World Film News (1938) - The Censor and Sydney Street
- article: The Censor and Sydney Street
- author(s): Leslie Perkoff
- journal: World Film News (March 1938)
- issue: volume 2, issue 12, pages 4-5
- journal ISSN:
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Laughton, David O. Selznick, Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, Murder! (1930), New York City, New York, Robert Donat, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The Censor and Sydney Street
The film-world with its play of names, sensational and unsteady in its juggling with stars, is more sober in its treatment of craftsmen. Griffith, Disney, Eisenstein, Duvivier — such names have solid foundations. Likewise the name Alfred Hitchcock, one of the few real English contributions to film technique.
Unlike too many of his colleagues, Hitchcock often rejects the Philistine insensitiveness to film problems. Thus his unequivocal recognition of the writer as the prime factor in the substance of the dramatic film, his prophecy of the future obsoleteness of the director unless his status and power expand to that of the producer, and his attitude to the question of universal appeal which he considers detrimental to film art.
He is a product of British films, yet where most British films lack individuality, he has at least specialised in a peculiar treatment and applied a measure of realism in portraying characters. And on the lack of individuality in British films he says:
"I think the shortage of personnel in this country is largely to blame. We have to consider that we're in competition with Hollywood. In the case of France this is not so marked, since only comparatively few of their talented people percolate through to Hollywood. People like Bauer remain, and, although Laughton and Donat now remain in England, their price value has gone up since their contact with Hollywood, and this puts them out of the reach of many British producers. It is because of the language question that Hollywood has been able to draw so much on British talent.
"It is all a root problem, yet I would say that English humour has got individuality, for comedy has suited the English temper. Yet nothing is really being done to develop talent here, although I have sometimes taken on untried people. There is an absence of good technicians, particularly a lack of first-class cameramen. The whole thing mystifies me, and I would be inclined to say that the young men don't take their work seriously enough. There's too much of this knocking off at six o'clock attitude. London perhaps is too distracting. In America, you see, Hollywood succeeds as a production centre where New York fails. As for places like Denham and Elstree, they are too near London."
These difficulties recognised, this should point more strongly to the need for the growth of a film movement in England, something as creative as the old German school and as individual as many of the French films of to-day. This is the rather diffused feeling which exists among a number of the younger film people. To bring this about a co-ordinated movement is necessary. Its practicability is submitted to Hitchcock.
"That, of course, is academic," he declares. "But I endorse such a movement. The interests in Wardour Street, however, are primarily concerned with the commercial aspects, therefore it would have to have finance. But there is always this drawback : the handling of star material and story. These are difficulties which are not present in the making of documentary films. I would like to make documentary films, because here you have slabs of action or movement which can be easily treated by photography and cutting. But a cataclysm in any film, for example, is akin to documentary material. It begins with the camera and goes directly to the cutting-room."
If the handling of stars presents an obstacle to film-making, could not the star system itself be lessened in favour of actual story value and treatment of a film?
"The point about the star-system is that it enables you to exaggerate from a story point of view. And the stars do bring the audiences into the cinemas. A star's name is like a clarion call and brings in the time factor when, for instance, a film is shown and you want people to come and see it on definite days. A film without stars would have to wait to be appreciated."
A problem which has recently given grounds for strong comment is now introduced : The clash of idioms brought about by the irruption of film people into a strange country whose language even they sometimes have not mastered.
"I had an experience bringing this up when I was directing a film called Murder in English and German," Hitchcock says. "I could speak German, but I found it was a difference of idiom and not of language. You've got to live twenty years in a country before you can express its idiom."
At this juncture the paradox in Hitchcock's own work is put forward ; on one hand, his feeling for and treatment of real characters, and on the other hand, the fantasy, unreality and sometimes lack of social background that accompanies the treatment.
"Failing to get a good script, I've invariably descended or ascended to using my own resources and becoming a crime reporter. I've always found it difficult to get proper themes."
Certain criminal types are dealt with in his films, but has it occurred to him to give the psychological background to these types? For instance, the social and personal conflicts that make criminals of people?
"Of course, I've studied criminal types from many aspects. I've read many books on the subject, but it is a matter of the sugar-coated pill with films. I wanted to make an anti-capital punishment film where the prison governor revolts and refuses to hang his man. It's a stirring subject. But here there would be difficulties with the censor. America can send over things of this sort, because the attitude here is that America can do what she likes with social subjects in her own country. In England this has to be left alone. When I put the Sydney Street affair in the Man Who Knew Too Much, the censor's objection was that it wasn't the thing to show English policemen using arms. He was very decent about the matter, though. I would like to make a film showing the balance of justice in English courts. I feel that this is a subject which has not been shown to the full."
Was he going to Hollywood, and if so did he expect to have better facilities there for expressing himself?
"I've only discussed this with David Selznick so far. The matter is still in the air. But if I do go to Hollywood, I'd only work for Selznick."
And finally there is a touch of dismay in Hitchcock's attitude to the present situation of the cinema. "Cinema as an art-form doesn't really exist," he says. "So many people have brought the theatre into it. It is no longer used in a technical sense, but as a proscenium."
The impression is given of fundamental problems having been touched on, but not resolved : The conflict between England and America on the question of talent; the obstacles in the way of a creative film movement in England; the compelling aura surrounding the star-system; the dearth of cinematic story material and the lack of freedom in dealing with important subjects; and the stereotyped treatment of films, so that they are forced into the "proscenium." Somewhere else Hitchcock has inferred that the power of universal appeal and the need to cater for this has done much to destroy film art. Tacitly, then, the uncreative elements at work in the cinema are recognised.
One is safe in submitting that the public is not solely responsible for this, since the very nature of a society that demands that film be utilised as an anodyne must be considered. Apparently the film executives and the financial powers operating behind their movements, do not realise what a powerful yet sensitive medium they control, for they have so far underestimated and failed to understand the complex structure of the public they cater for. To reverse their logic, it is not always this incoherently defined public that dictates film demands, but rather they themselves.