlois. But when formal application was made to Hitchcock to show the film, the answer was that permission would be granted only if the source of the print was revealed.

Fearing that this might lead to an instruction to destroy the print, the NFT declined to name the source and the film was never shown. Nor was Rear Window. Neither film, in fact, has ever been screened at the NFT. A further complication in the case of Rear Window was a legal action brought against Hitchcock and Paramount to prevent their showing the film pending settlement of the estate of Cornell Woolrich, the writer on whose short story the film was based.

Withholding films, in the expectation that this creates a rarity value which can increase the price, is a relatively common practice. Chaplin did it with his features and the Walt Disney company still refuses to release to television any of its classic cartoons, such as Pinocchio and Fantasia, while they are still judged to be popular in the cinema.

For Hitchcock, however, the consideration seems to have been more than purely commercial. Despite his great wealth, he remained at heart a thrifty Victorian, careful about his money and determined to make the most of his assets, when the films first reverted to his ownership, he was still earning vast sums from his film and television work and it is doubtful, once the taxman had taken his bite, whether the release of Rear Window and the rest would have been financially worthwhile.

That certainly would have been one reason for holding back. Another, possibly, was that the withdrawal of the films coincided with the burgeoning of a critical cult that had started in France during the 1950s, and was particularly associated with young writers such as Truffaut, Rohmer and Chabrol, and which later spread to Britain and the United States.

Though he gave a long film interview to Truffaut which formed the basis of a splendid book about his films, Hitchcock liked to disclaim any deep motives for his work. He was, though, delighted that so much serious notice was being taken of him and he must have realized that the commercial prospects of such films as Vertigo and Rear Window would thereby be enhanced.

People who sought permission to show the famous five came up against his long-standing agent, Herman Citron, a tough, shrewd negotiator with many famous Hollywood clients. Leslie Halliwell, who buys films for ITV, recalls: "We had been trying to get these pictures for years. We would get through to Citron and he would ask, 'How much?' When we told him, it was never enough."

The legal non-availability of such desirable films led, perhaps inevitably, to a thriving black market. By knowing the right people, and paying the right price, it was possible to have prints made and to mount illicit screenings. Sharp-eyed devotees scanning the programmes of certain London art houses would come across such oblique items as "rare 1950s Hitchcock starring Kim Novak" which, though the title was not given, could only be Vertigo. A code for Rear Window was "a Hitchcock thriller to make you look behind your back".

When James Stewart, who appeared in several Hitchcock films (including four of the "five") wanted to show a clip of Vertigo during a retrospective of his work at the Berlin Film Festival in 1982, he was refused. Yet in a little cinema in the neighbourhood, 16mm versions of both Vertigo and Rear Window were being freely screened. It was only with extreme difficulty that the American Film Institute was able to secure an extract from Vertigo when it presented Hitchcock with its Life Achievement Award.

By the time of his death, however, Hitchcock, on Citron's advice, had decided to rerelease the five, pending legal clearance and the settling of an acceptable price. Both his agent and family deny a story in wide circulation that he saw the films as a means of buying himself out of a contract with Universal which, he feared, he would be too old and ill to fulfill.

The agreement with Universal to re-release the films took about three years to complete, partly because of the lengthy process of settling the estate but also because Citron, known in Hollywood as the Iceberg, was determined to strike the best bargain. Though other film companies were keenly interested, Universal was almost bound to clinch the deal: Hitchcock was, after all, one of the company's biggest stockholders and a close personal friend of the boss, Lew Wasserman.

Chaplin also withheld his films for a long period, but when he finally released them, they had only a modest impact. A plan to show the main features, one after the other, in the West End of London was abandoned in face of box-office indifference. The early signs are that the Hitchcock enterprise will prove more successful.

Rear Window, the first of the five to make its reappearance in the United States, was the hit of the recent New York Film Festival and has been playing simultaneously in three of the city's cinemas. In a few weeks it took more than $300,000 at the box office. A delighted Patricia Hitchcock points out that the film made more money on its rerelease than most of the new pictures that came out at the same time, adding: "Its success shows, I think, that audiences are starved of good, classy films".

The films will be seen in Britain for the first time at the London Film Festival on November 19 and 20, projected in crisp new 35mm prints struck from the original negatives. ITV has acquired the television rights and expects to start showing the films late next year. The five should also be available during 1984 on video.

Unless Vertigo and Rear Window turn out on reexamination not to be the masterpieces that most knowle-geable critics hold them to be, the circulation of these films can only restore a reputation that has been dented in Donald Spoto's recent biography about Hitchcock's final years. If the old man were still around he would certainly have something pithy to say about it all, delivered in that rasping voice which never quite lost its cockney origins.

Additional reporting by Ivor Davis, Los Angeles