Friday, 22 September 2017

‘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? 


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.

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