Alfred Hitchcock
Unknown 1966 interview


date: 1966

interviewer: unknown

main topics: movie-making philosophy, attitude, technicalities

link to video: Youtube

Unknown man: More than once, you've said that the secret of making a quality suspense motion picture is to put an average man in bizarre situations, to threaten the audience with the thought that this could happen to them. This seems an oversimplification, but this is it basically what you are still trying to do?

Alfred Hitchcock: Actually, really, a central figure, who is, shall we say, being attacked or on the run.... if he's a familiar figure, average man and also a familiar star, the story values are increased accordingly. In other words, if you walk along the street and you see a street accident and you see a man is lying there, you say: poor fella knocked down by an automobile. You're taking a second look and it's your brother. Look at the difference in the emotions! And that's why not only the identification, but the quality of identification also matters, and it's a contributing thing.

I'm told that in Torn Curtain, which is your 50th film, you've taken the gloss out of a Hollywood film and used a completely new lightning technique. Can you enlarge on this?

If I can express it simply, in the days of black and white photography, there was always in the early days a tendency for the figure to be mixed up with the background. So the cameramen solved this problem by backlighting. We used to have a high light to give the person a white line which separates him from the background. And then there was another thing that the cameramen try to do, was to overcome the two-dimention effect by modelling the person by giving him cross-lights and so forth. Well, this carried on into color, where it was quite unnecessary because color separates itself. The face against the gray wall, or a woman in the green dress and the dark red wall. It created its own separation, so the need for the backlighting became unnecessary. It did tend to brighten color and give it a gloss. Well, I decided that it wasn't necessary to muddle so much. Color takes care of that, so it should be softer. The whole film was shot with reflected light rather than direct light.

So in a sense, to achieve this effect, you've done less rather than more.

Much less, because in the average room if you look around you, you are living in reflected light. Even though the sun may not be coming directly through the window, strong light is coming through. It hits the ceiling on the walls and the light bounces off and that's the light that you live in.

I haven't seen the film. So what effect does it have?

Well, it has the effect of a much softer, more naturalistic effect.

There is, I think you'd agree mr Hitchcock, a Hitchcock woman. Very tall, very cool, iceberg outside and brimming with fire within. Now I know you've never submitted to the psychiatrist's couch, but have you any idea at all why this obsession with this kind of women?

I'm only obsessed, because I don't believe in stamping the woman with the word 'sex' all over her. I think it should be discovered in the course of getting acquainted with her. And it's more interesting for this thing to be not apparent. In other words, we don't have to have sex hanging around her neck. I think there should be a certain mystery about it.

But why is she always blonde?

I think that's traditional. That dates back to Mary Pickford. Tradition of the cinema is that the hero was always a dark man and the heroine was always the blond. Well, I think it's the simplification of identification, really.

Are you a traditionalist?

Oh, completely. Yes. You mean, in regard to films? Oh yes, I think one of the most essential films in films is visual clarity. I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example, if you take suspense. Suspense can only be achieved by telling an audience as much as you can. I don't deal in mystery, I've never done whodunnits because they're intellectual exercises. You're just wondering, you're not emoted. As an example, an analogy of the bomb. We could be blown up this minutes and the audience gets 5 seconds of shock. But if we tell them 5 minutes ahead of time that there is a bomb that is going to get off, then they will get 5 minutes of suspense. But we didn't have suspense, because the audience was in ignorance here. That's a big difference.

I'm very much interested in your attitude to actors, because you once said that filmstars are only puppets to be used in films. Walt Disney, you said, had the best idea. When he didn't like them, he tore them up. Now this implied, and that's an understatement in itself, that you haven't got a very high regard for actors. Or is it only stars that you object to?

I think it's a difficulty of stars. They want to be writers today. They want to be producers. And I think that's one of the big problems, when an actor wants to re-write and arrives on the set with his scene already... that kind of thing happened to me once. An actor came with a scene completely re-written at 9AM!. I said: what about your co-star in the picture? She doesn't know a word of this. Hasn't been able to learn a word. Don't you have any regard for her? Not at all, it was just that he wanted to change the scene. But it wasn't permitted, naturally.

You don't think that the actor can contribute anything, artistically.

I think he can contribute a lot, in performance and interpreting the role, with bits of business and this kind of thing. You know, he should work on his characterization to the fullest. But not trying to re-write it.

But when you say re-write, do you object to a change of one or two words?

No, no, not at all. But I do object to the change in the story line and that kind of thing. And I think a lot of the trouble is when actors who go to schools and they're taught of improvisation. They're given a situation and they're told: work it out. Well, I say that it's not acting, it's writing when you tell an actor to work something out. The proposition is not making up the pure performance, it's making up a scene and it's a job of the writer to do that.

Would you accept improvisation as an exercise?

I certainly would not in the studio. They can do it in their schools as much as they like, as long as they don't come into the studio and want to improvise on the set. That would be no good at all.

What about the stars who are commanding bigger salaries than they've ever done before. Does this seem ridiculous to you?

We're at the bottom of the barrel, we don't have many stars now, so naturally it's just a matter of supply and demand. And even if all the studios got together and say: we're not gonna pay those huge salaries, then they'd all go to jail. Because you know, General Electric executives were sent to jail for fixing prices. The same would apply to the stars and they know it. If the companies would ever get together, but even if they get together, there's always someone independent who comes along and puts a film together. He gets the star, the director, he goes to the banks and says: I got this star... so they get it one way or the other.

But why do you use stars at all? I mean, Hitchcock is a star. Can't you do without them?

Yes I can, but sometimes the studios like to have more than one star in the picture. They like to treble their odds. After all, the cost of course is enormous. The thing I regret about it is it takes some of the money that could be used for the production of the picture itself. You find yourself cutting corners in the actual production.

One of your films has always puzzled me, because it seems to be out of line with what you could call the mainstream of Hitchcock - Trouble with Harry. Did it make money, by the way?

No, that's the only losing picture in the last 14 years, but it happens to be what I would like to call a true Hitchcock more than anything else, because it has the humor of the macabre. And that's typically English humor. You know, the famous story which is always quoted is that an example of the humor of the macabre by the Londoner: an English comedian died, was killed in the last war. And at the cemetery, the bulk of the moaners were the fellow comedians. And one mischievous young one leans to an old one and says: how old are you, Charlie? And the old one says I'm 89. And the young one says: it hardly seems like you are far from home, does it?. So that's the humor that appeals to me and that's what Trouble with Harry was. As a matter of fact, to counterpoint the macabre, I laid in the most beautiful autumnal setting. And then we went there and waited for the leaves to turn.

I felt when I saw it that you were ahead of your time with this one: the Hitchcock (?). Did you feel it?

Well, it might have been ahead of its time for critics, but I don't think for audiences. I was most interested to see whether the American audiences would appreciate this. And they did! Whenever the film got to an audience, which you see, unlike the theater where play gets directly to an audience, a movie doesn't. A movie has to go through a salesman and then an exhibitor before it even gets to the public.

People sometimes wonder why you stick to suspense, but in the article that I read you were quoted for saying, when asked why you wouldn't make a western for example: I don't know how much a loaf of bread costs in the western and that would bother me. And I have to know about my subject. Now, I have a feeling what you really meant was that you have to be interested in your subject.

No. That indicative is rather like question put to me: why don't I make costume pictures?. That was, I think, in San Francisco Press Club. And I said: I don't make them because a: I'm not very good at it, and b: nobody in the costume picture ever goes to the toilet! And the same is with a loaf of bread, you see? The cost of loaf of bread, what is it? I don't know! Nobody seems to know. I've never seen having a tooth taken out in a western. They're all superficial. I deal in nightmares and nightmares have to be awfully vivid. You're very glad when you wake up just as you're about to drop through the trap on the gallows. It's all been so vivid and real to you in your nightmares and therefore while I may have a bizarre situation, the treatment of it is very accurate. So that's what I mean by the western. Actually, in those days, men wore bowler hats and had big mustaches. And if I'd said I'd like to do a western, someone would say: you're ruining a public image of a western!

Where does your obsession with murder and crime come from. Have you ever try to find out?

Nowhere, particularly. I think it's an interest that many English people have. After all, they all have their crime literature in this country, whereas everywhere else it's just shoot and run. Here, they're nicely done with arsenic, or bathtubs and that sort of thing.

I don't know if the two things go hand in hand, but I heard that you're something of a practical joker. What kind are you? I hope you are the kind that wants to mystify and not the kind who wants to hurt.

I don't do it now, I used to do it years ago. It's a joke that doesn't hurt at all. It bewilders. For example, many many years ago I gave a dinner party for my wife on her birthday. It was held in a garden in a restaurant in Los Angeles, table for about 14 people. So I decided to do a casting to give me a lovely aristocratic elderly lady who would dress out very beautiful, hair done, and she just sat at the end of the table. People asked: who is the old lady? I said: I don't know! We're trying to find out. She had instructions to say that she was with Mr Hitchcock's party. People would talk politely with her, but she mystified everybody.

At what point did you give all this out?

Oh, I don't know. I once gave a dinner in London where the food was all blue. Everything was blue. When you broke-opened your dinner, rolls of bread were blue inside, blue soup, blue chop...

What sort of effect did this have?

Well, it was rather revolting, to start with. Because blue is not the color of any food. That's the whole point.

Was the joke that they didn't even realize? Perhaps they thought that they were the only people who thought that it was blue.

No, it was in a private room. A private dinner party. Sir Gerald du Maurier was one of the guests, Gertrude Lawrence was another.

Your television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, now I know you didn't direct all those films yourself, but is the technique that you adopted there basically the same as you use for cinema, or quite different?

The economics alone demand completely different handling of the medium. In other words, television on film is a much faster operation than the feature film. In the feature film, we get about a minute and a half cut shown a day. In television, we'll get 9 minutes, so it's totally different thing altogether. When you consider a one-hour show, which means an actual 49 minutes of film, the rest is commercials and such, it costs $126.000, for example. On the other hand, I've just finished a film, two hours and five minutes, for 5 million pounds!

Did it distress you at all to work at such speed in television?

No, it's a different attitude. There's no time for any finesse, or any language of the camera, shall we say, as we would in a feature picture. The nearest I brought the two together is in the film Psycho. I did use a television unit and we did work pretty fast, but when it came to certain things that were cinematic, then I slowed down to the feature film rate. To give you an example, we were shooting dialogue scenes at 9 minutes a day, but when it came to the murder in a shower, that was 45 seconds of film. Seventy setups. It took 7 days to do it. That's the difference, you see.

Because you published a book called Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Tell on Television. Does it imply that you have a quarrel with television administrators? I mean why would they not let you make those stories?

Well, they have a department in all networks called continuity acceptance, which is in fact the censor. Now, I bought the story for our show, which is a classic. It is called Two Bottles of Relish (Amazon). We've never been able to get that one by ever. They do exercise quite a control over the subject matter, and then if one had a murder story and the person got away with it, I would always have to go on and pronounce the retribution clause. Like, for example the show I shot with Barbara Bel Geddes when she stabbed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb. And all the police came and ate it all up while they're looking for the murder weapon. It ended up with the wife sitting in the corner, smiling. Well, that's impossible. She can't get away with murder. So then I have to come up and say: she's married again, but this time she forgot to turn on the deep freeze. And that satisfies everyone, you see.

Does this attitude make you boil with anger, or merely shake your head with resignation?

It's established, so what can you do about it?

Finally, you came unstuck financially, but certainly not artistically, with The Trouble with Harry. Now that you've reached half-century of filmmaking, do you feel that you want to attempt another, what you would call, pure Hitchcock?

Yes, if the subject came along. But I don't think that my present contract that I have for two more pictures, would permit that amount of self-indulgence. You see, you can't indulge yourself for millions of pounds. A lot of people jobs are attached to this. I used to look up at men lining at Warner Brothers, carrying their dinners clocking on in a long line. I said to myself: is this an art form?. And therein lies the whole problem between the artistic and the commercial. It's the cost of expression. I've often wondered: if an artist were given a canvas by a patron who says: this canvas costs two hundred thousand pounds, and I'm gonna give you a box of paint that would cost, let's say, a hundred thousand pounds. Now the brushes and the palette costs a hundred and fifty thousand pounds etc. Now you go ahead and paint me a picture that will be a masterpiece, and bring my money back. I don't even want to profit, but get me my money back. How would the painter feel?