Tuesday, 19 January 2021

John Cassavetes: The Art of Narrative

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes)
In John Cassavetes’s personal cinema, the director was always trying to break away from the formulas of Hollywood narrative, in order to uncover some fugitive truth about the way people behave. At the same time, he took seriously his responsibilities as a form-giving artist, starting with a careful script (however improvised in appearance). Nowhere was the tension between Cassavetes’s linear and digressive, driven and entropic tendencies more sharply fought out than in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), one of his most fascinating achievements.


Following up his success with A Woman Under the Influence, the director thought it might be interesting to try a gangster picture to stretch himself, in effect by exchanging the domestic suburbia of quarreling married couples for a more raffish milieu, and meeting the audience halfway with some traditional Hollywood entertainment values associated with the genre: suspense, murder, double crosses, topless dancers. An amiable, courtly nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), already in debt to loan sharks, indulges his unfortunate weakness for drinking and gambling, and ends up owing twenty-three thousand dollars to gangsters, who demand that he pay off the debt by executing a competitor of theirs, a mob boss whom they inaccurately describe as a Chinese bookie. The story obeys the step-by-step fatalism of an unfolding nightmare, whereby small mistakes and temptations lead to deeper consequences, such as can be found in classic film noirs with Edward G. Robinson, Glenn Ford, and Jean Gabin. Looked at purely as narrative, there is surprisingly little waste in the script: each scene advances and intensifies the central dramatic situation. Cassavetes even fulfills the genre contract with action sequences (rare for him) that involve shootings, chases, and sinister, underlit garages, perhaps drawing on his own experience as an actor in crime movies. On the other hand, the film’s enduring power comes across most in subtle details of setting and character that play against, or in inertial counterpoint to, these obligatory propulsive scenes.


Cosmo’s strip club, the Crazy Horse West, functions as a viscous flypaper to which the film keeps attaching itself, where time dawdles and dilates in a constant night. (Cassavetes insisted these nightclub scenes be shot through gels, which created stylized pools of isolating red or blue light for the owner-impresario to walk through.) Cosmo has gilded his tawdry peep show with a series of fantasy backdrops, all introduced by the dumpy, epicene master of ceremonies, Teddy, professionally known as Mr. Sophistication, who “takes” the audience to exotic locales. Unforgettably portrayed by the Hollywood screenwriter Meade Roberts, Mr. Sophistication belongs to that tribe Dostoy­evsky called “the insulted and the injured.” He oozes affronted, buffoonish humiliation. But he also epitomizes the needy, oversensitive artist – a self-parody by Cassavetes – who is hungry for the spotlight but believes himself fundamentally homely and unloved. Teddy’s theme song, “Imagination,” becomes the film’s bleak anthem.


At bottom, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a character study of its grinning, self-estranged protagonist, Cosmo, a small-time, rough-around-the-edges businessman trying to maintain an invented persona of Mr. Lucky suavity and charm. The corsages he brings each of his “lovely ladies” – rounding them up as escorts to the gambling joint Ship Ahoy, where they will be forced to witness his defeat – are the perfect expression of his self-conscious, formal punctilio and hunger for class. Gazzara turns in a brilliant performance as the unhappy Cosmo. (That Gazzara was unhappy himself through much of the shooting, finding it hard to sympathize with or admire his character, only reinforces our sense of Cosmo as discomfited with his chump role in life.) Cosmo seems always to be sniffing himself for something rancid or fraudulent. Trying to live up to an elegant standard of sophistication, he mutes his Sicilian street temper with a false veneer of politeness and seductive blather. In a long, revealing speech near the end, he admits that he is always betraying his real nature: “Look at me—I’m only happy when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when I can play the fool, when I can be what people want me to be, rather than be myself.” Ironically, he utters this false confession as a way to motivate the troupe to get back onstage and give the customers what they want – saying, “Choose a personality,” or in other words, Fake it for me. Even at his most sincere, he’s calculating, and even at his most calculating, he is lost, unable to decide what he is undergoing or who he is. One moment he says, “I’ve never felt better in my life”; the next moment it’s “I don’t feel too hot” (no surprise, since he has a bullet lodged in his gut).


Cassavetes clearly believed the self to be a constant bluff, a desperate improvisation launched in heavy fog. He told an interviewer: “People don’t know what they are doing, myself included. They don’t know what they want or feel. It’s only in the movies that they know what their problems are and have game plans for dealing with them.” The closest thing Cosmo has to a game plan is: the show must go on. In one hilarious scene, en route to his prospective hit job, he stops in a phone booth to check up on the evening’s performance: what number are the girls and Teddy doing? He berates his help for not knowing the acts better after all these years. At bottom he is a man of the theater, at its most Felliniesque and flea-bitten. He understands two things: “I own this joint” and “Everything takes work; we’ll straighten it out.” You do your job the best you can, even if it’s just shaking your tits onstage in the no-win ­situation life hands you. It is this sort of philosophical stoicism that informs much of the nobility in Cassavetes’s grubby universe.


The plot’s biggest gamble is to make Cosmo, this likable if screwed-up schnook, actually go through with the killing. Is it plausible that someone so seemingly decent would do such a thing? We don’t know, any more than we know enough about his past to say with certainty whether it’s even the first time he’s killed someone. But if we accept Cassavetes’s model of the self as constantly in flux – provisional, unknowable, yet susceptible to the immediate claims of duty – then we may be better able to make the leap and accept the possibility.

Cosmo’s counterpart in the gangster world is Mort, shrewdly played by that superb Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel. Morty is another character with a false self, a smiling company man hiding behind an oddly decorous manner; “Will you excuse me please? I have to freshen up,” he says to his dinner companions before ordering another rubout. Not everyone surrounding Cosmo is as empty and amoral, however. Rachel (Azizi Johari), the beautiful showgirl who is Cosmo’s lover, and her mother, Betty (Virginia Carrington), offer him an alternative of tender care. So it is all the more startling when, in a powerful scene toward the end, Betty interrupts his monologue of childhood reminiscence and sweet talk to tell him she doesn’t give a shit. “Cosmo, I think what happened was wrong,” she says, rising to full moral stature, and adds that if he won’t see a doctor to have the bullet removed, then he can’t stay in their house. Without wanting to know how he came by that bullet, she indicates to him that he represents a danger to her and her daughter, and she has an obligation to protect her family. Thus his fantasy that this black mother and daughter are his true “family” crumbles, and he retreats to the club, his only haven. So might Tony Soprano later lick his wounds in the Bada Bing! club.


In 1976, when The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was first released, it bombed at the box office, much to Cassavetes’s disappointment. Critics found it disorganized, self-indulgent, and unfathomable; audiences took their word for it and stayed away. Today, the film seems a model of narrative clarity and lucidity; either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style. Now we are more accustomed to hanging out and listening in on the comic banality of low-life small talk; to a semidocumentary, handheld-camera, ambient-sound approach; to morally divided or not entirely sympathetic characters, dollops of “dead time,” and subversions of traditional genre expectations.


The film, seen today, generates considerable suspense, part of which comes from classic man-against-the-mob conventions: seeing how the noose of fate is tightened. Part of it, however, comes from Cassavetes’s perverse reluctance to play the game of simple entertainment, offering more complex rewards instead. An example is the scene where Cosmo stops off at a hamburger restaurant to pick up some meat with which to placate the guard dogs before murdering their owner. The waitress, a well-intentioned, matronly blonde, tries to convince her customer to take the burgers individually wrapped, so they won’t make a greasy mess. Cosmo obviously cannot share with her the real reason why he refuses this amenity and is reduced to repeating his request, with mounting frustration, while the bartender acts as a sympathetic bridge between the two. Classic gangster movies or film noirs often feature sharply etched cameos of garage attendants, hotel clerks, or hash slingers, but generally they perform a strict narrative function and then disappear. In this scene, however, the waitress goes beyond that point, threatening to pull you out of the hit-man narrative by insisting on her reality. Cosmo, looking tired and aggrieved, is being forced to acknowledge that every human has a distinct point of view – something he will again have to take into consideration soon enough, when he faces the old Chinese bookie, naked in the bathtub, before deciding whether to blow him away.


In Cassavetes’s cinema, these delays, these eruptions of the messy, frustrating, time-consuming, and inconvenient ways that everyone, bit player to star, asserts his or her right to be taken seriously, are not impediments to the plot but are the plot. This point is made clearer in the original, more leisurely (and, to my mind, better) version of the film, which lasted 135 minutes, as opposed to the second, tightened version of 108 minutes. In the longer version, we learn more odd details about the De Lovelies (the one who doesn’t like champagne, for instance) and get an introduction to the Seymour Cassel character at his most unctuously ingratiating. We are allowed to sink into the moment voluptuously, to see more stage routines in the nightclub, which reinforces Teddy’s/Mr. Sophistication’s role as Cosmo’s grotesque doppelgänger and makes for a better balance between crime and showbiz film. The shorter version is in some ways tougher, colder, more abstract, like a French policier; in the longer, exploratory version, Cosmo takes a while to seem completely lost, alienated. Both versions, however, end in the same ironic way, with Teddy mistaking his padrone’s philosophical spiel as proof that Cosmo “practices the best thing there is in this world – to be comfortable.” Cosmo goes off we know not where, bleeding, possibly to death, and we never see him again. The focus shifts back for the final time to the nightclub, where Teddy sings a despicably hostile rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to the audience (and, by extension, to us), and the last line heard in the film is a chorus girl reassuring Mr. Sophistication that they really do love him, even if he thinks they don’t. We could say the same to the now departed Mr. Cassavetes.

– Phillip Lopate: ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: The Raw and the Cooked’. Courtesy of www.criterion.com 


Friday, 15 January 2021

‘Stronger Than Reason’: Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (part two)

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
This is the second part of an interview with Alfred Hitchcock from 1963 prior to the release of The Birds in which the acclaimed director discusses his recent films, his use of special effects, working with writers, and tension in narrative. 

In ‘Psycho’ you presumably intended the audience to identify with Janet Leigh.

I wouldn’t say Psycho was necessarily the best example. Because I felt there that the characters in the second part were merely figures. I was concentrating much more on the effect of the murder and the menace and the background of the boy/mother situation, rather than the other people. But in the case of The Birds, I think three of the four characters do go through a process which ties them directly in to the bird attacks.

In ‘The Birds’ you have worked without stars—or without big stars. Why?

I felt that one should have anonymous people, not too familiar, because the subject matter itself is not quite so facetious as that of other films: although the Birds do attack, it is treated quite realistically. One of the most—to me—satisfying scenes in The Birds is where there are no birds seen at all. You have a room which is boarded up—it comes toward the end of the picture—there are four people in the room: a child, young man and woman, and a mother, mother of the young man, sitting there in silence just waiting for them. I just keep that silence going for quite a bit until the first sounds come, then you begin to hear the attack outside and you don’t see the mass of birds at all. And it’s that kind of thing which permitted one to have comparatively unknown people because the thing belonged as a whole. It wouldn’t have looked good to have had a familiar film star sitting there waiting, you know; it’s hard to describe why; but this is quite an interesting sequence; to me it’s really satisfying because there I threw everything to the audience to use their imagination; to help them along a little bit, I had one shutter blow open. The young man has to pull the shutter to and then you see just the close-up attack on his hand and the seagulls biting and drawing blood.

North by Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The atmosphere sounds similar to that of the sequence in ‘North by Northwest’ where Cary Grant waits at the road-side for Kaplan.

That was, I would say, an amusing approach. This thing in The Birds is not. We’ve shown the audience sufficient samples—I had one sequence where 300 crows wait outside the schoolhouse for the children, and when the kids come out they are chased down the road: montage sequence of individual crows attacking each child on the back, pecking at them and so forth.

Little menacing bits of dialogue—do you write these yourself: ‘Crop-dusting where there ain’t no crops’ in ‘North by Northwest’?

Oh that’s my line, yes.

How much of your scripts do you in fact write yourself?

Oh, quite a bit. You see I used to be a writer myself years ago. The difficulty is that one is working in the visual so much—that’s why I so rarely use film writers—I always use novelists or playwrights, definitely, not people working in the mystery field. They’re no use to me at all. In The Birds, I opened the film with the shot of birds in their nicest—what we think are their nicest—surroundings: in their cages. They’re chirruping away, and they’re all beautifully set—all very happy, ostensibly, and there’s a little light-hearted sequence. I treat the film in the beginning as a light comedy and there’s some byplay with the girl and the young man where a canary gets out of a cage, and the girl is a rather rich society girl, and she is not aware that the young man knows her identity—when he gets the bird from under his hat he says, ‘Let’s put Melanie Daniels back into her gilded cage, shall we,’ and that’s his way of telling the girl he knows who she is. The pay-off on that one line comes much later in the story when the centre of the town is attacked by seagulls and the girl seeks refuge in a phone booth—it’s glass-walled and she can’t get out. I take high shots and you see birds beating all around: The gulls are the people now you see and she’s the bird. So I have to write these lines in myself because I know it’s going to help appreciably later on. There’s no comment made about it, but it’s very clear that she’s in a cage but it’s no longer gilded.

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
You expect quite a lot of your audience.

For those who want it. I don’t think films should be looked at once. I think they go by too fast. But the critics sit in there at their 10:30 a.m. sitting, and they see a film through once and that seems to be sufficient. But I don’t really think it is. Most films should be seen through more than once.

Why is ‘The Trouble with Harry’ a comedy rather than a thriller?

I think it was a nice little pastorale, you know. A typically English piece of humour, though it was set in America. It was an English novel and we followed it pretty closely. I laid it in the autumnal setting to counterpoint the macabre of the body, but I even tried to photograph that in an amusing way.

How do you choose your subjects?

I don’t probe particularly deeply. If something appeals to me... I think instinctively one would go for a subject very often that would lend itself to one’s treatment. I’m not terribly keen on just taking a stage play. As far back as when I made Juno and the Paycock I felt very frustrated about it and kind of rather ashamed when it got terrific notices. It wasn’t anything to do with me. It belonged to Sean O’Casey. My job was just to put it on the screen. I think that’s the job of any craftsman, setting the camera up and photographing people acting. That’s what I call most films today: photographs of people talking. It’s no effort to me to make a film like Dial M for Murder because there’s nothing there to do. On the other hand, you say to me: why do you make a film like Dial M for Murder? Because I run for cover when the batteries are running dry: You know, I might be engaged in a subject which is abortive—I’ve done that many times, I’ve been half way through a subject and found it didn’t work out after all—so immediately, instead of waiting, to keep one’s hand in you go for something which is fairly routine while the batteries are recharging.

In ‘North by Northwest’, Grant seems to want Eva Marie Saint dead: he’s happier when she’s an enemy or in danger than when she seems to be an available wife or lover.

What’s that old Oscar Wilde thing? ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’. That I think is a very natural phenomenon, really.

You don’t find it somewhat perverted?

Well, everything’s perverted in a different way, isn’t it?

North by Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Was the falling body at the end of ‘North by Northwest’ a superimposition?

Yes, that’s a double printing job. You photograph your background first and then you get a white backing and a large arm sticking out of the backing and you strap the middle of the torso to the arm and then with a side worm gear men can take that body and do that (twisting gesture) with it—Jimmy Stewart’s done it as well. Now you take the camera close and whip it back on rails and then also by making the movement slow you can undercrank it too, so that your whip back can be taken care of that way. Then it’s superimposed on the background. We’re working in The Birds on the sodium light system. We’re having to double-print a lot of birds over existing birds, where we have a small quantity of birds, trained ones, moving in and out, or whatever they’re doing, then you print over that scene a lot of other birds. And we’re using a sodium light process, which is a background which is lit by sodium—those yellow fog lights, you know—so that the camera picks up just the images, the background goes back, you get your colour image. And in the camera is a prism and that prism also makes the silhouette matte at the same time on a regular b/w film so that it doesn’t register colour. The filter in the prism turns the image black and the sodium background plain. So you make your travelling matte at the same time as you’re photographing: we use an old technicolour camera for that.

You must have been very thrilled with your ‘Vertigo’ effect.

I’ve been trying for fifteen, twenty years to get that effect. I first tried it in Rebecca. I wanted to get, in an inquest scene, Joan Fontaine to start to faint and see everything receding from her. I tried everything—I even thought of printing a photograph on rubber and stretching the middle.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
You obtained the stretching of the perspective by simultaneously tracking in and zooming out, didn’t you?

Yes.

We have an argument about ‘Rear Window’. One of us says that a good deal of the suspense comes from one’s not being sure whether James Stewart is right, whether he’s making a fool of himself. The other says that you’re meant to be certain that he’s right and the suspense comes from whether he will prove it in time.

I would say that it’s the latter, because it’s frustration you see. The audience are with Stewart, the identification is direct and therefore they must feel superior to the other characters with him, but the frustration is there all the same. The interesting thing I think about Rear Window is that there’s more pure film there, even though it’s static, than in many films I’ve made. After all you get the famous examples that Pudovkin experimented with—where you get Stewart looking, what he sees, and his reaction to it. And there, after all, is the most powerful thing of film. You’ve got three pieces of film. Let’s assume, for example, Stewart looks, you see a mother and child; then you go back to Stewart and he smiles. Now you see he’s rather benevolent or benign, call it what you like. Take the middle piece away and put a nude girl in there and he’s a dirty old man.

Would you say that your films now are rather more thought out than instinctive, and were more instinctive in the thirties?

I would say so, yes. Well, I think you can have a bit of both really. But I think I got that (i.e. more intellectual) when I was aware of the global implications of audiences. That’s one thing that you do learn in America, because America is a polyglot country. I often tell people, there are no Americans, it’s full of foreigners. You become very audience-conscious because there are so many different types of people. Axiomatically you’re appealing to your Japanese audience and your Latin-American audience as well.

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The idea of ‘Stage Fright’ intrigues us a great deal. Do you like it?

No. It wasn’t well done. You remember I said I liked to work with playwrights and novelists preferably. I went a bit overboard—I had James Bridie and he was too careless for me, structurally. He used to say, ‘Well, what does it matter?’

Whose was the basic idea of the flash-back that wasn’t true?

That was mine, but that was probably an error. That was going a bit too far because I suppose people are so accustomed to flash-backs being true that it was just confusing when it was untrue. It’s like the boy with the bomb in Sabotage. I should never have let that bomb go off. It was a cardinal error to let that bomb go off. If you work an audience up, it’s obligatory to relieve them, to release them from that.

Having built them up, the explosion didn’t release them?

No, of course not. It got them mad.

What next?

I’m going to do the Marnie picture next. The story of the compulsive thief that I was going to do with Grace Kelly.

Who’s taking the Grace Kelly part?

I’ve got a girl in mind, but we’re not letting on yet.

You’re going back to big stars?

Not necessarily. Sometimes I think big stars are useful but today they don’t help a picture any more. They help it if it’s good, but if it’s not good the public won’t go.

And ‘Psycho’ showed you could get along without them...

Yes.



The interview by Ian Cameron and V. F. Perkins with Alfred Hitchcock originally appeared in Movie, No. 6, January 1963.

Monday, 11 January 2021

‘Stronger Than Reason’: Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (part one)

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The following extract is from an interview with Alfred Hitchcock from 1963 prior to the release of The Birds in which the master of suspense discusses his recent films, his use of sound and the primacy of emotion over reason in the film-making process. 

Can you tell us something about ‘The Birds’?

It’s taken from a well-known short story by Daphne Du Maurier. It concerns the attack by domestic birds on a group of people living in a community; the film is laid in northern California, northern San Francisco. The series of attacks start very mildly and increase in seriousness as it goes on.

What would you say was the theme of the film?

If you like you can make it the theme of too much complacency in the world: that people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all.

The people are unwilling to believe that the birds are going to take over?

That’s true, yes.

What particularly attracted you to science fiction?

This isn’t science fiction at all, not at all. It’s treated quite naturally and quite straightforwardly. Many of the incidents in the film are based on actual fact. Birds have attacked and do attack, all the time. As a matter of fact, one of the incidents we have in the film was based on an actual incident which occurred at La Jolla, California; on April 30, 1960. A thousand swifts came down a chimney into the living room of some people. These are birds that nest in masonry rather than in trees, in roofs and chimneys and so forth. And the people were completely swamped with them for half an hour. Another incident occurred in the very place we were working, in Bodega Bay in northern San Francisco, where a farmer reported to the San Francisco Chronicle that he was losing a lot of lambs due to crows diving and pecking at their eyes and then killing them. So there are precedents for all these things. That’s what makes it more or less accurate, in terms of facts rather than science-fiction.

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
There are also precedents. in your films for birds, aren’t there? Particularly in ‘Psycho’.

Oh yes.

Is this any particular fondness for birds?

Not particularly, no.

Do you find them threatening in some way?

No. No, not at all. I’m personally not interested in that side of content. I’m more interested in the technique of story telling by means of film rather than in what the film contains.

As far as telling this particular story goes, had you a lot of problems?

Oh, I wasn’t meaning technical problems. I was meaning the technique of story telling on film per se. Oh no, the technical problems are prodigious. I mean films like Ben Hur or Cleopatra are child’s play compared with this. After all we had to train birds for every shot practically.

You had some trouble with the American version of the R.S.P.C.A. . . .

Not really; that was a technicality. You’re allowed to catch so many birds. I think the bird trainer had about four over his quota, really.

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Did you restrict yourself in the bird kingdom, or did every sort of bird take over?

Oh no. No birds of prey at all. Purely domestic birds. Seagulls. Birds you see every day. Seagulls, crows, ravens, finches, and canaries and that sort of bird.

You’re not using music?

No music at all, no. We’re using electronic sound, all the way through. A simulated sound of actual things. For example the sound of birds’ wings and birds’ cries will be stylised to some extent. And that will occur all the way through the picture.

You have used music a lot in your previous films. This is going to fulfill exactly the role of music?

Oh, it should do, yes. After all, when you put music to film, it’s really sound, it isn’t music per se. I mean there’s an abstract approach. The music serves as either a counterpoint or a comment on whatever scene is being played. I mean we don’t have what you call ‘tunes’ in it at all.

The shrilling in ‘Psycho’ is rather of that sort.

Yes, you see you have the screaming violins. It was a motif that went through the murder scenes.

You will use your strange sounds as motifs in that way? 

Yes.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
I hear ‘Psycho’ made a lot of money.

Yes, that was a secondary consideration. Psycho is probably one of the most cinematic films I’ve made and there you get a clear example of the use of film to cause an audience to respond emotionally.

It was primarily an emotional response you were after from your audience?

Entirely. That’s the whole device. After all, the showing of a violent murder at the beginning was intended purely to instil into the minds of the audience a certain degree of fear of what is to come. Actually in the film, as it goes on, there’s less and less violence because it has been transferred to the minds of the audience.

The use of Janet Leigh to be killed early in the film is to upset one’s sense of security because the star is expected to survive to the end.

Oh, no question about it. The ordinary person would have said ‘Janet Leigh, she’s the leading lady, she must play the lead.’ But that was not the intention at all. The intention in that early part was to portray average people and in this particular case to deliberately divert the audience’s attention into a character in trouble, you see. And you follow the adventures of a girl deliberately detailed to keep you away from anything that’s going to turn up later on, you see.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
‘North by Northwest’. Near the beginning, in the mad car chase, one knows that Cary Grant can’t be killed this early. So why is one excited?

That again is purely the use of film in terms of the substitution of the language of the camera for words. That is the most important function of film. As a substitute for words. I wouldn’t say substitute. I don’t think that does film even sufficient justice. It’s the mode of expression. And the use of the size of the image. And the juxtaposition of different pieces of film to create emotion in a person. And you can make it strong enough even to make them forget reason. You see when you say that Cary Grant can’t possibly be killed so early in the film, that’s the application of reason. But you’re not permitted to reason. Because the film should be stronger than reason.

Above all of your films the one that seems stronger than reason is Vertigo.

There you get, in a sense, a remote fantasy. In Vertigo you have a feeling of remoteness from ordinary worldly things. You see the attitude of the man, the woman’s behaviour. Of course behind it lies some kind of plot, which I think is quite secondary. I don’t bother about plot, or all that kind of thing.

You got rid of it very early in the film.

Yes, that’s, what shall I call it? That’s a necessary evil. But that’s why I’m always surprised at people and even critics who place so much reliance on logic and all that sort of thing. I have a little phrase to myself. I always say logic is dull.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
You seem rather to distrust the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman Bates in ‘Psycho’. It isn’t given all that much weight.

Possibly the details would have been too unpleasant. I think that there perhaps we’re skimming over... You have to remember that Psycho is a film made with quite a sense of amusement on my part. To me it’s a fun picture. The processes through which we take the audience, you see, it’s rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground or the roller-coaster, you know. After all it stands to reason that if one were seriously doing the Psycho story, it would be a case history. You would never present it in forms of mystery or the juxtaposition of characters, as they were placed in the film. They were all designed in a certain way to create this audience emotion. Probably the real Psycho story wouldn’t have been emotional at all; it would’ve been terribly clinical.

Psycho is, though, very honestly presented. There is a very striking shot of Norman Bates swinging his hips as he goes upstairs. When one sees the film for the second time, one realises one could have solved the mystery the first time.

Well, I’m a great believer in making sure that if people see the film a second time they don’t feel cheated. That is a must. You must be honest about it and not merely keep things away from an audience. I’d call that cheating. You should never do that.

Was this shot meant deliberately as a clue?

Well, you might as well say that the basic clue was in the feminine nature of the character altogether.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The very complex montage of the murder of Janet Leigh was not just intended to avoid showing some things you couldn’t show . . .

Well, I did photograph a nude girl all the way through. In other words I covered in the shooting every aspect of the killing. Actually some of it was shot in slow motion. I had the camera slow and the, girl moving slowly so that I could measure out the movements and the covering of awkward parts of the body, the arm movement, gesture and so forth. I was actually seven days on that little thing; it’s only forty-five seconds really.

Is there a sexual reference in the compositions? It seemed that you were consciously cutting between soft round shapes and the hard, phallic shape of the knife to suggest copulation.

Well, I mean you would get that in any case, with any sense of intimate nudity those thoughts would emerge naturally. But the most obvious example of that is in North by Northwest, the last shot with the train going into the tunnel.

One feels of your later films that you have got much less interested in the mystery thriller element, much more interested in broadening things out.

Well, I think it’s a natural tendency to be less superficial, that’s Truffaut’s opinion—he’s been examining all these films. And he feels that the American period is much stronger than the English period. It’s a much stronger development. For example, I think it’s necessary to get a little deeper into these things as one goes along. For example The Birds—you see usually in these films, which I call an ‘event film’ you know, like On The Beach, or one of those things—I felt it was much more necessary to intensify the personal story so that you get, as a result, a greater identification with the people, and therefore the fire through which you put them is much stronger.

The interview by Ian Cameron and V. F. Perkins with Alfred Hitchcock originally appeared in Movie, No. 6, January 1963.