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The Times (19/Jul/1975) - Hitchcock's fifty years in films

(c) The Times (19/Jul/1975)

Hitchcock's fifty years in films

by John Russell Taylor

There it is; the gesture I have so often seen, in photographs and heard described by people who; have worked with Hitchcock. The hands, seemingly chubby and inexpressive, suddenly spring into life and begin to carve a film out of the air. The fingers meeting at a right angle they indicate a screen-shape, slice a composition out of the scene before us in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, zoom forward and withdraw, isolate another detail, rest for a moment, then start again to illustrate precisely what Hitchcock is saying to his cameraman. The economy and precision of the gesture is striking. But then so is everything about the shooting of Family Plot, as it was currently called, the film with which Alfred Hitchcock celebrates his 50 years as a film director. Or rather, I should say, the film which marks the anniversary for everyone else, since Hitchcock himself seems scarcely aware of it. For him this is a film like any other, made very much in transit from the last film to the next.

The atmosphere on a Hitchcock set is different from that of any other I have ever been on. Even before we moved up from the Universal Studios in Los Angeles to this, the location of the key scene in the film (the kidnapping of a bishop in the middle of Mass), it was rather like making a film in church. There are some very gifted directors who choose to work in an atmosphere of apparent chaos. Billy Wilder, the veteran most recently working at the same studio, on The Front Page, kept the cast and crew in stitches with a constant stream of jokes and tricks, and seemingly welcomed any and every distraction, even to the extent of every now and then throwing the Universal Studios guided tour an unscheduled attraction by letting them troop in their hundreds through the sound-stage while he was actually shooting, to the consternation of the Studio authorities. Not so Alfred Hitchcock. The studio set is strictly closed to visitors of any kind, and within an atmosphere of the utmost courtesy and formality prevails.

It is all part of a deliberate pattern. Ever since he arrived in Hollywood, back in 1939, he has directed in the same uniform of dark business, suit, white shirt, and dark tie. This may have been a little peculiar even then, but now it is unique. Hitchcock explains the aberration from his own point of view largely in terms of comfort — undertaking any job as arduous as directing a feature film, he wants to be as comfortable as possible, and since this is what he has always worn, this is what he feels most comfortable in. But there is more to it than that. Clothing in Southern California is especially susceptible to structuralist analysis in terms of signs and meaning, and by the code in operation a jacket means fairly formal, a tie means formal (whatever kind of tie, and whatever worn with) and a suit, even the flashiest, most sporty tweed, means very formal indeed. So Hitchcock's working clothes mean to everyone else, the height of formality, and when they do like-wise, as sooner or later most of the senior members of the unit do, they are put automatically into a particularly restrained, formal, purposeful frame of mind.

Which, for Hitchcock's purposes, is perfect. There is no running around, nor raised voices, nor temperaments on a Hitchcock set. He himself sits quietly observing, occasionally speaking in a low voice to an actor or conferring with his cameraman, his first assistant, and his continuity girl. Round about, everyone walks almost on tiptoe, and one hears constantly the formulas of extreme courtesy — "I beg your pardon", "I'm so . sorry", "Might I suggest..." Even at a glance this is an operation entirely under control, knowing exactly where it is heading. And it should therefore not be surprising, I suppose, to discover that of all the films I have ever seen in production, this is the one which is being the most shot in one or two takes. But as Hitchcock says: "Why do more? It is all a question of knowing exactly what you want, aiming specifically at that, and knowing when you have got it."

The scene they are shooting on my first visit to the studio is a case in point. The situation is that a master-criminal (William Devane) and his girl-friend-accomplice (Karen Black) are just collecting on their latest caper — a giant diamond as ransom for a kidnapped businessman. The girl, heavily disguised in a blonde wig, dark glasses, and black from her rakish hat to her rather kinky, very high-heeled boots, has just picked up the diamond from the police and is now landing in a police helicopter which has flown at her unspoken direction to a golf course miles from anywhere so that the exchange can be completed. The whole sequence is disposed of in about three hours. First, in a partial mock-up of a helicopter, we see Karen Black gesture the pilot to stay where he is, look for a sign, get out carrying a gun and vanish into the darkness. Then the pilot gets out and looks after her. In a second area, among some studio trees, she meets her boyfriend (with the kidnap victim unconscious at his feet), hands over the diamond; he rapidly examines it, expresses satisfaction, and off they go, leaving the recumbent body to be picked up and taken back to civilization.

Economy is the watchword. The mock-up of the helicopter stands against a plain black screen which extends at most three feet beyond its nose. When the pilot gets out and walks round the front to stare after his mysterious passenger, he has to stay very close in to the machine, so as to remain in front of the black from the camera's point of view. I comment on this to Hitchcock, who seems very pleased — the rather complicated action of Karen Black getting out of the helicopter, after several rehearsals, has been captured on the first take, and the pilot's subsequent movement have run to two takes, the second modifying slightly the direction in which he looks and the speed of his reactions to what he sees and hears. "Remember", says Hitchcock, "all that matters, all that exists for the audience, is what is on the screen. It doesn't matter if the set extends no more than six inches beyond what the camera records — it could as well be six miles for all the effect it would have on the audience. The whole art is knowing what matters in each shot, what the point you are selling is."

This is very much Alfred Hitchcock Number Two talking. For I have come to the conclusion that there are at least three Alfred Hitchcocks. There is the public Hitchcock, the television performer, the well publicized character. There is the professional Hitchcock, the dedicated film-maker who calculates everything down to the last detail and allows nothing to get in the way of his concept and its scrupulous realization. And there is the private Hitchcock, the shy, retiring family man, at home with his books and his pictures, his wife, his daughter and his dog, and a tinv circle of close friends. Which is the "rear" Alfred Hitchcock ? Why, all of them, of course. The connoisseur of slightly ghoulish jokes and deadpan outrageousness who, earlier this same day, has been entertaining the Hollywood film press to an outdoor lunch in a studio graveyard, with the name and date of birth of each inscribed on a personalized tombstone ("It has always been my ambition to stage a gourmet lunch in a cemetery", he explained blandly to his slightly shaken guests) is just as genuine as the intensely private person I think I occasionally glimpse when we get talking about his earliest childhood memories of when he sparks to enthusiasm describing some of his own favourites among his eclectic art collection — a group of Rowlandson watercolours, a large Sickert he bought on an early trip to the Leicester Gallery, having found that he could just about afford to pay for it on the instalment plan.

This fragmentation of personality is, no doubt, the only possible way to deal with the extraordinary situation in which he at present finds himself. Since right back in the 1930s, when Hitchcock's "trademark" of a tiny personal appearance in each of his films became known, he has been a more familiar figure than any other film director and, along with De Mille, the only one whose name attached to a film meant more than those of any of the stars in it. But since the television series things have really snowballed. He has become a rich man, and, more alarmingly, he has become probably the most universally recognizable person in the world. A friend of mine travelling with him a couple of years ago put this notion to him jokingly, and when he argued against it, challenged him to come up with an alternative. Film stars out of their context were dodgy: imagine Barbra Streisand at your neighbourhood delicatessen or Robert Redford on a Number 14 bus. Politicians were arguable outside their own countries — on an American street Mao Tse-tung would be just another Chinaman. But Alfred Hitchcock would immediately be recognized in any context, almost anywhere in the world, and as himself, not as some one who looked vaguely alike. (He himself says, except in England, where he is never recognized because he looks just like thousands of others — a statement we may take with a pinch of salt.)

But to retain sanity in such a situation it must be necessary to run one's life in watertight compartments, and Alfred Hitchcock at work, for all his amiability and chattiness, is a remote and mysterious figure, hedged about with etiquette. I am amazed, for example, at the transformation of Karen Black, whom last year I observed quite a lot during the shooting of Day of the Locust. There, in tune with the atmosphere of the production as a whole, she was playful, extrovert, kooky and from time to time temperamental: here, she is staid, deferential, eagerly concentrating on the purely technical problems of fitting into a staged action, referring to Hitchcock rather like a good little girl who hopes for an approving pat on the head from her teacher. Indeed, of the principal actors only Bruce Dern, who figures in the other half of the plot, seems not at all intimidated — partly, no doubt, because it is hardly his style to be intimidated by anybody, partly because he is a relative old hand at working with Hitchcock: he was in several of the television shows, and appears briefly in Marnie, as the sailor the infant Marnie beats to death with a poker,near the end of the film.

Both Karen Black and Bruce Dern feature prominently in the sequence Hitchcock is shooting in Grace Cathedral early the next week. It is the first occasion on which the two sides of the plot come together. While Karen Black and William Devane are carrying out their' next kidnapping coup, Bruce Dern, a taxi-driver assisting his girl friend, a fake medium (Barbara Harris) in her search for a longlost heir, turns up at the cathedral to see the bishop, who was, some 30 years before, parish priest in the village where the heir was last seen. Now as it happens, the kidnapper is the lost heir, and has carefully been covering his traces ever since, so when he sees this man who has been snooping around his early history, actually present at his latest kidnapping, he obviously jumps to the wrong conclusion, and from there on the two pairs, quite' in the dark about each other's intentions, are set on a neat collision course. (It is notable, by the way, that the revelation of the kidnapper's identity with the lost heir is .the belated pay-off of the book, Victor Canning's The Rainbird Pattern, while Hitchcock, with his script writer Ernest Lehman, reveals this early on and then builds up the psychological suspense through letting his audience know more than any of his characters do.)

Grace Cathedral, seat of the Episcopalian bishop of San Francisco, is on Nob Hill, fight by the Fremont and Mark Hopkins Hotels. It is, despite what should be its dominating position, rather tucked away among high rises; the building itself, an elaborate essay in vaguely French Gothic, is curious as being built entirely in reinforced concrete, and the grey piaster of a curving stair brought from the studio to represent the approach to the pulpit blends alarmingly well with the concrete column it twines around, so that it comes as quite a shock to find it ending in thin air out of view of the camera. Though in the script the denomination of the bishop is carefully unspecified, clearly the idea of snatching a bishop in the midst of High Mass, before the eyes of a crowded congregation, has a special devilish appeal for Hitchcock, the onetime sufferer from strict Jesuit schooling. This was the first sequence from the story that he described to me more than a year ago (at which time he was considering the possibility of making most of the film in San Francisco) and it is now the principal piece of location shooting.

Here the circumstances of shooting are inevitably more informal — the cathedral is open as usual, and anyone who cares to can drift up to watch, provided only they stay out of camera range. But the filmmaking process itself is as precise and concentrated as ever. Necessarily so, since there is a lot more involved, with many extras in the congregation to be directed as well as the leads. What has to happen is that Karen Black, heavily disguised this time as an old woman, walks forward and collapses in the bishop's path to the pulpit. As he bends over to aid her, her accomplice, in a surplice, hurries forward and unobtrusively injects the bishop with pentathol, and as he loses consciousness the two of them drag the bishop out to a waiting car before anyone in the congregation realizes what is happening. The whole plan depends on the extra decorum of a church service to allow the kidnappers time before any reaction can be fully registered.

The extras, it seems, filled with that unfortunate desire that extras always have to act, have a hard time with this idea. "Can't you describe to us what is happening", asks one pathetically, "so that we know what we're meant to be feeling and how we should react ?" "Can you see what's happening?" asks Hitchcock. No. "Then there you are. You can't see what's happening, you don't know what's happening, you just have the vague idea that something is. You don't have to, react beyond a slight show of curiosity." All the same, they want to, relishing each split second of screen time and trying to cram as much reaction as possible into it. Hitchcock remains calm and kindly, except that at one point he turns witheringly on one chattering unfortunate: "The gentleman at the end of the front row is having a very animated conversation, all the time, with his — with the woman he's living with. Now let's try and pay some attention to the movement of the picture!" The shot finally in the can (three or four takes) he walks away, grins at me and says "That's what you would call directing idiots." But since it has to be done, done it is.

Between takes I sit talking with him and Mrs Hitchcock, who is putting in one of her (these days) rare appearances on the set: " I suppose it's my own background in silent cinema, where a big crew was eight or nine, but I don't find it so enjoyable with 60 people around. I always find myself visualizing the finished films from Hitch's scripts before he starts shooting, and then I like to stay away until the rough cut to see how far my visualization corresponds with the film itself". And how far did it? "Pretty closely, as a rule. But there are always a few surprises". Of course, Hitchcock maintains, with a touch of perversity, perhaps, that all the excitement of creation in a film comes in the preparation of the shooting script, which in his case is a very detailed shot-by-shot description of the film accompanied by a complete story board showing visually the composition of each shot. Even the direction of actors is more a matter of correct casting than anything else. In fact, given the materials ready at the start of shooting, anyone could make the same film. Or so he says. But even in something as minutely prepared as Deceit (Ernest Lehman, who also scripted North by Northwest, says the preplanning here is even more obsessive) there is still room for last-minute changes and improvisation.

For example, in the actual abduction of the bishop Hitchcock surprises his cast by announcing that he does not intend to show this happening at all. There will be a quick flash series of close-ups — Karen Black's head moving out of frame as she springs to life, the hypodermic needle going into the bishop's arm, the bishop's face as he loses consciousness, and a puzzled reaction from the congregation. On the spur of the moment he adds one more shot, of Karen Black's feet scrabbling on the floor as she struggles to rise. And that is all. "The whole point is that it happens in a flash, before anyone has a chance to see what is going on. So that is the position I want the audience in too". Even though these shots will flash past in seconds, he still pays immense attention to getting them absolutely right, explaining carefully to the participants exactly what has to be clear from each one. As we leave at the end of the day he suddenly gets involved in explaining exactly where in the dummy arm of the bishop the needle should enter — "It may not look important, but get it a little off and dozens of doctors will be writing in at once to complain. In this business you have to know a little of everything!"

The first day in San Francisco it has been grey and cool. But on the second there is bright sunlight, so they seize the opportunity to shoot Bruce Bern's arrival, seen from high up on a building across the road. The bystanders are mystified because they can't see a camera, and a couple of ladies who look like mother and daughter ask me disappointedly, "Is that all — just that fellow entering the cathedral ?" That fellow, I remark, happens to be the star of the film, Bruce Dern "Bruce Dern", cries the daughter, buckling visibly at the knees. "I'm sure he looked at me when he went in. I thought he looked familiar. Bruce Dern...!" Hitchcock is in a particularly expansive mood, and between shots we talk about all sorts of things. Some observations on the architecture around us lead to his asking me about Coventry Cathedral, which he has not yet visited, and the present state of Westminster Cathedral, which he has not been into for many years (though it was the scene of one of his most famous cinematic deaths, that of Edmund Gwenn in Foreign Correspondent): have they finished marbling the interior yet ? How do the Eric Gill Stations of the Cross look nowadays ? And more about painting inspires him to describe to me a pursuit in a cemetery for this film which he shot a few days ago in Glendale. Looking at a plan of it something struck him in its rigid layout of paths on a grid pattern, so he had a high platform built, and showed the whole pursuit in one shot with two tiny beetle-like figures moving back and forth in parallel and finally converging — "Just like an animated Mondrian", he says with relish.

The challenge in that sequence, as in so much in filming today, was to find an unfamiliar way of embodying a familiar action. "You know, you've seen it a thousand times: shot of back of retreating woman; shot of front of advancing man, gaining on her; close-up of her breaking into a run, panicked; close-up of him, looking determined, getting closer, and so on. The scene is necessary, but if you shoot it the same old way it is boring. And audiences can imagine the reactions of the two involved for themselves, they don't have to be shown. So much in films is absolutely unnecessary, when you come to think of it — people just do things the way they've always been done, without questioning it. In this film there's a sequence with a runaway car careering out of control down a steep hill. Now for that you always have shots of the driver wildly twisting the wheel with landscape flying past in process shot, then speeded-up shots of the road ahead seen through the windscreen, over the hood. But all of that is unnecessary, as well as being usually unconvincing. I'm doing it completely subjectively: big close-ups of the passengers, with a minimum of anything else visible, and shots taken at vertiginous speed of the road rushing to meet the camera, with no frame of windscreen, hood or anything, just the sensation of dizzying progression. It's the same with not showing the abduction, not showing the helicopter take off, just showing that it has happened from the reactions of those watching. And that's really why I decided not to localize the film in San Francisco. It is an exciting city to look at, but I got so that I felt if I saw one more car chase bouncing up and down those San Francisco hills I would scream."

Watching Hitchcock work, hearing him talk with such enthusiasm about the constant need for renewal, for seeing the unfamiliar in the familiar, for trying out new things, it is very difficult to remember that he directed his first completed feature film, The Pleasure Garden, half a century ago, in 1925. And yet there is a dogged line of consistency through everything he has done, and a sequence such as that he has just been shooting in Grace Cathedral, with its rapid montage, its emphasis on visual story-telling, could be transplanted complete to the silent cinema. In everything he has done he has sought the cleanest, clearest way of making his point, and been rightly mistrustful of stylistic flourishes grafted on like Grace Cathedral's concrete pinnacles. When his films have their virtuoso effects (and there will be some classic examples in Deceit) they remain the simplest, shanpest way of making a point, telling a story. I remember him back in the studio, in the handkerchief-sized woodland set (like something straight out of The Thirty-Nine Steps), cutting short discussion of the shot in which Karen Black arrives with the ransom by saying simply "What are we selling in this shot? That the body is there and that it's not dead. Provided those two things are clear, nothing else matters." Provided the film is communicating with its audience, and doing exactly what its creator wants it to do to them, nothing else matters. And that is a question of as intense an interest to Alfred Hitchcock now as it was 50 years ago. Long may it continue so. And so no doubt it will. For while he goes through the business of fixing this one on celluloid he already has a gleam in his eye which betokens that, as usual, he is already planning the next...