Thursday, 26 October 2017

‘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?


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...


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

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